Why the alternative is war or revolution
IR30, 3rd Quarter 1982
Whythe alternative is war or revolution
IS WAR A FAVOURABLE CONDITION FOR THECOMMUNIST REVOLUTION?
Between 1845 and 1847, the world, and Europe in particular, following on from a series ofbad harvests, went through a grave economic crisis. In France the price of grain doubled, giving rise tohunger riots. The ruined peasants could no longer buy industrial products:unemployment became general, wages fell,the number of bankruptcies soared. The working class embarked on a struggle forreforms: for the limitation of the working day, for a minimum wage, for jobs,for the right to form associations and to strike, for civil equality and thesuppression of privileges, etc. As a result, the explosive events in February1848 in France, so brilliantly condensed in Marx’s famous work The Class Struggle in France, bequeathed a major lesson toposterity: the necessity for the working class to demarcate itself from thebourgeoisie, to preserve it’s class independence. However, an essential aspectof this revolution is often forgotten: it was not provoked by a war. Those whoforgot its causes tended to focus their attention on the crushing of theinsurrection of June 1848 and on the problem of how to arm the workers moreeffectively, how to organise better street-fights, ignoring the lessons Marxand Engels drew about the historic period and the nature of the class struggle.
Later, the disaster at Sedan led to the collapse of the Empire in September1870 and to the setting up of the ‘government of National Defence’ led by thebourgeois Thiers; this in turn failed in its attempt to disarm the Parisianpopulation and provoked the erection of the Commune in March 1871. This waswithout doubt the first victorious proletarian insurrection in history; buteven so, as Marx recognised, it was an ‘accident’ in a period which was stillthat of capitalism’s ascendancy. Once again the bourgeoisie triumphed over theproletariat just as it was constituting itself into a class. Those who invokedthe Commune while forgetting its accidental nature character sanctioned allsorts of confusions about the possibility of a proletarian revolution emergingsuccessfully out of a war. Certainly, as Engels noted in an introduction to The Civil War in France: “from March 18 onwards the class characterof the Parismovement, which had previously been pushed into the background by the fightagainst the foreign invaders, emerged sharply and clearly”.
But the objective conditions were lacking: theCommunards were ahead of the march of history. Within this context, two factorscontributed to the defeat: isolation (a city under siege) and the predominanceof the military terrain, which is home ground of the bourgeoisie (as Engels putit “the continuing war against the Versailles armyabsorbed all its energies”. Andof course we must not forget the total support that the Prussian forces gave tothe French bourgeoisie. An incredible ‘irony’ of history: the Commune, whileconcretely demonstrating the possibility and necessity of the dictatorship ofthe proletariat, gave rise to the idea that any revolution could henceforthemerge out of a war. This gave rise to many false theorisations in the workers’movement. For example, Franz Mehring and Jules Guesde theorised about‘revolutionary’ war: in Guesde’s case this thesis became mixed up with thenationalist position of subordinating yourself to your own bourgeoisie. Now,above all at the end of the century as capitalism entered its decadent phase,there were no longer any ‘revolutionary’ wars: what’s more, wars, had neverbeen revolutionary in the proletarian sense. In this text, we shall see why warin itself is not a ‘necessary evil’ for the revolution.
Obviously, like any original experience, theCommune, even though it was born out of a reaction of ‘national defence’, cameup against a bourgeoisie that was surprised and inexperienced in the face of aproletarian threat in the middle of a war. It showed that a war will inevitablybe stopped by the eruption of the proletariat, or at least that it can’t bewaged as the bourgeoisie would like it as long as the smallest island ofproletarian resistance remains.
The stopping of the war in such conditionsallows the bourgeois forces to regroup themselves, to call a temporary halt totheir imperialist antagonisms, and together to surround and strangle theproletariat. Despite the fact that such situations are more favourable to thebourgeoisie, for decades it was an accepted axiom in the workers’ movement thatwars created or could create the conditions most favourable to thegeneralisation of struggles and thus to the outbreak of the revolution. Therewas little or no consideration about the insurmountable handicap posed by asituation of world war, which would limit or reduce to nothing a real extensionof the revolution. It was only when capitalism entered its decadent phase andbegan the race towards the first world war that the issue became clearer: Waror Revolution, and not War AND Revolution.
CLASS STRUGGLE UNDER WAR CONDITIONS
TheRevolutions of 1905 and 1917 in the Course Towards World War
However displeasing it may be to those whoglorify the past, the Russian and German revolutionary minorities within theIInd International hadn’t sufficiently considered the conditions imposed bycapitalism’s change in period. It’s true that it was terribly difficult tobreak away from the process of degeneration that the IInd International wasgoing through. The future founders of the Communist International weresurprised by the outbreak of the war and had not carried out all thepreparatory work that the proletariat needed.
