On the intervention of revolutionaries: reply to our critics
The renewal of working class combativity over the last year obliges revolutionary organizations to develop their intervention. More than ever, we have to know how to grasp quickly what’s at stake in a given situation, how to intervene putting forward the “general goals of the movement” in a concrete and comprehensible way.
Concrete intervention in the class struggle is a test, a measure of the theoretico-political and organizational solidity of a revolutionary group. Ambiguities or beatings about the bush at the programmatic level are inevitably translated into erroneous, shaky, fragmented interventions, or even into a total paralysis when faced with the reality of a rising tide of struggle. For example, in all the present and future struggles an understanding of the role of the trade unions is absolutely key to the development of proletarian autonomy. If a revolutionary group has not understood that the unions are no longer organs of the working class and have once and for all become weapons of the capitalist state inside the class, then that group won’t be able the contribute to the development of class consciousness.
The action of the class itself demands clear answers concerning all the theoretical bases of a class program, whether we’re talking about the economic crisis, national liberation struggles, or the various expressions of the general decomposition of the bourgeois order. This is why discussion and reflection within revolutionary groups today and between groups on the international level must have the aim of clarifying, criticizing, completing and actualizing the whole inheritance of the political positions of Marxism, especially of the last great international workers’ organization, the Communist International.
But concrete intervention in class confrontations doesn’t only measure the ‘theoretical’ or ‘programmatic’ capacities of an organization: it’s also a measure of the organizational capacities of a proletarian political group. Over the ten years which separates us from the wave of struggles of 1968, the revolutionary milieu has worked long and hard to understand the necessity for an organized activity on an international scale, to set up and develop a revolutionary press, and to build organizations worthy of the name. In the present period of rising class struggle, a group which isn’t capable of mobilizing itself, imprinting its political presence, and intervening energetically when things really get going is doomed to impotence and failure. However correct its political positions may be, they will become mere verbiage and empty phrases. For a proletarian organization, the effectiveness of its intervention depends both on its programmatic principles and its ability to develop an organizational framework in conformity with these principles. But if these are necessary conditions, they are not in themselves sufficient conditions. The ability to create an appropriate political organization doesn’t derive automatically from a theoretical understanding of communist principles; it demands a specific grasp of the question of the revolutionary organization (assimilating the lessons of the past and adapting them to the present period). Similarly, effective intervention in the class struggles of today isn’t the automatic result of a theoretical or organizational understanding. Reflection and action form a coherent whole called praxis; but each aspect of the whole brings its own contribution to it and has its own specific characteristics.
On the theoretical level, you have to know how to analyze the balance of forces between classes, but on a fairly wide time-scale, through whole historic periods. Class positions, the communist program, evolve and are enriched slowly, as historical experience gives those who are concerned with these questions time to assimilate its lessons. Moreover, theoretical study allows you, if not in an integral manner, then at least in an adequate one, to understand historical materialism, the functioning of the capitalist system and its fundamental laws.
Similarly, concerning the question of organizational practice, whilst theoretical knowledge can’t replace the organic continuity that has been broken by the convulsions of the twentieth century, the will, effort, and limited but still real experience of our own generation can help to clarify matters. It’s quite different, however, with regard to timely interventions in the heat of events. Here you have to analyze a conjuncture not on a scale of twenty years, or even five years, but to see what’s happening in the short-term -- a few months, weeks, even days. In any trial of strength between the classes, there are rapid, important fluctuations, and you have to know how to orientate yourself, to use your principles and analyses as a guide without getting swept away. You have to know how to join the flow of a movement, how to make the "general goals" more concrete, how to respond to the real preoccupations of a struggle, how to be able to support and stimulate its positive tendencies. Here theoretical knowledge can’t replace experience. But the limited experiences which the working class and its revolutionary minorities have been able to participate in since 1968 aren’t enough to provide us with a sure way of judging things.
No more than the working class as a whole, the ICC hasn’t suddenly ‘discovered’ intervention. But we do want to contribute to the development of an awareness of the immense possibilities of the struggles in the years ahead of us. This is something that’s going to go well beyond the experience of the immediate past. The present outbreaks of struggle, and above all the ones to come, are going to face revolutionaries with great responsibilities, and the whole workers’ milieu must be able to profit from the experiences of everyone in it, in order to be able to correct our weaknesses and prepare ourselves more effectively for the future. That’s why we are returning here to the struggles in France last winter and the ICC’s intervention in them from the steelworkers’ attack on the Longwy police station in February 1979 to the march on Paris of 23 March. Since then there have been other important experiences of intervention, notably in the Rotterdan dockers’ strike in autumn 1979 (see Internationalisme, the paper of the ICC’s section in Belgium). But we’re devoting this article to the events around the 23 March because this has given rise to numerous criticisms of the ICC by other political groups; these criticisms are often delivered as if from a great height, generally by those who didn’t intervene at all, with the apparent aim of giving us lessons about what we should have done.
The ICC has never claimed to possess an inborn science or completed program. We inevitably make mistakes and we try to recognize those mistakes so that we can correct them. At the same time, we want to reply to our ‘critics’ with the aim of clarifying an experience for everyone and not of encouraging a sterile in-fight among political groups.
