This report, which was presented to the 4th Congress of Revolution Internationale, the ICC’s section in France, tries to examine the initial steps of the international resurgence of workers’ struggles. The report is made up of three parts:
-- The first deals with the development of the general, social, economic, and political conditions in which today’s class struggle is taking place.
-- The second briefly draws out the main features of the present class struggle.
-- The third part looks at the problems the class struggle now confronts.
The reason for dealing with the question in this manner is that it allows us to approach it in a global, dynamic way.
The development of the workers’ struggles in Poland seems to confirm this method of analysis as well as the content of the report. Thus,
-- the development of the whole international situation confers on these struggles a far greater importance than the struggles of ‘70-71 and ‘76;
- -these struggles show once again how the class struggle today proceeds by sudden leaps, and acts in a gradual manner. It has a different dynamic from the one it had last century;
-- finally, these struggles show the unity of the problems and questions that confront the working class in its struggle, no matter what country we are talking about. But what characterizes the struggles in Poland in relation to preceding struggles is the fact that they represent a leap forward for the whole international workers’ movement. It’s the fact that the workers in Poland have begun to answer, in practice, the problems posed by previous struggles -- the extension and unification of the struggle, self-organization, and class autonomy and solidarity.
Before letting the readers judge for themselves, we should point out that the main aim of this report is to look at the dynamic and positive aspects of the resurgence, without spending too much time analyzing how the bourgeoisie is trying to oppose the movement (in particular through the left’s oppositional stance).
The evolution of the form and content of the class struggle is always a reflection of the evolution of the conditions in which it takes place. Depending on the situation, every event which sets labor against capital is either a stimulant to the subterranean development of the class struggle, or a reflection of the final strivings of a declining movement. Thus one cannot analyze the class struggle without considering the conditions in which it takes place.
For this reason, we shall first examine the general social conditions which determine the development of the class struggle. Then, in the second part of this text we shall deal with the most important aspects of this development, the overall dynamic of the class struggle over the past two years, and, in the light of this, the perspectives for the future development of the class struggle.
Evolution of the conditions of today’s class struggle
We have to consider the social determinants of the present situation in its various aspects: economic, political, and in relation to society as a whole.
At the economic level
The accentuation and generalization of the economic crisis creates the conditions for class struggle today. The tendency towards the equalization of economic stagnation and decline among capitalist nations in the period of decadence is exacerbated in periods of open crisis. Over the last ten years all countries have been hit by the crisis and all those countries regarded as ‘models of development’ -- Germany, Japan and America among the developed countries, and Korea, Iran and Brazil among the underdeveloped countries -- have been shown to be no more immune from its effects than the rest.
Equally, within each national economy, there are less and less ‘locomotive’ industrial sectors. The bourgeoisie hoped to be able to develop these sectors at the expense of other, anachronistic or less profitable sectors. But these hopes have now been dashed. All sectors or industry is beginning to feel the effects of the crisis.
And all sections of the working class. The spectre of redundancies and unemployment, or falling living standards, the prospect of increasingly intolerable living conditions -- these are no longer confined to particular sectors of the class. Individual problems are becoming general problems. This tendency -- the product of the crisis -- towards the equalization of the conditions of existence of the working class tends also to create the conditions for the generalization of the class struggle.
The aggravation of the generalization of the economic crisis is a fundamental factor in the development of the conditions for the generalization of struggle in the present period.
Another factor, no less fundamental for the development of these conditions, derives from the fact that, for all classes, it is becoming apparent that there is no solution to the crises, except another war.
The bourgeoisie used to talk of ‘restructuring the economy’, of ‘participation’ and ‘self-management’; now this has given way to the language of austerity. They no longer talk about ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’. For the bourgeoisie, the end of the tunnel is war, and they admit it.
Today one has to ‘tell the truth’. But the bourgeoisie’s truth is not always very pleasant to tell, especially for the exploited class.
When the bourgeoisie openly admits that its system is collapsing, when it has nothing else to offer except another inter-imperialist butchery -- then it helps to create the conditions which will enable the working class to put forward its own historic alternative to the capitalist system.
