What method allows us to understand: The resurgence of workers' struggles

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The development, within the general context of the historic resurgence of class struggle since ‘68, of a third wave of' workers' struggles after those of ‘68-‘74 and ‘78-‘81, is now obvious. The succession of workers' battles which, since the middle of ‘83, has hit nearly all the advan­ced countries - notably those of western Europe -and which has reached its high point with the present miners' strike in Britain - has clearly demonstrated that the world working class has now come out of the apathy which both allowed for and followed the major defeat in Poland in December 1981. This is what we are once again showing in the first part of this article (following the articles in IR 37 and 38). This resurgence has now been recognized by all rev­olutionary groups, though somewhat belatedly. However, this delay in revolutionaries' under­standing of the present situation poses the problem of the method with which to analyze the situation. It is this method, a precondition of the capacity of communists to be an active factor in the development of the class struggle, which we examine in the second part of the art­icle.


What point has the resurgence reached?

It took the proletariat two years to draw the lessons of the wave of struggles of ‘78-‘81, which notably comprised the movements in the steel industry in France and Britain, the miners' strike in the USA, the strike in the port of Rotterdam with its independent strike committee, and above all, the mass strike in Poland in August 1980. The international proletariat took two years to register, digest and understand the defeat it suffered in Poland, a defeat culminating in the imposition of martial rule of 13th December and the terrible repression that followed.

The retreat in struggle that the defeat provoked on the international level could not last long. Even before we clearly recognized the renewal of class combativity that would express itself first in the USA in July 1983 (the telephone strike) and then above all in Belgium in September (strike in the public sector), we said at the 5th Congress of the ICC, in July ‘83, that "Up to now, the central fraction of the prolet­ariat in the industrialized countries has been relatively lightly attacked by the rigors of austerity, compared to its class brothers in the peripheral countries. But capitalism's plunge into the crisis forces the bourgeoisie into an ever more severe attack on the living conditions of the proletariat in the world's greatest industrial concentration - western Europe... This crisis pushes the proletariat to generalize its strikes and its consciousness, and to put forward in practice the revolutionary perspective." (IR 35 ‘Report on the inter­national situation')

The year ‘83-‘84 has broadly confirmed this analysis. Without going into all the details again (see IRs 37 and 38 and the various terri­torial publications of the ICC) we can quickly repeat that the wave of struggle has hit all the continents, from Japan and India to Tunisia and Morocco (the hunger riots last winter), Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, the USA and western Europe. In the latter, every country has been affected and they are still being affected by workers' revolts: Spain, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, Britain and Germany. Here is the economic and, above all, the historic heart of capitalism. Here is the largest, oldest, and most experien­ced concentration of workers in the world.

After a summer in which class combativity did not even slow down (cf Britain), we are now at the beginning of a year in which events are go­ing to speed up. With the worsening of the crisis of capitalism and the necessity for the bourgeoisie to make further attacks on the working class, the maintenance and strengthening of the bourgeois tactic of the ‘left in opposition' is still on the agenda. The left, posing as the ‘opponent' of the right-wing governing teams, has the specific task of sabotaging the workers' reaction to the measures of austerity and unem­ployment that are being undertaken in all coun­tries.

Two events are particularly significant for this tactic of the bourgeoisie:

-- the presidential election in the USA. For this election, which will take place in November, the American bourgeoisie holds in Reagan the winning ‘ticket' for maintaining the role that has fallen to the government of the right - a role for which it has already been tried and trusted. For those who still have doubts about the ‘machiavellianism' of the bourgeoisie (cf IR 31), about the fact that putting the left in opposition is a well-thought-out pol­icy, about the obvious will of the American bourgeoisie to avoid any unfortunate surprises, the media publicity about the tax returns of the Democratic candidate for the vice-presiden­cy is only the most recent example of the kind of ‘scandals' and manipulations (in which the western bourgeoisie is a past master) for organizing elections...and their results. Keeping the Democratic Party in opposition will allow it to speak a more ‘popular', left-wing lang­uage and to strengthen its traditional links with the American trade unions, the AFL-CIO.

