How do you assess the general dynamic of a proletarian struggle?

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“… as long as capitalism exists, there will be workers’ struggles. This was the case in the ascendant phase of capitalism. And also in the period of decadence (from about 1914 onwards) and this was true even during the period of counter-revolution. And even in the COVID period there were workers' struggles, there were strikes in Italy, in the US, etc... So I ask myself: Are strikes in themselves, however positive, an indication of a general revival of the workers' struggle? Can't strikes sometimes be an expression of despair, of doubt? … What are the criteria for determining that a particular workers' struggle represents a genuine renewal of workers' struggle, a struggle that offers a perspective?" (C)

The point raised by the comrade is crucial for the intervention of revolutionaries in the class struggle: how to identify the meaning of a struggle, "a struggle that offers a perspective"? Certainly, there are no absolute criteria for determining whether a particular strike represents "a general renewal of workers' struggle". However, one should beware of a purely empirical appreciation of such a movement, because in many cases appearances can be deceptive. To grasp its real significance, the analysis must go beyond superficial characteristics and start from a framework of evaluation that takes into account:

- First, the characteristics of the historical period in which it takes place: expansion or decline of capitalism, certainly. But, more importantly in today's decadent capitalism, is it a period characterised by a global tendency towards counter-revolution or, on the contrary, by the opening of a course towards important class confrontations?

- Then, the appreciation of the balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in a particular historical period: what is the dynamic of the class struggle at the level of its extension, unification or politicisation? What is the impact of the manoeuvres and ideological obstacles put in place by the bourgeoisie?

Such a framework enables us to evaluate the development of the subjective factor within the class.

Class struggle and historical period

In the present period of capitalist decadence, the general course towards defeat or, on the contrary, towards a strengthening of the proletarian movement, is a crucial reference point for evaluating the potentialities of a particular struggle, however radical it may appear at first sight. It makes it possible to take into account the level of consciousness in  the mass of workers, beyond simple combativity or even the number of workers involved in the struggle.  

Some historical examples demonstrate this. In May-June 1936, an immense wave of strikes and factory occupations swept across France: two and a half million workers from all sectors, private and public, and from all industries and services, launched themselves into struggle, so that Trotsky wrote on 9 June 1936 that "the French revolution has begun".  In reality, the proletariat was about to be enrolled behind the bourgeois ideology of anti-fascism - an ideology which was to lead it to defeat and war. This movement was situated in a general dynamic of struggle which was unfavourable.

After the defeat of the German Revolution and other massive movements in Western Europe, after the victory of Stalinism in Russia, the counter-revolution triumphed and class consciousness suffered a deep retreat among proletarians. Therefore, despite temporary gains such as wage increases, the 40-hour week and paid holidays, the 1936 movement quickly turned into a nationalist anthem and support for the Popular Front government, which would lead to a mobilisation of workers in preparation for the world war.

On 23 October 1956, students and young workers organised a demonstration in Budapest to express their solidarity with a workers' uprising that had been bloodily repressed in Poznan in Poland. On the 25th, workers from all the industrial centres of Hungary joined the protests, went on strike and spontaneously formed workers' councils: a spectacular development which seemed to herald the beginning of a proletarian revolution. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, the proletariat, atomised by the Second World War, still remained globally mobilised behind the democratic or Stalinist ruling class. So, after the first mobilisations, the bourgeoisie was able to take advantage of the democratic illusions which undermined the workers' consciousness. It was thus able to control the movement. On the 27th it installed a "progressive" government led by Imre Nagy, which immediately launched a counter-offensive by dismantling the hated security police, promising democratic reforms and calling for the restoration of order. Soon the workers' councils, awash with illusions, expressed their support for the Nagy government by deciding to end the strikes and resume work.

When the strike movement of May 68 broke out in France, the historical conditions had radically changed. Its soil was fertilised by the first signs of the return of the historical crisis of capitalism, and the movement was initiated by a new generation of workers, who had not been subjected to the horrible events of the counter-revolution. This context allowed the proletariat to throw aside the dead weight of Stalinism and to seek to renew links with its past experience, to become aware of the need to struggle at the historic level. While it was the biggest strike in the history of the international workers’ movement, involving at least 8 million workers, the media and bourgeois intellectuals downplayed its importance and emphasised the student revolt.

The less spectacular appearance of the strike wave in fact masked an event of the utmost importance, which marked the end of the period of counter-revolution, heralded the historic resurgence of the class struggle on a global scale over the next two decades, expressed a real development of consciousness and aroused massive interest in a broad milieu for the writings of militants of the revolutionary workers’ movement.

