The Covid 19 pandemic and the dynamic of the class struggle

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An exchange relating to the significance of the current wave of workers’ struggles in Britain and their connection to the period of the Covid pandemic

First of all I agree with the ICC’s analysis of the current strikes in Britain and their potential as being “significant” along with the general perspectives arising from them. The proletariat fighting directly against the war in Ukraine within this is nowhere on the cards given that such a fight would imply a working class engaged in a revolutionary response – that would be a major overestimation of the present state of the working class. But what the working class can do is take the first steps to defend itself from attacks and this defence will by no means be linear and ever-rising and certainly involve defeats along the way. But the first thing that the working class has to do is to express itself and its struggle and this is what is happening in Britain now and pointing to further developments on a wider scale.

Within this overall agreement I want to defend a position that this particular strike wave had its immediate and unexpected genesis from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and not as the “ICC presentation to the September meetings” says: “... the impact of the pandemic, which had interrupted the tendency towards the revival of combativity shown by the struggle against the pension reform in France and the strikes in different countries (USA, Italy, Iran, Spain”. I agree with the point about pension reform in France being a very positive point of the struggle and the development of struggles elsewhere but I defend the idea that the struggles of the working class in Britain at the very beginning of the pandemic were not an “interruption” but were in continuity with and advanced that struggle up to those that are breaking out now. The Covid-19 pandemic was a phenomenon of capitalist decomposition that really hurt the economy and the conditions of the working class and the proletariat responded to this rather than the pandemic “interrupting” or “paralysing” the class struggle.

Some context first:

The general analysis of the ICC, quite correctly in my opinion, strongly suggested that the pandemic, certainly on the back of its loss of perspective and identity, would further smother the class and any development of class struggle. That seemed to be a highly likely probability but it was to be proved manifestly incorrect by the actions of a significant minority of workers and the immediate outbreak of struggles in Britain. These were not massive by any means but they were widespread and virtually all of them had some significant and interesting features.

The context of Britain at the time was similar to all the major capitals: the culpability, negligence and incompetence of the ruling class around the pandemic, an attack on the conditions of the working class to the point of them and their loved ones being put in immediate danger through contracting the disease, a massive campaign of propaganda over the virus and an unprecedented beefing up of state repression in the democracies. On the latter a couple of examples will suffice: following some unrest by university students over issues relating to their suffering over the policing of the pandemic, Manchester, Durham (from memory) and other universities student buildings were enclosed with 2 metre high steel cages with private security guards patrolling the perimeters and generally given carte blanche to push the students around; secondly, a silent, candlelit vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, the young woman who had been recently raped and murdered by a Metropolitan policeman, was deemed illegal by the police who then manhandled and wrestled some of the attending women to the ground before handcuffing and arresting them under hastily passed laws (a jury recently cleared them).

Just like the “boys in blue”, the policemen on the shop floor, the trade unions, took up a similarly repressive approach dealing with what they thought was an acquiescent, submissive working class. As we’ve seen in so many serious threats to the national interest of the British state over the century, the trade unions came forward as its defenders and working with management began to organise the practicalities of maintaining work and production during the pandemic.

Trouble started immediately. There were refusals to work, arguments between workers and unions about being sent out in unsafe conditions with inadequate protective gear, rows about the dispensations and exemptions given out willy-nilly by the unions avoiding health considerations. Demonstrations, walk-outs and strikes started over the issue of working conditions – the bin strikes started here almost at the beginning of the pandemic and others, bus drivers, delivery drivers, etc., were taking their own actions along the same lines of unsafe working conditions. These were mostly unionised low-paid manual workers, old and young (from what I remember of the images), mostly male but many female workers and all sorts of skin colours. These rumbled on and off and, emboldened, there were some small strikes by un-unionised workers some of which ended up with union-recognised “negotiations” along with other strikes for wages and compensation that were not instigated by the unions. A bit later HGV drivers began to join the action – both unionised drivers and those recently unionised over disparate movements. The sort of lorry drivers’ “protests” that we saw after the Thatcher period were the petty-bourgeois campaigns of “owner-drivers” along the lines of the Gilets Jaunes but here lorry drivers joined the struggle as part of the class fighting for working conditions and wages.