At the political level
All the illusory solutions to the crisis put forward over the past ten years, which even the bourgeoisie believed in at the time, are fading away.
Thus the catastrophic economic situation, the perception of the crisis by different social classes, and the reaction of the working class to the crisis, are reflected at a political level, not only in the struggle between different factions of the bourgeoisie, but above all in the absence of a political alternative in the face of the class struggle.
The declining value to the bourgeoisie of “the left in power”, which was the predominant trend for several years, is one determinant factor in the absence of this alternative. This is why we have seen the return of the left parties to opposition in the principal European countries, in response to the development of the class struggle.
For the moment however, on a political level, the left is not able to put forward its own perspective. Its function is essentially to minimize the gravity of what’s at stake. In response to the governments’ talk of the ‘harsh reality of the situation’, the left hesitates. It says that this ‘harsh reality’ -- the threat of war -- is a lie. But it hasn’t yet thought up many lies of its own to disguise this reality. Thus it is not so much on a political level that the left is playing its anti-working class role; but rather directly on the level of the class struggle itself.
This absence of a political alternative is at the heart of the political crisis of the bourgeoisie. From this point of view the return of the left to opposition betrays the weakness of its own position and that of the bourgeoisie as a whole.
At the social level
On a social level, the development of the conditions in which the class struggle takes place is expressed above all in the relationship of the state to society. All the more so since, in the period of capitalist decadence, the state tends to rule over the whole of social life, and establish its control all aspects of social existence.
The effects of the crisis and the various economic plans to counteract these effects have had serious consequences for the state -- particularly on a financial level, where state deficits have grown to increasingly unmanageable proportions and have become one of the principle sources of inflation.
Increased state spending is now more or less restricted to the police and the army; for the rest, what the bourgeoisie calls the ‘social wages’ -- that part of wages whose expenditure is determined by the state -- has fallen sharply while taxation has increased.
At the same time as the state finds necessary to increase repression and the militarization of social life, its own economic crisis tends to weaken its ideological hold over society.
The illusion of the ‘neutral’ or ‘social’ nature of the state is undermined, and the state is increasingly clearly revealed as the guardian of capitalist order.
The position the state finds itself in today means that it is powerless to prevent the development of all the contradictions which gnaws at capitalist society, contradictions which set class against class, and one expressed through growing resistance to the state, social revolts and proletarian struggles.
In response to this development, the state resorts to the strengthening of its repressive apparatus to prevent these contradictions from breaking out into the open. In the underdeveloped countries, the state is increasingly forced to resort to the massacre of workers, peasants or entire populations -- such as the massacre of workers in India and Iran, and the growing incidence of murder by the state in countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, and Ecuador... In the developed countries where, until now, the state has been able to preserve a “democratic” facade, it now finds it has no other response than to use the police and bourgeois ‘justice’ against all expressions of social discontent.
The laws that European governments are now concocting for us (‘anti-terrorist’ in Italy, ‘anti-autonomist’ or ‘anti-vandal’ in France), the heavy judicial repression against those “caught in the act”, the deaths in the confrontations in Corsica, Jussieu and Miami, the injuries at Bristol and Plogoff, the armoured cars in the streets of Amsterdam against the squatters -- this is the response of the ‘democratic’ states to the contradictions in their society.
In this situation, any remaining illusions about the possibility of change within the ‘legal’ framework of existing institutions must tend to disappear.
The formal reinforcement of state repression is not an expression of the real strengthening of power. In the absence of any political or economic solution to the crisis, without a convincing ideology which can mobilize the population in support of the state, the growth of repression is, in reality, an expression of the weakness of the state.
Moreover, the failure of the system does not only lead to the deterioration of the living conditions of the working class, but also increasingly deprives entire sections of the population of any possibility of work, and excludes them from all aspects of economic life. It throws thousands of peasants onto the streets, and leads to the impoverishment of all the intermediate classes and social strata. In these conditions, there is a growing revolt by all non-exploiting classes against the existing social order. In the last two years we have seen revolts by entire populations (Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador), by peasants, by the oppressed strata in the developed countries (Bristol, Miami, Plogoff), and by students (Jussieu in France, Korea, and South Africa).
