Balance sheet of the public meetings on the “Yellow Vest” movement

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Introduction

From different sides we are told that the protests against police brutality and racism in the US are an excellent opportunity to develop the struggle against the bourgeois state and its repressive apparatus. Such messages come above all from the leftist[1] and anarchist[2] organisations. But they are not the only ones. Even certain organisations of the communist left tend to see the existence of a working class potential in these protests, as we have already demonstrated in the article on our website “The groups of the communist left faced with the Black Lives Matters protests: a failure to identify the terrain of the working class” in relation to the position of Il Partito, The Internationalist (Il Programma) and the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT)[3].

And this tendency is not limited to the protests against police violence in the US. Whether it concerns the protests of the “Yellow Vests” in France, of the youth in Hong Kong or the reactions to police racism in the US, workers are being called on to pass directly from these protests to a real workers’ resistance. But these appeals do not recognise that the whole basis of these kinds of movements is in complete contradiction with the nature of the workers’ struggle and thus cannot be transformed into a genuine fight of the working class. None of these movements can ever function as a kind of “springboard” for the proletarian struggle.

Although the anti-racist protests are completely on a bourgeois terrain, similar positions have also been put forward in the discussions with regard to the “Yellow Vests” in France in 2019, which was not a bourgeois but a typical interclassist movement. The questions that arose in the public meetings of the ICC’s section in France, on the “Yellow Vest” movement, in the spring of 2019, are no less relevant to the BLM protests: the definition of the terrain of the working class and the necessity for its class autonomy. In these meetings the ICC clearly argued that not “everything that moves” in the street is necessarily “revolutionary” and that it is a dangerous illusion to think that these protests “could give rise to a clearly proletarian class dynamic”.

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The ICC has just held six public meetings in France on the theme “Why proletarians must defend their class autonomy”. This intervention, in the context of the "Yellow Vests" movement, which has been going on for many weeks in France, was made necessary in order to answer many questions concerning this struggle, questions posed by the proletariat in general and by many elements in the process of politicization. We have, in fact, been able to hear in the media as well as in the political milieu, that this movement is an unprecedented demonstration of the class struggle, something comparable to the general strike of May 68. We reject this analysis and refer our readers to our articles published since the beginning of this movement.

In these public meetings, it was important to be able to respond directly to our sympathisers and to new elements who are interested in understanding this movement, and it was especially important to recall why the working class cannot allow itself to be drowned in an interclassist movement with the risk of being swallowed up by reactionary and anti-proletarian ideologies such as patriotic nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant racism. The working class is a class of immigrants and its watchword is: “The proletarians have no fatherland. Working men of all countries unite!”

It was therefore necessary to recall and debate why interclassism represents a danger and to better understand the need for autonomy of the working class to carry out its struggle. These questions are not simple and our positions are not "idealistic rants" as one participant reproached us for example at the public meeting in Lyon.

Are these notions of classes, interclassism, class autonomy, etc, secondary today, to be relativized and “adapted” to the immediate context in which the proletariat finds itself? Have they become downright obsolete? Can the proletarian struggle find new ways or shortcuts to renew its revolutionary perspective? Is any social convulsion beneficial to the working class struggle? Nothing could be further from the truth!

Interclassism is a major obstacle for the struggle of the proletariat, for its consciousness and the defence of its own interests as a revolutionary class, as the only social force capable of putting an end to capitalist chaos.

A very lively debate

Among those present at these public meetings, some were meeting the ICC for the first time, others represented the proletarian political milieu (militants of the Bordigist current were present at the public meeting in Marseille).

The discussions that took place in several large cities in France (Paris, Lille, Toulouse, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes) all confirmed the need to clarify and understand the current social situation and the perspectives of the proletarian struggle.

Unlike other public meetings in the past, where groups from the political milieu put forward their differences with the ICC as a priority, we found ourselves together with these comrades in defending a proletarian voice and a Marxist position in the face of interclassism (without erasing our differences). We want to salute this responsible attitude, this effort to defend the legacy of marxism and the communist left at a time when others are throwing this legacy in the dustbin and at the same time undermining the whole effort of clarification in the face of conservative and reactionary ideologies.

The still very limited presence of politicised elements at these public meetings also has a significance that we must recognise, regardless of the fact that there were demonstrations of “Yellow Vests” taking place at the same time. This reality remains linked above all to the great difficulties that the working class is currently experiencing (especially its loss of class identity), faced with the intense bourgeois propaganda generating mistrust of revolutionary ideas. All this strongly hinders reflection and leads even the most combative proletarians to underestimate all the dangers that interclassism represents for the workers' struggle today.

