The response of the working class to the acceleration of barbarism

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War, pandemic, ecological disaster, economic chaos, famine: in the opening years of the 2020s, all these products of a decaying system have been intensifying and acting on each other, leaving little doubt that capitalism is spiralling towards destruction. But in opposition to the sense of doom and hopelessness pervading society, in June 2022, the world’s oldest proletariat ignited the fire of international class struggle. Instead of cowering before this growing chaos, the proletariat began to shake itself free of decades of disorientation. A common slogan has been heard in Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, Germany; “enough is enough. We can’t take anymore”. The proletarian giant has bestirred itself. Its collective struggle and solidarity, its determination not to sacrifice itself, are the antithesis of the increasing turmoil of capitalism. They have opened up a new period of the class struggle.

In order to explain these historical events, we held three public meetings in English at the beginning of the year.

The meetings were attended by comrades from around the globe. The discussion addressed the historical meaning of the acceleration of barbarism and the proletariat’s rupture with the deep retreat that, with some exceptional moments, lasted from 1989 to 2022.

In this article we will concentrate on the meaning of this rupture.

There was broad agreement with the ICC’s analysis of the depth and impact of the multiple crises. The discussion of the struggles raised important questions. How will the struggle break out of their isolation from each other? How will the struggles transform themselves from the defensive to the offensive? Is the ICC saying the way is now open to revolution? In this article we will take up these questions.

The upsurge of struggles since last June has largely consisted of isolated struggles. Britain is a good example. Despite the number of different sectors involved there has not been a real coming together of the struggles. The dividing up of the struggles is not just between sectors but also within them. There are three rail unions, each holding their own strike days. In the health sector, the Royal Collage of Nurses has even split up its own strikes; only about one third of its members have been out at one time. The majority of health workers are not involved. We also see this strategy in other countries.

Faced with these divisions, a concern was raised; “I think that the struggle of the working class are rising all over the world. That’s a positive sign but there is isolation between the struggles. Struggles are spreading but there is an opposing picture. Struggles close together but they are isolated and this is significant.” (M)

The dispersal of the struggles is indeed a serious weakness. The marxist method means looking beyond each of these particular weaknesses, placing them in their historical context. It is only in this framework that the true historical depth of the struggles can be revealed. 

Advances and retreats in the class struggle

This explosion of struggles has a similar historical significance to the events of 1968. May 68, and the huge upsurge in struggles that followed in many countries, erupted after 50 years of counter-revolution that prevailed after the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-27. This period was marked by the physical and ideological crushing of the proletariat: its deepest point was World War Two. Today’s struggles come after 30 years of a deep historical retreat by the international proletariat, precipitated by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the onset of a new and final phase in capitalism’s decline – the phase of decomposition. In these years the proletariat has suffered massive ideological attacks. Initially around the “defeat of communism” and all the lies that went with it: the end of the class struggle, the victory of capitalism, the triumph of democracy. Then aggravated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of terrorism, the growing refugee crisis. The nurturing of scapegoating and hatred by the main capitalist states that accompanied these military adventures fed the emergence of a torrent of populism and its by-product, anti-populism. Both these ideologies seek to divide the working class and undermine its awareness of itself as a class through the politics of competing identities: national, racial, sexual etc. In recent years there have been the ecological campaigns, the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. These ideological offensives have had a profound impact on the proletariat.

The international bourgeoisie was initially surprised by the depth and extent of the struggles from 1968. However, it soon developed strategies against the struggles, culminating in the crushing of the British miners in 1985. This year-long grinding down of one of the most militant fractions of the world’s oldest proletariat was an attack on the whole working class: if the miners could not win, how can we? In the period after this defeat, there was an ebbing of struggles, despite important movements between 1986 and 1988. The working class was already on the back foot and in a situation of a growing loss of confidence in its ability to struggle when it was hit by the historical earthquake of 1989.

The ability of the proletariat to defend its class interests through the upsurge of struggles last year clearly marks a profound victory for the proletariat. It is shaking itself free of the heavy chains of the retreat and disorientation of the past decades. This has happened at a moment in which capitalism’s headlong rush towards catastrophe is becoming more and more evident, demonstrating that the proletariat bears a potential revolutionary alternative. This is why we call this moment a rupture: the social terrain has been changed.

The proletariat has not suddenly decided it has to struggle. There has been a whole process of experience and reflection over the past decades of the reflux. The class may have lost confidence in itself but it is still the revolutionary class. It may have been forced into a retreat but it had not been physically and ideological crushed in mass confrontations with the state. It has experienced the ideological campaigns, suffered endless attacks on wages, working and living conditions. It has also tried to struggle: the movement against the CPE in France 2006, the Vigo metal workers and the Indignados in Spain in 2011 are the main examples. But these struggles were unable to lessen the impact of the ideological campaigns on its self-confidence, its awareness of itself as a distinct social force. In the 2010s the struggles reached historical lows, under the increasing weight of populism and anti-populism. The proletariat, however, has experienced the reality of the lies of the populists and the ‘established elites’, particularly faced with the pandemic. All of this has led to a widespread reflection which exploded into struggle faced with the brutal attacks caused by the impact of the pandemic and war. The international slogan “enough is enough” is the manifestation of this process.

What is the meaning and potential of the new period in the class struggle?