For several years now, the ICC has attempted to show the importance of thenotion of the historic course and to point out that conditions of war have beenunfavourable for past revolutions (see in this regard the article on theconditions for the generalisation of the class struggle in IR 26).
In retrospect, one can see that it was theaudacious, lucid Trotsky and his fraction at the beginning of the century, whonot only understood, before 1914 and better than the majority of theBolsheviks, that the bourgeois revolution was no longer on the agenda inRussia, but who also managed to sweep away a number of false theorisations byexamining the conditions of the 1905 revolution – a revolution that, to use hisown terms, was “belated” and “off target”: “Itis incontestable that the war has played an enormous role in our revolution: ithas materially disorganised absolutism, it has dislocated the army, it hasforced the mass of the population to act with audacity. But fortunately, ithas not created the revolution, and that is lucky because a revolution born outof a war is impotent: it is the product of extraordinary circumstances, itis based on a strength outside itself and has definitively shown itself to beunable to maintain the positions it conquers” . (Our Revolution).
The minority around Trotsky, which published Nashe Slovo (Our World) , a product andcrystallisation of a powerful movement of the class at the beginning of thecentury in Russia, was one of the currents that was best able to draw the crucial lessonsabout the historic spontaneity of the proletariat and the workers’ councils.But it also highlighted an essential reason for the failure of 1905: thesituation of war.
In his article ‘Military Catastrophe and Political Perspectives’ (Nashe Slovo,April-Sept. 1915), Trotsky, in the name of his fraction, refused to speculateon the war itself – not for humanitarian reasons, but because of hisinternationalist conceptions. He pointed to the insurmountable divisionintroduced by the process of war: while defeat shook the vanquished governmentand could consequently hasten its decomposition, this didn’t at all apply tothe victorious government which on the contrary was only strengthened.Moreover, in the defeated country itself nothing positive would emerge if therewasn’t a strongly developed proletariat capable of completely destabilising thegovernment after its military defeat. It was extremely doubtful whether thecontradictions that come in the wake of a war would constitute a favourablefactor for the success of the proletariat. This observation was subsequentlyconfirmed by the failure of the wave of revolutionary social upheavals thatbegan in the year 1917. War is not a guaranteed springboard for the revolution.It is a phenomenon over which the proletariat cannot have complete control;it’s not something that the proletariat can, of its own free will, get rid ofwhile it’s raging on a world-wide scale.
During these years of apprenticeship, Trotskyclearly saw the impotence of a revolution solely based on “extraordinarycircumstances” . The unfavourable conditions of a revolution which has come outof a military defeat in a given country derive not only from the fact that itis restricted to this country, but also from the material situation bequeathedby the war: “economic life shattered,finances exhausted, and unfavourable international relations” (Nashe Slovo).Consequently, the situation of war makes it difficult, if not impossible torealise the objective of a revolution.
Without denying that a situation of defeatismcan prefigure the military and political catastrophe of a bourgeois state andmust be used by revolutionaries, Trotsky reiterated the point that the lattercould not shape historical circumstances to their liking but were themselves one of the forces of thehistorical process. What’s more, hadn’t these revolutionaries been in errorin 1903, believing in the imminence of a revolution after a massive developmentin Russia? This development was initially paralysed bythe outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war; after the turn-about of 1905 it wasdefeated by the stopping of the war. Trotsky saw an historical analogy with theimportant strikes of 1912-13, which despite having the advantage of being ableto draw on previous experience, were once again blocked by the preparations forwar. A Russian defeat in these circumstances did not seem to be all thatfavourable as far as Trotsky was concerned all the more so because socialpatriots like Lloyd George, Vandervelde, and Herve looked favourably on theprospect of such a defeat because it would enhance “the governmental good sense of the ruling classes”. He thuscriticised vulgar defeatist speculations about “the automatic strength of a military crash, without the directintervention of the revolutionary classes” . The military defeat in itselfwas not the royal road to the revolutionary victory. Trotsky insisted on thevital importance of the agitation of revolutionaries in the period of upheavalsthat was opening up- even if it was doing so in unfavourable conditions,judging by previous historical experience.
