Bourgeois maneuvers against the unification of class struggle
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". There are periods when this general truth, which is one of the foundations of marxism, does not apply in an immediate sense. World wars cannot be explained by the confrontation between the ruling class and the proletariat: on the contrary, it is only possible for them to break out when this confrontation has been weakened. But if there is one epoch when these words of the Communist Manifesto apply to immediate reality, it is today's. This is true at the level of the present course of history: as the ICC has already demonstrated, only the working class' struggle and mobilization since capitalism entered its open crisis at the end of the 60's have prevented this system from giving its own answer to its economic collapse: generalized imperialist war. It is true more specifically for the decade which is drawing to a close, where the development and bitterness of class combats since 1983, have forced the ruling class to develop on a grand scale all kinds of ideological campaigns - pacifist campaigns in particular - aimed at hiding from the workers what is really at stake in the present situation. And finally, it is still more true today when the intensification of these campaigns and the use of a multitude of maneuvers within the struggle itself, are among the surest signs of its potential for development.
Not since the Second World War has the working class in every country been subjected to such a brutal series of attacks. In peripheral countries like Mexico, Algeria or Venezuela, workers living conditions have fallen by as much as half in recent years. In the central countries, the situation is not fundamentally different. Behind the adulterated figures "explaining" that "things are getting better", the "unemployment is declining" and such like gross lies, the bourgeoisie cannot hide from the workers the constant decline in their living conditions, the falling real wages, the dismantling of "social welfare", the proliferation of insecure, miserably paid jobs, the irresistible increase in absolute pauperization.
For more than 20 years, the world working class has fought back in large-scale struggles against the inexorable decline in its living conditions. Those that broke out at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 70s (May 68 in France, the Italian "hot autumn" of 1969, the uprising of Polish workers in December 1970, etc), just as the open crisis of capitalism began to affect working class living conditions, proved unmistakably that the proletariat has emerged from the death-shroud of the counter-revolution in which it had been wrapped since the end of the 1920s. The perspective opened by the capitalist mode of production's intensifying contradictions was not a new imperialist slaughter, as in the 1930s, but widespread class confrontation. Then, the wave of workers' struggles of the late 70s/early 80s (Longwy-Denain in France, steel and many other branches in Britain, Poland etc), confirmed that the previous wave had not been a mere flash in the pan, but had opened a whole historical period where the confrontation between bourgeoisie and proletariat could only become more bitter. The brief duration of the reflux in the struggle following the working class' defeat during these combats (marked by the December 81 coup in Poland) bore further witness to this reality. By autumn 1983 the massive struggles in the Belgian state sector opened up a new series of combats whose extent and simultaneity in most of the advanced countries, especially in Europe, were an important expression of the deepening class antagonisms in the most decisive countries for the class struggle's development on a world scale. This series of combats, especially the widespread conflicts in the Belgian state sector during 1986, showed clearly that the increasingly frontal and massive capitalist attacks already posed the necessity for the unification of the proletarian struggle, in other words not only their geographical extension beyond trades and different branches of industry, but also the workers' ability consciously to organize this extension themselves.
At the same time, the various struggles during this period, especially those that have occurred recently in France (on the railways in December 86, in the hospitals during the autumn of 88) and in Italy (in the schools during the spring of 87, on the railways during the summer and autumn of the same year), have highlighted the trade unions' declining ability to put themselves forward as the ‘organizers' of the workers struggles. Even if this has only been obvious in countries where the unions have discredited themselves most in the past, it corresponds to a general and irreversible historical tendency. All the more so in that it is accompanied by workers' increasing distrust of leftwing political parties and of bourgeois democracy in general; this is clear especially in the rising figures for abstentions in the electoral comedy.
Within this historical context, of a proletarian militancy which has shown no signs of diminishing in 20 years, and of a weakening of the essential structures for controlling the working class, the continuation of ever-deeper capitalist attacks is creating the conditions for still greater upsurges of the class struggle, of still more massive and determined confrontations than those we have seen in the past. This is what is really at stake in the world situation. This is what the bourgeoisie does everything in its power to hide from the workers.
