Where is The Class Struggle Going? Towards the end of the post-Poland retreat

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"Proletarian revolutions, like those of the nine­teenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerci­ful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been cre­ated which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out; Hic Rhodus, hic saltar!"[1]

The years of truth, the 1980s, began with a major explosion of the class struggle. The August 1980 mass strike in Poland, clashing with enormous force against the state, showed that the open struggle between the proletariat and the ruling class had become, and would more and more become, the basic characteristic of the coming period. However, the Polish workers found them­selves isolated. Between 1980 and 1982 the number of workers' struggles, in particular in the most industrialized countries, has tended to diminish more and more. How are we to understand this retreat at precisely the time when the world crisis of capitalism is visibly accelerating? What is the perspective for the class struggle?

1968-1982: 15 years of economic crisis and workers' struggles

The proletarian struggle can only be understood by seeing it in its world-wide, historical dim­ension: it's not a mosaic of national movements with no past or future. In order to grasp the present movement of the world class struggle we must first of all situate it in its historic con­text, in particular that of the general movement which began with the breakthrough in 1968.

By understanding the dynamic of the relationship between the classes in these years of the open economic crisis of decadent capitalism, we can draw out perspectives for the class struggle.

1968-1982: Fifteen years of economic crisis and workers' struggles

Concerning this balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, we can broadly speaking distinguish four phases within the 1968-­82 period[2]:

1968-74: development of the class struggle

1975-78: reflux, counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie

1978-80: revival of struggle

1980-82: reflux, counter-offensive

1968-74: The break with half a century of triumphant counter-revolution

The thunderbolt of a ten-million strong strike in France in May-June 1968 opened up a period of proletarian struggles which marked a clear break with 50 years of counter-revolution. Since the mid-‘20s, the workers of the entire world had carried the scars of the crushing of the revol­utionary wave that broke out at the end of the First World War, Stalinism, fascism, anti-Stalinism, anti-fascism, the ideology of national liberation movements, bourgeois democracy -- all this had kept the workers in a state of atomization, of material and ideological subordination, and even of mobilization behind the flags of differ­ent national capitals.

On the eve of 1968, ‘fashionable' thinkers were theorizing the ‘disappearance of the working class' into ‘embourgeoisification' and the so-called ‘consumer society'.

The 1968-75 wave of struggles which, in varying degrees, hit virtually all countries (both dev­eloped and under-developed) was in itself a striking rebuttal of all theorizations about ‘eternal social peace'. And this was by no means its least achievement. From Paris to Cordoba in Argentina, from Gdansk to Detroit, from Shanghai to Lisbon, 1968-75 was the workers' response to the first shocks of the world economic crisis, which capitalism was now sinking into after completing twenty years of post-war reconstruc­tion.

This first great period of struggle posed right away all the problems the proletariat was going to come up against in future years: encapsulation by the unions and the so-called ‘workers' parties', illusions in the possibilities of a new prosper­ity for capitalism or the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy, the national vision of the reality of the class struggle. In short, the difficulty of developing working class autonomy and self-organization against the political forces of the bourgeois state.

But generally speaking, these confrontations did not represent a break with the illusions of a period when the reality of the economic crisis was only just coming to the surface.

For twenty years capitalism had been through a period of relative economic stability. The idea that it was possible to go back to this situation was still predominant, all the more so because in 1972-73 western capitalism was able to come out of the 1970-71 recession by ridding itself of the constraints of a fixed rate of exchange and of convertibility of the dollar. This gave rise to an unprecedented burst of ‘growth'.

Between 1968 and 1974, unemployment grew noticably in many western countries, but it was still at a relatively low level[3]. The attacks suff­ered by the working class in this period took place mainly at the level of consumer prices[4].

Faced with the rising class struggle, the left forces of the bourgeoisie were able to radicalize their language and readapt their structures in order to, in one way or another, keep control of the struggles. The example of the Italian unions during the ‘hot autumn' of 1969 is perhaps one of the most significant and spectacular examples of this: after being violently contested by assem­blies of workers in struggle, they responded by setting up ‘factory councils' composed of deleg­ates from the base, in order to reassert their power in the factories.

This was to prove insufficient as the economic crisis picked up speed again in ‘74-‘75 the bourgeoisie had to impose new sacrifices on the exploited class,, Starting from the still-power­ful illusion of a ‘return to prosperity' (an illusion which still captivated the bourgeoisie itself), it successfully developed the perspect­ive of the ‘left in power'.

