International situation: Simultaneity of workers' struggles and the union obstacle
From Britain to Spain, from Denmark to Brazil and South Africa, the open struggles of the working class have slowed down in one country only to explode still more violently in another. Unlike the defeat of the Polish workers, that of the British miners has not been followed by a period of reflux at an international level.
The whole foundation of the capitalist social order continues, slowly but surely, to be undermined by the affirmation of a profound proletarian movement. A movement which, as the recent great workers' strikes has shown is tending increasingly to hit the major industrial centers (often still relatively untouched) in each country. A movement which, through repeated conflicts with the union apparatus - with their strategies of demobilization and demoralization, and their ‘radical' and ‘rank and file' forms - is making its way, pushing its combats more and more towards extension and self-organization.
Perspectives of the third wave of class struggle
Many workers, many revolutionary groups, thought that the defeat of the miners' strike in Britain marked the end of the present international wave of struggle that started with the state sector strike that paralyzed Belgium for two weeks in September 1983. They did not see the difference between the defeat suffered in Poland in 1981 and the defeat of the miners' strike in Britain. Not all defeats are alike. The 13th December 1981 marked the beginning of a period of international withdrawal in the struggle. Today, nothing could be less true. Moreover, this miners' strike in the oldest of capitalist countries has dealt a serious blow at the corporatist illusions peddled by the unions. In our leaflet on the lessons of the miners' strike, distributed in ten countries, we emphasized that "the length of the struggle is not its real strength. The bourgeoisie knows how to organize against long strikes: they have just proved it. Real solidarity, the workers' real strength, is the extension of the struggle." (ICC, 8.3.85) The strike movements in Denmark and Sweden show us that the workers are drawing the lessons straight away.
These workers and revolutionaries have thus been victims, both of the media's almost total silence on the existence of movements and strikes throughout the world, and of the deliberate propaganda by all the national bourgeoisies on the supposed absence of workers' combativity today.
This propaganda is a lie. We refer the reader to all our 1984 issues of the International Review as well as to the ICC's different territorial papers and reviews. Even if it must be recognized that in some countries, like Italy and France, the workers have not really given expression to their discontent since spring 1984. We'll come back to this.
We have already denounced the almost complete silence, censorship, and black-out, of the bourgeois press on the workers' strikes. Increasingly, one of the jobs of revolutionary organizations will be to spread this vital news in their press. To do so, these organizations must know how to recognize the existence of this third wave of struggle and get information about it. These are political questions. For the first, we refer the reader to the article on method published in the previous issue of this Review. The second depends on the political ability of revolutionary groups to be real centralized and international organizations (IR 40: ‘10 Years of the ICC'). Never in the history of the proletariat has there been such an international simultaneity of struggle. Never. Not even during the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. In the last year, every country in Western Europe (except perhaps Switzerland) has witnessed the workers' defensive struggles against the generalized attack of capitalism. These workers' struggles break out at the same time. Repeatedly, in the same country, even in the same sectors. Their causes, and even their demands, are the same. They confront the same obstacles mounted by the different ruling classes: isolation and division.
From this international similarity and simultaneity of workers' struggles emerges the perspective of their conscious generalization in the major European countries. A perspective that was so cruelly lacking in 1980-81, leaving the working class isolated in Poland. On its ability to generalize its combat, depends the proletariat's future ability to go onto the offensive against the different capitalist states, to destroy them and impose its class dictatorship and communism.
We've not reached that point yet. Far from it. However, even if few workers are aware of it, the journey has already begun. Not yet in an international generalization, but in the different and still timid attempts at extension and self-organization. Or rather, in the attempts of different struggles to organize extension in the effort to break the isolation and division kept up by the unions between factories, corporations, towns, regions, between young and old, workers still in employment and those already out of a job. This is the inevitable and necessary road that leads to the conscious international generalization of workers' struggles.