The growth of social discontent and social revolt is one of the conditions for the development of the class struggle and the proletarian revolution. Movements against the existing social order contribute to a process which leads to the growing isolation of the state, create the social conditions in which the proletariat can develop its own forms of struggle, and emerge as the only force in society able to provide an alternative to capitalism.
The proletariat does not only make its revolution against the bourgeoisie; it has to answer the problems of the whole of society. In showing a way forward for other oppressed strata, it also develops its own consciousness.
Thus with the development of these factors:
1. the deepening economic crisis which offers no perspective except war;
2. the lack of any immediate political perspective for the bourgeoisie; its inability to develop an ideology which, if it does not give grounds for ‘hope’, can at least defuse revolt;
3. the weakening of the state’s hold over society, as it becomes more isolated in the face of revolts by non-exploiting strata and classes all over the world;
We can see the emergence of the conditions that will allow the proletariat to discover the path towards the international revolution.
But despite the fact that the overall situation favors the proletariat, the more of the left into opposition responds to the need of the bourgeoisie to prevent this from happening. Even before the resurgence of class struggle was clearly apparent, the bourgeoisie, thanks to advance warning from the unions and its ‘labor experts’, had begun to understand the situation. In this sense, in contrast to the preceding period of class struggle (1968-74) where the re-emergence of the proletariat onto the historical stage took the whole world by surprise, the bourgeoisie today understands the danger of the class struggle and is preparing for it.
From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, the passage of the left into opposition is not a Machiavellian plan foreseen in advance. The credibility of the left parties and above all of the unions was already becoming dangerously weak throughout the period in which they were in power or held positions of ‘responsibility’ within the established power structure (de-unionization, declining union membership, the isolation of the union bureaucrats were the clearest signs of this growing weakness). Thus, the left and the unions were forced to adopt a new attitude in order to preserve the source of their strength and the whole basis of their existence: the ability to control the working class.
In opposition, however much they try to restore their credibility by assuming the ‘leadership’ of struggles, they are unable to do this effectively because extra-parliamentary struggle is not their ‘natural’ field of activity. This is why we said above that the left in opposition is in a position of weakness. It is the pressure of the class struggle, which is responsible for its current situation in opposition and the need for ‘verbal radicalization’.
In our work within the class struggle, face to face with the problem of the left in opposition, we must remember the two-edged situation of the left in opposition. On the one hand the left is a block to the development of class struggle; on the other hand it is in a position of weakness, itself due to the weakness of bourgeois ideology. Whatever happens, the left is forced to continue its work of sabotaging the class struggle, despite this contradiction, which will become more acute as the class struggle develops, and will undermine its effectiveness even more radically than the years in power.
Having examined the objective conditions for the development of class struggle today, we will now attempt to evaluate the actual development of the struggles which have taken place. But first it is necessary to briefly outline what the recent experience of the class has shown us about the general characteristics, the overall dynamic of the class struggle in decadent capitalism.
The process of the class struggle
1. Unlike in the 19th century, the proletariat cannot become a force within capitalist society unless it challenges capitalism itself. In the 19th century, the working class could struggle for limited aims and force capitalism to concede to its demands without this leading to a wider, social conflict. The obsolescent and decadent character of capitalism in the 20th century, and the exacerbation of the contradictions of capitalism in periods of acute crisis, means that capitalism can no longer tolerate the growth of an antagonistic force within itself. Proletarian struggles can only have the effect of deepening the crisis and calling into question capitalist society itself.
The aims of the movement, from challenging the conditions of working class existence, now begin to challenge that existence itself. The forms of struggle, from expressing the partial and localized resistance of sections of the working class, now embrace the working class as a whole. The development of the class struggle can only take place through the participation of increasingly massive numbers of workers.
2. Although the class struggle has always developed in an uneven way, the workers’ movement of the 19th century could grow progressively within capitalist society. Each limited struggle contributed to the development of class consciousness and the growing unity of workers in their mass organizations. But today class struggle can only take the form of explosive, unexpected and unprepared struggles.
But despite their uneven, explosive character, the development of such mass movements is still a process, and it follows a definite logic: there are real links between the different moments of the struggle, even if they don’t appear at the surface.