Through this first wave of struggles the world proletariat marked its return to the centre-stage of history. But the evolution of the objective situation didn't allow the revolutionary class understand the overall perspective and resolve the problems posed by the struggle.

1975-78: The counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie. The Left in power

The 1974-75 recession, which the press called the ‘oil crisis', marked the beginning of the real effects of the crisis. It brought about profound changes in social life. Restrictions on working class living standards became more and more noticeable. Unemployment rose irreversibly in Europe and, while it diminished momentarily in the USA, it still remained at a high level.

Using the pretext of energy shortages, the bourgeoisie starting talking about restrictions, sacrifices, austerity. It cultivated the illusion that if the crisis was managed by the political parties of the left, by parties ‘close to the workers', the workers' sacrifices would be put to proper use and inequalities would be reduced.

In 1976, left parties had already formed govern­ments in the USA, in Britain, in Germany. In France the left had a growing number of elect­oral victories and developed the theme ‘no strikes -- otherwise we will frighten the popul­ation and prevent the victory of the left'. In Italy, after a number of electoral triumphs, the Italian Communist Party had a share in power through the ‘historic compromise' with the Christian Democrat government. In most countries, the number of strikes went down. Reality, however, began to undermine the old illusions. The econ­omic crisis got deeper and deeper. The electoral victories of the left parties changed nothing. Calls for sacrifices increased, even though it was becoming more and more obvious that they had no effect.

By 1978, the signs already indicated that this period of reflux was over.

1978-80: The second wave of struggles: Poland

At the beginning of 1981, we wrote about this "second wave ... led ... by the American miners in 1978, the French steelworkers at the start of 1979, the Rotterdam dockworkers in autumn ‘79, the British steelworkers at the start of 1980, as well as the Brazilian metalworkers throughout this period. The present movement of the Polish proletariat belongs to this second wave of str­uggles." (The International Dimension of the Workers' Struggle in Poland, IR 24)

The workers' struggles which preceded the ones in Poland were less numerous than those in 1968-74. But when one looks at them as a whole it becomes clear that they summarized in just over a year the essential experiences of the first wave of struggles.

By confronting or even overflowing the unions, like the US miners, by creating in the struggle a form of self-organization independent of the unions, as with the Rotterdam port workers, by trying to take the struggle to the centers of power and to the main concentrations of the class, like the French steelworkers with their ‘march on Paris', by making solidarity the key to their fight like the British steelworkers with their flying pickets; all these battles took up many of the problems of the struggle at the level they had been left at by the clashes in the first wave.

The mass strike in Poland brought practical answers to many of these problems. The mass strike showed the capacity of the proletariat to unite, to fight without regard to differences of category or sector. It demonstrated the workers' capacity for self-organization by creating assemblies and committees of delegates on a scale never reached during the first wave. Above all, it illustrated concretely how by unifying, generalizing and organizing its struggles the proletariat could form itself into a power capable of standing up to and even pushing back the most totalitarian of governments.

But by developing this force, by throwing the national government (and with it the entire Russian military bloc) into disarray, the proletariat found itself at a higher level of confrontation with the state. Not since the 192Os had the working class imposed such a political balance of forces on the bourgeoisie.

The struggles in Poland showed clearly that when the confrontation between the classes has reached this level, things no longer operate at a purely national level. The bourgeoisie confronted the Polish proletariat with all the economic, military and ideological forces it possesses on an international scale. Even if the workers weren't always aware of this, they were still faced head-on with the real consequences of their own power: if they were to, in their turn, answer the bourg­eoisie's riposte, if they were going to take their struggle forward -- the only alternative to retreating -- they would have to proceed to the international generalization of the proletarian struggle.

This generalization was indispensable not only for the obvious military and economic reasons but above all because it was a precondition for the development of the consciousness of the Pol­ish workers themselves.

The workers in Poland were still prisoners of two major mystifications: nationalism and illus­ions in bourgeois democracy (the fight for a legal union, etc). Only a massive struggle by the workers of the other eastern countries, and above all of the main industrialized countries of the west, could have given the Polish workers a practical demonstration of the possibility of an international unification of the proletariat; and thus aided them to break out of a national perspective and to understand the divisive, anti-proletarian character of any nationalist ideology and the illusory, dictatorial nature of bourgeois ‘democracy' with its western-style unions and parliaments.

Like its material being, the consciousness of the proletariat has a world-wide reality. It cannot develop independently in one single country. The Polish workers could only pose the problem of international generalization in an objective manner. Only the proletariat of other industrialized countries, in particular of Western Europe, could have responded in practice. This was the principal lesson of the proletarian movement in Poland.