A comrade asked about the implications of this analysis: “You seem to be saying that this is a crucial moment of the class struggle, in the light of the descent into barbarism. In the light of the current struggles, you seem to be saying that this has a particular significance, are you actually saying that these struggles can develop into a new wave of struggles (the third, with the first coming after the first world war and the second in the 1960s, defeated by the end of the 1980s)? Are you saying that if the present struggles can’t develop into a third and final wave, into a revolutionary wave, then capitalism will triumph? This is not clear not to me” (MH)

We are convinced that the rupture has opened up a new period in the struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. The ruling class is no longer confronted with a disorientated and passive proletariat. It is now having to grapple with an international proletariat that is refusing to sacrifice itself in the interests of capital. Will this take form of a “third wave”? We do not know.

We are not in the same situation as1968-89; the world is not divided into blocs, capitalism is 30 years into its final phase, the proletariat is confronted with the possibility that the ecological crisis could irreversibly destroy the natural environment; there is the acceleration of militarism and the danger of wars that resort to nuclear weapons. Before 1989 the proletariat’s struggle could hold back the threat of a Third World War; today no matter how much the proletariat develops its struggle the capitalist system will continue its decent into barbarism. Even if the proletariat manages to overthrow capitalism internationally, it could be faced with irreparable damage to the environment and a vast pile of ruins created by capitalist wars. But we do know that the proletariat has opened up the potential to develop its struggle towards creating the conditions for the overthrow of capitalism.

The proletariat’s ability to cast off the weight of decades of deep retreat demonstrates that it has not suffered a historical defeat comparable to what it went through in the 1920s and 1930s. Far from being the submissive victims of bourgeois ideology and agreeing to sacrifice itself on the altar of war and the “national interest”, the proletariat is defending its own interests. It is doing this in the unprecedented conditions of the acceleration of capitalism’s barbarism. This shows that it is still a potent social force. It it is not cowed or broken and it is still able to draw on its experience and reflection over the past 30 years.

How will the class go from the economic to the political struggle?

Another comrade asked:

“Qualitative escalation - how does the working class go from defence of immediate economic interests to politicisation - is it size, response of ruling class, role of revolutionaries? Just want to pose the question of the potential change to active resistance to war and to capitalism itself, only possible response to the war itself” (Intervention of Albert)

We think it is an error to oppose the economic to the political struggle. They are two dimensions of the same struggle, not stages the class has to progress through in a linear, mechanical way.

The present struggles illustrate this. By defending its working and living conditions the proletariat is rejecting the bourgeoisie’s ideological campaigns. It is posing its collective struggle against the atomisation, nihilism, scapegoating and hatred that typify decomposing capitalism. At present the vast majority of workers are not conscious that this is what they are doing, but objectively they are. This is laying the basis for the future more conscious recognition of the revolutionary content of the class struggle.

In order to defend its economic interests, the proletariat has to confront the last bulwark of the capitalist state, the trade unions. This is one of the great political challenges facing the class. To break with the unions means breaking with a powerful capitalist ideology: with the idea that “the unions are the working class”. This will not happen overnight but through learning the lessons of repeated defeats imposed by the capitalist state and its unions.

The comrade’s concern is: when will the proletariat become conscious of this political and economic nature of its struggle? The present struggles are a manifestation of this process. We are seeing new generations of workers, with no experience of strikes, joyously entering into the struggle, along with the older generations of workers who experienced the retreat and the struggles of 1968-89. We have already seen the unions in the UK having to try to present themselves as organising the coming together of the struggles, in response to the class’s growing anger about the uselessness of isolated struggles. On the picket lines and demonstrations in the UK there is no polarisation around race, sex, nationality or how you voted, rather there is a common struggle. If they are to push back the attacks, workers will have to confront and overcome the obstacles in the way of the extension and unification of the movement. In the coming period there will be many defeats but these will be rich in lessons invaluable to the future development of the struggle.

The role of the revolutionary organisation

There is also the important role of revolutionaries which the comrade asked about. This is a fundamental question. As we say in our Platform: As an emanation of the class, a manifestation of the process by which it becomes conscious, revolutionaries can only exist as such by becoming an active factor in this process. To accomplish this task in an indissoluble way, the revolutionary organisation:

  • participates in all the struggles of the class in which its members distinguish themselves by being the most determined and combative fighters;
  • intervenes in these struggles always stressing the general interests of the class and the final goals of the movement; and the final goals of the movement;
  • as an integral part of this intervention, constantly dedicates itself to the work of theoretical clarification and reflection which alone will allow its general activity to be based on the whole past experience of the class and on the future perspectives crystallised through such theoretical work.”

In order to carry out this role, in response to the rupture in the class struggle, the ICC has issued and distributed four international leaflets since June 2003, held numerous public meetings in various countries, devoted the pages of its press and website to the theoretical work of understanding the full historical meaning of the period opened up by this rupture.

As an internationally centralised organisation, the ICC has carried out this intervention in as many countries as possible. Our forces are limited, but we are determined to carry out our role, with every ounce of our ability.

To this end we will continue to hold regular public meetings where the questions facing the proletariat and its organisations can be discussed.

We may have only been able to take up two of the questions raised at the public meeting, but they are vital questions. Unless we understand the profound historical meaning of the proletariat’s ability to break free from the heavy chains of the last three decades, we cannot fully understand the potential of the period opening up. We cannot predict whether the proletariat will be able to develop sufficient class consciousness to pose the overthrow of this rotting system. Nevertheless, we are convinced that it has taken the first steps towards such an outcome. As a communist organisation we are committed to do all we can to fulfil our historical responsibilities to the proletariat in its struggle.

We call on readers to attend our public meetings, write to us, help distribute our press and leaflets, to take an active part in the proletariat’s struggle for self-emancipation.



Balance sheet of discussions at the ICC’s public meetings