How can the proletariat overthrow capitalism?

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The outbreak of war in Ukraine, at the gates of Europe, is a dangerous part of the explosive accumulation of the contradictions of capitalism: ecological disaster, resurgence of pandemics, devastating inflation, wars that are more and more irrational even from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, more and more circumstantial alliances dominated by “every man for himself”, destabilisation of growing parts of the globe, social dislocation and fragmentation, migratory exoduses, etc. In the present situation, as in the First World War, the goal of the working class struggle can only be the overthrow of capitalism on a world scale. The very survival of humanity depends on it.

In the face of the First World War, in the face of bloodletting and enormous economic sacrifices, the working class was able to recover from the betrayal of the Social Democratic parties which had embroiled it in the world conflict. This was not possible in the Second World War, the main detachments of the proletariat having been crushed by the Stalinist counter-revolution, crushed in the defeat of the revolution in Germany and subjected to the rule of fascism, enlisted in the defence of democracy and anti-fascism.

Since the historic resumption of the class struggle in 1968, the proletariat has not suffered such a defeat that the bourgeoisie would be able to make its most concentrated and experienced battalions in the heart of capitalism accept today the attacks resulting from the worsening of the world economic crisis, the economic cost of the wars - in particular in Ukraine - and the reinforcement of militarism all over the world; but also the economic consequences of climatic disruption, the world disorganisation of production, etc.

Not all the fractions of the world proletariat are in the same relation of force against the bourgeoisie. The proletariat in Ukraine, by being mobilised behind the flag of national defence, has suffered a major political defeat, amplified and aggravated by the massacres of the war. The proletariat in Russia, whose situation is not so critical, nevertheless has no means to oppose the war in Ukraine on its class terrain, far from it.

I. The decisive importance of the Western European proletariat for the future revolution

Capitalism has developed unevenly in the different regions of the world. The same was true for the proletariat which is the product of this system. Therefore, at the beginning of the 20th century, with the constitution of the world market and the entry of capitalism into its historical crisis, there are considerable disparities between the different fractions of the world proletariat. In the historical heart of capitalism, in Western Europe, where the concentrations of the working class are the oldest, the working class has lived through irreplaceable historical experiences which give its class struggle a potential strength which does not exist in any other country in the world. Not even in the United States, which surpassed the other powers during the 20th century, and even less in China, despite its meteoric rise to rank 2nd in the world in the 21st century.[1] Western Europe, which will be the battleground of the most experienced fractions of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the world, will be decisive for the process of global generalisation of the class struggle.

The very history of the class struggle attests to the decisive role that the Western European proletariat will be called upon to play

What distinguishes the Western European proletariat from the other fractions of the world proletariat relates to historical experience, concentration, historical consciousness, resistance to the mystifications of the bourgeoisie and in particular the democratic mystification.

A reminder of the most "famous" experiences is instructive:

  • The Paris Commune, which took place from 18 March to 28 May 1871, was the first time in history that the necessity and possibility of the working class seizing political power was made concrete[2].
  • The revolutionary wave of 1917-23: it started in Europe but had repercussions throughout the world. Its peak was in Russia with the seizure of power by the proletariat in 1917, but its centre of gravity then shifted to Europe, in particular Germany. In fact, the Russian revolution is the exception that proves the rule, as illustrated by the fact that Lenin stressed a thousand times: it was by a "historical accident" that it fell to the Russians to carry the banner of the revolution for a short period, the stakes of the seizure of power in Germany being decisive for the fate of the world revolution.
  • The historical resumption of class struggle in 1968, which marked the end of the counter-revolution, was initiated by the emergence of the French proletariat in May of that year, followed in 1969 by the proletariat in Italy, with this wave of class struggle gradually spreading to different parts of the world, at different levels. It is necessary here to point out the scale and importance of the class struggles waged by the proletariat in Poland in 1971, '76 and '80, which constituted a striking confirmation of the return of the class struggle on a world scale. "There is absolutely no doubt that the workers of Poland have drawn the lessons of their previous experiences of 1956, 1970 and 1976. Their praxis has revealed the collective reflection of the revolutionary class. Unlike previous struggles, particularly Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin in 1970 when street fighting was the most marked although not the only characteristic of the movement, in the 1980 struggle the workers consciously avoided premature confrontations and left no dead. They realized that their force resided above all in the generalisation of the struggle, in organisation and solidarity".[3]

