Lessons of the workers' strikes in Western Europe: Struggle all together, take the struggle into our own hands

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Begun in autumn 1983, the third wave of struggle since the world proletariat's historic recovery at the end of the 1960's has confirmed both its extent and its depth. Although this wave of struggles weakened somewhat during 1985, due essentially to the bourgeoisie's strategy of selective attacks aimed at scattering the workers' response, during 1986, and especially in Belgium in the spring, we have witnessed a renewal of massive combats corresponding to the more and more frontal attacks on the working class imposed by the continued worsening of the capitalist economy's collapse. This new surge of class struggle has been fully confirmed in recent months: in their turn, Sweden, France, Britain and Holland (ie some of the most advanced and central countries), but also Greece, have been the theatre of important struggles, often at a level unprecedented for years if not decades. These various class combats are rich in lessons that revolutionaries must be able to draw if they are to take an active part in their development.

An atmosphere of working-class combativity

From the extreme North of Europe to the far South, from "prosperous" Sweden to "poor" and relatively under-developed Greece, the working class has entered the battle with determination and often en masse.

In the beginning of October 1986, the third large strike movement in 18 months took place in Sweden, especially amongst state and council workers, but also accompanied by a whole series of wildcat strikes in other branches.

During January-February 1987, widespread strike movements paralyzed the whole of Greece. Strikes hit industry, telecommunications, the post office, electricity, banks, road, air and sea transport, the schools and the hospitals: not for decades had the country seen such a large-scale social movement.

This near simultaneity of workers' struggles in two countries so far apart, but also so apparently different, highlights the unity of the world proletariat, and especially that fraction that works and lives in Western Europe, confronted with the same insoluble capitalist crisis. The fact that Scandinavian workers' living conditions are vastly superior to those in Greece, or the different proportion of the working class in relation to the rest of the population in the two countries, makes no difference: workers everywhere are faced with more and more violent attacks by the ruling class and its state, everywhere they are forced to enter the struggle.

The extremely brutal attacks that the Greek working class reacted against (the worst since the colonels' regime fell in 1974) are not simply due to the catastrophic economic situation of one country. They are a reflection of a considerable deterioration of the world economy over the last year, which has hit the "prosperous" Scandinavian countries as much as the others, and in particular the most important amongst them: Sweden. There too, workers are subjected to unprecedented attacks. In 10 years, real wages have fallen by 12%. In recent months, mass redundancies have been announced in a whole series of branches, while the finance minister has threatened 23,000 job cuts in the state sector (in a country of less than 9 million inhabitants). As everywhere else, the myth of the "Welfare State", which was especially strong in Sweden, is collapsing. And if, as in most of the advanced countries apart from Belgium in spring 1986, the struggles in Sweden have not had the generalized character that they have had in Greece, this is largely because up to now its industrial strength has allowed it to avoid the economic convulsions that have hit the weaker countries. But this is only putting off the inevitable. Whereas during capitalism's ascendant phase last century, it was the world's most advanced capitalist country, Great Britain, which showed other nations the way, today it is the utter dilapidation of the weaker countries' economies that shows what the more developed nations can expect. And with the latter's increasing economic collapse and the resulting attacks unleashed on the working class, the perspective is without a doubt one of a more and more massive and generalized development of the class struggle.

Already, in early 1987, the signs of workers' combativity in several central West European countries, hold the seeds of this perspective.

In Holland, workers have begun to fight back against an unprecedented austerity plan (see International Review no.47). And one of the "leading" sections of the Dutch working class (the dockers of Rotterdam, the world's largest port) is directly involved. It is significant that this time, the workers in the container port, who were not involved in the 1979 or 1984 strikes, came out on wildcat strike. Moreover, in contrast to the great 1979 dockers' strike, the movement from January to February 1987 did not remain isolated. Movements of solidarity occurred in the port of Amsterdam, while strikes broke out simultaneously in several parts of the country (the Rotterdam shipyards, in Amsterdam, and in Arnhem).

Another country at the very heart of Western Europe has just confirmed the characteristics of the present moment in the class struggle: a country that concentrates the most important aspects of the situation throughout the region -- Great Britain.

