Report on the class struggle : Formation, loss and re-conquest of proletarian class identity

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Capitalist society, in the final phase of decline, is giving birth to a whole variety of "identity crises". The atomisation inherent in the system of generalised commodity production is reaching new levels, and this applies both to social life as a whole and to the reactions against the increasing misery and oppression spawned by the system. On the one hand, groups and individuals suffering from particular oppressions are encouraged to mobilise as particular groups to fight their oppressions – as women, as gays, as transgender people, as ethnic minorities and so on - and not infrequently compete with each other directly, as with the current confrontation between transgender activists and certain branches of feminism.  These manifestations of "identity politics" are at the same time co-opted by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, all the way up to its most distinguished academics and most powerful political echelons (as with the Democratic Party in the USA).

Meanwhile, the right wing of the bourgeoisie, while superficially decrying the rise of identity politics, rises up in defence of its own form of identity-seeking: the search for the Real Men threatened by the spectre of feminism, the nostalgia for the glories of the White Race facing displacement by foreign hordes.

The quest for these partial, and sometimes entirely fictitious identities and communities, is a measure of mankind’s self-estrangement in a historic epoch in which a universal human community is both possible and necessary for the survival of the species. And above all, like other manifestations of social decomposition, it is the product of the loss of the one identity whose affirmation can lead to the creation of such a community, also known as communism: the class identity of the proletariat. The recent "Yellow Vest" movement in France provides us with a graphic illustration of the dangers that arise from this loss of class identity: that large numbers of workers, rightly angered by the constant attacks on their living standards, are mobilised not for their own interests but behind the demands and actions of other social classes – in this case, the petty bourgeoisie and a part of the bourgeoisie itself[1].

The proletariat's identity is by nature revolutionary

The exploitation of the working class is the foundation stone of the entire edifice of capitalism. It is not, as the proponents of identity politics argue openly or underhandedly, just one form of oppression amongst many.  Because, despite all the changes it has been through over the last two centuries, capitalism continues to rule the Earth, what Karl Marx famously wrote in 1844 about the revolutionary nature of the proletariat remains as true as ever. This is a class whose struggle against capitalism contains the solution to all the "particular wrongs" inflicted by this society -

  • "a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat"[2].

In The Holy Family, written during the same period, Marx explains that the working class is by nature a revolutionary class, even when it is not aware of this:

  • "When socialist writers ascribe this world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all, as Critical Criticism pretends to believe, because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do"[3].

Class identity thus has an objective basis which remains unalterable as long as capitalism exists, but the subjective consciousness of "what the proletariat is" has long been held back by the negative side of the proletarian condition: the fact that "man has lost himself in the proletariat", that this is a class which suffers the full weight of human self-alienation. In later works Marx would explain that the particular forms assumed by alienation in capitalist society – the process also known as "reification", the veil of mystification inherent in the universal exchange of commodities - make it particularly difficult for the exploited to grasp the true nature of their exploitation and the true identity of their exploiters. And this is why there must be a "theoretical consciousness of that loss" and socialism would have to become scientific in its methods.  But this theoretical consciousness is not in any sense divorced from the real conditions of labour and its revolt against the inhumanity of capitalist exploitation.

When Marx writes that the working class "cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life", the so-called "communisation" current take this to mean that any affirmation of class identity can only be reactionary, since it is no more than an exaltation of what the proletariat is within capitalist society, so that the communist revolution demands the immediate self-negation of the working class. But this is to lose sight of the dialectical reality of the working class as a class that is both of capitalist society and not of it, an exploited and a revolutionary class at the same time. We insist, along with Marx, that it is only by affirming itself, both at the level of its economic and social struggles, and as the candidate for the political direction of society, that the proletariat can pave the way to the real dissolution of all classes and the "complete re-winning" of humanity. This is why this report will focus precisely on the problem of class identity: from its initial development in the ascendant phase of capitalism, to its subsequent loss and future re-appropriation.

The formation of class identity

The proletariat is by definition the class of dispossession. It is originally formed by the dispossession of the peasant’s small plot of land, or the artisan’s instruments of production, and herded into the disease-ridden slums of early industrial society. Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England writes about all the demoralising effects of this process which led numerous proletarians into drunkenness and crime, subjecting them to the most brutal competition among themselves. But Engels rejected any moralistic condemnation of these purely individual reactions to their condition and pointed to the alternative that was already taking shape: the collective struggle of the workers for the improvement of their condition through the formation of trade unions, educational and cultural associations and political parties like the Chartists - all of this inspired ultimately by the vision of a higher form of society. The physical bringing together of the workers in the cities and the factories was the objective premise for this struggle. This is one dimension of the association of labour which overcomes the relative isolation of artisan and peasant labour; but as a purely "sociological" process, the machinery of early industrialisation was so brutal and traumatic that it could also have resulted in the production of an indifferent mass of paupers, and even in the extinction of the proletariat through starvation and disease. It was the recognition of a common class interest, opposed to that of the bourgeoisie, which was the real basis of the initial class identity of the proletariat. The "constitution of the proletarians into a class", as the Communist Manifesto put it, was thus inseparable from the growth of class consciousness and of organisation: "and consequently into a political party", as the phrase continues. The working class is not only an associated class "in itself", not only objectively: association as the premise for a higher form of social organisation only takes shape when the subjective dimension, the self-organisation and unification of the class in struggle against exploitation, arises out of its place in the capitalist social relation.

