Workers’ defensive struggles contain the seeds of revolution

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A comrade sent a letter to the ICC in which he asked “how I, you or anyone can support workers in the reformist struggles without supporting reforms?......How do you help workers in the immediate struggle for better work conditions (or something like protecting the NHS) while maintaining that only revolution would work? After-all, the SWP are nominally a communist party, so would claim likewise that revolution is the only intrinsic goal”

In our reply we try to explain that reforms are no longer possible in decadent capitalism. But even if the only remaining perspective is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, that must not lead us to the conclusion that the working class must abstain from the struggle for the defence of its daily living conditions. For it is only in and through these struggles that the working class forges the weapons of its future revolutionary struggle.

Therefore, the development of the struggle for better working and living conditions is as essential as the revolutionary struggle.  For marxism, there is no proletarian struggle that is purely economic, purely demand-oriented; it is inextricably linked to the historic mission of the proletariat. Even the smallest proletarian strike carries within it the seeds of revolutionary struggle against the system. Whether it leads to improvements of the conditions of the workers or not, it is a vital precondition for the development of class consciousness and the emergence of a revolutionary offensive against capital.

Dear comrade

Thank you for your correspondence.  You raise some important questions that are key to our understanding of the actual conditions facing the working class today, with the onslaught on its living and working conditions in the context of the crisis-ridden and deadly capitalist system, and with regard to what message revolutionaries should intervene with towards the class’s struggles to help it overcome the obstacles erected in its path by the agents of state capitalism, primordially the unions.

The working class has been in a permanent struggle for its working and living conditions throughout its existence, but it is only since the onset of capitalist decadence, from the beginning of the 20th century, that the perspective of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism has been a reality.

As we explained to you in our first reply, the bourgeoisie did previously play a progressive historical role in the overthrow of feudalism, and in this period of capitalist ascendance the working class allied itself with the progressive factions of the bourgeoisie and could, while retaining its autonomy, win long-lasting improvements, reforms, to its own conditions of existence. But at the end of the century, when capitalism had achieved domination over the whole planet, faced with an increasingly saturated world market and when world war was looming between the major bourgeoisies, this signified capitalism's impending historical bankruptcy. From this point on, all parts of the bourgeoisie became equally reactionary and any attempt to ally with them could only be counter-revolutionary. Political organisations that incorporated the defence of alliances with these bourgeois factions into their very being confirmed their own role as appendage of capital.

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement (…) never cease, for a single instant, to instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Manifesto of the Communist Party). Thus, even in the ascendant period it was of the utmost importance not to lose sight of the revolutionary perspective and to distinguish the fight for reforms from the ideology of reformism.  Rosa Luxemburg wrote a long and detailed critique of this abandonment of marxism entitled Reform or Revolution, which showed this was nothing other than a deluded capitulation and submission to and support for the ruling class. 

But at the dawn of the 20th century, when the working class was no longer able to win any significant permanent reforms to its working conditions, the right wing of the workers' movement in the capitalist heartlands became ever more riddled with the bourgeois ideology of “reformism” and with illusions in parliamentarism and democratism, and the notion that capitalism could evolve and grow into socialism without the need for the violent struggle and revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class. This abandonment of marxism was definitely confirmed when the opportunist wing of German Social Democracy served the working class up to be sacrificed on the battlefields of World War I, before the class eventually recovered and unleashed a determined revolutionary struggle in the course of the war itself. The defeat of the revolutionary wave and the subsequent counter-revolution would culminate in second round of capitalist slaughter in World War II.

In the period of “reconstruction” after 1945 the bourgeoisie heralded a permanent renewal of the capitalist system, its capacity for new growth and its ability to improve the welfare of the working class. With the growth of state capitalism, it provided general improvements to the health, education, and general welfare of the working class. But these were not genuine reforms won by the working class but essential measures that the ruling class needed in order to improve its competivity on the world stage and so to defend its imperialist interests. This period of growth, known as the “post-war boom”, was short-lived and the permanent crisis of the system reared its head once more at the end of the 1960s.

