Before the tidal wave of the Covid-19 crisis swept across the planet, the struggles of the working class in France, Finland, the US and elsewhere were indications of a new mood in the proletariat, of an unwillingness to bow down before the demands imposed by a mounting economic crisis. In France in particular, we could discern signs of a recovery of class identity that has been eroded by decades of capitalist decomposition, by the rise of a populist current which falsifies the real divisions in society and which, in France, has taken to the streets wearing a Yellow Vest.
In this sense, the Covid-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the struggle of the proletariat: just as it begins to pour onto the streets, to come together in demonstrations to resist economic attacks whose origins in the capitalist crisis are hard to conceal, the majority of the working class has had little choice but to retreat back to the individual household, to avoid any large gatherings, to “self-isolate” under the watching eye of a fully-empowered state apparatus which has been able to issue loud calls for “national unity” in the face of an invisible enemy which – we are told - does not discriminate between rich and poor, boss and worker.
The difficulties facing the working class are real and profound, and we will examine them further in this article. But what is in some ways remarkable is the fact that, despite the omnipresent fear of contagion, despite the apparent omnipotence of the capitalist state, the signs of class combativity that we saw in the winter have not simply evaporated but, in an initial phase and faced with the shocking negligence and unpreparedness of the bourgeoisie, we have seen very widespread defensive movements of the working class. Workers across the world have refused to go like “lambs to the slaughter” but have waged a determined struggle in defence of their health, their very lives, demanding adequate safety measures or the closing down of enterprises which are not engaged in essential production (such as car plants).
The main characteristics of these struggles are as follows.
They have taken place on a global scale, given the global nature of the pandemic, but one of their most important elements is that they have been more evident in the capitalist heartlands, particularly in the countries which have been hit hardest by the disease : in Italy, for example, the Internationalist Communist Tendency mentions spontaneous strikes in Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Puglia. It was the Italian factory workers in particular who first raised the slogan “we are not lambs to the slaughter”. In Spain, strikes at Mercedes, FIAT, Balay domestic appliances; workers at Telepizza, on strike against victimisation of workers who did not want to risk their lives delivering pizzas, and further protests by delivery workers in Madrid. Perhaps most important of all – not least because it challenges the image of an American working class that has rallied uncritically behind the demagogy of Donald Trump - there have been widespread struggles in the USA: strikes at FIAT in Indiana, Warren Trucks, by bus drivers in Detroit and Birmingham Alabama, in ports, restaurants, in food distribution, sanitation, construction; strikes at Amazon (which has been hit by strikes in quite a few other countries as well), Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, etc. We have also seen a large number of rent strikes in the US. This is a form of struggle which, while not automatically involving proletarians, is also by no means alien to the traditions of the class (we could cite, for example, the Glasgow rent strikes that were an integral part of the workers’ struggles during World War One, or the Merseyside rent strike in 1972 which accompanied the first international wave of struggles after 1968). And in the US in particular there is a real threat of eviction hanging over many of the “locked down” sectors of the working class.
In France and Britain, such movements have been less widespread, but we have seen unofficial walk-outs by postal workers and by builders, warehouse workers and bin collectors in Britain and, in France, strikes at the Saint Nazaire shipyards. Amazon in Lille and Montelimar, at ID logistics... In Latin America, examples include Chile (Coca Cola), port workers in Argentina and Brazil, packers in Venezuela. In Mexico, “Strikes have spread across the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, which borders El Paso, Texas, involving hundreds of maquiladora workers demanding the closure of non-essential factories, which have been kept open despite the growing death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, including 13 employees at the US-owned Lear car seat plant. The strikes… follow similar actions by workers at the border cities of Matamoros, Mexicali, Reynosa and Tijuana” . In Turkey, protest strikes at the Sarar textile factory (against the advice of the unions), Galataport shipyard, and by post and telegraph workers. In Australia, strikes by port and distribution workers. The list could easily be extended.
A number of the strikes have been spontaneous, such as in Italy, in the US car plants and Amazon centres, and the unions have been widely criticised and sometimes frontally opposed for their open collaboration with management. According to an article on libcom, which provides a broad panorama on recent struggles in the US: “Workers at Fiat Chrysler’s Sterling Heights (SHAP) and Jefferson North (JNAP) assembly plants in Metro Detroit took matters into their own hands last night and this morning and forced a shutdown of production to halt the spread of coronavirus.
