"Democratic rights" and the proletarian struggle today

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailAs regards the situation today, it is clear that the proletariat has to defend itself against all the attacks it suffers under capitalism and it is not the role of revolutionaries to say "forget your struggles, they serve no purpose, think only of the revolution". Furthermore, workers' struggles cannot be restricted to the defence of economic interests alone. For example, mobilisations to defend workers who are victims of repression or racist or xenophobic discrimination are an integral part of class solidarity, which is at the core of the proletariat's very being.                   

Having said this, are we to conclude that the working class today can still support "democratic demands"?

We have seen what has become of the "democratic demands" won by the workers' struggles of the 19th century:

universal suffrage has become one of the prime means of masking the dictatorship of capital behind the idea of the "sovereign people"; it's one of capital's favourite tools for sterilising and derailing the discontent and the hopes of the working class;

  • "freedom of the press" has been adapted very well to a totalitarian control of information through the big media institutions, whose job is to present the official version of the truth. In "democracy" there can be many views and many institutions but they all converge around the idea that capitalism in one form or another is the only possible system. And when necessary, the "freedom of the press" is officially curtailed, in the name of wartime restrictions (as was the case with the Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003);
  • "freedom of association" (like freedom of the press) is only tolerated, and this includes in the great democracies, as long as it doesn't pose any threat to bourgeois power and its imperialist objectives. There are plenty of examples of flagrant violations of this freedom. To cite only the case of the world champion of democracy and human rights, the USA, we had the persecution of left-wing sympathisers during the McCarthy period, and in France, the dissolution of groups of the extreme left and the arrest of their leaders after the huge strike of May 68, not forgetting the persecution and even murder of opponents of the war in Algeria in the 50s. Since its formation in 1975, our own organisation, despite its very small size and very weak influence, has not been spared: house searches, the shadowing and intimidation of militants...
  • as for "trade union rights", we have seen that this is the most effective way for the capitalist state to exert its control over the exploited "at the base" and to sabotage their struggles. On this point it's worth recalling what happened in Poland in 1980-81. In August 1980, the workers, without any pre-existing union organisation (the official unions being completely discredited), organised in general assemblies and strike committees, were able to prevent the Stalinist state from repressing them (as had been the case in 1970 and 1976) and even managed to force it to retreat. Their first demand,[1] the formation of an "independent" union, opened the way to the foundation of Solidarnosc. In the months that followed, the leaders of Solidarnosc, who not long before had been in prison or subjected to all kinds of persecutions, toured the country to put the lid on the many strikes that kept breaking out. They did this job so well that the working class gradually fell into disarray. It was when this work had been finished that the Stalinist state could regain control of the situation and decree the state of siege on 13th December 1981. The repression was particularly brutal (dozens killed, 10,000 arrests) and the pockets of workers' resistance were isolated. In August 1980, the government would not have been able to get away with this: any such attempt would have provoked a generalised response. Fifteen months' work by Solidarnosc is what made it possible.      

Today "democratic rights" and more generally "human rights" have become the major theme of most sectors of the bourgeoisie.

In was in the name of defending these "rights" that the Western bloc waged the Cold War for over 40 years against the Russian bloc. It was for the defence of "democratic rights" against "terrorist barbarism and Islamic fundamentalism" or the Saddam dictatorship that the US government launched the devastating wars in the Middle East. We will pass over many other examples, but it is also worth recalling that the defence of "democracy", before it was the flag of American imperialism and its allies after 1947, had already served as the theme for dragooning the workers into the biggest massacre in history, the Second World War. It is worth noting here that as long as it was an ally against Germany, the Stalinist regime, which could certainly vie with the fascists when it came to police terror and the massacre of whole populations (and in fact preceded them in this respect) didn't seem to bother the western governments in their crusade for democracy.

With regard to the parties of the left, i.e. the bourgeois parties who have more impact on the working class, the demand for "democratic rights" is in general an excellent way of drowning class demands and preventing the proletariat from affirming its class identity. What applies to "democratic demands" also applies to pacifism: faced with war, we regularly see mobilisations orchestrated by all sorts of political sectors from the extreme left to certain elements of the chauvinist right who consider that this or that war is not opportune for the interests of the nation (this is fairly common in France today where even the right is, in its majority, opposed to American policies). Behind the banner of "no to war" the workers, and above all their class interests, are completely drowned in a sea of democratic and pacifist consciences (when it's not out and out chauvinism: it's not at all rare to see bearded Muslims and veiled women taking part in the demonstrations against the war in the Middle East).

