Revolution or War n°19

(September 2021)

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The Covid-19 pandemic: further evidence of the objective historical necessity of communism

In March of 2021, in a video call with fellow Conservative members of Parliament, Boris Johnson hailed the rapid development of numerous effective vaccines against Covid-19 as the fruits of capitalism and greed [1]. He immediately took back what he said, possibly because he instinctively knew that capitalist triumphalism at a time of unfolding social murder, for which he has a significant share of the responsibility, would be counterproductive to the capitalist interest he represents. Nevertheless, we assume that his reasoning is that capitalist competition and the entrepreneurial spirit borne of it would have motivated various pharmaceutical companies to deploy the considerable expertise at their disposal, and on their payroll, to race to develop vaccines and therapeutics to bring to market. Indeed, the speed with which different types of vaccines–RNA, viral vector, viral like particles, inactivated– have been developed is an impressive feat that demonstrates the technical and productive capacity of modern society, a capacity that a society in which social production is dedicated to serving social needs would put to use to prevent mass death associated with pandemics.

However, we do not live in such a society. However, if one considers the class interests of the bourgeoisie, the playbook pursued by the ruling class is perfectly rational. The fact that the various national bourgeoisies have not succeeded in controlling the pandemic is not a consequence of their incompetence, which is relative, nor of a supposed political crisis in that class. Whether one explains that imagined political crisis as an automatic consequence of the economic crisis, as a supposed revolt of an enraged petty bourgeoisie, or based on the idealist theory of Decomposition, does not change the fact that the conclusion dangerously underestimates the adeptness with which the bourgeoisie responds politically to the social and economic contradictions of capitalism to impose its “solution” to those contradictions. The “failure” to control the pandemic is simply the expression of a society without a future, of a mode of production whose contradictions can only lead to a mutual mass slaughter on a historically unprecedented scale if we remain within the horizon of this society without a future, or to a worldwide proletarian revolution, also unprecedented in scale and scope as far as revolutions go. But to achieve that revolution and to halt the drive towards world war, the proletariat will have to act as a subject of history according to its own objective historical interests, not merely a sociological category as the working class.

The Malthusian underpinnings of the bourgeois response to the pandemic

In a previous issue, we discussed Neo-Malthusianism in the context of the bourgeois ideological response to the reality of ecological devastation caused by a mode of production that prioritizes profit above all else [2]. Malthusianism serves to provide ideological cover for the accumulation of obscene wealth at one pole and misery at the other by making the victims of that misery – the exploited, the population capitalism discards as “surplus”, the destitute – the ones responsible for their own misery on account of their biological drive to procreate. In the context of this pandemic we see one of the principle recommendations of Malthus, avoiding taking measures to limit the impact of infectious disease, in action. The difference is that the “greater good” for which proletarians are called to sacrifice themselves is now explicitly the national economy.

A characteristic of this virus that was evident in the early days of the pandemic is that it primarily causes mortality in the elderly and those living with comorbidities, many of whom are either retired or receiving long-term disability payments. This is in stark contrast to the 1918 pandemic, which disproportionately caused mortality in people of working age. This has been verified by a study looking at excess mortality in the approximately 100 countries for which data are available, which found that the mean age of death in the current pandemic was 70, compared to 27 for the 1918 pandemic [3]. This particularity may go some way to explaining the response, or lack of response, from the bourgeoisie in the centres of global capitalism at the start of the pandemic. The reasoning of the ruling class was that most of the people dying are not working age, so the bourgeoisie decided to sacrifice the “surplus population” in the name of “protecting the economy and our way of life” [4]. That explains the early proposals to allow the virus to spread unhindered through the population to achieve natural herd immunity, promoted by politicians like Boris Johnson and adopted by Bolsonaro as a way to get through this pandemic. If the policy of letting the virus spread uninterrupted has, partially, been dropped, it is not because the bourgeoisie has suddenly acquired a conscience. It is because the scale of death that would result from that policy would make the normal functioning of society impossible (since hospitals would be overwhelmed), it would have a major impact on the economy despite the intention of the ruling class to trade blood for profit, and because of the realization that working age people are not immune to the effects of the disease.

The horrific effects of refusing to take any measures to curb the spread of this disease were evident in Brazil. Bolsonaro may be the purest expression of the Malthusian cynicism that has been adopted by practically all Western governments. Despite insistent advice that it would result in hundreds of thousands of excess deaths, Bolsonaro imposed a policy of natural herd immunity by actively undermining efforts to implement non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow down the virus spread. The result? More than two months of rolling average daily deaths above 2,000, record-setting daily deaths above 4,000, and overwhelmed hospitals that cannot guarantee care to heart attack and car accident victims [5]. As a consequence of the rampant spread of the virus, there is also the emergence of more pathogenic and transmissible variants that do not spare young people. The second wave in Manaus, driven by the variant first identified there, has been reported to be associated with 2.7-fold more deaths among people aged 20-39 versus 1.15-fold more deaths in the general population [6] compared to the first wave. Add to this the evidence that a majority of people who recover from Covid-19 have long-lasting symptoms weeks to months after clearing the infection [7], the fact that natural immunity wanes and people can be reinfected, the prospect of new variants unaffected by current vaccines, and we have a truly bleak picture of the social reality of a pandemic under decadent capitalism.