In the IR 37, we were able to recognize the recovery in the class struggle that was just beginning. We pointed out its significance in relation to the proletariat's defeat in Poland 1981 and the international reflux in the class struggle that followed. We also highlighted its characteristics which have since been amply verified. In recent months, and especially in April:
1. The tendency towards an upsurge in spontaneous movements has not slowed down. In Spain - in Valencia (Ford), in the post office in Barcelona, in Madrid - movements broke out that have surprised the unions. In Britain, in the post office and once again in the coalfields, wildcat strikes have broken out ‘illegally', against the advice of the unions.
But this tendency towards the upsurge of spontaneous movements has been most clearly expressed in the strike by 500,000 workers in ‘little' Denmark with its 5 million inhabitants. Despite the union LO's call to return to work, 200,000 workers remained on strike until mid-April.
Another confirmation of this characteristic is the spontaneous upsurge of unemployed demonstrations in Barcelona, and of unemployed committees in France. They are still few and far between, but we know that they will increase.
These spontaneous movements always appear against or outside the unions. And all this, in spite of their care and ‘far-sightedness', one and a half years after the recovery in the struggle.
2. The tendency towards large-scale movements that hit every sector is also present. The best illustration is obviously the strike in Denmark which paralyzed every sector of the productive apparatus. At the same time, in Spain, strikes broke out in the car industry (Ford and Talbot), in the railways, the shipyards, the post office, amongst farm workers, etc.
In Sweden, in May 20,000 state sector workers went out on strike. One month after Denmark 80,000 are locked out. A great part of the country is paralyzed. At the same time, though quickly stifled, small movements break out in the car industry.
In Brazil during March, April, May, 400,000 workers took part in strike movements in the car and engineering industries of Sao Paulo, as well as in the public service and transport sectors.
These few recent examples follow the movements in Belgium and France last year, in Britain last summer, etc ................................
At the time of writing some 150,000 building workers are on strike in the Netherlands, while Schipol-Amsterdam airport is blocked by a strike of flight controllers and ground crew. Traffic is being re-routed to Zaventem-Brussels where strike action is also threatening to break out.
More and more, the question posed for the proletariat in every country is how to organize and coordinate these massive struggles which tend to go beyond all corporatism and all divisions.
3. The tendency towards self-organization and extension is firmer on each occasion. In Spain, workers in the Barcelona post office, and the Sagunto farm workers, managed to hold sovereign general assemblies open to all, and especially to revolutionary organizations. But when these assemblies have been unable to carry out their essential function - extending the struggle - the unions have emptied them of their lifeblood, the reason for their existence, their class character as organs of struggle. It was the CNT (the anarchist union) and the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO, the CP-controlled union) that finally got the Barcelona strike committee under control. They were the ones who finally managed to exclude the ICC from the general assembly, as we were defending the need to spread the strike. They were the ones who sabotaged the strike by stifling it in isolation.
It was the same problem that the miners and dockers failed to solve during the dock strikes in solidarity with the miners in Britain. It was the unions that kept control of the assemblies and the strike's organization. Or rather, its disorganization.
Unless it succeeds in spreading the struggle, self-organization loses its meaning and its major function today, and the unions empty the assemblies of their content.
By contrast, in Denmark the proletariat was faced with the opposite problem. The strike was spread, sometimes by workers' meetings at different factories. Just before the strike broke out in every sector, the ICC's section in Sweden wrote (17th March) on the accelerating events in Denmark: "faced with a terrible attack on their living conditions, with falling wages and rising unemployment (about 14%, but much higher in the Copenhagen region), the workers in Denmark are ready to fight. The fact that the dockers and bus-drivers, who have already fallen victim to the bourgeoisie with its social-democracy in opposition during the strikes of 1982-84, have not been defeated and on the contrary are in the front line of the present situation confirms our analysis of the present period and, still more important in today's situation, confirms the potential for extension expressed in the different strikes of recent weeks and even in the fact that the bourgeoisie is preparing to call a general strike to obscure the more and more general awareness within the working class of the need to take up and spread the struggle." It would be hard to foresee things better!
