Class struggles in France, spring 2003: the massive attacks of capital demand a mass response from the working class
The Massive Attacks of Capital Demand a Mass Response From the Working Class
Faced with the head-on attack on pensions in France and Austria, all sectors of the working class have joined the struggle with a determination unknown since the end of the 1980s. In France, weeks of repeated demonstrations brought together hundreds of thousands of workers from both public and private sector: 1½ million workers were in streets of the main cities in France on the 13th May, almost one million took part in a single demonstration in Paris on the 25th May, and on the third of June 750,000 more people mobilised. Workers in the education sector were at the forefront of the social movement, especially because they were the hardest hit. Austria witnessed the most massive demonstrations since the end of World War II against similar attacks on pensions: more than 100,000 people on the 13th May, and almost one million on the third of June (this in a country of less than 10 million inhabitants). In Brasilia, the administrative capital of Brazil, 30,000 public sector employees demonstrated on the 11th June against a reform in taxation and Social Security, but also against a reform of pensions imposed by the new "left-wing government" of Lula. In Sweden, 9,000 municipal and public sector workers have gone on strike against cuts in social budgets.
The bourgeoisie makes the working-class pay for capitalism's crisis
Up to now, the bourgeoisie has more or less succeeded in spreading out its anti working-class attacks over time, and in separating them by sector, by region, or by country. The major characteristic of the evolution of the present situation is that, since the end of the 1990s, these attacks have been undertaken more brutally, more violently, and more massively. This is an indication of the acceleration of the world crisis which is expressed in two major and concomitant phenomena on an international level: the return of the open recession, and the new surge in debt.
The countries at the heart of capitalism are now deeply affected by the new plunge into recession: this has been true for Japan for several years and is now the case in Germany. Officially, Germany has already entered a new period of recession (for the second time in two years). Other European states, in particular Holland, are in the same situation. The United States has been seriously threatened by recession for two years: unemployment, the trade deficit, and the federal budget deficit are all on the rise once again. The French newspaper Le Monde (16th May) sounds the alarm over the danger of deflation and the return of the spectre of the 1930s: “not only is the hope of a recovery following the war in Iraq fading by the day, its place is being taken by growing fear that the American economy is going to plunge into a spiral of falling prices (...) A scenario for disaster in which the price of services and consumer goods is in constant decline, profits collapse, companies reduce their workforce and announce redundancies, bringing in their wake the new decline in consumption and in prices. Households and companies are too indebted to meet their commitments, while exhausted banks are forced to restrict credit under the impotent gaze of the Federal Reserve. These are not merely the hypotheses of experts in search of strong sensations. This has been the situation in Japan for more than 10 years, punctuated by brief periods of remission”. What the bourgeoisie calls deflation is nothing other than a lasting plunge into recession, where the scenario described above becomes a reality, and where the bourgeoisie is no longer able to use credit to launch a recovery. This completely refutes the arguments of all those who thought that the war in Iraq would make possible the recovery of the world economy. In reality, the war and the drawn-out occupation which has followed it, are first and foremost a heavy burden for the American and British economies ($1 billion a week for the American occupying forces alone). Moreover, workers all over the world are paying for the accelerating arms race (amongst others, through various new European military programmes).
The second characteristic of the economic situation is a further increase in an already enormous level of debt, which represents a veritable time-bomb for the period to come, and which affects every level of the economy from households, to companies, to national governments, whose level of debt has never been so high (see the article on the crisis in this issue of the Review).
As always, capitalism is trying to overcome the crisis and its contradictions using the two only methods which it has at its disposal:
- on one hand, intensifying the productivity of labour by increasing the pressure on the workers who produce surplus value;
- on the other hand, directly attacking the cost of variable capital, in other words by reducing the rate of pay of the workforce. There are several methods for this: proliferating redundancy plans; reducing wages, most commonly via “delocalisation” and the use of immigrant workers to reduce the cost of labour as much as possible; and the reduction in the cost of the social wage by cutting all the social budgets (pensions, health, unemployment benefit).
