“Let them eat cake”: hunger and class struggle

Issue: 176

Tony Phillips

Hunger is once again stalking the planet.1 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s World Food Price Index hit a record high of 159.3 points in March this year, up 12.6 percent from February as fertiliser prices soared and the war in Ukraine reduced supplies of grain and pushed up the price of energy.2 Wheat prices hit a 14-year peak in the same month, up 20 percent from the previous month, and maize prices reached the highest level ever recorded, according to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.3

Africa contains many of the regions where populations are most vulnerable to starvation.4 Almost 40 percent of African wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia. In East Africa, as much as a third of average cereal consumption is from wheat products, 84 percent of which is imported, again largely from Ukraine and Russia.5 The cost of importing wheat has increased by a third in Kenya and Egypt.6 Prices of other staples such as rice and cooking oil have also increased sharply since March.7 Recent estimates suggest that 281.6 million people on the continent as a whole, over one-fifth of the population, face hunger. Droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, fuelled by climate change, are having a real and growing impact and will continue to do so over the years ahead. The prevalence of food insecurity had already doubled in the years before the latest crisis.8 However, it is the spike in food prices triggered by war and speculation that have brought things to a head.

It is not the possibility of mass starvation that worries our rulers, but rather increasing protests and political upheaval that they could lead to. As United States treasury secretary Janet Yellen said:

Inflation is reaching the highest levels seen in decades. Sharply higher prices for food and fertilisers put pressure on households worldwide—especially for the poorest. And we know that food crises can unleash social unrest.9

According to the World Bank, rising food prices have already caused 51 food riots in 37 countries since 2007. The countries involved include Tunisia, South Africa, Cameroon and India. José Cuesta, World Bank senior economist, argues:

Food price shocks can both spark and exacerbate conflict and political instability. It is quite likely that we will experience more food riots in the foreseeable future…food price shocks have repeatedly led to spontaneous, typically urban, socio-political instability.10

This article will consider how rising food prices and food shortages, affecting workers and the urban poor, have been a key element in many mass movements and revolutionary crises in recent years. The food crisis exists alongside hunger arising from the capitalist restructuring of agriculture. The long, drawn-out process of primitive accumulation in the Global South, including the break-up of small-scale peasant production and subsistence farming, has been one of the main causes of famine over the past two centuries. This process is still incomplete, as shown by the farmers’ revolt against Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s agricultural reforms in India in 2020 and 2021, and will play a major role in revolutionary struggles in the future. However, these developments lie beyond the scope of this article. Instead, the emphasis here will be on the relationship between food crises, both past and present, heightened class struggle and revolution.

IMF riots

The period since the end of the long post-war boom saw the emergence of major struggles over food prices and supply. During the 1950s and 1960s, governments in many newly independent former colonies sought to industrialise their countries, using the state as the driver for economic development. Central planning and policies of import-substitution were introduced to compensate for the weakness of the indigenous capitalist class and the withdrawal of investment by former colonial powers.11 As part of this reorganisation, governments in many counties introduced food subsidies for workers and the poor, and price controls on staple goods. Agriculture was also restructured in many countries, sometimes including financial support for poor farmers and the redistribution of land to increase productivity.12

However, in the context of a series of global economic crises in the 1970s, there was the beginning of a neoliberal offensive by the ruling class in an attempt to restore profits and rekindle growth.13 In addition, a major sovereign debt crisis erupted in developing countries in the early 1980s as interest rates rose in the face of inflation.14 In this context, the key US-dominated international financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, were able to impose what became known as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on Global South governments. In return for debt relief, governments were forced to reorient their economies in line with free market principles. Typically, SAPs included prioritising private sector growth, opening up the economy to foreign capital, privatisation, market deregulation and cuts to public spending, including food subsidies. Governments were pushed to reorient agricultural production towards cultivating cash crops such as coffee, cotton and soya beans for export, instead of growing food to feed the local population. During the 1980s, many poorer nations went from being self-sufficient in food to relying on imports.15 Major imperialist powers, such as the US and the European Union, via its Common Agricultural Policy, by contrast, often kept subsidies in place for their own farmers, further undermining the agricultural sectors of developing countries on the world market.