By exhausting the capitalist autocracy’s meansof economic and political domination, didn’t the military catastrophe bringwith it the risk of only provoking discontent and protest within certainlimits? Wasn’t there also the risk that the exhaustion of the masses broughtabout by the war would only lead to apathy and despair? the weight of war wascolossal: there was no automatic route to a revolutionary outbreak. The havocwrought by the war could pull the carpet from underneath the feet of arevolutionary alternative.
Unfortunately Trotsky was wrong on one point. He believed that an accumulationof military defeats would not facilitate the revolution. But he didn’t see thatthe contrary was true: precisely to avoid this danger, the world bourgeoisie,informed by its past experience, stopped the war in 1918. Also, Trotsky stillused the slogan of the “struggle for peace” instead of the more consistent oneof the revolutionary defeatism which was firmly defended by Lenin.
However, in the tragic and, in the long term,unfavourable circumstances of the first world war, Trotsky clearly pointed tothe qualitative leap that was necessary with regard to 1905: the revolutionarymovement could no longer be ‘national’ ; it could only be a class movement, contrary to thebleatings of the Menshevik and liberal social patriots who lined up behind thecapitalist slogan of ‘victory’ ie, of prolonging the war. The proletariat in Russia was faced with all the bourgeois fractions whowanted to isolate it and prevent it from reacting on its class terrain. Incontrast to 1905, it could no longer count on the ‘benevolent neutrality’ ofthe bourgeoisie. In 1905 it was isolated from the proletarian masses of Europe, while Tsarism on the other hand had thesupport of the European states.
In 1915, two questions were posed: whether to recommence a national revolutionin which the proletariat was once again dependent on the bourgeoisie, or tomake the Russian revolution dependent on the international revolution? Trotskyresponded affirmatively to the second question. More clearly than in 1905, theslogan ‘Down with the war! ” had to be transformed into ‘Down with the statepower!’ in conclusion: “Only theinternational revolution can create the forces through which the struggle ofthe proletariat in Russia can becarried through to the end”.
This long resume of Trotsky’s interestingarticle, with its pertinent analysis of the unfavourable conditions created byan imperialist war, provides us with important material for combating theleftist and Trotskyist ideologies today, which try to convince us that theclass struggle has always assumed a truly revolutionary dimension in thecontext of nationalism and war: thus these ideologies demonstrate that theybelong to the camp of the bourgeoisie.
The explosion of October 1917, forced thecapitalist world to stop the war. Because of the weakness and incompetence ofthe Russian bourgeoisie, world capitalism was caught napping by the proletariatof the industrial centres of Russia. But it was able to recover and call a halt tothe revolutionary wave stirred up by this initial success. The crushing of therevolutionary movement in Germany was a decisive blow against theinternationalisation of the revolution. This recovery of the world bourgeoisiecondemned the proletariat in Russia to isolation, and consequently to a long butinexorable degeneration, which was to prove fatal for the whole worldproletariat in the ensuing period. After this first gigantic appearance of theproletariat on the stage of the 20th century had had its brief victory, thebourgeoisie made the class pay a very high price indeed – a counter-revolutionfrom which the international proletariat didn’t recover for decades, evenduring the course of the second world war.
THE ABSENCE OF A PROLETARIAN REACTION DURINGAND AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
In the middle of this half-century oftriumphant counter-revolution, the IInd World War could only complete thisdefeat which isolation had brought in 1920’s. There were no revolutionarymovements comparable to those of 1905 and 1917-19. We can of course cite theso-called Warsaw Commune of 1944 – a desparate reaction, dominated by thesocial democrats, of a population martyrised and decimated under the militaryjackboot. This uprising held out for 63 days and was then exterminated by theNazis with Stalin’s consent. We can alsomention the 1943-44 strikes in Italy repressed with the endorsement of the British‘Allies”. Neither of these cases proved to be part of a world-wide resurgenceof the proletariat, threatening the continuation of the imperialist war.
This was the most profound, most tragic comathe workers’ movement had ever been through. Its best forces had been decimatedby the Stalinist counter-revolution and finished off by the democratic and Nazibelligerents, with their resistance fronts and their terror bombings. Thissecond world imperialist carnage achieved an even higher level of horror thanthe previous one.
Could a revolution put an end to this planetry massacre, could it emerge duringor after the war? Dispersed and isolated, the revolutionaries hoped in vain.The victory went to the counter-revolutionary ‘maquis’, with its chauvinistideology of ‘national liberation’ – a ‘liberation’ by ordered stages,supervised by the democratic strike-breakers, Churchill, De Gaulle, Eisenhower,with ‘comrade’ Stalin at their side. The war ended not because of a newproletarian danger, but because the limits of total destruction had beenreached, because the capitalist ‘allies’ had achieved what they wanted in worldhegemony.
