Some events have a significance that is not limited to the local or immediate level, but is international in scope. Because of the number of sectors affected, the combativity of the workers involved in the struggle and the widespread support for action among the working population, the wave of strikes which has spread throughout Britain this summer is an event of undeniable importance on the domestic level. But we also need to understand that the historical significance of these struggles goes far beyond their local dimension or even their one-off occurrence.
For decades, the working class in the European states has been under the suffocating pressure of capitalism’s decomposition. More concretely, since 2020, it has suffered a number of waves of Covid and then the horror of barbaric war in Europe with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although these events affected workers' combativity, they did not make it disappear, as struggles in the United States, Spain, Italy, France, Korea and Iran at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 still underlined.
However, the wave of strikes in Britain in response to the attacks on their living standards caused by the deepening economic crisis, accentuated by the consequences of the health crisis and, above all, by the war in Ukraine, is on a different scale. In difficult circumstances, the British workers are sending a clear signal to workers all over the world: we must fight, even if we have suffered attacks and accepted sacrifices without being able to react; but today "enough is enough": we are no longer accepting this, we must fight. This is the message sent to workers in other countries.
In this context, the entry into struggle of the British proletariat constitutes an event of historical significance on a number of levels
1. The proletariat in Britain regains its combativity
This wave of struggle is led by a fraction of the European proletariat which has suffered more than most from the general retreat of the class struggle since 1990. Indeed, if in the 1970s, although with a certain delay compared to other countries like France, Italy or Poland, British workers developed very important struggles, culminating in the wave of strikes of 1979 ("the Winter of Discontent"), the UK was the European country where the decline of combativity has been the most marked over the last 40 years.
During the 1980s, the British working class suffered an effective counter-offensive from the bourgeoisie which culminated in the defeat of the 1985 miners' strike by Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" of the British bourgeoisie. Moreover, Britain has been particularly affected by de-industrialisation and the transfer of industries to China, India or Eastern Europe. So when the working class suffered a generalised worldwide decline in 1989, it was particularly marked in Great Britain.
In addition, in recent years, British workers have suffered the onslaught of populist movements and above all the deafening Brexit campaign, stimulating the division in their midst between "remainers" and "leavers", and then the Covid crisis which has weighed heavily on the working class, especially in Britain. Finally, and most recently, it has been confronted with intense pro-Ukrainian democratic hype and particularly abject war-mongering around the war in Ukraine.
The "Thatcher generation" suffered a major defeat, but today, a new generation of proletarians is appearing on the social scene, which is no longer affected as much as their elders by the weight of these defeats and are raising their heads, showing that the working class is capable of responding through struggle to these major attacks. While keeping a sense of proportion, we are witnessing a phenomenon quite comparable (but not identical) to the one that saw the French working class emerge in 1968: the arrival of a young generation less affected than their elders by the weight of the counter-revolution.
2. The international importance of the British working class
The "summer of anger" can only be an encouragement for all the workers of the planet and this for several reasons: it is the working class of the fifth world economic power, and an English-speaking proletariat, whose struggles can have an important impact in countries like the United States, Canada or in other regions of the world, like India or South Africa. English being the language of world communication, the influence of these movements necessarily surpasses that of struggles in France or Germany for example. In this sense, the English proletariat shows the way not only to the European workers, who will have to be in the vanguard of the rise of the class struggle, but also to the world proletariat, and in particular to the American proletariat. In the perspective of future struggles, the British working class can thus serve as a link between the proletariat of Western Europe and the American proletariat.
This importance can also be measured by the concerned reaction of the bourgeoisie, especially in Western Europe, to the danger of the extension of the "deterioration of the social situation". This is particularly the case in France, Belgium or Germany where the bourgeoisie, in contrast to the attitude of the British bourgeoisie, has taken firmer measures to put a ceiling on oil, gas and electricity increases or to compensate for the impact of inflation and price rises by means of subsidies or tax cuts, while loudly proclaiming that it wants to protect the purchasing power of workers. On the other hand, the extensive media coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth and the funeral ceremonies was intended to counteract the images of class struggle and instead show a picture of a united British population enveloped in a nationalist fervour and respectful of bourgeois constitutional order. Since then, the bourgeois media has applied a wide blackout on the continuation of the strike movements.
The bourgeoisie knows perfectly well that the deepening of the crisis and the consequences of the war will go on and on. However, the fact that a massive movement is already developing in the face of the first attacks, which are similar for all the detachments of the proletariat, not only in England but in Europe and even in the world, attacks which the bourgeoisie is obliged to impose in the present context, can only deeply worry the bourgeoisie.