The work stoppages began at Sterling Heights last night, only hours after the United Auto Workers and the Detroit automakers reached a rotten deal to keep plants open and operating during the global pandemic…The same day, scores of workers at the Lear Seating plant in Hammond, Indiana refused to work, forcing the shutdown of the parts factory and the nearby Chicago Assembly Plant”. The article also contains an interview with an autoworker:
“The UAW should be actually fighting for us to get off of work. The union and the company care more about making trucks than about everybody’s health. I feel like they aren’t going to do anything unless we take action. We have got to band together. They can’t fire us all”.
These movements are on a basic class terrain: around working conditions (demand for adequate safety equipment) but also sick pay, unpaid wages, against sanctions against workers who refused to work in unsafe conditions, etc. They show a refusal of sacrifice which is in continuity with the capacity of the class to resist the drive towards war, an underlying factor in the world situation since the revival of class struggles in 1968.
Health workers, although they have shown an extraordinary sense of responsibility which is an element of proletarian solidarity, have also voiced their discontent with their conditions, their anger with the hypocritical appeals and praise by governments, even if this has mainly taken the form of individual protests and statements; but there have been collective actions, including strikes, in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea, and demonstrations by nurses in New York.
The pandemic crisis as a blow to the class struggle
But this proletarian sense of responsibility, which also prompts millions to follow the rules of self-isolation, shows that the majority of the working class accepts the reality of this disease, even in country like the US which is the “heartland” of various forms of denialism about the pandemic. Thus the struggles that we have seen have necessarily been limited either to “essential” workers who are fighting for safer working conditions – and these categories are bound to remain a minority of the class, however vital their role - or by workers who very early on have questioned whether their work was really necessary, such as the autoworkers in Italy and the US; and thus their central demand was to be sent home (on company or state pay rather than being made redundant, as many have). But this demand, however necessary, could only involve a kind of tactical retreat in the struggle, rather than its intensification or extension. There have been attempts – eg among the Amazon workers in the US – to hold struggle meetings online, to picket while observing safe distances, and so on, but there is no avoiding the fact that conditions of isolation and shut down pose a huge barrier to any immediate development of the struggle.
And in conditions of isolation it is harder to resist the gigantic barrage of propaganda and ideological obfuscation.
Hymns to national unity are being sung by the media every day, based on the idea that the virus is an enemy which does not discriminate: in the UK the fact that Boris Johnson and Prince Charles were infected by the virus is presented as the proof of this. The reference to war, the spirit of the “blitz” during World War 2 (itself the product of a major propaganda exercise aimed at hiding any social discontent) is incessant in the UK, notably with the plaudits given to a 100 year old air force veteran who raised millions for the NHS by completing 100 lengths of his large garden. In France, Macron has also presented himself as a war leader; in the US, Trump has been at pains to define Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”, diverting attention from his administration’s woeful handling of the crisis and playing on the habitual theme of “America First”. Everywhere – including in the Schengen area of the European Union - the closing of borders has been highlighted as the best means to contain the contagion. Governments of national unity have been formed where apparently insoluble division once reigned (as in Belgium), or opposition parties become more than ever “loyal” to the national “war effort”.
The appeal to nationalism goes hand in with the portrayal of the state as the only force that can protect the citizens, whether through the vigorous enforcement of the lock down or in its kinder, gentler guise as the provider of aid to those in need, whether the trillions being handed out to maintain laid off workers as well as the self-employed whose businesses have had to close, or the health services administered by the state. In Britain, the “National Health Service” has long been a sacred icon of almost the whole bourgeoisie, but above all of the left which sees it as its special achievement, since it was introduced by the post-war Labour government which presents it as somehow outside the capitalist commodification of existence, despite the evil encroachments of private entrepreneurs. This vaunting of the NHS and similar institutions are supported by the weekly rituals of applause and the incessant praising of the health workers as heroes, above all by the same politicians who have been instrumental in running the health services into the ground in the last decade and more.