There was no new October 1917. Capitalismregained a breath of youth, like the grass which grows up over human corpses. Aperiod of reconstruction began on the ruins. This period of reconstruction wastemporary: after just over two decades the system once again plunged into aneconomic morass, accelerating the development of a war economy in preparationfor... a third world war. The few workers’ revolts which took place in thisperiod remained fragmented and isolated. Whether in France, in Poland, or thethird world, they were derailed and smothered in the mire of capitalist reconstructionor in the so-called liberation of the colonies, planned by the two‘superpowers’ . Fundamentally the course of history was still unfavourable tothe proletariat. It would take a long time to recover from the physical andideological defeat of the 1920’s. You have to understand just how deep thisdefeat was to see why the world war followed on ineluctably in 1940’s .
THE LIMITS OF THE REVOLUTIONARY PROCESS INCONDITIONS OF WAR
World war is the highest moment in the crisisof decadent capitalism, but in itself it does not bring about the conditionsfor the generalisation of the revolution. To understand that is to emphasizethe historic responsibility of the proletariat faced with the possibility of athird world war. When we examine the period of the first world war, we can seethat, after having suffered an ideological defeat, and then reviving in Russia, Germany and central Europe, the proletariat remained shut up within eachnation. By stopping the war to face up to the proletarian attack, the bourgeoisiestrengthened national barriers. Although they were a product of a deterioratingeconomic situation and constituted a revival of the powerful struggles whichhad begun in 1910, these combative actions by the proletariat were unable to gobeyond an illusion propagated by the treacherous IInd International - that therevolution would develop gradually country by country. Despite the justifiedfoundation of a truly communist IIIrd International, the grip of nationalismwas strengthened by social chauvinism. Moreover, when the war stopped,differences between the economic situation of the victorious and the vanquishedcountries maintained illusory divisions within the international proletariat.In putting forward the idea of ‘peace’ the world bourgeoisie was aware of thedangers of revolutionary defeatism and the risks of contagion which, despiteeverything, existed both in the victorious and the vanquished countries. Onlythe armistice between the different capitalist belligerents enabled them toclose ranks and re-establish ‘social peace’ . Thus Clemenceau was able to lendHindenburg and Noske a hand against the proletariat in; Germany. The isolated proletariat was pushed intorapid, unfavourable insurrections. The conditions for this failure werecompleted by the stopping of the war in Germany; the proletariat’s one success was isolatedwithin Russia in the exceptional conditions of the ‘weakest link’ – i.e., a situationwhich didn’t deal a decisive blow against the geographical heart of capitalism:Europe. In this first decisive and inevitablehistoric confrontation between the reactionary bourgeoisie and therevolutionary class, the bourgeoisie remained the master of the terrain. We can thus say that the whole period of thefirst world war did not create the most favourable conditions for theproletarian revolution.
A bloody repetition of this capitalistbarbarism, the Second World War came directly out of the clauses of the‘Armistice’ of 1918, a provisional and hypocritical peace aimed at justifyingthe new capitalist division of the world. This repetition was only possibleafter the physical defeat of the proletariat in the early 1920’s, a defeatcompleted by the counter-revolutionary ideologies of Stalinism, fascism andanti-fascism.
If the proletariat was able seriously todisrupt the waging of the first world war it was because it hadn’t beenphysically and frontally crushed beforehand. Fighting on its class terrain, itwas inevitably led into opposing the war. Moreover, trench warfare, because ofthe proximity of the combatants, was favourable to the spreading of therevolutionary contagion. This factor no longer existed during the second worldwar with its bombers and submarines. By perfecting the destructive capabilitiesof these long-range weapons of death, and by developing its first nuclearweapons – ‘tested’ at Hiroshima by the ever ‘democratic’ American bourgeoisiecapitalism was already preparing to ‘go further’ in a third world war. Now thatit could destroy entire cities and could dangle the threat of war over theremotest part of the planet, it was even better equipped to deal with anypossibility of internal revolt. There’s nothing mystical about noting thisgrowth in capitalism’s destructive capacities. It merely emphasises theresponsibility of the proletariat, whose historic task is to stop this marchtowards generalised destruction by applying the weapons of the class strugglewith at least as much vigour as during the revolutionary wave at the beginningof the century.
Is a third world war inevitable? The last fewyears certainly invite comparisons with the periods which preceded the twoworld wars: ‘armed peace’, deterioration of capitalist international relations,local wars, unlimited growth of militarism. social pacifism, relentless ideologicalcampaigns. The comparison is easy to make but the arguments don’t stand up verywell to social reality. In saying this it’s not a question of taking ourdesires for realities but of looking at the concrete situation of the 1980s.