3. A break in the dynamics of the international class struggle
Even though the West European proletariat has not been defeated during the last forty years, unlike before the two world wars, the decline in its class consciousness after 1989 (underlined by the campaign on the "death of communism") has nevertheless been extremely important. Secondly, the deepening of decomposition from the 1990s onwards had increasingly affected its class identity, and this trend could not be reversed by certain movements of struggle or expressions of reflection among minorities of the class in the first two decades of the 21st century, such as the struggle against the Contrat Premier Emploi (CPE) in France in 2006, the 'Indignados' movement in Spain in 2011, the struggles at SNCF and Air France in 2014 and the movement against pension reform in 2019 in France or the 'Striketober' in the US in 2021.
Moreover, throughout the first two decades of the 21st century, the global working class has been confronted in its struggles with the danger of interclassist movements, as in France with the actions of the "Gilet Jaunes", the weight of populist mobilisations, such as the MAGA ("Make America Great Again") movement in the United States, or bourgeois campaigns such as the "marches for the climate " or the "Black Lives Matter" movement and mobilisations in favour of abortion rights in the US and elsewhere. More recently, in the face of the first consequences of the crisis, numerous popular revolts have erupted in various Latin American countries against the rise in the price of fuel and other basic commodities. All these movements constitute a danger for workers insofar as they drag them onto an interclassist terrain, where they are drowned out by the mass of "citizens" or dragged onto a terrain which is completely bourgeois.
But only the proletariat offers an alternative to the disasters that mark our society. And precisely, unlike these movements which lead the workers onto false grounds, the fundamental contribution of the wave of strikes of the British workers is the affirmation that the struggle against capitalist exploitation must be situated on a clear class ground and put forward clear workers' demands against the attacks on the workers' standard of living: “Moreover, and this is the element which in the final analysis will determine the outcome of the world situation, the inexorable aggravation of the capitalist crisis constitutes the essential stimulant for the class’ struggle and development of consciousness, the precondition for its ability to resist the poison distilled by the social rot. For while there is no basis for the unification of the class in the partial struggles against the effects of decomposition, nonetheless its struggle against the direct effects of the crisis constitutes the basis for the development of its class strength and unity.” (Theses on Decomposition, (1991) International Review No.107, 2001). The development of this massive combativity in struggles for the defence of purchasing power is, for the world proletariat, an inescapable condition for overcoming the deep setback it has undergone since the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Stalinist regimes and for recovering its class identity and its revolutionary perspective.
In short, both from the historical point of view and from the current context facing the working class, this wave of strikes in Britain therefore constitutes a break in the dynamics of the class struggle, capable of setting in motion a "change in the social atmosphere".
4. Similarities and differences with May 68 in France
This change in the social atmosphere that has taken place with the struggles in Britain has a certain resemblance, keeping a sense of proportion, with the situation initiated by May 68 in France, which was symbolic of a break with a long period of counter-revolution, cutting through the Stalinist prison for containing the proletariat and bringing a new dynamism, an impetuous world wide development of workers’ struggles, opening a period of class confrontations which was confirmed in the next two decades with the “Hot Autumn” in Italy, the struggles in Poland in 1970 and 1976 before reaching their culminating point in August 1980, in Belgium between 1970 and 1972, then in 1983 (public sector) and in 1986, in the USA (General Motors in Lordstown, Ohio) in 1972 then a new wave of strikes in the summer of 1986, in France again with the steelworkers in Longwy and Denain in 1979, the railway workers (winter 86) and nurses (October 88), in Sweden in 1984, the Rotterdam dockers in the Netherlands in 1984, in Germany, Greece, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa…
The entry into struggle of the proletarians in Britain has an importance comparable to that of May 68 in France, since it is located at the heart of one of the oldest and most developed capitalisms, in western Europe, among the battalions of the proletariat who are most experienced in the class war. In this sense it is destined to play a key role as a spur to the recovery of struggles on a world level. Also in Britain we see the same fire-brakes lit by the bourgeoisie as in May 68, which the working class will encounter in the shape of the same enemies: the unions, the left parties and the leftist organisations whose role is to control and sabotage the struggle, to drag it away from its class terrain.
Similarly, the reawakening of the combativity of the proletariat in Britain in response to the dramatic deterioration of the world crisis of capitalism and to the attacks of the bourgeoisie can, again with all proportions kept in mind, evoke May 68 with the important number of workers involved in a struggle which is hitting the main sectors of economic activity in the country. An analysis of the development of proletarian struggles at the heart of Europe must take account of this historical dimension, recognising that the development of the workers’ combativity on its own terrain faced with the crisis and the attacks of the bourgeoisie is being confirmed and expresses a dynamic towards the deepening of the class struggle.