“It is absurd to think of the mass strike as one act, one isolated action. The mass strike is rather the indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades.” (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)
This is the framework of the general laws and characteristics of the revolutionary movement today. It’s within this framework that we can and must situate the experience of the working class in its most recent struggles.
Today, we are at the start of a process leading towards the development of mass strikes, towards the constitution of the working class as a force that will regenerate society and liberate the world from the chains of capitalism.
This is why we must analyze today’s struggles very closely, in order to draw out the dynamic elements within them, the elements which offer the immediate possibility for us to participate, to the utmost of our resources, in the historic march of the proletariat towards the future.
Certain aspects of today’s class struggle
During recent struggles, although they are still at an embryonic stage, the activity of the working class has already raised many problems, many of them have not been resolved, and will not be resolved in the immediate future. But the fact that they have been posed, in practice, is already a step forward. We can outline some of these problems, which are repeatedly encountered by workers in their struggles in the present period. Although they are all interconnected as integral parts of the process which leads towards revolution, they often appear as isolated problems, and can be considered as such without necessarily detracting from the clarity of analysis:
-- confrontations with the state, which has occurred in all the recent principal struggles which have taken place in Europe (Longwy, Denain, Paris, Great Britain, miners of Limburg and dockers of Rotterdam...)
-- self-organisation (co-ordination committees in Sonacotra, the strike committee in Rotterdam);
-- active solidarity (Great Britain, France);
-- factory occupations (Longwy, Denain);
-- the distribution of informations through the press, radio and TV (Spain, France);
-- repression and the struggle against repression (workers imprisoned following events at Denain, Longwy, and the March on Paris on March 23rd);
In confronting these problems, workers have at the same time confronted the unions’ sabotage of their struggles, in all its various forms. They have confronted the whole union apparatus from top to bottom. Despite the trade unionist ideology which still weighs so heavily on their consciousness, the workers have been forced to overflow, confront, or rush ahead of the unions, and very often fell into the traps laid by the unions.
All these questions arise in the course of the struggle, and their solutions will only be found in the struggle itself. We can’t be satisfied with the repetition of general truths, while waiting for these problems to solve themselves. Unlike the PIC (Pour une Intervention Communiste) who at Longwy.and Denain called on the working class to inscribe the slogan “the abolition of wage labor” on its banners; unlike the GCI (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste) for whom the most burning question is always whether or not the workers are ‘militarily’ prepared; unlike the FOR (Ferment Ouvrier Revolutionnaire) who call for “insurrection”, and the CWO (Communist Workers’ Organization) which is ‘waiting’ for the working class to break from the unions (and join the party?) before the class struggle is worthy of its attention... we must concretely analyze the needs and potential of the struggle today, the dangers and problems which confront workers today, if we want to participate actively in the development of the class struggle. On the eve of an insurrection the most crucial immediate problems will not be the same as today. But today, right at the start of a long and difficult process, we must carefully analyze different aspects of the struggle, however insignificant they may appear, in order to be able to understand questions like: What is happening at each point in the development of the struggle? What are the most important factors determining the immediate development of the struggle? What is the potential of the struggle? How can we make our own contribution to it?
Here we will limit ourselves to an analysis of some of the questions mentioned above, which we feel are the most important at the present time.
The means and extension of struggle
One of the first questions raised by the class struggle is that of its immediate effect on the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state. If we take the example of three different situations confronted by production workers in recent struggles, we can see that they all confronted this problem.
-- In Great Britain, the three month long strike by public sector steelworkers, which also involved private sector workers to a lesser extent, had almost no effect on the economy of the country. In Holland, despite a month long strike by dockers at Rotterdam, 80% of activity at the port was unaffected.
-- Elsewhere, a large number of struggles have been waged against redundancies. In these cases even more than the others, it is virtually impossible for workers’ actions to have any economic impact on the bourgeoisie.
Elsewhere again, workers in sectors which are vital for the functioning of the economy and the state (especially energy, arms, transport etc...) are subjected to intense pressure and increasingly totalitarian deterrent measures to prevent them from going on strike, In France, for example, for many months the bourgeoisie has waged a campaign against strikes in the public sectors, and more recently has attempted to introduce anti-strike measures in the electricity industry.