1980-82: The new bourgeoisie counter-offensive: the Left in opposition. Retreat in the workers' struggle

When the mass strike broke out in Poland in Aug­ust 1980, the western bourgeoisie had already begun its counter-offensive against the new wave of struggles. It had begun to reorganize the line-up of its political forces. Priority was given to strengthening its apparatus for con­trolling the proletariat on the terrain of the factory and the street. As illusions crumbled, left governments gave way to right-wing govern­ments which spoke a ‘frank', firm, threatening language. Thatcher and Reagan became the sym­bols of this new language. The parties of the left went back into the opposition in order to safeguard their function of controlling prol­etarian movements, putting themselves at the head of struggles and keeping them within the stifling logic of the ‘national interest'.

The way the world bourgeoisie faced up to the struggles of the workers in Poland, the international campaigns it waged to hide the real significance of these struggles, show the essential characteristics of this counter-off­ensive.

In Poland itself we saw the construction of the apparatus of Solidarnosc with the collaboration, financial support and sage advice of all the unions of the US bloc, supported by their govern­ments. This left in opposition ‘a la Polonnaise' exploited the ‘anti-Russian' feelings of the pop­ulation in order to imprison the workers in a nationalist view of their struggle. It became systematic in derailing workers' struggles against poverty and increased exploitation into battles for a ‘democratic Poland'. It became ad­ept in maintaining order and openly sabotaging strikes in the name of the national economy and social peace (cf Bydgoszcz) without losing too much credibility. It was able to do this:

-- thanks to the development of a radical wing of the unions, capable of putting itself at the head of movements which opposed the union lead­ership, and thus of keeping such movements in a trade unionist framework;

-- thanks to the government's ‘anti-Solidarnosc' line, which always meant that Solidarnosc could appear as a victim and a martyr.

Complementarily and a division of labor between government and opposition in order to deal with the proletariat; complementarily and a division of labor within the forces of the left, between a ‘moderate' leadership and a ‘radical' union and political base: Poland was a living laboratory for the bourgeoisie's counter-offensive.

The way the bourgeoisie confronted the struggles of the Belgian steelworkers at the beginning of 1982, and those of the Italian workers in January 1983, was almost like a schematic carica­ture of what it had done in Poland: the government moves to the right and acts tough, the left in opposition radicalizes its language using rank and file unionism to control movements which tend to question the union prison.


On the international level, the campaign organized by the western bourgeoisie around Poland is a typical example of the series of ideological campaigns which is being orchestrated on an international level and which has the conscious objective of disorientating and demoralizing the working class[5].

In order to disfigure the example of the Polish workers' response to the world economic crisis, in order to counteract the tendency for the wor­kers of the whole world to recognize themselves in the combativity of the Polish workers, the western bourgeoisie (with the explicit collabor­ation of the bourgeoisie of the east) used every­thing from the ‘Reagan show' to the Pope to put across its message: ‘the struggle of the Polish workers has nothing to do with your situation; its aim is to be able to live like we do in the west'. Walesa was made an international star so that he could say to workers in the west: ‘we're not fighting to abolish exploitation but so that we can have a regime like yours'.

The imposition of martial law on 13th December was the first result of this counter-offensive. The ensuing campaigns aimed at spreading confus­ion and fear -- over E1 Salvador, the Falklands, terrorism, the war in the Lebanon -- helped to prolong and extend its effects on workers' com­bativity.

This counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the ‘80s hasn't just been an ideo­logical one. Bureaucratic and police repression has advanced in a spectacular way. All the gov­ernments have set up various kinds of ‘anti-riot' brigades, and there has been increased inter­national cooperation amongst the police to deal with those who threaten the ‘security' of the state.

But the worst form of repression hitting the workers is none other than the effects of the economic crisis itself: hours of queuing outside shops, and the jungle of the black market in the eastern bloc; in the west, the misery of unem­ployment and the threat of losing your job for those still working.

The violent acceleration of the crisis between 1980 and 1982 has meant, in concrete terms, a reinforcement of everything that keeps the wor­kers atomized and in competition with one another. In this initial period the world bourgeoisie has been able to exploit this to its advantage.

In the main western countries, the number of strikes fell sharply in 1980. In 1981, in countries as important for the class struggle as the US, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, the num­ber of strikes was either the lowest or one of the lowest for over ten years.

As in the mid-70s, the bourgeoisie has managed to erect a dam against the rising flood of class combativity.

But the dams of the bourgeoisie are made with un­stable materials, and the floods they are supp­osed to hold back have their origins in the most profound historic needs of humanity.

