Working Class Struggles to Regain Political Identity
Alaska Airlines has proposed a contract to its workers that, if signed, will cut their salaries by 20%, while United Airlines has succeeded in cutting wages by 25%.
On a different front, the number of American deserters from the Iraq war over the last two years has grown to 8,000, and is still growing.
Far away, across the Atlantic Ocean, in several European countries the working class has staged massive struggles, especially around the issue of the attacks on state-funded pensions (the equivalent of the American Social Security system). We can cite many examples of this kind, which show both a return of the class’ combativeness and militancy, and weakness in face of the bosses’ attacks, but if we do not have a method, a framework for understanding them, they will just appear as isolated snapshots that have no bearings on or relationship with history and with each other. Without a method, we will not be able to make any sense of them. It is then appropriate to ask these questions:
How to explain these apparently contradictory behaviors by our class, which in the first instance, seem to point to passivity and tremendous weakness, and in the other two reveal a determination not to settle and rather to fight back and even see through the bourgeoisie’s ideological campaigns? More importantly, how do we analyze and understand them?
- What do they mean in relation to the overall assessment of the forces between the bourgeoisie and the working class?
- What do they mean in terms of the decisive, revolutionary struggles the class will have to wage in the future, if it is to fulfill its historic task?
The historic context
The massive, worldwide struggles that began 1968 marked the return of the working class on the historic scene after the years of the counter-revolution. During those years, the working class had suffered a major historic defeat, as the ruling class succeeded in dragging it into the madness of World War II. Its revolutionary organizations survived only in the very small and dispersed numbers of their militants. 1968 marked the first great wave of class struggle out of the counter-revolution, which continued, with ebbs and flows, and waves of struggles in the 70’s and 80’s, until 1989. It was the first attempt by the working class to once again advance toward the revolutionary perspective after the years of the counter-revolution.
Various factors explain the failure of this first attempt. While the struggles of 1968 were massive and extensive, they came up against a lack of political maturation and theoretical depth. As important as they were in terms of developing the class’ consciousness of the dead-end of capitalism, there were yet important illusions in the possibility for reforms. They were also marred by councilism and anarchism, petty bourgeois contestationism, and a rejection of political organizations. The collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, resulting from the deepening of decomposition, as we have analyzed elsewhere in our press, marked the failure of the class’ first attempt at regaining its revolutionary perspective after the counter- revolution. The collapse of the Eastern bloc in turn had a severe impact on the combativeness and consciousness of the class. The ruling class was able to take advantage of this important disorientation in the working class as a whole, particularly by unleashing a tremendous campaign about the ‘end of communism’. This campaign aimed at discrediting the proletariat’s final goal, its history, and its class theory, and resulted in a significant, although temporary, loss of the class’ self-confidence and identity, and in the domination of inter-classist ideology.
The working class’ disorientation permitted the ruling class’ success in waging the first Gulf War in 1991. It was easy, at that time, to fall in the mistake of assessing the working class’ strength and overall historic perspective based on the state of confusion and disorientation of the class, and on its apparent passivity in the face of the war. It was rather common then to hear even revolutionaries express a loss of confidence in the class and disappointment as to the class’ final goal. In a similar way, it is also easy to fall into a euphoric over estimation of the struggles and the overall state of the class when the latter engages in massive confrontations, as in Argentina in 2001, or in France in 2003. The Marxist method, by contrast, strives to place events of a different nature in a historic perspective. In this sense, the retreat in consciousness and combativeness in 1989 and the massive confrontations of 2003, contradictory and disconnected as they appear to be, are part and parcel of the same tortuous, difficult, non-linear process the class experiences as it learns to face a very sophisticated class enemy which throws in its path serious obstacles and diversions. They are also part of the process by which the class comes to an understanding of the impasse of the capitalist system and of its own historic, revolutionary role.
The Marxist method does not base the analysis of the class struggle on an immediatist or empiricist approach, but by taking into consideration the overall historic conditions, which include an understanding of the maturation of the proletariat and the maneuvers of the bourgeoisie. When we use this method, then we are able to see that undeniable as the weaknesses and retreats of the working class are in the face of war and the ferocious attacks against its very conditions of life, they do not constitute, by any means, a direct ideological or historic defeat. On the contrary, we are able to see that the historic course is still open for the revolution.
