Polemic: Revolutionaries and hunger riots

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What is the importance for the working class of the "hunger revolts" of the most wretched and marginalized populations in the under-de­veloped countries, which have become increas­ingly frequent in recent years (Algeria in 1988; Venezuela, Argentina, Nigeria, Jordan in 1989; Ivory Coast, Gabon in 1990, to name only the most important ones)? What attitude should the revolutionary vanguard adopt towards them?

Revolutionary organizations' answers to these questions depend on their overall analysis of the present international situation and their long term vision of the ground the proletariat still has to cover on the road towards revolu­tion: the proletariat's forms of organization and struggle, and the function they attribute to the class party. As these revolts become both more frequent and more widespread, revolutionaries must intervene directly in them, with clear orientations for the working class. It is therefore of immediate and practical importance to have a clear position as far as these revolts are con­cerned.

Faced with the general confusion in the proletarian political movement, which have welcomed the hunger riots as steps forward for the proletariat's class struggle, sometimes even giving them greater importance than factory strikes, only the ICC has insisted that these actions run the risk of taking the working class off its own terrain.

An expression of capital's decomposition

Several organizations of the proletarian political movement have dealt with the question of hunger riots in their press, demonstrating that their fundamental cause is to be found in the deepening crisis of the capitalist system, and in the resulting increase in exploitation and poverty for the working class and other disin­herited social strata. They have shown how the "plans" and "economic measures" that the capi­talist class has set up to try to save the un­der-developed countries from ruin - ie to try to save their own profits - have led to renewed and brutal attacks on the living conditions of millions of people; the hunger revolts, the large scale pillage of shops and supermarkets are the most elementary response to an intolerable and desperate situation. We ourselves have written, for example, that "These riots are first and foremost the response of the marginalized masses to the increasingly barbaric attacks of world capitalism in crisis. They are part of the tremors which are shaking the very foundations of decomposing capitalist society more and more strongly" (International Review, no 57).

Other groups have written on the same sub­ject:

"The revolt appears ( ... ) as a response to the blows of the crisis. If we consider that the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses of these countries [of the capitalist periphery) have taken part in the movement ( ... ), we must neces­sarily conclude that such a movement consti­tutes primarily an action of the exploited class against the effects of its position" (Prometeo, no 13, November 1989).

"The crisis of Argentine capital, which, day after day, is plunging ever greater masses of proletarians and wage-earners into the most dreadful misery, just as in Venezuela or Algeria, has launched the starving masses into a strug­gle for survival" (Le Proletarire, no 403, October/November 1989).

The fact that we share this general viewpoint as to the causes of these hunger revolts indi­cates the existence of a class frontier separat­ing the proletarian political organizations from those of the bourgeoisie. While the latter can­not deny that increasing poverty is at the basis of these actions, they can never admit that the capitalist system as a whole is the cause (and not just a particular government's "bad eco­nomic policy" or "the IMF's measures against the poor countries"), since this would call their own existence into question.

However, this common viewpoint within the proletarian political movement remains extremely general. Major disagreements remain as to the analysis of the crisis (its origins: tendency to­wards a falling rate of profit or saturation of the market; its nature: cyclical or permanent ...), and these are growing deeper. . The ICC is alone in pointing out the importance of the fact that the crisis has already lasted for 20 years without any solution: the course towards class confrontations means that the bourgeoisie has been unable to deal the proletariat a defeat such that it could draw the class into a world war; however, nor has the proletariat yet been able to impose its own historic alternative: the communist revolution. This historic deadlock between the classes has meant that the crisis has gone on getting deeper. However, society has not remained stable; it has entered what we have described as "the phase of capitalism's de­composition" (see "Decomposition, final phase of the decadence of capitalism", in International Review no 62). For the ICC, it is clear that capitalism can lead to the destruction of human­ity, not only through a nuclear war between the great imperialist powers (a danger which has faded temporarily with the Russian bloc's col­lapse into chaos), but also through an ever more uncontrollable proliferation of aspects of this decomposition: famines, epidemics, drug ad­diction, nuclear disasters... The other revolu­tionary organizations would do better to analyze the implications of all these, at first sight un­related, events, and the consequent tendencies within capitalist society, than simply to content themselves with accusing the ICC of "catastrophism".