Since the First World War the position of revolutionaries towards pacifism has been to combat the petty bourgeois illusions it spreads. Revolutionaries have always been in the front line of denouncing imperialist war but this is never based on purely moral considerations. They have shown that it is capitalism as a whole which is responsible for wars, which are inevitable as long as the system survives, and that the only force in society which can really struggle against war is the working class, which has to preserve its class independence in the face of all the pacifist, humanist and democratic sermons.   

"Democratic" demands around the right to use your mother tongue

The first thing to say here is that the workers' movement has never considered the persistence of native languages, and thus demands for them to persist, to be "progressive" or "democratic". In fact, one of the characteristics of the revolutionary bourgeoisie was that it carried through the unification of viable nations, which involved going beyond provincial or local particularities linked to the feudal period. The imposition of a single national language was in many cases one of the instruments of this national unification (in the same way as the unification of systems of weights and measures, for example). This unification of the language usually took place through force, repression, bloodbaths: in fact, the classic methods which capitalism used to spread its hold over the world. Throughout their lives, Marx and Engels obviously denounced the barbaric methods through which capitalism established its hegemony over the planet, whether during the phase of primitive accumulation (see the admirable pages in the last section of Volume One of Capital)[2] or during colonial conquests. At the same time, they always explained that, despite its barbarism, the bourgeoisie was the unconscious agent of historic progress by creating a world market, by liberating the productive forces of society, by generalising associated labour through the wage system, in short by preparing the material conditions for the coming of socialism.[3]

Much more than all the other social systems put together, capitalism has destroyed all the civilisations, cultures, and thus languages around it. There's no use deploring this or trying to return to the past: it's an accomplished and irreversible historical fact. You can't turn the wheel of history back. It's as if you tried to go back to artisan labour or the small-scale, self-sufficient agricultural production of the Middle Ages.[4]

This irresistible march of capitalism has selected a certain number of dominant languages, not on the basis of any linguistic superiority, but simply on the basis of the military and economic superiority of the peoples and states who use them. Some of these national languages have become international languages, spoken by the inhabitants of a number of countries. There are not that many of them: today, we're essentially talking about English, Spanish, French[5] and German. With regard to German, which is of great richness and rigour, and which was the language of many fundamental works of world culture (the philosophical works of Kant, Fichte, Hegel etc, the works of Freud, Einstein's theory of relativity and...the works of Marx) it is only used in Europe and it is already well past its heyday.

In fact, when it comes to real international languages used as a main language by more than a hundred million people, there is only Spanish, and of course English. The latter is today the real international language. This is the inevitable consequence of the fact that the two nations which have successively dominated capitalism were Britain and then America. Anyone who doesn't know English today is handicapped either when travelling or surfing the net, or doing serious scientific studies, especially in leading fields like IT. This is obviously not the case with French (which was in the past the international language of the European courts and of diplomacy, but evidently this didn't involve that many people).

To return to a remark you made in your messages: this is why, even if it is actively promoted by the Federal Canadian State, bilingualism will never be a reality in Canada. We have an edifying example of this in the case of Belgium. In Antwerp or Ghent, the Flemish workers often have a boss who speaks French. This has led many of them to feel that in refusing to speak French, they are in some way resisting the boss and the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, while it has never existed in an integral way for either of the two communities, bilingualism is much more common among the Flemish than the French-speaking Walloons. For several decades, Wallonia, the birthplace of Belgium's large-scale industry, has been losing the race at the economic level in relation to Flanders. One of the themes of the Flemish nationalists today is that this region, with its high rate of unemployment and its outdated industries, is a burden on Flanders. They tell the Flemish workers that they have to work and pay taxes to subsidise the Walloon workers: this is one of the themes of the extreme right independence party, Vlaams Belang.

The fact that the Flemish workers today are now much more often able to speak Flemish with their boss obviously doesn't change their exploited condition. This said, the population of Flanders is more and more bilingual, but the second language which is now developing is not French, which would allow a better communication with the Francophone population of the country, but English. This is also the case with the Francophone population. And the fact that, in their speeches, the King and the head of government express themselves in French and Flemish in a very equitable way doesn't change this.    

