The resurgence of class struggle

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The capitalist economy of the 1980s is plunging deeper and deeper into a complete dead-end. History is accelerating. Dec­adent capitalism's most fundamental and deep-rooted characteristics are being laid bare. In this sense, the 1980s are indeed the ‘years of truth', where the stakes of social life appear ever more openly: world war, and the destruction of humanity, or international communist revolution.

The two terms of this alternative have existed within social life ever since the onset of decadence - "the era of wars and proletarian revolutions", as the Communist International called it. But they are not posed symmetrically, and do not, at each moment, have the same weight on the unfolding future. Since 1968, the proletariat, the only class that bears a historical solution to capitalist decadence, has re-entered the historic scene and in so doing has opened a course towards class confr­ontations. This does not mean that inter-imp­erialist confrontations have come to an end. On the contrary, they have never ceased, and the 1980s are witnessing the exacerbation of these antagonisms: the growing subordination of the whole of economic life to military imp­eratives, the continued and worsening barbarism of capitalism, with its destruction and its mounds of corpses, of which the endless fighting in Lebanon and the renewed war between Iran and Iraq are only the most recent examples. But it does mean that the proletariat, through its combativity, through the fact that it has not adhered to the dominant ideology, nor surrendered to the capitalist class, prevents these conflicts from generalizing into a third world holocaust[1].

To say that the proletarian struggle is all-­important in the present situation may seem like empty optimism when we look at the sorry picture, presented by the bourgeois media. But in understanding the major tendencies that characterize a situation and its dynamic, we cannot content ourselves with the super­ficial and mystified appearances presented by the dominant class. The proletariat is an exploited class, and its struggle cannot follow a straight line and develop its strength grad­ually. The class struggle is the expression of a balance of forces between antagonistic classes, and it follows an uneven course, with advances and retreats, during which the dominant class attempts to wipe out all trace of the previous advance.

This tendency is still greater in the decadent period where the bourgeoisie's state-capital­ist form of politico-economic domination constantly tends to absorb every aspect of social life. The class struggle is nonethe­less still the motor of history, and it is impossible to understand why the accelerated decomposition of society continues, without culminating in a generalized butchery, if it is not understood that the proletariat remains the determining barrier to capitalism's warlike tendencies.

The struggle is beginning again in every country

Since 1968, we have witnessed two advances of the international proletariat: from 1968 to 1974, when the bourgeoisie was taken unawares by the re-emergence of a social force that it had thought definitively buried, and from 1978 to 1980, when the movement culminated in Poland, with a mass strike developing all the characteristics of the class struggle in the decadent period[2]. Since mid-1983, the tendency towards a recovery in prolet­arian struggle, whose perspectives we had already announced after two years of confusion and paralysis following the partial defeat of the world proletariat in Poland[3], has come to the surface: in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, France, the United States, in Sweden, Spain, Italy, etc, strikes have broken out against the draconian austerity measures imposed by the bourgeoisie and affect all the countries at the heart of the industrial world where humanity's historic destiny will be decided[4]. Strikes and riots have exploded in secondary countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Rumania. The resistance to the infernal logic of the capitalist crisis is once again emerging internationally.

The ‘Theses on the Resurgence of Class Struggle' that we publish below point out the general lines of the proletarian advance during the last two waves of struggle, and trace the characteristics of the one that is just beginning.

While none of the struggles in the above-mentioned countries, taken individually, is in itself profoundly significant as a great step forward for the international proletariat, the context of deepening crisis, social decomposition, exhaustion of myst­ifications, the growing gulf between State and civil society, the acceleration of history, is favorable ground for the development of the consciousness of the revolutionary proletariat. The key to the perspectives opening up before the proletariat, and which already exist potentially in this renewed combativity, lie in the international and historic nature of these reactions, and in an under­standing of the process by which class consc­iousness develops through an accumulation of experience, and of the evolution of the class struggle and its dynamic.

Signs of the future

None of the struggles since the massive September ‘83 strike in the Belgian state sector has really forced the bourgeoisie to withdraw the measures it wanted to impose on the working class. Not one has had even a momentary success, whether it be the state sector strikes in Holland or the Greyhound strike in the US against wage reductions, the Sagunto steel-workers' struggle in Spain, or the Talbot-Poissy car-workers' struggle in France against redundancies, or even the postal workers' struggle in France against increased working hours. However, the fact that the pro­letariat has not let these measures pass without resistance, as we have seen in the US, for example, where for 4 years the workers in many sectors have passively accepted wage cuts, is in itself a positive sign of its combativity, its refusal to submit to the interests of the national economy. And the first victory of the struggle is the struggle itself.