According to the left wing Labour politician Michael Foot, Britain was never closer to socialism than during the Second World War, and today, when the state has to set aside concerns about immediate profitability to keep society together, the old illusion that “we are all socialists today” (which was an idea commonly expressed by the ruling class during the revolutionary wave after 1917) has been given a new lease of life by massive spending sprees being imposed on governments by the Covid-19 crisis. The influential leftist philosopher Slavo Zizek, in an interview on Youtube titled “Communism or barbarism”, seems to imply that the bourgeoisie itself is now being obliged to treat money as a mere accounting mechanism, a form of labour time voucher, totally detached from actual value. In sum, the barbarians are becoming communists. In reality, the increasing separation of money from value is the sign of the complete exhaustion of the capitalist social relation and thus the necessity for communism, but the flouting of the laws of the market by the bourgeois state is anything but a step towards a higher mode of production: it is the last rampart of this decaying order. And it is the function of capitalism’s left wing above all to conceal this from the working class, to divert it from its own path, which demands breaking out of the grip of the state and preparing its revolutionary destruction.
But in the age of populism the left does not have a monopoly on fake criticisms of the system. The undoubted reality that the state will everywhere use this crisis to ramp up its surveillance and control of the population – and thus the reality of a ruling class which ceaselessly “conspires” to maintain its class rule – is giving rise to a new crop of “conspiracy theories”, according to which the real danger of Covid-19 is dismissed or denied outright: it is a “Scamdemic” backed by a sinister cabal of globalists to impose their agenda of “One World Government”. And these theories, which are particularly influential in the US, are not limited to cyber space. The Trump faction in the US has been stirring the pot, claiming that there is evidence that Covid-19 escaped from a Wuhan laboratory – even if the US intelligence services have already ruled this out. China has responded with similar accusations against the US. There have also been large protests in the US demanding a return to work and an ending of the lock-down, egged on by Trump and often inspired by the ambient conspiracy theories (as well as by religious fantasies: the disease is real, but we can beat it with the power of prayer). There have also been some racist attacks on people from the far east, identified as being responsible for the virus. There is no doubt that such ideologies affect parts of the working class, particularly those who are not getting any kind of financial support from employers or the state, but the back-to-work demonstrations in the US seem to have been led mainly by petty bourgeois elements anxious to get their businesses running again. As we have seen, many workers have fought to go in the opposite direction!
This vast ideological offensive reinforces the objective atomisation, imposed by the lock-down, the fear that anyone outside your household could be a source of illness and death. And the fact that the lock-down will probably last for some time, that there will be no return to normal and that there may be further periods of confinement if the disease goes through a second wave, will tend to exacerbate the difficulties facing the working class. And we cannot afford to forget that these difficulties did not begin with the lock-down, but have a long history behind them, above all since the onset of the period of decomposition after 1989, which has seen a profound retreat both in combativity and consciousness, a growing loss of class identity, an exacerbation of the tendency towards “each for themselves” at every level. Thus the pandemic, as a clear product of the process of decomposition, marks a new stage in the process, an intensification of all its most characteristic elements.
The necessity for political reflection and debate
Nevertheless, the Covid-19 crisis has also focused attention on the political dimension to an unprecedented degree: daily conversation as well as the incessant chatter of the media is almost entirely centred on the pandemic and the lock-down, the response of the governments, the plight of the health and other “essential” workers and the problems of day to day survival for a large part of the population as a whole. No doubt the market of ideas has to a large extent been cornered by the various forms of the dominant ideology, but there are still corners where a significant minority can pose fundamental questions about the nature of this society. The question of what is “essential” in social life, of who does the most vital work and yet is paid so miserably for it, the negligence of governments, the absurdity of national divisions in the face of a global pandemic, of what kind of world will we live in post-Covid: these are issues that cannot be completely hidden or diverted. And people are not entirely atomised: the locked in are using social media, internet forums, video or audio conferencing not only to continue wage labour or keep in touch with family and friends, but also to discuss the situation and ask questions about its real significance. Physically (if at the required social distance…) meeting residents from the apartment block or neighbourhood can also become an arena for discussion, even if we shouldn’t confuse the weekly ritual of applause with real solidarity or local mutual aid groups with struggling against the system.
