As banks get nationalised, as the Federal Reserve and other central banks leap in to prop up the money markets, and the US Congress argues over the $700bn banking rescue plan, workers know that no one's going to bail them out. On the contrary. It's clear that on top of the existing wages that are falling behind inflation, the attempts to crank up productivity that are already in place, and jobs that have already gone, the current financial crisis will rapidly have an impact on the working and living conditions of millions who haven't already been directly hit by the collapse of banks and other financial institutions.
The material conditions experienced by workers are the basis for the development of their struggles. The crisis of capitalism leads to attacks on the working class that in turn can lead to a militant response. How far workers' struggles go, how combative they become, what sense they have of their own potential cannot be tied down in a scientific formula. The deepening of the crisis, x, doesn't necessarily become y amount of struggle or z amount of consciousness.
However, it is right to ask whether the working class is today showing signs that it could be up to the challenges of the current crisis, or whether it has been disarmed by the whole brutal experience of exploitation, and succumbed to ideologies which have left it passive in the face of the worsening situation it finds itself in.
In contrast to the 1930s the working class is not defeated
In the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the Depression is recognised as a time of great economic suffering. A characteristic image from Britain in the 1930s is of the weary hunger march from Jarrow, or, from the US, the queues at soup kitchens in the richest country in the world. This was only part of the reality, as there were many expressions in this period of militant class struggle. In France there were waves of strikes and occupations from 1934-38 that were ultimately derailed by the illusions workers had in the Popular Front. In the US there were major struggles from 1935-37, finally undermined by workers' misplaced confidence in the new industrial unions. In Spain in 1936, the workers' first response to Franco's coup took on a semi-insurrectionary nature. But here again the Popular Front dragged workers away from their own ground into the battle between democracy and fascism, prefiguring the mobilisation of the world working class for the second imperialist carnage. In short, this was a period of profound defeat for the working class.
It was a different situation at the end of the 1960s, where a less serious expression of the economic crisis set off first the struggles in France in 68, the ‘hot autumn' in Italy 69, and the demonstrations and strikes in Poland in 1970. These were followed by waves of struggles over two decades, in which the working class in countries across the world returned to the struggle, often on a massive level.
While it's now easy to see the limitations of the struggles of the 70s and 80s, it shouldn't be forgotten that the ruling class was not a passive onlooker. The ruling bourgeoisie adopted particular political strategies against the threat of the class struggle. Typically, in the 1970s left parties came to power, using the language of reform or even socialism, able to get the working class to accept wage levels and unemployment that would have been unacceptable from the conservative parties of the right. In the 1980s, with governments privatising and cutting jobs and services, there was a massive response from the working class; in this context left parties (along with unions and the leftists) posed as the opposition to the status quo, advocates of a so-called ‘alternative'.
In the 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of the eastern bloc and the huge campaigns about the ‘death of communism' and the ‘end of the class struggle', there was a definite disorientation within the working class and a low level of militancy, but since 2003 there has been a slow but definite renewal of workers' struggles, with a number of positive characteristics.
Loss of illusions and revival of solidarity
Changes in material reality can have a significant effect on workers' understanding of the world and their place in it. Even the blind can recognise objects when they bump into them. In the current state of the economic crisis it is clear that our masters have very little control of their own affairs and have to resort to the further intervention of the state to cope with a crisis of state capitalism. The idea that capitalism doesn't suffer from crises that are intrinsic and insoluble can surely now only convince those who have an interest in its continuation. In addition, the worldwide nature of the crisis, revealing yet again the interlinked nature of all economies, is another reminder that there can be no national solutions to the problems presented by global capitalism.
In recent struggles the illusions that workers have in the possibilities of sustainable reforms, or in the real role of the unions, or in left-wing governments, have been challenged. Indeed because of the lack of credibility of the left parties (and their leftist satellites) there have been attempts recently to create new, or re-launch old, left parties in Germany, Italy and France, among other countries.
