The content and form of workers' struggles under decadent capitalism

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CONTENT

Given the overtly anti-working class role of the unions, wildcat strikes, strikes against the unions, have multiplied everywhere. They express in practice the proletariat’s antag­onism to unions and reveal a clearer and clearer consciousness within the class of the capitalist nature of these organisations. But what is the content of such strikes? The fact that capitalism is no longer in a position to concede any real improvement in the conditions of exploitation has reduced proletarian struggles to a defensive battle against capital’s permanent attack on the workers’ living standards. The examp­les of 1936 and 1968 in France show how capital is forced to take back immediately any concession torn from it by generalised struggles of the class. But 1936 and 1968 were situations in which wage increases were followed by price rises; in both cases these were exceptions arising out of particularly large-scale struggles. The normal rule in capitalism today is not that price rises follow wage increases but the exact opposite. It isn’t a question of capital constantly trying to recoup what the workers have torn from it, but of the workers const­antly trying to resist any intensification of exploitation.

What characterises the content of workers’ struggles under decadent capitalism is not in itself the fact that they are defensive struggles (this has been a common feature of all proletarian struggle ever since the workers first confronted their exploiters), but firstly the fact that struggles can be defensive, without any hope of real victories such as were won in the nineteenth century and secondly the fact that real workers’ struggles immediately tend to put into question the very existence of the exploitative system (i.e. their tendency to become revolutionary).

The workers’ resistance under decadent capitalism can no long­er escape the following two alternatives. Given the system’s drive for self-preservation, either the working class must accept the containment of its struggles within a purely economic terrain, thereby condemning its struggles to a total impasse since capitalism can no longer grant any meaningful economic reforms, or the working class must assert itself resolutely as a power in its own right. If the workers accept the first alternative, such an impasse produces within their midst the best conditions in which the bourgeoisie can un­leash its chief weaponry against working class resistance. These weapons include economism, narrow localism, illusions in self-management, etc. These mystifications always lead to defeat and demoralisation. But if the proletariat takes up the second alternative, it is immediately forced to go beyond the purely economic framework of its struggle and display its political nature by developing class solidarity and confront­ing the very basis of bourgeois legality, starting with the state’s representatives within the factory: the unions.

There is no longer any possibility of conciliation between capital and labour. Their fundamental antagonism is, under decadent capitalism, pushed to its final limits. That is why any real working class struggle must inevitably and immediate­ly pose itself as a political and revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary content of the struggle bursts out to a greater or lesser degree depending on whether the struggle is a response to a situation of deepening crisis and whether the political apparatus which the workers are confronting is made up of all the ‘shock-absorbers’ in society (unions, ‘workers’ parties, political liberalism, etc). In countries where these shock-absorbers are absent or too inflexible to successfully perform this role, workers’ struggles, while less frequent, take on an openly revolutionary aspect much more rapidly. This happens in countries like Francoist Spain or in the Eastern bloc countries where workers’ strikes so often become insurrectional struggles embracing whole towns and are soon transformed into generalised confrontations with the forces of the state - as for example in Vigo, Pamplona, and Vitoria in Spain, and Gdansk and Szczecin in Poland in 1970.

But whatever the exact circumstances, and however intense the struggle may or may not be, working class resistance in this epoch can no longer assert itself without immediately taking a revolutionary direction. It is this new characteristic in the workers’ struggles which has led revolutionaries since the outbreak of World War I to proclaim that the old distinc­tion made by the Social Democracy between the ‘minimum programme’ (reforms to be obtained within capitalism) and the ‘maximum programme’ (communist revolution), is no longer valid. From 1914 on, only the ‘maximum programme’ could ex­press the interests of the working class. Since the possibil­ity of obtaining reforms under capitalism became utopian, only that which is revolutionary is part of the working class, only that which tends towards the revolution can have a truly proletarian character.

