Understanding the current state of the class struggle
Because of the depth of capitalism's economic crisis the attacks on working class living and working standards have been increasingly serious. There are increasing signs that workers have been responding to the deterioration of their material situation, a fact that has been noticed by various political tendencies. We look at some of these responses.
In Socialist Worker (12/9/9), for example, the SWP highlights "the new wave of struggles breaking out in different areas across Britain." In International Socialism 124 it writes of "very important signs of a new mood of militant resistance among some groups of workers which may spread in a way which we have not seen for many years"
The SWP points to a number of factors. Strikes have been unofficial and not tied to legal ballots. Some strikes have been indefinite. Workers have used their imaginations. Young workers have come to the forefront of struggles. Workers have gained victories as a result of their struggles.
Some of these things are true. Workers have indeed fought without waiting for the unions' seal of approval, and, part of an international trend, a younger generation is getting more involved in struggles. There have been ‘indefinite' strikes, but that's not always positive.
Also, in the context of the postal strike, they say (IS124) that the "union is able to keep the lid on any outbreak of unofficial action." Elsewhere "There was a point in the Visteon dispute where the trade union officials nearly got hold of it and put it at risk."
However, for all these comments, the SWP, and the whole Trotskyist tradition it stands for, is solidly behind the union framework, no matter how many flaws it admits. With Vestas, for example, it admits that "For the first three or four days of the occupation there was no union involvement at all." Yet it also claims that one of the big gains of the occupation is the new strength of union organisation on the Isle of Wight. Workers occupied without any union assistance, and then, when the RMT etc got involved, there was no move to extend the struggle to other workers. On the contrary, Vestas became a cause célèbre in which the needs of the struggle got lost in the campaigns of unions, leftists and greens.
One interesting remark from these firm advocates of the need for a disciplined party is on the need for "a wider group of people who form around these disputes to keep in touch with each other and create networks to confront the bureaucracy." The creation of networks is usually more the concern of more informal political formations and varieties of anarchism. In this instance the ‘confrontation' with the ‘bureaucracy' would still seem to be part of normal union activity.
The SWP is an evident example of ‘leftism': political currents that, under a veneer of socialism and revolution, have the function of shoring up the state organs charged with keeping the working class in line. We now turn to groups and currents who, with varying degrees of success, aim to put forward the real interests of the working class.
Ambiguities of anarcho-syndicalism
Brighton Solidarity Federation has recently produced a statement "For workers' control! Lessons of recent struggles in the UK" that begins: "Recent years have seen promising signs of a working class fightback, after decades of attacks on working class living standards." As opposed to the SWP they see the struggle going back more than a few months and look at examples from the last three years.
With the 2007 postal strikes they see how the movement ended with a "stitch up." In the public sector disputes of 2008 they note the impact of "those willing to take militant, sustained direct action and spread the struggle beyond their immediate workplaces."
For 2009 they choose to focus on the Ford/Visteon occupations. This does show the strength of the movement and the way the Unite union finally regained control, but it wasn't the only significant movement of the year. The Vestas occupation and the solidarity strikes in and beyond the oil refineries (which SolFed do mention elsewhere - see Catalyst 22) also have important lessons - indeed the omission of the latter is particularly hard to understand, given that they offer clear examples of workers being willing to take "direct action and spread the struggle beyond their immediate workplaces".
When SolFed itself draw out the "lessons learned" their clearest points are on the nature of workers' self-organisation. "The central form of self-organisation is the mass meeting. However, it is vital that mass meetings do not just give a democratic rubber-stamp to decisions made elsewhere (as happened in the Ford-Visteon dispute), but take an active role in organising and controlling the struggle."
However "Not everything can be done in a mass meeting. Sometimes a strike committee is needed to draw up demands. Other times workers may want to produce a leaflet or do some research. They may also want to send delegations to other workplaces in order to encourage solidarity actions and spread the struggle."
These are all fundamental acquisitions of the workers' movement. Confusion starts when they explain "the contradictions and limits of a rank-and-file level of trade unionism". This begins quite promisingly: "It is not simply a matter of the unions ‘not doing their job properly' - they do it only too well, since they need to be able to control workers' struggles in order to function as representatives of those struggles."
They do make it clear what they mean by ‘rank and file' unionism. "Shop steward and convenor positions - often taken by the most militant workers - must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy's organisational interests." But then they go on to argue that "stewards have to be transformed from being representatives, whose role is to reconcile workers' demands with the interests of management, into being delegates"(Catalyst 22). If stewards can transform the function they have - presumably through a mix of enlightenment and will power, and with their actual social position having no influence on what they think, say or do - then why can't union bosses or other functionaries of the capitalist class change the way they act as well? What's the point of mass meetings and recallable delegates if workers (or a militant minority) still have to struggle within the union structure?