Capitalism is forced to act more and more simultaneously on all these levels, in other words the state everywhere is pushed to attack at the same time every aspect of working-class living conditions. In the logic of bourgeois profit there is no other solution than to undertake these massive and head-on attacks. Obviously, the ruling class is careful to plan and to co-ordinate the rhythm of these attacks according to the country, in order to avoid simultaneous social conflicts on the same question.
Since the 1970s, with a generalisation of massive unemployment and the sacrifice of thousands of companies and of the less profitable sectors of the economy, millions of jobs had disappeared and the bourgeoisie has revealed its inability to integrate new generations of workers into the productive process. But today, we are at a new watershed: not only is the ruling class continuing to make large numbers of workers redundant, it now has the social wage in its sights. In some central countries, like United States, “social protection” has always been virtually non-existent. But in these cases, and in the USA in particular, pensions were generally financed by the employer. At the root of the “financial scandals” of recent years, of which the most spectacular example is that of Enron, is the fact that companies used their pension funds to invest on the stock exchange and this money has been lost in doubtful speculation, leaving the companies unable to pay out a decent pension or to compensate their despoiled workforce, who are now reduced to dire poverty. In countries like Great Britain, social protection has already been to a large extent dismantled. The British case is a particularly edifying example of what the working class can expect: since the “Thatcher years”, 20 years ago, pensions have been based on private pension funds. But the situation has become much worse since then. By transforming pensions into private funds, the idea was that shares in these funds would bring in a lot of money as the stock exchange rose. The opposite has happened. With a collapse in share prices, hundreds of thousands of workers are reduced to poverty (the basic state pension is only about €120 a week). Some 20% of pensioners live below the poverty line, condemning many of them to continue working beyond the age of 70, generally in poorly paid and precarious jobs. Many workers find themselves in the agonising situation of being unable to pay for their lodging or for their medical expenses. Elderly people dependent on expensive treatment can no longer rely on hospital care. British clinics and hospitals thus refuse dialysis to elderly patients who are unable to pay for it, directly condemning them to death. More generally, the seizure of houses or flats whose owners can no longer pay their mortgage has quadrupled in two years, while 5 million people are living below the poverty line (this figure has doubled since the 1970s) and unemployment is rising faster than at any time since 1992. The first capitalist country to have set up the welfare state after World War II, has become the first test bed for its dismantling.
The turning point in the violence of the attack
Today, these attacks are becoming general, “globalised”, shattering the myth of “social gains”. The nature of these new attacks is significant. They are targeting pensions, unemployment benefit, and healthcare. More and more clearly, they reveal everywhere the bourgeoisie’s growing inability to finance the social budget. The scourge of unemployment and the end of the Welfare State are two major expressions of the global bankruptcy of capitalism. This is illustrated by the recent attacks in several countries:
In France, the government intends to go further than merely aligning state sector pensions with the private sector by raising the number of years worked from 37.5 to 40 in order to gain access to a “full” pension. It has also announced that the number of years worked will be further increased to 42, and then increased beyond that depending on the level of employment. Contributions will be raised for all wage earners in order to refill the pension funds' coffers, not to mention the requirement to make contributions to new “top-up” pension funds. According to official propaganda, the reasons are purely demographic: the ageing of the population is supposedly responsible for the deficit in the pension funds and is destined to become an intolerable burden of the economy. Apparently there will not be enough young workers to pay the pensions for a growing number of old people. The reality is that young people enter working life increasingly late, not only because the technical progress of production requires longer training but also because they have an ever greater difficulty in finding a job (raising the school leaving age is moreover another means of hiding unemployment amongst young workers). In reality the main reason for the fall in contributions and the deficit in the pension funds is the inexorable rise in unemployment (which represents at least 10% of the working population) and in precarious employment. In reality, many employers have no interest in keeping older workers on the payroll, since they are usually better paid than young workers, while being less resilient and less “adaptable”. Behind all the talk on the need to work longer there lies in fact a huge drop in the level of pensions. As soon as they are put into place the planned measures will immediately reduce pensioners’ purchasing power by between 15 and 50%, including for the worst paid workers. Another “reform” is that of the social security system, to be announced this coming autumn, which has already begun with the withdrawal of 600 medicines from the approved list, with a further 650 to follow by ministerial decree in July.