In fact, the struggles in Poland were the culmination of the international resurgence of class struggles opened in 1968 in France. They witnessed a level of self-organisation of struggle not seen since the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, which at first sight seems to invalidate our analysis, which puts at the heart of the revolutionary perspective the decisive importance of the Western European proletariat. In reality, our analysis was confirmed by the way they were defeated by the world bourgeoisie, with, at the centre of its plan of action against the working class in Poland, the confinement of the Polish proletariat behind the mystification of "free" trade unionism and democratic demands, by means of "the left and the unions in the west giving political and material aid to the sett­ing up of the Solidarity apparatus (sending funds, printing materials, delegations to teach the new-born union the techniques of sabotaging struggles ...)"[4].

The way in which the bourgeoisie overcame this fraction of the world proletariat illustrates the existence of deep weaknesses of the working class, common to all the countries of the former Eastern bloc, expressed by the weight of democratic illusions, and even of religion. These weaknesses remained very much alive after the collapse of the Eastern bloc insofar as, very often, right-wing "authoritarian" regimes replaced the Stalinist totalitarian regimes.

So, the episode of the class struggles in Poland, far from constituting a counter-example to the importance of the Western European proletariat, on the contrary, illustrates it. This is the reason why we think more globally that, for the historical reasons advanced previously, "… the epicentre of the coming revolutionary earthquake will be in the industrial heart of western Europe, where the best conditions exist for the development of revolutionary consciousness and a revolutionary struggle. The proletariat of this zone will be in the vanguard of the world proletariat."[5]

It is also for these reasons that areas like Japan and North America, although they meet most of the material conditions necessary for revolution, are not the most favourable for the triggering of the revolutionary process, because of the lack of experience and the ideological backwardness of the proletariat in these countries. This is particularly clear in Japan, but it is also valid, to a certain extent, in North America where the workers' movement developed as an appendix of the European workers' movement and with specificities such as the myth of "the frontier"[6] or, during a whole period, the highest standard of living of the working class in the world, ... allowing the bourgeoisie to ensure an ideological hold on the workers much more solid than in Europe.

As for the proletariat in China, the most numerous in the world (China being the workshop of the planet), its numbers do not compensate in any way for its inexperience[7] and its extreme vulnerability (even more so than in the Eastern countries) to all the manoeuvres that the bourgeoisie will use against it, in particular the setting up of "free" trade unions, when the need arises.

The recognition of such differences does not mean that the class struggle, or the activity of revolutionaries, has no meaning in other parts of the world than Western Europe. Indeed, the working class is global, its class struggle exists wherever proletarians and capital face each other. The lessons of the different manifestations of this struggle are valid for the whole working class wherever they take place[8].

More than ever, and despite the very important difficulties it is currently experiencing and which affect the whole world proletariat, the Western European proletariat holds the key for a world renewal of the class struggle that can take the road to world revolution. For all these reasons, and contrary to what Lenin hastily generalised from the example of the Russian revolution, it is not in the countries where the bourgeoisie is the weakest (the "weakest link in the capitalist chain") that such a movement is first unleashed, which will then spread to the most developed countries.[9] In these countries, the proletariat would not only face its own bourgeoisie, but in one form or another the world bourgeoisie would combine to muzzle it.

II. "Local" wars since the end of the 1960s: a negative confirmation of the particular role of the Western European proletariat

In the late 1960s in the United States, the protests against the Vietnam War and the refusal of many young workers to go and fight for the flag were an indirect harbinger of the opening of a new global course of class struggle marking the end of half a century of counter-revolution.

