Class Struggle: New Strength of the Unions Against the Working Class
The workers' strikes and demonstrations that shook France at the end of autumn 1995 have illustrated both the proletariat's ability to return to the combat, but also the enormous difficulties that it encounters on the way. In the last issue of the International Review, we gave an immediate appreciation of these social movements' significance:
... the workers cannot remain passive [in the face of the brutal attacks that a crisis-ridden capitalism is dealing out to them]. They have no way out, other than to defend themselves in struggle. But to prevent the working class from entering the combat with its own weapons, the bourgeoisie has taken the lead, and has pushed the workers into a premature struggle, completely under the control of the unions. It has not left the workers time to mobilize at their own rhythm and with their own methods (...)
Thus although the recent strike movement in France reveals a deep discontent within the working class, it is above all the result of a maneuver on a very large scale by the bourgeoisie, aimed at leading the workers into a massive defeat, and above all at creating a profound disorientation in their ranks"2.
The importance of the events in France at the end of 1995
The fact that social movements in France were fundamentally the result of a bourgeois maneuver in no way reduces their importance, nor does it mean that the working class is today nothing better than a flock of sheep at the mercy of the ruling class. In particular, these events are a stinging rebuttal of all the "theories" (given abundant publicity at the time of the Stalinist regimes' collapse) on the "disappearance" of the working class, and to the variations that spoke of the "end of working class struggle", or (the "left" variety) of the "recomposition" of the class, which has supposedly dealt a serious blow to the struggle3.
The very fact and extent of the strikes and demonstrations of November-December 1995 is testimony to the class' real potential today: hundreds of thousands of strikers, several million demonstrators. However, we cannot simply be satisfied with this observation: after all, during the 1930s, we saw huge movements like the strikes of May-June 1936 in France, or the workers' insurrection against the fascist coup in Spain, on 18th July of the same year. The fundamental difference between today's class movements and those of the 1930s, is that the latter were part of a long string of working class defeats following the revolutionary wave that began during World War I, defeats which plunged the working class into the deepest counter-revolution of its history. In this context of physical, and above all political defeat, expressions of working class combativity were easily derailed by the bourgeoisie onto the rotten terrain of anti-fascism, in other words the preparation for the second imperialist massacre. We will not return here to our analysis of the historic course4, but it is necessary to state clearly here that the situation today is not the same as in the 1930s. Today's mobilizations of the working class are in no way steps towards the preparation of imperialist war. Their significance lies in the perspective of decisive class confrontations, in a capitalism plunged into irreversible crisis.
This being said, the importance of the French social movements at the end of autumn 1995 lies not so much in the workers' strikes and demonstrations in themselves, as in the size of the bourgeois maneuver that provoked them.
We can often judge the real balance of class forces from the way that the bourgeoisie acts against the proletariat. The ruling class, after all, has many means of evaluating these forces: opinion polls, police reports (in France, for example, one of the jobs of the Renseignements Genereux, ie the political police, is to "feel the pulse" of potentially dangerous sectors of the population, and in particular the working class). But the most important of them is the union apparatus, which is much more effective than all the sociologists, opinion pollsters, or police functionaries. Since this apparatus is responsible above all for controlling the exploited, in the service of capitalist interests, and has 80 years of experience in the matter, it is especially sensitive to the workers' state of mind, their readiness and ability to engage in struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is the unions' job to keep the bourgeoisie's leaders constantly informed as to the extent of the danger represented by the class struggle. And this is the purpose of the periodic meetings between union leaders and the bosses, or the government: plan together the best and most effective strategy for the bourgeoisie's attacks on the working class. In the case of the movements in France at the end of 1995, the size and sophistication of the maneuver organized against the working class are enough in themselves to show how far the class struggle, and the perspective of massive workers' combats, are a central concern for the bourgeoisie.
