After the repression in Poland: Perspectives for the world class struggle
The 13 December military coup in Poland put an end to the most important episode in fifty years of struggle between the world working class and capital. Since the historic resurgence of the proletarian struggle at the end of the 1960s, the world working class has never gone so far in combativity, solidarity and self-organization. Never before has it used, on such a broad scale, that essential weapon of its struggle in the period of capitalist decadence: the mass strike. Never has it put such fear into the bourgeoisie, or compelled it to take such measures to defend itself. Today, the proletariat in Poland has been muzzled. Once again, it has spilled its blood, and in contrast to 1970 and 1976, the result has been to suffer even greater exploitation, poverty approaching famine, and unrestrained terror. Thus, this episode has ended in a defeat for the working class. But, while all the combined forces of the bourgeoisie have obliged the working class to withdraw from the stage in Poland, the world proletariat must draw all the lessons it can from this experience. The proletariat and its communist avant-garde must answer the question: where are we today? What is the perspective for the class struggle?
Poland 1980-81: The beginning of the years of truth
For several years now the ICC has been saying that the 1980s are the ‘years of truth' -- years in which "the reality of the world today will be revealed in all its nakedness", years which "will to a large degree, determine the future of humanity." (International Review no 20). This analysis didn't come from nowhere. It was based on a serious study of the evolution of capitalism's economic situation. We concretized this in our resolution on the international situation at the 3rd Congress of the ICC, in June 1979:
"After more than ten years of the slow but ineluctable deterioration of its economy and the failure of all its ‘salvage' plans, capitalism is supplying the proof to what Marxists have said for a long time: this system has entered into a phase of historic decline and it is absolutely incapable of surmounting the economic contradictions which assail it.
In the coming period, we are going to see a further deepening of the world crisis of capitalism, notably in the form of a new burst of inflation and a marked slowdown in production, which threatens to go far beyond the 1974-75 recession and lead to a brutal increase in unemployment." (International Review no 18)
The characterization of the 1980s as ‘years of truth' was also based on the fact that " ... after a period, of relative reflux during the mid-seventies the working class is once again tending to renew the combativity which it showed in a generalized and often spectacular manner after 1968 ... As it continues to force down the living standards of the proletariat, the crisis will oblige even the most hesitant workers to return to the path of struggle." (ibid).
The workers' struggles in Poland, which blew up in the summer of 1980 and which, for a year and a half after that, occupied a central position in the international situation, have up until now been the most important expression of this tendency towards a resurgence of class struggle.
They followed on from the social movements which, from 1978 onwards, had begun to hit a significant number of the industrialized countries -- USA (the Appalachian miners' strike), Germany (steel strike), Holland (dockers), France (the explosions in Longwy and Denain) and especially Britain, which in 1979 saw more strike days lost than in any year since 1926 (29 million). But only the struggles in Poland illustrated the "tendency to take off from the highest qualitative level reached by the last wave." (ibid)
The fact that the first great battles of the years of truth took place in Poland is the result of the weakness of the bourgeoisie in the so-called ‘socialist' countries. This weakness is expressed both on the economic and the political levels. The mass explosion of summer 1980 was the direct result of the economic catastrophe hitting Polish capital, which is one of the weakest links in all the poorly-developed, crisis-prone countries of the eastern bloc.
But this explosion could take place because the Polish bourgeoisie didn't have at its disposal one of the most essential weapons in its armory: a left wing team, which, thanks to its ‘working class' language and its place in the opposition, is able to derail and divert workers' struggles from within.
In the big working class concentrations of the west, which has also been hard hit by the crisis in recent years, as can be seen from, among other things, the level of unemployment (nearly 30 million in the OECD), the bourgeoisie has acted in a preventative manner against the tendency towards the resurgence of class struggle.
It has based its strategies fundamentally on the maneuvers of the left, the ‘workers' parties and the unions, whose essential task it is to immobilize the working class, to tie its hands while the government teams get on with the job of redoubling austerity. The clearest example of this has been in Britain. In 1978, faced with the class struggle, the Labor Party and the unions went into opposition, gave up the ‘social contract' which aimed at tying workers directly to the government, and started radicalizing their language against the policies of Thatcher. Thanks to this ‘left in opposition', the British bourgeoisie, one of the sharpest in the world, put an end to the struggles of 78-79, and in 80-81 largely silenced the working class just as it was suffering one of the most violent attacks in its history.