As for the content of the class struggle, we have seen a number of struggles where solidarity has been shown in practice. Not on a massive scale, but significant enough to demonstrate one of the most important aspects of the working class in struggle, and as the basis for a future society. Some academics (and other ideologists) maintain that the working class has changed so much with the development of technology and the transformation of heavy industry that the marxist view of the working class is a relic of the 19th century. Expressions of solidarity among the ‘new' working class show that such ideas are just wishful thinking from the ruling class.
Furthermore, the expansion of migration patterns across the world means that in nearly every country there is greater diversity in the working class, and correspondingly, a greater capacity for internationalism and unity across potential divisions. The fact that the bourgeoisie is everywhere trying to sustain racist and anti-migrant campaigns in order to sow divisions in the ranks of the working class shows what a threat working class unity is to capitalism.
Evidence from across the world
During the last five years there have been examples of workers' struggles that have shown significant differences to the past. For instance, we have seen various struggles in a country as important as Germany, which was much less affected by workers' militancy in the 1970s.
In a country like Iraq, where we can see the profound effects of war, both past and present, we can still see the struggle of the working class. Recently, in response to an attempt by the Iraqi government to cut public sector wages by 30% (that is, to reverse a wage rise from earlier in the year) there was a wave of strikes, demonstrations, protests and sit-ins. The wage rise has been reinstated, the government will no doubt rapidly return to the attack, but workers have gained a sense of what it is like to fight for class interests, not national or religious interests.
In Iran, supposedly under the rigid domination of fundamentalist clerics, there have been demonstrations over labour laws as well as strikes involving thousands of workers angry at the non-payment of wages for many months.
Across Egypt there have been successive waves of strikes during the last two years, involving thousands of workers. In Vietnam, a country that is in no way isolated from the impact of the economic crisis, there is high and still growing inflation that has led to dozens of wildcat strikes. There have also been massive strikes in Bangladesh and Argentina, and a nationwide general strike in South Africa in August.
As for the latest ‘economic miracles', India and China, neither has been immune from the crisis or the class struggle. In China, with tens of thousands of enterprises going bust and 20 million people laid off, it is not surprising that there have been massive workers' demonstrations that wouldn't have happened ten years ago, and wildcat strikes involving many thousands of workers happening just about every day. In India, in September, there was a strike affecting a number of states, which the unions claimed involved 80 million workers. Industry, banks, insurance, coal, power, steel, tea, telecoms and IT were all affected. Subsequently, there was a two day strike of 900,000 workers in 26 government-run banks that closed about 60,000 branches; and at the time of writing tens of thousands of workers employed by the ‘Bollywood' film industry are on strike against low wages or not being paid at all.
Change through struggle
A working class that can't defend itself can't make a revolution. But the question still stands: can the working class go beyond the defensive struggles of today?
In practice, as the working class struggles it begins to change. It becomes more aware of the possibilities of the struggle, the nature of the obstacles that will be encountered and the lies that it has been told. Consciousness develops through the gradual escape from the weight of bourgeois ideology at the same time as the development of workers' self-organisation and the sense of unity and solidarity. The response of the working class is not just to immediate attacks but to a whole history of them. The difference between ‘economic' and ‘political' struggles diminishes; ‘defensive' struggles announce the start of struggles where workers take the initiative.
But in this whole process of the development of the working class through the experience of its struggles there is still one enormous hurdle to get over. The more workers reflect on the implications of their situation, the more they will be drawn to the conclusion that capitalism has to be overthrown. That means a revolution. It is understandable that workers should be hesitant when the immensity of what lies before them becomes clear.
The current phase of the economic crisis will lead to the further development of the class struggle. When the working class begins to realise where that struggle is leading, it will be vital that it understands that it is not only the sole force that can free itself from capitalist exploitation, but also the only force that offers a future to humanity. Revolutionaries will play an important role in the development of this consciousness. Hesitation is understandable, but the working class is transformed by its struggle, so that future movements will be undertaken by a class that has gained from its struggles and in reflecting on them.