The movement against "pension reform": Drawing the lessons to prepare for future struggles

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The Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown have not made the class struggle disappear: we have already referred to workers’ strikes demanding proper safety equipment and working conditions in a number of countries, and we will be coming back to this in future articles. There is no denying however that the lock-down creates particularly difficult conditions for the development of the open, massive struggle. But we also know that we are going to be faced with unprecedented attacks on our living standards, and we have to prepare our response. This necessarily entails drawing the lessons of previous struggles, and this is the aim of the article we publish here, written by our section in France, which examines the important strikes of railway workers, health workers and others last autumn and winter.

"Today's vanquished, will be tomorrow's victors. They will learn from their defeat."[1]
"Revolution is the sole form of 'war' (...) in which the final victory can be achieved only by a series of 'defeats'! What does the whole history of modern revolutions and of socialism show us? The first flaring up of the class struggle in Europe ended in defeat. The 1831 revolt of the silk-weavers in Lyon, ended in a heavy defeat. The Chartist Movement in England also ended in defeat. The rising of the proletariat in Paris in June 1848 ended in an overwhelming defeat. The Paris Commune ended in a terrible defeat. The whole road to socialism (as far as revolutionary struggles are concerned) is paved with defeats, pure and simple. And yet this same history leads irresistibly, step by step, to ultimate victory! Where would we be today without the 'defeats', from which we have drawn historical experience, understanding, power and idealism!
Today (...) we stand upon these very defeats, none of which we could have done without, each of which is part of our strength and our clarity of purpose (...) These inevitable defeats virtually pile guarantee upon guarantee of the future success of the final goal. To be sure there is one condition!
We have to analyse the circumstances of each respective defeat."[2]

Yes, the strikes and demonstrations in the autumn of 2019 and the winter of 2020 ended in defeat. Pension "reform" is now behind us. But the ties that were forged during this struggle, the experience that was gained and the development of consciousness are all victories. There are many lessons we can draw from this drawn-out social movement to prepare for the future struggles. To be able to do so, we need to come together, to discuss and to write our analysis of it. This article is intended as a contribution towards this work of collective reflection.

The working class recovers its combativity

To understand the importance and significance of the movement against the pensions' "reform" in France, we have to situate it in the context of the class struggle of the recent decades. From 1968 to the end of the 1980s, the struggle of the proletariat developed internationally: May '68 in France, the Hot Autumn of Italy in 1969, the highly combative strikes in Britain throughout the 1970s, the massive strike in Poland in 1980, etc. For nearly twenty years, workers would accumulate a vast experience from their involvement in struggle, from mass meetings and general assemblies and through extending their struggles and, above all, by witnessing the trade unions constantly sabotaging all attempts by the workers to take the struggle into their own hands.

However, this generation was not able to politicise the movement. If the working class's commitment to the struggle showed its strength, its reflection on the nature of capitalism and the state, its capacity for self-organisation remained weak. In this context, the collapse of the Eastern bloc, fraudulently presented as the "bankruptcy of communism", inflicted a terrible shock to class consciousness. Through this iniquitous lie, the barbarism of Stalinism - in reality a caricature of state capitalism - was made to appear as the inevitable outcome to the proletarian revolution. The bourgeoisie could thus declare the "end of History"[3] and the disappearance of the working class. So, with its self-confidence low, and made to feel ashamed of its history, the working class gradually, throughout the 1990s, lost all memory of its past struggles and experiences. At the global level, our class experienced a major retreat in consciousness and combativity across this decade, to the extent of denying its own existence which lead to the proletariat losing its class identity.

But, of course, there is no brake on History, regardless of the hopes and declarations of the bourgeoisie. The economic crisis continued to worsen and hence living and working conditions deteriorated along with it. This intolerable situation gave rise to a growing anger that transformed into combativity, particularly inside the national education systems of France and Austria in 2003. The mood went beyond confrontation and there was a real reflection on the future of capitalism, particularly on the future of global capitalism. It helps explain why organisations like ATTAC developed the theory of anti-globalism (which would become "another world is possible"). Although limited in scope, this broad social confrontation signalled an end to the retreat of the 1990s. Once again, the working class had expressed a level of combativity and from this its consciousness developed, if only weakly.