All the elements present at these public meetings expressed a need for political clarification and resistance to all the talk about the alleged “breath of fresh air” that the “Yellow Vests” movement supposedly brings to the working class and its consciousness. This so-called “hope”, consciously maintained by the dominant ideology, is once again a very dangerous illusion. We therefore wanted to pay tribute to the richness of the debates, this effort of political reflection and clarification, going against the ambient political climate which wants to make people believe that “everything that moves” in the street is necessarily “revolutionary”.

Nevertheless, the debates in these public meetings also expressed all the difficulties in understanding in depth the crucial issues posed by the “Yellow Vest” movement:

  • What is an interclassist movement?
  • What do the middle classes, the petit bourgeoisie represent?
  • What is the class autonomy of the proletariat?
  • What is the working class as the only revolutionary class in society?
  • What does the loss of class identity mean for the proletariat? What are its weaknesses today and how can it regain this class identity?
  • What is the weight of the decomposition of capitalism on society, on the proletariat and on the “Yellow Vests” movement?
  • What is the responsibility of revolutionary organisations in passing on the lessons of the class struggles of the past and in defending the revolutionary perspective for the struggles to come?

We can't go through all these questions here. We will endeavour to give account of the debate on the first two.

Interclassism, an epiphenomenon that has to be relativised?

Although almost all participants expressed agreement with the interclassist dimension of the movement, the in-depth understanding of what interclassism represents and means still remained rather superficial.

In Lille, for example, sympathisers expressed the idea “that positive things came out of the movement that could contribute to the development of consciousness in the class”. One of them said that “the movement has made it clear that we are all the same”.

Actually, that's not true. In this movement we find small entrepreneurs, craftsmen, liberal professions and farmers, as well as impoverished workers who have lost their way out of despair in this general movement of anger against the attacks of the Macron government. The reality is that everyone’s interests are not the same. In the middle classes, with the petty bourgeoisie in the lead, competition reigns supreme and each small boss is anxious to preserve his own interests. The working class, possessing nothing but its labour power, has no individual interest to defend, separated from others and from the general interest of the class.

A working class movement or a protest by a sum of individual citizens?

Another difficulty that was expressed in the debates: was the working class as such present in the “Yellow Vest” movement? At the public meeting in Lille, an important moment of the discussion was devoted to clarifying the nature of the movement, the difference between the presence of workers in the “Yellow Vests” revolt and a real proletarian movement. This question is fundamental. This is an aspect on which the participants in our meetings often have focused, without seeing the danger of putting the two things on the same level.

Despite their proletarian demands against the decline of their purchasing power, the workers present in these protests did not mobilise on their class terrain, that of the proletariat, but as individuals and French citizens. In the discussions, in the street, the word “people” was in everyone's mouth: “people who are being flouted”, “people who are being ignored”, “working people”, and it is, indeed, the anger of the “French people” (and not of the exploited class) that is being expressed in this movement. Hence La Marseillaise was regularly sung in demonstrations, and the tricolour national flag waving on roundabouts became the banner of this interclassist movement. All these expressions of nationalism have NEVER been questioned.

This nationalist concept of “the French people” can only lead to the dilution of the proletariat in all other social strata and classes. Calling for a citizens’ referendum (the famous Citizens’ Initiative Referendum), a tax cut, the demand for a “fairer” State, etc. - all this can only lead, in certain historical circumstances, to national union, to the sacred union of the exploited with their own exploiters.

The class nature of a social movement is not determined by its SOCIOLOGICAL composition, but by its POLITICAL orientation and methods of struggle.

We must say loud and clear that the notion of “the French people” does not belong to the vocabulary of marxism and the workers’ movement, and this has been the case since the days of June 1848. The tricolour flag of the 1789 Revolution was later that of the troops of Versailles, the butchers of the Paris Commune, while the Communards had replaced this flag with the Red Flag, which had become the symbol of the workers’ movement and internationalism. The reference of the “Yellow Vests” is to the French Revolution of 1789 where the popular revolt of the “sans-culottes” against famine allowed the bourgeoisie, asphyxiated by tax levies, to take political power and get rid of the nobility who had the privilege of not paying taxes.

On this point, some sympathizers of the ICC have relativised this aspect and considered that “the references to 1789, the songs of the Marseillaise are not conscious, but result from a lack of knowledge of what it means”, which is true. But is it a secondary question, a mere detail of no importance? Contrary to the revolution of 1789, during the insurrectional days of June 1848, the proletariat was obliged to detach itself from the other social strata in order to assert itself as an independent class, and as the only revolutionary force in society. The Communist Manifesto then became the revolutionary programme of the class that was the bearer of communism, even though in 1848, as Marx later recognised, the conditions for the communist revolution were not yet ripe. Many participants in these public meetings seemed to be unaware of this fundamental episode in the history of the workers' movement, which provided a historical and theoretical framework for the debates.