In the last few months, workers’ experience has confirmed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to exert enough economic pressure to make struggles effective. The high level of manufactures’ stocks, the high technology of modern capital, and its corollary, the limited size of the workforce, the international organization of capital, the centralization and control of the economy by the state -- in a word, the power of capital over labor on an economic level, means that strikes confined to one factory or one branch of industry have less and less effect.
None of this is new. It is an expression of state capitalism and the militarization of economic life that is characteristic of decadent capitalism and reinforced by the present situation of acute crisis. But what is ‘new’ in struggles in recent months, is that the growing consciousness of this situation has been the principal factor forcing workers to search for new methods of struggle, and to extend their struggles.
In Great Britain, the steel workers quickly realized that the blockade of steel at ports and stockholders etc, was practically impossible to achieve, and they had to find other ways to assert themselves. This is why steelworkers were led to make it the focus of their activity to seek active solidarity from other workers.
In France the steelworkers’ struggle was around the issue of redundancies. In this case, even more than in the others, there was no way that the steel workers could exert any economic pressure on the bourgeoisie, and the workers knew this from the start. At no time did they come out on strike: the struggle took place in the streets. Workers rejected the suggestion of the CGT in Denain to occupy the factory.
At Rotterdam, the problem of the extension of the struggle was raised at the start of the strike. The workers made various attempts to extend the strike (to dockers in other ports) and when, after three weeks, they went to try to call out other workers at the port, this was the point at which the state called in the police -- showing very clearly that the bourgeoisie realized that this was the principal source of danger.
In these struggles, the working class began to recognize the objective limitations of sectoral and purely economic struggles. They began to see that this is a terrain where the balance of forces always favors the bourgeoisie. While at present the response of workers to this question remains at an embryonic level, the deepening economic crisis and the consequent rise in unemployment, together with the rationalization and militarization of key sectors of the economy, will increasingly force workers to develop new forms of struggle; forms which, by attacking the forces of capitalism from all sides, will force the bourgeoisie onto the defensive.
The question of unemployment and redundancies
In the resolution we adopted on the question of unemployment and the class struggle, we stated that “if the unemployed have lost the factory as a base for their struggles, they have gained the street.” The struggles during the past year have confirmed this statement.
The struggles against redundancies have shown us that the use of “the street” as a base for class struggle is extremely favorable for the development, extension, and unification of the struggle, since this is a terrain which enables workers to break out of the limited framework of factory or trade, where trade unionism reigns supreme.
This experience gives us an idea of the importance that the struggles of unemployed workers will have in the future. In fact, in a general situation of rising class struggle, the struggle of unemployed workers -- because it is forced to break free from the snares of corporatism and sectoralism, and can only take place ‘in the streets’ -- will undoubtedly play an important role in the extension and unification of workers struggles. It will be struggle that the unions will find hard to contain or control.
Until, now, although we have discussed the relation of unemployment to the class struggle, the slow development of the crisis has denied us the opportunity to witness the development of unemployed workers’ struggles in practice, except in Iran. Despite the limited information available, it nevertheless seems certain that the question of unemployment was central to the workers’ struggles in Iran, and that it acted as a motivating and unifying force.
For all these reasons, in the present situation of extremely grave development of the crisis and consequently of unemployment, we must continue to devote our attention to this question. In fact we must pay particular attention to the development of unemployment, the reactions it provokes within the working class, and the strategy adopted by the left and the unions, now and in the future, in their effort to defuse the social dynamite which it represents.
Solidarity and the extension of the struggle
From the moment a struggle erupts, in whatever sector, solidarity is essential for the success of the struggle.
In France, from the moment when workers first started their attacks on town halls, tax offices, banks, chambers of commerce, and above all when they started to attack the police stations in response to acts of repression by the police, this at once provoked spontaneous acts of solidarity by other workers, unemployed workers and all sectors of the local population.