At the end of January and early February, with the strike at British Telecom, Britain was hit by a large scale strike that involved up to 140,000 workers, including office workers and technicians, thus taking an important step forward in overcoming the trade barriers traditionally so strong in the British working class; in particular, this strike broke out and developed spontaneously in solidarity with workers penalized for refusing to work overtime. Whereas the great 1984-35 miners strike and the 1986 printworkers' strike remained, from beginning to end, wholly under union control, the fact that in the Telecom strike the unions were constantly forced to run after the movement to avoid being completely discredited, that the movement broke out again after 11th February when the union had succeeded in maneuvering a return to work, all bears witness to a profound process of maturation of consciousness within the working class. At the same time, this massive explosion of combativity is the sign that the workers in Britain have recovered from the demoralization that went along with the defeat of the miners' and printworkers' strikes. The fact that this renewed massive combativity has appeared in the country whose working class is the oldest in the world, whose ruling class is the world's most skilful and experienced, is a yet another sign of the strength of this new wind of international class struggle since early 1986.

But in this situation, after the struggles in Belgium during the spring of 1986, the most significant event is undoubtedly the strike which for almost a month paralyzed the entire French railway network.

Lessons of the French rail strike

Although massive movements of class struggle had occurred in almost every country in Western Europe since autumn 1983, in France the working class seemed to be lagging behind. To be sure, these struggles were not foreign to workers in France; the carworkers' strikes during 1983-84, the strikes in the steel industry and the shipyards during 1984, along with other smaller movements, were a demonstration that the struggle's recovery was general in the most advanced countries. Nonetheless, they were a long way from reaching the same level as the movements that hit Belgium, Holland, Britain and Denmark.

The fact that a national fraction of the working class, which had previously -- and especially in May 1968 -- demonstrated its ability to conduct massive combats, had been incapable since 1983 of anything but limited struggles, led some revolutionary groups to conclude that the French working class was in the grip of a lasting apathy, and to under­estimate the importance of the struggles going on in the rest of Europe. In reality, this kind of approach to historical situations is the opposite to that of marxist revolutionaries. Marxists have always been distinguished by their ability to see behind deceptive appearances what is really at stake in the situations they confront. The low level of strikes in France was in no way the sign of a lack, either of a great discontent or of a great potential combativity. The signs of this discontent and combativity had already appeared in the brief wildcat strikes that paralyzed the railways for two days at the end of September 1985, and Parisian public transport for one day two months later.

In reality, this relative weakness of the working class struggle should be analyzed as the result of two specific aspects of the French situation.

The first of these aspects was the relative timidity of the left-wing PS-PC (Parti Socialiste and Parti Communiste) government's attack on the working class. Although revealing itself a faithful manager of national capital by applying, in the name of "rigor" a real austerity policy, this government was hampered by the presence of two left parties in power, leaving the social front uncovered: a stronger attack ran the risk of creating a social situation completely out of the control of any of the unions, which themselves supported this same government.

The second aspect was these same unions, and especially the CGT's (Confederation Generale du Travail, controlled by the Parti Communiste), strategy of immobilization, adopted after the PC's departure from government in 1984 and which consisted of using against the struggle the unions' lack of credibility among the workers: the result of their constant and radical calls for "action" had precisely the opposite effect on those workers who were the most conscious of the unions' role as saboteurs.

But behind the relative working class passivity that resulted from this situation was developing a vast discontent, the ability to transform the unions' lack of credibility into a factor for and longer against the class struggle.

And this is precisely what the strike at the SNCF (French railway network) revealed during the second half of December 1986.

The strike began on 18th December among engine drivers at the Paris Gare du Nord shed, spontaneously, and without either warning the management (legally compulsory in the French nationalized industries), or receiving any instructions from the unions, who were themselves awaiting the opening of negotiations with management planned for 6th January 1987. The initial group of strikers immediately stopped all traffic on the Northern network and called on the rest of the drivers to join the strike. Within 48 hours, all 93 sheds were hit, and 98% of the drivers on strike. It was the largest movement in the industry since 1968. The movement spilled over to other trades among the rail workers. Although less massively, in practically every station and every workshop, the "sedentaries" joined the struggle.