Three years later, in 2006, a new generation appeared on the scene. Faced with a new governmental attack, with the manufacture of an even more precarious status for young workers starting work (le Contrat Première Embauche, the CPE), the students facing this insecurity reacted, they organised themselves in general assemblies that were open to all and extended the struggle by calling for solidarity from all sectors and all generations ("Young lardons, old croutons: all in the same salad!" was chanted repeatedly). The French bourgeoisie was worried at the dynamic of extension of the struggle and it was this that made it suddenly withdraw the CPE (renamed "Contrat Poubelle Embauche" or "Rubbish Hiring Contract").

However, the development of the struggle of the proletariat is not linear. In 2010, the proletariat would suffer a hard blow. Having been mobilised weekly for sterile protests over a 10-month period by the unions, several million demonstrators from this movement were left exhausted and discouraged and with a deep-rooted sense of powerlessness. The defeat it inflicted stamped its mark on the whole decade from 2010 onward when the social atmosphere was characterised by apathy, despondency and resignation.

Again we would see that the forces at work underlying society had not gone away, particularly the global economic crisis, which leads to unemployment, precariousness and poverty... but also anger and reflection. This is what the movement against the pensions' "reform" at the end of 2019 heralded: the re-emergence of workers' combativity! Through the months of mobilisation, the weeks of strikes and the demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands of people together, this struggle revealed the proletariat's desire to fight back and signalled the end of a long period marked by workers' bowed heads and a class retreat. It gave a glimpse of a future in which the proletariat would once again refuse to accept the bourgeoisie's unceasing attacks without giving a response. It is therefore all the more crucial to learn the lessons of this movement in order to prepare for the future.


In the struggle, the workers once again demonstrated the characteristic solidarity of our class. If the bourgeoisie tried to promote the cause of every man for himself, based on division and competition, by opposing railway workers (said to be "privileged") to the other workers, the old against the young (using the infamous "grandfather clause", for example), strikers versus non-strikers and wage earners who do "hard" work against those who, supposedly, have "cushy jobs", etc., the working class responded by all staying together, by supporting the railway workers, by keeping alive the old rallying cry: "One for all and all for one" and by fighting to defend their future and that of the new generations of workers who are faced with entering the labour market… The slogan "we choose to all fight together" is indicative of the glue that has bound the workers together in struggle: solidarity, the fundamental condition behind the social power of our class.

This power and this spirit was evident in all the demonstrations. On the marches, the mood of solidarity made the demonstrators feel proud, and even joyful. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why, at the end of the movement, far from being downcast by the "defeat" (the formal adoption of the "reform"), the working class emerged stronger and better. This realisation of this fraternity inside the struggle must be cherished and cultivated for the struggles of the future.

Strength in numbers

The shouts of "All together" that were heard on the marches showed an awareness of the need to unite all sectors, both private and public and to mobilise en masse against the government to overturn the balance of forces.

The was a valuable lesson of this movement. One sector alone, no matter how determined it may be, or how crucial a rôle in the national economy, no matter the "power" for disruption to the economy, can defeat the bourgeoisie and the state on its own, as the unions would imply. On the contrary, by pushing the railway workers of the SNCF and the RATP into the leading role, a trap was laid by the government colluding with the unions. The railworkers would be responsible for the struggle on their own, which would reduce the struggle overall to a protest action and an isolated and disarmed strike.

Yet, these workers were instinctively suspicious of this trap without being fully aware of the reason. On the marches, a need was felt everywhere to unite across sectors, to be a force in numbers and there were calls to mobilise and not to leave the railway workers alone and to have the private sector more involved... This growing realisation that to be strong meant being strong in numbers, that the struggle needed to be widespread, will be a key lesson for the future.

So, how can we succeed the next time in developing a massive struggle? How can all sectors be brought into the movement? The answer is found in the past experience of the working class, because it has previously demonstrated this capacity to extend the struggle geographically. One of the most impressive examples of this dynamic of extension and unity is undoubtedly the movement that took place in Poland in the summer of 1980:

"Facing news of price rises, the workers' response spread throughout the country, passing increasingly from town to town, city to city, and not along the channels of the business or industrial sectors. Triggered on 14th August by the strike at the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard when a single worker was sacked, the movement spread inside 24 hours to the whole city and in a few days to the whole industrial region around the same common demands: wage increases and improved social benefits, no Saturday working, a guarantee of no reprisals against the strikers as well as the abolition of the official trade unions... The day after the strike began at the Lenin Shipyard, the news spread across the city. The tram workers stopped work in solidarity but they also decided to keep the trams still running that connected the three major industrial zones of Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot. They were vital for spreading the news of the strike and would be a means of communication between the struggling factories throughout the month of the strike. On the same day the strike began at the "Paris Commune" shipyard in Gdynia and spread to almost all the shipyards in the basin, but also to the ports and various companies in the region. The two large Lenin and "Paris Commune" shipyards became meeting places for the strikers, where regular meetings were held, bringing thousands of workers from different factories together.
The organisation of the strike was established on the same basis, the same principles, by which it was extended. The assemblies of strikers from the different factories and sectors elected strike committees and sent delegates to the "inter-factory strike committee" (MKS), which drew up a list of the joint demands. All the strikers' assemblies were informed daily of the discussions and the progress of the negotiations by their delegates who travelled back and forth between their workplaces and the MKS, which was based at the Lenin Shipyard.
The attempts to sow divisions by the government, which wanted to negotiate factory by factory and thereby get a return to work sector by sector, came up against this close-knit and united block. Thus, when the government very quickly agreed to the wage increase for workers at the Gdynia Shipyard and a return to work, and some hesitant delegates seemed ready to accept, the delegates from the other factories objected and called for the movement to continue until all the demands, from all the striking factories, were met. Some new delegates would be elected by the strikers.

In the days that followed, the example set by Gdansk would spread to the various regions of Poland. The signal for the mass strike had been received. The subsequent balance of power imposed by the workers was unprecedented since the struggles of the 1920s and would force the bourgeoisie to submit, an outcome no workers' struggle in the world since then has ever achieved. What's more, it was a vital experience for workers to live through and an unassailable acquisition of the international proletariat showing the potential power of the working class when it is truly united".[4]

One passage from this quotation is particularly worthy of our attention: "The tram workers stopped work in solidarity but at the same time, they also decided to keep the trams running that connected the three large industrial zones of Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot. They were vital for spreading the news of the strike, and were a means of communication between the struggling factories throughout the month of strike". This is the exact opposite of what the trade unions organised during the movement against the pensions' "reform" in France: the trains didn't move, especially on the demonstration days. Some people would point to this aberration on the marches, insisting to the contrary that trains should run to Paris and the big cities to allow as many employees, pensioners, precarious students and the unemployed as possible to assemble. A retired demonstrator in Paris even said to us "I don't understand why the trains aren't free to allow us to come here; we have done that in the 1980s". This anecdote raises some profound questions about class identity and workers' memory, about the development of consciousness and the nature of the trade unions.

Class identity

By choosing to fight "en masse", by expressing solidarity across sectors and between generations, these proletarians have begun to recover their class identity. They show an understanding that in confronting the government, the state, the bourgeoisie, it is necessary to be many, to unite, and it is necessary to create a mass movement. One question to be answered remains: who should unite? Who are "We"? One answer: the working class. Admittedly, this realisation has not yet spread to the whole of our class, but it is germinating. Thus, in the demonstrations, many demonstrators sang "We're here to salute the workers and for a better world!" In various discussions, you could hear "The working class exists! It's right here!" or "We want a general strike like that in May '68".

This unfolding renewal of class identity in the proletariat inside the struggle fully supports the analysis we made in 2003, when the working class was returning to the path of struggle after the long retreat of the 1990s:
- "The current attacks constitute the basis of a slow maturing of the conditions for the massive struggles that are necessary for the working class to recover its identity. Little by little, they will dispel all the illusions in the possibility of reforming the system. It is the action of the masses themselves that will make possible the re-emergence of the consciousness of being an exploited class that bears within it a different historical perspective for society".
- "The importance of struggles today is that they can be the crucible for the development of class consciousness. The basic issue at stake – the recovery of class identity – is an extremely modest one. But behind class identity, there is the question of class solidarity – the only alternative to the mad competitive bourgeois logic of each for himself. Behind class identity there is the possibility of reappropriating the lessons of past struggles, and reactivating the collective memory of the proletariat".[5]

Class consciousness

The "constitution of the proletariat as a class", as the Manifesto of the Communist Party says, is inseparable from the development of class consciousness. Forced to struggle by the blows of the world economic crisis, the proletariat in France has, indeed, begun in this movement to develop its class consciousness. To feel part of a whole that is determined to stick together and unite in a common struggle, but also to recognise the enemy that is organised in defence of its own interests, or, again, to recognise the escalating degradation of living and working conditions, of the lack of a future for the whole of humanity under this system of exploitation (and what better indicator of the bleak future promised by capitalism than this broad attack on the pensions' system?); these characteristics are all vital elements expressing the  development of class consciousness.