But the proletariat remains the class of dispossession, and this would eventually apply to the very instruments it had created for its own defence. The first unions and political parties, at one level motivated by the understanding that the proletariat was not a class of civil society, by the project of dissolving the existing order, were also bound by the need for the class to improve its lot inside the system. And contrary to the first expectations of the founders of marxism, this system was still far away from any "final crisis" or period of decline, so that the longer and more extensively the proletariat forged its organisations inside the shell of capitalist society, the greater the danger that these organisations would become part of civil society tout court – would become institutionalised. As Engels put it in 1892: at a certain point, "Trades’ unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers"[4]. With the hindsight of bitter historical experience, we know that the road to revolution did not pass through the gradual building up of workers’ mass organisations within the system. On the contrary, when the real test came with the onset of decadence, these organisations, which had become slowly but surely corrupted by the dominant society and ideology, were definitively recuperated by the ruling class to help it fight its imperialist wars and to combat the threat of revolution.

This was by no means a linear process. The proletariat was constantly being reminded that it was in essence an outlaw class – a force for revolution. Its initial efforts to build the most elementary combinations in its defence were ruthlessly suppressed by the bourgeoisie, which took a long time to understand that it could turn the workers’ own organisations against them. Moreover, the political conditions of mid-19th century Europe would lead the proletariat into overtly insurrectionary struggles against the ruling class in Europe in at least two key historical moments: 1848 and 1871. In France, already the homeland of revolution after the experience of 1789-93, the working class took up arms against the state and, particularly in 1871, concretely posed the problem of its destruction and replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat. But class movements that pointed to a revolutionary future were not limited to France: in England, the country of "gradual reforms", the strike movement of 1842 already revealed the outlines of the mass strike that would become the characteristic mode of struggle in a later epoch[5]. The Chartist movement itself understood its demand for universal suffrage as a demand for the working class to take political power into its own hands, and its methods were not limited to petitioning the bourgeoisie: it  also gave rise to a "physical force" wing which, in the Newport rising of 1839, did not hesitate to arm itself against the existing regime[6]. The formation of the First International in 1864, even though it originated in the need for international coordination of defensive struggles, was a further indicator that the working class was pitted against the foundations of bourgeois society – that a really self-aware class identity could not be accommodated within the framework of the nation state.   

The fear that the International and the Paris Commune inspired in the hearts of the bourgeoisie, as well as the objective conditions of capitalist global expansion in the last part of the 19th century, provided the basis for the eventual integration of the mass workers’ organisations into bourgeois society and finally into the state apparatus itself. To these factors can be added the confusions and opportunist concessions that arose within the proletarian movement itself, not least the identification of the proletariat with the national interest, which the Second International, with its federal structure and its difficulties in understanding the evolution of the national question, was never able to overcome. But the sense of class identity that arose during the long period of social democracy, a period in which the organised labour movement provided a whole layer of workers not only with organs of economic defence and political activity, but a whole social and cultural life, by no means disappeared with the opening of the epoch of capitalist decline. On the contrary, transmuted into a mystification hostile to the proletariat, it would "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living", and would in particular be taken over by the social democratic and Stalinist parties with aim of maintaining their control over the working class:"Class identity is the recognition by the proletariat that it constitutes a distinct class in society, opposed to the bourgeoisie and having an active role in society. However, this does not mechanically signify that it recognises itself as the revolutionary class in society. For many years, class identity gravitated around the notion of a class of capitalist society aspiring to have a decent standard of living and enjoying recognition and a social potency.

Such an identity was constructed by the counter-revolution and notably by the trade unions and Stalinism, basing themselves on certain weaknesses that go back to the period of the Second International:a blue collar worker, militant, concerned with his rights in society, recognised by it, linked to the large enterprises and working class neighbourhoods, proud of his condition as a ‘worker citizen’ and enclosed in the universe of the great family of workers.

  • Such an identity was very much linked to a precise period: that of the zenith of capitalism (1870-1914), but its persistence in the period of decadence, in which the vision of a proletariat profoundly excluded from bourgeois society as announced by Marx, has led it to become a very dangerous false identity, full of illusions about being integrated into capitalist society, about reaching accommodation with it, and this destroying a real class identity and consciousness. The only identity possible for the proletariat is that of a class excluded from this society and which carries within it the communist perspective"[7]

Main stages in the dispossession of class identity in the epoch of decadence

A text on the balance of class forces adopted by our international central organ in April 2018, citing our Orientation Text on Confidence and Solidarity [8], outlined two phases in the history of the workers’ movement since 1848. Its focus is on the growth and loss of the self-confidence of working class, but this question is very closely linked to the problem of class identity: the working class can only have confidence in itself if it is aware of its own existence and interests.

  • "During the first phase, extending from the beginnings of its self-affirmation as an autonomous class until the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, the working class was able, despite the series of often bloody defeats it suffered, to more or less continuously develop its self-confidence and its political and social unity. The most important manifestations of this capacity were, in addition to the workers’ struggle itself, the development of a socialist vision, of a theoretical capacity, and of a political revolutionary organisation. This process of accumulation, the work of decades and of generations, was interrupted and even reversed by the counter-revolution. Only tiny revolutionary minorities were able to maintain their confidence in the proletariat in the decades that followed. The historic resurgence of the working class in 1968, by ending the counter-revolution, began to once again reverse this tendency. However, the new expressions of self-confidence and class solidarity by this new and undefeated proletarian generation remained for the most part rooted in the immediate struggles. They were not yet based to the same extent as before the counter-revolution on a socialist vision and political formation, on a class theory, and on the passing on of accumulated experience and understanding from one generation to the next. In other words: the historic self-confidence of the proletariat, and its traditions of active unity and collective combat belong to the aspects of its combat which have suffered most from the break in organic continuity. Equally, they are among the most difficult aspects to re-establish, since they depend more than many others on a living political and social continuity. This in turn gives rise to a particular vulnerability of the new generations of the class and its revolutionary minorities".