We have said, as far as the under-developed countries are concerned, that the capitalist crisis creates the misery which is at the heart of the massive food riots. However, as a product of capitalism's decomposition it has also acquired a different content.

The under-developed countries are less resis­tant to the blows of the crisis, and one after another they have been thrown into the most complete and irreversible ruin. During the 1980s, the debts contracted during the previous decade fell due. It proved impossible to pay them, and the flow of capital into these coun­tries dried up, provoking the recession of 1980- 82, which only the most industrialized countries were able to overcome. The under-developed countries never recovered. During the 1980s, the rate of growth for their production was practically zero. Their industrial weakness made them incapable of competing on the world market, and their internal markets were occu­pied by products from the developed countries, and this has led them to bankruptcy. Their main source of revenue (raw materials: ores, oil, agricultural products) has also collapsed follow­ing the fall in prices due to the saturation of the world market. They have now entered a phase of decapitalization and de-industrialization: fields are left fallow, or turned over to producing the raw materials of the drug trade instead of food; unprofitable mines are closed; oil reserves are left untouched, because capital can be more profitably invested in stock ex­change speculation or in the richer countries' banks, or else has to be used to pay interest on the debt.

In these countries, capital and the "local" bourgeoisie - with the support of the great powers - hang on thanks to a ferocious ex­ploitation of the working class: real wages have been reduced by half during the last ten years, largely by the vicious circle of inflation and austerity "plans", and there is nothing to stop this free-fall into decline. At the same time, the growth in unemployment has created a histori­cally unprecedented situation, which must be carefully analyzed.

As capitalist production stagnates, or falls, millions of workers have been expelled from in­dustry. To them are added millions of young­sters who come to working age, without capital being able to integrate them into productive labor, and millions of ruined peasants emigrat­ing constantly into the cities. According to the bourgeoisie's very inadequate figures, 50% of the working population in these countries is un­employed, while in some places the proportion reaches 70% or even 80%. While it is true that the expulsion of the peasants from their land, the existence of an industrial reserve army, and mass unemployment are all inherent to capitalism in periods of crisis, today they have reached such proportions that they have acquired a new content which demonstrates capitalism's ten­dency towards complete disintegration.

How have these masses been able to survive up to now? Thanks to what is known as the "black economy". This "black economy" is made up of a dense network of relations, headed by powerful capitalist " dealers" (dealers in any­thing, from drugs to household goods), who compete effectively with the "official economy", to the point where in some countries their profits are equal or even superior to those of the latter. They provide "jobs" to the millions of unemployed, essentially as street hawkers.

The masses of so-called "under-employed" - in reality unemployed - are the central element of the hunger riots. Marginalized by capitalism, they are close to the proletariat in that they have only their labor to sell and in this sense potentially constitute an anti-capitalist force; however, in analyzing their nature, we cannot simply assimilate them to the working class as a whole, as different groups in the revolutionary movement have done. Their reflection and their struggle as part of the working class are severely hindered by their exclusion from the process of productive labor. We should note that throughout the last 20 years, we have not seen real movements against redundancies, with corresponding means of struggle and organization. This expresses both the loss of the working class' traditions, as a result of the tri­umphant counter-revolution between the 1920's and the end of the 1960's, and the growing in­fluence of the ideology characteristic of decom­posing capitalism: the ideology of "every man for himself". But as we have just said, the numbers of unemployed are swelled by ruined peasants abandoning the countryside, who, retain their individual, small-holder's viewpoint, and by the constant influx of youngsters who have never been able to work. Even if these latter remain in relation with the working class, since many are the children of workers and live in the same districts, this mass cannot escape the influence of the lumpenproletariat, since it pro­vides also the drug dealers, the petty criminals, the police informers, the hired thugs ...

