Editorial: Riots or revolution?

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In recent years world capitalism has supposedly been battered by widespread popular struggles particularly in what the bourgeoisie likes to call the “developing world”.

In South America it would seem that for some years the Argentinean masses have been engaged in a popular movement against the system. The piquetero movement has thrown up soup kitchens, self managed enterprises and aid co-ops to “organise” the masses in revolt. In China, the state has officially announced that in 2004 74,000 mass incidents of unrest took place, many of them resulting in civilian deaths at the hands of the police (the most recent led to the shooting dead of 20 civilians in Dongzhou village in the coastal Guangdong Province near Hong Kong) and the declaration of martial law.  Since 1989 the Chinese authorities have invested heavily in training and equipping riot police to suppress such movements. And the now traditional riots that follow the World Trade Talks around the globe, most recently flaring up in Hong Kong, symbolise the image of a world in revolt.

To this list must now be added a country at the centre of the capitalist system: France. For several weeks during the autumn of 2005 the suburbs of Paris and other major French cities were hit by the most violent social movement since the events of May 1968. Eight thousand vehicles were torched, hundreds of prison sentences handed down, and the French state invoked draconian laws, not used since they were invoked in 1955 against the Algerian independence movement.

All these social movements, with disparate causes and agendas, have received widespread, often front-page publicity in the world’s media. It is high time that revolutionary marxists contrast this chimera of revolution with the authentic movement of social transformation that is usually starved of media attention: the class struggle of the world proletariat.

Causes and nature of the social revolts

The general cause of all these social movements is not a great secret. World capitalism is suffering from a long term and insoluble economic crisis that expresses itself at every level of society and affects every section of the non-exploiting population: grinding poverty and long term unemployment resulting from the austerity plans of capitalist states in the advanced countries, destitution brought about by the collapse of entire economies in Latin America, ruination of small peasants and farmers everywhere in the Third World, ethnic discrimination as a result of the deliberate policy of divide and rule by the ruling class, brutal terror instilled in countries occupied by imperialist armies.

However the fact that social revolts have a common root in the oppression by capitalism does not mean that they therefore provide a common answer to it, or indeed any answer. On the contrary.

Despite the immense variety of the social revolts presently developing, none of them provide, even in embryo, an alternative political, economic and social perspective to that of capitalist society in decline, whose symptoms they are protesting. This is particularly true of the recent riots in France. The anger of the rioters was turned inward rather than towards the cause of their misery.

Day by day they have been subjected to crude and intrusive identity controls and body searches, accompanied by racist insults; it’s perfectly logical for them to see the cops as their persecutors. But here the main victims of their violence are their own families or those close to them: younger brothers and sisters who can’t go to their usual school, parents who have lost cars, for which they will get pathetic insurance pay-outs because the cars are old and cheap, and who will now have to shop away from where they live because the nearer and cheaper shops have been burned out.” (ICC statement “Riots in the French suburbs: in the face of despair, only the class struggle offers a future”. November 8th 2005).

However even in those revolts that are less elemental expressions of despair, where violence is directed toward the guardians of the regime that oppresses them and which even, as in China, temporarily push back the police, there is no perspective beyond this immediate protest. While the violence of such social revolts can often appear spectacular they have necessarily been poorly equipped and coordinated and no match for the well-armed and organised forces of the capitalist state. 

In the case of the piqueteros in Argentina or the Zapatistas in Mexico, social revolts have been directly harnessed by particular fractions of the bourgeoisie, to mobilise the population for their solution to the economic crisis, and their search for power within the bourgeois state.

It is not surprising then that the bourgeoisie can draw some satisfaction from the impotence of social revolts even if the latter reveal the inability of capitalism to offer the least hope to huge swathes of the world’s population. The social revolts pose no political threat to the system, they have no demands or perspective that could unite a serious challenge to the status quo. They never go beyond a national framework and are usually isolated or dispersed locally. And while the bourgeoisie is anxious about generalised social instability, as it has increasingly less room for manoeuvre at the economic level, it feels it can rely on repression to stifle and neutralise the nuisance of social revolt. In France for example, the unrest in the suburbs is itself a reflection of cuts in the social budget that had been imposed over a long period beforehand. Severe reductions have been made in the money for renovating run down housing and creating even temporary jobs. The numbers of teachers and social workers have been reduced, along with grants to voluntary organisations etc. The riots have not obliged the bourgeoisie to seriously reverse this austerity policy and instead allowed it to present the tightening of law and order as the solution.  The famous call of the French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy for the sink estates to be power-cleansed of their “rabble” was emblematic.  The French bourgeoisie has been able to use the riots to strengthen its repressive forces and prepare for the future threat of the working class struggle.

In Argentina the social revolt of December 19th/20th 2001 was famous for its mass looting of supermarkets and attacks on government and financial buildings. But the ensuing popular movement has not been a brake on the vertiginous decline of the living standards of the oppressed masses in Argentina, where the number living below the official “poverty line” has increased from 24% of the population in 1999 to about 40% today. On the contrary it is the organisation of these pauperised masses into a popular movement tied to the capitalist state that helps the bourgeoisie today to talk about an “Argentine Spring” and to pay its debts on time to the IMF.

Numerous social strata are the victims of the decline of the capitalist system and react violently to the terror and destitution that it brings. But such violent protests never bring into question the capitalist mode of production; they can only react to its consequences.

As capitalism sinks further into its final phase of social decomposition, the complete absence of any political, social, or economic perspective within the system seems to infect every thought and action that encourages the violent despair of social revolts.

The autonomy of the proletariat

At first sight it might seem unrealistic to claim that the unfashionable working class struggle, that is only just beginning to rediscover the path of combativeness and solidarity after the huge disorientation caused by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, is the real movement for social change. But the proletarian struggle, unlike popular revolt, does not exist only in the present: it has a history and a future.

