The first part of this presentation by the comrade Link ably reminded us that the proletariat has always experienced real difficulties and convulsions in all epochs of its existence.
We should recall the origins of these difficulties: they lie in the fact that the modern proletariat is the first revolutionary class which is also at the same time the exploited class of society. Because of this, it cannot draw upon any economic power in the process of conquering political power. In fact, it’s the very opposite: in direct contrast to what happened in past revolutions, the seizure of political power by the proletariat necessarily precedes the period of transition during which the domination of the old relations of production is destroyed and gives way to new social relations. We’ll talk more of this Period of Transition later. We should not neglect to dissect the current ‘theory’ of “communisation” when we do so.
So, for the working class, the producer class, its struggle against its conditions of exploitation (which is a revolutionary struggle at root) relies solely on its collective nature, its capacity to organise, and its consciousness of what this organisation has to achieve. We’re talking of aglobal, internationalclass living under what, in future times (we hope) will come to be seen as the wholly ‘unnatural’ situation of nation states, of divisions of humanity into different classes, of power, authority and decision-making in the hands of the few at the expense of the many, with the production of our material (and spiritual) needs subject to irrational forces. How stupid was that? future generations may ask. How stupid is that, we say today!
In short, the working class as a whole has always had great difficulty in building up a permanent base for its struggles and understanding the goal of its struggles, as Link points out and, in the last 100 years in particular, as the state has been obliged to swallow more and more of civil society, the workers’ struggles have seen their permanent mass organisations – Social Democratic Parties and trade unions - integrated into the survival apparatus of capitalism.
The class struggle involves two major classes
This is precisely why, even if we can at times see an underlying continuity, a sub-sea or subterranean maturation at work, workers struggles necessarily appear to us as waves, ebbing and flowing, often becalmed, sometimes random, apparently unconnected, and certainly not sequential with one wave inevitably and always following on at a higher level than the other. Marx spoke of the jagged course of workers’ struggles which appear to throw their opponent to the ground only to recoil, withdraw. And we must use judgement; have criteria, when we seek to assess the strengths and weaknesses of different moments of the class struggle. Much depends not only on the confidence of the class and the strength of its class identity, but also on the terrain over which these waves must break.
How do we compare, for example (and to illustrate this in an admittedly superficial way with specific struggles), how can we weigh the current (June 2013) spontaneous movement in Brazil which has pushed back the bourgeoisie, forced it to temporarily withdraw its attack of a public transport fare rise, with the strikes in France in 2010 against the state’s pension reform, which failed to force the ruling class to withdraw its attacks? Apart from any weaknesses on the workers’ part, didn’t the workers in France lack the element of surprise, of setting the time and the place for the struggle? Weren’t the trade unions and the state in massive collusion to head off this important moment of social unrest? Shouldn’t we also assess not just the failure of the French workers in 2010 but also understand the massive strength of the movement to progress as far and for as long as it did given the obstacles it faced?
Thus we must suggest a nuance to the previous presentation: the class struggle involves, at root, two major classes. To say the class struggle of the past period has been at a low ebb – the ICC talks of it not being up to the level required to push back the bourgeoisie - is perhaps to underplay the fact that the opposing class, the bourgeoisie, has been operating at top speed, has been struggling at an extremely high level, if you like, in order to maintain its dominance, and sod the consequences for the rest of society.
We recall from the 1970s the difficulties within the proletarian milieu – within the ICC itself – to grasp the fact that the bourgeoisie even had a consciousness, a view on how it should deal with its class enemy; a resistance to the fact that the ruling class manipulated its ‘democratic elections’, lined up its ideological troops of left and right to combat the workers struggles. [edit: or the fact that the state infiltrated small proletarian organisations!] The fact that it didn’t inevitably get the line upit desired, or that the encroaching economic crisis reduced its room for manoeuvre shouldn’t disguise this fact. Undoubtedly the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 had a profound, pre-eminent effect of smothering the combativity and consciousness of the working class, effectively curtailing the struggles which had begun in May 68 and once more ridiculing a crucial perspective –communism, the world of abundance in which each lived each according to his/her needs, each according to his/her ability.
