Late last year the ICC held two ‘virtual’ discussion meetings with invited contacts and sympathisers in Europe and America on the theme of ‘The Pandemic and the Working Class’, examining issues in their historic and current aspects.
Anyone who has used the internet for meetings – work or social gatherings – will be aware of the pitfalls and shortcomings of such a method. Yet both these ‘virtual gatherings’ organized by the ICC (audio only, the cameras are off!) enabled participants to state their views, questions, concerns and criticisms in an organized manner, without everyone trying to talk at once, while a notepad shared by all kept track of the major points raised and could be referred to afterwards. Comrades didn’t merely talk at or over each other but tried to respond and develop ideas and positions as the discussions progressed. There was a collective will to make it work: to clarify proletarian politics. In this sense, both meetings could be counted as conscious attempts to overcome the isolation of revolutionaries not just from their class (which is an historic phenomenon and a real problem) but from each other in this time of plague, lockdowns and separation, even at the workplace.
The two meetings, separated by a week, revealed different concerns. While both were preceded by the same short ICC presentation, the first - with around 15 participants mainly from Europe - tended to focus not only on the pandemic or the conditions which gave rise to it but on the more general characterization of epochs in the development of capitalism: ascendance, decadence and decomposition. In particular this first meeting raised disagreements, issues around the existence or otherwise of the period of decomposition and the events that preceded it.
By contrast, the second meeting was attended mainly by younger and more recent contacts in the US and tended to focus on the immediate situation facing the working class: the post-pandemic evolution of the economic crisis and state capitalism; the pauperisation of the workers, the ruination of the petty-bourgeoisie and the danger of widening divisions based on race rather than class
What General Period?
One sympathiser familiar for many years with the politics defended by the ICC, posed it this way: “You (the ICC) describe present day capitalism as having a temporal history of ascendance and decadence. An historical approach is necessary. But capitalism was and remains a way of organising society based on exploitation and the destruction of existing communities and the environment… Post WW2 there was a 'great acceleration', (the ‘post-war boom’) while the destruction of the biosphere has accelerated. So this doesn't match any description of 'decomposition', or the idea of capitalism reaching the end of its ability to overcome its own contradictions. The system doesn't seem ‘weak’ to me.”
The ICC replied: it’s very true that capitalism arises “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx said. However, there are three additional elements to this violent expropriation of the producers:
- The first is that capital, by developing the productive forces (including the proletariat) on a global level, was at one stage creating the potential for a society of abundance, rather than scarcity: the material basis for communism - “what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”, as the Communist Manifesto puts it.
- The second point was that this ‘progressive’ function ended around the turn of the 20th century and the First World War – more destructive and widespread than the wars of the previous century and involving all levels of society, not merely the military - signalled that violence had taken on a qualitatively more institutionalised, and permanent aspect, all social life, above all through the medium of the state and its war economy. This is a reflection of the growing contradictions at the heart of the capitalist economy, proof that it had reached its decadent epoch.
Engels had pointed towards this period which would pose not the reform of capitalism but the perspective of its necessary overthrow - ‘socialism or barbarism’ - while for Rosa Luxemburg the war demonstrated the nature of capitalist barbarism with worse to follow if the Russian Revolution failed to encompass the entire globe. Following her, the Communist International declared this new period to be that of the epoch of ‘wars and revolutions’.
- The third point: this period of decadence has its own history. Following two world wars and a major economic depression, the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, followed by the unravelling of the western bloc, both signified and were products of a pre-existing decomposition of society, capitalism’s final phase, a situation engendered by the inability of either major class to impose their opposing perspectives - world war or world revolution.
Thus today, capitalism continues to grow, but it is a profoundly diseased growth because the system is at the same time rotting on its feet. The acceleration of destruction on many levels – environmental, economic, social - is indeed real, but so too is the ruling class’s growing instability and inability to control and direct the political and economic forces it has set in motion, to the detriment of civil society. The ICC has long insisted that the longer capitalism rots, the more the conditions for revolution are undermined. Though the perspective of class revolts and revolution are not off the agenda, time is not on the side of the proletariat in an historical sense.
For the ICC, the Covd-19 Pandemic is not some ‘natural’ event but one shaped by and born into social – i.e. man-made - conditions. It is both product and proof of the period of decomposition, at the level of heightened ecological destruction leading to increased instances of zoonotic and other diseases, some of them previously banished, combined with the dynamic of every man for himself which had seen the dismantling or downgrading of international structures (World Health Organisation, WTO); ‘wars’ over the acquisition of vaccines and PPE and, crucially, the run-down of research into and the medical facilities to deal with epidemics. One sympathiser insisted that “the ruling class is not some bystander in this process but is complicit in this situation of confusion and carnage, obeying the diktats of capital and the hunt for profit, despite all the technological and medical advances which could ameliorate the situation”.
Disagreements on the notion of decomposition and the evolution of the class struggle
The understanding and reality of decomposition was questioned at different levels.