Does this mean that the working class must abandon its econom­ic struggles, as those ‘total revolutionists’ from Proudhon onwards have advised the class to do, considering economic struggles paltry activities integrated into the life and defence of capital? No, that point of view is not revolution­ary. The proletariat is a class, a group of people who are defined according to economic criteria (i.e. the position they occupy in the process of production). Therefore to extol the virtues of abandoning its economic struggle means concretely to ask the working class to either abandon any struggle and remain passive in the face of its exploitation, or to immerse itself in all kinds of ‘non-class-based’ struggles (co-operatives, feminism, ecology, regionalism, anti-racism, etc.) and thus dissolve itself into an eclectic, heterogeneous, spineless mass of ‘well-intentioned’ people and others voraciously seeking after ‘human justice’. In either case it all comes down to the same old bourgeois cry to the proletar­iat to “Abandon the class struggle!”.

Only people who have never understood why the working class is a revolutionary force can arrive at such a conclusion. It is not because the working class is endowed with a marked taste for ideas and ‘generous causes’ that it alone is capable of conceiving and realising the communist society. Like all revolutionary classes in history, the proletariat is led to destroy the ruling system only because its defence of its immediate interests objectively forces it to do so. And like any class, the proletariat’s interests are fundamentally economic. It is because the destruction of the capitalist system is the only way the working class has of avoiding ever - increasing degradations in its living conditions that its struggle for an improvement in its economic situation becomes a struggle for the destruction of the system itself.

The revolutionary struggle of the proletariat is not, then, the negation of the economic nature of its struggle but the result of its total understanding of the reality of that struggle. In consciously embracing the political nature of its daily economic struggle, in deepening it to the point of fin­ally destroying the bourgeois state and establishing communist society, the proletariat never abandons its defence of its economic interests. Rather the proletariat takes upon itself all the meaning and all the consequences of that struggle. As long as the proletariat exists, that is to say for as long as classes exist, up to and even after the assumption of revolutionary power, the class struggle will retain its economic character. The economic basis of man’s historic activity will only disappear when communist society flourishes, in other words when all classes - and hence the proletariat too - disappear. In the meantime, inevitably, unavoidably, the working class forges the weapons of its revolutionary struggle through its daily resistance to capitalist exploitation. It is this which both allows the class and forces it to unify as a class and thus it is in the heat of this struggle that the proletariat arrives at a conscious­ness of the necessity for, and the possibility of, communist revolution.

What the proletariat must abandon is not the economic nature of its struggle (an impossibility in any case if it is to fight as a class), but all its illusions in the future possibilities of successfully defending its interests, even its most immediate ones, without leaving the strictly econom­ic framework of struggles and without consciously adopting a political, global and revolutionary understanding of its struggle. Faced with the inevitable short-term failure of its defensive struggles under decadent capitalism, the class must conclude that it isn’t that these struggles are useless, but that the only way of making them useful to the proletarian cause is to understand them and consciously transform them into moments of learning and preparation for struggles which are more generalised, more organised, and more conscious of the inevitability of the proletariat’s final confrontation with the system of exploitation. In the era of capitalism’s decline, when the communist revolution is on the historical agenda, the effectiveness of the every day struggles of the working class can no longer be measured, or understood, in immediate terms. Their effectiveness can only be understood within the world historic perspective of the communist revolution.

FORMS OF ORGANIZATION.