The consequences of the bourgeoisie’s policy to prioritize profits over effectively controlling the spread of this novel respiratory infection are not limited to overwhelmed hospitals, mass casualties, and persisting neurological symptoms in a significant percentage of the population. By allowing this virus to spread, infecting hundreds of millions if not billions of people, they have created conditions in which a much more transmissible variant was bound to emerge. Early in the time-frame of the pandemic, the virus was not yet adapted to its human host despite having a relatively large basic reproductive number (R0) of about three, meaning that on average each infected person would go on to infect three people. Now that the virus has infected a large number of people, it has been optimized to spread between people due to natural selection. This consequence was entirely predictable. As a result of this optimization, we now have a disease with an estimated R0 value of six, the infamous Delta variant, which reportedly caused a much larger number of deaths in India than the official count suggests [8]. If an R0 of around six is confirmed it would make the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV2 one of the most transmissible diseases known to man, behind only measles. The bourgeoisie gambled that the pandemic would blow over, reasoning that a lot of people will die but then at least we will have natural herd immunity, but instead they indirectly created a monster that is much harder to control. Where before, it was possible with a combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccination of possibly less than 75% of the population to stop its spread, effectively eradicating the disease, now we are in a situation where it becomes necessary to implement mandatory vaccination to prevent community spread of the disease, similar to the situation in many Western countries in regards to measles.

The response of the ruling classes of the most powerful Western capitalist countries to the pandemic has repeatedly been to be late in introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions and early in relaxing them. Instead of adhering to the precautionary principle, which states that in the absence of evidence we should err on the side of caution, the bourgeoisie used the absence of evidence to justify their inaction. After initially resisting implementing shut-downs of businesses that rely on large indoor gatherings, the UK government had no choice but to impose a strict lock-down as the reality dawned that the NHS was in danger of being overwhelmed with Covid patients requiring supplemental oxygen. In July of 2021, with infection rates still at a high level and only slightly more than 50% of the UK population fully vaccinated, the UK has removed all Covid restrictions [9]. The situation in the US is similar, with 50% vaccine coverage and abandonment of restrictions. This combination of conditions favors the emergence of immune escape variants; the virus can spread unhindered in the non-immunized population, while the immunity in the vaccinated population selects for variants that more efficiently cause “breakthrough” infections [10]. Now we are being told that we have to “live with the virus”. In other words, we have to accept the reality that a virus that could have been effectively controlled is here to stay. Even after the pandemic is officially over, we will likely have a situation in which the baseline number of deaths during a typical respiratory infection season will be higher by several-fold.

The recent epidemic waves in Canada: a case study of priorities of the ruling class

During the third wave in Canada, Ontario witnessed a surge in cases that accounted for half of the daily new cases across the country. The regions that were most affected were those in which there is a high concentration of industry. The evidence is that workplaces (primarily factories and warehouses) and educational institutions are the places most frequently associated with outbreaks and that the neighbourhoods in which large concentrations of workers live tended to have the highest case counts [11]. There was widespread recognition of the need for paid sick leave to be guaranteed to all workers. Currently, 42% of workers and 10% of low wage earners in Ontario have paid sick leave. Given their precarious situation, workers were forced to choose between going to work with symptoms and not being able to afford rent and groceries. This doubtless contributed to the severity of the third wave in Canada. The Ontario Conservative provincial government ignored calls from medical professionals to either provide or mandate paid sick leave and instead opted to to ban outdoor gatherings, impose a stay-at-home order, and provide police with the authority to stop people in the streets or in their cars, demand to know the purpose of their being outside, and issue fines of $750 if their reason is deemed non-essential. The fact that the latter proposal was not actually carried out does not change the fact that the capitalist response to the pandemic has been aimed above all at keeping industrial production going and forcing workers into unsafe working conditions.

Perhaps the most disastrous response in Canada to the pandemic was in Alberta. The premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, pushed an “open for summer” policy at a time when less than 70% of the eligible population (namely, people over the age of 12) was partially vaccinated. Kenney is a member of the hard right United Conservative Party, which is ideologically opposed to mask and vaccine mandates. Its policies gave expression to the most rabid opponents of non-pharmaceutical interventions; the owners of small businesses like restaurants and clubs that rely directly on indoor gatherings for their revenue. Kenney’s attempt to appease the Covid-denialist petty bourgeoisie in a panic at the prospect of their imminent ruin found its clearest expression in his attempt to revoke all Covid-related restrictions including the requirement for people with laboratory-confirmed Covid to self-isolate. Predictably, he was forced to backtrack on this. Currently, the situation in Alberta is that intensive care units are at capacity and the transmission rate has yet to peak. Despite the opposition from anti-vaxxers, Alberta has also been forced to follow the policy in the rest of Canada and implement a vaccine passport. This means that proof of vaccination will be required to access gyms, restaurants, and for travel.