Thus, while we understand that these riots are caused by the capitalist crisis, and that they are the only response possible for a des­perate and starving mass, we must not forget that they are bereft of any class perspective, nor ignore the very real danger that the work­ing class could be drowned in this marginalized mass if it does not succeed in affirming its own class terrain.

The working class and hunger riots

A new disagreement is emerging between the ICC and other groups in the proletarian political movement, as they take position on the recent hunger riots. For them:

"The proletarian nature of these events" re­futes "those who see in the riots against hunger and poverty a sort of diversion from the class struggle" (Le Proletaire, no 403).

"It is affirmed - without being demonstrated ­that this kind of riot does not spring directly from the class struggle, they are presented as a process of social decomposition (and not also as a struggle against this process), as a revolt without any class profile which accentuates the "lumpenization of society" (Emancipacion Obrera, "Report on the social explosion in Argentina").

"To say, as some do, that these movements only illustrate society's state of decomposition as a generic aspect of the decadence of imperi­alist capitalism, is completely useless chatter which only serves to hide their own political blindness and absence of Marxist method ... but the principal and most important significance of these struggles is that within them is expressed a strong material movement of our class against the effects of the crisis. And it is the class' material movement that Marxists consider to be the indispensable condition for the development of the subjective, political movement" (Battaglia Comunista).

Contrary to the ICC then, for these groups the mass looting of shops is proletarian in na­ture, these riots are an integral part of the proletariat's class struggle. This means that we will have to re-examine what we mean by "class struggle".

It certainly goes without saying that a pre­condition of the proletarian struggle is ... that proletarians take part in it. Nor, indeed, do we deny that workers take part in these riots. Quite the contrary, we have pointed this out constantly, but insisting at the same time that this represents a danger for the class. And while it is true that for a struggle to be prole­tarian in nature workers must take part in it, it does not follow that any struggle involving workers is necessarily proletarian. For example, the ethnic or nationalist movements which draw in masses of workers, whose position may also be desperate, are bourgeois in nature.

Workers do indeed take part in these strug­gles, but not regrouped as a class, rather as individuals dissolved in the hungry underem­ployed masses that we have described above.

Other groups, such as the PCI or the CWO, simply make no distinction here, and see in these revolts nothing other than the proletariat in action. Though we should note that Battaglia Comunista seems to have no iced a difference, since they ask us: "Is this wretched and marginalized mass [elsewhere they speak of "semi-proletarians"] on the side of the prole­tariat or of the bourgeoisie" which already im­plies that this marginalized mass cannot be ex­actly identified with the proletariat). "Is its struggle's potential in favor of the proletarian revolution or of the preservation of the bour­geoisie?". BC answers this question straight away, but obliquely: "It is with the poor and marginalized masses that the proletariat of the peripheral countries will be able to conquer during its decisive assault of the capitalist State".

Quite so. The proletariat can and must con­duct its revolutionary struggle with the marginalized masses. But it is not enough to say "with the marginalized masses". The prole­tariat must guide these masses, draw them into its struggle, work to make them adopt its class viewpoint and historical perspective; not the re­verse, which is what happens when the prole­tariat allows itself to be drawn into the desper­ate response of the marginalized masses.

Another quotation: "But above all, these masses' struggle is, in the final analysis, a re­volt against the capitalist order and not against the proletariat and its immediate and historic demands" (Prometeo, no 13).

We too have said that these revolts are "against the capitalist order": "Abruptly woken from its dreams by an explosion of unimagined violence, the bourgeoisie has witnessed the dra­matic collapse of its "social peace"" (ICC section in Venezuela, Communiqué on the revolt).

But here again, we should pay attention to terms. For while the working class struggle necessarily breaks bourgeois order, the reverse is not true: not all destabilization of the bour­geois order in itself implies an anti-capitalist proletarian struggle. Emanncipacion Obrera expresses the same confusion as BC, but more crudely, when it refers to the "recuperable tri­umph" of the revolt in Argentina: "And it was not just any struggle, but a struggle which broke not only the trade union and democratic political control, but also the legal framework" (Report on the social explosion in Argentina).