The meaning of the ‘March on Paris’
If we look at the demonstration of 23 March 1979 on its own, as an isolated event, we won’t be able to understand why it should have given rise to so much discussion and polemic. A demonstration in Paris led by the CGT isn’t something new.
An enormous crowd marching for hours isn’t in itself anything to stimulate the imagination. Even the exceptional mobilization of the police force and the violent clashes between thousands of demonstrators and the forces of order weren’t entirely new. We’ve seen such things before. But the picture changes radically and takes on a very different meaning as soon as one abandons a circumstantial perspective and situates the 23 March in a more general context. This context indicates a profound change in the evolution of the proletarian struggle. It wasn’t the 23 March which brought about this change, but this change does allow us to understand the meaning of the 23 March, which was one of its expressions.
What does this new situation consist of? The answer is: the advent of a new wave of hard, violent workers’ struggles against the aggravation of the crisis and the draconian austerity measures which capital is imposing on the proletariat: lay-offs, unemployment, inflation, falling living standards, etc.
For four or five years, from 1973 to 1978, capitalism in Europe managed to block the discontent of the workers by dangling in front of them the prospect of a ‘change’. The ‘left in power’ was the main weapon for mystifying the working class and channeling its discontent into the dead-end of elections. For years the left used all its strength to minimize the world-wide, historical scale of the crisis, reducing it to the mere ‘bad management’ of the right-wing parties. The crisis wasn’t presented as a general crisis of capitalism but as something restricted to each country and thus the fault of right wing governments. It followed from this that a solution to the crisis could also be found at the national level, by replacing the right with the left in government. This mystifying theme was very effective in demobilizing the working class in all the countries of Western Europe. During these years, the illusory hope that the workers’ living conditions could be improved by the left coming to power served to anaesthetize the combativity of the first wave of workers’ struggles. Thus the left was able to put into practice the ‘Social Contract’ in Britain, the ‘Historic Compromise’ in Italy, the ‘Moncloa Pact’ in Spain and the ‘Programme Commun’ in France.
But as Marx wrote, “it is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, may imagine for the moment to be the aim. It is a question of what the proletariat actually is and what it will be compelled to do historically as the result of this being” (The Holy Family).
The weight of bourgeois ideology and mystifications can momentarily win out over the workers’ discontent, but it can’t indefinitely stop the course of the class struggle. In the present historic conditions, the illusions about the ‘left in power’ couldn’t stand up for long against the aggravation of the crisis, this was true both in countries where the left was already in government and in countries where it was still only moving towards office. The barrage about the ‘left in power’ began to wear thin and slowly receded in the face of a workers’ discontent that was every day growing more visible and less controllable.
It was the unions, the capitalist organs most directly implanted in the class, in the workplaces and factories, which first and most clearly noted this change that was about to take place in the class, which first saw the danger of an explosion of class struggle. They were aware that from the position they were currently occupying, ie supporting the ‘left in power’, they would be unable to control such struggles. It was they who put pressure on the political parties of the left -- of which the unions are an extension -- and showed them the urgent need for a move into opposition, which was the most adequate place for derailing the train of the newly resurgent struggle. No longer able to do what they had been doing before -- opposing and preventing the outbreak of strikes and other struggles -- the left parties and above all the unions now had to give the appearance of supporting the class struggle. They had to radicalize their language in order to be able to sabotage struggles while they were underway.
Revolutionary groups were and remain late in fully understanding this new situation, characterized by the left in opposition, with all that this implies. Restricting themselves to generalities and not taking the concrete changes into account, their interventions inevitably remain abstract and their shots can’t help but miss the target.
The 23 March wasn’t an isolated event but was part of the general course towards a resurgence of struggle. It was preceded by a series of strikes, all over France, and particularly in Paris: hard strikes with a high level of combativity. It was above all the direct product of the steelworkers’ struggle in Longwy and Denain, which involved violent confrontations with the armed forces of the state. It was the workers of Longwy and Denain, in struggle against the threat of massive lay-offs, who put forward the idea of a march on Paris. Should revolutionaries support this initiative and participate in this action? Any hesitation on this question was absolutely inadmissible. The fact that the CGT, after doing all it could, along with the other unions, to delay this project and undermine it, then decided to participate in it, to take on the task of ‘organizing’ the march, in no way justified abstention by revolutionaries. It would be extremely stupid for any revolutionary to wait for ‘pure’ struggles, in which the working class has already completely thrown off the influence of the unions, before deigning to take part in anything. If that were to be so, revolutionaries would never participate in the struggles of the working class, up to and including the revolution. At the same time you would provide convincing proof that the very existence of revolutionary groups was completely pointless.
By formally taking the initiative for the 23 March demonstration, the CGT proved not the inanity of the demonstration, but that union’s extreme ability to adapt to the situation, its enormous capacity for maneuver and recuperation in order to be able to derail and sabotage the actions of the proletariat. This ability of the unions to sabotage workers’ struggles from within is the greatest danger confronting the working class in the coming months and for a long time ahead. It also faces revolutionaries with their most difficult tasks in combating these most effective agents of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionaries must learn to fight these organs within the struggle itself, and not from the sidelines. Revolutionaries will only be able to unmask the unions and denounce their anti-working class role in practice; not through abstract generalities, but with concrete examples put forward during the course of the struggle, understandable and convincing to every worker.