The bourgeoisie reinforces its ideological campaigns
From television, radio, and the newspapers, we "learn" that the most significant elements of today's international situation are:
-- the ‘warming' relations between the great powers; principally between the USA and USSR, but also between the latter and China;
-- the ‘real desire' of all governments to build a ‘peaceful' world, to settle the conflicts in various parts of the world by negotiation and to limit the arms race (especially the most ‘barbaric' nuclear and chemical weapons);
-- the fact that the main danger threatening humanity today is the destruction of the environment, especially of the Amazon rain forests, by the ‘greenhouse effect' which will turn immense areas of the planet into desert or by technological disasters of the Chernobyl variety, etc; and that consequently we should mobilize behind the ecologists, and the governments which have now been converted to their ideas;
-- the growing popular aspirations to ‘freedom' and ‘democracy', as interpreted by Gorbachev and his ‘extremists' such as Yeltsin, along with Walesa and his Nobel prize, a George Bush transformed into a scourge of his one-time friends, the Noriega style goons and drug-dealers, a Mitterand displaying his bicentennial ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man' to the four corners of the earth, and the Chinese students, to give an exotic ‘popular' flavor to all this fuss;
-- the preparation for Europe in 1992, the mobilization for this ‘unparalleled historic event' which the opening of the member countries' frontiers will represent, and for which the European elections of 18th June are an important stepping stone;
-- the threat of "islamic fundamentalism', of its grand master Khomeini, which his Rushdicide declarations and his battalions of terrorists.
In the midst of all this din, the working class and the crisis seem strangely silent. As for the first, it is supposed to be in retreat (haven't growth rates returned to the levels of the 1960s?), we should be excited about the ups and downs of the dollar, we are ‘informed' that the powers that be are concerned about third world debt and are ‘doing something'. As far as the second is concerned, if the media talk about it at all (and in general news of the struggle is subjected to the most systematic black-out), it is usually to write its obituary, or to publish alarmist bulletins as to its health: it is dead, or nearly, at all events it is ‘in crisis because trade unionism is in crisis'.
This kind of omnipresent propaganda is not new for capitalism or even for class societies in general. From the beginning, the bourgeoisie has used lies to make the exploited classes accept their fate, or to turn them away from the class struggle. But what distinguishes the times in which we live, is the extreme degree of state totalitarianism set up to control how people think. It does not broadcast just one, official truth, but fifty competing ‘truths', so that everyone can ‘make his choice', as in a super-market, and which are in reality nothing but fifty variations of the same lie. The questions are lies, even before we get to the answers: for or against disarmament? For or against getting rid of short-range missiles? For or against a Palestinian state? For or against ‘liberalism'? Is Gorbachev sincere? Is Reagan senile? These are the ‘essential' questions for the TV ‘debates' or the opinion polls, unless it is ‘for or against fox-hunting' or ‘for or against the massacre of elephants'.
If the aim of all these lies and media campaigns is to set up a smokescreen to hide the real problems confronting the working class, their intensification today simply expresses the bourgeoisie's awareness of the growing danger of explosions of working class militancy, and of the process of developing consciousness throughout the class. For example, as we have already pointed out in these pages (eg, in International Review no 53, ‘War, Militarism, and Imperialist Blocs), one of the reasons behind the replacement of the militarist campaigns of the early decade (Reagan's crusade against the ‘evil empire') by today's pacifist campaign from 1983- 84 onwards, is that the theme of imminent war, while it can increase the demoralization of the working class in a moment of defeat, runs the opposite risk of opening the workers' eyes to what is really at stake in the present period, once they renew the open combat. There has not been any real attenuation in the conflicts between the great imperialist powers, quite the reverse: we need only site the constant growth in military spending, despite its being an ever greater economic burden for all countries. What has changed is that the working class is better placed today to understand that the only force capable of preventing a world war is its own struggle. In these conditions, it was important for the bourgeoisie to ‘show' that it is thanks to the ‘wisdom' of governments that we can hope for a more peaceful world, less menaced by the danger of war.
Similarly, the main aim of the present campaigns on the danger to the environment, and the apparent readiness of governments to ‘fight' against these dangers, is to confuse the consciousness of the proletariat. These dangers are indeed a real threat to humanity. They are a sign of capitalist society's general decomposition (see the article on ‘The Decomposition of Capitalism' in International Review no 57). But obviously, none of the campaigns intend to put forward this kind of analysis. They aim to ‘show', and in this the bourgeoisie has succeeded in several countries, that world war is not the main threat hanging over humanity. The impact of the pacifist campaigns is reinforced by this ‘substitute fear' for the anxieties inevitably provoked in the population by the agony of the capitalist world. Amongst other things, the ecological threat appears much more ‘democratic' than the danger of war, where the working class knows very well that it would be the main victim: the polluted air of Los Angeles does not distinguish between the lungs of the workers and the bourgeois, Chernobyl's cloud of radiation affects workers, peasants and bourgeois of the region without distinction (though in reality, even here the workers are far more exposed than the bourgeois). As a result, ‘ecology is everyone's business': here again, the point is to hide from the working class the existence of its own specific interests. It also aims at preventing the workers from understanding that there is no solution to this kind of problem (like those of growing insecurity, or drugs) within capitalist society, whose irreversible crisis cannot but produce still more barbarity. This is the main aim of governments which announce that they are going to deal ‘seriously' with the threat to the environment. Moreover, the extra cost of these ‘ecological' measures (increased taxes, and higher prices for such consumer goods as the ‘clean car') can be used to justify the workings' falling living standards. It is obviously easier to make people accept sacrifices to ‘improve the quality of life' than for arms spending (and then divert the former to the latter).