Since the historic resumption of class struggles in 1968, and throughout the period when the world was divided into two rival imperialist blocs, the reason why the third world war did not happen was because the working class in the main industrialised countries of Europe and in the United States - unbeaten, not ideologically subjugated to the bourgeoisie - was not ready to accept the sacrifices of war, either in the centres of production or at the front.[10]

Nevertheless, if the new world dynamic towards decisive class confrontations forbade the bourgeoisie to march towards world war, "local" wars broke out everywhere where the proletariat did not represent a social force capable of obstructing it. These wars pitted professional or mercenary troops in the service of the great powers against each other in countries where the local proletariat not only lacked the strength to oppose them through its own class struggle, but where it found itself enrolled by force or by consent in one or other of the opposing camps. But it is by no means a coincidence that none of these conflicts involved the proletariat under the uniform of the countries of Western Europe.

Since the collapse of the blocs, even more than in the previous period, local wars have been omnipresent, murderous and devastating. But in none of these could the proletariat of the countries of Western Europe be mobilised by the bourgeoisie.

And when these countries directly fomented wars, as in ex-Yugoslavia in 1991, it was always professional soldiers who were mobilised, some of whom, it is true, were the sons of proletarians who could not find a way to sell their labour power. But more often than not, and precisely because of this, these troops were confined to the role of so-called "peacekeeping" forces.

It is significant in this respect that in the United States, where the proletariat does not represent the same political force as in Western Europe, the bourgeoisie was able to call on conscript troops (proletarians in uniform) for its war expeditions, albeit with caution and circumspection. Nevertheless, in this country, the trauma of the Vietnam war has not been erased and the population (especially the working class within it) remains sensitive to the sending of troops made up of proletarians in uniform to theatres of operation. The Second Iraq War (2003) was a new warning for the bourgeoisie, which tended to think that the Vietnam syndrome had vanished. After a year of occupation of Iraq by American troops, "The climate of permanent insecurity among the troops and the ‘body bags’ returning home have significantly cooled the population's patriotic ardour - which was anyway very relative - even in the heart of ‘Middle America’[11].

Since then, for Obama (with regard to Syria) and even more so for Trump (everywhere), it is the "no boots on the ground" doctrine that set the limits to American military interventions.

For all the above reasons, it is unimaginable that, in the current situation, a Western European country or countries would go on the offensive as Russia has done in Ukraine.

III. The proletariat of the East dragooned or impotent in the face of the war in Ukraine

In the same way that we explained the reasons for the non-involvement of the Western European proletariat in military conflicts since the end of the 1960s, it is necessary to understand why the proletariat of certain countries was directly involved in the war, as in Ukraine, or did not oppose it, as in Russia.

The context of the Eastern bloc

In the 1980s, the industrial proletariat of the USSR was one of the largest in the world. The workers of the Donbas in Ukraine led struggles at that time (mid-1980s) that could make one think that the proletariat of the East was taking the initiative. The peak was reached with the struggles in Poland in 1970, 1976 and 1980 which saw the massive mobilisations we mentioned above. In this part of the world, on the other hand, the weight of the counter-revolution embodied by the existence of totalitarian political regimes - albeit rigid and fragile - made the proletariat much more vulnerable to democratic, trade union, nationalist and even religious mystifications.

In the summer of 1989, 500,000 miners from Donbas (Ukraine) and southern Siberia (the USSR still existed and Ukraine was part of it) fought for their demands on their class terrain in the biggest movement since 1917. But the movement was then marked (as it had been in the case of the struggle in Poland in 1980) by democratic illusions which eventually led to the dead ends of the struggle against totalitarianism, of the demand for "autonomy" of the enterprises so that they could sell the part of the coal not handed over to the state.[12]

Faced with the collapse of the Stalinist bloc, instead of mass class struggles of the proletariat, we saw movements marked by the weight of separatist nationalism towards the USSR and by democratic illusions. The same weaknesses marked the chaos that reigned in the Russian Federation in the 1990s.

One of the most significant elements of the weakness of the proletariat in the East was the incapacity, in the face of the strongest moments of the class struggle as in Poland in 1980, to provoke reflection on the part of minorities allowing them to orient themselves towards the positions of the communist left.