In Great Britain, despite the limitations strictly enforced by the unions on the forms of organization adopted by the steelworkers from the start of the strike (pickets to stop the movement of steel), the workers expressed their combativity and their own orientation when they attempted to spread the strike to other workers by asking for their active solidarity. Although the unions succeeded in retaining control of the movement to extend the strike by containing it within a corporatist framework, it was the pressure from the workers attempting to find their own way forward that forced the unions to do this in spite of initial opposition from the union hierarchy. This was the real strength and force of the class movement in Britain, despite all the traps that were so carefully prepared by the bourgeoisie.
In the two struggles where workers developed their own truly independent forms of organization, outside the unions, the question of solidarity constantly came to the fore. From the start, as we have indicated above, the strike committee at Rotterdam was preoccupied with the question of the extension of the struggle and the solidarity of other workers. At Amsterdam we saw an embryonic expression of this. Throughout the struggle at Sonacotra, the question of the solidarity of French workers was the central preoccupation of the co-ordination committee. The main slogan at all the demonstrations of the immigrant workers were “French and immigrant workers: same bosses, same struggle!” and “Solidarity of French and Immigrant workers!”
This search for solidarity by the working class is an extremely positive characteristic of recent struggles. It’s a sign that workers have a growing consciousness of their fundamental unity as a class.
But several factors contribute to the weakness of this as yet fragile effort. The first is the general level of class struggle. Although solidarity is always a conscious action, it nonetheless depends on the general level of development of the class struggle. It was hard luck for the immigrant workers to be struggling at a time when there was a general reflux in the level of struggle. A second factor in the weakness of workers solidarity is the confused conceptions of solidarity which still predominate within the proletariat: conceptions which see workers solidarity in terms of how it operated in the 19th century.
In the 19th century workers solidarity could be expressed through material and financial support for strikes, through collections organized by the unions which allowed workers to hold out until the bosses gave in. Today, as we have seen, workers can no longer exert the same economic pressure on a single factory or branch of industry. Countless workers today know what it means to experience a long strike which, despite the material and “moral” support organized by the unions, has not only failed to win the workers’ demands, but has ended in isolation and demoralization.
Essentially, the necessity for solidarity is experienced by workers as the need to break through the isolation of their struggles. But the bourgeoisie can also make use of the fact that workers feel this necessity, if it feels sufficiently threatened by the potential development of the struggle. In Brazil for example, workers paid the price for accepting the ‘support’ of the bourgeoisie and the clergy.
This support really meant isolating the workers inside the churches and diverting their struggle onto a bourgeois terrain, that of nationalism and ‘democracy’ (free trade unions).
In France few strikes have received such widespread and massive support -- from everyone from Chirac to the bourgeois press -- than the cleaners on the Paris underground. Everyone did their share in the name of solidarity – and the workers were completely isolated.
The bourgeois conception of solidarity is solidarity between classes, the unity of all citizens behind the same flag, behind a ‘cause’ for which one is temporarily prepared to sacrifice one’s own particular interests. Working class solidarity is ... class solidarity: each act of solidarity expresses the common class interests of the workers. For the bourgeoisie, solidarity is a moral conception.
For the working class it is a practical necessity.
Because of the conditions of class struggle in decadent capitalism the only way that working class solidarity can be expressed today is through active solidarity, which means essentially the participation of other workers in the struggle: the extension of the struggle. Solidarity is both the effect and the cause of the unification of the class struggle.
The union question
The union question is the touchstone for the development of the class struggle today. More than direct and violent repression, the mystification and diversion of trade unionism is the spearhead of the bourgeoisie’s offensive against the working class, an offensive which is preparing the ground for repression in the future. The left and the unions attack the working class on all fronts: isolation and derailment of the class struggle, provocation, etc.
For the moment, we are still a long way from the stage when workers clearly express their independent class interests against the unions. This is particularly the case in countries like Great Britain, where there is a long historical tradition of trade unionism. It is true that in France the struggles at Longwy and Denain started outside the trade unions. In Italy, the GCIL is particularly discredited on account of a whole series of openly anti-working class actions. Some struggles in Italy, like the hospital workers’ strike, have directly confronted the unions. But the clarification of the union question within the consciousness of the working class can only take place on the basis of a higher level of class struggle.