With the trade unions lost to it forever, the working class has been confronted with the problem of discovering a new form of organisation. But this is by no means easy under decadent capitalism. The great strength of the unions derives from their ability to gain recognition as the only possible means of organisation for the workers’ struggle. Thus the bosses and the government accept no other ‘spokesman’ for the working class than the trade unions. Every day, ceaselessly, in leaflets, the press, radio and television, capital systematically drums the message into the heads of the workers: “the trade unions are your organisations”. Nothing is spared in its efforts to strengthen the ability of the trade unions to mystify the working class. Even so, this operation is not always an unqualified success: in a country like France where the sledgehammer of the unions representative role is applied with particular violence, only one worker in five feels the need to join the union. Today the ‘leftist’ organisations are called upon to play a bigger and bigger role in reinforcing the credibility of these capitalist organs in the eyes of the more combative workers. Constantly subjected to this barrage of mystification, the workers in countries that boast ‘trade union freedoms’ have the greatest difficul­ty in envisaging the possibility of organising their struggles outside the traditional apparatus. A particularly unbearable situation must develop in order for them to find the strength to openly oppose the immense state machine and its parties and trade unions. This is what characterises and renders the struggle of the proletariat so difficult under decadent capitalism. In opposing the unions, the working class does not simply confront a handful of trade union bureaucrats. The capitalist state itself stands before it. But this very difficulty makes every upsurge of the class outside the trade unions all the more significant. It is this that makes the question of forms of organisation outside the trade unions so important. The problem of the forms of organisation of working class struggle is neither independent nor separate from the problem of its content. There is a close inter-relation between the revolutionary content workers’ struggles immediately tend to take on in the epoch of capitalist deca­dence, and the forms of organisation the class arrives at.

DURING THE STRUGGLE

In its greatest revolutionary struggles in this century, the proletariat has taken up a new form of organisation suited to its revolutionary mission: the soviets or workers’ councils - assemblies of delegates mandated by the general assemblies of workers. These organs of centralisation and unification created by the class are the means through which it can forge, in the heat of the struggle, the material and theoretical forces necessary for its attack against the state. But the very form of the soviets or councils gives them one particu­lar characteristic. Because they are assemblies of delegates elected by quasi-permanent general assemblies, their existence is entirely dependent on the existence of generalised class struggle. If the class is not struggling in all the factories, if there are no general assemblies of workers in all the places they are fighting, the councils cannot exist. The workers’ councils can only become permanent when the generalised open struggle of the class becomes permanent; in other words during the revolutionary process itself. The workers’ councils are the specific organs of proletarian power.

How then does the working class organise itself when it is struggling against the state and its union appendages, but the struggles have not yet reached the stage of generalised insurrection? The experience of thousands of wildcat strikes during the course of more than fifty years has provided a clear answer to this question. In all four corners of the planet and under the most different geographical and historic­al conditions, anti-union strikes have spontaneously taken on a particularly simple form of organisation: general assemblies of strikes co-ordinated by committees of elected delegates which are permanently responsible to the assemblies. The same organisational basis is found in these strikes as that of the councils. Forms and content are connected. In the same way that the most important strikes in decadent capitalism contain within themselves the seeds of massive revolutionary struggle, likewise their forms or organisation reveal in an embryonic fashion the organisational forms of the organs of the revolu­tion - the councils.

OUTSIDE OF STRUGGLES

Confronted with the death of the union form of struggle the working class through its own experience has resolved in practice the question of the form of organisation it must use in order to take its open struggle on to victory. But the unions functioned not only as forms of organisation used by the class when it was engaged in struggle. As permanent organisations the workers also used them in periods of calm. Together with the mass party, they constituted a real permanent means of regrouping the class. After the unions ceased to be proletarian organisations, the class was then faced with the problem of knowing if and how it could organise itself on a class basis, given a let-up in the struggle. What generally happens when the struggle dies down is that the strike committees disappear along with the general assemblies. The workers tend to go back to being a mass of individuals, atomised and defeated, more or less accepting the claims of the unions to represent them. Such a return to passivity may take a long time or it may happen very quickly, but in either case if there is no new outbreak of open struggle it is inevitable. In an attempt to prevent such a relapse, it often happens that in the downturn of the struggle the most combative workers try to remain organised in order to create a permanent organisation that will allow the class to regroup after the struggle has finished. The absence of struggle systematically condemns such attempts.

Either the factory organisation dissolves itself after a time, demoralised by its inability to regroup all the workers (this happened to the German AATJ, for example, after the struggles of 1919-1923 and also to all the Action Committees which tried to stay alive in the French factories after the events of May-June, 1968 (see note 2 below)), or it remains and is transformed into a new union. This return to unionism can in some cases be very obvious. The initiators of these factory groups simply ack­nowledge the formation of a new more ‘radical’, less ‘bureau­cratic’, ‘more democratic’ union. This, for example, was the fate of the strike committee that the Trotskyists tried to keep going in 1947 after the Renault strike in France. And similarly the ‘Workers’ Commissions’ in Spain became by the end of the 1960’s a real national union structure, and an instrument in the hands of the bourgeois parties of the ‘democratic’ opposition.