The turning point
As we have said, 1989 marked the beginning of an important retreat in class consciousness and a lull in its struggles. Since then, though, we have witnessed and are witnessing how the class is reawakening, although slowly and with great difficulties and hesitations. We have seen this most clearly in the massive mobilizations in France and Austria during the spring 2003 and summer 2004. We continue to see this in less spectacular, yet significant, events as well, from the desertions from the Iraqi war and a growing reluctance against military recruitment in the US, to the surging of a questioning minority in search of a political orientation. This last aspect in particular, is the most significant in the present period, which we have characterized as a’ turning point’. Contrary to the dynamic opened in 1968, during which consciousness arose following and almost as a result of the massive struggles, today we are seeing a reflection and a insistent questioning of capitalism’s perspectives, of the bleaker and bleaker future it has to offer, prior to the class’ engaging in the struggles. We are seeing a growing awareness of the degradation of the conditions of life, which the open crisis can no longer hide, as the class’ very conditions of life are threatened by growing unemployment, war, and, more recently, the brutal attacks against pensions and social security. These aspects will favor the development of consciousness in depth, as well as a rapprochement by the searching minorities with revolutionary organizations. It is clear that these conditions represent an advantage in relation to the struggles opened by 1968. The ICC has for some years recognized a ‘subterranean maturation’ of the class, which does take place at the very moments of apparent lull in the class struggle, and which today is more and more coming to the open in the voices of the minorities in search of political clarification.
Although the struggles of 2003 and 2004 in France and Austria were massive and in response to significant attacks, there is no decisive or contingent element that confirms the idea of a change in the development of the balance of forces between the classes. What the 2003 events tell us is that there is a real potential present in the development of the struggle, because they reveal a growing awareness that the attacks are worldwide, carried out by an exploiting class against the exploited class. They reveal the beginning of a regaining of class identity, and of a feeling of belonging to the same class.
It is doubtless that the nature of this turning point is not as spectacular as the one which marked the return of the class onto the historic stage in 1968; however, we can draw one important parallel. It is the underlying change in the view of the future. A specific and contingent aggravation of the crisis, with its accompanying windfall of brutal attacks on the conditions of life of the class, can well spark outbursts in the class struggle. However, it is not true that there is a mechanical link between the attacks and rising consciousness, or even combativeness. The current turning point is characterized by a questioning about the perspectives that capitalism offers to humanity. In 1968, the massive mobilizations were not just a response to the return of the crisis after the ‘boom’ years; they were above all the result of a growing disillusionment with post-war capitalism’s ability to offer a better a future, but with a comparatively low level of politicization. The present turning point is characterized by a change in spirit in the working class, the result of years of subterranean maturation in which the questioning as to what capitalism has to offer is becoming more and more the central preoccupation of the class.
This analysis and this method allow us to conclude that the present turning is the second attempt by the working class to advance toward the recovery of the revolutionary perspective since the return of the global economic crisis, the first attempt being 1968. This perspective has been maintained to date, because the class has not suffered a profound, direct or ideological defeat. Thus, what we call ‘turning point’ is not any specific point in time, but rather an ongoing process in a changing period.
The context for the development of consciousness and future struggles
Two generations of workers have now gone undefeated: the generation of 1968 and the present generation, a situation that the bourgeoisie has not confronted since the revolutionary wave that began in 1917 in Russia. The maturation of minorities since 1989 is characterized by much more fundamental questions about what the class is, how it struggles, what the role of revolutionaries is, what obstacles will have to be overcome, and, above all, the question about the validity of Marxism and the communist perspective. Whereas the generation of 1968 was distrustful of Marxism because of the weight of Stalinism and the organic break with the past of the workers’ movement, the present generation looks at the communist minorities for a political understanding and clarification. The present generation also confronts certain obstacles that the generation of 1968 did not confront: the context of decomposition and the fact that this time, contrary to 1968, the bourgeoisie will not be taken by surprise. The ruling class has elements against itself, too. Although better prepared to confront the working class, the effects of decomposition are working against it too. The crisis pushes it to more and more openly reveal the bankruptcy of its system. Similarly, the political disarray resulting from the collapse of the Eastern bloc forces the ruling class, particularly the American ruling class, to pursue imperialist confrontations. In the context of an undefeated working class whose consciousness is developing in depth, the present war has the potential of provoking a crucial understanding: there is no solution to capitalism’s contradictions. Without developing this point further, it is important to notice how, in the belly of the beast, in the country that was ‘attacked by terrorism’, the unease about the war is expressed in the number of deserters, but also of parents who oppose their sons’ and daughters’ recruitment and enlistment, which has grown from 58% in summer 2003 to 75% today, according to the bourgeoisie’s own public opinion polls. The bourgeoisie would like us to believe that there is nothing political in the decision to desert, and looks at this action as a shameful example of cowardice. In reality, the decision not to die for ‘your’ country is the proof of an underlying process of political maturation. The unwillingness to stand by the state is above all political: it expresses the budding assertion of a proletarian perspective, which poses itself in contradiction with the attempt by the ruling class to tie ideologically the workers to the state.
The working class is in the period of a turning point. Its hesitations are in significant ways linked to a growing awareness of the immensity of its historic task. Revolutionaries, the searching minorities, and the most class-conscious workers are called upon to take on the responsibilities the class has invested us with. We need to show the class the necessity to struggle and to develop the struggle. We need to show that the class’ strength lies in its solidarity. We need to show the bankruptcy of capitalism, and thus continue to fuel the deep, important reflection presently taking place in the class.