For years now the ruling class has been telling us that the working class does not exist, that we live in a “post-industrial” society, or that we are all “citizens” of democracy, or that we are just part of the “people”. Or that the working class is hopelessly divided between those of us who are “native”, “white”, or “left behind” and those who are either supposed to be part of an “urban elite” or who are compelled to become immigrants and asylum seekers.
This ideological assault has been based on real, material factors: the defeat of important workers’ struggles in the 70s and 80s, the break-up and re-location of traditional centres of working class militancy, especially in western Europe and the USA, the re-organisation of working conditions aimed at persuading us that we are all “self-employed” today, and the growing tendency for capitalist society to fragment into a war of each against all at every level. Furthermore, the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989-91, the so-called “death of communism”, gave a tremendous boost to the idea that the class struggle is a thing of the past, and that, if it does exist, it can only offer the perspective of a society even more repressive and poverty-stricken than the one we are already facing. The fact that what collapsed in the east was really a highly statified form of capitalism was, of course, entirely buried in this torrent of lies.
A torrent aimed at hiding the simple truth: that the working class will exist as long as capitalism exists, and because capitalism is by definition a global system the working class is by definition an international exploited class which in every country has the same interest in resisting its exploitation.
It has proved extremely difficult for the working class to emerge from the reflux in its struggles that began at the end of the 80s, and during these decades, the very sense of belonging to a world-wide class has to a large extent been lost. But the class struggle never entirely disappears. It often goes underground, but that doesn’t mean that workers have stopped thinking, or feeling angry about the continuing attack on their living and working conditions, or reflecting on the increasingly catastrophic state of the capitalist world order. And from time to time, the struggle flares up again, reminding us of the prediction of the Communist Manifesto, that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat”. In France in 2006, the students, now increasingly the workers of tomorrow, led a struggle against the “First Employment Contract” or CPE which was a direct attempt by the government to drastically reduce job security for those starting work. They held general assemblies in the universities to organise their movement and appealed for the solidarity of the employed workers, the workers of all generations, and the marginalised proletarians of the “banlieu”, the ghettoised outer suburbs. The government, haunted by the memories of May 68 in France, of a generalised strike movement, backed down and withdrew the CPE. In 2011, the “Indignados” in Spain were largely made up of young proletarians and their indignation was directed against the lack of any prospects exacerbated by the 2008 “financial crisis”. They too came together in mass assemblies, this time in the city squares, where debates were held not only about the immediate methods of the struggle but also about the nature of the society we are living in and the possibilities of an alternative.
The Indignados’ struggle, for all its importance, suffered from a key weakness: it was not able to make effective links to the workplaces, to the employed working class, and it was thus vulnerable to the myth that it was really a struggle of the “citizens” for a more responsive form of bourgeois democracy. And indeed, in the past year, as the economic crisis of capitalism continues to deepen, we have seen a succession of social revolts in which the working class has been drowned in the mass of the people, movements which have further distanced workers from their specific class interests.
In the central countries, the clearest example of such an “interclassist” movement was the Yellow Vests in France. Many workers took part in the Yellow Vest protests as individuals, but it was led by small entrepreneurs and dominated by their demands (such as the reduction of taxes on fuel). Above all, it was entirely comfortable with presenting itself as a movement of French citizens, parading under the national flag and demanding “more democracy” (as well as raising openly nationalist demands for the limitation of immigration).
The Yellow Vest movement, breaking out in a country which has so often been the theatre of radical proletarian movements, was a measure of the disorientation of the working class and posed a further threat to its capacity to recover its class identity.
But it is precisely here that we can begin to grasp the importance of the recent strike movement in France, principally involving railway workers, health workers and other parts of the public sector. This was a movement which was undoubtedly a response to a direct attack on workers’ living conditions – the so-called “Pension Reforms” demanded by the Macron government. It was centred on the workplaces where the working class is most obviously a living social force, but at the same time, there was a very strong push towards solidarity between the different sectors. There were also some signs – especially among the railway workers – of a capacity to take action outside the trade unions, even if, as we explain in the article “Government and unions hand in hand to implement the pension ‘reform’”, the unions retained an overall control over the movement.
The significance of this movement was above all that it gives us a glimpse of how the working class can regain its sense of being a class – as some of the banners on the strike demonstrations proclaimed, “We exist”, “We are here”. It is the response of workers to the attacks of capital demanded by the remorseless economic crisis which will enable them to recover their class identity, an indispensable basis for the development of a revolutionary consciousness, the recognition that the working class is not only collectively exploited by capital, but also that it is the only force in society that can offer a real alternative to capital, a new society where the exploitation of labour power, like previous forms of slavery, has been banished once and for all.