The Development of the Class Struggle: What Method to Understand It?

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The acceleration of capitalist decay has become a matter of everyday front page news. Not two months go by without this obsolete social system inflicting further violence on the environment and humanity: in the past ten months alone, we have been treated to the horrors of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig explosion, followed by the “red slush” from the Czech factory poisoning the Danube river and surrounding farmlands, and most recently by the hair-raising nuclear nightmare in Japan (see article in this issue of Internationalism). The total irrationality of this rotten system cannot go unnoticed when we juxtapose the pictures of human misery and pain suffered by the Japanese population to those of, on the one hand, Colonel Qaddafi’s bombing of the population in Libya and, on the other, that of the French, British, and American gangsters’. These events openly give the lie to any illusion in capitalism’s ability to offer anything other than a future filled with the most infernal social and environmental convulsions ever experienced in the history of humankind.  Horrific and terror-inspiring as they are, these events can prompt a fruitful reflection in the heads of the masses of the oppressed and the exploited because they are taking place at a time of an important resurgence of class combativeness and consciousness worldwide.   In the midst of this utter chaos, such reflection is further fueled by the deepest economic crisis in the history of capitalism relentlessly eating away at the working class’ very conditions of existence and leaving in its wake millions upon millions of suffering human beings.   This is further proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism.   It has become evident that the survival of capitalism is achieved only with the destruction of the environment and human life. Is there any force in society that can take humanity out of this spiraling inferno? 

In the midst of this barbarity, it is the international class struggle that has emerged as the beacon for an alternative. Even though the death agony of capitalism presents it with incredibly daunting difficulties, the working class world-wide has not been a passive by-stander. Its challenge to the capitalist order and its refusal to keep silent and submit to the attacks raining on it are an inspiration for millions of people world-wide, and for the future struggles to come. They are irrefutable proof that, notwithstanding the ebbs and flows of its struggle and the tortuous way in which it develops its class consciousness, it is the working class that is the historic subject of the communist revolution, only alternative to capitalism.

The Importance of a Historical Method

It is impossible to understand the potentiality the working class has to overthrow capitalism without taking a wider, more historical view of the development of its struggles. It seems unquestionable that the working class today is in a very different period than it was in the 1930’s. Then, the defeat of the Russian Revolution ushered in a deep and prolonged reflux in the consciousness of the class which created the conditions for the bourgeoisies of the most powerful nations to tie the class behind the ideology of the defense of the nation when the paroxysm of the global economic crisis –called “the Great Depression” in the US— pushed it to unleash the second imperialist slaughter—WWII. Even though the class waged important struggles in the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, the balance of forces left by the defeat of the Russian Revolution left the ruling class enormously powerful and the consciousness of the working class severely impaired. In addition, only a small minority of revolutionaries survived the repression of the counterrevolution, and the class all but lost its historic links with its own political organizations. Those struggles did not overcome the ideological stranglehold of nationalist ideology and the class was drawn in the deluge of imperialist barbarism. 

1968: The Return of the Class on the Historic Scene

It is not until 1968 that the class was able to recover from the oblivion of the counterrevolutionary years. 1968 saw the massive return of the class to the historic scene and the terrain of the struggle globally as the global economic crisis returned with a vengeance after a relative stability following the years of post-War reconstruction. A new generation of largely young workers who had not suffered a historic and ideological defeat entered the stage of class confrontations. These developed at different paces in different countries, yet with similar characteristics, and similar weaknesses, right up until the late 1980’s. From the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, the struggles were massive and, in the beginning, took the bourgeoisie by surprise, but they did not challenge the unions’ stranglehold, were marked by corporatism and latent illusions in democracy-- characterized by the idea that reforms and betterment were still possible, or the idea that revolution was a possibility, yet not a necessity. In the mid-1980’s the struggles heated up and we saw a qualitative development in the search for extension and unity and the simultaneity of struggle in different industries and countries. In the US, it was the Greyhound strike of 1986 that marked this phase of the class struggle. As Internationalism said in its report on the class struggle in the US in 1987, “This phase quickly manifested itself in the US in the strike at Greyhound, in which workers fought back against threatened wage cuts. When management attempted to emulate the example of the Reagan administration in the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 by hiring scabs to replace strikers, militant workers from other industries rushed to show their solidarity. These demonstrations, called by the central union councils in city after city, often posed the possibility of breaking free from union control…The Greyhound strike was a qualitative step forward, as for the first time workers outside the specific contract dispute sought to participate directly in the struggle.”   In addition to the quest for active solidarity, the struggles of this period were characterized by:

       Violent confrontations in pitched battles with police

       Unofficial wildcat strikes which on a number of occasions spread widely, as in the General Electric wildcat strike which spread to four factories in Massachusetts, the strike by Maine railroad workers, which spread across New England as other rail workers displayed an active solidarity, and the municipal workers’ strikes in Philadelphia and Detroit in July and August 1986

       Steps toward self-organization, as in the Watsonville cannery strike, where a mass workers’ assembly elected a strike committee

       Mass picketing

       The refusal to let the unions use jurisdictional divisions and the defiance against court injunctions

In face of the upsurge in class struggle, the ruling class switched to a campaign of dispersed attacks, picking workers off one company, one factory, one sector at a time. In order to undermine solidarity and extension, the unions took pre-emptive action before waiting for pressure to build for solidarity demonstration and marches, announcing instead plans for such actions by the unions, effectively short-circuiting spontaneous action and dragging the class struggle in long ‘battles of attrition’—the long strike. As the ruling class was developing these tactics of dispersal of the struggles and putting in place of base unionism to pre-empt spontaneous class action, the onset of a new global recession increasingly put the bourgeoisie under pressure to switch to a frontal attack on the entire working class. 

The Collapse of the Stalinist Bloc and Its Impact on the Working Class

The struggles from the mid-80’s until the collapse of the Stalinist Bloc occurred in successive waves, each of which showed greater radicalization and politicization. So much so that the ICC developed the analysis of the waves of struggles, perhaps falling once again prey to the 1968’s illusion that revolution was around the corner, and not so difficult to accomplish. Certainly, it became clear with the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the subsequent retreat in class combativeness and consciousness that the class struggle never develops in a linear way, without even serious lags and setbacks.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 allowed the bourgeoisie to temporarily unleash a tremendous ideological campaign about the ‘end of communism and the class struggle’, which left the class temporarily, yet deeply, disoriented and unable to put forth a counteroffensive. The consequent reflux in class consciousness and combativeness was significant and relatively long, and it was furthered by the unleashing of the Gulf War in 1991. The disappearance of the Eastern bloc wracked havoc in the long-standing alliances of the Western bloc itself, ultimately unraveling the entire Cold War –era world order. No longer could the bourgeoisie rally its respective working classes behind an all-out imperialist massacre.   However, the serious reflux in consciousness following this unprecedented historic event made the working class itself incapable of imposing its historic revolutionary task. This stalemate between the two major social classes is at the root of the phase of social decomposition, under which we are presently living (see the many articles we have written on this topic in the International Review.)   The class was significantly disoriented, but not historically defeated. In addition, and very importantly, the class continued to undergo a process of reflection and subterranean development of class consciousness, surfacing here and there with the emergence of revolutionary minorities in search of a political orientation, who created reading and discussion groups, came in contact with existing revolutionary organizations, and actively searched for ways to connect themselves to the historic movement of the class. The existence of this minority up to today is a sign of the vitality and resilience of the class foretelling that the lull in the broader and open combativeness and consciousness was bound to be dispelled. And dispelled it was, starting around 2003, with the massive demonstrations in France and Austria against the renewed attacks on the working class which the ruling class was compelled to unleash as the economy took yet another dip.

In another article (on page 4) we present an analysis of the recent developments of the class struggle. Those developments too, need to be placed in the larger, historic motion of ebbs and flows as the class struggles to conquer its own class identity and class consciousness. The benefit of this approach is that it allows us to understand the dynamic of the class struggle. This, in turn, helps us forge a long-term perspective and a materially based confidence in the class and in its potential and ability to carry out its historic revolutionary task.

Ana, 7/4/11.