The approach of our eminent critics is quite different. We won’t talk about the modernists, who are still preoccupied with the question: who is the proletariat? They spend all their time looking for the subversive forces that can change society. It’s a waste of time trying to convince them. Perhaps we’ll come across them again after the revolution, if they last that long! There are others, the intellectuals, who are too busy writing their great oeuvres ... they haven’t got the time for such trifles as the 23 March. There are also the ‘old fighters’, now become skeptics who look at the present struggles and shrug their shoulders. Exhausted and disillusioned by the struggles of the past in which they once took part, they don’t have much faith in the struggles of today. They prefer to write their memoirs and it would be inhuman to disturb their sad retirement. There are also those well-meaning spectators, who sometimes write a great deal but who are nevertheless rigorous ‘anti-militants’. They only ask to be convinced and so they ... wait for something to happen. They wait, and they don’t understand that others are already engaged in the struggle. But there are also political groups for whom militant intervention is the reason for their existence, but who find much to criticize in our intervention of 23 March.
Ferment Ouviere Revolutionnaire (FOR), for example. Despite its activism and voluntarism, the FOR refused to participate in the demonstration, probably because it was axed around the struggle against lay-offs. The FOR only recognizes a ‘crisis of civilization’ and denies that there is an economic crisis of the capitalist system. For them lay-offs, unemployment, and austerity are mere appearances or secondary phenomena which can’t provide a basis for the mobilization of the class. However, the FOR has frequently devoted itself to elaborating economic demands, like massive wage rises, refusal of overtime, and, notably in ‘68, the 35-hour week. One could easily believe that all this was just a sign of a pronounced taste for verbal radicalism and for being the highest bidder. The presence and leadership of the CGT in the demonstration completed the FOR’s reasons for denouncing it.
Another example: Pour Une Intervention Communiste (PIC). This group, which has made intervention its hobby horse, distinguished itself by its absence precisely in the turbulent months of struggle at the beginning of 1979. In 1974 -- the very time the struggle was reaching a state of stagnation and reflux -- the PIC set off at full steam, pretending that it was ‘intervening’ in every small localized strike, proposing to produce lots and lots of factory bulletins, etc. Now, like a bad sportsman, the PIC arrives exhausted and out of breath at the very moment it has to leap forward. Obviously, the PIC doesn’t think to ask itself whether the reason for the repeated failures of its artificial ‘campaigns’ (committees to support the Portuguese workers, conference of groups for workers’ autonomy, anti-election blocs, international meetings) might lie in its incomprehension of what intervention can and should be, in its willful ignorance of the need to establish a relationship between communist intervention and the state of the class struggle. For the PIC, intervention is a pure act of will: just as it doesn’t understand that you must swim on the edge of the river when you want to go upstream, it also doesn’t see that you should be swimming in the middle of the river when you’re going downstream. All these arguments are ancient Hebrew to the PIC, which prefers to invent other explanations to justify and -- inevitably -- theorize its absence. Thus dead-end interventions, the illusion of intervening, are now transformed into a real non-intervention.
Just at the point when the class is beginning to erupt, when it shows a militant will to face up to the attacks of capital, its austerity policies and its lay-offs, the PIC discovers that these struggles, like all struggles for economic demands, are just reformism. Against these resistant struggles the PIC proposes to launch a new campaign around the slogan ‘abolition of wage labor’.
We know by experience what lies behind these campaigns of the PIC: soap bubbles, appearing and disappearing in a few moments. What’s more interesting, is the PIC’s rediscovery of the language of the modernists, its recuperation of the ‘revolutionary phraseology’ which used to be so typical of Union Ouvriere -- whose empty chair the PIC now wants to sit on, perhaps. But let’s return to the definition of reformism, which the PIC wrongly identifies with the workers’ resistance to the immediate attacks of the bourgeoisie1. Reformism in the workers’ movement before 1914 did not consist in the defense of the immediate interests of the working class but in the separation it made between the defense of immediate interests and the ultimate goal of the proletariat -- communism, which could only be achieved through revolution.2
The ideologues of the radical petty bourgeoisie, the vestiges of the student movement, the anarchist continuators of the Proudhonist school, all of them spear out against reformism with their fiery, pseudo-revolutionary phraseology, but they share with reformism with the artificial separation between immediate struggles and the final goal, between economic demands and political struggles. The slogan of the reformists ‘the movement is everything, the goal is nothing’ (Bernstein) and the modernist idea that the ‘goal is everything, the movement nothing’, only oppose each other in appearance. In fact they end up going in the same direction. Revolutionary Marxists have always fought against both conceptions. They always vigorously opposed any attempt to make a separation of this kind. They have always shown the indivisible unity of the proletariat, which is both an exploited class and a revolutionary class, and the indivisible unity of its struggle, both for the defense of its immediate interests and for its historical goals. Just as in the ascendant period of capitalism, when it was possible to obtain long-lasting improvements, the abandonment of these revolutionary historical goals amounted to a betrayal of the proletariat, so in the period of decadence the impossibility of such improvements can never be a justification for the renunciation of working class resistance and the abandonment of the struggle for the defense of the immediate interests of the class. However radical it might sound, such a position could only mean deserting and abandoning the working class.