Bourgeois maneuvers against the working class
The article in the previous issue of this Review described in detail the various aspects of the maneuver, and how all the sectors of the ruling class, from the right to the far left, collaborated in it. Here, we will simply recall the main elements:
- starting in the summer of 1995, an avalanche of attacks (from a brutal tax hike, to a threat to the pensions of state employees, via a wage freeze for the latter, and the whole topped off with a plan for Social Security reform, the "Juppe plan" designed to increase wage earners ' subscriptions, while reducing the reimbursement of medical expenses);
- a veritable provocation directed at the rail workers, in the form of a "contract plan" between the state and the SNCF (the nationalized rail company), imposing an extra 7 years work on drivers before reaching pension rights, and thousands of job cuts;
- use of the rail workers' immediate mobilization as an "example to follow" by the other workers of the state sector: contrary to their usual practice of confining the struggle, this time the unions became zealous propagandists for their extension and succeeded in drawing in many other workers, notably in city transport, the postal service, gas and electricity, and tax offices;
- massive media coverage of the strikes, presented in a highly favorable light on the TV, and even accompanied by intellectuals signing declarations for "an awakening of society", and against "monolithic thought";
- the leftists' contribution to the maneuver, giving their total approval to the unions, reproaching them solely with not having done the same thing earlier;
- then, after three weeks of strikes, the government withdraws the "contract plan" on the railways, and the measures against state employees' pensions: the unions hail their victory and talk of a government "retreat"; despite the resistance of some of the "tough" railyards, the rail workers go back to work, giving the signal for the other sectors to end the strike.
Overall, the bourgeoisie won a victory by pushing through most of the measures which concern every sector of the working class, such as the increase in taxes and the reform of the Social Security, and even some of the measures aimed at specific sectors, such as the wage freeze for state employees. But the bourgeoisie's greatest victory was political: the workers who have just engaged in three weeks of strikes are not ready to launch a new movement when the next attacks fall. Moreover, and above all, these strikes and demonstrations have given the unions the opportunity to polish up their image considerably: whereas previously, the unions in France had the reputation of dispersing the struggle, of organizing worn-out and divisive days of action, now they appeared throughout the movement (especially the two most important of them: the Stalinist CGT and Force Ouvriere led by the Socialists) as indispensable to the movement's extension and unity, to the organization of massive demonstrations, and as responsible for the government's so-called "retreat". As we said in the article in our last Review:
In fact, the considerable importance that the bourgeoisie gave to renewing the unions' credibility was amply confirmed after the movement, especially in the press with numerous articles emphasizing the union "comeback". It is interesting to read, in one of the bourgeoisie's confidential newsheets, that it uses for talking unambiguously: "One of the clearest signs of this union recovery is the way the coordinations have volatilized. They has been seen as a testimony of the unions' inability to represent the workers. The fact that they did not appear this time shows that the unions' efforts to "stick to the terrain", and restore a "unionism close to the workers" have not been in vain"5. The same newsheet is happy to quote a declaration - presented as a "sigh of relief" - from a private sector boss: "At last we've got strong trade unions back again".
A lack of understanding in the revolutionary milieu
This is not a hasty judgment on BC's part, as a result of insufficient information, since in its January 1996 issue, BC returns to the same idea:
"The employees of the state sector mobilized spontaneously against the Juppe plan. And it is good to remember that the workers' first demonstrations took place on the terrain of the immediate defense of class interests, taking the union organizations themselves by surprise, and showing once again that when the proletariat moves to defend itself against the bourgeoisie's attacks, it almost always does so outside and against union directives. It was only in the second phase that the French unions, above all Force Ouvriere and the CGT, caught up with the movement and thus recovered their credibility in the workers' eyes. But the involvement, with such apparent radicalism, of Force Ouvriere and the other unions in fact hid the sordid interests of the union bureaucracy, which can only be understood if one knows the French system of social protection [where the unions, notably Force Ouvriere, manage me funds, which is precisely one of the things called into question by the Juppe plan].
