Mombasa dock workers strike, 2011 Mombasa dock workers strike, 2011. Photo: International Transport Workers' Federation / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, license linked below article

In the fifth part of the series on class, Chris Nineham demonstrates the centrality of working-class struggle in the Global South

Part One: The Great Denial – why they don’t want us to talk about class
Part Two: Whatever happened to the western working class?
Part Three: Class analysis or identity politics?
Part Four: Capitalism and class consciousness
Part Six: the working class and revolution

The role of class struggle in last century’s great anti-colonial struggles and more recent insurgencies in the South is often downplayed. It is common to regard the dynamics of these struggles as completely different from those in the older capitalist economies.   

Colonialism and imperialism have, of course, drastically shaped the histories of huge areas of the globe. Imperial domination still grips vast regions. We can’t understand how it functions however, without grasping its class dynamics.

Despite being relatively small in many colonised countries, labour movements in fact played a vital role in many of the struggles for independence from the later years of World War Two. Strikes were central to the Quit India movement launched in 1942 which, despite being viciously repressed, convinced many of those involved in governing the colony that Britain would have to withdraw from India.

A militant workers’ movement was central too in the cycle of struggles for full independence in Egypt that began in 1946 and ended with Abdul Nasser’s successful coup in 1952. The 1947 Tanzanian general strike completely shut down the capital Dar es Salaam and was a major inspiration for the formation of the main party of independence, the Tanganyikan African National Union, in 1953.[1]

A general strike in Ghana in 1949 later had a similar impact: ‘The economic life of the whole country came to a standstill. All employed workers stayed home and employers, including the government, the biggest employer of all, closed down.’[2]

The great African American historian Manning Marable went as far as to argue that ‘modern nationalist consciousness throughout much of Africa and the Caribbean was prefigured by trade-union consciousness and organisation.’[3]

Taking control

In some places, forms of workers’ control emerged in the independence struggle. In Indonesia, after the defeat of both the Japanese army and Dutch troops trying to recolonise the country, workers seized control of factories, railway stations and plantations. As the new Indonesian state was still being organised, workers set up committees to organise key aspects of society, starting with the railways.

One account of the rail workers’ action explains how their takeover flowed directly from the independence struggle, but pointed towards a completely new way of organising their enterprises:

‘Once the workers got their hands on the station operations, they began to organise in a new direction. The task of managing the railway’s operation made it immediately necessary to set up an accountable, workable system of self-organisation.’[4]

A similar process took place nearly two decades later in the turmoil accompanying the victory of the Algerian people’s struggle for independence in July 1962. In what came to be called the movement for ‘Autogestion’ or self-management, agricultural workers started taking over colonial estates. The movement spread fast to urban areas when local union organisations took over factories and commercial enterprises.

In both cases, however, once the post-independence regimes had consolidated themselves, they moved against workers’ self-management. In Indonesia, the new ‘socialist’ government condemned self-management as ‘anarcho-syndicalist’, and brought the railways and other enterprises under the control of central or local government.[5]

Ben Bella’s FLN government in Algeria endorsed the idea of Autogestion in its post-independence programme. But Ben Bella put himself at the head of the movement in order to rein it in. By January 1963, he had brought the unions under government control. His official Autogestion programme limited the areas of the economy to which self-management could apply, created an unelected national agency to administer it, and placed government appointed directors in each of the enterprises.

The general approach of post-colonial ruling classes to the working-class movements described here applies generally. As Jafar Suryomenggolo argues in a summary of case studies:

‘… most nationalist leaders in Africa and Asia, in order to serve their political purposes, were motivated to neutralise the labor movement upon capturing the political space in their newly independent states. To varying degrees, under the rhetoric of rejecting class conflict as a “European” or “Western” perspective, they have succeeded in subordinating the labor movement to the postcolonial state.’[6]

Dreams deferred

How and why did this happen? British Trotskyist Tony Cliff provided crucial answers in his classic essay, Permanent Revolution Deflected.[7] First, the independence movements were normally led by members of the middle classes: military officers, intellectuals, better-off peasants and professionals. These social groups had been excluded from power under colonial rule. Their victory delivered political change. However, the new rulers were hostile to the democratisation of the economy or any challenge to relations of exploitation.

