ICC Public Forum in Delhi: lessons of the struggles against the CPE in France

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In recent editions of WR we have reported the revival of class struggle taking place in India today, with examples such as the strikes by Honda and airport workers as clear expressions of the international resurgence of the working class since 2003. In April the ICC held a public meeting in New Delhi in order to take up the lessons of the student movement in France.

‘Offensive’ or ‘defensive’ struggles?

After a presentation from the ICC, the discussion developed on the character of struggles today. One participant correctly remarked that the bourgeoisie still has the upper hand, even after the recent struggles. He had the impression that the working class was still not showing signs of initiative and that, for example, “in India, if the bourgeoisie decides to go to war against Pakistan, the working class would follow it without significant resistance”. His main question: Are today’s struggles ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive’?

It is true that because capitalism must be overthrown by the world working class, to prevent the destruction of the planet and to offer a perspective for the humanity, the outcome of the struggles in France is not enough. What is necessary is a revolution, there’s no doubt about that! It is also true that even after weeks of struggle in France the ruling class still holds power - capitalism survived these events. What happened in France was at first a defence of the working class against a concrete attack on their living conditions. But does it mean that the struggle only had a defensive character? Does it devalue recent events in France to say that they were not directly an attempt at a revolutionary upheaval?

It is absolutely normal for the working class to defend itself. The history of the workers’ movement shows us that it is not an abstract idealism for revolution and a better world that pushes the working class forward. Concretely, the worsening of living conditions, brought about by the capitalist crisis and war, brings the proletariat into struggle. This was also the initial driving force for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the worldwide revolutionary wave that followed it. In this sense each struggle, however ‘defensive’ it might look on first superficial view, is an essential school of experience for the working class, for its self-confidence, and can serve as a point of departure for a revolutionary dynamic.

The ICC thinks that the healthy defensive reaction inside the working class today must be saluted! History has shown us periods when the working class had lost even this important and fundamental defensive capacity. It happened in the 1930s and 1940s when the proletariat was beaten politically. Because of this capitalism was able to unleash the Second World War.

We think it is important to have different criteria than ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ when looking at workers’ struggles. This method of differentiation does not really help in analysing the real dynamic of class struggle. In the texts we have recently published on the struggles of the students in France, we have raised the following points:

- Is this struggle taking place on a class terrain? Our answer was ‘yes’, because the demands of this movement were not limited to questions facing students, but took up a question concerning the whole working class.

- Did this struggle give itself a structure of organisation that belongs to the heritage of workers movement? Our answer was again ‘yes’, because the general assemblies were open to all, and made it possible to strengthen the struggle with intensive debates and allowed the participation of other parts of the working class.

- Is this struggle a conscious trap of the ruling class to recuperate the discontent of the working class? No, it surprised the French bourgeoisie and was evidence of its weakness.

- Has this mobilisation been a planned and controlled manoeuvre by the trade unions? No, the unions found it quite hard to take control of this struggle in the service of capitalism.

It is more appropriate to judge the dynamic of a workers’ struggle by looking at the terrain it’s fought on, the capacity for self-organisation and self-initiative and the ability to resist the efforts of the unions to gain control. We are convinced that this is the best way to understand the importance of a struggle rather than trying to classify it as ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive’.

In the discussion the ICC emphasised that the struggles in France had a historical significance because they were a concrete expression of the revival of international class struggle since 2003. There’s a new generation participating in the class struggle after years of disorientation in the ranks of the working class since 1989.

When assessing a struggle its international and historical context should never be forgotten. The following example shows the necessity for a wider view than just looking at events in isolation. Shortly before World War II, the working class in France and Spain engaged in militant strikes and other mobilisations. You can identify some ‘offensive spirit’ in this period. But despite all its militancy, it was more like the last gasp of a working class that had already been beaten in the 1930s. The recent events in France are exactly the opposite: an announcement of a new generation within a working class that is not beaten and that is now overcoming the worst effects of the campaign over the ‘death of communism’.

The demands of workers’ struggles

The discussion turned to the question of the demands that the working class puts forward in its struggles. A doubt was put forward by a participant in the discussion: if you fight against a law like the CPE you’re still accepting exploitation. Simply put, it’s like saying: ‘Do not exploit us with the CPE, but continue to exploit us with all the other means available to capitalism’.

The discussion tried to show that this is not really a fruitful method to look at the class struggle. As we say in the ‘Theses on the students movement in France’ (IR 125) “Now that the government has retreated on the CPE, which was the movement’s leading demand, the latter has lost its dynamic. Does this mean that things will ‘return to normal’ as all the fractions of the bourgeoisie obviously hope? Certainly not. As the Theses say, “[the bourgeoisie] cannot suppress all the experience accumulated through weeks of struggle by tens of thousands of future workers, their awakening to politics and their developing consciousness. This will be a real treasure-trove for the future struggles of the proletariat, a vital element in their ability to continue down the path towards the communist revolution”. In the works of Engels, Marx and Lenin there is a similar view of strikes as ‘schools for socialism’ in which the ultimate threat of revolution is present.

The idea that the struggle against the CPE implied a tacit acceptance of all other forms of exploitation is linked to a very dubious method. As with the view of certain anarchist currents we can see an attempt to separate ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ struggles, leaving the working class with ‘all or nothing’, ‘revolution or nothing’.

We think, on the contrary, the concrete demand posed by struggling students was correct as it focused on an attack not specifically on students but on the whole working class. It was this demand that gave the whole movement in March and April in France the possibility for solidarity from other parts of the working class. Even if today we do not find the same spectacular ‘cry for revolution’ as in 1968, we have to be clear that the revolutionary demands of 1968 were often marked by Maoist, antifascist and other dodgy currents that were not such paragons as nostalgia might portray them.

The discussion argued that it is not sufficient to look on the demands of a struggle in an isolated manner. We need to look at the whole dynamic. There are well known examples that show that at the beginning of some revolutionary movements there were often demands that, in themselves, may have appeared crude or limited or ‘defensive’.

In Russia in January 1905 workers in St. Petersburg marched to the Tsar’s Palace with a petition in which they described their pathetic living conditions and asked the open minded father Tsar to take care of the situation! The opening words of the petition to the Tsar read: “Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, Sire, to seek justice and protection”. But the class movement of 1905 developed a great revolutionary dynamic and give birth to the first workers’ councils in history. Similarly, toward the end of World War I the revolutionary movement in Germany started with female workers in arms factories protesting about their working conditions. That’s only an innocent looking demand if you ignore the context of global slaughter and the growing dynamic of the class struggle.

The same applies to Russia in 1917. The working class related to the slogan of ‘Bread and Peace’, which looks more pacifist than revolutionary. But we know that it was a whole dynamic process that allowed the working class to become convinced of the necessity for revolution and to go forward to clearer and more political demands, like the ones formulated in Lenin’s April Theses.

The discussion concluded that these examples from the past show us that it is not the task of revolutionaries to lose courage or to complain if demands do not contain the call for revolution. On the contrary it is our task to be present in such mobilisations with a view of the general and international dynamic and to put forward a clear political intervention in relation to the consciousness maturing within our class. This is exactly what the ICC was committed to doing in the recent struggles in France.   Matthias, 8/5/6