One example to show the significance of this is that in the demonstrations at the end of December, a lot of discussions compared the attack on pensions to the fires that were raging across Australia at the time. And the connection? This would have seemed preposterous, even crazy, to almost everyone, just a few months earlier. But there, in the struggle, the demonstrators felt that the "reforms" that are destroying living and working conditions in France and the lack of human and material means to contain the fires in Australia were in fact facets of the same underlying problem. Therein lies the germ of an understanding of what capitalism is: a rotting system of exploitation that is driving the whole of humanity to its doom in the name of profit.

Clearly, it is just a beginning of the process for the working class, this movement is one step on "the road the working class must travel to affirm its own revolutionary perspective [which] won't be straight forward, [which indeed] is going to be long, tortuous, difficult and strewn with pitfalls and traps that its enemy will use against it".

In fact, there is one major obstacle where this movement has demonstrated the working class's total lack of consciousness and that it has not recovered its memory of what it experienced throughout the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s: the trap of the trade unions.

The role of the unions

This movement was led from beginning to the end by the trade unions. They led the class to defeat. Totally aware of the combative state of mind of the working class, they were careful in proposing forms of struggles that allowed them to take the lead of the movement and to very clearly keep the workers under their control. They manoeuvred so they could eventually exhaust the movement and sabotage any real unity, and thus lead it to defeat:

-  to respond to the surge in workers' combativity, the unions organised multiple struggles that were isolated from each other. While officially taking up the call for "everyone struggling together", they organised the "extension"... of defeat! They did not stop calling for struggles on the ground, in the localities, sector by sector, taking care not to mobilise inside the big private companies. The "inter-emergency" para-union collective even refused to join the inter-professional demonstrations planned for December on the pretext of not "submerging their specific demands within the other demands".

- in response to the need felt by the workers to debate, the trade unions organised many general assemblies – the so-called the "inter-professional" - completely controlled and manipulated (including by the leftists) where it was difficult and futile to speak out.[6]

To-prevent the development of the active solidarity of the workers in the struggle, they introduced solidarity funds all around to help the railway workers (and other strikers) "to hang on"... alone. The success of these collections is the mark of the popularity of the movement, that it was supported throughout the working class. But it was the trade unions (especially the CGT) that set up this financial solidarity, who initiated, organised and supervised it, in order to make it a substitute for real active solidarity through the direct extension of the struggle. By means of these solidarity funds, the unions pushed the working class into the "symbolic strike", leaving the railway workers alone to lose nearly two months' wages.

To summarise the trade union tactics that have emerged in recent months: when faced with this explosion of combativity, they have gone along with the working class, espousing the needs of the struggle to be able to undermine it and to make people believe that the government's "social partners" are defending the interests of the working class through its ability to organise the struggle and demonstrations.

The working class has not been able to expose this sabotage, as it has been unable to take its struggles into its own hands, to organise sovereign and autonomous general assemblies itself, as well as the geographical extension of the movement by sending massive delegations, step by step, from factory to factory (the hospitals, for example, are often the largest "factory" in the area). This weakness stems from the loss of class identity, the loss of proletarian memory since the 1990s. The confrontation with the trade unions (and trade unionism in general) cannot arise without the cumulative experience of the manoeuvres and sabotage of the struggle. Trade unions are, along with bourgeois democracy, the last ramparts of the capitalist state. It is only in a long process and a series of massive struggles marked by defeats that the working class will gradually develop its consciousness. Confrontation with the trade unions can only take place at a more advanced stage of the struggle.

For the time being, therefore, the working class still lacks the self-confidence to go beyond the trade union framework. It still has many illusions about democracy and bourgeois legality. The road leading to the perspective of revolutionary confrontations is therefore still very long and strewn with pitfalls. But this in no way detracts from the fact that the recent movement in France is, precisely, a first step on this very long road. On the contrary, the very difficult historical context makes any manifestation of a will to struggle and any expression of solidarity particularly significant and revealing of what is happening deep within the core of our class.