It’s a shameful distortion to use the slogan ‘abolition of wage labor’ as a counter-weight to the violent struggle the working class is launching against the lay-offs that threaten it today. Misusing this famous slogan -- which appears in Marx’s 1865 expose against the Owenite J. Weston in the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, now known as Wages, Prices and Profit -- and quoting it out of context results in a gross deformation of the letter and spirit of its author. This deformation, rooted in what Marx calls a “false and superficial radicalism” (Wages, Price and Profit), is based on a separation, an opposition, between the defense of the living conditions of the class and the abolition of wage labor. In that remarkable expose, Marx insisted on showing the possibility and the necessity for the working class to conduct the day-to-day struggle for the defense of its economic interests -- not only because this was in its immediate interest but above all because this struggle was one of the main preconditions for the development of the revolutionary struggle against capital. Thus he warned that:
“If he (the proletarian) resigned himself to accept the will, the dictates of the capitalist as a permanent economical law, he would share in all the miseries of the slave, without the security of the slave.” (ibid).
And, further on, after showing that “the general tendency of capitalist production isn’t to raise the average standard of wages, but to sink them”, Marx came to the following conclusion:
“Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches beyond salvation.” (ibid).
And further on:
“By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.”
Contrary to what those braggarts who gargle with ‘revolutionary’ phraseology would have us believe, Marx never entertained the absurd notion of raising the slogan ‘abolition of wage labor’ in opposition to the immediate struggle, the latter being defined and rejected as reformist. No: it was specifically to counter the illusion and lie of a possible harmony between the proletariat and capital, based on a false, abstract notion of justice and equality, that Marx put forward the formula:
“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they (the workers) ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchwords ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”
Let’s also remember Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against the separation between the minimum program and the maximum program. In her speech at the founding Congress of the KPD in 1918, she defended the unity of the proletarian program, showing that the immediate economic struggle and the political struggle for the final goal were two aspects of a single historic struggle. In the same spirit, Lenin, who is so deeply abhorred by the PIC, argued that “behind every strike stands the hydra of revolution.”
For the PIC on the other hand, a struggle against lay-offs amounts to a demand for ... wage labor, just as for Proudhon the association of the workers and going on strike amounted to recognizing capital. This is how our severe critics understand, interpret, and distort Marxist thought.
As for the Bordigist PCI, it wasn’t far behind when it came to minimizing the importance of the 23 March demonstration or presenting it as something completely different to what it really was. Le Proletaire (No.288) had most of its front page taken up with an article on the 1 May, even though this has for so long been nothing but a festival of exploitation, a sinister masquerade orchestrated by the worst enemies of the working class, the unions and left parties. In contrast to this, both before and after 23 March, the PCI made only a few furtive comments on the subject of the steelworkers’ demo, tending to interpret this demonstration as just another union ‘day of action’. Thus, before 23 March, it said in Le Proletaire, (No.285, p. 2):
“As soon as these forces were contained, there was nothing left but this ‘broad action’ of the national day of action variety, which by giving the illusion of solidarity, destroyed its real class base, leading to no other outcome than an intervention on the parliamentary terrain.”
After 23 March, the PCI could still see nothing in it but:
“a predictable waste of workers’ energies, an enterprise of division and demoralization, an occasion for bluff, chauvinist bleatings, social pacifism and electoral cretinism.” (‘Some Lessons of the March on Paris’, Le Proletaire, No.287)
Thus, locked up in its outdated schemas, the PCI largely stood on the sidelines during the class confrontations of last winter. This didn’t stop it denouncing:
“the new, more ‘romantic’ forms of opportunism which will inevitably flourish in reaction to reformist and centrist sabotage -- ie the various forms of syndicalism, councilism, autonomism, terrorism, etc.” (Le Proletaire, No.285)
Without being paranoid, we think the PCI is talking about us when it refers to ‘councilism’, since this is how they always characterize our organization, and since at various public meetings their militants have not hesitated to attack our ‘opportunism’ and ‘suivism’ with regard to the struggles of early 1979 in France. You’d think they never look at themselves in the mirror! Don’t they know you should never discuss rope in the house of someone who’s been hanged?
It’s a bit much to be told off in this way by a ‘Party’ (sic) which still talks about the unions having a proletarian character simply because they’re made up of workers -- an argument as specious as the Trotskyist idea that the Russian state is ‘still proletarian’. It wasn’t long ago that the PCI was verifying the noble credentials of the CGT, because of its proletarian origins which distinguished it from other union confederations whose origins were more dubious. And what are we to make of the PCI’s list of immediate demands which call, among other things, for the right of the unemployed ... to remain members of the trade unions? And what about their demand that immigrant workers should have equal rights to vote? We also haven’t forgotten the great zeal with which the members of the PCI who were acting as stewards on the demonstration of the Sonacotra hostels forbade the selling of revolutionary newspapers, on the pretext of apoliticism. And how are we to interpret the PCI’s support for the Coordinating Committee of the Sonacotra hostels, when, at the recent public meeting of the Gauche Internationaliste, they gave out a leaflet calling for a meeting in Saint-Denis, countersigned by trade union sections and the local CFDT, and moreover bearing the precision that it was a “meeting supported by the Socialist Party in Saint-Denis”? Does the PCI recognize its own politics when it reads in the leaflet “Today, all the democrats of this country must take a position....”?
