It's necessary to analyze the class struggle on three complementary but distinct levels, in order to understand its characteristics and draw its perspectives:
-- on the general historic level of the decadence of capitalism.
-- on the level of the resurgence of proletarian struggle at the end of 1960s, after half a century of counter-revolution.
-- on the level of the present phase of the struggle, which has picked up again after the pause which succeeded the 1968-74 wave.
1) Like all workers' struggles in the decadent period of capitalism, struggles today have the following characteristics:
-- they develop at the same time as the crisis of capitalist society deepens, in contrast to those of the last century (especially the second half), when the cyclical crisis generally proved fatal to the struggle.
-- their dynamic compels them to go beyond categories (trades, industrial branches), prefiguring and creating the conditions for the future revolutionary confrontation, when it won't be a sum of particular sectors of the class who go into action, but the whole proletariat as a class.
-- as in all periods they are organized, but this can't be done in advance of the struggle: although the workers can at no point give up the struggle for the defense of their economic interests, any permanent organization based on the defense of these interests (unions) is doomed to recuperation by capitalism and integration into the state. Since capitalism entered into its decadent phase, the proletariat can no longer organize itself before the struggle -- it organizes itself in the struggle, and this organization takes the form of general assemblies, elected and revocable strike committees, and, in revolutionary periods, the workers councils.
-- since they are up against a highly concentrated capitalism, struggles can only be effective if they tend to extend themselves. Unlike in the past, the length of a struggle is no longer a real weapon if the struggle remains isolated; because of this, real proletarian solidarity can no longer take the form of collecting funds for strikers. Solidarity means extending the struggle: in the period of decadence, the proletariat's most important weapon for responding to the ferocious attacks of a system at the end of its tether, and for preparing the overthrow of the system, is the mass strike, the real expression of class solidarity.
2. Since 1847 it's been clear for revolutionaries that "the communist revolution ... won't be purely a national revolution, that it will take place at the same time in all the civilized countries." (Engels, The Principles of Communism) And the first revolutionary wave of this century (1917-23) did take place on a world scale. On this level, the present historical reawakening of the class struggle, which has to culminate in the communist revolution, isn't different from the previous one: right from the start, its theatre was the world. But the specific conditions in which it's taking place (an acute economic crisis of capitalism and not an imperialist war) provides it with advantages which the previous one lacked as regards the worldwide extension of the revolutionary struggle.
While the imperialist war had the effect of brutally plunging the proletariat of the belligerent countries into a common situation marked by atrocious deprivation and absurd massacres -- which, in the first war, led to the rapid disintegration of capitalist mystifications and forced the class to pose immediately the problem of the politicization of the struggle, as well as its world-wide character -- the imperialist war also brought with it a whole series of obstacles to the generalization of revolutionary struggles on a world scale:
-- the division between ‘victorious' and ‘beaten' countries: in the former, the proletariat was more easily prey to the chauvinist poison poured out in huge doses by the bourgeoisie, in the second, while national demoralization created the best conditions for the development of internationalism, it by no means closed the door to revanchist feelings (cf ‘national Bolshevism' in Germany) .
-- the division between belligerent and ‘neutral' countries: in the latter countries the proletariat didn't suffer a massive deterioration of its living standards.
-- faced with a revolutionary movement born out of the imperialist war, the bourgeoisie could resort to bringing a halt to hostilities (cf Germany in November 1918).
-- once the imperialist war was over, capitalism had the possibility of reconstructing itself and thus, to some extent, of improving its economic situation. This broke the élan of the proletarian movement by depriving it of its basic nourishment: the economic struggle, and the obvious bankruptcy of the system.
By contrast, the gradual development of a general crisis of the capitalist economy ‑- although it doesn't allow for the development of such a rapid awareness about the real stakes of the struggle and the necessity for internationalism -- does eliminate the above obstacles in the following way:
-- it puts the proletariat of all countries on the same level: the world crisis doesn't spare any national economy.
-- it offers the bourgeoisie no way out except a new imperialist war, which it can't unleash until the proletariat has been defeated.