With the gradual undermining of the union mystification, the return to unionist practices tends to take place more and more undercover of ambiguous, more confusionist forms of organisation - masked overall in anti-union language. In the course of open struggles, especially when they come up against the union apparatus, it becomes clearly impossible to separate the immediate economic struggle from the historic revolution­ary struggle. Often, in the wake of these strikes, the idea takes root among some workers to try to ‘invent’ a new form of permanent organisation, which would be just like the assembly of strikers, being neither a simply ‘economic’ nor ‘political’ organisation.

But it is not sufficient just to ‘want’ something to be possi­ble for it to be so. In wishing to retain the two main characteristics of the trade unions (that of a unitary organisation capable of regrouping all the workers and a permanent organisation existing outside periods of open struggle) these attempts always end up, after a shorter or longer period of time, in failure. The failure is rounded off by an inevitable return to trade unionist cretinism. Then, as enthusiasm wanes, such organisations - powerless in the face of the demobilisation of the workers - gradually become concerned once more with discovering ‘concrete’ and ‘realistic’ demands with which to ‘reactivate the masses’. They quickly come to the point of outbidding the demands of the main unions (a 36-hour week instead of a 40, an increase of 200 francs instead of 100, ‘qualitative demands’ instead of quantitative ones, etc.) in and effort to make the myth of ‘immediate victories’ sink better into the consciousness of the workers. In the process, general revolutionary ideas are made to seem far ‘too abstract to be understood by workers’.

Politically, such organisations seek ways of distinguishing themselves from traditional union organisations. They adopt a more radical ‘left’ sounding language and political slogans putting forward either ‘impossible demands’ or the sinister joke of self-management. Thus, after a little time, a type of organisation that had wanted to be ‘neither a union nor a political organisation’ only gives rise to a more political trade union: a leftist union, usually very small and even more confused, whose only real distinction is its inability to recognise itself for what it has become - namely a trade union. Certain leftists are now specialists in generating this kind of activity. Autonomia Operaia in Italy and Plataformas anti- capitalistas in Spain are probably the most typical example of this most shameful form of unionism.

WHY ALL THESE FAILURES?

Whether we are dealing with the German ‘Unionen’ (AAU) between 1919 and 1923, the Action Committees in France in 1968-1969, the Unitary Base Committees and Autonomous Assemblies in Italy, or the Workers’ Commissions in Spain, all have their origins in workers’ circles formed by the most combative workers.

All such circles express the general movement of the class towards organisation. But contrary to what those leftist students may think who try to invent new forms of organisation for the class (from such experiments as the Cahiers du Mai in France to the ‘Autonomous Assemblies’ in Italy today), there is not an unlimited number of possible organisational forms open to the proletarian struggle. A form of organisation must inevitably be appropriate to the goal it pursues. In other words, for each goal there corresponds a form of organisation that is most effective and most adapted to it. Now the class does not pursue an unlimited number of goals. It has but one: the struggle against exploitation, both its effects and its cause. In this struggle, the proletariat has only two weapons: its consciousness and its unity. Thus when workers regroup outside times of open struggle in order to assist in the general struggle of their class, they can only do so by giving themselves two basic tasks to carry out, that of contributing to the deepening and generalisation of revo­lutionary consciousness within the class and contributing to the unification of the class.