These formidable warriors against opportunism, who still advocate the oh-so-revolutionary tactic of the Trade Union United Front -- a tactic daily applied by the CGT and the CFDT to contain and immobilize the workers in struggle -- are not really in a very good position to give lessons to anyone. By identifying reformism with the unions in general, they spread the greatest confusion among the workers. Revolutionaries could and were obliged to participate in the union movement in the ascendant period of capitalism, despite the fact that the orientation of the unions and the majority inside them were reformist. It’s not the same today, in the period of decadence, when the unions had to become and have become organs of the capitalist state in all countries. There is no place in such organizations for the defense of the class, and thus for revolutionaries.
By failing to take into account this fundamental difference between reformism and the unions today, by identifying these two things and calling these unions reformist, the PCI renders a great service to the bourgeoisie, by helping them to get the workers to see the unions as their organizations. They gratuitously hand the bourgeoisie a sizeable present: the PCI’s revolutionary seal of approval for the unions, which can be used as a G-string to cover up the nudity of the unions, their anti-working class nature and function. When the PCI has understood this difference, then it may be in a better position to judge what is a revolutionary intervention, and what opportunism and suivism mean.
The CWO and our intervention
To finish in a more detailed way, we want to look at Revolutionary Perspectives No.15, in which the Communist Workers Organization in Britain makes a learned dissection of what should have been done and could have been done on 23 March, all of this with a minimum of information about what happened and a maximum of outrageous remarks about the ICC, and all in the noble cause of polemics.
“..given the outlook of this group, dominated by spontaneism and economism, their interventions were a series of disconnected and confusionist endeavors .... While they made an early intervention in the steel towns, denouncing the unions and calling on workers to organize and spread the struggle, they rejected any vanguard role for themselves, true to their councilist tendencies. They refused to attempt to channel the demand of some workers for a march on Paris into a practical course, preferring to tell the workers that they must “organize themselves”. On occasions they did overcome this hesitation, as for example in Dunkirk, where ICC militants successfully helped steel workers to turn a union meeting into a mass assembly. But this was done empirically, without any real transcending of their spontaneist and councilist notions. The ICC, in its “practical turn”, is likely to end up in opportunism, rather than in a coherent practice of intervention, since it lacks any overall understanding of consciousness and the role of the communist vanguard.” (Revolutionary Perspectives, No.15, p. 38)
The CWO, on the other hand, which has a perfect understanding of consciousness and of the leading role of the party, understood all about 23 March: “In relation to 23 March, it is clear that only a rearguard action was possible by this time.” What magnificent clarity, telling us six months after the events that they weren’t worth fussing over!
What deep analysis does the CWO base this luminous clarity on? What do they say about the political and social situation in France? In RP No.10, at the time of the elections in France, the CWO (along with everyone else) was saying that “the initiative lies firmly with the ruling class” and that there had been relative social peace in France for five years. In RP No.15, in October 1979, the CWO reprinted this passage but added “Since then we are pleased to report that the situation has changed.” Thanks for the good news! To make a note of reality when it’s right before your eyes is hardly a basis for intervention. You can’t prepare an intervention by getting excited about things after they’ve happened and thus giving yourself a sense of importance: it’s a question of refining one’s political analysis in time to do something. This is no easy thing for an isolated revolutionary group like the CWO but the same limitations apply to all other revolutionary organizations today. Despite the difficulty of grasping all the nuances of a moving reality, even before the March 1978 elections the ICC (in IR,No.13) drew attention to the fact that the conditions of the reflux were beginning to wear out and that new outbreaks of class combativity were looming up. This perspective was shown to be correct by the strikes in spring 1978 in Germany, USA, Italy, and France. This perspective enabled us to be vigilant, to recognize the importance of the first signs of struggle and to be present in those struggles; subsequently this analysis enabled us to warn the class about the dangers of the left in opposition. The CWO says nothing about this analysis, again perhaps for polemical reasons. To acknowledge the existence of a new situation is better than the attitude of those revolutionary groups who refuse to recognize the resurgence of class struggle, but it’s not enough if we are to orientate ourselves rapidly in the face of sudden upheavals.
If the CWO can’t reproach us for failing to prepare ourselves for a resurgence of class struggle, it does attack us for failing to be the ‘vanguard’ of a movement which could only be a ‘rearguard action’. This notion of the ‘vanguard of the rearguard’ gives them the impression that the CWO has its head on back to front, or at least that it’s rather fond of contortions.
What brilliant analysis leads the CWO, from its exalted throne, to say that the 23 March was doomed in advance? What was the real situation?