This attempt to make workers accept further sacrifices in the name of a ‘great cause' reappears in the campaigns about ‘building Europe'. Already at the end of the 70s, when the steelworkers rebelled against mass redundancies, every state used Europe as an excuse: "these job cuts are not the government's fault; it's been decided in Brussels". Today, they're singing the same chorus: the workers must improve their productivity, and be ‘reasonable' in their demands, so that the national economy can be competitive in the ‘Great European market of 1992'. In particular, ‘harmonizing taxation and social security' will be an opportunity to level out the latter - downwards - in other words deal a new blow to the living conditions of the working class.
Lastly, the campaigns on democracy aim to make the workers of the great Western industrial centers ‘understand' their ‘good fortune' in enjoying such precious commodities as ‘Freedom' and ‘Democracy', even if their living conditions are more and more difficult. The same message is aimed at workers still deprived of ‘Democracy': their legitimate discontent at the constant and catastrophic decline in their living standards must be turned into support for a policy - ‘democratization' - which will overcome the causes of these calamities (see the article on ‘Glasnost' in this issue).
Special mention should be made here of the extensive media coverage of events in China:
"The only force really capable of defying the government is not the working class but the students" (we've heard this song before, in France in May 68, and then again in December 86). This is the message that must be put over; no opportunity can be missed to try to convince the working class that it ‘doesn't count', or at least to hinder its becoming aware that it is the only class with a future, that its present struggles are the preparation for the only perspective able to save humanity, the precondition for the overthrow of this system that grows daily more barbaric.
But the ruling class does not trust merely to its huge media campaigns to achieve this goal. At the same time, it attacks the proletariat's combativity, self-confidence, and developing consciousness on the terrain where they appear most directly: the struggle against the bourgeoisie's increasingly brutal attacks.
The bourgeoisie's maneuvers against the workers' struggles
If the unification of its struggle is currently a vital necessity for the working class, then clearly this is where the bourgeoisie must make its biggest effort. And this is indeed what is happening.
Recent months have seen unfolding a bourgeois offensive aimed at getting ahead of workers' militancy, provoking struggles preventively in order to nip in the bud the drive towards a massive movement of solidarity throughout the class. This tactic was already used last summer in Great Britain, dominated by the world's most skilful and experienced bourgeoisie, with the August postal strike. By provoking a movement in a sector as central as the Post Office, but at the worst time of year for spreading the struggle, the bourgeoisie took every precaution to keep the movement isolated from other branches of industry. The maneuver's success gave the go-ahead to the bourgeoisie in other West European countries to use this strategy to the hilt, as we saw in September in France with the artificial provocation, planned months in advance, of the nurses' strike. Here again, the bourgeoisie aimed to bring one sector out prematurely, on ground that it had prepared in advance, and before the class as a whole was ready for a head-on confrontation (see the article on ‘France: the coordinations in the lead, to sabotage the struggle' in International Review no 56). In December, the Spanish bourgeoisie, encouraged by the successes in Britain and France, also adopted the strategy, when all the trade unions called for the famous ‘general strike' on 14th December, when not just one industrial branch, but millions of workers from all branches were sent out to battle prematurely, in a fake demonstration of ‘strength'. This is how, in all those countries where major confrontations have taken place in the last two years, the bourgeoisie managed to ‘damp the powder' in advance, and so stifle any new upsurge of massive struggle.
In order to carry out this policy of sabotaging the workers' struggles, the bourgeoisie must strengthen its forces of control on the spot. Faced with the workers' increasing distrust of the trade unions, and their tendency to take charge of the struggle themselves, the bourgeoisie has everywhere tried, not only to put the official unions back in control, but also to set up ‘non-union' structures, to take up the needs of the class, the better to empty them of their content and turn them against the workers.
So in France, we have seen an extreme ‘radicalization' of the CGT (CP controlled trade union), as well as reshuffles within the other unions to give them a more ‘left' image. In Spain, the workers have confronted a similar radicalization which allowed all the trade unions together to orchestrate the maneuver of 14th December. In particular, we have seen the UGT (union strongly tied to the ruling PSOE) suddenly take its distance from the PSOE, taking up the ‘fight' alongside the Workers' Commissions (CCOO, the CP controlled union) and the CP against the government's austerity policy.