EO here is harking back to the leftism for which "illegality" is synonymous with "revolutionary". Terrorist actions, lumpenpro­letarian attacks, are also "illegal", yet nobody would consider them as part of the proletarian struggle. Do we mean by this that the riots are the work of lumpens, or of terrorists? No. But it is clear that both these social tumors, lumpens and "guerrilleros", are like fish in wa­ter in these riots; this is their milieu ("expropriations", "executions", "armed actions" ... ), which is why they encourage it so ardently - and the proletariat should be warned of this danger also.

Our meaning is simply this: it is true that any workers' struggle necessarily breaks bourgeois legality, since any strike or resistance confronts capital's juridical-political apparatus, and must overcome it if it is to succeed in spreading; by contrast, not every "illegal" action is in itself a struggle of the working class.

If the participation of workers and the fact of breaking the bourgeois order are insufficient in themselves, what is it then that allows us to define an action as being part of the working class' struggle? The immediate demands, and the historic objectives which are inseparable from them. In other words, the struggle's ori­entation, its perspective. What we call: "the class terrain".

Let us consider the positions of the different groups on this subject. As far as we know, only EO has gone so far as to state that the hunger riots obtain satisfaction for immediate demands, which - with the break from legality ­is supposed to be the second element of the " recuperable triumph" of the revolt in Argentina.

"To begin with, faced with a concrete situation of hunger and very low wages, the movement of struggle [EO refers here to the revolt] has in­volved a real improvement in the "wage" of those taking part [sic]. Apart from anything else, they have shown themselves that it is pos­sible to do something [?], that it is possible to struggle and that this struggle can bear fruit" (op. cit.).

This frivolous statement, which tends to iden­tify the struggle for wages with looting, is quite simply disproved later in the same text, when it describes how the police, during the savage repression of the revolt, swept through the poor districts confiscating everything they could lay their hands on. But for the working class, the greatest danger is precisely that it should abandon its movement of strikes and street demonstrations on its own class terrain, for its own demands, and in the revolutionary perspective, and begin to think that looting is the only solution to the misery of its present condition. And EO is pushing in this direction when it says that the revolt "bore fruit". Other groups have not gone this far, but both BC and the PCI have welcomed EO's document without criticizing this position, since they were above all concerned to use it to attack the ICC.

Let us see what some groups have to say as to the perspective contained within the riots.

CWO: "For revolutionaries the problem is posed in these terms: how can the Venezuelan working class transform this combative but desperate re­sistance into something which will not finish in brutal repression" (Workers' voice no 46, April/May 1989).

PCI: "There is no doubt in this situation that the proletariat will continue to be at the fore­front of the social scene, and what we can hope is that the spontaneity of the revolts in the community will be replaced by a more organized struggle, outside the control of the reformist apparatus, unifying the action of the proletariat and protecting it more effectively against the blows of repression" (Le Proletarire, no 406).

EO: "Its limit lies in the absence of revolu­tionary perspective, the lack of objectives even in the medium-term, and obviously the absence of any revolutionary proletarian organization, which leaves the movement completely vulnera­ble".

Nobody in the proletarian political movement has denied this last, very frank, statement by EO as to the absence of any revolutionary per­spective. The groups simply avoid the problem. Let us pose the question then: if these revolts are part of the proletarian class struggle, why should revolutionaries fight for the struggles to become "something else" (CWO), or for them to "be replaced by a more organized struggle" (PCI), rather than, for example, struggling for the riots to organize themselves, spread, and rise to a higher level?

The answer seems obvious: because if these hunger riots follow their own dynamic, they can only lead to a dead-end. As a desperate, disorganized reaction, incapable of confronting the forces of repression seriously, they can only lead to the masses being crushed by the re­pression, and to finding themselves in a still worse situation than before at every level: ma­terial, organizational, of consciousness.

This is precisely what we have emphasized.