The combativity of the workers exploded at Longwy with the general mobilization of the steelworkers against lay-offs, attacks on police-stations, destruction of dossiers in the bosses’ HQ; it was a situation of open struggle which began to escape the control of the unions and which was denounced by them. The movement spread to Denain and the rest of the steel industry. Moreover, in Paris a number of strikes broke out against lay-offs, austerity, and miserable working conditions: in French TV (SFP), in the banks, the insurance companies, the post office. In a situation that was full of potential, and in the whole context of the crisis, what was to be done? Was it enough to talk vaguely about the need to generalize the struggle, to go beyond regional and sectional boundaries? The workers themselves had already begun to think of ways of concretizing this extension of the struggle and were talking about a march on Paris -- Paris, which throughout the history of the workers’ movement in France has always been the centre for the detonation of social struggles. How could we not support this need, expressed and demanded by the workers from the areas in struggle, to direct their energies towards Paris? Why was it that, for over a month, the unions tried to deal with this initiative by putting it off day after day? Wasn’t it because they hoped to destroy it completely or at least to disperse it.
But even before they had fixed the date for the end of March (sufficiently late for them to be able to bludgeon the workers back into line), the unions had already set about their job of undermining the whole movement. They used the tactic of divisions between the unions to break up any tendency towards unity on the part of the workers. The CGT (the CP union) took on the task of ‘organizing’ the march, the better to sabotage it from within, while the CFDT went about proclaiming that it was against ‘diversionary days of action’. At the beginning, no one could say for certain just how far the 23 March demonstration could go. The whole question depended on the potentialities of the struggles that were unfolding at that moment. Ten days before the demonstration, it was still possible for this march to act as a concrete catalyst of the will to extend the struggle, to unite the steelworkers with the workers on strike in Paris, to take the march outside of the unions. But while revolutionaries (ie those who didn’t believe that everything was doomed in advance) were aware of this potentiality, so were the bourgeoisie and its union army. The unions set to work and a few days before 23 March, they rushed through the return of all the strikers in the Paris region. One by one these struggles were extinguished, thanks to the unions’ redoubled efforts. In any case, it is clear that the late date of the demonstration was chosen by the union in order to carry through this tactic.
We distributed leaflets to the strikers, calling on them to go on the march, for unity in the struggle, for going outside the unions. But the pressure coming from the bourgeoisie won out over these initial expressions of workers’ militancy. Already in the northern towns the workers were rightly showing distrust for the CGT, which was taking the whole thing in hand. Although we said that the march shouldn’t be restricted to union delegations, that the workers should go en masse, -- which was the only way the march could be saved -- we became aware of the fact that the delegation from Denain, for example, would be much smaller than it could have been.
What was to be done? Go on as though nothing had changed? Of course not. In the days before 23 March, the ICC prepared a leaflet for the demonstration which said that only going outside the unions could give the march the real content the workers had hoped for.
The CWO accuses the ICC of distributing a leaflet which called the demonstration “a step forward”. It’s easy to take a phrase out of context to make it mean its opposite. In fact the leaflet says “In order for the 23 March to be a step forward for all of our struggles...”, and the content of the leaflet leaves no doubt about the need to break out of the union jail. The unions understood this well enough, because their service d’ordre tore up the leaflets and attacked our militants selling RI, No 59, whose headline said “No extension of the struggle without going outside the unions” and “Greetings to the workers of Longwy”.
But watch out! The CWO would have done things differently. They give us a lesson: first we should have “channeled” the march into a “practical course”, instead of “telling the workers that they must ‘organize themselves’”. What does “channeling” the march actually mean? Before the demonstration, the ICC should have intervened to denounce the march as a “maneuver… to derail the class struggle”. Should we have done this in early February, or only after the CGT had taken the march in hand and got the Paris workers back to work? The CWO doesn’t bother to clarify these small details. It doesn’t seem to understand that a class movement goes very quickly and that you have to assess the balance of forces between classes while it’s all happening. But the ICC should have “called for an alternative route and function to the march, ie to go to the factories in Paris and call for strike action in solidarity ...” We did call for solidarity from the enterprises of Paris. But if we understand the CWO, they say that the march was doomed in advance. Should we have denounced it and proposed another (where? On the TV? By pulling rabbits out of a hat?), and during the course of this alternative march, gone to the factories (which ones? None were on strike at the time)? The CWO has to make up its mind. Either a demonstration is doomed in advance, in which case one must rigorously denounce it with no ideas about ‘diverting’ it; or a demonstration has an important potential, in which case you don’t denounce it. As for the idea of an ‘alternative’ march, it’s as absurd as the suggestion of a handful of workers in Longwy who asked if we could put them up in Paris if 3,000 of them came down. To think that we could offer such an alternative today is to have one’s head in the clouds of rhetoric; it amounts to believing that we are in a quasi-insurrectional period. The question isn’t to imagine the impossible on paper, but to carry out everything that’s possible in practice.
The CWO thinks that it was possible for a revolutionary minority to divert this demonstration. Once again it neglects to say how and in what circumstances. It’s a strange conception the CWO seems to have -- seeing the revolution at every street corner the moment the infallible party gives the right directives, no matter what degree of maturity the class has reached.