Their aim was to drag the new nation out of stagnation through industrialisation, rather than encourage a freely associated people to liberate themselves.

Workers’ general failure to challenge for leadership of the movements partly reflected the limited social weight of the class in many of the colonial countries. This, however, is far from the whole story.

The problem was also political. Even in the cases of Indonesia and Algeria, emerging labour movements were fragile and lacking in independence. They were dominated by reformist, nationalist and Stalinist ideas. Samuel Southgate paints a picture of the fatally limited perspectives of the movement in Algeria, even at the point at which it had proved capable of running sections of the economy:

‘Crucially, while the working class had seized control of the means of production in some of the most important sectors of the economy, it had neither set about extending workers’ control on its own, nor consolidated individual units into greater organizational bodies. Thus by the fall of 1962, the process had effectively stalled and the government was in a position to assume responsibility for the movement.’[8]

The situation elsewhere was similar. A study of the Indian trade-union movement at the time of independence, for example, showed that many of the unions were run by people with no background in industry and that little tradition of self-organisation had developed. They made no effort to fight for an independent class programme.[9]

As a result, the greatest hopes raised by national liberation were dashed. Living standards improved in many places, and varying degrees of progress were made in education and welfare, but the basic strategy was to develop a state-led national capitalism. What the Working People’s Alliance of Guyana called ‘a bourgeoisie of a new type’ emerged, their control of the new state giving them the base ‘from which they seize the social surplus to divert it not only to personal consumption, but to private accumulation with the aim of building indigenous capitalism’.[10]

In a few cases, state-driven development led to significant economic growth, turning former colonies like Brazil, Singapore and South Korea into major capitalist players in the world market. Many other countries in the South ended up falling victim to the debt trap of the 1980s, and were forced to open up their economies to the world market, with disastrous results. 

The end of development

Neoliberalism has however created a new situation. The immediate post-colonial states gained some legitimacy from their promises of development in the interests of the whole of the nation. Most neoliberal states in the South have by now abandoned even the rhetoric of development. Certainly in practice, most of the elites are committed to self-enrichment via full integration into the world market.

This integration has decimated established industries and rural economies, creating misery on an epic scale. It has also created a massive trend towards urbanisation. The UN estimated in 2018 that 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, up from 37% in 1980. Cities have grown in every continent, but the vast majority of that increase is in the so-called developing world.

Urbanisation has various drivers. One is the pull of expanding modern industrial and service economies. The growth of Chinese industry is the most spectacular and significant example. In the course of a generation, several hundred million former Chinese peasants have become urban workers, mostly in cities that have grown up virtually overnight.

Anyone tempted by the hypothesis of the end of the working class needs only to glance at the figures for the size of China’s manufacturing workplaces. The biggest, the Longua Science and Technology Park in Shenzen, which produces parts for iPhones, employs somewhere between 250,000 to 400,000 workers.[11] China is an outlying case, but not a complete exception.

There is, however, a very different kind of urbanisation in many parts of the South, where the opening-up to the world economy has led to a collapse in traditional agriculture as well as of many existing industries, and a massive increase in the urban ‘informal sector’. Often this has been the result of IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programmes, backed by the local ruling classes. US sanctions and direct Western military interventions have pushed some states to the edge of outright failure.

However, the common, apocalyptic take of an urban poor cut off from the world economy and separated from a dwindling working class rarely fits the facts. The ‘informal economy’ is a complex category. Many of the small workshops and businesses that comprise it are integrated in complex ways with national and international circuits of capital, giving workers in it the capacity for collective economic struggle. As Immanuel Ness argues:

‘The vast majority of labourers in the Global South, whether in urban settlements or rural regions, are employed under informal conditions with haphazard and irregular work hours and low wages … They represent the bottom of the economic ladder, but their work is crucial in creating profit for local, regional and multinational executive classes who are the recipients of surplus value from their labour.’[12]

The return of revolution

The traumatic experience of neoliberalism in the South has led some to doubt the possibility of class-based change emerging there. The reality of mass insurgency has proved them wrong. Particularly since the end of the 1990s, there have been huge struggles against attacks on traditional peasant ways of life and on the welfare state, battles against particular oppressions and the degradation of various ecologies, mass campaigns for the democratisation of the state and against imperialism, and major confrontations between wage earners against capital. Often these kinds of struggles have interconnected in explosive ways.