This is why we have warned the working class against any tendency to let itself be drawn into these riots, calling on it to stand on the terrain of its own struggle, instead of irresponsibly urging the class - explicitly or implicitly - to plunge into this kind of action, with great salutes to "the struggles of the working class".

However, BC even suggests that these hunger riots may have a perspective:

" ... apart from the question of their number, there exists a qualitative difference between the struggles which have always existed in the pe­ripheral countries and the riots of recent years ... we cannot but note the difference between an ordinary, economic strike [?] and a revolt, ac­companied by confrontations in the street, as a response to an extraordinary and generalized attack ...

"The intensity of the confrontation determines not only the intensity of the bourgeois repres­sion which follows, but also within certain limits, its policy ...

"While social peace would make it possible to accept without conditions the IMF's diktats, or more generally the situation of crisis at an in­ternational level, the break in social peace op­poses it with limits, or at least serious obstacles ... If the change in attitude ... on the part of governments in the peripheral countries has any influence on the amount of surplus value which is drained from the periphery towards the cen­tre, it would determine a deterioration of the conditions which have made it possible to man­age the crisis and maintain social peace in the metropoles... We want to emphasize that we are speaking here of a possibility... since it is not at all certain that this will happen ... "

BC does not recognize the continuity that links the workers' strikes of recent years in the same movement. In another part of the same text, it sees in the strikes in Europe nothing but "episodes" of no consequence, "ordinary everyday struggles which have not disturbed the social peace in the least". For BC, the international waves of strikes during the last 20 years are nothing but a figment of the ICC's imagination. But this is nothing new; we are accustomed to BC not seeing workers' struggles when they are there, and seeing them when they are not.

What is new is that BC, starting from the idea that the hunger revolts are "qualitatively dif­ferent" from workers' strikes, and sees the for­mer as stronger and more important, not be­cause the immediate "fruits" that excite EO, but because of the grandiose perspectives they open up. For according to BC, looting shops:

- sets limits, creates obstacles for the eco­nomic policy of the governments of the periph­ery;

- can make governments change their opinion as to the application of the "plans" dictated by the IMF;

- can, as a result, weaken the fragile eco­nomic stability of the metropoles

- and could as a result break the social peace within the latter.

To sum up, according to BC looting shops will cause world capitalism to cave in. We can an­swer this affirmation, which is frivolous to say the least, simply by pointing out that none of these revolts has "limited" the application of capital's plans, or even "created obstacles to them" - unless we are to believe naively in the crocodile tears of bankers and governments. The only thing which has changed is the greater brutality with which these plans are applied. The rest of BC's speculations become completely meaningless.

It is true that the economies of the central countries are moving towards an open recession, but this has nothing to do with the riots which have supposedly prevented the "management of the crisis". On the contrary, it is because the "management of the crisis" has already given everything it could, because the plans have al­ready been applied, that the open recession is once again striking capitalism in the central countries.

BC also speaks of "violent riots with con­frontations in the street", giving the impression that these combats were between comparable forces. Here, we prefer to let the CWO speak, which although, with BC, a member of the IBRP, nonetheless has a very different opinion of the "confrontations in the street":

"... in the streets of Caracas and other towns, in particular in the poorest districts, there has been armed resistance to the forces of the State. But where did this resistance come from? Was it a right-wing provocation ... ? Was it a reawakening of the urban guerrilla ... ? Or were the inhabitants of these zones trying desper­ately to avenge the victims of terror? What is certain is that this was not the armed expres­sion of a new proletarian movement. Proletarian movements have no need to sacrifice the work­ers they defend or to make them act outside a mass movement politically prepared to carry the struggle forward".

What is true is that the revolt "is not an ex­pression of the proletarian movement" right from the start, and not just in its phase of "resistance".

After all this, where are we? What of the hunger riots? In fact, these are desperate ac­tions in which workers, insofar as they take part, do not act as a class; actions whose only immediate result is capital's ferocious repression, and which contain no revolutionary per­spective. They are actions which should "become something else".