One trap, perhaps even more pernicious, that awaits the future struggles is the dead end of interclassism.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, the international media highlighted the "Yellow Vests" social protest movement in France.[7] This interclassist movement threatened the proletariat's loss of class identity even further, diluting the workers within the "people", thus putting them in the grip of petty-bourgeois ideology, with its nationalism, the Tricolour, the Marseillaise, its illusions about democracy and its calls to be heard by "the authorities", etc. This danger will continue to loom large in the coming years. That said, the movement against pension reform has shown another way forward. The proletariat refused to be mixed up with the "Yellow Vests" who wanted to front the demonstrations with the French flag. On several occasions as they marched, the sounds of the Marseillaise from a handful of "Yellow Vests" were drowned out by sound of the Internationale. In fact, on the contrary, the "Yellow Vests" found themselves diluted inside the demonstrations and behind the proletarian slogans and the proletarian methods of struggle.

Another example of this process indicating the strength of this movement was the lawyers' strike. Also hit hard by the reforms, many lawyers participated on the marches in their black robes. Moreover, hundreds of them hung their gowns on the gates of the ministries and the courts. These strange and dramatic images made the headlines. Obviously, they had joined the movement with their confusions and illusions about the Law, Justice and the Republic. But the important fact is " they joined". Unlike the "Yellow Vests" movement, it was not the petty-bourgeoisie that gave colour and tone to the struggle. On the contrary, the anger of the lawyers is that of certain strata of the petty-bourgeoisie who are increasingly affected by proletarianisation and who joined the proletarian struggle only temporarily. This process shows the general and historical tendency that Marx and Engels described in the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. It heralds the dynamic of the struggles of the future when the proletariat, in the course of its revolutionary activity, will be at the forefront of the confrontation with capitalism by offering a perspective for the whole of society, thus drawing more and more layers of society into its struggle:

- "The small-scale tradespeople, shop-keepers and retired tradesmen, handicraftsmen and peasants, the whole lower echelon of the middle classes, all these sink gradually into the proletariat; partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried out, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by the new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population"  (...)

- "The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shop-keeper, the artisan, the peasant, all fight against the bourgeoisie to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are not therefore revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If, by chance, they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat, they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat".

The road leading to the victory of the revolution is still very long. The movement of 2019-2020, with the return of workers' combativity and the end to the paralysis on the social terrain over the last ten years, is just the start. To go further, the working class has to go back, to look at where it comes from, to reappropriate the lessons of its past struggles: Poland: 1980, Italy: 1968, Germany: 1919-1921, Russia: 1905 and 1917, France:1848 and 1871, and many others. The history of the workers' movement is rich in struggles and forms a long, continuous chain right up until the present.

To reappropriate its own history, buried under the mounds of lies of the bourgeoisie, the working class must cultivate debate and develop committees and circles... and patience, because, as Luxemburg explained, being directly confronted with the bankruptcy of this society it is made increasingly difficult to enter into the struggle. Not only does impoverishment make the cost of a strike difficult to bear, but the global economic crisis reveals directly the magnitude of the stakes. However, “Proletarian revolutions (...) constantly retreat before the sheer immensity of their own goals until they are eventually faced with a situation that makes it impossible to turn back.”[8] Hence the development of struggles is slowed down and it becomes more tortuous

But eventually, the same world economic crisis and the attacks on our living and working conditions that come with it, will inexorably lead to the outbreak of new struggles. It is in this process of development of the economic struggles against the impoverishment and the general degradation of all its living conditions that the working class will be able to develop its consciousness and politicise its struggles in confrontation with the bourgeois state and, ultimately, to affirm itself as a revolutionary class.

Pawel, 13 March 2020

[1] Karl Liebknecht, Against all the odds! (1919)

[2] Rosa Luxemburg, Order reigns in Berlin (1919)

[3] This is an expression of Hegel's taken up by the ideologist Francis Fukuyama.

[4] Extract from our article “Comment étendre la lutte” of February 1989 available on our French language website.

[5] Extract from our article “Report on the class struggle, 2003” available on our website.

[6]When the workers wanted to continue to stay together at the end of the demonstrations, the trade unions organised a series of events to avoid discussions (as happened in Marseille on January 11, 2020) or left the area free for the police to use gas against the demonstrators who resisted, as in Paris.
However, in Nantes, on two occasions, at the end of the demonstration, the march went around the city centre again without the trade unions, chanting "A trade union parade is never a social struggle". Beyond a very minoritarian reflection on the action of the trade unions, these events prove the willingness of the workers to stay together and continue discussing. Though the demonstrations would continue, the unions had organised concerts, the loud music preventing any possibility of debate.

[7] This contrasts with the movement against pensions' "reform", which was completely blacked out outside France.

[8] Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851)