FOUR CONDITIONS FOR THE REVOLUTION IN OUR TIME
If we fixate on the surface phenomena of thetwo greatest imperialist slaughters in the history of humanity, we could sayspitefully ‘never two without three’ , like a superstitious coffee-barphilistine. But if we use the marxist method, we can say that “great historicalevents repeat themselves: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.We are all well aware that communism is not inevitable, that it all depends onwhether the proletariat can raise itself to the level of its historicresponsibilities.
But if we examine the immense potential of themodern proletariat, we can also see that the third world war isn’t inevitableeither. More than ever, it’s up to the revolutionaries who have drawn thelessons from past defeats to show the real path that has been opened up by thedead generations.
However, it has to be said that the immensemajority of the proletarian masses today are still not fully conscious ofwhat’s at stake nor are they ready to embark upon decisive struggles. Despitethis, they are more and more being forced to prepare themselves for suchstruggles. We can’t prove this by talking vaguely about social discontent or bycounting the millions of strike-days lost in all countries over the past twentyyears. Today, the curve of these strikes tends to be in the descendent, andmost struggles end in failure. The bourgeoisie even manages to organise falsestrikes, counterfeit struggles, or to sow illusions about the self-managementof bankrupt factories. But, despite this hardly glossy table of journalisticfacts and figures, there have been a certain number of workers’ outbreaks overthe last two decades, in all parts of the planet, from Brazil to Poland, which have built up a series of internationalexperiences. These experiences, though irregular, reveal the essentialconditions for the world revolution.
1. The world economic morass
The first real condition for the revolutionresides in the world economic morasswhich has definitively buried all bourgeois hopes for a world in perpetualdevelopment. This for a world in perpetual development. This unstoppable,incurable economic crisis has done more than any revolutionary speech to exposethe mystification of humanity progressing towards happiness under capitalism (amystification which puts the working class back in the 19th century).
Much longer and more intense than the cyclicaleconomic crisis of the 19th century or the crisis of the in-between period atthe beginning of the century, this crisis has hit every corner of the planet.Not one capitalist, not one country not one bloc has escaped it. It effectsconcern, mutilate, aggravate the situation of the entire world proletariat. Theeconomic infrastructure is slowly collapsing revealing the fatal weakness atthe heart of the system. It can no longer be blamed on the enemy on the otherside of the Rhine or the Pyrenees. It’s the ‘same the world over’. Despite allthe censorship and distorted news in the west as well as the east, ‘they’ canno longer govern as before. The system is showing its retrograde, decadentcharacter and is thus incessantly compelled to renew its panoply ofmystifications. ‘They’ are no longer just the bosses but a whole statesuperstructure for containing and dominating social life: governments, unions,parties of left and right with their shared language of austerity. Thedisintegration of the economic infrastructure can’t fail to shake the bourgeoispolitical infrastructure. Even though the latter is trying to prevent theproletariat from becoming aware of the causes of the economic morass, it’s noteasy to find alibis when the system is suffering from a profound crisis in itsbasic structures and no longer has any real outlets as it did in its ascendantphase last century. It’s becoming harder and harder to conceal the fact thatthe only perspective capitalism has to offer is destruction, waste andimpoverishment, culminating in a new world war.
2. The perspective of world war
This perspective of world war, which has becomeparticularly clear over the past ten years, is thus the second condition forthe development of the proletarian alternative. This isn’t paradoxical. Twoworld wars have left an indelible mark despite all the boasts of the‘liberation’. The bourgeoisie, in all its varieties, has always presented thesetwo world war as:
- a way of resolving its economic difficulties (‘export or die’)
- inevitable, despite the good will of men of peace (‘it’s the other’sfault’ or ‘we had no choice’).
The exacerbation of imperialist competition,and the pauperisation which followed on from these wars, as well as today’sgigantic economic crisis, reveal the inanity of the first argument. Thebarbarism of the two world wars is the product of the bourgeoisie’s inabilityto resolve the aberrations of its system. Despite the fact that a faction ofthe capitalist class – the Stalinists -have outrageously stolen the term for themselves, the net result of all thisbarbarism has been to hold back the movement towards communism.