However, the groups that we have mentioned of the proletarian political milieu continue to salute these hunger riots as "struggles of the working class" since for them the lack of per­spectives in such actions can only have one ex­planation: they are not led by the party.

"If only the Party existed ..."

PCI: "These spontaneous actions, while they re­veal the class weakness ... and the absence of the revolutionary organization ... nonetheless al­low us to perceive a gleam of hope, since they bear witness that the class is not prepared to do nothing while its children die of hunger. The task of revolutionaries is to form and de­velop the revolutionary organization, the class party capable of gathering this will to struggle, and directing this revolutionary energy against class objectives" (Le Proletaire, no 403).

EO: "Its limit lies in the absence of a revolu­tionary perspective ... and of course the ab­sence of a proletarian revolutionary organization, which leaves the movement completely vul­nerable" (opcit.).

BC: "Were there, in this revolt, more semi­-proletarians or sub-proletarians than factory workers? The question makes us laugh ... If the proletariat was not yet sufficiently present in the movement, then this is a limitation of the proletariat and its (still virtually non-existent) political organization, and not of the revolt it­self."

So by following the "Bordigist" path, which makes the party the god of the revolutionary movement, these groups think they have re­solved any doubts as to the nature of these re­volts. But this position, which wants to look so "tough", in reality, hides their inability to offer the proletariat any kind of orientation in the revolts.

Let us remind the reader here that the ICC considers the party to be a vital organ of the proletarian struggle, which gives it an orienta­tion in its revolutionary combat. But the prob­lem here is not to know what will happen to these riots one day when the party exists, but what should be the attitude of revolutionaries today, when existing conditions cause these re­volts to proliferate. If hunger riots are prole­tarian struggles of equal or even greater im­portance than "ordinary" strikes, then revolu­tionary groups should behave in consequence.

For example, with a strike, revolutionaries draw lessons from it and make them known to the rest of the class, so that the next strikes are stronger and confront the state apparatus in more favorable conditions. When a strike breaks out, revolutionaries gather their strength and intervene actively in it, calling for its extension, asking other sectors to join the combat, denouncing the maneuvers of the trade unions and other enemies, they put forward proposals for action and organization; in short they carry out a labor of agitation and propa­ganda with a view to spreading revolutionary consciousness among the workers ...

What should be the attitude of revolutionaries towards this other form of "class struggle": the hunger riot? Should they encourage them? Should they take part? Should they call work­ers to take part in the looting? Should their propaganda explain that these revolts make it possible to win "gains" and that they destabilize the capitalist system?

What we have to say seems to make some com­rades laugh. It should not. All these groups do nothing but go round in circles about a very serious problem: they call "class struggle" ac­tions in which they are not prepared to commit themselves. All they can do is spout formulas of this variety:

"We hope that these revolts will be replaced by a more organized struggle" (PCI);

"Proletarian movements do not need to sacri­fice the workers they defend" (CWO);

"It is obvious that a similar movement will not be repeated in the months to come, for the bourgeoisie would provoke a terrifying bloodbath and a very serious defeat, which is not the case today. And all those that have taken part know this" (EO);

"We want to emphasize that we are speaking here [as regards speculations about future ri­ots] of a possibility... since it is not at all certain that this will happen ..." (BC).

This is the attitude of these groups faced with the hunger riots:

- they welcome them loudly as important milestones of class struggle... but are incapable of offering the slightest alternative concrete proposals for action. They leave this task ... to the future party;

- they admit, unwillingly, that the destiny of these riots can be nothing other than to smash into the wall of repression; that they bear in themselves no revolutionary proletarian per­spective, and that the energy wasted in these combats should be used differently, in other kinds of action, in a real class struggle;

- however, this does not prevent them from continuing to "criticize" the ICC, because this is the only organization which has openly de­nounced the danger these riots constitute for the proletariat, and which distinguishes clearly this kind of action from the terrain of the working class.

These groups' attitude can be summed up in two sentences:

- inability to understand the accelerating upheavals in capitalism's life that we are living through;

- irresponsibility in fulfilling the function for which the class they belong to created them.

Leonardo