The objective and subjective factors which the most recent counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie has been based upon are being worn out as the economic system disintegrates at a faster and faster rate.

Perspective: towards the end of the retreat

Speaking very generally, the bourgeoisie -- like all exploiting classes in history -- has ensured its power:

a) through the capacity of its economic system to provide the exploited, producer class with the minimum required for its subsistence;

b) through its ideological domination;

c) through repression.

But when the economic base begins to collapse and the historic obsolescence of its relations of production becomes clearer with each passing day, the material underpinnings of the ideological power of the ruling class disappear. In such con­ditions, simple repression to maintain ‘order' and profitability is revealed more and more as the barbaric defense of the privileges of a min­ority.

This has been the general tendency since the beg­inning of the crisis which opened up at the end of the ‘60s, and it has accelerated considerably since the beginning of the ‘80s.

The conditions that have determined the present retreat in the class struggle are bound to crumble, because the overall tendency today is not towards a greater unity between bourgeoisie and proletariat but on the contrary towards the exacerbation of the antagonisms between the two main classes in society.

In fifteen years the contradictions and tensions provoked by the crisis of decadent capitalism have sharpened more and more: the contradictions between the necessity and possibility of the dev­elopment of the productive forces on the one hand, and the laws and social institutions which constrain the use of these forces on the other; the contradiction between the concrete reality of a decomposing, ruined society, and the domin­ant ideology which continues to sing its praises; the contradiction between the interests of the immense majority of the population, who are sub­jected to increasing poverty, and those of the minority who manage and profit from capital; the contradiction between the objective necessity for the world communist revolution and the strength­ening of capitalist repression.

Before 1968 the bourgeoisie could make people believe that capitalism had become an eternal system without economic crises; in 1975-78 it could still put out the idea that the crisis was only temporary and could be overcome by economies in oil and the restructuring of ind­ustry; at the end of the ‘70s it could develop the line that by ‘working more and earning less' the workers would help to keep unemployment down. But today reality is making it clearer and clearer that all these are simply myths whose function is to safeguard the system.

It's the same with the mystifications which have weighed on the world proletariat for decades, especially during the crisis in the ‘30s: the ‘working class' nature of the eastern bloc reg­imes (the struggles in Poland played a decisive part in destroying this lie); the ‘progressive' character of national liberation struggles; the capacity of electoral mechanisms and of the ‘workers' parties to prevent the intensification of exploitation and poverty; the myth of the benevolent state.

As a result of all this, the effectiveness of the great ideological campaigns of the world bourgeoisie has become more and more precarious. The workers believe less and less in the ideological values which justify the capitalist system.

How does this affect the workers' struggle itself?

Whether we're talking about the weakening of the proletariat in Poland, which was caught up in the impasse of nationalism and of illusions in west­ern-style democracy, or about the isolation of the Belgian steelworkers' struggle at the begin­ning of 1982, or about the inability to unite the movements of the class in Italy at the beginning of 1983, the reality of the class struggle shows clearly that the workers' struggle in the years to come will be faced with two basic and inter­dependent problems:

a) the necessity to generalize the struggle;

b) the necessity not to allow the struggle to be led by the forces of the left of capital that work inside the class: the question of self‑organization.


In August 1980, the Polish workers demonstrated in practice two essential truths of the workers' struggle:

-- the working class can generalize the struggle by itself without recourse to any union apparatus;

-- only the power given by generalization can push back the might of the state.

The international isolation of the movement in Poland for over a year also showed that the wor­kers' struggle can only develop its real potent­ial if it generalizes across national frontiers.

In this sense, the perspective drawn up at the beginning of the ‘80s by the struggles in Poland is that of generalization on an international scale.

This perspective depends fundamentally on the action of the proletariat of Western Europe, because of its number, its power, its experience .... and the fact that it is divided up into a multitude of small nations. This isn't something that's going to happen overnight. Generalization on this scale will inevitably be preceded by a whole series of struggles on a local, ‘national' scale: only such experiences will demonstrate, in practice, the vital, indispensable need for international generalization.

The recent struggles in Belgium and Italy both showed spontaneous tendencies towards generalization. In effect, the European proletariat is preparing itself to follow the party opened up in August 1980. But to do this it still has to gain its own experiences of struggle.

The more it enters upon this path the more it will find itself up against a wall of mystifications that has been built systematically by the union organizations and the political for­ces of the bourgeois left.