In Denmark, unlike Spain, the extension and unification of the strike succeeded at first. The workers then came up against the difficulty of coordinating the struggle, controlling and organizing it through general assemblies and strike committees. They left the ruling class with its hands free and especially the rank-and-file unionists, the ‘tillidsmen' controlled by the CP (ie ‘men of confidence', equivalent to the shop stewards in Britain), to disorganize the movement, to divert it, to replace the initial wage demands with those for "'the 35-hour week" and "the resignation of the (right-wing) Schuter government" - to the point where they could halt and then destroy the promising beginnings of the struggle's unification.
This is why the ICC's leaflet distributed at the massive demonstration in Copenhagen on 8th April called the workers to "take the initiative so as to push back the ruling class which wants to the growing unity of workers' struggles.
The only way to do this is to organize the struggle yourselves:
- by calling mass assemblies in the workplace, which elect strike committees responsible solely to the assembly and revocable if they don't apply the assembly's decisions;
- by sending delegations to other workplaces, to call on other workers to join the strike by taking the initiative of discussions on the demands and needs of the struggle."
Unless the workers in struggle control their fighting weapons - their mass meetings, strike pickets, delegations and committees - regroup and unite all the workers, the ruling class and unions will occupy the battleground and empty the struggle's organizations, aims and demands of their proletarian, unifying content. Without self-organization and a real and lasting extension, unification of the proletariat's combat is impossible.
4. We have already emphasized the simultaneity of the proletariat's struggles today and its importance: between January and May 1985, there have been dozens of struggles against redundancies in Britain, Spain and the Netherlands; more than 200,000 on strike in Greece and Portugal; 500,000 in Denmark, strikes in Norway and Sweden following Iceland in October when the whole island was paralyzed for several weeks by a general strike in the state sector.
We cannot cite here all the European countries that have witnessed important movements, a great tension and combativity. But, despite the bourgeoisie's silence, let us not forget the workers' strikes in South Africa, Chile and Brazil.
We could make the list longer yet, especially if we started with September ‘83. Through this international simultaneity, the proletariat is finding the response to the problem posed in 1981 by the isolation of the proletariat in Poland. "The bourgeoisie will try to isolate the struggle of the workers in Denmark, just as they did in Poland." (ICC leaflet in Danish, 8.4.85) The simultaneity of workers' strikes "expresses the class' growing awareness of its interests and is a step towards the ability to unite and fight inter nationally." (IR 40) This international simultaneity makes the extension and organization of the struggle directly and concretely possible. This is why the bourgeoisie, with its left parties in opposition and its trade unions, is trying to occupy the social terrain so as to nip in the bud the slightest effort by the workers to unify their struggles. This combat against the unions and the left, for the extension and the unification of the workers' struggles, is going determine the development of the perspective of their international generalization. This simultaneity is highly favorable ground for generalization.
5. Some of the above-mentioned characteristics of the third wave have become more clear-cut. In particular:
- increasingly, strikes are hitting key industries, large working class concentrations and the big towns;
- the demands are tending to become more general.
They deal essentially with wages and, above all, with unemployment. As our local section pointed out in a communiqué on the class struggle in the Netherlands, "the question of unemployment is the essential element, crucial for the development of the workers' combat. The constant announcements of new redundancies unceasingly urge the workers into struggle."
6. Finally, the last characteristic that we have highlighted has also been fully confirmed: this is the slow rhythm in the development of the struggle.
The workers in Europe are at the centre of this third wave of struggle. This is not to say that the struggles of the proletariat in other continents are unimportant, both now and for the future, or that they are not an integral part of this wave; but it is the workers of Western Europe who set it off, and they determine its rhythm. They are faced with the full range of bourgeois mystifications, especially democracy and parliamentarism. It is in the old European countries that the bourgeoisie has best prepared itself to attack the proletariat. To do so, it has ranged its major left forces (‘Socialist' and ‘Communist' Parties have joined the Trotskyists and other leftists) in opposition, free from government responsibility - so making it possible for them to mislead and sabotage struggles from the inside by presenting themselves as the workers' protectors (see IR 26).
This is why we could not, and still cannot, expect abrupt upsurges of the mass strike, as we did in Poland in 1980. No. On the contrary, only at the end of a long and difficult process of confrontation with the unions and the left in opposition that the proletariat will be able to develop mass strikes and the international generalization of its combat.