In Austria, an attack comparable to that in France is aimed mainly at pensions. Whereas the length of working life was already set at 40 years, it is now to rise to a minimum of 42 years and 45 years for most workers, with a decrease in pensions of up to 40% for some categories. The conservative Chancellor Schlüssel has made the most of early elections in February to form a new homogeneous government of the right, following the “crisis” of September 2002 which put an end to the cumbersome coalition with Haider's populist party, leaving the bourgeoisie with its hands free to undertake these new attacks.
In Germany, the red-green government has begun an austerity programme baptised "agenda 2010" attacking several aspects of the social wage simultaneously. In the first place, there is a drastic reduction in unemployment benefits. The duration of benefits will be reduced to 18 months from 36 months for workers over 55 and to 12 months for the rest. After that, and redundant workers will have no other resource than “social pay” (which represents about €600 per month). This is the equivalent of halving retirement pensions for 1½ million unemployed workers, just as the number of unemployed in Germany is rising above 5 million. As for the health service, the plan is to reduce the level of health benefits (reduction in the repayment of medicines and doctor’s visits, restriction in the number of sick days). For example benefits will be stopped after the sixth week of sickness per year, and people will be obliged to top up with private insurance. These restrictions in healthcare go together with an increase in contributions for all wage earners since the beginning of 2003. At the same time pensions are also under attack in Germany: the retirement age, which is already 65 years on average, will be raised as will wage earners' contributions, while the automatic annual revaluation of pensions is to be suppressed. Since the beginning of the year taxes have been raised (paid at source on wages), measures adopted to encourage temporary work, while the precarity of work continues to increase with the number of part-time or limited duration contracts.
In Holland, the new coalition government (Christian-Democrats, liberals, reformists) has followed Austria in getting rid of its populist wing and announced an austerity plan based on budget restrictions in the social domain (with a view to saving €15 billion), notably for a radical reform of unemployment benefit and the criteria for disability pensions as well as the general revision of wages policy.
In Poland, healthcare is also under attack. While the most serious illnesses continue to be taken in charge, most healthcare will only be reimbursed at 60 or at 30 percent. “Benign” sicknesses like flu or tonsillitis will not be reimbursed at all. State employees are no longer protected from redundancy.
As we have already seen above, in Brazil Lula's Workers' Party is at the forefront of the cuts in social budgets Latin America.
Within the framework of the enlargement of the European Union the International Labour Office directive of 9th June stipulates that for 5 out of the ten countries concerned (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Estonia), pension funds should be financed solely by wage earners' contributions, whereas previously they were financed jointly by the employer, the state, and the wage earner.
We can thus see that whatever the government, whether it be right or left, the same attacks are under way.
They are accompanied by a wave of massive redundancies: 30,000 job cuts at Deutsche Telekom, 13,000 at France Telecom, 40,000 in the Deutsche Bahn (German railways), 2,000 job cuts at the SNCF (French Railways). Fiat has just announced 10,000 job cuts on the European continent after laying-off 8,100 workers at the end of 2002 in Italy itself. Alstom has announced 5,000 job cuts. Swissair plans to eliminate a further 3,000 jobs in a sector which has been particularly hard hit by the crisis during the last two years. The American merchant bank Merrill Lynch has laid off 8,000 employees since last year. In Britain, 42,000 jobs have been lost during the first quarter of 2003. Not a country, not a sector is spared. It is forecast for example that between now and 2006, 400 companies per week will close in Britain. Everywhere job insecurity is becoming the rule.
The mobilisation of the working class in the recent struggles was thus a response to this qualitative aggravation of the crisis and the attacks against its living conditions which are the result.
The balance of class forces
The first thing to be said about the struggles is that they are a stinging refutation of all those ideological campaigns that followed the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Stalinist regimes. No, the working class has not disappeared! No, its struggles do not belong to the distant past! These struggles show that the perspective is still towards class confrontations, despite the confusion and the enormous ebbing of class-consciousness provoked by the upheavals of the period since 1989. An ebb which has been still further deepened by the ravages of advanced social decomposition, that has tended to deprive the workers of their reference points and their class identity, as well as by the bourgeoisie's antifascist and pacifist campaigns, and “citizens’ mobilisations”. Confronted with this situation the attacks of the bourgeoisie and the state are pushing the workers once again to assert themselves on a class terrain and eventually to rediscover their past experience and vital needs of the struggle. The workers are thus called to renew their experience of the sabotage of the struggle by the trade unions and the leftists - the organs which the bourgeoisie uses to control the class. Still more importantly, despite the bitterness of their defeat in the immediate, deeper questions are beginning to emerge within the working class about the way society functions, and these in turn tend to call into question all the illusions sown by the bourgeoisie.