Neoliberal policies in countries such as Egypt and Syria led to decreased subsidies to small farmers for fertiliser and fuel, and the state reduced its purchases of farmers’ crops at guaranteed minimum prices. The reversal of the land redistribution measures dating from the “state capitalist” era of the 1950s and 1960s drove poor farmers off the land and into the cities, where they swelled the ranks of the urban poor. This impacted both food supply and prices, as well as increasing the numbers dependant on buying food rather than growing it themselves, thus fuelling growing discontent.16

One of the first signs of resistance to these policies was the Egyptian “intifada of bread” (intifādhat-ul-khobz), an explosion of riots, strikes, factory occupations and mass protests that affected most major cities in Egypt from 18 January 1977. The movement was a spontaneous uprising by hundreds of thousands of workers, protesting at the World Bank and IMF-encouraged termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs by the regime of president Anwar Sadat. This was part of Sadat’s move from the state-led development policies of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, toward neoliberalism, known in Egypt as al-Intifah—the “opening”. As many as 70 people were killed in the struggle and over 550 injured. The movement was crushed only when Sadat managed to find loyal army units willing to put it down and restore order to the factories, and he was forced rapidly to reinstate the subsidies. This was just one of nine major revolts in the Middle East against the removal of food subsidies that took place between 1972 to 1977.17 These would continue through the 1980s. As the development scholar Adam Hanieh writes:

These new policies were widely unpopular, and their introduction was met with strikes, demonstrations and violent clashes between citizens and security forces. One survey documented 25 outbreaks of major protests between 1977 and 1992 against structural adjustment in nine countries across the region (Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey).18

An increase in food prices by the Stalinist regime in Poland in August 1980 was a trigger for the development of the revolutionary movement associated with the foundation of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union organisation. The same issues gave rise to a new deepening and widening of popular struggle across Africa in the late 1990s. In 2001 alone, there were strikes, demonstrations and riots in Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe over falling living standards, including food price rises following cuts in subsidies.

The commodities boom and the Arab Spring

As part of a generalised boom in commodity prices, food prices rose swiftly from the mid-2000s, most dramatically in 2007 and early 2008 in the run-up to the global economic crisis that began in autumn 2008. By 2008, food prices were 83 percent higher than in 2005.19 This helped to foster renewed social unrest and political and economic instability in both poor and rich nations.20 Both short-term factors and the neoliberal policies described above were causes, in addition to speculation by hedge funds and investment banks.21 The price rises affected parts of Asia and Africa particularly severely, with Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritania, Côte d’Ivoire and Egypt seeing protests and riots in late 2007 or early 2008. There were also food riots or food-related unrest during this period in Italy, Uzbekistan, Guinea, Senegal, West Bengal, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Argentina and Haiti.22 In Morocco, for example, a popular movement developed in 2007-8 as a series of sometimes violent demonstrations and strikes took place across the country over food prices and shortages. The movement was eventually crushed by the state. In the Indian state of West Bengal riots erupted over food shortages and widespread corruption in the public food distribution system following partial privatisation by the supposedly left-wing state government.23

Even more dramatically, hunger would be a crucial trigger for the Arab Spring, the series of revolutions and mass movements that exploded across the Middle East and North Africa from 2011. The risings coincided with the last major spike in world food prices before the current period and followed the Great Recession of 2008-9. In the years preceding the crisis, the region had already faced high levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment and underemployment, concentrated among young people. As Hanieh points out:

These highly unequal employment and labour market outcomes contributed to worsening overall poverty levels in the region. The proportion of the population without the means to acquire basic nutrition and essential non-food items (the “upper poverty line”) averaged close to 40 percent in Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen in the decade prior to the uprisings.24

Between 2000 and 2006, around one-fifth of all children in the Mashriq region (the area between the Mediterranean Sea and Iran) exhibited stunted growth due to malnutrition. Undernourishment rose from 6.4 percent in 1991 to 10.3 percent in 2011.25 As Middle East researcher Anne Alexander writes:

The neoliberal turn in agriculture forced large numbers to leave the countryside for insecure and marginalised lives in the cities or provincial towns. Impoverished communities would provide many of the “shock troops” of the insurrectionary phase of the revolutions with their young men (and sometimes young women) dying on the barricades and in confrontations with the security forces from Cairo to Aleppo and Khartoum.26