We can add that even before the shattering blow of the defeat of the first revolutionary wave, the great battle of 1914-18 meant the loss of decades of patient labour in the construction of its unions and political parties, a loss which has been particularly difficult for the working class to accept and understand: even among the revolutionaries who opposed this betrayal, only a minority was able to grasp that these organisations had been irretrievably lost to the class. Subsequently, with the rise of Stalinism, what had been a difficulty of comprehension became the basis for the construction of the fake identity mentioned by the report on perspectives. But while this terrible burden inherited from the past was to have a disastrous impact on the progress of the revolutionary wave - expressed in particular through the theory and practice of the United Front - this period also shed light on the new form of class identity embodied in the mass strike, in the formation of workers’ councils and the rise of the Third International. As Marx had already put it, the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing: this rediscovered class identity was not really "new" but was simply bringing out "what the proletariat is": in the epoch of wars and revolutions, the class can only grasp its  identity by organising itself outside all existing institutions and in direct  antithesis to capitalist society.

The following decades of counter-revolution were to deepen this process of dispossession. In the 1930s the proletariat was confronted with the biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, the first real economic crisis of decadence. But the Communist Parties created to counter the treason of 1914 had in turn abandoned internationalism in favour of the infamous theory of socialism in one country and, through the Popular Front, were seeking to politically dissolve the working class into the nation and prepare it for war. Even the anarchist unions that had retained a proletarian life in Spain succumbed to this new betrayal. The outbreak of war in 1939 did not mean, as Vercesi argued, the "social disappearance of the proletariat" and thus the uselessness of organised political activity for revolutionaries. The social disappearance of the proletariat is impossible as long as capital survives, and the formation of revolutionary minorities obeys a permanent need within the class. But it certainly did signify a new step in its political disarray, not only through the terror of fascism and Stalinism but, more insidiously, through its incorporation into the project of defending democracy. And it included the rapid integration of the Trotskyist opposition into the war effort and the dispersal of its left fractions. The proletariat did manifest itself at the end of the war in certain countries, above all Italy in 1943, but contrary to the expectations of a large part of the Italian communist left (including Vercesi) this did not mean a reversal of the counter-revolutionary course.

The counter-revolution, taking ever more totalitarian forms, continued to hold sway during the period of post-war prosperity, while capital discovered new forms for undermining the proletariat’s sense of itself. This was the period in which "sociologists could begin theorising about the ‘embourgeoisiement’ of the working class as a result of the spread of consumerism and the development of the welfare state. And indeed both these aspects of capitalism after 1945 remain as important added weights on the possibility of the working class reconstituting itself as a revolutionary force.  Consumerism atomises the working class and peddles the illusion that everyone can attain the paradise of individual ownership.  Welfarism – which was often introduced by left parties and presented as a conquest of the working class, is an even more significant instrument of capitalist control. It undermines the self-confidence of the working class and makes it reliant on the benevolence of the state; and later on, in a phase of mass migration, its organisation by the nation state would mean that the issue of access to health, housing and other benefits became a potent factor in the scapegoating of immigrants and divisions within the working class"[9]

The revival of the class struggle after 1968, which reached its highest point with the mass strike in Poland in 1980, refuted the idea that the working class had been integrated into capitalism and gave us another glimpse of its essential identity as a force that can only express itself by bursting through its institutional chains. Wildcat strikes outside the unions, general assemblies and revocable strike committees, powerful tendencies towards the extension of the struggle – embryos or actual manifestations of the mass strike – renewed the perspective of workers’ councils. At the same time it provided the soil for a small but important revival of the international communist movement which had come close to disappearing by the 1950s – an essential prerequisite for the future formation of a new world party.

And yet as the above-quoted passage from the text on Confidence and Solidarity argues, while May 68 and ensuing movements did raise the question of a new society at the theoretical level, the class struggle as a whole remained on the economic terrain and was not able to grow towards a political confrontation with capitalism. The limits of the proletarian revival contained the seeds of the new phase of decomposition which has seen the proletariat come close to losing its class identity altogether.

Class identity in the phase of decomposition

To understand why, since the end of the 1980s, the proletariat’s awareness of itself as a social force has been in retreat, it is necessary to examine its different dimensions separately in order to understand how they operate together.

To begin with, a capitalist society whose very premises are beginning to unravel, a society in open disintegration, a society which has been through decades of decline and has been blocked in its further evolution, tends, more or less automatically, to exacerbate the social atomisation which has been a key characteristic of this society from its beginning, as Engels noted in The Condition of the Working Class in England:

  • ".However much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme"[10].

In the final phase of this society, the war of each against all intensifies at every level: from growing estrangement between individuals, to violent competition between street gangs operating at the level of this or that housing estate or neighbourhood, to the frenzied struggle between companies for their share of a limited market, to the expanding chaos of military completion between states and proto-states at the international level.   This tendency also underlies the search for communities based on a restricted identity that we referred to earlier – a reaction against atomisation which serves only to reinforce it at another level. This unravelling of social ties works continually and insidiously in polar opposition to the potential for the unification of the working class around its common interests – in other words, to the re-formation of proletarian class identity.