In order to understand the implications of these attacks and what these events represent for the evolution of the balance of class forces, it has never been the Marxist method to concentrate on the workers’ struggles alone, but on the contrary to discern what is the main purpose of the enemy class, what is its strategy, what the problems are that it confronts at a given moment. For in order to struggle against the ruling class, the working class must always not only identify who are its enemies, but also understand what they are doing and how they manoeuvre against it. The study of bourgeois policy is usually most important key to a deeper understanding of the overall balance of forces between classes. Marx spent far more time, pages, and energy in examining, dissecting the behaviour, and dismantling the ideology of the bourgeoisie in order to reveal its inner logic, its flaws and the contradictions of capitalism, then he spent in describing or examining the workers’ struggle in itself. This is why for example, in dealing with an altogether more important event, The class struggles in France of 1848 analyses essentially the mainsprings of bourgeois policy. As Lenin wrote in What is to be done? (1902) “The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life (...) Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats”, in other words not real revolutionaries. In the resolution on the international situation adopted at its 15th Congress, the ICC wrote “Marxism has always insisted that it is insufficient to look at the class struggle only in terms of what the proletariat itself is doing; since the bourgeoisie also wages a class struggle against the proletariat and its coming to consciousness, it has always been a key element of Marxist activity to examine the strategies and tactics used by the ruling class to forestall its mortal enemy” (International Review n°113). The failure to study the class enemy has always been typical of workerist, councilist, and economist tendencies within the workers movement. Such a vision forgets a fundamental given which should serve as a compass in the analysis of any situation, which is that outside a directly pre-revolutionary situation, it is never the proletariat which is on the offensive. In other cases it is always the bourgeoisie, as the ruling class, which is on the attack and which forces the proletariat to respond; the bourgeoisie constantly organises not only to adapt itself to the workers’ reactions but to plan ahead to confront these reactions. The ruling class keeps its indomitable enemy under constant surveillance. To do so it possesses specific instruments which allow it constantly to take the temperature of the social situation: its spies, the trade unions.
And so, in the present situation, the first question which has to be asked is why the bourgeoisie carried out these attacks in the way it did.
The bourgeoisie's strategy to push through its economic attacks
The media has compared the movement in France at length with the public sector strikes against the Juppé government during November to December 1995, which witnessed similar demonstrations. In 1995, the main objective of the government was to make use of the whole bourgeoisie’s ideological campaign on the supposed bankruptcy of Marxism and communism following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, and to exploit the ebb in class consciousness, to strengthen and renew the credibility of the trade union control apparatus by wiping out the accumulated experience of the workers’ struggles between 1968 and the 1980s, especially on the trade union question. Even though part of the Juppé plan (the reform of social security financing and the creation of a new income tax) was put through on the sly by the Jospin government in the months that followed, the part devoted to pension reform (with the abolition of the “special status” of the public sector) was deliberately sacrificed by the bourgeoisie in order to present this as a “victory for the trade unions”. The bourgeoisie wanted the strike to be seen as a “working class victory” thanks to the trade unions, which had apparently forced the government to retreat, and as an example to be followed. The movement was thus given enormous media coverage internationally. The working class around the world was thus invited to make “the French December 1995” a reference for all its struggles to come, and above all to see in the trade unions which had been so “combative”, so “united” and so “determined” throughout these events, the best allies they could have to defend them against the attacks of capital. Indeed the movement provided an essential reference for the trade union struggles in Belgium immediately afterwards and in Germany six months later, by polishing up the image of trade union militancy which had been considerably tarnished in the past. Today the level of the economic crisis is no longer the same. The gravity of the capitalist crisis forces the national bourgeoisie to attack the problem head-on. The threat to the pension system is only one of the first measures in a long series of new massive and frontal attacks that are in preparation.