While 1989 was a significant event relating to inter-imperialist antagonisms (the crumbling of global alliances existing since World War II), for one comrade, the notion of a ‘stalemate’ between the classes lasting for decades was questionable. In fact, the bourgeoisie had launched a “counter-offensive” against the workers in the 1980s which had succeeded in “defeating” the proletarian resurgence following the struggles of 1968 and the early 1970s. In particular, according to this comrade, the defeat of the miners’ strike in GB (1984-85) signalled the success of this bourgeois plan and enabled the ruling class to re-order production (globalisation) on an international scale. It would be wrong to make a schema out of the theory of decomposition or a fetish about the effect on the working class of the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989. If there had been a stalemate for 30 years, “the ruling class was winning it”.
Another view called for a complete re-assessment of the history of capitalism and the class struggle since the end of the 1950s and asserted it was incorrect to place too much emphasis on the bourgeoisie’s growing loss of control.
Several responses from the ICC and other comrades took up these issues:
- The modern proletariat, the first revolutionary class which is also an exploited class, has no ‘alternative’ economy of its own to build up within capitalism. Consequently, the existing social order always reigns, and the bourgeoisie is permanently ‘on the offensive’ outside pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations. In this sense, it is always ‘winning it’. The notion of a ‘workers’ offensive’ outside a revolutionary period is wrong.
- Also flowing from the unique nature of the working class is its progression to a revolutionary perspective through a series of defeats. The question then remains: what kind of defeats were comrades in disagreement talking about regarding the GB miners’ strike? A defeat like that of the 1930s when the workers were massacred after the failure of the revolutionary movements emanating from Russia and then dragged behind different bourgeois factions to be slaughtered in World War Two – the counter-revolution, in fact?
- The ruling class didn’t wait until the 1980s – Thatcher and Regan, etc – to confront the proletarian struggles after 1968 but had already in the early 1970s put forward its left teams in government to head off the workers then, later, put the left in opposition to soak up and divert their resistance to the attacks of the right.
- The struggles of the workers in Poland, 1980-81 – the highest point reached in terms of combativity and self-organisation since the re-emergence of struggles in the late 60s – ended in repression and defeat. But this didn’t prevent the emergence, less than 2 years later, of a third and vigorous wave of workers’ combats centred in Europe. To look at the eventual inability of this third wave to reach the heights seen in Poland only through the defeat of the UK miner’s strike is to examine international developments through the lens of one country, an incorrect method.
- Furthermore, such an approach ignores the reality of important class movements which very quickly followed the defeat of the UK miners – in Spain, Belgium, France, Italy and Scandinavia amongst others – in which workers clashed with the suffocating embrace of the trade unions by organising and extending their struggles, learning important lessons in the process.
- Most importantly, the idea that the defeat of the miners’ strike in the UK was a decisive turning point in the 80scompletely under-estimates the very real and long-lasting, global dampening of the class struggle precipitated by the collapse of the Eastern bloc (30 years and more, a prolonged period not anticipated by the ICC). The campaigns around ‘the end of communism’, the ‘victory of capitalism’, hit the proletariat precisely at the nexus of its greatest difficulties – that of its revolutionary perspective and the development of its political class consciousness. Indeed, it is at this level – the difficulty of the class in assimilating the political dimension of its struggle – which was already at the core of the problems encountered by the working class in the years prior to 1989, but which were taken onto a qualitatively new level by the historic earthquake of 1989.
The ICC has written extensively on this question (1) and the debate on this particular issue continues on the thread “Internal debate in the ICC on the international situation” in the ICC’s online Discussion Forum. (2)
In addition, at the first meeting, the ICC defended the notion (already put forward in the Theses on Decomposition from the early 1990s) that decomposition was more and more the driving force in society (viz the Covid-19 Pandemic, an event unprecedented since 1989 or even 1929). This was not ignoring the class struggle as the motor force of history or the fundamental contradiction between capital and labour as some comrades at the meeting had suggested, but was precisely the product of the social stalemate which, if not overturned by revolution, will culminate in their mutual ruin.
There was no discussion of the question of the subterranean maturation of class consciousness. The absence of a world war since 1945, the meaning and definition of barbarism as understood by the marxist movement (though reference to Syria and Libya were given as present-day illustrations) and the degree to which the proletariat had been infested by populism were among other items raised but not fully explored.
Perspectives for the economic crisis and class struggle
The following elements were raised mainly in the second discussion
The ICC said that the undefeated nature of the working class could be illustrated by the unprecedented ‘financial rescue packages’ launched by the bourgeoisie in the US and elsewhere. In what other period have the capitalists mobilised trillions of dollars, pounds, Euros and the rest and paid workers to stay at home, to keep society going? Sympathisers noted that many workers (particularly in the US) didn’t receive all or any of what was promised and that such disbursements were also aimed at supporting businesses and are subject to massive cronyism, corruption and fraud. Nonetheless, the ICC said, intervention and subvention on such a massive scale shows state capitalism at work, still attempting to compensate for the bourgeoisie’s waning control over its own functioning.