For several days, the unions completely lost control, and took position against the struggle, on the pretext of not disturbing the December holiday traffic. Even the most "radical" amongst them, the CGT, opposed the beginning of the movement, in some sheds going so far as to set up "work pickets" to break the strike. The unions' attitude, and the enormous suspicion towards them that had developed over the years, especially after the fourteen useless "days of action" organized during the previous one, explains why, immediately, one of the strikers' major concerns was to take the struggle into their own hands to prevent the unions from sabotaging it. Everywhere, sovereign mass meetings were held, with the firm intention that they should be the only place where decisions were taken as to how to conduct the struggle. Everywhere, strike committees were elected by the assemblies, and responsible to them. It was the first time that such a degree of self­-organization of the struggle has been seen in France. The strikers felt the need to unite this self-organization on a national scale, which led to the creation of two "national" coordinations.  The first (called the "Paris-Nord" after the shed where its meetings were held) brought together drivers' delegates from almost half the sheds. The second (the "Ivry" coordination, held at a shed in one of Paris' southern suburbs) was open to all workers on the SNCF, but was also less representative, since many of its members had not been mandated by an assembly. And here the movement reached its limits. The Paris-Nord coordination decided to restrict participation to drivers' delegates only, while the Ivry coordination, although initially more open, in its turn decided to forbid workers from other industries from attending its meetings.

Obviously, the struggle's turning in on itself should be laid at the door of the bourgeois state's most radical instruments: "rank and file" unionism, and the leftist groups. The latter were the first, while their press made grand declarations in favor of extending the struggle, to fight its extension in practice. It is no accident that the Paris-Nord coordination, closed to all but the drivers, had as its spokesman a militant of the Trotskyist "Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire", nor that the leading light of the Ivry coordination was a militant of another Trotskyist group, "Lutte Ouvriere". In reality, if these bourgeois groups finally succeeded in derailing the movement into the dead-end of isolation, it is because they flattered a corporatism that already weighed heavily within the working class by radical talk on the lines of: "if we spread the movement to other industries then our own specific demands will be drowned as usual among all the others, and what's more we'll lose control of the movement to the unions, who have the advantage of an existing national structure".

The isolation that the SNCF workers had barricaded themselves into by the end of the strike's first week turned out to be disastrous for the movement: all the more so, because all through late December, large strike movements existed in the Parisian public transport system, and in the docks. These movements revealed a powerful combativity and an extreme suspicion of the unions who had officially launched them. Had the railwaymen's assemblies sent their own mass delegations to other sectors of the working class, or opened their own mass meetings to other workers, this would have been a great example for the whole working class of how to organize outside the unions; in fact, the railwaymen's isolation, expressed in the attitude of the two coordinations, determined their movement's stagnation and then its decline after the 25th December. It had ceased to be a dynamic, positive factor in the general situation in France. By contrast, its exhaustion gave the bourgeoisie the opportunity to launch a counter-offensive aimed at sabotaging workers' combativity in other branches. The division of labor was carefully organized. In particular, for weeks both unions and government put the question of the wage scale (the SNCF management wanted to replace a wage scale based on seniority with one based on "merit") to the fore, when in fact the central question for the whole French state sector is the constant drop in real wages, which is going to get still worse in 1987. After declaring that it would not budge on the wage scale, on the 31st December, the government decided to "suspend" it, which the unions of course hailed as a "victory". When the railwaymen decided to continue the strike, the CGT, followed by the CFDT attached to the PS, now that they were certain of its defeat, adopted an "extremist" attitude, which was to last until the end of the strike in mid-January. At the beginning of January, the CGT also launched a series of strikes in the state sector, in particular in the Post Office, and in one of its strongholds, the electricity and gas industries (EDF-GDF). And the CGT called its strikes in the name of solidarity with the rail workers. The fact that, at this moment, the CGT took up a slogan which is generally defended by revolutionaries does not of course mean that it had suddenly decided to defend workers' interests. In these strike calls, its aim was not to extend the combat, but to extend its defeat. The more workers entered the combat at a bad moment, the more bitter and widespread would be the resulting demoralization: this was how the ruling class calculated. And in some places, like the EDF-GDF, it partially succeeded.

And so the bourgeoisie, despite having at first lost all control of the movement, shared out the dirty work  amongst its different fractions - right, left and leftists     (who in particular succeeded in convincing the most suspicious workers to leave the unions to negotiate with the government) -- and once again managed to get things in hand. However, this strike has left a deep mark on the consciousness of the whole working class in France. In all the smaller movements that have been taking place since then (schools, hospitals, etc), the need for sovereign general assemblies is expressed, and "coordinations" appear, though generally at the prompting of the leftists so that they can keep control of them. Moreover, a profound movement of reflection within the class is today expressed in the still hesitant appearance of "struggle committees"[1], whose aim is to push forward the reflection amongst the workers for the combats to come.