We find a similar idea put forward by BC's sister organization within the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Parry (IBRP), the Communist Workers Organization (CWO). In no. 1, 3rd Series, of its review Revolutionary Perspectives, we read:
In the analysis of the two IBRP groups, there is much insistence on the fact the unions only sought to defend their own "sordid interests" when they called for mobilization against the Juppe plan on Social Security. Obviously, the union leaders are sensitive to their own petty interests, such an analysis of reality comes down to looking at reality through the wrong end of a telescope. It's like seeing the customary disputes between the different unions as nothing more than an expression of the competition that exists between them, without seeing the fundamental aspect: that this is an excellent way of dividing the working class. In reality, these "sordid interests" of the trades unions can only find expression within the framework of their role in capitalist society: that of the social firemen of the capitalist order; the bourgeois state's police within the workers' ranks. And if they should have to renounce their "sordid interests" in order to keep up this role, then they will do so without hesitation: their sense of responsibility in the defense of capitalist interests against the working class is impeccable. At the end of 1995, the union leaders knew perfectly well that letting Juppe put through the major part of his plan would deprive them of some of their financial prerogatives, but they kissed them in the higher capitalist interest. It is far better for the unions to be thought to be fighting their own corner (they can always take refuge behind the argument that their own strength contributes to that of the working class), than to be unmasked for what they really are: cogs in the machinery of the capitalist state.
In fact, while our comrades of the IBRP are perfectly clear on the trade unions' capitalist nature, they still express the idea, nuanced it is true7, that the unions were surprised, even outflanked, by the initiative of the working class. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is one example during the last 10 years in France of the unions perfectly anticipating and controlling a social movement, then 1995 is it. This movement was not just controlled by the unions, they systematically provoked it, with the government's complicity, as we have seen above and analyzed at length in our previous article. And the best proof that the bourgeoisie and its union apparatus was neither "surprised" nor "outflanked", is the media coverage that the bourgeoisie in other countries immediately gave to the movement. Especially since the big strikes in Belgium 1983, which heralded the class' emergence from the demoralization and disorientation which accompanied the workers' 1981 defeat in Poland, the bourgeoisie has been careful to organize a complete international blackout around workers' struggles. Only when the struggle corresponds to a maneuver planned in advance by the ruling class, as was the case in Germany 1992, does the blackout give way to a plethora of information. In 1992, the strikes in the public sector, especially in public transport, already had the aim of "presenting the unions, which had systematically organized all the actions and kept the workers completely passive, as the real protagonists of the movement against the bosses"8. From this point of view, the movements in France at the end of 1995 were a "remake" of those stirred up by the bourgeoisie in Germany three and a half years earlier. The intense media bombardment that accompanied these movements (even in Japan, it was daily headline news on the TV) shows not only that they were planned and controlled from start to finish by the unions, but that the ruling class organized the maneuver on an international scale to strike a blow at working class consciousness in the advanced countries.
The best proof lies in the way that the Belgian bourgeoisie maneuvered in the wake of the social movements in France:
- while the media were speaking of a "new May 68" in France, at the end of November 1995, the unions launched movements exactly like those in France against the attacks on the state sector, especially against the reform of social security;
- the bourgeoisie then mounted a brutal provocation by announcing attacks of unprecedented violence against workers on the railways (SNCB) and in the national airline (Sabena); just as in France, the muons resolutely took the lead in mobilizing these two sectors, presented as the example to follow, while the rail workers were invited to follow the example of their French colleagues;
- two days later, the government and the bosses organized a new provocation at the SNCB and Sabena, with the management announcing that its austerity measures were to be maintained: the unions renewed the "hardline" struggle (confrontations between police and strikers blockading Brussels airport), and tried to spread the movement to other branches of the state sector, as well as to the private sectors, with union delegations declaring "solidarity" with the Sabena workers, and declaring that "their struggle is a social laboratory for all the workers";
- finally, at the beginning of January, the bosses once again pretended to retreat, announcing that they would open a "social dialogue" at both the SNCB and Sabena "under the pressure of the movement"; as in France, the movement ended in victory and increased credibility for the unions.