As for the idea that the next war is inevitable, this is all the more a lie inthat the capitalists themselves are not convinced of this – fundamentallybecause they haven’t managed to convince the proletariat and the immensemajority of the population of this planet. War is indeed inevitable if you onlyconsider the military aspect of the question, but the bourgeoisie can’t bereduced to its military apparatus, even if the latter holds the reins duringthe war, or comes to the fore when it’s a question of physical repression. Thebourgeoisie can’t run society through the military alone: it’s never been ableto mobilise for war and repress the proletariat solely via its military HQ,which doesn’t have a sufficient grasp of social reality. If you just look atthings from the perspective of the military command, you won’t understand whythe proletariat refuses to subordinate itself to the bourgeoisie. This isn’t aclassic war with troops in recognisable uniforms, with generals, munitions,etc, facing a similar adversary. The real threat exists inside each capitalistcountry, ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’. It’s name is proletarian unity andconsciousness.
The hypothesis of a third world war in theshort term presupposes an imbecility or suicidal folly on the part of thebourgeoisie, or at least an inability to have any control over the unleashingof a war. We should never forget that the capitalists and their generals can’tmake war without troops. The previous world wars weren’t conflicts betweenprofessional armies or mercenaries. We’re not saying that the capitalists arepreparing for trench warfare or will bring back the musket. The point is thatthey can’t just present themselves to the world as the murderers of humanity.It’s alright to brand Hitler or some other defeated enemy with this reputation,capitalism as such has to exempt itself from such a responsibility. NeitherFoch, nor Clemenceau, nor Wilson, nor Churchill, nor Stalin, nor Eisenhowercould say that they were organising a war for capitalist booty. They had totalk about ‘liberty’, the ‘right of nations to self-determination’, or‘socialism’. Each one needed such mystifications to lead their troops to theslaughter, justifications to parade before those whom they sent off to fightfor ‘fatherland or death’. Today, can the Reagan administration invoke theinterests of humanity without blushing? Can Brezhnev or Mitterand talk aboutsocialism without making people throw up? Only the proletarian revolution canconsign the horrors of local and world wars to the dustbin of capitalism’spast.
3. The awakening of working class consciousness
The third basic condition for weakening theperspective of war, but above all for raising the prospect of revolution, isthe conscious, organised, centralised emergence of the onlyrevolutionary force: the proletariat, which has been moving into action sincethe end of the 60s.
The proletariat wasn’t asleep after the end ofthe second world war, but during the years of reconstruction its reactions wereisolated and the relative prosperity of the system allowed the bourgeoisie tomake economic concessions. The year 1968 was a major turning point, marked notonly by the massive strike in France in May, but also and above all by the factthat from this point on workers’ struggles began to develop all over the world.The beginning to develop all over the world. The beginning of the 1970s wasmarked by a succession of important struggles in several European countries:but thanks to the successful sabotage of the bourgeois left, whose specialityin this region was derailing discontent into the trap of electoralism, itappeared towards the end of the 70s that the proletariat had claimed down. Withthe aid of its sociological lackeys (Marcuse, Bahro, Gorz, etc.) thebourgeoisie was once against spreading the idea that the proletariat haddisappeared. Then the workers of Poland came along. Too bad for all the ideologues:today, as in 1918, the proletariat is the only class that can prevent war andput forward the communist alternative. Against all those who in one way oranother encourage the survival of capitalism, the proletariat must raise thecry ‘War OR Revolution’. This cry wan’t heard in Poland, but an affirmation of the class struggle suchas August ’80 amounts to the same thing. For two years, western ears have beenpounded with propaganda about the invasion of Afghanistan, a ‘confirmation’ of the ‘Russian threat’ .We’ve heard all about the USA’s supposed military weaknesses in comparisonwith the Warsaw Pact forces. But the Polish mass strikes once again raised thespectre of the proletariat. Despite the unequal and dispersed struggles of thelast decade, they confirmed that the proletariat is moving towards a new levelof struggle.
The proletariat’s leap onto this new level will be based on the struggle againstcapitalist austerity, but its also true to say that it is maturing out of allthe contradictions of decadent capitalism.
The essential element, class consciousness, isdeveloping because a certain number of bourgeois mystifications are being usedup. Even in the 19th century, Marx could see (in the Communist Manifesto) that the bourgeoisie was producing its owngravediggers. Today as well we can say that: “The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with itsown elements of political and generaleducation; in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons forfighting the bourgeoisie” .