There is a close link between the increasingly repressive nature of regimes across the region and issues of food price and supply. Regimes resorted increasingly to repression to put down resistance to neoliberal measures, exposing the direct, if not always conscious, link between the economic and political issues in these struggles. Popular resistance to neoliberal measures led to state violence, which in turn led to further resistance.27 Hanieh argues:

The uprisings targeted both the economic policies that had been so heavily promoted by Western financial institutions over the preceding decades, as well as the political structures with which they were twinned. Not all participants in the uprisings thought about the protests in this manner, of course, but the ubiquitous slogan of “Aish, Hurriyah, ‘Adalah Ijtima’iyah” (bread, freedom, social justice) make this fusion of the economic and political spheres quite evident.28

In Egypt, for example, Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, continued and intensified the country’s neoliberal policies, in agreement with the IMF and World Bank. He turned his security forces against the strikes and mass demonstrations that occurred in response throughout the 1990s. Similarly, governments in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria became much more authoritarian during this period, while enjoying substantial support from governments of the Global North.

In some countries experiencing revolutionary uprisings during the Arab Spring, there were at least tentative signs of workers and peasants seeking to take control of food production and supply. This showed the potential of the uprisings to go beyond immediate political and economic demands in order to bring about a more substantive upheaval in social relations. In Syria, in towns and cities where the Ba’athist regime had been driven out by the uprising, revolutionary councils were established to run essential services, including the administration of food supplies.29 For example, in the city of Manbij, in northern Syria, the local revolutionary council sought to take control of bread production. Yasser Munif describes the process:

By creating alternative geographies of bread, the revolutionaries in Manbij were in fact voiding—even for a brief period—the Assadist social contract whereby land reform and cheap bread were provided in return for the population’s abstention from political participation. After 2011, revolutionaries in Manbij and elsewhere demonstrated the profound meaning of autonomy and the big challenges involved in achieving it.30

In Egypt the revolution in the cities encouraged peasants in rural areas such as the Nile Delta to take back control of land that had previously been seized by big landowners supported by the Mubarak regime. They also set up grassroots independent peasant unions.31

Ultimately the revolutions were contained or defeated, in the case of Syria and Egypt by murderous repression. Nonetheless, as Hanieh notes:

More recent cycles of political protest—notably the 2018–21 uprisings in Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco and Iraq—appear to have learnt from the 2011 experience, explicitly linking the challenge to autocratic political elites with the need to reverse the extreme disparities in the control and distribution of wealth. In this sense, although the aspirations of 2011 remain wholly unfulfilled, the lessons, experiences and hopes of that moment will form an indelible part of struggles to come.32

Hunger and class struggle today

Now, the spectre of hunger has returned, on an even greater scale, following the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, exacerbated by food price speculation.33 As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry each night, and the number of those facing acute food insecurity has soared from 135 million to 345 million since 2019. A total of 50 million people in 45 countries are on the edge of famine.34 The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned of years of hunger in the developing world.35 More than two billion lack the nutrients required for a healthy life. The crisis extends into Latin American countries such as Brazil, where 33.1 million people live in hunger, up from 19.1 million in 2020.36 Even in highly developed countries such as Britain, soaring food and energy prices are making it harder for the poor, and not so poor, to feed themselves, with many parents reliant on food banks and forced to skip meals to feed their children. In this context, there are already signs that the crisis is leading to heightened class struggle.

Sri Lanka

In March this year, a mass movement exploded in Sri Lanka, partly due to food shortages and inflation. The movement focused on the removal of the hated regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but also involved food riots. As Ahilan Kadirgamer argued in the previous issue of this journal:

Thousands of people are daily protesting on the streets, mainly against their economic hardship, but also to oppose the ruling Rajapaksa regime. The economy is in a tailspin, and that is foremost in people’s minds as these protests grow. Currently, there are shortages of most essential goods—everything from fuel to food and milk powder is running out and imports are affected in a huge way. Along with that, people’s wages are falling—in particular, those on daily wages are suffering.37