After the collapse of the Eastern bloc

The case of Ukraine

The Ukrainian proletariat is very weakly developed. Indeed, outside the mining basin and the few industrial centres in Kyiv, Kharkov or Dniepropetrovsk, small-scale agriculture predominates. This situation became even more pronounced during the 1990s, as we pointed out in an article published in 2006:

"According to the census of 1989, when the Ukraine’s level of urbanisation peaked, 33.1% of the republic’s population lived in the countryside. Out of 16 areas of future Orange support (not counting Kiev) only in three was this proportion below 41%. In five oblasts it was between 43-47%, but in eight it exceeded 50%, and in some cases noticeably so (Ternopol oblast 59.2%, Zakarpate 58.9% etc.) In the 1990s the position only worsened: industry was destroyed, the population began to regress on the cultural level, workers had to rely on their vegetable gardens to survive and began to go back to the land, to restore their own social relationships with the villages, where they also have a mass of kinsfolk. So the influence of the rural petty bourgeois atmosphere on them increased immensely."[13]

In 1993, after the independence of Ukraine, the workers of the industrial region of Pridneprovie, however, managed to mobilise on their class terrain, forcing the resignation of president Kuchma and the holding of general elections. But, already in 2004, the proletariat was dragged into the employers' strikes and the struggle between factions of the bourgeoisie in the so-called "Orange Revolution" where the confrontation between the pro-Russian and pro-US option was imposed. Since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, this situation has already led to ­armed clashes which proletarians have been drawn into.

Faced with the current war in Ukraine, there is a mobilisation of the population, including the proletariat. The "defence of the fatherland" has taken precedence over all other considerations.

The case of Russia

The importance of the proletariat in Russia for the world proletariat is greater than that of the proletariat in Ukraine. And if everything we said about the weaknesses of the proletariat in the Eastern countries can be applied to it, it has not however been directly mobilised in the confrontations between factions of the bourgeoisie; even if there is certainly an important weight of democratic illusions, which the arrival of Putin and the imposition of a new totalitarianism have considerably reinforced.

Despite such weaknesses, this proletariat was nevertheless not ready to be mobilised. This is both the cause and the consequence of the disintegration of the Red Army in Afghanistan: "Moreover, the authorities cannot even count on the loyalty of the ‘Red’ Army. Soldiers from the various national minorities that today are clamoring for independence are less and less inclined to go and get killed to defend continued Russian domination over these same minorities. The Russians themselves are increasingly reluctant to take on this kind of job. This can be seen in demonstrations such as those of 19th January in Krasnodar (southern Russia), whose slogans have shown clearly that the population is not ready to accept a new Afghanistan; as a result of these demonstrations, the authorities were obliged to demobilise the reservists who had been called up only a few days previously."[14]

In Russia, war does not yet involve the mobilisation of the entire population, and if 'replacement' soldiers are recruited from within Russia, it is under the guise of participation in 'military manoeuvres'. The very mention of war is censored in the Russian media, which only talks about a "special operation" in Ukraine. And contrary to the atmosphere of patriotism in Ukraine, there are no known manifestations of public support for the war in Russia (apart, of course, from official ceremonies orchestrated by the Putin clique).

Nevertheless, for the reasons outlined above, there is currently no possibility of the proletariat in Russia having the strength to end the war on its own, and its future response to the situation remains as yet difficult to predict precisely.

IV. The situation of the Western proletariat facing the economic attacks of the bourgeoisie before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine

During the period from 1968/80 until the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the dislocation of its Western counterpart, the development of the combativity and the reflection of the world proletariat, in the central countries in particular, took place within a dynamic arising from the succession of three waves of struggles, the first two momentarily stopped by the manoeuvres and strategies of the bourgeoisie to face them. The third, for its part, came up against the consequences of the collapse of the Eastern bloc, provoking a deep retreat of the class struggle because of the bourgeoisie's campaigns on "the death of communism" and also because of the more difficult conditions of the class struggle in the phase of the decomposition[15] of capitalism which had now opened up. Indeed, as we have already highlighted, the decomposition of capitalism profoundly affects the essential dimensions of the class struggle: collective action, solidarity; the need for organisation; the relationships which underpin all life in society which are breaking down more and more; confidence in the future and in one's own strength; consciousness, lucidity, coherence and unity of thought, the taste for theory.[16]

Despite these difficulties, the working class had not disappeared, as illustrated by a number of attempts of the class struggle to break through: 2003 (public sector in Europe, in France in particular); 2006 (fight against the CPE in France: mobilisation of the young generations of the working class against precariousness); 2011 (mobilisation of the "Indignados" which testifies to the beginnings of a global reflection on the bankruptcy of capitalism); 2019 (France, mobilisation against the pension reform)[17]; end of 2021/beginning of 2022 (rise of anger and development of combativity in the United States, in Iran, in Italy, in Korea in spite of the stifling effects of the pandemic)[18].