Comrades of the IBRP, do you really believe that this remarkable resemblance between events in France and in Belgium was a mere accident, and that the bourgeoisie and the unions internationally had planned none of this?
Comrades of Battaglia Comunista, when you end up writing such nonsense, then at the least you should try to draw the lessons afterwards. In particular, you should be a little more skeptical at what the bourgeoisie has to stay. If you let yourself be taken in by all the ruling class uses to try to fool the working masses, how can you claim to be the latter's vanguard?
The need for a historical analytical framework
An immediatism which allows us to understand why the groups of the IBRP, for example in 1987-88, swing between complete skepticism and an equally complete enthusiasm at the workers' struggles. In 1987, BC began by putting the struggle in the Italian schools on the same level as that of the magistrates or airline pilots, only to transform it into "a new and interesting phase in the class struggle in Italy". The CWO oscillated in the same way over the strikes in Britain during the same period12.
In January 1996, it was the same immediatism that made BC write that "The strike of the French workers, whatever the opportunist (sic) attitude of the unions, is really an episode of extraordinary importance in the recovery of the class struggle". For BC, what was sadly lacking in this struggle, to avoid its defeat, was a proletarian party. If the party - which must indeed be built for the proletariat to carry out the communist revolution - were to be inspired by the same immediatist approach as BC, than we can only fear for the fate of the revolution.
Only by turning our backs firmly on immediatism, and placing the present moments of the class struggle in their historic context, can we understand them and truly play the part of vanguard of the working class.
Obviously, this framework is the course of history , and we won't go back over it. More precisely, the framework has been defined by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 1980s, which we recalled briefly at the beginning of this article. At the end of the summer of 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ICC set out the new analytical framework which would allow us to understand the evolution of the class struggle:
Given the historic importance of the events that are determining it, the present retreat of the proletariat - although it doesn't call into question the historic course, the general perspective of class confrontations - is going to be much deeper than the one which accompanied the defeat of 1981 in Poland"13.
The ICC had to integrate further new and extremely important events into this framework:
These tragic events certainly put paid to the lies about the "new world order" announced by the bourgeoisie at the time of the disappearance of the Eastern bloc, which was supposed to be the main source of military tensions in the world (...) But at the same time, the great majority of the working class in the advanced countries, following a new round of bourgeois propaganda campaigns, submitted to this war with a strong sense of powerlessness, which considerably weakened its struggles. The August 1991 putsch in the USSR and the new destabilization it provoked, as well as the civil war in Yugoslavia, contributed in their turn to reinforce this feeling of powerlessness. The breakup of the USSR and the barbaric war unfolding in Yugoslavia are expressions of the advanced decomposition of capitalist society today. But thanks to all the lies spread by the media, the bourgeoisie has managed to hide the real cause of these events and present them as a further manifestation of the "death of communism" or as a question of the "right of nations to self-determination", in the face of which workers have nothing to do but be passive spectators trusting to the wisdom of their governments"14.
The horror and duration of the war in Yugoslavia, unfolding right next to the great proletarian concentrations of Western Europe has been one of major elements that explain the extent of the proletariat's difficulties at the present time. The war combines (though to a lesser extent) the damage done by the collapse of the Eastern bloc - a deep disarray and illusions among the workers - and by the war in the Gulf - a profound feeling of impotence - without, unlike the latter, revealing the crimes and barbarity of great "democracies". The war provides a clear illustration of how capitalism's decomposition, of which it is one of today's most spectacular expressions, acts as a serious obstacle to the development of the workers' struggle and consciousness.