Three cycles of opposition in particular stand out. The first was the great wave of insurgent movements that shook parts of Latin America in the early years of this century. The 1998 election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was one expression of this, but there was also an explosion of extra-parliamentary struggle. This included the campaign by the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, a movement in Argentina led by the unemployed ‘piqueteros’ that blocked major highways, occupied public buildings in a militant campaign to improve welfare, and in Cochabamba, Bolivia, massive protests to reverse the privatisation of the city’s water supply.

This insurgent campaign was led by indigenous informal workers, factory workers and peasants, and mobilised pieceworkers from the sweatshops, street vendors and students from the university. Together these groups brought the city to a standstill. The struggle won in the face of heavy police repression because it was beginning to draw in workers and students across the country.

An explosion of extra-parliamentary action followed across the region. In Argentina, the piqueteros brought down the government. The Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador led a broad-based insurgency there that also removed the president. Across the region, the movements began to shift from defensive struggles towards offensive, anti-capitalist struggles.

One of the highpoints of the whole cycle was the 16 May 2005 Bolivian uprising demanding gas nationalisation. This time, formal and informal workers, indigenous groups and students brought the Bolivian state to the point of collapse. While 100,000 people besieged parliament, miners marched on the city of El Alto and teachers called a national strike. The opportunity may have slipped away, but there is no question that on that day, a powerless government faced a mass popular movement that had brought the economy to halt, and was determined, co-ordinated and calling for alternative forms of power.[13]

Just six years later, a second revolutionary wave engulfed large parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The Arab Spring is normally understood as a spontaneous cycle of democratic uprisings. The role played by the working class was however crucial. A worker-led rebellion against job cuts and unfair hiring practices in the rundown mining region of Gafsa in 2008 provided a crucial impulse for the Tunisian revolution. Though the insurgency was repressed, it radicalised the population and forced the UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union) centre stage.

The Egyptian revolution was also foreshadowed by huge workers’ struggles. In late 2006, a strike by 25,000 textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra set off a wave of workers’ mobilisations. Further strikes took place in 2008, and the working class was to play an important part in the revolutionary process itself.

Two weeks after the first great protest in Tahrir Square, with the fortunes of the revolution remaining uncertain, workers’ action helped to break the logjam. On Tuesday 8 February, Cairo Telecom workers, some Suez Canal staff and local steel workers went on strike. In a matter of hours, a strike wave was sweeping the country, drawing in 300,000 workers across fifteen governorates. Mubarak was forced out on 11 February.

In Egypt in particular, workers’ demands exploded. There were strikes, occupations and protests in hundreds of workplaces calling for wage rises, improved conditions, an end to corruption, and the re-employment of sacked militants. Many workforces in Egypt also demanded a democratic government.

One reason for the ultimate defeat of the Egyptian revolution was that the power of workers was not tied firmly enough into the revolutionary process. In the words of the Egyptian revolutionary Sameh Naquib: ‘Although the revolution involved the rise of a militant workers’ movement clearly resonating with the democratic movement of the squares, it remained separate from that movement. The division between politics and economics remained largely intact.’[14]

Since then, insurgent movements have re-emerged in different parts of the developing world in a third cycle of protest. A year or so before the coronavirus pandemic, huge popular movements emerged in countries across the Middle East, the Maghreb and Latin America. In the words of The Economist at the time, ‘unrest and economic underperformance haunt the emerging world.’

Protests in Latin America began in Argentina in September 2019, and spread the next month to Ecuador and Chile, shattering the regional elite’s confidence that the region’s left-wing ‘pink tide’ was in retreat. In Chile, the government’s retreat over price hikes on the metro only encouraged the spread of protest. A brutal police response further intensified resistance and led to organised workers taking action in support.