Whatever the difficulties faced by the proletariat throughout this period, especially since 1990, it has not suffered a defeat in the main industrialised countries, which implies that it will be able to take its class struggle to a higher level in the face of the unprecedented wave of attacks that will affect all its fractions more and more severely in all countries of the world, in all sectors.

V. What path and perspective for the development of the class struggle?

The eruption of war at the gates of Europe once again alerts the world proletariat to what revolutionaries had already pointed out in the face of the First World War: as long as capitalism is not overthrown, humanity is threatened with the worst catastrophes and, ultimately, with extinction. "Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ What does ‘regression into barbarism’ mean to our lofty European civilization? (...) A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences" (The Crisis of Social Democracy - 1915; Rosa Luxemburg). In the present period, the dilemma facing society is more precisely "socialism or the disappearance of humanity".

This is why the attitude of the revolutionary vanguard towards the First World War must absolutely be a source of inspiration today for the defence of consistent internationalism, which only makes sense in putting forward the need to overthrow capitalism.

Proletarian internationalism is not, as the experience of the collapse of the IInd International in the face of world war has shown, a declaration of intent or a pacifist slogan. Proletarian internationalism is the defence of class war against imperialist war and the defence of the historical tradition of the principles of the workers' movement, embodied by the Communist Left. The Zimmerwald conference[19] -particularly the debates and confrontations of the different positions during this conference and the political clarification that resulted from it - must constitute today a source of inspiration for consistent revolutionaries to assume their responsibilities as much in the regroupment of the authentically proletarian forces as in the open, fraternal and uncompromising confrontation of the divergences that exist between them.

In this sense it is necessary to clarify that the conditions confronted by the proletariat today are different from those of the first world conflict, in order to draw the consequences for the intervention of revolutionaries:

  • If the proletariat in Ukraine has suffered a deep defeat and that of Russia is in great difficulty, it is not the case for the proletariat of other countries and in particular the proletariat of Western Europe.
  • Nevertheless, all the fractions of the world proletariat were affected by this event, inducing a deep feeling of powerlessness in its ranks. No sooner had the proletariat begun to recover from the staggering effect of the pandemic, than it took a second blow, harder than the first, which inevitably has had and will have consequences for its ability to mobilise in the face of the considerable economic attacks that are coming down on it. Even if strikes are already multiplying, we don't know how much longer it will take the proletariat to set itself in motion in the face of the deluge of attacks.
  • The proletariat will have no choice but to take up the historical path of its class struggle against the consequences of exploitation. It is through these struggles that it will be able to recover the consciousness (lost with the campaigns on the death of communism) of being a distinct class antagonistic to capitalism, being able to count only on the solidarity of its different parts, on its unity ... that it will find the path of coming to consciousness - opened with May 68 in France and the mobilisations which followed in the world - of the means, the goals and the stakes of its struggle.
  • The First World War was a factor in raising awareness of the need to overthrow capitalism, and at the same time it was also a factor in mobilisation. Nevertheless, such a mobilisation was only really expressed (in particular the fraternisations, the mobilisations of working women, etc.) when it could be backed up by a powerful movement of the proletariat from the rear, from the workplaces, in defence of its living conditions.
  • It would be seriously misleading for the proletariat to believe that its fractions in Ukraine or in Russia can today mobilise against the war. This could only lead to an irresponsible overestimation of the possibilities open to the proletariat in these two countries. Moreover, such a slogan in the present world situation would contribute to diverting the world proletariat from its task of overthrowing capitalism by developing its class struggle against the attacks of capitalism in crisis. The latter represents much more favourable conditions for revolution than war, since the bourgeoisie cannot stop the development of its economic crisis while it can put an end to war by concluding a peace deal, and thus disarm the revolutionary dynamic, dividing the proletariat of the victorious and defeated countries, as was the case in the world revolutionary wave of the first post-war period[20].
  • The slogan of "revolutionary defeatism" has the same defect of diverting the world proletariat from the world revolution against capitalism in crisis. Added to this is the defect of advocating different tactics for different national fractions of the proletariat in the face of war. If some of them must wish for the defeat of their own bourgeoisie, in order to hasten the revolutionary process, it cannot be the same for the proletarians of the opposite camp. It is therefore no coincidence that this slogan is so popular with leftists and other imperialist war mongers who exploit an error of Lenin's which was then quite secondary in the context of his unfailing internationalism.[21]