In this third wave, the struggle is thus developing at a slow pace. This shouldn't worry us. Quite the contrary: although the pace is slow, the depth of reflection, the ripening of consciousness and of the eventual confrontation is all the surer. Through this confrontation with the left and trade unionism that is going on during the struggle, the working class is discovering the way forward in its fight against capitalism; it is beginning to recognize its enemies, and above all its false friends, to learn how to fight, to exhaust the democratic and union mystifications throughout the whole international proletariat. Its class consciousness is getting wider and deeper.
Unionism: The spearhead of the capitalist attack on the working class
1. A strategy of demobilization
One of the unions' major weapons today is the ‘day of action'. Oh, not to mobilize workers around trade union mystifications as they did during the 1970s. That doesn't work anymore anyway. No, the bourgeoisie's unions simply intend to occupy the battleground, to deprive the workers of any initiative, to confuse and demoralize the workers by stuffing their heads with the idea that ‘struggle definitely doesn't pay'.
To do so, the unions are using ‘days of action' to the hilt, whether by factory, town or region - as long as these do not include any large working class concentrations: as soon as the slightest discontent, threat of lay-offs or tension appears, the unions propose a ‘day of action' to ‘mobilize', ‘prepare' and ‘spread' the struggle - but for a date well in the future because ‘it must be prepared seriously'; and sometimes they even plan a demonstration, or even a march on the capital, but there again the date is not fixed, and once it is ... it is put off once, twice, etc ... They call the ‘day' on the basis of corporatist demands, or they call the demonstration, and above all the ‘marches' on capital cities, by taking great care not to mention (or to mention only at the last minute) the time and place! They take care that no workers from other sectors come to join the demonstration. This is how they insure themselves against any danger of workers coming together, of struggles and demonstrations spreading and uniting. So, in the first place they immobilize the working class and in the second place pretend that the workers are apathetic, uncombative. With this strategy, they are trying to maintain the working class' lack of confidence in its own strength, and passivity which will make it possible to carry out the attacks on its living conditions. And when the struggle does break out in spite of them, they forestall the mass movement with a ‘general strike' or a ‘day of action', which are parodies of extension and give a sanction to the demobilization of the workers.
In Spain during the shipyard and post office strikes, the CP's CCOO used this tactic of demobilization very effectively. So also in France, in the 10th May demonstration of Renault workers threatened with unemployment.
Sometimes it doesn't work: like in Denmark where the union LO, after ‘promising a general strike' and putting it off several times, finally called the strike once the workers' combativity had made it inevitable. This weapon, closely linked to the tactic of the left in opposition, has been particularly effective up to now in France. The unions have thus succeeded in confusing and demoralizing the workers; they use the workers' growing suspicion of the left and the unions to reinforce their apathy and passivity. These tactics have managed temporarily to paralyze the proletariat in France, despite a growing discontent full of danger for the bourgeoisie.
In Italy, the tactic is still more subtle. The bourgeoisie is concentrating attention on the organization by the unions, the CP and the leftists, of a referendum on the sliding scale of wages. The first campaign of confusion is based on gathering signatures necessary for the referendum to take place, the second on the organization of the referendum itself.
Only the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Comunista), ‘I1 Partito' of Florence, and the ICC have been capable of denouncing this maneuver against the working class. But it will not be able to conceal indefinitely from the workers both the deepening crisis and the development of workers' struggles in other countries.
2. We have already on many occasions denounced the danger of rank-and-file unionism within the working class.
It was thanks to his radical talk, ‘in opposition' to the ‘moderate' leaders of the Trade Union Congress, that Arthur Scargill, leader of the miners' union (NUM) managed to keep the strike within corporate bounds - which led to its defeat. And to do so, he did not hesitate to use the ‘violence' of the flying pickets against the British police, as long as these pickets did not try to break the isolation that was stifling the strike. He even went so far as to get beaten up -though not too badly - and arrested - but not for very long either.