In decadence the working class has consistently struggled against the attacks on its living and working conditions, both in the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary periods, but we do not consider such struggles “reformist”. They are simply the defensive struggles of the class in a situation where capitalism has less and less capacity to improve the working class’s living standards, other than temporarily, and only for the employer to immediately reverse any benefits won by making cut-backs to the numbers employed or removing other “fringe-benefits” that had existed, with a need to increase productivity and retain competitivity in the marketplace.

The NHS does not belong to the workers

Today, the Health Sector is one of the largest employers in most industrialised countries. In the British NHS, that you refer to, these workers’ struggles should not be seen as “protecting the NHS” in any way. It is a mistake to identify the health sector workers with the NHS itself.  The recent struggles of NHS workers were not for the defence of or improvements to the NHS, but for improvements to their conditions of work. The NHS is their employer, it’s a state run industry funded by the government, and it squeezes the pay packets of its employees, just like any other capitalist business. “Reforms to the NHS” has long been a preoccupation of the parliamentary parties, not concerned with improving the conditions of the workers, but based on the need to improve productivity and reduce the financial burden on the capitalist state, so these workers’ struggles are not about “protecting the NHS”, but their own self-defence.

We can see that the NHS is a part of the capitalist state when we look at the government campaign around “Defend the NHS” that mobilised communities into weekly demonstrations of “solidarity with the NHS” and its overburdened staff (assembling and clapping in streets and gardens), allegedly to boost the morale of the hospital workers, but really to squeeze even more blood from the workforce and for them to continue to make sacrifices in a time of national crisis and emergency.

The British state had neglected to prepare for the pandemic and the NHS placed an overwhelming burden of demands and pressures on its employees in the fight to save lives of victims of the pandemic. A lot of their work colleagues were sacrificed through the lack of provision of any proper means of protection against the virus. The massive debt they were owed by the state would not be, could not be, repaid by the NHS state employer, and it was easy for the unions to disperse the militancy showed by these workers.

The SWP is a capitalist organisation

You also raise the question of how do we as communists support the struggles of the working class in this period and you ask us how we differentiate our intervention from that of the leftists like the SWP who, as you rightly say, intervene towards the workers in struggle supposedly advocating the struggle for communism, since they claim to be communists.

The SWP is a leftist organisation of the bourgeoisie. It might appear to defend a kind of “reformist” vision but this is a mystification, because in decadent capitalism there no longer exists a material basis for the struggle for reforms. The SWP programme is one of state capitalism, a vision central to the politics of the leftist groups today, despite their revolutionary rhetoric. Their alliances with other bourgeois organisations only confirm their role as an instrument of the bourgeois state (see the series of articles “The hidden legacy of the left of capital” on our website).

This means they work inside the unions and give critical support to the Labour Party. They provide no vision for developing the class struggle other than that recruiting members to support their activity and obstructing any capacity for the development of class consciousness. “Defend the NHS” is certainly part of their lexicon. For them the NHS is some great reform won by the working class, when it is in fact an expression of the growth of state capitalism in the period of decadence and a means for ensuring the capitalist system has a fit and healthy workforce.

For us, the intervention of revolutionaries has to begin from the needs of the working class as a whole. We don't consider the current struggles to be for nothing, to be seen as inconsequential.  Despite the deterioration in the fabric of capitalist society in this period of its decomposition, the working class, its combat and self-defence against the attacks of the system, provides the only perspective for humanity to escape a total collapse into barbarism. It's not a case of saying to workers “only revolution will work”, but of showing that the daily struggles of the working class are the basis on which the revolutionary perspective can develop.

Revolutionaries call to the working class to unify its struggles across the various divisions imposed on it by the unions and the state, which is the only way to develop its struggles in a positive direction against the attacks, which are increasing and intensifying today. Through the extension of the struggles the class can begin to recover its class identity and its consciousness of its role as a revolutionary force in society, a class for communism. Despite the difficulties facing the working class, and revolutionaries, today, it remains for us to defend and publish the lessons and the history of class struggle, to help the class go beyond its defensive struggles and be able to extend and unify them and eventually politicise them so as to wage war on this bankrupt system.

Very fraternally,

 Terry for the ICC


Response to a reader's letter