The slowdown of the economy led to a growing government budget deficit and reduced foreign-exchange reserves, leaving the country struggling to import oil and food. Bread prices have doubled and the cost of liquefied petroleum gas, on which most poorer people rely for cooking, has trebled. Milk prices have increased, and the cost of rice per kilogramme has risen from 99 to 215 rupees.38 The shortages mean that people queue for days for fuel for cooking and other essentials. The UN’s World Food Programme found that 22 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is “food insecure and in need of assistance”.39 Some 17 percent of Sri Lankan children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. According to Dr Renuka Jayatissa, a nutritionist at the Sri Lankan Medical Research Institute, “Malnutrition in the pre-economic crisis period was high. Now, with the economic crisis, it will definitely go up”.40

As the crisis deepened, the movement radicalised, with workers’ organisations playing an increasing role. Millions of workers struck on 6 May, demanding the resignation of the regime and an end to the economic crisis. In the capital, Colombo, thousands of trade union members joined protesters who had been camping in front of the presidential palace for months.41 Protesters stormed the presidential palace, and Rajapaksa was finally forced to step down, announcing his resignation from a Sri Lankan naval vessel out at sea. His first attempt to flee the country was blocked by airport workers. Rajapaksa was replaced by the equally hated Ranil Wickremesinge as president.42 However, the economic crisis has continued to deepen, with supplies of almost every type of essential goods, including food, running out.


At the time of writing, Sudan’s prolonged revolutionary process was on the rise once more. Mass protests had put the military regime on the back foot and forced it to at least pretend to make concessions. The movement’s main demands are the removal of the military from politics and the introduction of a truly democratic constitution, but food prices are also a central issue. An earlier phase of the revolutionary process deposed the former dictator Omar El Bashir, who had close and corrupt connections with the food processing industry. Speculation in the price of wheat was highly profitable for the regime’s stooges, but it has been a cause of misery for ordinary Sudanese people, who rely on bread to survive.43 Sudan’s revolutionary crisis began with a popular revolt in December 2018, in response to the government’s desperate austerity measures, which had led to the tripling of bread prices overnight. Spontaneous protests erupted in several provincial cities and the capital Khartoum. Within a few days the uprising began to take on more organised forms, with doctors’ strikes in Port Sudan. In January 2019, a wide spectrum of opposition organisations launched the “Declaration of Freedom and Change”, a set of principles for the transfer of power to a new civilian government.44

Following the military coup on 25 October 2021 that overthrew the transitional military-civilian government installed in 2019, grassroots “resistance committees” emerged as the leadership of the movement against the military across much of the country.45 In some areas these bodies have begun to take on some basic economic functions, including organising the supply of flour to local bakeries and distribution of bread and cooking gas.46 The escalating economic crisis has also fed into strikes by workers demanding action over the cost of living. The present upsurge combines mass protests and a return to the sit-ins that characterised the movement of 2019. There are currently sit-ins in Khartoum and Omdurman, and there were signs of these spreading to other parts of the country. These sit-ins act as both a focus for protests, a sign that the regime’s rule is contested, and a gesture towards alternative ways of organising society, showing that the movement is beginning to include demands for social as well as political change. Among these demands, the availability and affordability of food are a central concern.


In Iran thousands of people protested and struck in towns, cities and villages across the country in May this year after the government increased basic food prices. Protests began after the government announced that it would cut and end subsidies for wheat and flour, calling it “necessary economic surgery”. The move caused prices to rise by up to 300 percent for some flour-based staple foods, including bread and pasta, in a country where half of the 85 million population lives in poverty. The government blamed the global wheat supply crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine.

However, the attack is part of a continuing economic crisis caused by sanctions imposed by the US and successive governments’ neoliberal policies. President Ebrahim Raisi’s government is desperate to shore up rapidly dwindling currency reserves at the expense of the population. The protests initially took place mostly in western and central provinces, lasting for up to two weeks. Workers rejected attempts by the regime to deflect blame onto US sanctions chanting, “The enemy is right here.” They demanded that the regime take action to prevent price increases. Yet, prices continue to rise, with those for food increasing by 32 percent from May to June. The price of rice has risen by 95 percent over the past year.47

Protesters directed their anger at the conservative, “hardliner” president, chanting, “Raisi should be ashamed and leave the country alone!” and “Down with rising food prices!” Bus drivers also struck in the capital city, Tehran, for several days from 15 May, demanding a 57 percent increase in salaries and the resignation of the mayor. Teachers across the country struck at the same time, demanding higher pay in response to the soaring cost of living. The response of the regime so far has been repression and the arrest of trade union activists.