However, despite the most refined, systematic sabotage, despite a service d’ordre of 3,000 CP heavies, despite the fragmentation of the most combative workers the moment they arrived in the outskirts of Paris, despite military-style dispersion in the streets around L’Opera, the 23 March wasn’t an empty procession like the sinister Mayday parades. On 23 March, the combativity of the workers couldn’t find an outlet through which to express itself, so it exploded into a fight in which hundreds of workers confronted the union service d’ordre. But here again the CWO has its own version of reality: “To go along and mindlessly join those workers in a futile fight with the CRS/CGT was an act of desperation” on the ICC’s part.
The CWO tries to paint a picture of a ‘mindless’ intervention which boiled down to going along to fight the cops alongside the workers in a ‘futile’ battle. Coming from any other publication this accusation wouldn’t be quite so astounding. Do we really need to affirm that our comrades didn’t go looking for a brawl, but defended themselves against the CRS charges like the other workers and alongside them? They retreated with the demonstrators until the march had been completely dispersed, all the while continuing to distribute leaflets and to discuss. The ICC has never exalted violence in itself, neither today nor tomorrow, as can be seen by the texts we have published on the period of transition. The CWO now reproaches us for being obliged to defend ourselves against the police, whereas in RP, No.13 it says “the ICC is under the growing influence of liberal and pacifist illusions” (p6). The CWO must decide. On the one hand it says that the ICC are ‘dreamers’ and ‘utopians’ because we are against violence within the class during the revolution (whereas the CWO, as if it were the schoolmaster of the revolution, is already rubbing its hands in expectation of the lesson in lead it’s going to give to the workers who don’t get it right). On the other hand, when the ICC confronts the police in a demonstration, the CWO finds this ‘mindless’. Confronting the police is ‘futile’, but killing each other is a truly revolutionary ‘tactic’!
We have said that the march on Paris could have been a concretization of the necessity to generalize the struggle, an occasion for showing the real strength of the working class. The fact that this potentiality wasn’t realized wasn’t because of us. Although we tried to put forward the idea of an on-the-spot assembly, the rapidity of the police charge combined with the dispersion organized by the unions prevented the thousands of workers who were unwilling to disperse from holding such a meeting.
The fact that the 23 March demonstration didn’t end up doing much more than what the unions wanted it to do doesn’t mean that it never had any potential. Despite all the sabotage that took place before the march, despite the fact that it was put off until after the strikes in Paris were over, it could still have turned out differently, as was shown a few days later at a demonstration in Dunkirk; here the union meeting which concluded the demonstration was transformed into a workers’ assembly where a significant number of workers denounced the unions. Following the CWO’s logic revolutionaries shouldn’t have participated in this demonstration because it was still contained by the unions and was in many ways much more ‘artificial’ than the 23 March demonstration. But this would have deprived them of the possibility of making an important and relatively effective intervention, as happened with the PCI which had a similar analysis to the CWO’s.
After the march, the ICC distributed to all the factories where it intervenes regularly a leaflet analyzing how the unions had carried out their sabotage. The leaflet said that the essential lesson of this struggle, in which the unions had unmasked themselves as defenders of the police against the anger of the workers, was that there was no other way forward for the workers except to go outside the unions.
For the CWO, the ICC’s intervention throughout the period of the French steelworkers’ struggle was simply the culmination “of a long series of political capitulation by the ICC”. This group doesn’t know how to measure its words. Apart from the fact that its remarks about what a “genuine (!) revolutionary intervention” would have looked like don’t stand up to scrutiny, nothing in what the ICC did justifies the charge of “political capitulation”. The ICC was faithful to its principles and to a coherent orientation. Agitation is a difficult weapon to master and you can only learn to do so in practice. We don’t claim that each of the seven leaflets we distributed in six weeks was a master-piece, but there’s absolutely nothing in any of the CWO’s criticisms which shows that we abandoned our principles. We are happy to note that the gentlemen who aspire to be the ‘leaders’ of the working class tomorrow recognize that the ICC’s intervention doesn’t have a substitutionist style. But when it comes to real practical questions they bring nothing precise to the discussion, and in the end their words are nothing but hot air.
The CWO ends its bad-faith assault on the ICC, by saying that on many vital issues facing revolutionaries today, such as “‘should they help in setting up unemployed circles?’, ‘Should they be in favor of workers’ groups?’, Should they attend unofficial international meetings of workers if there is still union influence in them?’ ... the ICC can only leave its members stumbling in the dark, and eventually collapsing into opportunism”. Here again it’s lost any sense of proportion. The CWO attended the ICC’s Third Congress where these questions were discussed, but the CWO seems to have been deaf at the time or has had amnesia since. It has to be said that when, as is the case with the CWO, you’re not used to elaborating political positions inside an international organization, and when you think monolithism is the best armour for a revolutionary organization, then you’re going to have a hard time finding your feet in a Congress where different proposals are inevitably put forward, and where there is a real confrontation of ideas. But if the CWO is already shut up in a watertight case today, what will it do in the whirlpool of the class struggle, when all the workers will feel the need to debate and discuss?