However even before then, the ruling class had begun a counter-offensive against the working class which had taken its toll. Classically this offensive took the form of a right wing party in government, attacking workers living standards and enacting anti-proletarian laws with a left wing of social democracy and unions in opposition to sabotage workers’ response and to compound their feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.
A Period of Historic Defeat?
So when we today assess the difficulties encountered and displayed by recent workers’ movements, we should recall the distance they’ve travelled from the period of 1990 to 2005 and recognise the terrain that’s ranged against them.
And let’s also put these difficulties into a further historical context: the previous presentation takes us through the decades of the past 100 years or so – an absolutely necessary journey. When it gets to the 1940s, it talks of revolutionaries trying to understand thedefeatof the previous revolutionary wave. In short, they were then, and we are here, talking of a counter-revolution, a political and physical decimation of the proletariat. And by stressing the political as well as the physical defeat, we remind ourselves that there was no absence of large scale struggles world-wide in the 1930s: it’s just that these tended more and more to be marshalled by and behind one faction of the bourgeoisie against another: behind united fronts, sacred unions, New Deals, fascist totalitarianism, Stalinist Soviet nationalism – and against rival bourgeois factions. The proletariat was in this period dragged off its class terrain. The harsh ‘lessons’ of Spain remain to be widely reappropriated. The second world war, followed by the Cold War, was the result.
Is it the same today when we discuss the difficulties of the struggle? Evidently not. The illusions - and the word is used advisedly - sown by the dominant class, from which the everyday ideas of society emanate, in an abstract ‘democracy’; the calls to ‘vote wisely’, the diminishing but still evident reliance on trades unions to organise the struggle, all of which we see today, represent not a fundamental march behind the needs of capital but the lack of awareness of the proletariat of its own identity, strength and potential. It’s not at all the same thing as a period of historic defeat.
It’s the (political) economy...
The first part of the presentation affirmed that it’s not just a question of expecting the crisis to deepen still further in order to see a proletarian reaction, particularly in Europe and America. In fact we can see that a sudden deepening of the crisis can, in the first instance, paralyse a proletarian response just as much as a drip-feed of attacks spread out through time can induce a kind of soporific effect on the struggle. For instance, in Great Britain, “...the Institute for Fiscal Studies says workers have suffered unprecedented pay cuts of 6% in real terms over the last five years....This suggests that people are more than 15% worse off than they would have been if the pre-crisis wage trends had continued...”The IFS says:‘The falls in nominal wages that workers have experienced during this recession are unprecedented, and seem to provide at least a partial explanation for why unemployment has risen less ...To the extent that it is better for individuals to stay in work, albeit with lower wages, than to become unemployed’...”The Guardian, June 12, 2013. So fear is a factor paralysing the struggle.
Yet this partial passivity does not prevent the attacks escalating: on the contrary. And while we necessarily refuse and refute a reductionist ‘crisis deepens/workers struggle increases’ narrative, the fact is that the heart of Western Europe has so far been spared the kind of attacks witnessed in Greece, Portugal, Ireland or even the youth unemployment levels of Spain. This cannot last. The worst is ahead of us. All of us – China, India, the US, Japan, South America, all of Europe... The crisis is progressively reducing the bourgeoisie’s capacity to push the worst of its effects onto the ‘peripheral nations’.
What level of crisis engenders a generalised response? We cannot say. As we’ve argued above, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. But if you do want to ponder what level of deterioration it took in the past to push the working class into revolutionary action, consider that it required 3 years of absolute hell, mayhem and mass murder at the front combined with increasing deprivation at home to give rise to the first revolutionary wave in 1917... Mankind doesn’t jettison a tool until it has absolutely proved its worthlessness, says Marx. How much proof do you need? That’s the question...
The situation is not static: The economic crisis today is indisputably deeper than four or five years ago. All the job cuts, wage reductions, all the zero hour contracts and reduction in subsistence payments to the aged and the jobless, and the long-term sick (in short, the unravelling ‘social safety net’, the dismantling ‘welfare state’ where it existed in the first place); the almost zero interest rates and all the bail-outs have solved absolutely nothing. The problem underlying the crisis of 2007-2008 wasdebt- a debt originating almost 70 years ago immediately after WW2 when capitalist production did not re-ignite according to ‘market laws’ but required, over a period of 20 years, the world’s richest nation, the USA, to turn itself into the world’s most indebted nation, in order to bankroll world recovery.