Spiralling inflation, and in particular rising food and gas prices, has also triggered resistance in Ecuador. Mass strikes and demonstrations threw the right-wing government of president Guillermo Lasso into crisis. Protests involving tens of thousands of people began on 13 June, when the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), alongside trade unions and student organisations, called an indefinite general strike.

The movement issued a list of ten demands, including control of food prices, subsidies for small farmers and an end to speculation on basic necessities. Tens of thousands of indigenous farmers and rural labourers descended from the Andes mountains and the Amazon regions, setting up roadblocks throughout the country and marching in provincial cities before converging on the capital, Quito. They were joined in the cities by workers and students, who have faced destitution due to inflation. On 14 June, CONAIE’s president, Leonidas Iza, was arrested on charges of sabotage for having participated in blocking the Pan-American Highway in the central highland province of Cotopaxi. A public outcry led to Iza’s prompt release and further radicalised the protests.

Lasso then declared a state of emergency in an attempt to crush the movement. Police made mass arrests, and fired tear gas, water cannon and so-called non-lethal projectiles at protesters, injuring more than 100 people, some seriously. At least three people were killed during the demonstrations. The leaders of the movement subsequently called off strikes and protests after the government agreed to cut prices for essentials.48

South Africa

In July 2021, unrest in South Africa that initially began with protests in response to the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma for corruption quickly escalated into nationwide looting of supermarkets and shopping malls. In the previous ten months, living costs had skyrocketed due to rampant inflation. The cost of the average household food basket increased by 7.1 percent. In the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and the North West masses of people rushed to secure what little they could from shopping malls, grocery chains and other shops. Many buildings were set on fire.

The food riots followed a record economic downturn and increasing unemployment during the Covid-19 pandemic, and most of those looting were driven by desperation. Unemployment has risen to 42 percent for the population at large and is higher for young people. Yet, big retailers’ profits ballooned during the pandemic as the cost of a basic food basket rose above 4,000 Rand a month, outstripping the median monthly wage of 3,000 Rand. Despite this, the government withdrew the already modest 350 Rand grant, the only thing keeping many households afloat before the pandemic.49 After a week of looting, the government sent in troops to suppress the movement. However, in this deeply unequal society—where the continued opulent wealth of the white minority, joined by a small layer of black rich, stands in contrast to the poverty faced by the majority of black people—more struggle is a near certainty.


Iraq was the first country to see protests over soaring food prices in the wake of the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. The protests began in the southern city of Nasiriyah in March, as flour prices increased by 25 percent, rice by 10 percent and cooking oil doubled in price. Protesters were furious when traders capitalised on the situation to increase their profits.50 Ten people were killed by police who tried to break up the protests, and there were demonstrations in solidarity across the country.51 The government has been forced to take measures to stabilise food prices.

Hunger and revolution

It should be clear from this brief survey that hunger is a major factor in many recent struggles. What, though, are the prospects for these developing into revolutionary upheavals? Here we can learn from the great revolutions of the past, in almost all of which hunger, food prices and food shortages have been important issues. That is not to say that revolution can be reduced to the question of hunger. A dialectical interaction can be observed between economic factors, such as food supply, and political issues. Hunger has sometimes been the spark for upheavals that draw on wider political discontent; in other cases, political grievances have triggered revolutionary crisis in the context of a general undercurrent of bitterness and discontent caused by economic factors.

As Karl Marx wrote of 1848, a year that saw a succession of European revolutions, “The potato blight and crop failures of 1845 and 1846 increased the general ferment among the people. The famine of 1847 called forth bloody conflicts in France as well as on the rest of the continent”.52 The Great French Revolution that began in 1789 was preceded by a series of crises in agriculture affecting the livelihood of the peasants, leading to the real prospect of famine.53 In the Russian Revolution of 1917, bread shortages were the immediate issue that drove the women factory workers of Petrograd to strike on the 23 February, leading to a general strike and the abdication the Tsar three days later. The 1916-7 Turnip Winter in Germany, so called because turnips were the only available foodstuff, and the resulting malnutrition among the civilian population, was a major factor in turning workers and soldiers against the First World War, laying the ground for the November Revolution the following year that ended the war and toppled the Kaiser. In Greece, the famine of 1941-2, caused by the Nazi occupation, led to the deaths of up to 300,000 people in Athens alone.54 The establishment of grassroots committees to organise food supplies, and strikes demanding more rations for workers, led directly to the uprising that would drive the German army out of the country.55