One of the spurs to this militancy at the early stages of the pandemic was what we noted at the time as being the obviously intrinsic nature of the working class, particularly its “lower” levels, to capitalist production, distribution and the general running and well-being of society. Indeed, there were articles appearing in the Guardian, the Times and even the likes of the Daily Mail, saluting the workers with some envisaging a brave new world of equality and respect for the now cherished “lower orders” which would be the “fair” and natural outcome of the survival from the pandemic. Thus, and with the aim of responding to the class struggle, the bourgeoisie came up with its “heroes” campaign, a highly emotional campaign – particularly promoted by the BBC - aiming to isolate and halt the struggles, and this campaign was taken up the bourgeoisie internationally.

Also taken up internationally were similar elements of the class struggle in similar layers of the class for similar demands around working conditions and pay. Walkouts at Amazon started in March 2020 in Italy, in Britain Amazon workers struck against conditions and strikes at Amazon took off in the United States and around the world, certainly by mid-2020 over both pay and conditions.  The Economic Policy Institute (June 2020) said that 2018-19 in the United States there was already “an upsurge in major strike activity marking a 35-year high for the numbers of worker engaged in a major work stoppage”. The monthly data that the EPI was working on didn’t cover the pandemic, nor smaller strikes but the dynamic is clear. Rent strikes also followed, as did various small-scale student actions but the strikes that started in Britain at the beginning of the pandemic, despite the lack of bourgeois figures, were spreading throughout the world and continued to do so. 

I think that it’s very interesting that what certain economists call the “lower quartile” of the working class should be taking the lead, showing the example in the strikes and actions that broke out from the beginning of the pandemic; it took more than courage. I see it as an example of the “old mole” coming up, sniffing the air and not liking the way the wind was blowing and, more than that, acting upon it. It took more than courage to confront the repressive and ideological weight of the state and risk the physical dangers of the pandemic to come together, to assemble, discuss, decide and act as workers have done for generations in difficult circumstances. I don’t want to overestimate it and it’s certainly at the rudimentary end of the scale, but on the scale it was and it took an element of conscious reflection that marked a point for the class to build on.

While the strikes and actions of local authority workers, bus drivers, rubbish collection and like continue today, they have been joined (to some extent) by bigger battalions of train drivers and all sorts of railway staff, engineers, technicians, dock workers etc., who have made their feelings clear through overwhelming 90-odd percentage votes to strike while there have been wildcat stoppages that the unions have gone along with but pushed by the workers, and some of the picket lines have shown numbers far in excess of the legal maximum. This dynamic looks to continue but unlike the beginning of the pandemic, when the unions took on the management role as defenders of capitalist production, today the unions have put on their militant face even suggesting “joint actions” and “wider struggles” and are very much in control. Even with this and the ups and downs that will affect the struggle, the working class in Britain, followed by the world, have made a significant step forward.

Baboon, 13.9.22

ICC reply

Dear comrade,

We have received your letter about “The Covid 19 pandemic and the struggles of the working class”.

First of all we want to welcome your initiative to send us your comments with regard to the public meeting of September 2022.

We also welcome your effort to closely monitor the situation in Great Britain and your support for our analysis of the significance of the recent struggles in Britain.

We welcome the production of the text in which you explain your criticism of our analysis, since the confrontation of positions is the only way to develop clarity.

In the letter you write that you have some disagreement with the position developed in the presentation to the public meeting of September about“... the impact of the pandemic, which had interrupted the tendency towards the revival of combativity shown by the struggle against the pension reform in France”. You say that “the struggles of the working class in Britain at the very beginning of the pandemic were not an ‘interruption’ but were in continuity with and advanced that struggle up to those that are breaking out now. (…) These were not massive by any means but they were widespread and virtually all of them had some significant and interesting features”. The general analysis of the ICC that the pandemic “would further smother the class and any development of class struggle, (…) was to be proved manifestly incorrect by the actions of a significant minority of workers and the immediate outbreak of struggles in Britain”.