-- the departure from government of the French CP. This decision of the French CP, its grow­ing and increasingly open opposition to the ‘socialist' Mitterand, is aimed at patching up a social front which has been dangerously exposed. In ‘81, the accidental accession to government of the SP and CP - the latter being the traditional force for containing and combating the working class in France - put the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie in an extremely weak position vis-a-vis the prolet­ariat. This was the only country in Western Europe without an important left party in opp­osition to sabotage workers' struggles ‘from the inside'. The bourgeoisie is still paying the penalty for its mistake of May 1981 and for three years of a government of the ‘union of the left', a government which has carried out the most violent attacks on the French working class since World War II and the ‘reconstruct­ion' which followed. However, the CP's depart­ure from government and its adoption of a more and more open and ‘radical' opposition stance constitutes the first real attempt of the French bourgeoisie to overcome this weakness.

These two events - the French CP's move into opposition and especially the coming presiden­tial election in the USA - are part of the strengthening and preparation of the bourgeoi­sie's political apparatus for confronting the proletariat on an international level. These two events indicate that the bourgeoisie knows that the economic crisis of capital is going to worsen and that it is going to have to attack the working class even harder; they indicate that in its own way it has recognized the international resurgence of workers' struggles.

A. The workers of Britain in the front rank of the international resurgence

It's within this general situation that the movement of workers' struggles in Britain must be located. Headed by the miners' strike (now seven months long) this movement has become the spearhead of the world proletarian struggle. It has reached the highest point since the mass strike in Poland 1980.

However, in this country the proletariat is up against a bourgeoisie that is particularly strong politically and which has been preparing itself for a long time for a confrontation with the working class. Britain is the oldest capit­alist country. Throughout the last century the British bourgeoisie dominated the world. It has an experience of political rule which its coun­terparts in other capitalist countries can only envy, in particular through its skill in the democratic and parliamentary game. It's this unrivalled political experience which enabled it to be the first to be willing and able to apply the tactic of the left in opposition. Conscious of the danger posed by the workers' reaction to the economic attacks which were wear­ing down the credibility of the Labor Party in power, it was able in May 1979 to put the left into opposition and install Thatcher to play the part of the Iron Lady. It was able to div­ide the Labor Party (creation of the SDP) and weaken it electorally, while keeping it suffic­iently strong to prevent and sabotage workers' struggles, alongside its union cohorts in the TUC.

The miners' strike, like the international re­surgence in general, shows that this bourgeois card of the left in opposition has not managed to prevent an upsurge in workers' struggles, even if it can still be used to sabotage them. In this work of sabotage, the British ruling class also has a weapon envied by all the other bourgeoisies: its trade unions. As in the parl­iamentary and electoral game, the British ruling class is a past master in the art of presenting false oppositions to the proletariat: between the national leadership of the TUC on the one hand and Scargill (head of the miners' union) and the shop stewards on the other. The shop stewards are an institution going back over 60 years and they play the role of base unionism, the last and most radical rampart of trade unionism against the workers' struggle. But if the bourgeoisie in Britain is old and experien­ced, the proletariat is also old, experienced, and highly concentrated. It's in this sense that the present strike movement has such a profound significance.

The miners' struggle, whose fame and example have already crossed the Channel to continental Europe, has already helped to destroy a mystif­ication which is a major one both in Britain and in other countries: the myth of British democracy and of the ‘unarmed' British police. The violent repression that has hit the miners is on a par with the sort of thing doled out in any South American dictatorship: 5000 arrests, 2000 injuries, 2 dead! Miners' towns and vill­ages occupied by riot police, workers attacked in the street, in pubs, at home, the seizure of food stocks destined for miners' families, etc. The dictatorship of the bourgeois state has dropped its democratic mask.

Why has the bourgeoisie used such violence? To demoralize the miners, to discourage other sect­ors of the class who might be tempted to join them? Certainly. But it is above all to stop the strike pickets extending the strike to other pits, to other factories, to prevent a general extension of the movement. Because the bourgeoisie is afraid. It is afraid of the spon­taneous walk-outs that have taken place on the railways (eg at Paddington) and at British Ley­land, of the occupations that have taken place in the shipyards of Birkenhead and at British Aerospace near Bristol.