As revolutionary processes unfold, interrelations between food and other economic and political issues can develop. The struggle over food supplies becomes central to control over the direction of the revolution. In revolutions in which workers play a central role, control of the supply and distribution of food by the masses can form part of the basis for dual power—the creation of alternative power structures, based on democratic organs of workers’ power, counterposed to the existing capitalist state. We can see the potential for this to begin to develop in the Sudanese and Sri Lankan struggles today.

In both the French and Russian Revolutions, foreign invasion by hostile powers was a major political factor, directly affecting food supply. The struggle over bread prices was central to the course of the French Revolution in its first five, most radical years. The Maximum, a law that placed controls on the prices of basic commodities, was a key measure that the Jacobins, the most radical wing of the bourgeoisie, introduced in September 1793 under pressure from the sans-culottes, a movement of the urban poor, at a time when France was under threat of invasion. The weakening of this law and the lifting of repressive measures against hoarders and speculators was a clear sign that the revolution was moving to the right as the threat of invasion eased, leading to the overthrow of the Jacobins, the crushing of the mass movement and consolidation of the gains of the bourgeoisie.56

The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, destroying feudalism and paving the way for capitalist development, but the Russian Revolution posed the possibility of a transition to a socialist society. The inability of the Provisional Government, which replaced the Tsar in February 1917, to deal with growing food shortages in the context of the First World War was a key factor in the increase in support for the Bolsheviks, who were ultimately able to lead the workers to power in the October Revolution. Under their famous slogan: “Peace, Land and Bread”, the Bolsheviks were able to draw together the demands of the workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors, cementing the power of the “soviets” or workers’ councils—organs of workers’ power that were seen as being able to realise this slogan. Among the first actions of the incoming revolutionary government was the approval of decrees on land and workers’ control of production, which aimed to address the crisis in the production and distribution of food.57

Food was also implicated in the tragic degeneration of the revolution. The invasion of the country by 14 foreign armies hoping to crush the revolution, which triggered a bloody three-year civil war, on top of the disruption already caused by the First World War and blockades of Russian ports, meant that food production and supply remained a major problem. The Bolsheviks were forced to introduce what they called “War Communism”, which meant, among other things, the expropriation of surplus food from the peasants to feed the cities and the Red Army, leading to growing tensions within the revolution.58

In Germany food prices remained a major issue throughout the five-year revolutionary crisis from 1918 to 1923. In 1923, with inflation raging, the German Communist Party, through the factory councils that it led, set up workers’ control committees that invaded markets and forced shopkeepers to reduce prices. In August, the factory councils led an unofficial general strike that overthrew the government of chancellor Wilhelm Cuno. The demands of the strike included the requisitioning of foodstuffs and their fair distribution under the control of workers’ organisations as well as the immediate official recognition of the workers’ control committees.59


As Lenin argued, “We cannot tell—no one can tell in advance—how soon a real proletarian revolution will flare up…and what immediate cause will most serve to rouse, kindle and impel into the struggle the very wide masses”.60 There is no automatic connection between food shortages, food prices and class struggle. A food riot does not necessarily become a revolution. However, both history and recent experience show that hunger, particularly when the rich continue their conspicuous consumption, can lead to resistance. Food is used as a weapon in the class struggle by the capitalist class through sanctions, speculation, price manipulation and even deliberate starvation.61 More generally, food sums up the attitude of the ruling classes to the suffering of working people—captured by the almost certainly apocryphal quote attributed to 18th century French queen Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake!”