The working class in struggle today is the same working class whose revolutionary movement shook the world from 1917-23, that led to the seizure of political power in Russia, the ending of the First World War, the formation of the Communist International and near proletarian victories in several other European countries.

In the late 1960s and 70s, the world proletariat reappeared on the historical scene after a half century of counter-revolution.

Massive strike waves in defence of workers’ living standards, beginning in France in 1968, swept through the central capitalist countries. The bourgeoisie had to adapt its political strategy to head off the threat by installing its left teams in government.  In some countries the class movement took a near insurrectional form as in Cordoba in Argentina in 1969. In Poland in 1980 it reached a decisive moment.  The working class broke down its local divisions and united through mass assemblies and strike committees. It was only after a year of sabotage by the trade union Solidarnosc that the Polish bourgeoisie, strongly advised by Western governments, felt able to declare the martial law that finally crushed the movement. But the international class struggles continued, notably in Britain with the year long miners’ strike of 1984-5.

Despite the reverses that it has suffered the working class has not been decisively defeated in the past 35 years, in the way it was in the 1920s and 30s. The way is still open for the expression of the revolutionary nature and characteristics of the proletariat.

The working class is revolutionary in the real sense of the term because its interests correspond to a completely new mode of social production. It has an objective interest in reorienting production away from the exploitation of its labour and for the satisfaction of all human needs in a communist society. And it has in its hands – but not in its legal possession! – the mass means of production to make this happen.  These means of production, already completely interdependent on a world scale, mean that the working class is a truly international class without any competing and conflicting interests, whereas all the other strata, groups and classes that suffer within capitalism contain insurmountable divisions.

Even if the defensive struggle of the working class to try and protect its meagre living standards is today isolated and divided by the trade unions, and therefore much less spectacular than the social revolts, it nevertheless contains, unlike the latter, the seeds of an offensive assault on the capitalist system. This can be seen in the recent solidarity strikes at London’s Heathrow Airport in August 2005, the wave of workers’ struggles in Argentina during the same summer, and the recent New York transit strike.

It is for these underlying reasons that the working class over the past 150 years has been able to develop a revolutionary political alternative to capitalist rule. The socialist alternative necessarily pits the working class against the capitalist legalisation of exploitation that is defended by a dazzling array of armed and punitive forces. In this sense, working class violence, unlike the despairing gestures of other oppressed strata, can only be seen as the midwife to the painful delivery of a new society.

Today the nascent class struggle appears to be upstaged in the media by a much more important social struggle. At most it seems to have a supporting role to the main attraction.

In this context it is vitally important for revolutionaries to defend the fundamental role of the proletariat and its necessary autonomy not only from the forces of the bourgeoisie that pretend to defend it, like the left parties and the trade unions, but also from the despairing revolts of the disparate oppressed strata and groups within capitalism.

The bourgeoisie, whose most intelligent representatives are well aware of the latent threat posed by the proletariat, are therefore particularly concerned to publicise the instances of social revolt and minimise or ignore, when it can, the genuine movements and actions of the proletariat. 

By identifying the violent chaos of the social revolts with all the other manifestations of the social decomposition of society the bourgeoisie hopes to discredit any resistance to its rule, including and especially the class struggle of the proletariat.

By presenting social revolt as the main expression of opposition to capitalist society the bourgeoisie hopes to persuade members of the proletariat, particularly its youth, to see in these doomed actions the only outlet for its struggle. And by showing in great detail the obvious limitations and inevitable failures of such revolt the bourgeoisie intends to demoralise, pacify and disperse the threat of proletarian unity, a unity that particularly requires solidarity between the young and older generations of the class.

And this tactic against the working class has brought some successes particularly among young and long term unemployed, and among ethnic minorities within the proletariat. Many of these sectors were drawn into the French riots. In Argentina the piqueteros movement has managed to “organise” the unemployed behind the state and divert some of the efforts of the recent strike wave in Argentina in 2005 into this and similar dead ends.

The left wing of the bourgeoisie and its extreme left forces in particular, have a special role in trying to demobilise the working class in this way and use it as cannon fodder for the campaign to provide an alternative management of the capitalist regime.

Unfortunately even some forces of the Communist Left, while able to see the “limitations” of the social revolts, have been unable to resist the temptation to see something positive in them. The International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party for example has already been seduced by interclassist movements during December 2001 in Argentina, and in Bolivia shortly afterwards, seeing them as actual or potential expressions of the working class. In their statement on the French riots, the IBRP despite its criticisms of their futility, see the possibility of turning such revolts into a genuine class struggle through the agency of the revolutionary party. The other groups which claim their descent from the Italian Left, and which all call themselves “International Communist Party” also sing, more or less in tune, from the same hymn sheet.

Of course one can always fantasise about the existence today of a class party and the miracles it could perform, according to the old Russian saying “if there is no vodka, talk about vodka”.  But today the revolutionary party does not yet exist precisely because the working class has still to develop its political independence and autonomy from all the other social forces in capitalist society. The conditions for the working class to create its own revolutionary party will be created, not by desperate social explosions but on the basis of the development of the proletariat’s class identity, above all through the development and extension of its struggles, and the intervention of revolutionaries within them. When we are in this historical situation then it will be possible for the proletariat, with its political party, to draw behind it the discontent of all the other oppressed strata in society but only on the basis  that such strata recognise the leading and pivotal role of the working class.

Today the task of revolutionaries is to insist on the necessity to create the political autonomy of the proletariat, not to help the bourgeoisie obscure it with delusions of grandeur about the role of the revolutionary party.

Como (20th December, 2005)