It is true that none of these struggles has managed to develop any of the characteristics that the historical situation of capitalist decadence is going to impose on the working class -- extension and self-organization of is its combats, a radical confrontation with the union apparatus, and with all the bourgeoisie's democratic and trade-union mystifications, the politicization of the movement. However, we should examine the various movements more closely, in the light of these characteristics:

-- as regards the need to extend the struggle (ie an awareness that the proletariat cannot fight as an isolated minority, that it can only create a favorable balance of forces by mass participation in the combat) we have witnessed in Belgium, a spontaneous attempt by the Charleroi railway workers to spread the movement immediately going beyond the community/linguist­ic divisions between Flanders and Wallonia, that the bourgeoisie bias used extensively in the past to divide the proletariat. The trade unions were forced to ‘spread' the strike to the whole state sector, in the hope of drowning it in less combative fractions of the class, and of creating a division between the state sector and private industry. And yet the strike was only brought to an end after 3 weeks involving up to 900,000 workers in a country with only 9m inhabitants. Hardly was it over than another state sector strike the first since 1903 -- broke out in the Welfare state ‘paradise' of Holland, and continued for 6 weeks. This one began under the pressure of the railway workers' and bus drivers' combativity, and ‘order' was restored with considerable difficulty, despite the close collaboration between Dutch and Belgian trade unions, between all the left, right and union fractions of the bourgeoisie, and despite the organization of a ‘pacifist' campaign in the midst of the movement.

In the US, workers from other industries supp­orted the Greyhound strikes by taking part on the picket-line; the unions were forced to organize their ever-ready ‘financial help' in the form of ‘Christmas presents' for the Greyhound strikers, in answer to the feeling of popular solidarity, and to prevent the expression of the only real class solid­arity possible - the extension of the struggle.

-- as regards the need to organize the struggle ourselves, mass assemblies took place during most of these movements. But the question of self-organization poses and contains the problem of confronting the unions, which is a step that the proletariat has yet to take, and that implies a degree of awareness and self-confidence that is only at its beginning today. However, the union question was posed frequently in all these first movements of the recovery. Most of the strikes either broke out spontaneously without waiting for orders from the unions, or were taken in hand from the start -- as in Holland and Italy -- only because the unions knew that they were going to break out anyway. In Belgium, the move­ment started outside the unions, and was only ‘under control' 3 days later; in Holland, we saw many cases of mass assemblies refusing to follow union recommendations. In Britain, 1200 shipyard workers came out on strike against the maneuvers of the union.

Even in Sweden the one-day miners' strike at Kiruna was followed by the whole workforce, against the union's recomm­endation that only a fraction take part. Everywhere, in Italy, France, Spain, Holland, Belgium, the union leadership is being obeyed less and less, or not at all, and the dirty work left in the hands of the rank-and-file unionism. The exhaustion of the union mystif­ication is beginning to make itself felt, and is laying the basis for the class' ability, in the future, to take its destiny in its own hands and organize itself.

-- as regards the movement's politicization, ie the creation of proletarian strength against the state, as we saw it developed in Poland in August 1980, this question is bound up with the proletariat's ability to spread and organize its own struggle. We have not yet reached this point. But the question of the state is already posed in the strikes of state employees, who are less and less mystified by the state's supposed ‘social' nature, and in the resistance to the austerity measures that the crisis is forcing all states to take against the workers. It is clearly posed, for example, in the confrontations between workers and the ‘Socialist' police at Sagunto in Spain. The demystification of the trade unions' reactionary nature as cogs of the state machine is another stepping-stone in this development of political consciousness.

These few elements bring us to the conclusion that today, at the beginning of this recovery in the class struggle, the proletariat is already coming up against the same barriers that broke the wave of 1978-80: faced with the need to extend the struggles, the unions propose a fake extension by trade or industry; faced with the need for self-organization, the shop-stewards propose ‘rank-and-file' strike committees; faced with the need for active solidarity, the unions propose a useless ‘material' support; faced with the problem of politicization, the unions propose the fraudulent verbal radicalization of ‘fighting' unionism, fervently urged on by the leftists. Thus, all the ingredients of the previous wave are already there in the present one.

The left taking its place in opposition in the face of the 1978-80 wave of struggles, the sudden ‘radicalization' of unions and left-wing parties after years of ‘responsible' language in the hope of coming to power, the renewed importance of rank-and-file unionism, and of the leftists within it, are all so many bourgeois anti-bodies against the proletariat, which momentarily diverted it. Today, these anti-bodies are already present right from the start of the struggle, but at the same time, they are losing their effect­iveness.

In this sense, this third renewal of the class movement will be more difficult at the beginning, as the western proletariat is confronting the oldest and most experienced bourgeoisie in the world -- unlike Poland 1980. This difficulty will slow down the movement, but the lessons it contains are all the more profound.

When a wave of class struggle begins at an international level, we cannot expect a qualitative step forward right from the beginning. Before advancing, the proletariat must often relive in practice the difficulties confronted previously; its consciousness will be able to develop further thanks to the dynamic of the struggle itself, combined with an accumulation of experience under the impulse of the accelerating crisis.

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At the outset of the workers' movement, Marx and Engels defined the conditions for the communist revolution: international economic crisis, and the internationalization of the struggle. Today, the conditions are gathering for the generalization of the workers' combats, which contains the perspective of revolution. There are ups and downs still to come. The chips are down in the great game of history, but the results are not settled in advance. Revolutionary organizations must be able to recognize the dynamic of the historical perspective if they are to fulfill the decisive function for which the class has created them.

CN



[1] See ‘Inter-imperialist Conflicts and Class Struggle: the Acceleration of History' in IR 36.

[2] See all the articles on the class struggle in Poland, its lessons and its applications, IR nos 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29.

[3] See ‘Where is the Class Struggle Going?: Towards the End of Post-Poland Retreat' in IR 33.

[4] See ‘The Proletariat of Western Europe at the Heart of the Generalization of the Class Struggle' in IR 31.