We are entering a period of growing instability in which hunger will be a major factor in resistance by workers and the urban poor, even if the immediate issues of the war in Ukraine and shortages arising from economic recovery from Covid-19 pandemic are overcome. Interest rate rises by banks in the most powerful states are increasing debt across the world, creating a huge problem for the already indebted nations of the Global South that is likely to impact heavily on living standards.62 This will further discredit already unpopular regimes. These elements will interact with longer-term factors, most importantly anthropogenic climate change, which is already significantly affecting food supply and turning once fertile regions into deserts. The capitalist class internationally is showing no sign of being able or willing to address either the immediate or the underlying causes of the food crisis. To paraphrase Lenin again—it is becoming impossible for the ruling classes to continue to rule in the old way.63

However, as Lenin argued, for a revolutionary situation to develop, it is not enough for the ruling class to be unable to carry on with business as usual; the working class must also be prepared to prevent its rulers ruling in the old way. Some protests over food-related issues, such those in South Africa and Iraq over the past year, appeared to explode spontaneously and then subside without leading to a more sustained challenge to the social order. In many such struggles, although workers have participated either as individuals or through strikes, the working class has not played a central, leading role as a class. We have not yet seen the creation of organs of workers’ rule emulating the soviets of Russia in 1917. Even in Sudan, where the struggle has gone farthest in recent years, the movement is only just beginning to explore alternative organs of popular power, in the shape of the resistance committees. The interaction between these bodies and the rural poor show, at least tentatively, the potential for more far-reaching change than has yet been observed.64 Deepening this process will require the development of revolutionary political forces. As the Bolsheviks demonstrated in 1917, the key to securing victory for a socialist revolution is a clear and determined leadership with deep roots in a militant and combative working class. On this basis, it is possible to win the support of at least a decisive section of the peasantry, by linking economic and political demands together and turning them into a material challenge directed not only at a specific current regime but against the capitalist system itself.65

The four horsemen of the capitalist apocalypse are riding out: economic crisis, climate change, pandemic and war. The workers and the urban poor of the world of today starve because they cannot afford to buy food, not because it is impossible to produce enough. That is a savage indictment of capitalism. History shows that empty bellies demand to be filled. That could be a powerful driver of the revolution we so urgently need to get rid of a system that increasingly cannot deliver on even the most basic requirements for human life.

Tony Phillips is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and lives in London.


1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Anne Alexander and Camilla Royle for their helpful criticism of earlier versions of this article and suggestions for improving it.

2 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2022.

3 International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, 2022.

4 Roberts, 2022.

5 International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, 2022.

6 International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, 2022.

8 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2021.

9 Quoted in in Roberts, 2022.

10 Cuesta, 2014.

11 Binns, 1984, p52.

12 Alexander, 2022, pp137-140.

13 Harris, 1983, pp142-143.

14 Harris, 1983, p156.

15 Hanieh, 2021.

16 Alexander, 2022, pp207-213.

17 Hanieh, 2021.

18 Hanieh, 2021.

19 Alexander, 2022, p209.

20 McMichael, 2009.

21 Morelli, 2008.

22 McMichael, 2009.

23 Majumda, 2007.

24 Hanieh, 2021.

25 Hanieh, 2021.

26 Alexander, 2022, p207.

27 Hanieh, 2021.

28 Hanieh, 2021.

29 Alexander, 2022, pp388-399.

30 Munif, 2021.

31 Alexander, 2022, p213.

32 Hanieh, 2021.

33 De Schutter, 2010.

34 World Food Programme, 2022.

35 UNICEF, 2022.

36 Audi, 2022.

37 Kadirgamar, 2022.

38 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2022.

39 World Food Programme, 2022.

40 Wipulasena, 2022.

41 Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 2022.

42 Times of India, 2022. See also the interview with Ahilan Kadirgamar elsewhere in this journal.

43 Alexander, 2020.

44 Alexander, 2020.

45 Al-Khatim, 2022.

46 Alexander, 2022, p401.

47 Tudeh Party of Iran, 2022.

48 Al Jazeera, 2022.

49 Keep Left, 2021.

50 Al Jazeera, 2022.

51 Al Jazeera, 2022.

52 Marx, 1895.

53 Lefebvre, 1962, pp116-119.

54 Eudes, 1972, p33.

55 Mazower, 1995, p112.

56 Guerin, 1977, pp218-222.

57 Cliff, 1987, pp8-10.

58 See Cliff, 1987, pp81-99.

59 Broué, 2006, p749.

60 Lenin, 1920.

61 See, for example, Davis, 2001, pp195-200.

62 Roberts, 2022.

63 Lenin, 1915.

64 Alexander, 2022, p408.

65 Alexander, 2022, pp411-418.


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