In 1981, the ability of the world bourgeoisie to inflict a defeat on the Polish proletariat by exploiting the democratic and trade union illusions of this fraction of the world proletariat led the ICC to critique Lenin's theory of the weakest link in the imperialist chain, in which a country with a less developed bourgeoisie has the best possibilities for a victorious revolution. The opposite is true. It will be up to the proletariat of Western Europe to confront the most experienced world fractions of the bourgeoisie. It is on the result of this confrontation that the world revolutionary conflagration will depend.

Silvio, 02-07-2022


[1] Read our article, “The Western European proletariat at the centre of the generalisation of the class struggle” (1982); International Review 31

[2] Read our article On the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune, International Review 146.

[3] Read our article Mass strike in Poland 1980: The proletariat opens a new breach, International Review 23.

[6] In American society, “the Frontier” has a specific meaning that refers to its history. Throughout the 19th century, one of the most important aspects of the development of the United States was the westward expansion of industrial capitalism, which resulted in the settlement of these regions by populations composed mainly of people of European or African descent - at the expense, of course, of the native Indian tribes. The hope of the Frontier has left a strong mark on ideology in America.

[7] The communes of Shanghai and Canton, crushed in blood in 1927 by the Kuomintang with the complicity of the Stalinist Communist International, could only leave minute traces in the memory of the working class. It will take considerable social upheaval for these experiences to become active factors in the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat in China.

[8] Like the struggles in Argentina in 1969 (the Cordobazo), in Egypt, in South Africa under both Apartheid and Nelson Mandela, ...

[15] Read our theses: Decomposition, the ultimate phase of capitalist decadence ; International Review 107

[16] "Solidarity and collective action are faced with the atomisation of “look out for number one”; the need for organisation confronts social decomposition, the disintegration of the relationships which form the basis for all social life; the proletariat’s confidence in the future and in its own strength is constantly sapped by the all-pervasive despair and nihilism within society; consciousness, lucidity, coherent and unified thought, the taste for theory, have a hard time making headway in the midst of the flight into illusions, drugs, sects, mysticism, the rejection or destruction of thought which are characteristic of our epoch." (Decomposition, the ultimate phase of capitalist decadence, International Review 107)

[20]Militarism and decomposition (May 2022)”, International Review 168

[21] "This slogan was put forward by Lenin during the First World War. It was designed to respond to the sophistries of the 'centrists', who while being 'in principle' against any participation in imperialist war, advised that you should wait until the workers in the 'enemy' countries were ready to enter into struggle against the war before calling on workers in 'your' country to do the same. In support of this position, they put forward the argument that if the workers of one country rose up before those in the oppos­ing countries, they would facilitate the imperi­alist victory of the latter. Against this conditional 'internationalism', Lenin replied very correctly that the working class of any given country had no common in­terest with 'its' bourgeoisie. In particular, he pointed out that the latter's defeat could only facilitate the workers' struggle, as had been the case with the Paris Commune (following France's defeat by Prussia) and the 1905 revolution in Russia (which was beaten in the war with Japan). From this observation he concluded that each proletariat should 'wish for' the defeat of 'its' bourgeoisie. This last position was already wrong at the time, since it led the revolutionaries of each country to demand for 'their' proletariat the most favourable conditions for the proletarian revolution, whereas the revolution had to take place on a world-wide level, and above all in the big advanced countries, which were all in­volved in the war. However, with Lenin, the weakness of this position never put his intran­sigent internationalism in question". Polemic: the proletarian political milieu faced with the Gulf War; International Review 64.


In the face of war, economic attacks, world-wide chaos