And it's this same fear of extension which has held it back from using the same level of state violence once the dockers came out in solidarity in July. The use of repression in this case would have set a match to the powder, accelerat­ing the danger of the strike spreading through­out the class. Thanks to the maneuvers of the unions (see World Revolution 75) and to the media, the first strike was ended after 10 days.

The strike movement in Britain displays all the characteristics of the present international wave of struggle which we pointed to in our ‘Theses on the present resurgence of class struggle' (IR 37). We won't repeat what we said in that text. But we should emphasize the extraordinary combativity being expressed by the proletariat in Britain: after seven months, despite violent repression, despite the pressures from all directions, the miners are still on strike. At the time of writing, most of the dockers are again on strike in solidarity with the miners despite the failure of the first effort in July; they are conscious that their immediate class interests are the same as those of the miners and other sectors of the class.

Little by little, the whole working class is be­coming aware that the miners' fight expresses their own class interest. Through this struggle, the question of the real extension of the struggle is being posed openly. It should be pointed out that apart from the dockers, the unemployed and miners' wives have also been fighting along­side the miners against the police. By raising the question of solidarity, the perspective of conscious extension has been posed openly in Britain for the workers of the world, and part­icularly of Western Europe. And through this extension, through the confrontation with the unions and left parties that it involves, the conditions are maturing for the mass strike in the heartlands of the system.

B. The significance of the strikes in West Germany

Apart from the struggles in Britain, one of the most striking aspects of this international resurgence has been the return of the German prol­etariat to the theatre of class confrontations, as exemplified in the occupations of the Hamburg and Bremen shipyards in September ‘83, the metal workers' and printers' strikes in spring ‘84. This is the most numerous, most concentrated, and also the most central fraction of the prol­etariat of Western Europe. This revival of workers' struggles in the heart of industrial Europe has a historic significance which goes well beyond the immediate importance of the strikes themselves. This marks the end of the important margin of maneuver enjoyed by the bourgeoisie of Europe against the working class thanks to the relative social calm in Germany in the 1970s.

This development in Germany confirms two import­ant aspects of the marxist analysis of the world situation developed by the ICC:

-- the way in which the economic crisis, in the historical context of an undefeated working class, acts as the principal ally of the work­ers, progressively drawing the main battalions of the world proletariat into the class struggle and pushing them towards the front line of combat;

-- the way in which the historic resurgence of class struggle since 1968, as it gathers momentum, enables the proletariat to increasingly shake off the terrible effects of the longest and most savage counter-revolution which the workers' movement has ever suffered. Germany, indeed, was alongside Russia the principal storm-centre of this counter-revolution which followed the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23.

What these struggles show to the workers of the world is the bankruptcy of the post-war ‘econ­omic miracle', the falsehood of the assertion that hard work, discipline and ‘social partner­ship' (the ‘model Germany' of the social demo­crats in the seventies) can open a way out of the economic crisis. More important still, these struggles show that the German proletariat has been neither smashed nor integrated into capitalism, (remember the theories of Marcuse in 1968), that all the onslaughts of social democracy and National Socialism, of the German and the world bourgeoisie have not succeeded in tearing the heart out of the European working class. We can affirm that, in the image of the rest of the international proletariat, the German workers are only at the beginning of their return to class combat.

All of this should not make us lose sight of the fact that the return of the German proletariat to its rightful place at the head of the inter­national class struggle is only beginning and that this process will be a long and difficult one. In particular, we should recall:

-- that the degree of combativity of the German workers has still some way to go to reach the levels already attained in Britain, where the material conditions of the workers are still very much worse than in Germany, and where the class has already developed a tradition of militancy throughout the 1970s;

-- that the short term potentialities of the situation in Germany are nowhere like as rich as in neighboring France, since the bourgeoisie east of the Rhine is much more powerful and well organized than to its west (and has in partic­ular implemented the strategy of placing its left factions - unions, left parties - in ‘opp­osition', a process only just begun in France) and since the present generation of German workers lacks the political experience of its French class comrades;

-- that in the struggles to date the proportions of the working class directly in struggle have been much smaller than say in Belgium, and have touched fewer sectors than, for example, Spain. Far from being at the head of the movement, the German workers are in fact still in the process of catching up on the rest of Europe. This is true at the level of combativity, of the scale of movements, of the degree of politicization, and of confrontation with the strategies of the left of capital, in particular base unionism, a weapon which the German bourgeoisie has not had to employ very much in the past. This ‘catching up' in Germany has become one of the most imp­ortant aspects in the process leading towards the homogenization of class consciousness in the European proletariat, and of the conditions of struggle in western Europe.