Is the autonomy of the proletariat a luxury?

The class autonomy of the proletariat means its independence from the other classes of society, its ability to give a political orientation to all the other non-exploiting strata. This class independence of the proletariat constitutes an INDISPENSIBLE CONDITION for its revolutionary action aiming, in the long run, at the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a classless society and thus without exploitation of man by man. The objectives of the struggle of the proletariat have nothing to do with the objectives of the nationalist and “citizen” movement of the “Yellow Vests”: to improve bourgeois democracy, reform the capitalist system for a better distribution of the French nation’s wealth, and greater “fiscal justice”. This is the reason for the reference of the “Yellow Vests” to the Revolution of 1789, and their nostalgia for this revolution of the “French people” with its list of grievances, drawn up at the time by the priests of the Catholic parishes, is totally reactionary.

All these doubts and questionings about the necessary autonomy of the working class in relation to other social strata without any historic future (especially the petty bourgeoisie) correspond, in reality, to a difficulty in understanding what the working class as a revolutionary class is. These difficulties are not new and have been the basis of discussions for many years with a whole milieu of elements who are being politicized and raising questions about the revolutionary perspective and about who or what class can change the world. These difficulties are further reinforced by the fact that the working class has suffered a setback in the consciousness of its own identity, momentarily forgetting its past experience of glorious struggles against capitalism.

Despite the agreement of our sympathisers concerning the danger of interclassism, most of them expressed the idea that this movement could represent a spark, a kind of springboard for future proletarian movements. Some comrades considered it “normal that today’s proletarians are not conscious, as consciousness develops in the struggle, and it is therefore up to the revolutionaries to show them that the movement does not respond to the needs of the class and that something else must be done”. This analysis reveals deep illusions about the potentialities of the “Yellow Vest” movement and the possibility that it could give rise to a clearly proletarian class dynamic. Such an illusion obscures the dangers contained in this interclassist movement, notably the contamination of the proletariat by ideologies and methods of struggle that are totally foreign to it. The idea that this movement would be a kind of supreme guide for the working class, or a “springboard” for its struggles, also reveals a lack of confidence in the potentialities of the proletariat as a historically revolutionary class.

Only the marxist method makes it possible to identify the social forces in movement, their profound nature, beyond mere sociological appearances. As for the role of revolutionaries in this movement itself, it is extremely limited. Revolutionaries have to swim against this interclassist and nationalist tidal wave. For the vast majority of “Yellow Vests”, revolutionaries appear at best as beings from another planet, at worst as saboteurs of their movement (or “indifferentists”).

In Marseilles, due to the presence at our public meeting of comrades of the Bordigist current (who publish Le Fil Rouge), the debate allowed us to deepen the question of the danger of interclassism, recalling that in 1789, the French revolution against the monarchy was a popular interclassist movement that allowed the bourgeoisie to take power. A comrade of Le Fil Rouge brought many very profound arguments to support our analysis of the nature of the “Yellow Vests” movement. This comrade recalled, among other things, that one of the demands of the small traders in yellow vests, was the boycott of supermarkets and the call to do shopping in small local shops. If workers prefer to go to the supermarket, it is simply because the basic necessities of life are much cheaper there than in small neighbourhood shops. It is therefore obvious that the interests of poor workers in yellow vests are not the same as those of small shopkeepers, asphyxiated by the competitiveness of supermarkets!

The interests of the proletariat can only be diluted in the midst of the demands of the petty bourgeoisie and the small bosses. We must remember that the class struggle is not a “popular” struggle between the “rich” and the “poor”, but a class struggle between an exploiting class and an exploited class.

Due to lack of time the debates could not really develop on the question of violence. Again, it will be important to come back to this and understand why the bourgeoisie has used such a degree of repression (in the face of a movement that cannot put its class domination in danger) and why the confrontations of the “Yellow Vests” with the forces of law and order, although quite spectacular, cannot represent an end in itself, a means to strengthen the struggle itself and to “make the government bend”, let alone to push Macron to resign!

In conclusion, many fundamental questions remain to be discussed. In order to approach them, to clarify them, and to understand the stakes of the current social situation, the political framework of marxism, based on the history of the workers’ movement, remains absolutely fundamental.

Stopio, 29.3.20

 

[1] See for instance the statement of the Fourth International of 9 June 2020: “Our Solidarity with the Worldwide Anti-Racist Revolt”. http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article53632

[2] See: “Common message of anarchist federations: Internationalist solidarity with the revolted peoples in USA”. http://apo.squathost.com/common-message-of-anarchist-federations-interna...

[3] “The groups of the communist left faced with the Black Lives Matters protests: a failure to identify the terrain of the working class”. https://en.internationalism.org/content/16883/groups-communist-left-face...

 

Rubric: 

Interclassist Movements