It is absolutely correct to say that the union question is a crucial question for the working class. The unions are the ‘Fifth column’ of the bourgeoisie within the proletariat, and as long as the unions organize struggles or keep them under their wing, this is the most powerful barrier to the development of the class struggle.
It is essential to recognize this basic truth if we are to be able to really contribute to the development of the class struggle and class consciousness. The reluctance of a number of revolutionary groups to accept this truth prevents them from playing a positive role within the working class.
But the recognition of this basic truth is not enough in itself. Workers will not understand the union question through a process of theoretical reasoning, but by confronting it in practice. We must analyze how the question is posed in practice, if we are to make a real contribution to its resolution by the working class. Simply to repeat, like the CWO, the FOR and the PIC that the unions are anti-working class and that the working class must get rid of them, doesn’t tell us anything about the way the working class will actually achieve this. It’s easy to live in the future and exorcise the unions in one’s imagination, but this doesn’t help us to explain the present, and the road which leads from the present to the future.
The presence of the unions in a struggle doesn’t mean that the struggle is defeated in advance. Whatever the FOR, the PIC and the CWO might like to think, behind the march on Paris called by the CGT, and in the strike movement in Britain, for all that they were controlled by the unions, the working class was able to assert itself as a class. The struggles showed great potential although they had not yet broken out of a union framework. The real force of the working class was expressed elsewhere, and it is this we must recognize.
The break from trade unionism is always a precondition for the real development of the struggle, but it is not an end in itself. The goal is the strengthening of the class struggle, which is dependent upon certain specific developments:
1. that the working class takes control of its own struggles (ie through general assemblies and discussions, through self-organization)
2. the extension of the struggle.
And it is precisely when the working class attempts to respond to these necessities, which arise directly from the struggle itself, that the question of breaking from the trade unions is posed in practice.
The two most crucial factors for the development of the class struggle -- the extension of the struggle to all sectors of the proletariat and the question of autonomy and self-organization -- are intimately linked.
When an exploited class, dominated economically and ideologically, subjected daily to contempt and humiliation, takes the struggle into its own hands, through the collective organization and direction of the struggle, then this is truly the first step towards revolution. But this is impossible without a class unity that transcends the divisions imposed by capitalism.
In her description of the first upsurges which marked the beginning of the revolutionary period in 1905, Rosa Luxemburg drew attention to the mass character of these struggles and drew the conclusion that “it is not the mass strike which produces the revolution, but the revolution which produces the mass strike.” Lenin drew attention to the other complementary aspect of this movement when he said that the workers councils which emerged in 1905 were “the finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
On the basis of the experience of the past we must put forward the unity of these two factors in today’s struggles: self-organization and the extension of the struggle. To the extent that the unions are and will be less and less able to oppose the class struggle at every level; to the extent that they will be less and less able to retain the initiative and leadership of struggles which are going to arise suddenly and unexpectedly, one tactic that they will use more and more frequently to sabotage workers’ struggles will be to concentrate their attack on the working class at the weakest point of the movement. Thus in some cases they will do everything to prevent the extension and unification of the struggles; in other cases they will do everything to hamper self-organization and the sovereign power of the general assemblies. This is because only the unity of these two aspects of the struggle will allow the working class to become firmly rooted in the soil of revolutionary practice.
‘Rank and file unionism’ will be the spearhead of the unions’ sabotage of the struggles to come. Rank and file unionism is all the more pernicious because it appears to adapt itself, at each moment, to the needs of the movement, to respond to workers’ initiatives, and, in the final analysis, to express the movement itself. This suppleness, this capacity for adaptation, will allow rank and file unionism to appear in new unexpected forms, some of which may not even be called “unions”!
It is not merely the form of trade unionism which is dangerous, but equally the spirit of trade unionism. This spirit weighs heavily on the consciousness of the working class, a combination of the burden of past tradition and present-day mystifications. Thus, it is necessary to be particularly vigilant with regard to this danger, to show how it is expressed even within apparently working class forms of organization. The international dockers’ conference (see WR 29) and the calls of the Rotterdam strike committee for financial solidarity, show us how this trade unionist spirit can weigh heavily on living expressions of the class struggle today.
