Independent working-class politics in the Third World

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 8:57

Capitalist development is a fact of the last fifty years. World GDP increased nearly seven-fold from 1950 to 1998, with an average growth rate of nearly 4% a year, according to OECD figures.

During the so-called “golden age”, 1950-73, world GDP grew by almost 5% a year; over the “neoliberal” period since 1973 the world economy has grown by 3% a year. In both periods growth was faster than at any time in history – the world economy is estimated to have grown by just over 2% a year between 1870 and 1913 and just under 2% a year between 1913 and 1950.

Real GDP per capita rose by over 2% a year between 1950 and 1998. This compares with less than 1% per annum between 1820 and 1950. The period since 1973 has seen a slowdown, but growth is still higher than before 1950.

Alongside combined expansion has been significant uneven development. The advanced capitalist countries of Europe, North America, and Japan produce over half the world’s output, as they have done for over a century. Asia produces a quarter of the world’s output, and contains half the world’s population.

Many “Third World” countries have grown faster than the advanced capitalist states for long periods over the past fifty years.

South Korea had the fastest growing GDP per person in the world over the past fifty years, almost double the world average. Iran’s oil-fuelled economy grew by over 5% per head between 1950 and 1973. Brazil and Mexico grew at over 3% per head until the 1980s.

China is the second largest economy in the world (after the US). China’s per capita GDP has grown by more than 5% since 1980, with Thailand growing at just under 5% over the same period. However, since 1973 many African and Latin American economies have contracted in real terms.

Ghana, Indonesia and South Korea had comparable (low) levels of GDP per capita in 1950. Ghana is now barely any better off in real terms at all, Indonesia is three times richer and South Korea is now comparable with Portugal and Spain. And 54 countries, mainly in Africa, are poorer now than they were in 1990.

Uneven development is also reflected in the statistics about poverty. UN figures estimate that the richest 1% of the world’s population receive as much income as the poorest 57%. A fifth of the world’s population, some 1.2 billion live on $1 (50p) a day or less and 3 billion people – half the world’s population — live on less than $2 (£1) day. Around 1.3 billion people have inadequate access to clean water.

Massive wealth, together with pauperisation and poverty characterise capitalist development today – underpinning the conditions faced by waged workers that we look to as the crucial agent of change across the globe.

The new working class

Over the last half century, the working class has grown in size and social weight as capitalism has developed. According to World Bank figures, between 1.5 and 2 billion people worldwide can be classified as working class.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that in 1950 two thirds of the labour force worked in agriculture. By 1990 less than half worked in that sector. Today over half a billion people work in industrial jobs and even more in service jobs. True, vast numbers in the big cities of the poorer countries are “semi-proletarians”, living off bits and pieces of wage labour, petty trade, begging, petty crime, etc. Still, the working class is probably the biggest class on the planet, for the first time in history.

According to the ILO, the 15 million Chinese industrial workers made up just 5% of its workforce in 1950. By 2000, almost a quarter of the workforce were industrial workers — some 175 million workers – with less than half now working in agriculture.

In India there were 14 million industrial workers in 1950, 8% of the workforce. By 2000 this had risen to 80 million industrial workers (18%). Dramatic increases in the number and proportion of industrial workers has also taken place in other smaller countries. In South Korea, only half a million people (6%) worked in industry in 1950. By 2000, there were over seven million industrial workers or 31% of the labour force. Similarly in Thailand, between 1950 and 2000, the industrial workforce grew from 300,000 (3%) to 7 million (19%).

These figures do not include the even higher numbers of workers classified in the service sector or as agricultural workers. Nor do they account for the proportions in the formal and informal sectors, or other divisions within the working class.

Nevertheless industrial development and the further integration of the world market has created large working classes, which have entered into class struggle. Some of the objective pre-requisites for international socialism have thereby developed to a greater degree than ever before.

For the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), the working class is the active historical agent – not simply the passive reflection of industrial advance. For us, the development of organised labour movements is a crucial indicator of the strength and power of the working class.

New labour movements

Rapid industrialisation has tended to produce militant unionism. Look at the cycles in the car industry. After mass auto production developed in the United States in the first part of the twentieth century, it was followed by a wave of industrial militancy and trade union organisation.