The proletariat’s forms of organisation are necessarily moulded by the need to carry out these two tasks. But here problems arise: these two tasks are two aspects of the same general task, two contributions to the same fight. But they nevertheless have contradictory characteristics. In order for the class to be united there must be an organisation to which every worker can belong irrespective of his political ideas, simply because he is a worker. But in order that the conscious­ness of the class as a whole may develop, the most advanced workers cannot simply stand around waiting for this to happen of its own accord. It is their duty to spread their convic­tions, to make propaganda, and intervene with their political positions within the rest of their class. As long as the working class exists as an exploited class (and when it is no longer exploited it will no longer be a class), there will be within it immense differences in the consciousness and revo­lutionary will of its members. In the course of struggle, all workers owing to their place in production tend to take on a revolutionary consciousness. But all workers do not develop consciousness at the same pace. There are always individuals and fractions of the class who are more decided and more con­scious of the necessity for and the means of revolutionary action, while others are more fearful, more hesitant, and more susceptible to the ideology of the ruling class. It is only in the long process of class struggle that revolutionary consciousness can be generalised. The intervention of the most advanced elements of the class is an active factor in this process. But this activity demands an essential political agreement on the part of those engaged in it. Moreover, it must be carried out in an organised manner. Thus the organisation charged with this task must be formed on the basis of a political platform. If such an organisation were to admit into its midst all the political currents that exist in the class; in other words if it refused to elaborate for itself a political platform summing up all the lessons arising from the experience of two centuries of class struggle, it would become incapable of carrying out its tasks. In the absence of strict political criteria governing membership, the organisation is condemned to become a source of confusion.

Unifying itself and raising its level of consciousness are the two tasks that the class must perform in an organised manner. But it cannot do this with only one type of organisation. That is why it has always thrown up two basic forms of organisation:

1. class-wide (unitary) organisations whose task is to regroup all workers without regard to their political ideas (trade unions in the ascendant epoch of capitalism, councils and general assemblies in the period of decadence).

2. political organisations based on a political platform and without social criteria for membership (political parties and groups).

Most attempts to create class-wide organisations outside times of open struggle are characterised by the more or less explicit desire of the participants to create an organisation which is both unitary and political at the same time - an organisation at once open to all workers while simultaneously pursuing the task of defending political positions within the class, particularly those regarding the unions.

And that is the primary reason for the systematic failure of such attempts. We have already seen why a political organisation cannot be ‘open’ - like a unitary organisation - without becoming a source of confusion within the class. But the basic reason for their systematic failure lies in the general impos­sibility within decadent capitalism for the class to organise itself in a class-wide manner outside periods of open struggle; a fact that the class repeatedly discovers for itself.

In the nineteenth century, the workers’ unions could be perman­ent and class-wide organs because of the function they had to fulfil: the systematic struggle for reforms could and had to be permanently undertaken. Workers could effectively regroup around this struggle and create a living centre for the dev­elopment of class consciousness, reinforced as it was by con­crete results. But when this struggle became impossible and ineffective, when working class resistance could only express itself in and through open struggle, there no longer remained a focus capable of allowing a general regroupment of the class outside of open struggle. The masses could not organise themselves for long around an activity that had no immediate results.

The only activity that can engender a stable organisation on the terrain of the class outside periods of struggle is an activity placing itself within the framework of the historical and global struggle of the class and that activity belongs to the proletarian political organisation. Its task is to draw the lessons from the historical experience of the working class, to reappropriate the communist programme and carry out systematic political intervention in the class struggle. But this task belongs to a minority of the class, which is never able to constitute the real basis for the general, class-wide regroupment of the class.

Attempts to form organisations functioning as both unitary and permanent organs of the class are immediately caught in a vice. On one side such organisations are incapable of being real class-wide organs; on the other they are doomed to fail as political organisations unless they abandon any pretensions to being class-wide. They are either condemned to dissolve or are kept going by undertaking the only activity able to provide them with the illusion of continued life - that of becoming unions.

The workers’ groups, which have been formed outside of open struggle, can be no more than temporary centres of discussion where workers can start to deepen their class consciousness. Any attempt to freeze them by trying to transform them into something they cannot be, that is stable organisations, must end up in one of the dead-ends we have already discussed.