The bourgeoisie of course is directly affected by this same process – as we have noted in relation to its capacity to control its political apparatus, and in the growing difficulty of maintaining stable alliances at the level of relations between states. But unlike the working class the bourgeoisie can to a certain extent turn the effects of decomposition to its advantage and even reinforce them. The collapse of the eastern bloc, for example, was a prime example of the ‘objective’ processes of decomposition, spurred on by a deepening and irresolvable economic crisis. But because of the particular historical circumstances involved in the formation of this bloc – the result of a defeated proletarian revolution which gave rise to a system apparently different from the capitalism of the west – the bourgeoisie has been able to fashion from these events a whole ideological onslaught against the proletariat, an attack on class consciousness which played a significant part in the reflux of the struggle from the 1990s onwards. Facing a working class which, already in the post-68 waves of struggle, was experiencing great difficulty in developing a perspective for its resistance, the ‘death of communism’ campaigns frontally attacked this essential dimension of class consciousness: its capacity to look forward and provide itself with an orientation for the future. But these campaigns didn’t stop there: they proclaimed not only the end of any possibility of an alternative to capitalism, but even the end of the class struggle and of the working class itself. In doing so, the bourgeoisie itself showed the need to undermine class identity as a means of combating the threat of proletarian revolution.

A third dimension of the undermining of class identity in the period of decomposition connects to this: that is to say, the insistence that the working class is an endangered or extinct species  is deeply underpinned by the structural changes that the ruling class has been obliged to introduce in response to the economic crisis of its system – everything that goes under the misleading headings of neo-liberalism and globalisation, but above all the process of ‘de-industrialisation’ of the oldest capitalist centres. This process was of course determined by the necessity to abandon unprofitable industries and to move capital to areas of the globe where the same commodities could be produced much more cheaply. But there was always a directly anti-working class element in this process: the bourgeoisie was well aware, for example, that in taking on the miners in Britain and closing down the mines, it would not only rid itself of a major economic albatross, but would also strike a serious blow against a very combative section of its class enemy. Of course, by shifting whole industries to the Far East and elsewhere, the bourgeoisie would be creating new proletarian battalions for the class war, but it also had a certain understanding that the industrial working class of the main capitalist centres represented a particular danger to it. The working class is not limited to the industrial proletariat, but this sector has always been at the very heart of the workers’ movement and especially of the massive and revolutionary struggles of the past – shown for example by the role of the Putilov factory in the Russian revolution, the workers of the Ruhr in the German revolution, the Renault workers in the French mass strike of 68, the shipyard workers in Poland in 1980.

Along with the shutting down of many of these old industries, capitalism has tried to create a new model of the working class, especially in the service industries which have, in older capitalist countries like Britain, moved further towards the centre stage of economic life. This model is the so-called ‘gig economy’, whose employees are urged to see themselves not as workers but as individual entrepreneurs who can, if they work hard enough, make it big, who can negotiate with the company individual by individual to improve their pay and conditions. Again, these changes are ultimately dictated by the needs of profit, but they are also seized upon by the bourgeoisie to prevent workers from seeing themselves as workers and as part of an exploited class.

Populism and anti-populism

Since our last congress in April 2017 the populist upsurge has continued, despite the efforts of the most central factions of the bourgeoisie to erect a dyke against it, as with the election of Macron in France and the ‘Resistance’ against Trump orchestrated by the Democratic party and part of the state security services in the US. The reliability of Germany as a barrier to the spread of populism has been severely weakened by the electoral rise of the AfD and the development of a pogromist street movement in places like Chemnitz. The divisions and near-paralysis of the British bourgeoisie over Brexit has intensified. The installation of a populist government in Italy, together with the opposition mounted by populist governments in Eastern Europe, has posed serious problems for the future of the EU. The threat to the unity of the Spanish state by the forces of Catalan and other nationalisms has not been overcome. In Brazil the victory of Bolsanaro is a new step in the rise of "strong leaders" who openly advocate state terror against any opposition to their rule. Finally, the phenomenon of the "Yellow Vests" in France and elsewhere shows the capacity of the populists not only to manifest themselves on the electoral terrain, but also on the streets, in large-scale demonstrations that can appear to take up some of the concerns and even the methods of the working class., while having the effect of further confusing the meaning of class identity

Populism, with its aggressively nationalist and xenophobic language, its contempt for evidence and scientific research, its manipulation of conspiracy theories, and its barely concealed relation to the naked violence of fascist street gangs, is without doubt a pure product of decomposition, the indication that the capitalist class is, even in its own terms, going backwards in the face of the historic stalemate between the classes. But while it emerges as a product of social decay and tends to undermine the bourgeoisie’s control of its entire political and economic apparatus, here again the ruling class can make use of the problems created by populism in its permanent war against class consciousness.

This is evident in the case of those fractions of the proletariat who, lacking any perspective of class resistance against capitalism and the effects of its crisis, have been drawn directly into populist politics and have fallen for a new version of the "socialism of fools": the idea that their misery is caused by the growing tide of migrants and refugees who are in turn the shock troops of sinister elites who aim to undermine Christian, white, or national culture. These delusions are  combined with unquestioning support for the populist parties and demagogues who present themselves as an "anti-elite" force, as tribunes of the "real people". The grip of such ideas – which can also lead a significant minority towards the practice of the pogrom and terrorism – clearly works against these fractions regaining their real identity as part of an exploited class, as a section of the class who have been "left behind" not by the plots of anti-national cabals but by the remorseless impact of the global capitalist crisis.