In Eastern Europe, the existing regimes, which are direct products of the counter-revolution, base their power essentially on police terror and don't have the same flexibility. In 1980 in Poland, faced with such a broad strike movement, and in an international context of rising class struggle, the bourgeoisie wasn't able to use bloody repression as it did in 1970 and 1976. In August it was thrown off-balance by the situation, and the proletariat exploited the gap in its line of defense by waging its most important struggles for half a century.
Thus, it wasn't just because of the gravity of the crisis and of the attack on workers' living conditions that the struggles in Poland could reach such heights. The inability of the local bourgeoisie to use the political weapons which have proved their worth in the west is a factor which at least is equally important in explaining the situation.
The ruling class only supplied itself with such a weapon in the heat of the battle -- through the creation of the Solidarity union. And the bourgeoisie had to wage its counteroffensive on an international scale. In August 1980, it also understood that we are entering the years of truth, and it began to accelerate its preparations to deal with them.
The bourgeoisie deploys its forces
Having understood the international dimension of its struggle against the proletariat, the bourgeoisie has been deploying its forces on an international scale. This has meant pushing its inter-imperialist rivalries into the background and using its real divisions as a way of sharing out the tasks in combating the working class.
In this share-out, the governments of the eastern bloc have had the job of intimidating the workers in the region through threats of intervention and violent repression by ‘big brother' Russia. These governments have also tried to turn other eastern bloc workers against the Polish workers through nationalist campaigns and slogans such as ‘the Poles are idle troublemakers', ‘that's why their economy is collapsing', ‘their agitation is the cause of our own economic difficulties'.
But the main brunt of the work has fallen to the big western powers, who have been carrying out a whole series of tasks:
-- economic aid to bankrupt Polish capital, notably through staggering its debts
-- making Moscow's campaign of intimidation more credible, mainly by warning against ‘any foreign intervention in Poland'; such warnings were widely broadcast in eastern Europe via Radio Free Europe and the BBC
-- Campaigns towards the western proletariat around the theme ‘the problem faced by the workers in Poland are specific to that country or that bloc' (owing to the gravity of the economic crisis, scarcity, totalitarianism, etc)
-- the left and the unions in the west giving political and material aid to the setting up of the Solidarity apparatus (sending funds, printing materials, delegations to teach the new-born union the techniques of sabotaging struggles ...)
-- systematic sabotage of workers' struggles in the west by these same organizations, using their classic weapons (‘days of action', dead-end ‘strikes', dividing the class into professional or geographic sectors), and also, more recently, the enormous pacificist campaigns which aim to steer into a hopeless impasse the workers' real and justified anxiety about the threat of war (cf. the article ‘Economic Crisis and Class Struggle' in IR no 28). It's worth pointing out that, to help in this job of sabotaging combativity, the unions in the west have been cashing in on Solidarity's popularity to refurbish their own image. What a good swap! The cynicism and duplicity of the bourgeoisie, especially of the left, knows no limits.
In Poland itself, this world-wide offensive against the working class had the following; result:
-- the development of the ‘independent union' to the detriment of the greatest conquest of August 1980: the mass strike, the self-organization of the struggle
-- the development of the nationalist, democratic and self-management illusions put about by Solidarity, and nourished by the passivity of the workers in other countries.
Contrary to the absurd notion that the Polish proletariat was about to embark upon a decisive struggle (even the revolution!), we must understand how, between August 1980 and December 1981, there was a gradual weakening of the class despite the huge stores of combativity that remained within it; we must understand why it was that the bourgeoisie waited for nearly a year and a half to unleash the repression. We must show clearly that the repression didn't take place because the bourgeoisie, and its agents within the proletariat, Solidarity, were being by-passed, but, on the contrary, because the proletariat was in a position of weakness against the bourgeoisie's offensive. And this weakness revealed itself on a world scale.
A defeat for the working class
The declaration of martial law in Poland was a defeat for the working class. It would be illusory and even dangerous to hide this. Only the blind or the unconscious could claim any different. It was a defeat because, in Poland itself, the workers are now being jailed, deported, terrorized, forced to work with a gun at their heads for a wage that is even more miserable than it was before. The resistance they put up for several weeks after the coup, for all its courage and determination, was doomed to failure.
The various forms of passive resistance will themselves be overcome in the long term, because they don't come out of a mass movement, out of collective, organized class action. They are the work of a sum of workers atomized by terror and repression.
It's a defeat because, in Poland, the proletariat allowed itself to be deceived and demobilized by mystifications put about by the bourgeoisie, and because its most pernicious enemy, Solidarity, wasn't exposed clearly enough -‑ in fact, it's now got the blessing of a martyr's halo. The repression the workers are now suffering doesn't really give them the means to draw the lessons of this experience, to see clearly what's at stake in the struggle.