You are right that from the start of the pandemic courageous expressions of working class struggle took place in Europe; however they also remained dispersed and rather isolated, and ended fairly quickly because “in these conditions the confrontation remains fragile, poorly organised, largely controlled by the unions” (Struggles in the United States, in Iran, in Italy, in Korea... Neither the pandemic nor the economic crisis have broken the combativity of the proletariat!), while the search for solidarity and coming together in general assemblies encountered rather rigorous restrictions, imposed by the pandemic.“Conditions of isolation and shut down pose a huge barrier to any immediate development of the struggle” (Covid-19: despite all the obstacles, the class struggle forges its future) and as you write yourself: the struggles were limited to “a significant minority” of the working class.

At the beginning of the pandemic there was quite a significant break in the development of the class struggle:The pandemic crisis was a blow to the class struggle” (Covid-19: despite all the obstacles, the class struggle forges its future). In the UKhymns to national unity are being sung by the media every day, based on the idea that the virus is an enemy which does not discriminate. (…) The reference to war, the spirit of the ‘blitz’ during World War 2 (…) is incessant.”(Covid-19: despite all the obstacles, the class struggle forges its future).

In the first year and a half of the pandemic the social terrain was dominated by protests, not on the proletarian terrain but mainly on the bourgeois terrain, such as the Black Lives Matter, the protests of the anti-vaxxers, the MAGA and the assault on the Capitol in the US, the “culture wars”, the Brexit campaign, etc. And all the struggles of workers, including the ones you mention in your letter, took place completely in the shadow of these bourgeois protests.

The situation only began to change in the second half of 2021with, among others, an important strike movement in the US (Striktober), in Iran (the nationwide strike of the oil workers), in South Korea (a general strike with 800.000 workers), but even then only few strikes took place in Western Europe where the most experienced and concentrated battalions of the working class are gathered. There was only one significant strike in Spain (the metalworkers of Cadiz) and some days of action in Italy (organised by grass roots unions).

The real change in the situation, in the social atmosphere, only occurred this summer when the strikes in the UK started. It was for the first time since the strikes in France against the pension reforms in the winter of 2019-2020 that workers in a central country of capitalism expressed their discontent week after week, in various sectors of the economy against the sacrifices demanded. And even today this combativity has not yet really waned.

The resurgence of the struggle in the UK is all the more remarkable when you understand the difficulties the class had to overcome to achieve such a struggle:

  • the deafening campaign of the British bourgeoisie about the need to defend democracy in Ukraine against the autocratic regime of Putin;
  • the long-standing campaign about Brexit, which began around 2016, and which had also a big impact on the working class;
  • the important defeat of the working class in the UK with the sabotage of the miners’ strike, from which the British working class had never really recovered.

Despite these huge difficulties, and this is what you don’t refer to in your letter, the workers in the UK, by their refusal to swallow the sacrifices imposed by the bourgeoisie,

  • have put an end to a long period of passivity, suffering one attack after another
  • have placed the struggle firmly and squarely back in the centre of the social situation
  • have shown that suffering a defeat in the struggle is better than not fighting at all.

That’s why the ICC says that it is a class movement of international significance. We even see that the workers in other West-European countries are starting to follow the example of the working class in the UK.

In contrast to what you write, there was no real continuity between the movement against the pension reforms in France and the strikes, mentioned in your letter, which took place at the beginning of the pandemic. With the start of the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown the social situation had dramatically changed and the struggles in that period very quickly revealed their limitations. Moreover, the protest against the lockdowns in 2020, just as the pacifist campaigns after the start of the war in Ukraine in 2022, had a very negative impact on the working class and its capacity to defend its interests.

What you don’t seem to recognise fully is the impact of this acceleration of decomposition as we affirmed at our 24th Congress: The Covid Pandemic that began in early 2020 strikingly confirmed the acceleration of the impact of the period of the social decomposition of capitalism. (…) The current Covid-19 pandemic is a distillation of all the key manifestations of decomposition, and an active factor in its acceleration. (…) The acceleration of decomposition poses important problems at the level of militancy, theory and organisational tissue" (Resolution on the international situation adopted by the 24th ICC Congress).

In this framework the growth of irrationalism was one of the most spectacular attacks on the consciousness of the working class. That’s why we regularly “denounced the irrational theories and apocalyptic ideologies behind these protest and the danger they pose, not only for the health of the people, but also for the class consciousness of the proletariat” (Anti-lockdown protests: the trap of “partial” struggles).