Another aspect which needs to be emphasized, in particular because it concerns the bourgeoisie's main weapon against the workers, the unions, is the fact that we pointed out in our Theses of September 1989: "reformist ideology will weigh very heavily on the struggle in the period ahead, greatly facilitating the action of the unions". This sprang from the fact not that the workers still had any illusions in the "socialist paradise", but that the existence of a supposedly "non-capitalist" society seemed to indicate the possibility of some society other than a capitalist one. The end of these regimes was presented as the "end of history" (a term used quite seriously by certain bourgeois "thinkers"). Inasmuch as trade unionism is supposed to act on the terrain of improving workers' living conditions within capitalism, the events of 1989, aggravated by all the blows suffered by the working class since then, could only strengthen the unions, as we have seen - and which the bourgeoisie has made the most of in the social movements at the end of 1989.
The unions' lost credibility could not be restored all at once. Throughout the 1980s, they had been so discredited by their repeated sabotage of the workers' struggles, that it was difficult for them to set themselves up immediately as the intransigent defenders of the working class. Their return to the limelight was thus conducted in several stages, where they were more and more strongly presented as the vital instrument of the workers' struggle. An example of this progressive return of the unions is given by the situation in Germany, where the grand maneuvers in the public sector during the spring of 1992 still left room for the spontaneous struggles, without union instructions, of autumn 1993 in the Ruhr. By contrast, in the engineering workers' strikes at the beginning of 1995, the unions were much more firmly in the saddle. But the most significant example comes from Italy. In the autumn of 1992, the unions became the target for the great outburst of workers' anger against the Amato plan. A year later, the "mobilization" of the working class and the massive demonstrations throughout the country were led by the "factory council coordinations", in other words by the structures of rank -and- file unionism. Finally, the monster demonstration of 1994 in Rome, the biggest since World War II, was a masterpiece of union control.
To understand this renewed vigor of the trade unions, it is important to emphasize that it has been made possible by the survival of the union ideology, whose ultimate defenders are the "rank-and-file" or "fighting" unionists. In Italy, for example, the latter led the contestation of the official unions (by bringing to demonstrations the ball-bearings and rotten tomatoes that were used against the union leaders), before opening the way to the union recovery of 1994 with their own "mobilizations" during 1993. In the combats to come, once the official unions have once again been discredited by their sabotage in the service of the ruling class, the workers will still have to attack the unionist ideology represented by the rank-and-file unionists.
The bourgeoisie thus confirms what revolutionaries have always said: the crisis is the workers' best ally. It will open their eyes to the dead-end of the world today, and give it the will to overthrow it, despite all the obstacles that the ruling class will not fail to sow in its path.
1 "Resolution on the International Situation", adopted by the 11th Congress of the ICC, in International Review no.82.
2 International Review no.84, "Struggle behind the unions leads to defeat".
3 See our article "The proletariat is still the revolutionary class" in International Review no. 74.
4 See our article "Report on the course of history" in International Review no.18.
5 Supplement to the bulletin Entreprise et Personnel, titled "The social conflict at the end of 1995 and its probable consequences".
6 This is a mistake. The CFDT - a social-democratic union with Christian origins - approved the Juppe plan for the Social Security.
7 The CWO's tone is a good deal less optimistic than BC's: "The bourgeoisie is so confident that it will control the workers, that the Paris Stock Exchange is rising". We should add that the Franc remained stable during the entire movement. Two proofs that the bourgeoisie welcomed the movement with satisfaction. And with good reason!
8 See International Review no. 70, "Faced with chaos and massacres, only the working class can provide an answer".
9 See our article "The Wind from the East and the Response of Revolutionaries" in International Review no. 61.
10 See in particular our articles "In response to Battaglia Comunista on the course of history" and nature of a historic course: "When we talk about a "historic course and "The confusion of communist groups on the present period: the under-estimation of the class struggle", in International Review nos. 50 and 54.
11 International Review no. 54.
12 On this subject, see our article "Decantation in the proletarian political milieu and the oscillations of the IBRP" in International Review no. 55.
13 "Theses on the economic and political crisis in the USSR and the Eastern bloc countries", International Review no. 60.
14 "Only the working class can take humanity out of this barbarism", International Review no. 68.
15 Rosabeth Moss Kanter, previously director of the Harvard Business Review, quoted by Le Monde Diplomatique of March 1996.