In France, a slogan that became popular was “capitalism is the virus, revolution is the vaccine”. In other words, minorities of the class are taking discussion and reflection to their logical conclusion. The “vanguard” of this process is made up of those elements, some of them very young, who have clearly understood that capitalism is totally bankrupt and that the only alternative for humanity is the world proletarian revolution – in other words, by those who are moving towards communist positions, and thus the tradition of the communist left. The appearance of this generation of people “in research” for communism poses the existing groups of the communist left with an immense responsibility in the process of constructing a communist organisation which will be able to play a role in the future struggles of the proletariat.
The defensive struggles we have seen in the early stage of the pandemic, the process of reflection which has been going on during the lock-down, are indications of the intact potential of the class struggle, which may also be “locked down” for a considerable period but which in the longer term could mature to the point where it can express itself openly. The inability to re-integrate large numbers of those laid off at the height of the crisis, the necessity for the bourgeoisie to claw back the “gifts” it has been handing out in the interests of social stability, the new round of austerity which the ruling class will be obliged to impose: this will certainly be the reality of the next stage of the Covid-19 story, which is simultaneously a story of capitalism’s historic economic crisis and its advancing decomposition. A story too of sharpening imperialist tensions, as various powers seek to use the Covid-19 crisis to further disrupt the global pecking order: in particular, there may be a new offensive by Chinese capitalism aimed at challenging the USA as the world’s leading power. In any case, Trump’s attempts to blame the pandemic on China already heralds an increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of the US. Workers will be asked to make sacrifices to “reconstruct” the post-Covid world, and to defend the national economy against the threat from the outside.
Again we must caution against any immediatism here. A probable danger – given the current weakness in class identity and the growing misery affecting all layers of the world population - will be that the response to further attacks on living standards could take the form of inter-class, “popular” revolts in which workers don’t appear as a distinct class with their own methods and demands. We saw a wave of such revolts prior to the lock-down and, even during the lock-down, they have already reappeared in the Lebanon and elsewhere, highlighting the fact that this kind of reaction is a particular problem in the more “peripheral” regions of the capitalist system. A recent UN report warned that parts of the world, especially in Africa and in war-ravaged countries like Yemen and Afghanistan, will experience famines of “biblical proportions” as a result of the pandemic crisis, and this will also tend to increase the danger of desperate reactions which offer no perspective.
We also know that massive unemployment can, in an initial period, tend to paralyse the working class: the bourgeoisie can use it to discipline those at work and to create divisions between employed and unemployed, and it is in any case intrinsically harder to fight the closure of enterprises than it is to resist attacks on wages and conditions. And we know that, in periods of open economic crisis, the bourgeoisie will always look for alibis which get the capitalist system off the hook: in the early 70s, it was the “oil crisis”; in 2008 “the greedy bankers”. Today, if you’ve lost the job, it will be blamed on the virus. But these excuses are needed precisely because the economic crisis, and in particular mass unemployment, is an indictment of the capitalist mode of production, whose laws, in the end, prevent it from feeding its slaves.
More than ever, revolutionaries must be patient. As the Communist Manifesto puts it, communists are distinguished by their ability to understand “the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”. The mass struggles of our class, their generalisation and politicisation, is a process that develops over a long period and goes through many advances and retreats. But we are not merely engaging in wish-fulfilment when we insist, as we do at the end of our international leaflet on the pandemic, that the “future belongs to the class struggle”.
 See for reactions by health workers in Belgium and France.: https://fr.internationalism.org/content/10107/covid-19-des-reactions-face-a-lincurie-bourgeoisie . The statement by the Belgian worker can be found in English on our internet forum, post 59: https://en.internationalism.org/forum/16820/corona-virus-more-evidence-capitalism-has-become-danger-humanity
 This refrain has been to some extent undermined by growing evidence that the poorest elements in society, including ethnic minorities, are being much harder hit by the virus.
 We have examined some of these difficulties in the class in various texts, most recently https://en.internationalism.org/content/16707/report-class-struggle-formation-loss-and-re-conquest-proletarian-class-identity