As US car makers like Ford and General Motors set up production in Europe after World War 2, so militancy and strong union organisation spread to places like Italy and the UK. A similar pattern took place in South Africa and Brazil from the 1970s in South Korea from the 1980s and is likely to break out in China as car production increases there.

Labour movements have existed in Europe and North America for over a hundred years. These movements fought for free trade unionism, for democratic rights, for welfare states and for working class political representation. During the 1960s and 1970s these labour movements generally grew in strength and militancy. For example in Britain in 1980, around half of all workers were members of trade unions

Although most labour movements suffered defeats from the 1980s onwards, they are still potentially powerful forces. In Europe alone there are 60 million trade unionists. In France in 2006 a wave of strikes stopped a government attack on young workers’ strikes.

Labour movements have developed in the so-called “Third World” since 1950, fighting for the same rights as their sisters and brothers in the core capitalist countries. Just like in advanced capitalist states, many of these movements have formed or sought to form national trade union federations.

There are probably more genuine independent unions in the world today than ever before.

In South Africa, Brazil and South Korea, militant movements have developed in areas of industrial growth and concentration. Large strike waves erupted after periods of industrial quiescence in heavy industries that had grown up during recent industrialisation. They were concentrated in large factories among young, relatively skilled workers.

South Korea

After the military coup in South Korea in 1961, all labour organisations were dissolved and replaced by the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), often called the “yellow dog” union because of its ties to the government.

A group of workers who had been victimised for militant activity formed the Workers’ Welfare Association (WWA) and with two student groups, Jiamintu and Minmintu came together with the aim of rebuilding the labour movement in the 1980s.

The 1985 strike at Daewoo Motors, involving over 2,000 workers, represented the first significant breakthrough. It was the first major strike against a chaebol (industrial giants) and it was the first time that workers had struck independently of the wishes of the official union. A month later, after workers at the Daewoo Apparel Textile Company began a sit-in strike, one thousand workers from nine other factories came out in solidarity. The WWA and the student groups were involved in both these struggles.

By 1987 the number of disputes rocketed. As well as in chaebol factories, strikes also took place in health, finance, research, transport and tourism. It what became known as the “Great Workers’ Struggle”, there were over 3,000 disputes in July and August 1987. All these strikes were illegal, and thousands were arrested or beaten by company thugs.

Membership of the FKTU reached 1.9 million members, (nearly 20% density) although it was still tied to the state. However regional labour federations began to organise a democratic union movement after another wave of strikes in 1988.

Although the number of strikes ebbed, their average duration increased. New unions – for example in teaching — were formed, even though organising in education was illegal. In 1990, regional union federations formed the Korean Trade Union Congress (KTUC), with 200,000 members.

Independent unions were severely repressed, but continued to develop. In 1989 combat police were used to break a strike of 5,000 subway workers in Seoul and a 109-day strike at the Hyundai shipyard in Ulsan. In 1990, 10,000 police were used at the same shipyard, and riot police attacked strikers at the Korean Broadcasting System. In the early 1990s Korea had the highest number of imprisoned trade unionists.

In 1995 the KTUC became the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). In December 1996-January 1997 the KCTU led massive strikes against government anti-union laws – with 400,000 workers coming out at the height of the strikes.

The FKTU declined to around one million members during the 1990s. The KCTU was legally recognised in 1999, and has over half a million members. It is strong in car making and shipbuilding, finance, media, nursing, teaching and the public sector.

There has not been a linear development of more factories, then more workers and then more struggle. The class struggle in most countries generally ebbed in the 1990s, and in some cases stagnated. Where it has risen — in Indonesia for example – the movements have not yet attained the heights of the earlier struggles in Brazil and South Africa.

Trade union bureaucracies have developed in “Third World” countries just as they did in advanced capitalist states. Sometimes they were directly brought into being by the state to control the working class (e.g. in China and Brazil) – others have grown up under democratic regimes. The labour aristocracy has domestic roots – a consequence of domestic capital accumulation, the state and the class struggle.

Political representation

The working class is the democratic class — it has consistently fought against military and authoritarian rule and for democratic rights. In Brazil and South Korea, the working class was the central force that brought about the end of military rule. In South Africa the working class was the social force that disrupted apartheid.