It was the ‘tillidsmen', the rank-and-file delegates, who succeeded in bringing the strike in Denmark back onto the unionist and bourgeois ground and so extinguishing it. It was the anarchist CNT that sabotaged the extension of the Barcelona post office strike.
Thanks to its radical, leftist, sometimes violent language; thanks to its control over the struggle's organization that the workers create for themselves; one of the dangers of rank-and-file unionism for the proletariat lies in its ability to carry out what has become one of today's priorities for the bourgeoisie: prevent by any means the politicization of struggles, and prevent revolutionary organizations as well as the most combative workers from intervening in them.
This is why the unions used violence to prevent the ICC speaking at the assembly in the Jaguar car plant in Britain. This is why the Danish CP, which controls the ‘tillidsmen' tried to spread the rumor that the ICC's militants were CIA agents. This is why the CNT and the CCOO, after several days' effort, finally expelled us from the postal workers' general assembly in Barcelona.
This is why the Trotskyists of the Fourth International ended up preventing the ICC from gaining access to the unemployed committee at Pau in France - threatening, amongst other things, to call the police on us!
Finally, the last aspect of the dirty work done by rank-and-file unionism and the leftists is the attempt to bring the unemployed under control by reinforcing the role of unemployed unions where these exist, and creating them where they do not: in Belgium, where unemployment has been particularly widespread for a long time they work within the unions' unemployed organizations (those of the FGTB and other unions); in France, it is essentially the leftists and the CP that are trying to get control of the unemployed committees that are beginning to appear, so as to prevent them from becoming committees open to all, so as to prevent them becoming places where workers gather and talk politics; above all, so as to sabotage any attempt at the unification and centralization of those different committees; lastly, so as to isolate the unemployed from the rest of their class, and render them powerless in their daily fight for demands simply to eat and survive.
What is to be done?
Despite all these obstacles set by the ‘left in opposition' and the unions, the proletariat has an ‘ally' in the catastrophic deepening of the capitalist economic crisis. Capitalism has nothing more to offer humanity but more misery, more famine, more repression and, to end it all, a third world war.
The proletariat has not been beaten. The dynamic of this third wave of struggle is proof enough. Subjected to a terrible attack, the proletariat must develop an answer that will terrify the bourgeoisie, that will overturn today's unfavorable balance of forces, that will let the workers oppose effectively the universal and absolute impoverishment imposed by capitalism, that will open up the perspective of an international generalization of the struggle. This is why the proletariat needs to recognize thoroughly who are its enemies, how to fight them, and where the fight is going. This is what the ‘politicization' of its struggles means.
The proletariat must not leave the initiative to the bourgeoisie, to its left parties and trade unions which will organize isolation and defeat. It's up to the workers to take the initiative. "But to carry out a mass political action, the workers must first of all come together as a mass; to do so, they must leave the factories and the workshops, the mines and the blast-furnaces, and overcome this dispersal and scattering to which they are condemned under the yoke of capitalism." (Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Mass Strike, Party and Unions') It is up to the workers to take the initiative in strikes, assemblies, delegations to other factories, unemployed committees, to unite them, in demonstrations and workers' meetings to spread and unify their struggles. As we have seen, the bourgeoisie won't abandon the battleground; the fight will increasingly become day-to-day and permanent. This fight is already going on before our eyes.
It is up to the most conscious and combative elements, beginning to emerge in every country, to take up and propose the initiative of proletarian combat to their class as a whole.
To revolutionary organizations falls "the duty, as always, of going on ahead of the course of events, trying to hasten them", as Rosa Luxemburg said, for they are increasingly called on to take up the "political leadership". This is why the most combative workers, and the communist groups, must conduct this political battle daily in the factories, assemblies, committees and demonstrations. This is why they must stand up to the maneuvers of the unions. This is why they must put forward and defend concrete and immediate demands and propositions that lead to the extension, regroupment and unification of struggles.
The result of this battle will determine the proletariat's ability to "carry out a mass political action" which will temporarily push back the bourgeoisie's attack and which (thanks to the combat's international generalization) will above all open the way to the proletariat's revolutionary assault on capitalism, its destruction and the arrival of communism. Nothing less.