The present resurgence of workers' struggles, the new step that it represents in the histor­ical development of the class movement since ‘68, assigns a greater responsibility to revolutionary organizations particularly as regards the task of intervening actively in the process of coming to consciousness that is now going on in the class. Such an intervention has to be based on a deeper understanding of what is really at stake in the present situation. This underlines the importance for revolutionaries - and for the class as a whole - of the method they use to analyze social reality.

The method for analyzing social reality

A recognition and understanding of the internat­ional resurgence can only be based on the marx­ist method for analyzing social reality.

This method rejects the phenomenological approach. No social phenomenon can be understood and explained in itself, by itself and for it­self. Only by situating it in the development of the general social movement can the social phenomenon, the class struggle, be grasped.

The social movement is not a sum of phenomena, but a whole containing each and all.

The movement of the proletarian struggle is both international and historical. Revolution­aries can therefore only comprehend social real­ity, the situation of the class struggle, from this world-historic standpoint. Furthermore, the theoretical and analytical work of revolution­aries is not a passive reflection of social re­ality, but has an active, indispensable role in the development of the proletarian struggle. It's not something outside the movement, outside the class struggle, but is an integral part of it. Just as revolutionaries are a part (a precise and particular part) of the working class, so their theoretical and political activity is an aspect of the revolutionary struggle of the prol­etariat.

Communists can only grasp the marxist method by situating themselves as an active factor in the class movement, and by taking up a world-histor­ic standpoint. By taking each struggle in itself, by examining it in a static, immediate, photo­graphic manner, you deny yourself any possibil­ity of seeing the significance of struggles - in particular the present resurgence of struggle. If we take some of the main characteristics of today's struggles (cf IR 37, ‘Theses on the pre­sent resurgence of class struggle') - the tend­encies towards the outbreak of spontaneous movements, towards very broad movements involv­ing whole sectors in the same country, towards extension and self-organization - if we take these characteristics in themselves, in a static, mechanical way, and if we compare them to the workers' revolt of August ‘80 in Poland, it be­comes difficult to see any resurgence at all. The spontaneous movement of solidarity by dockers and other workers with the 135,000 miners on strike in Britain, the violent and spontaneous demonstrations that outflanked the unions in France last March, the 700,000 workers who dem­onstrated in Rome on 24 March, even the public sector strike in Belgium in September ‘83, may seem to be well below the level reached by the last wave, above all the mass strike in Poland. And yet...

And yet, the marxist method cannot be content with comparing two photographs taken some years apart. It cannot be content with remaining at the surface. For consistent revolutionaries, it's a questions of trying to grasp the under­lying dynamic of the class movement.

The resurgence of class struggle is located mainly, though not solely, in the main indust­rial centers of the world, in western Europe and the USA. Thus it's no longer in a single country in the eastern bloc, nor simply in North Africa, the Dominican Republic or Brazil that we are seeing the outbreak of broad and spontaneous movements. It's in the main, the oldest capitalist countries, in the most ‘pro­sperous' countries of the industrial bastion of Europe. It's the oldest, most experienced and most concentrated sectors of the proletariat that are responding to the bourgeoisie's attack.

That is to say that two of the principal weap­ons used successfully against the proletariat in the previous wave, particularly in Poland, are no longer effective in maintaining workers' illusions and demoralization:

-- the weapon of the national specificity of the eastern bloc countries which kept the struggle in Poland isolated by presenting the economic crisis in these countries as a result of ‘bad management' by the local bureaucrats. The present struggles in Western Europe are shattering illusions about national, peaceful solutions to the economic crisis. The workers' revolt is not only hitting the countries of the East and the third world, but also the ‘democratic' and ‘rich' countries. It's the end of illusions about the necessity for temporary sacrifices in order to save the national econ­omy. With the appearance of soup kitchens in major western cities, a parallel to the queues and deprivations suffered by the workers in Eastern Europe, the present resurgence of workers' struggles in the industrial metropoles of the west indicates that the international proletariat has a growing understanding of the irreversible, catastrophic and international character of the capitalist crisis.