It was finally and most fundamentally a defeat because the coup is hitting the workers of all countries in the form of demoralization, of a real disorientation and confusion in the face of the campaigns unleashed by the bourgeoisie after 13 December, in full continuity with the preceding campaigns.
The world proletariat suffered this defeat from the moment when capitalism, in a concerted manner, succeeded in isolating the workers of Poland from the rest of the world proletariat, in ideologically pinning the working class down behind the frontiers between blocs (the ‘socialist' countries of the east) and countries (Poland is a Polish affair); from the moment when, using all the means to hand, it turned the workers of other countries into spectators -- anxious but passive -- and prevented them from giving vent to the only real form of class solidarity: the generalization of the struggle to all countries. Instead, the bourgeoisie made a hideous caricature of solidarity: sentimental demonstrations, humanist petitions, Christian charity with its Christmas parcels.
The non generalization of the workers' struggle is a defeat in itself. This is the first and most essential lesson of the Polish events.
The 13 December coup, its preparation and its aftermath, was victory for the bourgeoisie. For the working class, it has been a painful example of the effectiveness of capital's worldwide strategy of the ‘left in opposition'. This illustrates once again the fact that in the decadent period of capitalism, the bourgeoisie doesn't confront the working class in the same way it did last century. At that time the defeats and bloody repressions inflicted on the proletariat didn't leave any ambiguities about who were its friends and who were its enemies. This was certainly the case with the Paris Commune, and even with the 1905 revolution which, while already presaging the battles of this century (the mass strike and the workers' councils) still contained many of the characteristics of the previous century (especially with regard to the methods used by the bourgeoisie). Today, however, the bourgeoisie only unleashes open repression after a whole ideological preparation, in which the unions and the left play a decisive role, and which is aimed at undermining the proletariat's capacity to defend itself and at preventing it from drawing all the necessary lessons from the repression.
Capitalism has not renounced the use of open, brutal repression against the proletariat, and never will. It is its most favored weapon in the backward countries, where the proletariat is least concentrated. But it's not limited to these regions. Everywhere, it is the weapon used to complete a victory over the proletariat, to dissuade it from reviving its struggle for as long as possible, to ‘set an example' to the class as a whole, to demoralize it. This was the function of the 13 December coup in Poland.
However, in the big working class concentrations, the most essential weapon of the bourgeoisie is the ideological one. This is why the proletariat must guard itself against an accumulation of ideological defeats like the one it has just been through, because this could sap the combativity of its decisive battalions and prevent it from embarking upon a frontal assault against capitalism.
What is the perspective?
As the first major attack on the capitalist citadel in these years of truth, the workers struggle of summer 1980 in Poland was an appeal to the world proletariat -- even if its protagonists weren't conscious of it.
Drowned by all the noise of bourgeois propaganda, this appeal for the generalization of the struggle wasn't heard. On the contrary, if, for example, we look at the statistics for the number of strike days (this is not an absolute criterion, but it still indicates certain tendencies), the years 1980 and 1981 are among the lowest expressions of class combativity since 1968. At the moment, in the big capitalist powers like the USA and Germany, the bourgeoisie is able to impose major reductions in living standards without much reaction from the workers (cf. the agreements in the US motor industry, and in steel in Germany). The ‘cordon sanitaire' the world bourgeoisie has built around the Polish disease has been effective. Somewhat caught on the hop by August 1980, the bourgeoisie has clearly won this first confrontation.
Does this mean that the proletariat is already beaten, that right now the bourgeoisie has a free hand to impose its own solution to the crisis of its system; an imperialist holocaust?
This is not the case. However cruel, the defeat the proletariat has been through in Poland is only a partial one. The very reasons that made this first battle of the years of truth take place in Poland (the weakness of the economy and the regime), that allowed the bourgeoisie to isolate the struggle so easily (Poland being a second rank country relatively peripheral to the main concentrations of the proletariat) -- these very reasons mean that the battle in Poland was not a decisive one. The defeat was partial because the confrontation was partial. It was as though a particular detachment of the proletariat was sent out in a preliminary skirmish. But the main body of the army, based in the huge industrial concentrations of the west, and notably in Germany, has not yet entered into the fray. And it is precisely to prevent this happening that the western bourgeoisie is developing its current campaigns, with Reagan as the conductor of the orchestra (it's not by chance that the media talks about the ‘Reagan show').
This campaign is in continuity with the one which was set up well before 13 December and which in fact made the coup possible.