There are however considerable differences between the two situations. The context is not at all the same: the working class today has been considerably weakened. The very strong illusions and confusions which the proletariat carries with it on the road towards revolution was one of the major weaknesses of the struggles of May 68 and the twenty years of workers’ struggles that followed. This left the proletariat disarmed and disoriented when the eastern bloc collapsed in 1989, enabling the bourgeoisie to develop a gigantic, world-wide ideological campaign against marxism and communism, falsely identified with Stalinism, and presenting the collapse of the latter as a victory for democracy against the totalitarian “Communist” regimes. This ideological campaign, aimed at sapping the self-confidence of the working class and provoking a general reflux in the class struggle, deeply affected the capacity of the proletariat to fight on its class terrain, opening up a new phase of decadent capitalist society, the phase of decomposition. This is phase, characterised by the tendency for society to rot on its feet, is the product of a blockage between the classes in which nether the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie has been able to impose its “way out” of capitalism in crisis: world revolution or world war.
One of the consequences of this difference in context is the following: in the period of developing struggles between 1968 and 1989, the proletariat was able to play a fully active role as a barrier to war in the confrontation between the two blocs: its mobilisation on a class terrain prevented it from being enrolled by the bourgeoisie for war. This was a decisive obstacle to the outbreak of a third world war. But this is no longer the case today, when the working class is not in a position to prevent the descent into military barbarism, as we can see with the war in Ukraine.
This situation demonstrates the accumulation and inter-action of the mortal dangers contained in the final phase of capitalist decadence, which can lead to planet-wide destruction even without the outbreak of world war.
On the other hand, the struggles in Britain show that the proletariat has not suffered a decisive defeat, that it is not already beaten, that it can still raise its head, in spite of all the difficulties and the new challenges that will inevitably rise up before it, making it clearer than ever that the alternative for the future is communism or barbarism.
Today, if a good number of the illusions and weaknesses which marked the struggles between 1968 and 1989 have fallen away, other major difficulties have arrived on the scene of the class struggle. It has become evident that the road towards the communist revolution is still a long one, littered with increasingly dangerous traps and obstacles. To progress along this road is a huge challenge, but the proletariat has no choice but to engage resolutely in this struggle, which still has the perspective of the class regaining confidence in itself, of developing its struggles to the point where it can affirm itself as the only social force capable of overthrowing and destroying capitalism before it destroys humanity.
5. A struggle against economic attacks worsened by imperialist war
The importance of this movement is not limited to the fact that it puts an end to a long period of relative passivity. These struggles are developing at a time when the world is confronted with a large-scale imperialist war, a war which opposes Russia and Ukraine on European soil but which has a global scope with, in particular, a mobilisation of NATO member countries which is a mobilisation not only in arms but also on the economic, diplomatic and ideological levels: in Western countries, governments are calling for sacrifices to "defend freedom and democracy". In concrete terms, this means that the proletarians of these countries must tighten their belts even more to "show their solidarity with Ukraine", in fact with the Ukrainian ruling class and the rulers of the Western countries.
Faced with the conflict in Ukraine, calling for a direct mobilisation of workers against the war is illusory in Western Europe or in the United States; however, since February 2022, the ICC has highlighted that the workers' reaction will appear on the basis of the attack on their wages, products of the accumulation and interconnection of the crises and disasters of the past period, and against the campaign calling for the acceptance of sacrifices in support of the "heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people".
Further, the mobilisation against capitalist austerity also ultimately contains an opposition against war. This is also what the strikes of the working class in the UK bear in embryo, even if the workers are not always fully conscious of it: the refusal to make more and more sacrifices for the interests of the ruling class, the refusal of sacrifices for the national economy and for the war effort, and the refusal to accept the logic of this system which leads humanity towards catastrophe and, finally, to its destruction.
In short, even if the struggles are limited to one country at the moment, even if they run out of steam, and even if we should probably not expect a series of similar major developments in different countries in the near future, a milestone has been reached. The essential achievement of the struggle of the workers in Britain is to stand up and fight because the worst defeat is to suffer impoverishment without a fight. It is on this basis that lessons can be learned and the struggle can move forward. In this perspective, the strikes represent a qualitative change and herald a change in the situation of the working class vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie: they mark a development of combativity on a class terrain which can be the beginning of a new episode of the struggle, because it is through its massive economic struggles that the working class will be able to progressively recover its class identity, eroded by the pressure of 40 years of decomposition, by the ebb of struggles and consciousness, by the sirens of interclassist movements, populism and environmental campaigns. It is on this basis that the working class will be able to open up a perspective for the whole of society. From this point of view, there is a "before" and an "after" to the summer of 2022.
R. Havanais / 22.09.2022