The Left inside the workers' ranks

The movements in Poland in 1981 and in Belgium in 1982 illustrate concretely how the radical forces of the bourgeois left can divert a push towards generalization and lead it into an impasse.

When the state of siege was declared in Poland, the consequences of international isolation app­eared in all their naked violence. The necessity to appeal to workers of other countries emerged as a crucial question. Solidarnosc and its rad­ical forces were able to derail this necessity into appeals to the bourgeois governments of the west (cf the banners displayed in December 1981 in the shipyards of Szetzin).

In Belgium, in the assemblies of steelworkers in different towns, more and more criticisms were being made of the union leadership, and there was a real push towards direct unification and generalization of the struggle. But the radical tendencies in the unions were able to nut them­selves at the head of these movements and channel them into ‘united' actions under the control of the central union machinery and carefully isol­ated from all the other sectors of the working class.

Until its final emancipation, the proletariat will have these skilful forces of the ruling class within its own ranks. But, pushed by the necessity to react against the attacks of the system in crisis, the class will learn to fight them and destroy them in the same way as it learns anything else: through the experience of the struggle.

There will certainly have to be many partial battles and temporary defeats before the class is fully able to take things in its own hands and move towards generalization. It's a process that is taking place on a world level and in it, as Marx said, the workers will constantly "return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin the task again."

Towards the revival of the struggle

Hesitations and momentary retreats are inevitable in the development of the struggle of an exploit­ed class. What has to be understood is that, through its ups and downs, the general tendency of the struggle over the past fifteen years -- a tendency strengthened at the beginning of the ‘80s -- is towards a break with the dominant ideo­logy, towards more numerous and violent clashes with the left of capital, towards the generalization of the fight.

The worst of the economic crisis is still in front of us. Its effects, the attacks it will provoke on the world working class, are going to get more and more intense, forcing the workers to raise their struggle onto a higher, more global level.

Unemployment, the main effect of the crisis, which hits the workers as one of the worst forms of repression (whether directly or in the shape of a threat) , can momentarily hold back the struggle. By making the workers compete with each other for jobs, it can make the unification of the proletariat more difficult. But it cannot prevent it. On the contrary: the struggle against lay-offs, against the living conditions of the unemployed, will constitute one of the main starting-points of coming workers' struggles. What can, in an initial period, act as a barrier will be transformed into a factor of accelera­tion, compelling the workers, employed and un­employed, to see their struggle in an increas­ingly general manner, to more and more take on the political, social and revolutionary content of their struggle.

The very gravity and breadth of the system's crisis will -- to cite Marx again -- force the workers to "shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which any retreat is impossible, and the conditions them­selves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta!"           RV

[1] Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. "Rhodes is here. Leap here and now" is a Latin proverb inspired by a fable of Aestop. Its meaning is: the time has come to show that you're capable of.

[2] It's not always easy to determine precisely periods in history. There is no strict simultaneity in the social crisis in all countries. according to economic development, geographical factors, the political conditions in this or that part of the globe, the general international tendencies of the class struggle manifest themselves more or less rapidly and with more or less breadth and intensity. In this sense, to say that ‘this year marked the end of the period of retreat and the beginnings of a class resurgence' doesn't mean that in the year in question all the workers of the world broke out of their atomization and entered into struggle. The point is to determine the reference points which indicate the general tendencies of the world movement. Moreover, the life of the class struggle in the most concentrated and experienced forces of the proletariat and of the bourgeoisie, inevitably has a preponderant place in determining such periods.

[3] The average rate of unemployment in industrialized countries of the western bloc was around 3% at the end of the ‘60s (now it's over 10%). In 1974 it only grew by one or two points. In 1975, the blackest year of '74-'75 recession, it averaged around 5%.

[4] Between 1968 and 1975 inflation, measured by the indices of consumer prices, went from 4.2% to 9.1% in the USA, from 5.3% to 11.8% in Japan, from 2.9 to 6% in Germany, from 4.1% to 11.3% in the OECD as a whole.

[5] We are often reproached by some elements for having a Machiavellian view of history when we talk about such campaigns. We have responded at length to these criticisms in the articles on "Machiavellianism: the Consciousness and Unity of the Bourgeoisie" in IR 31. To those who have any memory, we can point out that such campaigns are nothing new. As soon as the Second World War was over, in the period of ‘cold war' the two new military powers which had divided up the world unleashed gigantic international ideological campaigns within their blocs to inculcate the new imperialist alliances in the heads of their population: the enemies of yesterday had become allies, the allies enemies. Forty years later it would be foolish indeed to believe that the bourgeoisie is less manipulative today than it was then.