The bourgeoisie never improvises when it confronts the working class. It always tries to weaken it as much as possible. To do so, it often uses the tactic of sparking off social movements before large masses of the working class are ready for them, by provoking certain sectors which are more ready to launch themselves immediately into the movement. The most striking historical example comes to us from January 1919: the crushing of the Berlin workers, who had risen against a provocation by the Social-Democratic government but who remained isolated from their class, which was not yet ready as a whole to undertake a general confrontation with the bourgeoisie. The present attack on pensions in France was also accompanied by a strategy aimed at limiting the working class reaction which must, sooner or later, respond to this attack. Since it could not avoid the struggle, the bourgeoisie had to arrange things so that it should end in a painful defeat for the working class, such that the proletariat should once again doubt its own ability to react to the attack as a class. The bourgeoisie therefore chose to burst the abscess and to provoke the personnel of the education sector by further and particularly heavy attacks aimed specifically at them, in order that the latter should start the struggle first, exhaust themselves as much as possible, and suffer the most stinging defeat. It is not the first time that the French bourgeoisie and its European colleagues have provoked one sector as part of a manoeuvre against the whole working class. The same tactic had already been used for example in 1995 with the railway workers of the SNCF.
Under the Jospin government, the bourgeoisie - through its mouthpiece Allègre - had already announced its intention to “slim down the mammoth” of the education system which employs by far the greatest proportion of state employees. Like most of the public sector (except defence, the police, and the legal system, in other words the bodies responsible for state repression), it had already suffered budget cuts which planned the non-replacement of departures in three jobs out of four, teachers excepted. Then came the announcement at the end of 2002 of the elimination of thousands of “teaching auxiliary” jobs which had been created in the primary schools as part of the previous government’s youth employment scheme, and of monitors in the secondary education system. These job cuts, apart from making many young people redundant, mean an intolerable increase in the burden on the teachers, leaving them isolated in the front line faced with students who are more and more difficult as a result of the growing weight of social decomposition (drugs, violence, delinquency, social and family problems, etc).
The education sector, already in difficulty, thus not only had to suffer the general attack on pensions: it had inflicted on it yet another, specific attack, the project to decentralise the non-teaching personnel. For the latter, this meant being employed no longer by the national authority but by regional authorities, with an inferior and eventually more precarious work contract. This was thus a real provocation in order to concentrate the conflict in this sector. The bourgeoisie also chose the moment to attack which gave it two buffers to stop any mobilisation: for the teachers, the period of exams for the baccalaureate, and for the working class as a whole the period of the summer holidays. Similarly, in order to break the movement's combativeness, to divide and isolate it, the government had planned in advance to give some ground on the decentralisation proposals. It thus withdrew a small part of the specific attack, that is to say the decentralisation for the personnel who are closest to the teachers (psychologists, orientation councillors, and social assistants). By giving a special treatment to a minority of the personnel in question (about 10,000 employees) to the detriment of the technicians and maintenance workers (100,000 employees), the bourgeoisie was also able to divide the unity of the movement and to defuse the anger of the teachers. To complete the defeat, the government refused to negotiate the payment of strike days and applied the law in all its rigour by refusing to spread out the loss pay over more than two months: as Raffarin said, “by law, strike days are not paid. The government is applying the law”. The bourgeoisie knew also that it could count on the complete collaboration of the trade unions and leftists to share out the job of dividing and disorientating the movement, holding some back to discourage them from entering the struggle, while on the contrary pushing the others resolutely into the movement, exhorting the first to be“responsible”, “reasonable” and the others “to hang on” and to “spread” the struggle with calls for a general strike just as the movement was ebbing in order to extend the defeat especially amongst the teachers.
We thus find ourselves today in a classic schema of the class struggle: first the government attacks, and the trade unions preach union unity in order to start the massive movement of the workers behind the unions and under their control. Then the government opens negotiations where the unions divide amongst themselves in order to spread division and disorientation in the workers' ranks. This method, which plays on the trade unions’ division in the face of rising class struggle, has been thoroughly proven by the bourgeoisie as a means to preserve union control overall by concentrating as far as possible the loss in credibility on one or other trade union apparatus appointed in advance. This also means that the unions are once again put to the test, and that the inevitable development of the struggles to come once again poses the problem for the working class of the confrontation with its enemies in order to assert its class interests and the needs of its struggle.