In the Middle East and North Africa, insurgent street protest returned in 2018 and 2019 after several years of counter-revolutionary pushback. Protests in Tunisia were followed by risings in Algeria and Sudan. Both toppled their presidents. In the weeks that followed, mass struggle spread north to Iraq and Lebanon which both saw their biggest street protests for decades.

Once again, workers played a key role in many of these struggles. This wave reached a high point in Sudan, one of the poorest countries of the world. Months of mass mobilisations forced President al-Bashir out in April 2019. The question then was whether the revolution would tackle wider social and democratic issues. A possible answer was provided by a cycle of massive general strikes in May and June 2019.

According to the newly formed Sudanese Professional Association, 95% of high schools were closed, 80-90% of public road transport was stopped, 99% of domestic flights, 85% of sea freight, nearly 100% of railway traffic, and 90% of the oil and gas and the engineering sectors stopped work.[15]

Sudanese activist Muzan Alneel recounted that the mass strikes transformed the situation. They gave workers an enormous sense of confidence in their own power; and laid bare the powerlessness of the state in the face of a complete shutdown of society: ‘The reactionary forces hate the strike, the sectarians hate it, the army hates it; they hate this weapon capable of not only overthrowing some of them, but also overthrowing the exact reasons for their existence and their privileges.’[16]

The key question is once again, political. In Sudan, the working class has played an important role in driving the revolution forward. So far, however, workers have not found a way to develop an independent class policy to challenge the leadership of the Forces for Freedom and Change and impose their interests on the revolutionary process. As Alneel argues, the whole future of the revolution depends on whether the movement can break the subordination of workers’ interests and overcome the separation of politics and economics:

‘We cannot repeat the failure of unprincipled coalitions. It is a folly to leave behind all this practical revolutionary knowledge we gained in the last two years and concede the idea of separating economy from politics. We would be bound then to never understand the nature of the fight and never participate in it effectively, not to mention win it.’[17]

These three waves of struggle, in Latin America at the start of the century, in the Middle East and beyond from 2011, and then in many parts of the globe from 2019, confirm that the conditions for revolt are in place in large parts of the developing world. Powerful alliances of the poor, with working people centrally involved, continue to shake regimes across the Global South. As the world economy starts to unravel and ecosystems face collapse, the fortunes of these movements are going to be critical to all our futures.  


[1] John Iliffe, ‘The Creation of Group Consciousness Among the Dockworkers of Dar es Salaam, 1929-1950’, in The Development of an African Working Class: Studies in Class Formation and Action, eds. Richard Sandbrook and Robin Cohen (Longman, Toronto 1975), pp.49-72.

[2] C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (Allison and Busby, London 1977), p.133.

[3] Manning Marable, African and Caribbean Politics (Verso, London 1987), p.55.

[4] Jafar Suryomenggolo, ‘Workers’ Control in Java, Indonesia, 1945-1946’, in Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present, eds. Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini (Chicago, Haymarket Books 2011), p.216.

[5] Ibid. pp.222-5.

[6] Ibid. p.212. 

[7] Tony Cliff, Permanent Revolution Deflected (Socialist Workers Party, London 1986).

[8] Jafar Suryomenggolo, ‘Workers’ Control in Java, Indonesia, 1945-1946’, p.246.

[9] C. A. Mayers, ‘India’, in Labor and Economic Development, ed. Walter Galenson (John Wiley, New York 1959), pp.41-2.

[10] Quoted in Manning Marable, African and Caribbean Politics (Verso, London 1987), p.150.

[11] Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, ‘How the US Lost Out on iPhone Work’. New York Times January 21, 2012:

[12] Immanuel Ness, Organizing Insurgency (Pluto, London 2021), p.37.

[13] Mike Gonzalez, ‘Bolivia: The Rising of the People’, International Socialism No 108, Autumn 2005, p.37.

[14] Sameh Naguib, ‘The Tragedy of the Egyptian Revolution’, in Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, eds. Colin Barker, Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson (Haymarket, Chicago 2021), p.305.

[15] ‘Civil Disobedience and General Strike – Field Report’, Sudanese Professionals Association June 13, 2019:

[16] Muzan Alneel, ‘Strategies and tactics in the Sudanese revolution’ January 23, 2021:

[17] Ibid.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.