The response of the capitalist left to the pandemic

There are numerous examples we can give that throw cold water on the naive hope on the part of people influenced by leftism that the Left in power would have done a better job of limiting mortality associated with the current pandemic. We could point to Mexico under Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who received a glowing recommendation from Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the leftist La France Insoumise during AMLO’s presidential campaign. AMLO oversaw a disastrous response to the spread of Covid-19 in Mexico, the government encouraging people to go about their normal activities, claiming that the disease is not serious and putting forward such imbecilities as the claim that the poor (AMLOs electoral base of support) are immune to the coronavirus. The priority was clearly to delay the implementation of public health interventions that might provoke a financial sell-off and make workers reluctant to continue working in crowded factories producing car parts for GM and Chrysler, among many other industrial products. The result of this policy overseen by the darling of the left is that, among the countries for which excess mortality data are available, Mexico is in fifth place for per capita excess deaths [12].

The pandemic also showed that the US bourgeoisie, particularly its left fraction embodied in the Biden presidency, is adept at using identitarianism when confronted with a crisis. The CDC recommended prioritizing vaccination of essential workers instead of the elderly in the name of “racial equity” because of the demographic differences between working age people and retirees (retirees are more “white”), despite concluding that vaccinating the elderly first would save more lives.

It’s clear that what “essential” means under capitalism is what is essential to capital accumulation and the imposition of imperialist interests. That’s why a car factory in Michigan that produces transmissions for the whole of North America was deemed essential. It’s why the rampant spread of Covid-19 was allowed on US naval vessels. It’s why teachers are deemed essential workers and there were attempts to force them to work in unsafe, crowded, poorly ventilated, conditions. It has little to do with a supposed desire to protect the psychological well-being of schoolchildren. This is a pretense, just like the pretense that the CDC’s proposal to vaccinate essential workers before the elderly is about “racial equity”. But it shows the skill with which the US bourgeoisie was able to meet this health crisis from the point of view of its class interests, obviously not from the point of view of ensuring public health. This is not the work of a bourgeoisie in “political crisis”.

National economic and imperialist imperatives

As the immunization campaign in Western countries has begun to take effect and reduce excess mortality, the situation in many parts of the world continues to be miserable. In Peru, the country with the highest per capita mortality associated with Covid-19, only 28.7% of the population is vaccinated at the time of writing. Countries in Africa have had difficulties procuring vaccine, despite funds being made available, because the most powerful countries rushed to secure contracts with vaccine producers. Canada, for example, secured 400 million doses of vaccine for its population of 38 million [13]. In the US, the CEO of Pfizer talked about the need for a third dose next year [14]. Moderna has similarly pitched a so-called booster shot for the US population. While Israel has begun vaccinating children age 12 with a third dose [15], only 12.1% of the population in the West Bank and Gaza is vaccinated. From the point of view of reducing mass death and preventing the emergence of new variants, the optimal vaccine distribution strategy would be to first send vaccines to the places with the highest rates of infection and to prioritize immunizing at-risk populations. However, the governments of the Western countries see in the vaccine a ticket out of the pandemic and back to unhindered accumulation. It is no surprise that in a world dominated by capitalist and imperialist competition, vaccine distribution would become a stake in this competition.

The national bourgeoisies will argue that the pandemic demonstrated the need for domestic vaccine production. This repatriation of production will extend beyond vaccines. As the imperialist rivalries sharpen in the context of the structural economic crisis accelerated by the pandemic, repatriation of strategic parts of production, including heavy industry due to its connection to arms production, becomes a stake in international competition. Economic nationalism, whether in its left or right wing garb, is on the agenda for the capitalist class.

The failure to deal properly with this virus also does not inspire confidence about a hypothetical future, much more lethal, pandemic. This is one more piece of evidence of the historical obsolescence of capitalism... the gap between technical possibility and capitalist reality. Any future health crisis, including one caused by a much more lethal virus, will inevitably feed and become a stake in inter-imperialist rivalries because the prospect of generalized imperialist war increasingly imposes itself on practically all aspects of social life.


Apart from the unfolding slaughter perpetrated by the decision of the capitalist class to put profit before human needs, we have the prospect of increased cost of living and speed-ups at work to anticipate. Inflation threatens to erode our purchasing power at an accelerating rate. At the same time, capitalists will try to force workers to work more for less to recuperate profits lost due to the pandemic.
Workers must rally around demands for better living and working conditions, including by putting forward demands for universal paid sick leave, higher wages, and reductions in rent. For this to be effective, we must rally as workers, not according to identitarian criteria like race, gender, and nationality. Those identitarian themes are put forward to undermine solidarity based on our shared reality as wage earners.

Stavros, August 1st, 2021



[4“Don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that... no one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? (...) And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. (...) That doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.” Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, speaking to Tucker Carlson of Fox News. One of the early proponents of the Malthusian approach to handling the pandemic, Patrick advocates that the elderly sacrifice themselves “for the greater good” of capitalist accumulation. (Quoted from the Guardian.

[7Carfì, Angelo, Roberto Bernabei, and Francesco Landi. ’Persistent symptoms in patients after acute COVID-19.’ Jama 324.6 (2020): 603-605.

[10Symptomatic infections in fully vaccinated individuals