We can take another example, that of Catalan.

Historically, Catalonia is the main industrial region of Spain and the most advanced on many levels: living standards, culture, and education for example. The working class of Catalonia has since the 19th century represented the most conscious and combative sector of the Spanish proletariat. In this region, the question of linguistic demands has been posed for a long time because the official language of all regions of Spain has been Castillian even though the current language, the language you speak with your family, your friends, in the street, is Catalan. This question has obviously been raised within the workers' movement. Among the anarcho-syndicalists who dominated it for a long time, this was often a thorny question since some of them, in the name of the "federalism" so beloved of the anarchists, were in favour of the pre-eminence of Catalan in the workers' press. Others argued, rightly enough, that while the boss of the enterprise may have been Catalan, many workers were not and spoke Castillian (a language also spoken by the Catalan workers). The use of Catalan was an excellent means for the boss to divide the workers.

During the Francoist period, where Catalan was not favoured in the media, or schools, and even less in the administration, using it seemed to a large part of the population of Catalonia a way of resisting the dictatorship. Far from weakening the use of Catalan, Franco's policies essentially had the opposite effect, to the point where immigrants from other regions were learning the language, as much as to be accepted by the natives[6] as to take part in this "resistance".

With the end of Francoism and the advent of "democracy" in Spain, the autonomist movement faded out. The regions, and especially the Catalan region, regained the prerogatives they had lost in the past. One of these prerogatives was to make Catalan the official language of the region, i.e. the administration could now only work in Catalan and this language was used exclusively in the schools, Castillian being taught only as a foreign language.

Parallel to this, in the universities of Catalonia, more and more courses were taught in Catalan, which obviously penalised students coming from other regions or from abroad (who may have learned Spanish because it is an international language but had not learned a regional language like Catalan). Result: while the Catalan universities had a good reputation, especially the University of Barcelona, and because of this attracted the best Spanish, European or South American students, the latter tended more and more to chose universities where they didn't run the risk of stubbing their foot on a language they didn't know. The process of opening up to Europe and the world, which Catalonia was so proud of, could only be undermined by Catalan being the hegemonic language, and in the ancestral rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid, the latter was threatening to gain a decisive advantage - not, as in the days of Franco, because of forced centralisation, but on the contrary because of the "democratic conquests" of Catalonia. This said, if the Catalan bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie have adopted a policy of shooting themselves in the foot, this is not a particular concern for internationalist revolutionaries. Nevertheless, the business of teaching only in Catalan does have much more serious consequences. The new generations of proletarians in Catalonia will have more difficulty communicating with their class brothers in the rest of the country and they will no longer have help from their parents in the international language of Spanish, even though they know it better than they know Catalan grammar. 

Going back to the linguistic insults which existed in the past in Quebec and which you mention in your messages (and which do resemble the situation in Flanders a while back), they are typical of the behaviour of all bourgeoisies and are yet another means to affirm their strength in front of the workers, to show who's in charge. At the same time, it's an excellent way of dividing the workers between those who speak the language of the bosses (who are told that they are "privileged") and those who don't or who speak it badly. Finally, it's a way of channelling the discontent of the workers towards a terrain that is not theirs and which can only sap their class unity. Even if not all the bourgeoisie are intelligent enough to do all the necessary Machiavellian calculations, the existence of situations where, as well as their classical exploitation, workers also have to put up with added indignities, provides an excellent safety valve when the social pressure starts to build up. Rather than giving way on the essential questions, the bourgeoisie is ready to give way on issues that don't cost it anything, such as the language question. Here they are helped by the political forces - especially those of the left and far left - who have included linguistic demands in their programme and who present the satisfaction of these demands as a victory, even if other demands have not been satisfied (above all if these demands are considered to be the principal ones, as you note in your message of 18th February). In reality, while this problem of linguistic disadvantages for the workers has tended to diminish in Quebec, it's not only because of the policies of the nationalist parties. It's also a consequence of the workers' struggles which have developed all around the world, including Canada, since the end of the 1960s.