The only difference is that before, the campaign was simultaneously aimed at the workers in the west and the workers in Poland, since the latter were in the front line of the class struggle; now, the western bourgeoisie is fundamentally aiming at the proletariat of its own bloc. Having silenced the most combative detachment of the world proletariat, capital now has to direct its ideological attack towards the most important battalions -- those on whom the ultimate outcome of the class war depends.
This is why we shouldn't see these campaigns as direct ideological preparations for war. Certainly, both blocs will use every opportunity to win points in this sphere, because the conflict between the blocs never disappears. Furthermore it is clear that the final outcome of a general defeat for the proletariat would be a new imperialist holocaust. However, it is important to underline the fact that the main objective of the present campaign is to prevent proletarian upsurges in the main capitalist metropoles, by trying to tie the workers of the west to the wheels of the ‘democratic' state. The use of the line about the ‘totalitarianism of the eastern bloc' doesn't have the immediate function of sanctioning a war-footing against the other bloc; it is aimed at demobilizing workers' struggles, which is the essential precondition for mobilizing the workers for war.
Just as in the pacifist campaigns the fear of war is exploited to take the proletariat off its own class terrain, so in the present ‘Reagan show' divisions between the blocs and between countries are used to destroy the workers' combativity. What we are seeing now is not a division between sectors of the bourgeoisie, but a division of labor between these sectors.
What are the chances of success for this campaign of the bourgeoisie?
Even if the bourgeoisie doesn't have a free hand to bring about its war-like response to the crisis, isn't there the danger that the bourgeoisie will keep the ideological cards stacked in its favor until the point is reached where it can completely and definitively stifle the workers' combativity?
This danger exists and we have already referred to it. But it's important to point out the assets which the proletariat still has, and which distinguish the present situation from those which existed on the eve of the 1914 war or in the 1930's, when the balance of forces swing in favor of the bourgeoisie. In both cases, the proletariat had been beaten directly in the big metropoles (in particular, those of western Europe: Germany, France, Britain) -- either on the purely ideological level (as on the eve of 1914, due to the weight of reformism and the betrayal of the socialist parties), or on both the ideological and the physical levels (as after the terrible defeat of the 1920s).
This isn't the case today, where the proletarian generations in the main industrial centers haven't suffered a physical defeat, where democratic and anti-fascist mystifications don't have the same impact as in the past, where the myth of the ‘socialist fatherland' is moribund, where the old workers' parties, now gone over to the enemy (CPs and SPs), have less capacity to mobilize the proletariat than they did when they first betrayed the class.
It's for all these reasons that the proletariat's reserves of combativity are still practically intact -- and, as we have seen in Poland, these reserves are enormous.
The bourgeoisie cannot hold down this combativity forever, despite all the campaigns, maneuvers, and mystifications it can use on an international scale. To be effective, all mystifications must be based on a semblance of truth. But the mystifications the bourgeoisie has used so far to prevent the world working class engaging in massive struggles are going to be attacked head-on by the aggravation of the crisis:
-- the myth of the ‘socialist states', which was once a major instrument for mobilizing the working class behind its enemies, is now on its last legs, due to the economic chaos in these countries, the growing misery this imposes on the workers there, and the social explosions which result from all this;
-- the idea that there are national or bloc ‘specificities' -- which allowed the proletariat in Poland to be isolated -- will be pulverized more and more by the leveling down of the economic conditions in all countries, and of the living conditions of all workers;
-- the illusion that by accepting sacrifices you can prevent an even worse situation (an illusion which weighed on the American and German workers when they agreed to wage cuts in exchange for so--called job security) cannot indefinitely stand up against the inexorable deterioration of the economic situation;
-- the belief in the virtues of this or that miraculous potion (‘supply-side economies', nationalizations, self-management, etc) that are supposed , if not to solve the economic crisis (we've already gone beyond that) then at least stop things getting worse -- this belief is also taking a hard battering from the real facts.
More generally, all the ideological pillars of the system are being undermined by the economic collapse:
-- all the great politicians' phrases about ‘civilization', ‘democracy', the ‘rights of man', ‘national solidarity', ‘human brotherhood', ‘security', ‘the future of society', appear more and more as they really are: vulgar blusterings, cynical lies;
-- to growing masses of workers, including those in what till now have been the most ‘prosperous' countries, the present system is showing its true nature, and to them is becoming synonymous with barbarism, state terror, egoism, insecurity and despair.