Yet today, to try to escape this historically-determined debt-mess:“Japan, for example, has recently thrown the kitchen sink at its persisting economic problems in a desperate $1.2 trillion gamble that it's bet on itself against all-comers. So far Britain and the United States has "invested" around $7 trillion in Quantitative Easing the vast majority of which is not going into production but into paying off debts and further speculation. In a previous IR[International Review, ICC theoretical journal]the figure of $8 is used just to generate one dollar of "real" production.” (Baboon, post 12, ICC Day of Discussion thread, cited above). In short, the answer to the debt crisis has so far been ... more debt!
The difference between 2007/2008 and 2013 is not any ‘recovery’ in the economic crisis: on the contrary. It’s in the temporary and fragile ‘recovery’ of the bourgeoisie’spoliticalgrasp of the situation, the ruling class’s ephemeral ability to present the illusion that it is in control of the situation, has re-established mastery over the world. It is all smoke and mirrors, sorcery, black magic of the first order. No-one says it doesn’t work ... for a while. What all this ‘sacrifice’ and fictional cash has bought the bourgeoisie is a little ‘time’.
Let’s recall Lenin’s simple truism:a revolutionary situation arises when the rulers can no longer rule as before, and the ruled can no longer be governed as before.In 2007/2008, a crack appeared in the bourgeoisie’s matrix, in its version of reality: the queues outside the banks started to form; people, ‘ordinary’ people, talked about ‘the economy’ ‘the crisis’, its implications for the future, for them and their children, for the old generation, for the next generation – a social space was opened ... and quickly closed.It was re-openedin Tunisia, in Greece, in Egypt the US and, above all in Spain, with the ‘public assemblies’ and open meetings of the Indignados movement. All this will happen again. And again. In different places, with different forms, sparked by different issues, as with fare rises in Brazil, or threats to public spaces in Istanbul - superficial sparks which ignite profound underlying issues. This much we can say is “inevitable” as night follows day.
Moreover, these struggles, as in May 68, will not ‘merely’ focus on ‘economic’ questions: already, the struggles in China and Bangladesh call into question inhuman working conditions; in Turkey and China (not to mention the recent flooding of central Europe), the question of the environment and its destruction is central; in India, the position of women following abhorrent rape cases is a cause of mass mobilisation... these are not ‘secondary’ or ‘non-class’ issues: they are central to our survival as a species. They are issues to which only the working class has the key, even if the vast majority of society is pressing on the door...
The social revolts of the last few years – from ‘food riots’ and reactions to increasingly brutal state repression - show that the vast majority of this world seek, require, are striving for, a liberation from capital’s crises, wars, and degradation of every fundamental of human existence. Clean air and water. Unadulterated food.Access to the latest medical and technological advances.An abolition of sexual and other forms of slavery. All this has been made possible by the development of the productive forces, even under the disfiguring cloak of capital’s profit drive.
Instead, the majority of humanity faces war and austerity. It witnesses what happens in Libya, in Syria, when a social movement against this or that regime is co-opted in to a fight for this or that ruling faction. This is the ‘alternative’: the decomposition of bourgeois society which threatens the “ruin of the contending classes”, which offers barbarism as a counterpoint to the possibility and necessity of a social future.
The question is: will the revolutionary class, the proletariat, the class which holds the future in its hands, emerge from this mess as an increasingly distinct, organised and conscious social force to give form and theory to the strivings of the immense majority? Can it distinguish itself from them, in order to impose its vision, its intrinsic, collective organisations of discussion and decision-making which prefigure the future transitional organisations of humanity? Can it equip itself with the mechanisms that, in previous times, it employed to fight against capital and its wars and austerity – the factory committees, the workers’ councils, the councils of the unemployed? Because these are the stakes.
Why is it so hard to struggle? Perhaps an outdated question these days. Why is it so hard to struggle effectively? What are the methods and the goals of the struggle?
These are the practical problems posed now.
“We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle.’ We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that ithas toacquire, even if it does not want to.” (Marx,Letter from theDeutsch-FranzösischeJahrbücherto Ruge’, 1843)