RI 18th Congress: 40 years developing revolutionary activity
This is a report on the recent congress of our section in France, looking back at the developments in the class struggle and the activity of revolutionaries since the events of May 1968.
This Congress took place at a very symbolic moment in the history of the world wide class struggle. It coincided with the 40th anniversary of the ‘events' (to use the media term) of May 1968 - actually the biggest strike in the history of the international workers' movement, a movement which marked the historic revival of the proletarian struggle on a world scale after four decades of counter-revolution. What's more, our section in France also celebrated the 40th anniversary of its foundation, because it was in the wake of the events, indeed even before the return to work had been completed, that the small group Revolution Internationale was set up: along with 5 other groups, RI was to be involved in the constitution of the ICC in 1975. The formation of our international organisation was by no means a chance event. It was the crystallisation of a whole process of reflection that was going on in the working class as it returned to the path of massive struggles.
What has become of the great hopes raised by May 68? How has capitalist society, the struggles of the working class, and the revolutionary movement evolved since then? The 18th Congress of RI had to respond to these questions and in doing so open up its reflections to the whole of the working class and the proletarian political milieu.
From 1968 to today, what has been the evolution of the living conditions of the working class?
As we wrote in World Revolution no 316, in the article ‘May 68, the international significance of the general strike in France': "If the whole of the working class of this country launched itself into a general strike, it's because all its sectors had begun to be hit by the economic crisis which, in 1968, was only at its inception, a crisis that wasn't ‘French' but of the whole capitalist world". The attacks on wages, jobs or benefits that the workers in France were beginning to experience were expressions of what was going on in all the main capitalist countries. The world economic crisis had returned to centre stage after several decades of respite. The period described by the ruling class as the ‘economic miracle' or the ‘Thirty Glorious Years', which had begun soon after the end of the Second World War, was coming to an end. However, at that time, the bourgeoisie was still a long way from having used up all the mechanisms at its disposal for dealing with, or rather slowing down the aggravation of its mortal economic crisis. We have now had more than 40 years of the capitalist system sinking inexorably into this crisis.
At the end of the 1920s and during the 1930s, capitalist society also went through a major outbreak of its economic crisis. Since then the bourgeoisie has learned a good deal and in particular it has found ways of attenuating and postponing the most devastating effects of the crisis. But this does not mean at all that it possesses the means to overcome the contradictions inherent in its system and which are at work deep in the very fibres of this society. This is why the discussions at this Congress highlighted the fact that while in May 68 the bourgeoisie had the means to face up to the first manifestations of the crisis, it is very different today. All these means, all the palliatives have to a large extent been used up today. It emerged clearly from our discussions that the world economic crisis was entering into a new phase, into new and profound convulsions on a far greater scale than anything seen since 1968. In 1968 many sectors of the working class were suffering from the first serious attacks on their living standards, resulting in a first great wave of discontent in numerous countries. The far more serious economic situation today is bringing with it a series of much wider and deeper attacks than in the late 60s. Above all, since 1968, these attacks have become general across the entire planet. Thus we are seeing the development of the conditions for a more powerful and generalised social discontent.
Since 1968, the long and difficult development of the class struggle
After 1968 and throughout the 1970s and 80s, through successive waves of struggle, the hopes and perspectives raised by the massive movement in France in 1968 were confirmed and reinforced. But the evolution of the class struggle has been permanently confronted with all the traps and manoeuvres deployed by the world bourgeoisie, which is united against the class struggle in spite of all its commercial and imperialist rivalries, and which had been caught by surprise in 1968. The hardest blow received by the working class consisted of the massive, worldwide ideological campaigns launched by the bourgeoisie around the theme of the ‘death of communism' following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of the ‘Soviet' bloc in 1989. According to the ruling class, this showed that communism had failed lamentably and that capitalism, for all its faults, had proved its crushing superiority. Any idea that communist revolution was possible, or even that the working class could play any role in society, was thus buried under an avalanche of lies. The result of this was to be over ten years of retreat in the militancy and consciousness of the working class, making the life of the working class and of its revolutionary organisations all the more difficult. At this point the hopes raised by 1968 seemed to have utterly disappeared. But the 18th Congress of RI, as well as the international and territorial congresses which have been held since at least 2003, insisted in their discussions and resolutions that the evolution of the international situation and of the class struggle demonstrates that this is not at all the case. At the beginning of the 2000s, the weight of the defeat suffered by the working class during the 1990s was gradually lifting and the class struggle was beginning to renew its links with the past.
Since then, even if's been in a much less spectacular way than in 1968, the struggle has developed more and more on all continents. In Asia, in China, for example, where there are more industrial workers than anywhere else in the world, there has been one struggle after another for a number of years. We have described and analysed in our press many of these struggles around the world. The Congress drew particular attention to the recent struggles in Germany, following those against the CPE in France two years ago. Germany has one of the most experienced proletariats in the world - the one which carried out the 1918-19 revolution in continuity with the 1917 revolution in Russia. It was also this fraction of the working class which went through a crushing defeat orchestrated by the entire national bourgeoisie (with the social democratic party in the forefront), and which could draw the most lessons from this experience for the new generations of the working class. The fact that struggles are now developing at the heart of world capitalism, at a moment when all continents are going through strikes and class movements, demonstrates concretely that the historic perspective opened up in 1968 is being conformed.