In Thailand, workers rallied to thwart the military coup in 1992. In Indonesia, the strike wave of the 1990s prefigured and inspired the movement against Suharto.

In Pakistan, the working class has been the only force to oppose both the military and the fundamentalists. And in China, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the struggles waged since for independent unions is the harbinger of future class battles that will shake the Stalinist state.

There have been many attempts at working class political representation. Workers’ candidates have stood in elections in South Africa, Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines, with some trade union backing. Workers have occupied factories across Latin America — most notably in Argentina after the crisis in 2001.


Only in Brazil has a mass workers’ party developed, but the Workers’ Party (PT) has moved far from it militant, working class origins.

The PT was founded during the great workers’ strikes that began in 1978. By the end of the year, about half a million workers, including teachers, bank workers, textile workers as well as 350,000 metalworkers had taken strike action.

The metalworkers struck again in 1979, provoked a strike wave across Brazil. More than three million workers – about 13% of the industrial work force – went on strike, mainly for higher wages.

The PT was formed in 1980. Its leading members organised a general strike of three million workers in 1983 and went on to form the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT) union centre.

Between 1983 and 1991, there were six general strikes, ending the military regime and resisting austerity. The party was built through engaging with social struggles and by utilising the electoral opening at national, regional and local level.

However, coming to power at state and local level and then winning the presidency in 2002, the PT drifted to the right. Under Lula’s leadership the PT has largely embraced neoliberalism. It has expelled prominent socialists and workers, who are regrouping to continue the struggle to build a mass workers’ party.


The last thirty years of Iranian history sum up the highs and lows of working class politics. From October 1977 there were demonstrations against the despotic Shah, culminating in a two million-strong protest in the capital Tehran in September 1978. The Shah imposed martial law and soldiers massacred demonstrators. But a strike by 30,000 oil workers rocked the regime.

Strikes in factories, offices, hospitals and universities followed. Workers’ committees known as “shoras” were set up, taking control of workplaces. Owners and managers were forced out. Poor slum dwellers organised neighbourhood committees. Students and peasants established their own shoras. The Shah fled in January 1979.

But the workers did not consolidate their position. Instead, political Islamists led by Khomeini, along with merchants and capitalist politicians, seized control. On 11 February 1979 Khomeini’s forces took power. Over the next year, democratic workers’ power was smashed. Islamic committees set up at workplaces competed with the shoras. Firms were allowed to go bankrupt to break the workers’ committees. The clergy and the government took control of neighbourhood committees. The regime used brutal force to smash shoras and repress the Kurds and other national minorities who had gained some autonomy.

There is no mechanical correspondence between industrialisation and the development of strong working class movements. Militant labour movements are not simply the result of economic processes — they are also a product of conscious intervention by workers and organised socialists.

Obstacles such as repression, high capital mobility and unemployment have hampered the growth of labour movements. Labour movements have often been political excluded, and in some cases neutered by governments, as part of their industrialisation strategy. For example the All China Federation of Trade Unions is part of the police state in China.

Workers also face new opponents, such as the political Islam. Workers’ organisations in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Indonesia have suffered at the hands of the fundamentalists.

The growth of labour movements has slowed significantly since 1990, and trade union density – the proportion of trade unionists compared to the total number of workers - has mostly stagnated in the last decade.

Nevertheless capitalist development generates openings for labour movements to emerge. It creates a potentially powerful social force and by forcing workers to struggle, gives socialists opportunities to spread our ideas.

The role of Marxists

The role of working class socialist activists is indispensable. Socialists in the “Third World” have been central to organising action, to providing education for workers and to linking together different struggles. International solidarity has also helped workers gain higher wages and improved conditions, gain reinstatement when victimised, and consolidate their organisations.

Inspirational struggles by the FNPBI in Indonesia, SITEMEX in Mexico, Batay Ouvrire in Haiti and unions in Iraq have been the result of hard slogging by socialists to organise workers, sometimes starting outside the workplace. Similar processes took place in South Africa, Brazil and Korea prior to their strike waves.

Marxists like the AWL have duty to make solidarity with these socialists and other workers fighting their bosses and the state across the globe. The answer to capitalist globalisation is international solidarity with workers’ struggles, and for workers to fight for their own liberation.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.