But, recalling Bordiga’s famous dictum that "the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism", we must also point out that the bourgeois opposition to populism plays a no less important role in the ideological swindle that prevents the proletariat from recognising its independent, and antagonistic, class interests to all wings of the ruling class. Writing at the beginning of the Junius Pamphlet about the pogromist atmosphere that invaded Germany at the start of the First World War, Luxemburg noted that this "Kishinev air.. left the policeman at the corner as the only remaining representative of human dignity".  In the US, the same appearance is created by the egregious pronouncements and practices of a Trump, so that the Democrats, liberal Republicans, supreme court judges and even the FBI and CIA start to look like the good guys. In Britain, the apparent domination of political life by a small gang of "Brextremists", in turn linked to dark money and even the machinations of Russian imperialism, stimulates the development of a mass opposition to Brexit which, with the open encouragement of parts of the media, can mobilise up to 750,000 onto the streets of London to call for a second referendum. Although often derided as a polite middleclass movement, such mobilisations undoubtedly draw in large numbers of that educated urban proletariat who are angered by the lies of the populists but are not yet able to detach themselves from the liberal and left wing factions of the bourgeoisie.

In sum: the whole of political debate tends to be monopolised by the questions of pro- and anti-Trump, pro- and anti-Brexit, and so on, a debate entirely circumscribed by patriotic and democratic ideology. The bourgeois opposition to Trump presents itself as the Real America no less than Trump and his supporters, and it condemns the current administration above all for its violation of democratic norms; similarly, in the UK, the debate is always about the true interests of "our country", and both sides of the argument present themselves as the side interested in democracy and the will of the people.  This same polarisation can be observed in the "culture wars" which have fuelled the rise of populism: as we noted earlier, populism is itself a form of identity politics, casting itself as the defender of the exclusive interests of this or that nation or ethnic group, and it engages in a  mutually reinforcing battle with all the other forms of identity politics, whether the Islamist gangs who serve to misdirect the anger of a particular stratum of disaffected young proletarians stuck in urban ghettoes, or the more left leaning campaigns  around racial and gender issues. This polarisation is a real expression of a disintegrating and increasingly divided society, but, faced with the proletariat, decadent capitalism shows its totalitarian character, to the extent that this very polarisation occupies the social and political terrain and tends to block the emergence of debate or action on the terrain of the proletariat.

The danger of nihilism and the potential for a rediscovery of class identity

The capitalist world in decomposition necessarily engenders apocalyptic moods. It can offer humanity no future and its potential for destruction on a scale that beggars the imagination has become more and more evident to wide layers of the world’s population. The most extreme manifestations of this feeling that the world we live in is on its last legs expresses itself in the distorted mythologies of Islamic jihadism or right wing Christian survivalism, but this is a far more general mood. Increasingly disturbing reports of scientific panels about climate change, destruction of species and toxic pollution of all kinds have added to the sense of doom: if the scientists say that we have 12 years to prevent an environmental catastrophe, it is understood already that the governments and corporations of the world will do next to nothing to carry out the measures advocated by these reports, for fear of blunting the competitive edge of the national economies. Indeed, with the advent of populist governments, climate denial becomes more and more hysterical in face of the real dangers faced by the world, and opts for pure vandalism, withdrawal from international agreements and the removal of all limits to the exploitation of nature, as in the case of Trump in the USA and Bolsanaro in Brazil. Add to this the fact that imperialist war is becoming more chaotic and unpredictable while a growing number of states have access to nuclear weapons, then it is hardly surprising that nihilism and despair are even more widespread than they were in the period of World War Two, despite the proximity of the shadow of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the threat of nuclear war between the two imperialist blocs.

Nihilism and despair arise from a sense of powerlessness, in a loss of conviction that there is any possible alternative to the nightmare scenario being prepared by capitalism. It tends to paralyse reflection and the will to action. And if the only social force that could pose this alternative is virtually unaware of its own existence, does this mean that the game is up, that the point of no return has already been reached?

We certainly recognise that the longer capitalism sinks into decomposition, the more it is sapping the basis for a more human society. Again this is illustrated most clearly by the destruction of the environment, which is reaching the point where it can accelerate the tendency towards a complete break-down of society, a condition which does not favour the self-organisation and confidence in the future required to make the revolution;  and even if the proletariat does come to power on a global scale, it will be faced by a gigantic labour not only to clean up the mess bequeathed by capitalist accumulation, but to reverse a spiral of destruction that it has already set in motion.