The Left and the unions in opposition
The ‘social void’ created by the end of the perspective that an electoral victory would bring the left to power, and the deep discontent of the working class, exacerbated by the imposition of austerity plans, largely explain the fact that of all the struggles over the past two years, those at Longwy and Denain went furthest and most clearly posed the main questions confronting the class struggle today.
The radical nature of these struggles was the product of the absence of an electoral perspective; at the same time, the depth of the struggle accelerated the passage of the left and the unions into opposition.
Since then, in many different countries, we have seen just how the left and the unions act as a barrier to the development of the struggle (and also to our intervention).
But the situation today, which seems to be firmly controlled by the left and the unions, should not lead us to the conclusion that the present period is comparable to the period of reflux in the years before 1978, despite all the difficulties encountered by workers in their struggles. We are now in a phase where the working class, having rediscovered the path of class struggle, is digesting and assimilating the experience of the left in opposition.
The class struggle has revived on a worldwide scale: from Iran to America, from Brazil to Korea, from Sweden to India, from Spain to Turkey, the struggles of the proletariat have multiplied over the last two years.
In the under-developed countries, with the terrible deepening of the crisis, the illusions about ‘national liberation’ are tending to fall away. Hardly had Zimbabwe become ‘independent’ and achieved ‘black self-determination’ when strikes broke out demanding wage increases. Throughout Latin America, the myth of the ‘new man’ in Cuba has been struck a mortal blow by the recent mass exodus. The mystification of national liberation, which gave so much mileage to the leftists and which helped mobilize the youth revolt of the 60’s in the advanced countries to the cry of ‘Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara’ -- all that is becoming a thing of the past.
In the under-developed countries, we’ve seen the development of movements that imply a break with the nationalist ideology of war. In Iran, the enormous movement which led to the fall of the Shah, a movement within which the proletariat played a crucial role, has not been completely mobilized behind the nationalist banners of Khomeini and Bani Sadr. The demonstrations which raised the slogan ‘Guardians of the Revolution = Savak’ are a clear expression of this. In Korea, that buffer between the two imperialist blocs, the movements of the students and above all the workers turned their backs on the ‘national interest’ ideology which was being foisted on them.
It’s particularly significant that the proletariat hasn’t been dragooned behind the nation and the war-effort in zones of the world where wars have been going on continuously for thirty years.
In the present world situation, where the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries lacks a faction capable of mobilizing the population and obtaining a national consensus, the noise the governments are making about the threat of world war could have the opposite effect to what they’re hoping for.
In the past, the bourgeoisie has never mobilized the proletariat for war simply by announcing that the war is coming. On the contrary, before the First World War social democracy disarmed the class with its pacifism. Before the Second World War, the national consensus was built around the theme of anti-fascism, and the working class wasn’t conscious that the wars in Ethiopia and Spain were preparations for world war.
Today, the bourgeoisie has nothing else to offer; it’s trying to present war as something inevitable, written into the history of humanity. It hopes the population will just get used to this idea and accept it. Everyone knows that Afghanistan is another step towards World War III.
The level and development of the class struggle is expressed in the struggles themselves, as well as in the workers’ groups emerging from the struggle and expressing the attempts of the class to become conscious of its situation.
Today, the resurgence is still slow and difficult. In contrast to the first wave of struggles ten years ago, which revived the idea that revolution was possible, the perspective of revolution is today only a subterranean aspect of the movement. It’s not expressed so openly as it was ten years ago, when we saw the emergence of a whole number of groups which defended a revolutionary orientation. But at that time the revolutionary movement was still strongly marked by the petty-bourgeois concerns of the student revolt. This expressed itself in numerous forms -- activism, workerism, modernism -- but they all had in common the idea that revolution was a simple matter.
Such influences and illusions have less and less place in the proletarian movement that’s taking shape today. The reflection that’s beginning to take place within the working class is partly expressed by the groups and circles we’ve already seen emerge in Italy and which will continue to arise out of the depths of the working class.
The development of a revolutionary milieu will be slower and harder than it was ten years ago, but it will also be a more profound development and more firmly rooted in the practice of the working class. This is why one of our main concerns must be to remain open and attentive to the initial manifestations of this process, no matter how confused they might be.