The balance of forces between the classes

With the numerous struggles in the aftermath of the May 1968 movement, which opened a dynamic towards decisive class confrontations, a process of developing consciousness, the balance of forces was initially in favour of the proletariat; and this was highlighted when the workers in Poland posed the question of the open politicisation of the struggle, involving a confrontation with the bourgeois state.

However, the working class, particularly in the core countries of capitalism, failed to take up the question in the 1980s by raising its consciousness to a new level.. Despite numerous struggles, it was not able to go beyond the trade union framework and raise its struggle to the level of an open class-on-class confrontation, thus losing its advantage in the balance of forces with the bourgeoisie, even if its combativity prevented the latter from imposing its solution to the crisis - world war.

This contradictory situation finally led to a dead end, since neither the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat succeeded in imposing their perspective. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the ideological campaign on the "death of communism" and the "final victory of democracy", as well as the opening of the phase of decomposition with an accelerated rotting of society, led to an ebb of the class struggle, provoking a retreat in consciousness within the class, a balance of forces that was more clearly unfavourable to the proletariat: "the decomposition of capitalism has profoundly affected the essential dimensions of the class struggle: collective action, solidarity, the need for organisation, the relations which underlie all life in society and which are increasingly breaking down, confidence in the future and in one's own forces, consciousness, lucidity, coherence and unity of thought, the taste for theory." [1]

It’s true that the ICC had a certain  tendency to underestimate the extent of this ebb and to prematurely predict, as in 2003, the end of the retreat of the workers' struggle: proletarian movements were held back first by a growing hold of the unions in the 1990s, more generally by the deleterious effects of individualism and every man for himself or by their dissolution into popular and interclass revolts, as during the "Arab Spring" in 2010-11 or with the "Yellow Vest" movement in 2018-19.

Demonstrations of proletarian resistance against the pressure of decomposition did arise during these years, such as the anti-CPE movement in 2006 in France or the Indignados movement in Spain (2011), but they could not mark the end of the deep retreat insofar as they were not powerful enough, and above all not conscious enough, to impose an alternative on a class terrain in the face of the effects of decomposition.

“Enough is Enough!”

In contrast to previous decades, the current wave of struggle, which began in the UK, marks a significant break with the previous thirty years. Beyond the immediate expressions, the context in which these struggles are developing highlights their deeper significance:

- despite the pressure of decomposition stimulating the search for individual solutions or interclassist and populist revolts;

- despite the two-year Covid pandemic, which has made it more difficult for workers to come together for the struggle;

- despite the current "vortex" effect of capitalist decomposition (pandemic, ecological catastrophe, economic disruption, etc.), within which the war in Ukraine in particular tends to amplify the powerlessness in the face of growing barbarism,

workers have come to the conclusion that "enough is enough" and that the only way to put an end to it is to mobilise on their class terrain to defend their living and working conditions. In fact, the expansion of this wave can only be understood as the result of a change in the workers' state of mind,  as the result of a long process of subterranean maturation within the class, of disillusionment and disengagement with the main themes of bourgeois ideology.

In particular, it is especially significant that the British working class was in the vanguard of this rupture:

- even though the defeat of the miners' strike in 1984-85 dealt it a severe blow and weighed on its combativity and consciousness in recent decades,

- even though the intensive populist Brexit campaign had created deep divisions in its ranks between "remainers" and "leavers" (pro and anti-EU),

the proletariat in Britain, under the pressure of the widespread impact of the economic crisis and the heavy damage to its living conditions, has raised its head and resolutely engaged in the struggle.

Like May '68 (but in a different context), the current international movement expresses  the beginnings of a process of in-depth reflection, of a tendency towards the recovery of class identity. It marks a break with a long period of retreat, characterised by disorientation, by a reduction of class consciousness and by workers' struggles often being completely isolated from each other. Despite their weaknesses, the very simultaneity of the current struggles (in most of Western Europe, but also in Korea or the US) underlines once again the reality that, for a struggle to be successful, it must develop into a common and united movement throughout the class. The current wave shows not only a development of combativity but also a return of workers' confidence in their own strength as a class and a deepening reflection, even if we are only at the beginning of this process.

Through examples from the history of the workers' movement, we wanted to show:

  • the importance for revolutionaries to analyse precisely the context of the workers' struggle in order to assess the level of consciousness in the class;
  • that a superficial look at strikes can be misleading and lead to a wrong assessment and ultimately to a wrong orientation of the intervention of revolutionary organisations.

As Lenin wrote: “Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action. Marx and Engels always said, rightly ridiculing the mere memorising and repetition of ‘formulas’, that at best are capable only of marking out general tasks, which are necessarily modifiable by the concrete economic and political conditions of each particular period of the historical process."

Dennis, 24 February 2023

[1] How can the proletariat overthrow capitalism?, International Review no. 168 (2022)