Despite (and because of) the terrible ordeals which the aggravation of the crisis is imposing on the proletariat, the crisis is an asset for the proletariat. All the more because the present crisis is developing in a way that is much more likely to open the proletariats' eyes than the crisis of 1929. After the violent collapse at the beginning of the 1930s, for several years capitalism gave the illusion that it was recovering thanks to the massive intervention of the state and the development of a war economy. This ‘recovery' ended in 1938 but it allowed the bourgeoisie to complete the demobilization of the proletariat, which was already considerably weakened by the defeats of the 1920s, and drag it bound hand and foot into the second imperialist butchery.
Today on the other hand the bourgeoisie has already exhausted all its neo-Keynesian measures and has had a fully developed war economy for decades. It can no longer offer society any illusions about a recovery the inexorable nature of the crisis is becoming clearer and clearer. This has now reached the point where the most fervent academic defenders of capitalism, the economists, are admitting; their total impotence. After the Nobel Prize-winning ‘neo-Keynesian', Paul Samuelson announced sadly in 1977 "the crisis of economic science", his rival, the ‘monetarist' Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman confessed in September 1977 "I no longer understand what's happening" (Newsweek).
If the recession of 1971 was followed by a euphoric recovery up until 1973, the 1974-75 recession was followed by an anemic recovery, and the recession which began in 1980 has continued to get worse, giving the lie to all predictions about a new recovery. This really is the end of all the potions administered during the 1970s to hold off the trend towards bankruptcy. Today all these potions just make things worse. Confronted with an over-production of commodities, the big capitalist powers have tried to sell the excess by using and abusing credit. The result is worth noting: between ‘71 and ‘81, the total debt of the Third World went from 86.6 to 524 billion dollars, with a rise of 118 billion in 1981 alone. Most of these countries have simply stopped paying. In the country of the ‘miracle' Brazil -- now a champion of debt -- out of every 100 dollars loaned to it, only 13 are invested in productive activity. The other 87 go to pay the interest and redemption on previous debts. But the indebtedness of the Third World is only a part of the grand world total, which is now well past 1000 billion. This is how capitalism tried to overcome the crisis in the ‘70s: The bankruptcy of the whole world economy. Although the origins of the crisis reside in the centre of capitalism, the countries where it is most highly developed, the latter have for over a decade been attempting to push its most brutal effects towards the periphery of the system. But as the waves on the surface of a basin return to the centre after reaching the edges, the most violent convulsions of the crisis are now returning with redoubled force to hit the capitalist metropoles, including that ‘model' country, Germany, once the envy of the world, now suffering one of the steepest increases in unemployment throughout Europe.
Now that the proletariat of the metropoles is being hit by the full force of the crisis it will be compelled to take up the struggle on once again, despite all the maneuvers of the left in opposition, which in the long run will inevitably be worn out. In this it will be following on from the workers in the more peripheral countries (Brazil ‘78-‘79 and Poland ‘80-‘81 for example). But the bourgeoisie won't be able to isolate the proletariat of the main metro-poles as easily as it did with the Polish proletariat.
The conditions are emerging, therefore, for a real, world-wide generalization of workers' struggles, the necessity for which has been highlighted by the events in Poland. This generalization isn't merely a qualitative step in the development of the class struggle. It is truly a qualitative step that the proletariat is going to have to take. Only such a step
-- will enable the class to surmount the nationalist, trade unionist, and democratic illusions, peddled mainly by the left, which weigh so heavily on the proletariat
-- will enable the class to counter-act the solidarity and co-operation of the bourgeoisie against the class struggle
-- will create the conditions in which the problem of overthrowing the capitalist state, of the seizure of power by the proletariat, can really be posed (contrary to those like the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste, who already say it is the task of the Polish workers to take up arms)
-- will give the proletariat the means to become aware of its strength, of the fact that its struggle represents the only hope for the whole of humanity, The real significance of the proletariat's current struggles is that they are a preparation for the communist revolution -- the idea of which is once again becoming familiar to the class after being eclipsed for over half-a-century.
It is because the crisis is now hitting the big capitalist metropoles head-on that this generalization is becoming possible. The road will be long and hard and will contain more defeats, partial but still painful. The main battle lies ahead; for a long time yet, the proletariat will come up against the sabotage of the left, in particular its ‘radical' expressions, such as rank-and-file unionism. Only after breaking out of the many traps of the left will it be able to frontally attack the capitalist state and destroy it.
A long and difficult battle is beginning, but there is very reason to think that, in alliance with the irreversible collapse of the capitalist economy, the proletariat will be equal to winning it.
 See the report on the historic course to the 3rd Congress of the ICC (IR 18)
 See the text on the conditions for the generalization of workers' struggles, IR 26.