-- the weapon of the left in opposition which worked so well both in western Europe and in Poland, via the Solidarity union. The present international resurgence shows that this weapon is no longer directly able to prevent strikes from breaking out (even if it is still very effective in sabotage them). Thus, illusions in ‘western democracy' and the unions and left parties are beginning to weaken. This growing awareness of the inevitable and irreversible nature of the world crisis of capital, and of the bourgeois nature of the left parties even when they're not in government, could - and can - only develop on the basis of workers' struggles in the oldest and most advanced industrial countries, countries in which the bourgeoisie disposes of a state apparatus well groomed in the game of democracy and parliament, countries in which illusions about the ‘consumer society' and ‘eternal prosperity' could grow up and have the maximum strength.

By responding to these two obstacles and going beyond them, the proletariat is taking up the struggle where it was left off in Poland.

To grasp the significance of the present period of struggle is to grasp the movement and the dynamic which animates it, it is to understand that the maturation of class consciousness in the proletariat is what produces and determines the international resurgence of workers' strugg­les. It's this maturation, this development of consciousness in the class, which gives the pre­sent struggles their significance and direction.

While the economic crisis is an indispensable precondition for the development of the class struggle, the deepening of the crisis is not enough to explain the development of the class struggle. The example of the crisis of 1929 and the years that preceded World War II are a proof of that. In the 1930s, the terrible blows of the economic crisis only resulted in a greater demoralization and disorientation in a proletariat that had just been through the greatest defeat in its history and was suffering the full weight of mystifications about anti-fascism and the ‘defense of the socialist fatherland' which were used to tie it to the capitalist state behind the left parties and unions. The situation is very different today. The proletariat is not defeated, and, as we have just seen, it's its capacity to digest the lessons of partial de­feats, to respond to the ideological weapons of the bourgeoisie, which determines the present resurgence of the class struggle. The objective conditions, the economic crisis, the generalization of poverty are not the only ingredients; to this must be added the favorable subjective conditions, the conscious will of the workers to reject sacrifices in order to safeguard the nat­ional economy, the proletariat's lack of adher­ence to the economic and political projects of the bourgeoisie, the growing comprehension of the anti-working class nature of the left and the unions.

And the more the subjective factor becomes imp­ortant in the development of workers' struggles, the more crucial becomes the role of revolution­aries within the struggle. As the highest ex­pression of class consciousness, communists are indispensable; not only because of their theor­etical and political work, their propaganda; not only tomorrow, in the revolutionary period, but right now; they are an indispensable factor in the present process of resurgent class struggle, of the maturation of the mass strike. By denoun­cing the traps and dead-ends that capitalism puts in the proletariat's path they stimulate, catalyze, accelerate the development within the class of a clear understanding of the nature of these traps and dead-ends, of the real role of the left, and the unions. Furthermore, while they can have no illusions about the importance of their immediate impact, they do help to ori­ent the class towards a greater degree of auto­nomy from the bourgeoisie; towards the exten­sion and coordination of struggles through the sending of massive delegations, through strike pickets and demonstrations; towards the organization of this extension by the workers them­selves in general assemblies; towards the bro­adening and deepening of the class struggle.

The failure to recognize or the underestimation of the present resurgence, the mechanistic view of the development of the class struggle, the incomprehension of the active role of class consciousness in the development of the struggle lead - at least implicitly - to rejecting the necessity for the intervention of revolutionar­ies and thus for the world communist party of tomorrow.

It's not enough to shout about the need for the party at the top of one's voice (as certain groups do) to make a real contribution to the process which is leading to its constitution in the future. It's right now, in the present struggles which preparing the conditions for building the party, that the organizations that will help to constitute it are being selected, that communists are being called upon to prove their ability to be at the vanguard of the rev­olutionary struggles to come. And they won't be able to prove this unless they show themselves to be capable of rigorously defending the marx­ist method. To ignore or forget this method is to politically disarm the proletariat, to lead it to impotence and defeat.

RL 9/9/84

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