At the beginning of the century, there werethose who doubted the proximity of the revolution because the working class hadonly recently emerged out of the artisan strata or out of the countryside, orbecause of the residues of feudalism, of illiteracy, etc. Today no hesitationis possible: in the main industrialised countries, the proletariat really hasbeen formed into a class, and it’s the same in a number of third worldcountries. It exists as a force which is historically compelled to overcome theweaknesses and failures of its past. Today the lessons of the whole history ofthe workers’ movement can be reappropriated much more quickly despite all thefilth of capitalism. There’s no longer any need for a ‘socialist education’ orfor party schools for the cadre. By fighting the economic laws of capital, theproletariat is at the same time smashing up the ideological superstructure ofbourgeois rule. This takes place through two factors: the education dispensedby bourgeois society and the modern methods of communication.
We’re not making a eulogy of bourgeoiseducation, the aim of which is to reproduce social inequalities; nor are we makinga fetish of ‘knowledge’, which is no measure of class consciousness. Moreover,this education dispensed and fabricated by capitalism is to a large extent ameans of manipulation. It makes individuals vulnerable to the dominant ideologyand takes the place of feudal religious obscurantism in the maintenance ofsocial discipline. But we have to understand that, at a certain level of thedegeneration of any society, even the best fireguards can help to spread afire. In the main industrialised countries illiteracy hardly exists and manyproletarians have gone through secondary education and speak a second language.In themselves this ‘progress’ and this ‘education’ have nothing revolutionaryabout them: they only facilitate revolt because they are synonymous withDEQUALIFICATION and unemployment, because the bourgeoisie has developed schooland university education in an anarchic way. Many workers and employees havedegrees. Many of the unemployed have university diplomas and are thus withoutany ‘productive’ qualifications. After being beguiled all through their studiesby the promise of escaping the working class condition, the former pupil orstudent then confronts the harsh reality of capitalism, if he hasn’t understoodit already. In the past, an illiterate worker might swallow the speeches of aschoolmaster, or believe that differences in intelligences are hereditary, andleave important issues to ‘those in the know’ . But today they are different.
Modern electronic means of communication are also a two-edged weapons. Radioand TV broadcasts, with their use of the lie-by-omission, penetrate everybuilding today, reaching the most atomised proletarian even if he doesn’t wantto read a newspaper, and have the function of smothering class consciousness.But after a certain point these emissions of sophisticated bourgeois propaganda- because that’s what they are – become unable to go on playing the role of‘directors’ of consciousness; when the condition of life are getting worse andworse, when the bailiffs start to knock at the door, they can no longer maskthe horrors of decomposing capitalism.
The general crisis of bourgeois ideological values is much more striking whenyou compare the situation with the 19th century. Then, many workers wereilliterate, got their news late, and were crammed with patriotism. Today thesystem has given rise to a new breed of workers who are constantlydissatisfied, full of doubt about the promises offered by various ideologies.In the absence of class struggle these aspects of contemporary alienation canlead to demoralisation, but when the struggle does develop they can turnagainst the bourgeoisie and speed up the tendency to question its whole systemof oppression.
4. The internationalisation of proletarianstruggles
The internationalisationof proletarian struggles is the fourth factor which will not onlyfacilitate, but will actually be the decisive step towards the worldrevolution. In the 19th century, the development of struggles could still beseen as something taking place within nations. As Marx put it: “Nations cannot constitute the content ofrevolutionary action. They are only the forms within which the only motor ofhistory operates: the class struggle.”
In the First and Second Internationals, therealisation of world socialism was seen like this: first struggles added upenterprise by enterprise (nationalisations); then they became revolutionscountry by country; then the latter would ‘federate’. This is still the visionof the Bordigist wing of the revolutionary movement.
However, although the changed conditions ofdeclining capitalism have shattered this vision, Marx’s idea hasn’t beeninvalidated, it’s been extended: the form within which the class struggleoperates is the whole capitalist world, over and above the barriers of nationsor blocs. The world bourgeoisieexploits each proletariat in every country the Italian machinist, the Russianbricklayer, or the American electrician. A South American worker employed in anoff-shoot of Renault knows that his main boss lives in France; the Polish metal-worker knows that he’sdependent on a ‘fraternal’ company in Russia. All this explains concretely why allcapitalists have an interest in closing ranks against any strike or massstruggle. On the other hand, corporatist identification with a particularbranch of industry has never really permitted workers’ solidarity to break downnational divisions. The nature of the working class can’t be defined incorporatist terms: it’s independent of the different professions. The Americanair traffic controllers recently had a tragic experience of the absence ofinternational solidarity within a particular corporation an illusion fed by theideology of the left of capital. In the context of unbridled capitalistcompetition, the British steel workers on strike saw ‘foreign’ steel beingpreferred to ‘their’ steel; French miners saw the same with ‘Polish’ or‘German’ coal. The defence or exaltation of the product of a corporation is aterrain where capital remains the master, particularly through the tradeunions. It’s a fertile soil for chauvinism. To hope for the extension of thestruggle through the same branch or a sister company is to put the workers onthe same competitive terrain as the various firms which turn out the sameproduct. It encourages ‘patriotism’ with regard to a particular enterprise,strengthening the capitalist idea that the products ‘belong’ to the workers ofthis or that industry. Thus the workers are tied to the limits of theenterprise instead of calling the whole capitalist mode of production intoquestion.