In recent months, this same radicalization of the official unions has also held back the development of the struggles in Holland where, as in Spain, the unions have not only tried to polish up their image by talking tough against the government, above all they have been trying to take over the workers' need for unity, in order to mislead it and strip it of any real meaning. In Spain, the 14th December maneuver publicized the unity between the UGT-CCOO-CNT unions, while organizing the demonstrations to prevent any chance of different groups of workers getting together. In Holland, the unions have aimed to mislead this essential need of the class through a fake ‘active solidarity'; to do so, they have set up as early as last autumn, a ‘coordination committee' supposedly designed to ‘organize solidarity' with between struggles in different branches of industry.
In Britain, finally, the bourgeoisie has not been left behind in this ‘radicalization' of its trade unions. In the recent transport strikes around London, the biggest in this sector since 1926, it was the ‘official' unions themselves that took the responsibility of calling an illegal strike.
However, this policy of ‘radicalizing' the official unions is clearly becoming less and less capable, by itself, of halting the development of the struggle. More and more often, the official, or even the rank-and-file unions are being supported by another structure of control, claiming to be ‘outside the unions' and mostly run by leftists: the self-proclaimed coordinations. Since the movement in the French hospitals, which starred the ‘nurses' coordination', this has become a model for the whole of the European bourgeoisie. Lately, there have appeared new ‘branches' of this coordination, in particular in West Germany where the same kind of coordination was set up in the Cologne hospitals in November, before any kind of mobilization developed in the sector. It was also amongst the nurses that Dutch leftists set up a coordination and called a national meeting at Utrecht in February, thus attempting to create a premature centralization, before the workers had really mobilized.
It is no accident that the maneuver used during the nurses' strike in France is now being used as a model, a reference point, by the bourgeoisie in other European countries. Thanks to the nurses' pseudo-victory (the government had already allocated the funds for the hardly-‘won' pay-rise long before), this coordination became the spearhead of the present bourgeois offensive aimed at presenting sectionalist struggles as the only ones capable of leading the workers to victory, at playing off different sectors of workers against each other, in order to undermine any attempt at a united counter-attack on the basis of demands common to all workers. This in a number of countries lately, we have seen unions and leftists step up the techniques already used during the rail strikes of 1986 in France and 1987 in Italy (especially through the ‘coordinations') to inject the sectionalist poison systematically into every struggle, by putting forward specific demands, to prevent workers from other branches identifying with the struggle, or even to set workers against each other.
In Spain, for example, the grand maneuvers of 14th December were not merely aimed at ‘damping the powder' of workers' discontent. Since then, the unions have begun a huge campaign on the theme: "We must draw the lessons of the 14th December in each industrial branch, since each has its own contract, and its own specific demands". Similarly, wherever the unions are especially distrusted, it is the leftists and rank-and-file unionists who have been putting forward specific demands for drivers on the railways, or for mechanics in the airlines, for the Teruel miners or the Valencia nurses, etc.
In West Germany, the bourgeoisie has launched a huge media campaign to ‘restore the status of the nursing profession', and so use this particular sector to inject the poison of sectionalism into the working class. On the same basis, the leftists of the Cologne coordination have put forward a demand for 500 DM, but only for nurses, just as in France.
In Holland since the beginning of the year, working class combativity has threatened to break into open struggle against the new austerity measures announced by the government; the unions and leftists have exploited their radical image to maintain the isolation of struggles that have developed in a number of branches since early 89: at Philips, in Rotterdam docks, amongst teachers, council workers in Amsterdam, the Hoogovens steelworkers, lorry drivers, building workers, etc. The unions' strategy for dispersing the struggle (rotating strikes, one branch after the other, regional meetings, 2 hour walk-outs, ‘action days' called just in one branch, etc) is based essentially on the use of specific demands, so that workers from other branches cannot identify with a particular struggle (the 36 hour week for the steelworkers, overtime payments for the lorry drivers, defense of teaching quality for the teachers, etc).
These are the maneuvers that the bourgeoisie is using today in Western Europe, in other words against the spearhead of the world proletariat. For the moment, this strategy has succeeded in disorientating the working class, and hindering its march towards a united combat. But the fact that the ruling class is forced to rely more and more on its ‘leftists', like the intensification of its media campaigns, is a sign of the deep process whereby the conditions are ripening for new, more determined and conscious, massive upsurges of the proletarian struggle. In this sense, the huge and extremely combative struggles in recent months, by workers in various countries of the capitalist periphery (South Korea, Mexico, Peru, and above all Brazil, where for several weeks more than 2 million workers went well beyond the limits set by the trade unions), are only the forerunners of a new series of major confrontations in the central countries of capitalism. More than ever, it is the working class that holds the key to the present historical situation.
FM : 28-5-89