Furthermore, the ICC has always defended the view that the bourgeoisie will try to turn the effects of the decomposition against the working class. The pandemic, as a classic example of decomposition, has amply been used by the bourgeoisie to attack working class combativity and consciousness, as was clearly emphasised at the 24th Congress as well: “While the lockdowns have been motivated primarily by the bourgeoisie’s understanding that it had no other recourse to prevent the spread of the disease, it will certainly take advantage of the situation to enforce the atomisation and exploitation of the working class” (Resolution on the international situation adopted by the 24th ICC Congress), in particular by developing all kind of ideological campaigns to exacerbate the effects of the pandemic, such as the highly emotional and perverse campaign about the ‘heroes’ of the NHS.

The pandemic thus led to a definite retreat in the class struggle. And the moment the working class slowly began to recover from this retreat in the second half of 2021, the war in Ukraine started, which again led to a feeling of impotence and paralysis within the class. The fact that the working class suffered these repeated blows emphasises the importance of the breakthrough brought about by the strike movement of this summer in the UK.

You say that you agree “with the ICC’s analysis of the current strikes in Britain and their potential as being ‘significant’ along with the general perspectives arising from them”. But if you don’t recognise the full impact of the retreat in the working class struggle because of the pandemic, something you tend to underestimate, and because of the war, which you don’t mention, you can speak several times of “the working class in Britain, followed by the world, have made a significant step forward”, but you will not be able to fully understand all the implications of the present strikes in the UK. The idea of a kind of unbroken continuity with the strikes in the beginning of the pandemic prevents you from properly comprehending the reality of a break with the previous period. 

Differences about the defeats of the 1980s

We can add that the position you defend in your letter is an expression of a much larger problem: the underestimation of the negative impact of the effects of decomposition on the working class struggle. Because we think that you underestimate not only the impact of the acceleration of decomposition of the past two years and a half, but also the setback caused by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the campaign around the “death of communism” which accompanied this collapse. This historic event was far more decisive for the deep reflux in the combativity and consciousness of the international working class than the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985.

There has been a discussion on the Forum of the ICC in which we already expressed our disagreement with the position, as put forward in your letter of 9 September, where you speak about a working class that was already on its knees” after the defeat on the miners’ strike in the UK. Why? Because we do not share the position that with the defeat of the miners’ strike it was a done deal and any possible recovery of the struggle was excluded. The ICC does not defend the position, as you suggest in the same letter, that the struggle “was continuing to rise until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc”. However, while the defeat of the miners was a big blow against the working class in the UK, on the international level there were further attempts to develop radical, even anti-union struggles and in 1985 the outcome of this international strike wave was not a foregone conclusion, as you seem to imply.

For instance, only one year after the defeat of the miners’ strike, the biggest strikes in Belgium's history took place. “In this small country at the heart of industrialized Europe, in the middle of the largest concentration of workers in the world, the workers have multiplied their spontaneous strikes, breaking out of union directives, to respond to the acceleration and threat of new economic attacks from the government; that they have begun to try to unify the struggles, acting collectively without waiting for the unions, by sending massive delegations - such as the 300 Limburg miners who went to the public service workers' assembly in Brussels - in order to demand the unification of the fight.” (Massive strikes in Norway, Finland and Belgium: From dispersion toward unification)

However, the biggest challenge for the working class in the 1980s was the politicisation of the struggle. The workers in Poland had posed the question and it was up to the workers of Western Europe to resolve it. The latter had to go beyond the movement in Poland at the level of politicisation. But the bourgeoisie was aware of the danger and “all the forces of capitalism have worked to block the politicisation of the working class by preventing it from making the link between its economic struggles against exploitation and the refusal of workers in central countries to allow themselves to be mobilised behind the bourgeoisie's war policy.” (Resolution on the balance of forces between the classes - 2019)
We will come back to this subject in a later correspondence, but it should be clear that there is still some way to go if we want to clarify more in depth the harmful effects of decomposition on the working class struggle. We can certainly have disagreements, but we cannot afford a long-lasting ambiguity on such an important issue as the balance of class forces and the concrete perspectives for the proletarian struggle.

With fraternal regards,

D for the ICC