Each national bourgeoisie adapts to the level of workers’ militancy in order to impose its plans. The 35 hour week is presented everywhere as a social gain, when in reality it constitutes an attack of the first order against the proletariat in Germany and in France where the laws on the 35 hour week have allowed the bourgeoisie to generalise the "flexibility" of the workforce and to adapt it to the needs of the company (increasing productivity, reduction or suppression of breaks in the working day, weekend working, unpaid overtime, etc). The workers in the old East German Länder have recently “won” the promise that by 2009 they too will "benefit" from the 35 hour week like workers in the West, this measure having been refused previously under the pretext of Eastern workers’ inferior productivity. The IG-Metall engineering union has been constantly trying to turn the workers away from their demands (in particular for raising wages) by organising a whole series of strikes and demonstrations on this theme. And today IG-Metall is pushing the workers in the East to demand the 35 hour week immediately, in other words encouraging them to be more exploited as quickly as possible. At the same time, the same trade union has done nothing but circulate petitions against the austerity measures of the government’s “agenda 2010”, with the exception of demonstrations in one or two towns (in Stuttgart on the 21st May for example), while at the same time the service union was organising a national demonstration reserved for workers in this sector in Berlin on the 17th May.
The prospects for the future of the class struggle
For years, confronted with the aggravation of the crisis whose first consequence for the working class has been a brutal rise in unemployment and considerable impoverishment, the bourgeoisie has undertaken a policy aimed first and foremost at masking the extent of the phenomenon. To do so it has constantly manipulated official statistics, massively deprived the unemployed of benefit and therefore removed them from the figures, and encouraged part-time working, limited contracts, the return of women to the home, underpaid or unpaid training schemes and youth employment schemes. It has also constantly encouraged older workers to take early retirement, holding up the perspective of a reduction in the number of years at work while at the same time highlighting the rise in the population's life expectancy (whose benefits the workers share the least moreover). At the same time, for those still at work, this propaganda aimed at making them accept a dramatic deterioration in their working and living conditions as a result of the job cuts carried out in the name of modernisation in the face of competition. The workers have been asked to submit to the hierarchy, and to the demands of productivity to save their jobs. In order to contain the rise in social discontent as a result of this accelerating deterioration in their conditions of existence, a reduction in the age of retirement has been used as an outlet orchestrated by the bourgeoisie and even deliberately put into operation by lowering the legal retirement age in certain countries. In France in particular, the reduction by law of the retirement age to 60, adopted under the left government, was presented as a social victory when in fact it was little more than a recognition of existing social reality. Today the aggravation of the crisis no longer allows the bourgeoisie to pay the workers to retire and to reimburse their medical costs. With a parallel increase in unemployment a growing number of workers will be less and less able to cash in an adequate number of years’ contributions to qualify for a decent retirement. Once a worker has stopped producing surplus value, he becomes a burden on capitalism such that the best solution for this system, and one towards which it is cynically moving, is that he dies as soon as possible.
This is why the brutal and open attack on pensions is expressed in the deep anxiety that is really working on the workers’ militancy. But it also opens the door to a more profound questioning about the real perspectives for the future but capitalism can offer society.
In 1968 one of the main factors in the resurgence of the working class and its struggle on to the scene of history at the international level, was the brutal end of the illusions encouraged by the period of reconstruction, which for a whole generation had offered the working class full employment and clear improvements in its living conditions after the unemployment of the 1930s and the rationing and famine of the war and the immediate post-war period. With the first expressions of the open crisis, the working class felt itself under attack not only in its living and working conditions, but also in terms of a blockage in the perspectives for the future, of a new period of increasing economic and social stagnation as a result of the world crisis. The size of the workers’ struggles following May 1968 and the reappearance of the revolutionary perspective showed clearly that the bourgeoisie's mystifications about the “consumer society” and the “bourgeoisification” of the working class were wearing thin. Though we must keep things in proportion, there are analogies between the present attacks and the situation at that time. Obviously there is no question of identifying the two periods. 1968 was a major historical event which marked the emergence from more than four decades of counter-revolution. It had an impact on the importance of the international proletariat incomparably greater than that the present situation.