In the face of such a situation, what approach should revolutionaries adopt? It can only be to tell workers the truth, to say what we've said here. They must encourage workers' struggles for the defence of their living conditions and in doing this they don't simply talk about the revolution which will abolish all forms of oppression. But their role is also to warn the workers against all the traps being laid for them, all the manoeuvres aimed at sapping class solidarity; they must not be afraid of criticising demands when they consider that they do not contribute to the unity of the class.[7] Otherwise they will not play their role as revolutionaries:

"1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."[8]

While waiting for your comments on this letter, please accept our best communist greetings,

For the ICC.

[1]. In fact at first this demand was not at the top of the list: economic demands and the issue of repression took precedence. But it was the political "experts" inside the movement, the people coming out of the "democratic" milieu (Kuron, Modzelewski, Michnik, Geremek...) who insisted on this being the put at the top.

[2]. "This mode of production pre-supposes parcelling of the soil and scattering of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of these means of production, so also it excludes co-operation, division of labour within each separate process of production, the control over, and the productive application of the forces of Nature by society, and the free development of the social productive powers. It is compatible only with a system of production, and a society, moving within narrow and more or less primitive bounds. To perpetuate it would be, as Pecqueur rightly says, ‘to decree universal mediocrity'. At a certain stage of development, it brings forth the material agencies for its own dissolution. From that moment new forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society; but the old social organization fetters them and keeps them down. It must be annihilated; it is annihilated. Its annihilation, the transformation of the individualized and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital. It comprises a series of forcible methods, of which we have passed in review only those that have been epoch-making as methods of the primitive accumulation of capital" (Chapter 32, "Historical tendency of capitalist accumulation")

"Whilst the cotton industry introduced child-slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

Tantae molis erat, to establish the ‘eternal laws of Nature' of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between labourers and conditions of labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage-labourers, into ‘free labouring poor', that artificial product of modern society. If money, According to Augier, ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,'  capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt" (Chapter 31, "Genesis of industrial capital").

[3]. "Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.... England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

"Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe:

 ‘Should this torture then torment us
Since it brings us greater pleasure?
Were not through the rule of Timur
Souls devoured without measure?

[From Goethe's "An Suleika", Westöstlicher Diwan]

(Marx, "The British Rule in India", New York Daily Tribune, 25 June 1853)

[4]. This was in fact the dream of a certain number of rebellious elements after the May 68 events in France. Trying to escape capitalism and the alienation it engenders, they went off to found communes in the Ardeche, in villages deserted by their inhabitants, attempting to live by weaving and raising goats. For the most part this was a disaster: forced to produce at the lowest cost to sell their production, they lived in poverty, which often led to conflicts between the communards, to witch-hunts against "layabouts who live off the backs of others", and to the reappearance of petty chiefs concerned with doing things on the cheap. The most efficient of them were simply reintegrated into the commercial circuits of capitalism.

[5]. We should note that French was imposed by eliminating a number of local dialects, such as Breton, Picard, Occitan, Provencal, Catalan, and many others.

[6]. We should note that even in the Franco era, whenever you were lost in Barcelona, it was not well-regarded to ask the way in Castillian. Paradoxically, the person you asked for help understood the latter language much better if it was spoken with a strong French or English accent than with a Spanish one.

[7]. Revolutionaries must not hesitate to take up this fundamental idea of Marx: the oppression and the barbarism for which capitalism is responsible, and which has to be denounced, don't only have a negative side. They create the conditions for the future emancipation of the working class and even for the success of its present struggles. If they are obliged to learn English or to make progress in this language to find a job or simply to buy things, the Quebec workers will also draw advantage from it: it can help them communicate with their Anglophone class brothers in the same country and even in their great North American neighbour. It's not the job of revolutionaries to excuse the odious, xenophobic behaviour of the Anglophone bourgeoisie but to explain to the French workers that they have the possibility of turning these weapons of the bourgeoisie against them. The great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, born in the area of Poland dominated by Russia, was forced to learn Russian. She never complained about it, on the contrary. It helped her to communicate with her comrades in Russia (for example Lenin with whom she had long discussions after the 1905 revolution, which allowed the two revolutionaries to get to know each other, to understand and appreciate each other). It was also an opportunity for her to know and appreciate Russian literature. In fact she translated certain works into German to make them accessible to German speakers. 

[8]. Communist Manifesto.