SolFed's take on industrial unionism is also rather confused and confusing. It is against the idea of "One Big Union for all", which at least has the intention of stressing the global unity of the working class. Instead they want a union "made up of those workers committed to the anarcho-syndicalist aims and methods".
This doesn't sound much like a union, but very much like a political organisation - one that defends some very clear positions, like the necessity of mass meetings to keep control of the struggle in workers' hands, but which then undermines this clarity by arguing that it wants shop stewards capable of ‘doing their job properly.'
One form of left communism
The Communist Workers Organisation is a group of the communist left (as is the ICC). The latest issue of Revolutionary Perspectives (no 51) starts with an article titled ‘From episodic resistance to global class war?'. It opens "We are dedicating the bulk of this issue of RP to ‘green shoots'. No, not of the mythical, much spotted capitalist recovery, but of the revival of working class resistance around the planet, much of which is going unreported."
They do not limit themselves to workers' struggles in Britain, but take in struggles in China, South Korea and South Africa, as well as going back to look at the lessons of the miners' strike in Britain in 1984-85. They not only show the struggles that have been fought, but also the obstacles of nationalism and unionism that workers face. Not leaving it there they say that "All these signs of resistance after years of relative class quiet are heartening but, as the weight of the attacks is building up, they will have to develop into a bigger movement with wider goals."
Spelling this out they say that "Ultimately workers everywhere will have to recognise that the only permanent way to ensure their living standards is when they take over the running of society themselves."
In their current intervention, therefore, the CWO is both greeting different expressions of class struggle and putting forward the wider perspective beyond the immediate battles.
In the CWO's latest broadsheet, Aurora 15, they have an article on "class war at Royal Mail". It not only emphasises the importance of solidarity action in workers' struggles, but also that "In embryo this is also a strike about a different society". This is a good reminder of the different values of the parasitic capitalist class and state, and those of the working class as it develops its struggles.
There are, however, a couple of formulations that seem to single out one sector of workers when the extension of the struggle is the prime need. "Support the posties! They offer us a better world" at the beginning of the article and "The postal workers are fighting for us all" at the end. The postal workers are only part of the working class and, when the main danger facing postal workers is isolation, it is no time to talk up their particular strengths when they desperately need the struggle to spread.
The need for a historical perspective
Whatever the differences, what these three views share is a lack of any sense of the changing shape of the class struggle and its historical context. In the case of a leftist group like the SWP, when they have made generalisations about the class struggle they seem calculated to disorientate. In the early 1980s, a period of workers' militancy in Britain and internationally, they talked of a ‘downturn' in workers' struggles. With the decline in struggles at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 1990s they insisted on a ‘new mood of militancy'.
With the CWO, for all their commitment to theoretical clarity, there have been many occasions when they have expressed enthusiasm for particular struggles, but never a serious attempt to establish a framework for understanding the inevitable ebbs and flows of the class struggle.
The most important point to register about the last twenty years of workers' struggles is that not only were there very low levels of class struggle in the 1990s compared to the successive waves of struggle that broke out in the period after the 1968 events in France, but also that workers' consciousness had been hit so badly that the very sense of a working class identity was seriously diminished. When we saw the revival of the working class it was not at the level of the massive struggles of the 1970s and 80s, but it did show signs of a changing consciousness in the working class.
The strikes and demonstrations over the attacks on pensions in France, Italy and Austria in 2003/4 were significant not just as struggles that involved a large number of workers, but also because they were not about immediate questions but showed a concern for the future. This was a turning point in the situation
Subsequently, in the gradual revival of workers' struggles we have seen forms of organisation that have bypassed the unions, struggles in which workers have expressed solidarity and attempts to establish discussion as a part of the combat.
Among the highlights of recent years have been the struggles against the CPE in France in 2006 and last December's revolt in Greece. In each case we saw occupations, a commitment to discussion, solidarity, and the involvement of students, those in work and the unemployed.
That is the context for understanding today's struggles, internationally and in Britain. When looking at this year's struggles - Lindsey, Visteon, Vestas, post - it is not a matter of producing a series of balance sheets for each individual struggle, but of seeing how they are expressions of a growing class movement, taking the form of occupations, wildcats that escape union control, and attempts at putting solidarity into practice; it is equally necessary to consider how this movement is dealing with negative elements such as the union obstacles, the influence of nationalism, and the campaigns of the leftists.
There are indeed ‘promising signs' in the class struggle. Revolutionaries can play their part in its advance by giving a perspective for its development.