THE INTERVENTION OF REVOLUTIONARIES

In the years to come the trade unions will be called upon to play a leading role on the political stage of the class strug­gle. They are the main barricade behind which capital attempts to protect itself from the attacks of the proletariat. For the working class, they represent the first enemy to be vanquished, the first barrier to be thrown down. That is why the denuncia­tion of the trade unions is one of the main tasks of the inter­vention of revolutionaries. Communists must explain again and again to their class that those who are today at the head of the trade union processions and who are so concerned with the maintenance of order will be the same ones tomorrow, who will take up arms against the workers. Revolutionaries must also tirelessly denounce the ideologists of self-management, and all the other vultures of decadent capitalism who, under cover of slogans like ‘the dual nature of the trade unions’, the ‘workers’ united front’, and other forms of critical support’ seek to present these organs of capital as workers’ organisations.

Communists do not defend particular demands, unlike the people who invent and put forward ‘more radical’, ‘more unattainable’ or ‘more transitional’ demands as carrots to encourage the proletariat to ‘go beyond economic struggles and on to politi­cal struggles’. Communists support all demands of the class when they express the proletariat’s resistance to increasing exploitation. Their task is to show that within decadent capi­talism, capital can no longer grant any lasting satisfaction to the workers’ demands which would represent real improve­ments in the conditions of the workers’ lives; that there can no longer be a struggle against the effects of exploitation which does no also become a struggle against its cause; that there can be no real victory in defensive struggle, except the acquisition of the means to definitively destroy the system itself.

The denunciation of the trade unions goes hand in hand with the defence of forms of organisation suited to the proletarian struggle under decadent capitalism: general assemblies, factory committees, and workers’ councils.

But by themselves the forms of class organisation can never be a sufficient condition to guarantee real class autonomy in the class struggle. The bourgeoisie knows only too well how to recuperate forms of organisation that the class throws up in its struggle, and how to use them for its own purposes. What’s more, by posing the question as a problem of organisation, by polarising the preoccupations of the workers on this question, organisation becomes a way of conjuring away the problem of the content of the struggle by fixating and blocking the revolutionary process at a particularly vulnerable stage. The forms of organisation are a necessary condition for the dev­elopment of this process, but their appearance is very much a spontaneous product of the action of the masses rather than a result of the intervention of revolutionaries. But once these forms have appeared, the continuation of the revolutionary process can no longer be on that spontaneous level but must be based on the content of the struggle. It is on this terrain that the intervention of revolutionaries is absolutely vital.

Revolutionaries must denounce all those who, with every step taken by the proletariat in its struggle, present these advances as definitive victories, and attempt to constrict the development of the revolutionary process.

At every stage of the struggle revolutionaries put forward the historic perspective and global character of the proletarian struggle.

The destruction of the unions is only one aspect of the global destruction of the capitalist state. The workers can only develop their struggle by globally assuming its true content, that of the historic struggle for the world communist revolution.

Note

2. Frequently this dissolution takes place in the most dis­tressing forms of decomposition. As the original nucleus sees its membership declining, eventually leaving only a handful of isolated individuals, despair overtakes them and flings them into a frenzied activism which often results in the theorisation of individualistic types of activity: sabotage, terrorism, or even into experiences of localised, ‘immediate transformations of everyday life’. In Italy, for example, where in 1969 the most generalised anti-union struggles of Western Europe took place, many such prototypes of decomposition were produced.

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This article first appeared in November/December 1974 as ‘Les Syndicats Contre La Class Ouvrier’ in no.12 of Revolution Internationale, the publication in France of the International Communist Current. This, in turn, was a rewritten and improved version of ‘Greves Sauvages et Syndicats’ in Revolution Internationale, no.3 (Old Series), December 1969. A version of that article appeared in English under the title ‘Unions and Wildcats’ in Internationalism, no.1 (the publication in America of the ICC), and was reproduced under the same name as a pamphlet by Workers’ Voice in 1974. This pamphlet is a translation of a further revised and developed text produced by the International Communist Current in French in pamphlet form, entitled ‘Les Syndicats Contre la Classes Ouvriere’.