Could or would an inevitable crash or financial crisis stimulate the class struggle, asked one participant? It’s not a given, the ICC replied:
- The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing ‘Depression’ and mass unemployment did not ‘provoke’ a response by the working class decimated by war and fatally weakened by the crushing of its revolutionary wave (1917-23)
- Furthermore, the bourgeoisie has for decades been adept at phasing in its attacks and managing through debt and delocalisation (onto other capitals) the effects of its historic impasse.
- Rather than await some catastrophic ‘crash’, it is necessary to examine the concrete conditions in front of our eyes.
The pandemic has already plunged millions of workers into poverty and this is just the start of the latest phase! Up to 50 million going hungry in the most advanced capital in the world! Mass unemployment and ‘Uberisation’ are the on agenda. The pauperisation of the proletariat on a global level – even if with different rhythms in different countries and zones – is underway and workers will be obliged to defend themselves.
Before the pandemic, in France, the reaction of the workers in their thousands on the streets, as a class and not as citizens wearing the ‘Yellow Vests’, against the government’s pension ‘reform’, was a welcome breath of fresh air, showed a marked change in attitude from earlier years of quiescence. In Italy the US, and elsewhere, at the beginning of the pandemic, there were angry reactions about the conditions of work and lockdown. Today, in the immediate, with lockdowns and distancing, the struggle is difficult. But this phase of the Covid-19 pandemic will pass: the vaccines will take effect. On top of everything else, the workers will then be asked to foot the bill for all the ‘stimulus’ cash the bourgeoisie has thrown around. Proletarian reactions to these attacks are on the agenda. Without making predictions, it’s a question of understanding what obstacles and dangers the workers will face.
Obstacles and dangers confronting the proletariat and revolutionaries
A sympathiser posed the question: given the anger and confusion generated at the beginning of the pandemic, including some strikes and demonstrations, might this have constituted a revolutionary moment, a time when the ruling class “can’t govern as before?” Perhaps the missing element was the revolutionary party? The ICC responded:
- There’s certainly a need for the existence and intervention of revolutionary organisations – including and importantly a Party of the Proletariat – and the working class, for historical reasons, is ‘behind the curve’ in this regard. However, as outlined in the presentation, the working class is in no position to mount a revolutionary challenge at present and is having trouble even regaining its class identity. The same conditions governing this situation also have a bearing on the formation of a party – which nowhere exists – and even when it does, its task is not to ‘organise’ the workers or, indeed, the revolution.
- While revolutionaries must take a global and historical view, the specificity of particular countries and the immediate situation must also be analysed. In this regard, the United States presents particular problems for the proletariat. In the past year the US has witnessed disorientation and confusion: no other country bears such a weight of racial oppression. The wholly bourgeois Black Lives Movement, the riots in response to the killing of George Floyd - these movements are immense dangers for the working class which has to take up its own struggle on the terrain of the defence of its economic interests as a class, which is the only framework in which racial divisions can be confronted and overcome.
- There is no other developed country where the impact of decomposition hits harder. It is said that 40 per cent of the population adheres to neo-creationist beliefs, and the US has become the world’s supermarket for conspiracy theories. This, plus the white supremacist movement, its counterpart the BLM, each for himself, Q-Anon, and the rest are a dark cloud of divisions that hang over the workers.
- Then, there was the US election, a mass mobilisation for a false choice. Many more millions were enrolled whereas previously, voters had fallen away. While the populism of Trump won’t disappear, the Democrats under Biden will attack the workers using new language, ‘The Great Reset’, ‘The Green Economy’ etc.
- The leftists – some of which have been calling for a ‘general strike’ to increase state ‘stimulus’ pay-cheques in the US - aren’t a merely ideological force but have a real presence on the ground, often via the unions, but also linked to the left of the Democratic Party. Following this discussion and the subsequent ‘storming’ of the Capitol early in January 2021, one close sympathiser of the ICC was inspired to elaborate on the dangers posed by the left in the US. (3)
- The proletariat is not the only class being decimated: the petty-bourgeoisie in its myriad forms is also squeezed by the aggravation of the crisis and can appear to produce ‘radical’ solutions from the self-managed ‘Mom & Pop’ stores which seek to make common cause with the proletariat to the libertarian right and its calls for inviolate individual ‘freedom’ against capital. The polarisation between, for example, the populist right and the ‘anti-fascist’ left, is a real threat to the proletariat, its forms of organisation and its class consciousness. Without a strong working class movement, elements ruined by capitalism are drawn into these conflicts which are not on a class terrain. Parts of the proletariat itself are prey to this destructive dynamic.
Thus the working class in the US, despite its historic combativity, faces a stern political test. The coming period will also demand a unity and clarity from its revolutionary minorities - those fractions who today are acting as a bridge towards the party of tomorrow. In this regard, the ICC’s virtual meetings are continuing. In February online “public meetings” on the pandemic and the events in the US were held in a number of languages, and the ICC also aims to produce summaries of the main points of discussion from these meetings.
- See, for example, "Theses on decomposition" (International Review no 107, 4th semester 2001). Theses on decomposition | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)
- See https://en.internationalism.org/content/16971/initial-reactions-january-6th-storming-us-capitol