The proletariat in its entirety produces allthe wealth. Capitalist production, fragmented and mercenary, is alien to it. Ithas no ‘rights’ over how this production is used at the end of the day. Aproletarian is essentially defined bybeing a wage-labourer, an exploited subject in a commodity system which ishostile to him. When the proletarians struggle, they don’t fight for a betterFrench coal or a better British steel: they struggle whatever their profession- against the conditions of exploitation and subordination. And, providing theydon’t allow themselves to founder on the obstacles put in their way by thetrade unions, this struggle leads them into a confrontation with the capitaliststate. The generalisation of struggles onto an international level can’t comeout of a corporatist extension. The massive strike in May ’68 in France, the strikes which followed elsewhere in theworld, or the mass strike of August ’80 in Poland weren’t the product of a sum of corporationson struggle, first going through a particular branch, then one branch joininganother. It was by going beyond the whole idea of a sum of corporations thatthe workers of Poland found the road of struggle against the state. In the factories and thestreets they posed the same objectives: their revolt against the conditionof exploitation became a struggleagainst the capitalist order and not for a better management or production ofcommodities. The reaction of the Polish state received the solidarity ofcapitalist states everywhere. Behind it stood both the Russian state and thewestern states. This coalition of the bourgeoisie teaches a clear lessons aboutthe proletariat’s lack of international unity. It shows the necessity for aunified fight by the whole proletariat against a ruling class which canmomentarily suspend its intrinsic divisions in order to face up to the classstruggle. The fact that all factions of the bourgeoisie hurled themselves asone man to fight the Polish fire proves that, despite its insurmountableeconomic difficulties, this retrograde class will seek at any price to preventitself being destroyed by the proletariat. It proves that it is wary of thedangers of imitation and contagion. The repression that had been prepared for along time beforehand on an international scale was presented as a ‘settling of accounts’ between ‘Poles’ .But none of this can hide the fact that behind the Polish army and militiastood the whole world bourgeoisie.
The renewed utilisation of national barriers isa dominant trial of bourgeois policytoday and it makes it hard to envisage an absolutely simultaneous explosion ofworkers’ struggles in different countries, in which the workers go beyond corporationsand start to link up across national boundaries. But the deepening of theeconomic crisis is undermining these barriers in the consciousness of a growingnumber of workers, since the facts show that the class struggle is the SAMEeverywhere. We must draw the lessons from the fact that the main struggles inrecent years have been separated in time and without direct links from onecountry to another. But now the crisis is tending less and less to hit firstone country then another, one going up while the other goes down, as in the periodof reconstruction after the Second World War. Now it’s tending to hit allcountries at the same time, especially the most industrialised countries –those which up till now have been the leaders of capitalist ‘growth’ . Thus thewhirlwind of the economic crisis, even though it’s still moving slowly, isnevertheless tending to reproduce a moment such as in 1968 when a suddenacceleration gives rise to workers’ struggles in several countries at the sametime, and on the same basis: the struggle against capitalist austerity, againstthe threat of unemployment, and implicitly against the threat of war. Much morethan through the successive strugglesthat have taken place in recent years, it will be through this growing simultaneity of struggles in different countriesthat the problem will be posed of joiningup the struggles across national frontiers and imperialist blocs. Whetherit likes it or nor, this is the next qualitative step the proletariat will haveto take. It’s possible in the present world situation, it’s obligatory if theclass is to take its struggle forward. In such a situation a mass movement onthe scale of Poland in 1980 won’t remain isolated but will get solidarity through thedevelopment of other mass movements.
In the 1980s the proletariat has to hit at the main capitalist metropoles if itis to give a powerful impetus to its international struggle. Particularly inthe old heart of capitalism, Europe,contacts between different zones in struggle can no longer be the caricatureoffered by the union officials. The concretisation of real internationalcontacts will be an example to the whole world. This will be decisive for theinternational revolution. The problem of the destruction of the bourgeoisstates may be posed more abruptly elsewhere but it can only be resolved in theheartlands.