But we also know that despair also distorts reality, generates panic on the one hand, denial on the other, and does not permit us to think clearly about the possibilities that are still available to us. In a number of recent documents  presented to congresses and meetings of its central organ, the ICC has examined a series of objective developments which have taken place (or rather continued) over the last few decades and which could act in favour of the proletariat. The most important of these developments are:

  • The growth of the proletariat on a world scale , which we tended to deny in the past, driven in particular by the extraordinary growth of industry in China and other eastern and pacific countries. The idea advanced by some sociologists that we are living in a "post-industrial" society appears completely ridiculous when we can see that more than ever, capitalist society presents itself "as an immense accumulation of commodities"; and that the core of all this stuff, this frenzied building, production and distribution, is still carried on by human beings, despite the rapid advance of robotisation. Capitalism without the proletariat is a pure fiction. At the same time, we have seen a growing proletarianisation of countless ‘professional’ and non-factory jobs.
  • This economic growth – however fragile its underpinning – has, precisely because of its connection with modern communications technology, become increasingly globalised, an international chain which constantly balks at the limits of national borders and compels capitalism to organise itself on an international scale. The current trend towards nationalist protectionism is seeking to turn back this tide, but it is significant that most of its proponents are in reality incapable of breaking their links with "rootless" global capital. In Britain, for example, the leading financiers of Brexit (like Aaron Banks, whose offshore funds are currently under legal investigation) are all speculators on the world stage, and the same goes for Trump and some of his most committed supporters.  And these tendencies have produced a working class that is increasingly international in its form and in its daily activities: the use of the internet to coordinate global production networks, the "movement of labour" across borders which necessarily accompanies the movement of capital, and so on. This is a fraction of the class which is also highly qualified, often university educated, and has a more "natural" resistance to populism and racism.
  • These developments in the shape of the proletariat also includes a growing incorporation of women into associated labour – in the health and care industries in the west, into communications in India, for example, or into factory production in Bangladesh and China. This provides the objective basis for overcoming the gender divisions in the class and for the understanding that the sexual oppression of women, and other forms of sexual oppression, are at root a problem for the class, a pernicious obstacle to its unification. At the same time, the participation of female proletarians in the class struggle has always been a potent element in the development of its moral dimension.
  • Technological developments – in marxist terms, the development of the productive forces– are also, potentially, a factor in recognising the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production. In the process of production, the growth of computers and robots under capitalism generates unemployment on the one hand, overwork on the other, but their possible use in relieving humanity from drudgery also becomes increasingly obvious. At the same time, the use of digital technology in the spheres of distribution, payment and finance hints at the possibility that the commodity form is itself bankrupt, that the technology could be used simply to measure distribution on the basis of need. This has given rise to various utopian "post-capitalist" theories which are deluded into thinking that such developments will arrive automatically from the use of technology itself[11], but  which nevertheless express a growing reality predicted by Marx: that "capital has outlived itself".
  • The obsolescence of the commodity form, of value production, is expressed above all in what is perhaps the most crucial "objective factor" of all: the economic crisis. It is capital’s inability to go beyond itself, by itself, which is the underlying factor behind the present crisis of civilisation; and when the contradictions arising from this historic state of affairs become most open, they tend to reveal to the exploited class the necessity for a new mode of production. The 2008 crisis – even if the form it took (a credit crunch that hit proletarians more as individual savers than as part of a collective class) and the means used to overcome it (the application of heavy doses of the same poison that had led to it in the first place) did not favour a massive and global development of class consciousness – nevertheless remains as a proof of the essential vulnerability and obsolescence of the system, which is heading towards even greater convulsions in the future. There are major storm clouds brewing over the world economy  and there is no question that the growing inability of the ruling class to master the economic contradictions of the system, and thus the increasing necessity for frontal attacks on working and living conditions, remain a key potential factor in the revival of class struggle and of a more wide-spread proletarian self-awareness.
  • Necessity for a development on the subjective level

But we must bear in mind that these objective factors, while being necessary to the recovery of class identity and class consciousness, are not sufficient in themselves, and that there are other factors operating against the realisation of the potential they contain. Thus, the new generations of industrial workers in the east have often show high levels of militancy (for example, massive strikes in the textile industry in Bangladesh) but they lack the long political traditions of the western proletariat, even if the latter have been buried to a large extent. The integration of women into the workplace has, when class consciousness is low, often been accompanied by an increase in harassment.  And we have also seen (certainly in the 1930s, but also to a certain degree in the wake of 2008) that the economic crisis can under certain circumstances become a factor of demoralisation and of individual atomisation rather than collective mobilisation.

The working class is the class of consciousness. Unlike the bourgeois revolution its revolution is not based on a steady accumulation of wealth and economic power. It can only accumulate experience, tradition of struggle, methods of organisation, and so on. In sum, the subjective element is crucial if an objective potential is to be seized and realised.

This subjective potential cannot be measured in immediate terms. The balance of class forces exists historically and we can say that, even if time is not on its side, even though decomposition is becoming a growing threat and the working class is experiencing considerable differences in emerging from its current retreat, globally the class has not been crushed since 1968 and thus remains an obstacle to the full descent into barbarism; it thus retains the potential for overcoming the whole system.. But we can only continue to assert this by carefully examining more immediate expressions of rebellion against the social order. And these are not absent:

With regard to the open struggles of the class, we will look at two recent examples:

1. In Britain in the last two years we have seen small but significant strikes by workers in the ‘gig’ economy, as recounted in this article in World Revolution:

  • "One of the fears about workers in very precarious casual jobs, with a large proportion of immigrants among them, is that they will not be able to struggle, and so will be nothing but a competitive pressure to lower wages. Firms such as Uber and Deliveroo like to claim their workers are self-employed (so not getting minimum wage, holiday or sick leave). The recent strike at Deliveroo, which spread to UberEats drivers, has answered both questions. They are most definitely part of the working class, and most definitely able to struggle to defend themselves.
    Threatened with a new contract that would change from hourly pay plus a bonus for each delivery (£7 and £1) with pay only for each delivery, despite their apparent isolation from each other and their precarious circumstances, Deliveroo delivery workers organised meetings to run their struggle, a protest moped and cycle ride through the streets in London, and a 6 day strike. They insisted on collective negotiation against the managing director’s ‘offer’ to speak to them individually.  In the end the threat that they would lose their jobs if they did not sign up to the new contract was withdrawn, but it is being trialled by those who opt in. A partial victory.
    Some UberEats delivery workers came to Deliveroo meetings. They face similar conditions, being falsely given self-employed status; pay has fallen so they barely make the minimum wage, with no guaranteed pay, only getting £3.30 per delivery. After a wildcat strike one worker was sacked (or "deactivated" since he is not protected by employment law), underlining the courage needed by workers who struggle in such precarious industries…"[12]

More recently, in October, workers at a series of fast food outlets in a number of cities in the UK – Macdonalds, TGI Fridays and JD Witherspoon, together with UberEats drivers, came out on strike together and joined each others’ pickets and demonstrations. As the article in WR says, these actions are based on a recognition that the employees of these firms are indeed part of a collective social body and not just isolated individuals. It was also significant that these strikes involved many immigrant workers alongside those born in the UK, while some of the actions were coordinated with strikes in the same firms in Europe. At the same time, according to the BBC, "the strikes are being held to coincide with industrial action over pay by fast-food workers in Chile, Colombia, the US, Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Philippines and Japan"[13].

The notion of the ‘precariat’ applied to these workers implies that this is a new class, but precarious employment has always been part of the condition of the working class. In a sense, the methods of the ‘gig economy’, with workers increasingly employed on very short term and casual basis, takes us back to the days of building or port workers queuing for hire on a day to day basis.

The attempts of workers from different firms and countries to come together is an affirmation of class identity against the "new model" mentioned earlier, and shows that no section of the class, however dispersed and downtrodden, is incapable of fighting for its interests. At the same time, the fact that these workers have largely been ignored by the traditional unions has left a space for more radical forms of trade unionism: in the UK, semi-syndicalist organizations like the IWW, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and United Voices of the World have quickly taken advantage of this and have become the main force ‘’organising’ the workers. This is probably inevitable in a situation where there is no general class movement, but the influence of these radical unions testifies to the need to contain a genuine radicalization amongst a minority of workers.

2. Struggles against the war economy in the Middle East

The strikes and demonstrations which erupted in July in many parts of Jordan, Iraq and Iran, described in several recent articles on our website[14], were a direct response by proletarians of the region to the miseries inflicted on the population by the war economy. The demands raised by the protests were heavily focused on basic economic issues: shortages of water and healthcare, poverty wages or unpaid wages, unemployment, testifying to the fact that these movements began on a class terrain. They also raised a number of political slogans which tend to assert proletarian interests against the interests of the ruling class and its wars: in Iran, for example, both "fundamentalist" and "reforming" factions of the theocracy were lumped together and the imperial pretensions of the Iranian regime were frequently ridiculed; in Iraq protesters cried out that they were neither Sunni nor Shia; and "Not only have government and municipal buildings been the target of demonstrators’ attacks but so have the Shia institutions belying their hypocritical "support" for the wave of protests. The ‘radical’ populist al-Sadr had his delegation to the protesters attacked and seen off – this was shown in footage on social media"[15].

Even more important, in the autumn of 2018 there were a number of very combative workers’ strikes in Iranian industry, with some clear expressions of solidarity between different enterprises, as in the case of the Foolad steel workers and the sugar workers at HaftTappeh. The latter struggle also became well known internationally through the holding of general assemblies and statements from a key strike leader Ismail Bakhshi about their strike committee as a kind of embryonic soviet. This has been taken up by various elements in the milieu to imply that workers’ councils were on the immediate agenda in Iran, which we think is far from being the case. Other statements by Bakhshi show that there are serious confusions about self-management even among the more advanced workers[16]. It’s also the case that some of the slogans in the earlier street protests had a nationalist and even monarchist character. Despite these profound weaknesses, we still consider that this wave of struggle in Iran was an important expression of the intact potential of the class struggle.  With war becoming a permanent reality for growing sections of the class, these movements are a reminder not only of the absolute antagonism between the proletariat and imperialist conflict, but of an embryonic awareness of this antagonism, expressed both in some of the slogans raised and in the international simultaneity of these upsurges in Iran, Iraq and Jordan.

The spread of social indignation

These examples are not presented as proof of a global revival of the class struggle or even of the end of its retreat, which would in any case require the emergence of important class movements in the central countries of the system. In these countries, the social situation is still marked more by an absence of major struggles on the proletarian terrain. On the other hand, we have seen a number of protests that express a growing indignation against the brutality and destructiveness of capitalist society, In the USA in particular, we have seen the direct actions at the airports against the detaining and expulsion of travellers from Muslim countries; huge demonstrations in the wake of police shootings of young black people in a number of cities: Charlotte, St Louis, New York, Sacramento…., and the massive mobilisation of young people following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Climate change and the destruction of the environment is also a factor sparking protests, notably the school strikes organised in many countries under the umbrella of "Youth for Climate" or the Extinction Rebellion protests in London.. In the same way, outrage over the patronising and violent treatment of women – not only in ‘backward’ countries like India but in the so-called ‘liberal democracies’ - has also been expressed on the streets rather than being limited to internet forums.