The discussion at the Congress also examined the difficulties facing these struggles, and they are not to be underestimated. Unlike in 1968, the working class no longer has many illusions in the future that capitalism can offer to it and to its children, seeing that the system has been bogged down in a generalised economic crisis for forty years and is showing more and more obvious signs of being a system in decomposition. But the question of the perspective, the question of the communist revolution, still largely remains outside the consciousness of the great majority of the working class. This difficulty is without doubt one of the major characteristics of the new worldwide wave of struggles. However, in the Congress we pointed to the fact that the increasingly simultaneous attacks, the increasingly uniform degradation of living standards, will more and more oblige workers to develop active forms of solidarity in their struggle - indispensable to the extension and unification of their movements. Another aspect of the struggle discussed at the Congress, and one which was virtually absent in May 68, was that there are now more and more frequent reactions within the working class to the problem of hunger. Feeding oneself has become an increasingly pressing issue for a growing part of the working class. In the recent period, hunger riots have also broken out in a number of countries, as for example in Egypt recently. The working class as a whole will have to integrate this question into its general struggle against capitalism. In contrast to 1968, the state of world capitalism is much more serious, far more rotten, and the class struggle even more vital. But this situation poses much harder questions than in May 1968, and these are the questions that future struggles will have to take up and resolve.
The discussion on the class struggle in France
The Congress went in some depth into the situation in France and showed how it is illustrative of the evolution of the struggle on a world scale. Thus, in 2003, it was the working class in France, along with the Austrian workers, who gave proof of a revival of struggles more than 10 years after the blow received with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This dynamic was confirmed by the struggle against the CPE in spring 2006 and the movement in November 2007, which involved the students' struggle against the LRU law and the strikes by railway workers, gas and electricity workers against the attacks on their pensions. All these struggles illustrated the depth of the resurgence of class combats, because of the role played within them by the younger generation and the forms of the struggle, which renewed the link with the ones that had been seen in May 68. At the same time, the sophistication of the manoeuvres by all the political and union forces of the bourgeoisie which we saw at work in November 2007 shows what the ruling class is capable of at an international level in its efforts to get its attacks through and to block any massive response by the working class.
40 years after 1968, a new rise in interest for the positions of the communist left
After the 17th ICC Congress held in 2007, and the Congress of our section in France in 2006, this was the third time groups from the proletarian political milieu were present and actively participating at a Congress of our organisation. A delegation from the OPOP group in Brazil was already present at the Congress of RI in 2006 (and was able to witness the demonstrations and struggle against the CPE). At the 2007 International Congress there were delegations from the OPOP, the EKS in Turkey and the SPA from South Korea (the group Internasyonalismo in the Philippines, which had accepted our invitation, couldn't come but sent greetings to the congress and statements of position on all the points on the agenda). At the recent RI Congress, there were again delegations from the OPOP and the EKS (Internasyonalismo again sent statements, being again unable to come as were a number of groups from Latin America who had also accepted our invitation). This active participation by internationalist groups has now become a gain of the left communist camp. It shows, like the regroupments that took place in the wake of 1968, that there has been a maturation of consciousness within the class as a whole, expressed in the emergence of small minorities, whether organised or not. In a difficult, but increasingly visible manner, the working class is necessarily being led to pose the questions raised in 1968, but now on a much deeper level. It is undeniable that, much more than in the late 60s and early 70s, this revival of interest is now posed on a much wider international scale. Our Congress showed how vital it is for our organisation and the older generations of militants who lived through May 68 to transmit all the experience accumulated over the past 40 years to the young elements now being politicised. Without this capacity, it's obvious that the construction of the future world communist party will not be possible. The revival of interest in the positions of the communist left is without doubt the first step on this road.
The culture of debate: a vital question for the class struggle
All the workers or militants who lived through May 1968 had a foretaste of what it means to debate in a proletarian manner. The bourgeoisie always tried to present the struggles of 1968 as no more than a series of violent clashes between the students and the police. Nothing could be more false! In the massive struggles of the working class at this time, and despite all the difficulties connected to the sabotaging role of the left and the unions, the workers in struggle, in the general assemblies and street demonstrations, began to develop a process of collective discussion on the meaning and aims of their movement. In the same way, without the desire for debate there could have been no unification of revolutionary forces at this time and no ICC. The renewal of the international class struggle pushed all those who really responded to the needs of the movement to develop a discussion on the widest possible scale. Since then, this basic condition of the workers' struggle and the regroupment of revolutionaries has been posed to our organisation in a much clearer and more conscious way.
For several years now the ICC has put the question of the culture of debate in the workers' movement at the heart of its concerns, both theoretical and practical. The 18th Congress of RI continued this work. But it was above all in the way the debates were conducted - in an open, fraternal spirit, a spirit of attentive, reciprocal listening - that our maturation at this level was expressed most clearly. This necessity, this precondition for the unification of internationalist forces was also expressed in the way the groups present themselves took part in the Congress discussions, fully taking up a conception of debate and reflection that is shared by the ICC.
Despite all the difficulties, all the partial defeats suffered by the working class over the past 40 years, what this Congress highlighted above all is that the hope and promise opened up by May 68 are not dead and buried. May 68 in France and all the struggles which followed in its wake were an integral part of the historical experience of the working class. The enormous interest in May 68 at the time of its 40th anniversary, not only in France but in many other countries, above all among the younger generation, is the sign that the most advanced elements of the world proletariat are in the process of re-appropriating this experience in order to prepare the battles of tomorrow.
 On the significance of the events of May 68, see 5-part series in WRs 313-317 (or IR 133 and 134).
 See ‘Struggles in France: Government and unions hand-in-hand against the working class'
ICConline, January 15, 2008