Nonetheless today, we are witnessing a collapse of what appeared in a sense as a consolation after years in the prison of wage labour, and which has been one of the pillars that has allowed the system to hang on for 20 years: retirement at the age of 60, with the possibility at that age of enjoying life free from many material constraints. Today, the workers are being forced to abandon the illusion of being able to escape for the last years of their life from what is increasingly experienced as a purgatory: a working environment where there are always too few people for the job, the amount of work is constantly increasing, and the rhythm of work is constantly speeding up. Either they will have to work for longer which means a reduction in the length of the period when they could at last hope to escape from wage labour, or else because they have not contributed for long enough they will be reduced to a wretched poverty where deprivation takes the place of overwork. For every worker, this new situation poses the question of the future.
Moreover, the attack on pensions concerns all workers, and bridges the gap that had arisen between the generations of workers in a period when the weight of unemployment was bourne above all by the younger generations and tended to isolate them in the feeling that the future held nothing for them. This is why all the generations of workers, even the youngest, felt involved and alerted by this attack on pensions whose very nature is such that it creates a feeling of unity in the class and plants the seeds of a deep reflection on the future that is waiting for us in capitalist society.
With this new stage in the deepening of the crisis conditions are ripening for a calling into question of some of the ideological barriers set up by the bourgeoisie during the previous years: that the working class no longer exists, that it is possible to improve living conditions and reform the system if only to benefit from a peaceful retirement -- everything that encouraged the workers to resign themselves to their fate. This brings with it a ripening of the conditions for the working class to recover its consciousness with a revolutionary perspective. The attacks unify the conditions for a working-class counter-attack at an ever wider level, beyond national boundaries. They are laying down the same warp and weft for more massive, more unified, and more radical struggles in the future.
They constitute the yeast for a slow rising of the conditions for the massive struggles which will be necessary for the working class is to recover its identity. Little by little, they will tear down the illusions in the possibility of reforming the system. It is the action of the masses themselves which will make possible the re-emergence of the consciousness of being an exploited class that bears with it a different historical perspective for society. In this sense, the crisis is the ally of the proletariat. This being said, the road the working class must travel in order to assert its own revolutionary perspective is no motorway: it will be terribly long and difficult, strewn with the pitfalls that its enemy will inevitably put in its path.
The working class has just suffered a defeat in its struggle against the state's attack on pensions, notably in France and in Austria. Nonetheless, the struggle was a positive experience for the working class in the first place because it reasserted its existence in its mobilisation on its own class terrain. Faced with the other attacks which the bourgeoisie is preparing against it, the working class has no other choice than to develop its own combat. Inevitably, it will suffer further defeats before being able to put forward the revolutionary perspective. As Rosa Luxembourg forcefully declared in her last article, Order reigns in Berlin, written on the eve of her assassination at the orders of the Social-Democrat government: “individual battles of the revolution end in formal defeat. But revolution is the only form of ‘war’ -- and this is another peculiar law of history -- in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats’ (...) There is but one condition. The question of why each defeat occurred must be answered" (Die Rote Fahne, 14th January 1919). For these defeats to lead to the final victory, the proletariat must be able to draw lessons from them. In particular, it will have to understand that the trade unions are everywhere organs for the defence of the interests of the state against its own interests. But more generally, it must become aware that it has to confront an enemy which knows how to manoeuvre in order to defend its own class interests, which can count on the whole panoply of instruments to protect its domination, from its police and its prisons to its left parties and even its certified “revolutionaries” (the leftist groups, especially the Trotskyists), and above all which has all means (including its university academics) to draw its own lessons from past confrontations. Once again, as Rosa Luxembourg said: “The revolution does not develop evenly of its own volition, in a clear field of battle, according to a cunning plan devised by clever 'strategists'. The revolution’s enemies can also take the initiative, and indeed as a rule they exercise it more frequently than does the revolution” (ibid). In its gigantic battle with its capitalist enemy, the proletariat can only count on its own strength, on its self-organisation and above all on its consciousness.
Wim, 22nd June, 2003