However, given the general loss of class identity, there is little to prevent these kinds of protests falling into the traps of the bourgeoisie – into  mystifications around identity politics and reformism, and thus being directly manipulation by left and democratic bourgeois factions. The Yellow Vest phenomenon also shows the danger of the class further losing itself in inter-classist movements dominated by the ideology of populism and nationalism.

 It is only through the class regaining a sense of itself as a class, through the development of the struggle on its own terrain, that all the energy and legitimate anger that today is being channelled in sterile or harmful directions could tomorrow be ‘recuperated’ by the proletariat. That this is more than a vague wish is shown by the dynamic of the Indignados movement in 2011. Motivated by ‘classic’ working class issues – unemployment, job insecurity, the impact of the 2008 crash on living standards – this was a movement which also raised questions about the future of humanity in a system which many of its participants saw as "obsolete". It consequently organised all kinds of discussions about morality, science, the environment, questions of sex and gender, and so on – in this sense clearly reviving the spirit of May 68 by posing the question of an alternative to capitalist society. This was an expression of a proletarian movement which had begun to understand that it contains the answer to "particular wrongs" as well as "wrong in general". It showed that the class struggle needs to extend not only across wider sectors of the capitalist economy, but also into the spheres of politics and culture.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that even if the Indignados was in essence a movement of the proletariat, largely made up of employed, semi-employed, unemployed, university and high school students, the majority of its protagonists saw themselves above all as citizens, and were thus particularly vulnerable to the ideology of "Democracy Now" and other leftists who tried to drag the assembly movement towards incorporation into a reformed parliamentary regime. There was, of course, a substantial proletarian wing (in the political rather than the sociological sense) of the movement which saw things differently but they remained a minority and seem to have given birth to  a far smaller minority of elements who have moved towards revolutionary politics. The "identity problem" of the Indignados movement was further emphasised in 2017 when so many of those who had been genuinely indignant against the future offered by capitalism fell for the fraud of nationalism, particularly its Catalan version.

One of the key weaknesses of the movement was its lack of connection between the movement in the streets and squares and the struggles in the workplaces, and this gap is something that future struggles will have to overcome. We have seen glimpses of this in the recent movements in the Middle East, and perhaps more explicitly in the metal workers’ strikes in Vigo in 2006. For just as gaining the street is essential for bringing together, workers from different sectors, as well as the unemployed, so the movement in the workplaces is key to reminding all those on the street that they are part of a class which has to sell its labour to capital.

This conjunction will also be important in solving the problem of the unitary organisation of future massive movements – the problem of the workers’ councils. In past revolutionary movements, the workers’ councils tended to arise from the centralisation of general assemblies in the large industrial units. This will no doubt remain an important factor in regions where such units still exist (Germany for example) or have been developed in the recent period (China, Indian sub-continent, etc). But given the importance of the old centres of the class struggle, above all in Europe, which have been subjected to a long process of deindustrialisation, it is possible that councils will emerge from a coming together of assemblies held in central workplaces such as hospitals, universities, warehouses etc, and mass meetings held on streets and squares where workers from more dispersed workplaces, the unemployed and precariously employed can unify their struggles.

The fact that major parts of the population have been proletarianised by the combined impact of the crisis and changes in the ‘skin’ of the working class implies that assemblies based on territorial rather than industrial units will retain a working class character, even if there is evidently the danger of the influence of petty bourgeois and other strata in such forms of organisation. Such dilemmas lead us to the question of the autonomy of the class and its relation to the transitional state in the revolution of the future, since the working class, having rediscovered its identity as a revolutionary social force, will have to maintain this autonomous identity politically and organisationally during the transitional period, until all have become proletarians and thus none are proletarians.

It is also likely that this newly-found revolutionary identity will take a more directly political form in the future: in other words, that the class will define itself through a growing adherence to the communist perspective, not least because the profundity of the social and economic crisis will have sapped away at illusions in any possible "return to normal" for capitalism in decompoistion. We saw an indication of this in the appearance of the proletarian wing in the Indignados movement: its proletarian character was based not so much on its sociological composition, but on its fight to defend the autonomy of the assemblies and a general perspective of social transformation against the various leftist recuperators. The party of the future could well emerge through the inter-action between such large proletarian minorities and the communist political organisations. Of course the fragility of the existing milieu of the communist left means that there is no guarantee that this rendez-vous will be made. But we can say that the appearance of new elements gravitating towards the communist left today – some of them very young – is a sign that the process of subterranean maturation is a reality and that it is continuing despite the very evident difficulties of the class struggle.  Even if we understand that the party of the future will by no means be a mass organisation that seeks to encompass the class as a whole, this dimension of the politicisation of the struggle brings out what is profoundly true in the classic marxist phrase: "constitution of the proletarians into a class, and thus into a political party".



[2] Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

[3] The Holy Family Chapter IV

[4] Introduction to the English edition of The condition of the working class in England

[6] This movement had been preceded by the Merthyr uprising of 1831, which, it could be argued, was better organised and more successful, even if the workers could only take power in one city and only for brief moment. It was also the first recorded moment that workers marched under the red flag.                          

[7] From a Report on the perspectives of the class struggle, December 2015.

[8] International Review n° 111, 2001. Orientation Text  on Confidence and solidarity in the proletarian struggle

[9] Resolution on class struggle, 22nd ICC congress

[10] From the chapter headed ‘The Great Towns’

[11] See for example Paul Mason’s book, Post Capitalism, a Guide to our Future, and its critique by the Communist Workers Organisation

Life of the ICC: 


Work of the 23rd ICC Congress