We don't pretend to have all the answers – no more than the CWO, who in a sudden outburst of realism, admit that they have “not yet formulated a total picture on these questions”. But in the questions posed above, the ICC has already replied yes in its own practice (cf the unemployed committees of Angers, the Rotterdam strike, the international dockers’ meeting in Barcelona). While we support every tendency towards the self organization of the working class, we must also know how to orientate these efforts, what dangers to avoid, what specific contribution to make. And in this we can only rely on our principles and on what we learn from experience.
It’s in this sense that we affirm the necessity to give our support to all the struggles which the proletariat wages on its own class terrain. We support the demands decided on by the workers themselves on the condition that they conform to the interests of the class. We reject the auctioneering games of the leftists (the unions and the left ask for 20 centimes, so the leftists ask for 25!) as well as the PCI’s absurd idea of making up a ‘list of demands’ instead of the workers.
The greatest obstacle facing workers’ struggles today is the union apparatus. In a period of rising class struggle we try to denounce the unions not only in a general, abstract way, but above all in a concrete manner, inside the struggle, showing how they sabotage the workers’ militancy on a day-to-day level.
The essential thing in any workers’ struggle today is the thrust towards extending it, towards forging the unity of the class against a decomposing capitalist system, towards going beyond categories, regions, and even nations. An isolated struggle can only end in defeat. The only way to force capital to retreat is to unify and generalize the struggle. Here the situation today is different from last century, when the length of a struggle was an essential factor in its success. Faced with a boss-class that was much more dispersed than it is today, stopping production for a long period could mean catastrophic economic losses for the enterprise and was thus an effective way of pressuring the owners. Today on the other hand, there is much greater solidarity between all sectors of the national capital, mainly under the aegis of the state, and this allows an enterprise to hold out much longer (especially in a moment of overproduction and excess stocks). Because of this, a struggle that goes on and on has every possibility of being lost, due to the economic difficulties facing the strikers and the exhaustion that eventually sets in. This is why the unions don’t mind playing the game of ‘class war’ and declaring ‘we’ll hold out for as long as it takes’. They know the struggle will be broken in the long run. On the other hand, it’s no accident that they will try to sabotage any move to generalize the struggle: what they fear more than any other section of the bourgeoisie is having to deal with a movement which doesn’t simply affect this or that sector of the class, but tends to generalize to the whole class, uncovering the fact that the struggle is between two antagonistic classes, not just between a group of workers and a boss. In such situations the bourgeoisie is faced with economic and political paralysis, which is why one of the most vital weapons of the struggle is the tendency towards extending itself, even if this doesn’t happen right away. The bourgeoisie is much more scared of strikers who go from one factory to another trying to convince their comrades to join the struggle, than of strikers who shut themselves up in one factory, even when they’re determined to hold out for two months.
The generalization of the struggle is the leitmotif of revolutionary intervention today because it is the prefiguration of the revolutionary battles that will embrace the whole class tomorrow.
In order to be able to wage the struggle outside and against the unions, the working class is organizing itself, in a hesitant manner at first, but nonetheless in a way that already allows us to foresee the general self-organization of the proletariat (cf the Rotterdam strike of September ‘79). With all our strength, we support these expressions which serve to enrich class consciousness on this vital issue.
As for the most combative workers, we stimulate them to regroup themselves, not to set-up new trade unions, or to lose themselves in a sterile apoliticism which comes from a lack of confidence in themselves, but in workers’ groups, action committees, collectives, co-ordinations, etc, meeting places between workers, open to all workers to discuss the basic questions facing the class. Without falling into over-enthusiasm and without bluffing, we can say that the formation of such combative minorities is a sign of the ferment going on in the whole class. Such minorities contribute to the development of class consciousness not so much through the individuals directly involved at a given moment, but through the historic thread which the class is once again taking up, by opening up discussion and debate in its own ranks.
On these questions as on the 23 March demonstration it has to be said there are no eternally valid recipes. Tomorrow many other expressions of class combativity will come to our attention, all of them showing the strength of the proletariat. Like the class as a whole, revolutionaries are faced with the most vital tasks: defending a perspective by taking a precise situation into account; knowing when to go from a general denunciation to a concrete denunciation based on the immediate facts; when to act at a faster pace; how to appreciate the real level of struggle; how to define, at each stage, the immediate goals, and how to relate these to the revolutionary perspective.
In the whole world today there are only a handful of revolutionary militants. We must have no illusions about revolutionaries having a direct influence today, nor about the difficulty the working class has in reappropriating Marxism. In the coming storms of the class struggle, in this work “of consciousness, will, passion and imagination that is the proletarian struggle”, revolutionaries will only be able to play a role “if they haven’t forgotten how to learn”.
1 In Jeune Taupe, no. 27, the PIC published a leaflet by a group of workers of Ericsson, and followed it with a critique in which it reproached these workers for opposing lay-offs, arguing that “It doesn’t seem that you can both ‘maintain employment’ and ‘do away with capitalism and wage labor’”.
2It’s important not to confuse reformism with the unions today. Reformism denied the necessity for revolution and posed instead the defense of the workers’ immediate interests, basing its policies on the illusions nourished by an expanding capitalism. The unions in the period of decadence aren’t even based on such illusions. While the unions have always been against the revolution, today they’ve also abandoned the defense of the workers’ immediate interests, converting themselves directly into organs of the capitalist state.