Despite its weaknesses and its final defeat, the recent movement in France is highly significant of the present state of the struggle throughout Europe. The self-organization that it assumed before leftists and unions emptied it of any content, the intense suspicion of the unions that it expressed, reveal the future of the class struggle on an international scale. These characteristics are especially sharp in France, due to the presence in government, for three years, of all the bourgeoisie's left parties. In this sense, the struggles that have just hit France are a demonstration a contrario of the necessity, since the end of the 70's, for the bourgeoisie in every country to place its left forces in opposition in order to cover the social front. They also confirm that the left's coming to power in 1981 was in no way a result of the bourgeoisie's strategy, but an accident due to its archaic political apparatus. But even in countries which have avoided this kind of accident (ie the great majority), the exhaustion of a union apparatus constantly involved in the sabotage of workers' struggles will lead more and more to the appearance of similar spontaneous movements, developing their own self-organization.

The intervention of revolutionaries

It is clear that such an important movement demands that revolutionary organizations intervene actively to make a real contribution to the struggle's development, and to the development of the consciousness of the whole class.

This kind of active intervention proved necessary during the first days of the movement, to call on other sectors of the working class to join it. This is why on the 22nd December, our section in France issued a brief but widely distributed leaflet entitled: "To push back the government's attack, spread the movement, all together in the struggle".

Then, as the movement began to lose momentum after the 25th December, it was vital to insist, for all workers, on the absolute necessity not to leave the railwaymens' strike isolated, if it were not to lead to defeat a of the whole working class; and at the same time, to insist that workers should think deeply over the events of the previous ten days. This was the aim of the second leaflet put out on the 28th December by the French section, entitled: "Call for all workers to spread and unite the struggle".

Finally, once the strike had come to an end, it was up to revolutionaries, once again, to take an active part in the process of reflection and decantation going on within the class so as to be better armed for the struggles to come. This was the aim of our third leaflet, the 12th January, headed: "Lessons of the first combat".

Obviously, the intervention of revolutionaries cannot be limited to distributing leaflets: selling the press in the workplace, speaking at assemblies and meetings, holding public meetings, are also important ways of intervening in such a period. The ICC did its best to put them to use to the utmost of its limited strength.

However, this need to intervene actively did not confront just one organization in the revolutionary milieu, but all of them. And for the majority, this intervention was once again sadly inadequate, if not frankly non-existent.

It is necessary to draw some conclusions from this failing on the part of the proletarian political milieu.

Firstly, a revolutionary organization cannot be an active factor in the struggle's development unless it can analyze clearly the historical moment within which it is situated. It is hardly surprising that those who think that the historical course is still towards war, that the proletariat has still not emerged from the counter-revolution (when exactly the reverse is true, since the end of the 1960's), should completely under-estimate the importance of today's movements and either miss them, or intervene only once the battle is over.

Secondly, revolutionaries must be able, at each moment in the struggle, to grasp the real importance of the events that confront them: to consider that the 1986 student movements were an "example" for the workers' struggles in France is not only to confuse 1986 with 1968, it also means not understanding the fundamentally inter­-classist nature of this kind of movement, and in the end doing no more than adding yet another contribution to all the speeches from leftists and the rest of the bourgeoisie on this very theme.

Thirdly, at every moment revolutionaries must be capable of judging a situation precisely, in order to intervene as appropriately as possible. This day-to-day analysis of the situation's evolution is obviously difficult. It is not the mechanical result of the validity of their programmatic principles, nor of their correctly understanding the historic period. This ability is also largely based on experience gained in the struggle itself.

To bring together all these elements, communist organizations must consider themselves as active participants in the present combats of the working class. And this is certainly what is lacking the most in today's proletarian political milieu.

Saying this brings us no satisfaction. The ICC is not interested in denigrating other organizations in order to highlight our own merits. We consider our criticisms, which we will come back to in more detail, as a call to all revolutionaries to assume fully the responsibility that the class has given them, and whose importance grows daily as the class movement develops.

Perspectives for the struggle's development

In a European, and even world-wide (see the article in this issue on workers' struggles in the USA), context of developing workers' struggles, the combats at the end of 1986 in France following those in Belgium in spring of the same year, are an important step forward in this development. And although they shared many common characteristics, each of these struggles especially highlighted one of the two major necessities of today's class combats.

The struggles in Belgium highlighted the necessity and possibility of massive and generalized movements in the advanced capitalist countries. Those in France have confirmed the necessity and the possibility for the workers to take their combat into their own hands, to organize it themselves outside the trade unions, against them and their sabotage.

These two inseparable aspects of the workers' struggle will be more and more present in the movement of struggles that has already begun.

FM 1/3/87

[1] See "Revolution Internationale" nos. 153 and 154 for two texts published by committees of this kind.

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