3. While the necessities we have been talking about have been imposed on the working class since the historic re-emergence of its struggle at the end of the 1960s, it's only through a gradual process that the proletariat is able to develop an awareness of these necessities. Since the battles which began in 1968 and lasted until 1974 (‘76 in Spain), the class has been confronted with the obstacle of the unions, with the need to organize and extend its struggle, with the world-wide character of the struggle. However a consciousness of these needs has only developed in a very embryonic way, amongst a minority of the class (May 1968 saw a general strike in France, but it was controlled by the unions; in Italy, workers went outside the unions, but the movement was recuperated through ‘base committees'; in Spain there was an assembly movement, but it was channeled towards ‘rank and file unionism'; the strikes in France and Italy had an international impact, but were looked at in a passive way by workers in other countries, etc.). Drawing strength from these weaknesses of the proletariat -- weaknesses derived to a great extent from the counter-revolutionary period which the class was just emerging from -- the bourgeoisie was effectively able to launch its counter-offensive from the mid-1970s, based on the tactic of the ‘left in power' or ‘on the road to power'. But this tactic was also to some extent facilitated by the relatively tolerable level of the crisis up to 1974 and by an illusion widely held in all layers of society: that the collapse of 1974-75 was only a passing phase.
With the new aggravation of the economic crisis that took place at the crossroads of the 1970s and the ‘80s, a new situation opened up both for the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. After the ‘years of illusion' came the ‘years of truth', posing much more sharply the historic alternative between war and revolution, sweeping away the illusions about an ‘alternative' that could take the system out of its crisis, forcing the proletariat to see what is at stake in its struggle in a far sharper way than ever before.
4. These ‘years of truth' have forced the bourgeoisie to launch another kind of offensive against the working class -- an offensive much less based on illusions about a ‘rosy future', much more based on ‘truths' that can no longer be hidden and which are used to demoralize the proletariat.
This offensive is also based on a systematic division of labor between the different sections of the bourgeoisie, so that the ruling class can, through the various parts of its state machine, get a firm grip on the whole of social life, so that it can plug the gaps opened up in its class rule by the crisis.
In this division of labor, it's the task of the right -- that is, the political sector which, whatever its label, is not directly linked to the function of controlling and mystifying the workers -- to ‘speak openly' and firmly carry out the government role which it's tending to assume more and more. Meanwhile the left -- that is, the bourgeois factions who, because of their language and their implantation in the working class, have the specific task of mystifying and controlling the workers -- from the opposition stance which it's adopted in most countries, has the job of preventing this ‘tough line' allowing the proletariat to develop a clear awareness of its situation, to push its class response further forward.
Thus when the right in power says that the crisis is international and has no solution on a national scale, the left in opposition loudly proclaims the contrary, to prevent the working class from becoming conscious of the bankruptcy of the capitalist economy and the world-wide dimension of its struggles.
When the right puts forward the idea that war is a real danger, the left obscure this reality with all sorts of pacifist drivel, to prevent the working class from understanding what's really at stake in the present situation.
When the right presents the growth of unemployment and austerity as inevitable, the left comes along to say the opposite, talking about ‘bad management' by the rightist parties, about the role of the big monopolies, about ‘making the rich pay', in order to hide the fact that there is no solution, that, whatever remedy it looks for, capitalism in all its forms is doomed and offers only growing misery.
When the right in power increases the means and measures of repression in the name of ‘insecurity' and the ‘terrorist' or even the ‘fascist' threat, the left comes along to make the working class accept these measures by hysterically invoking the same threats, by calling for a more ‘democratic' use of repression, in order to prevent workers becoming aware that it's the whole society of exploitation, whatever forces are running it, which is the cause of oppression and repression.
Thus, in all the domains where the bourgeoisie is carrying out its offensive, it's up to the left-wing sectors, those in whom the working class has the most illusions, to make sure this offensive isn't met with growing resistance, that it doesn't open the workers' eyes to the fact that there's no way out except the overthrow of capitalism, to make sure that this offensive only gives rise to disorientation, resignation, and despair.
The fact that the bourgeoisie is now being led to play the card of the ‘left in opposition' against the working class doesn't mean that this card is the only one that can be used at all times and in all circumstances. In particular, in certain situations the left carries out its role better by participation in power: either in governments of ‘national unity' during imperialist wars, or directly at the head of governments in revolutionary periods. Moreover its adoption of a ‘determined' oppositional role corresponds to a general need of the bourgeoisie in the present period of rising class struggle after the reflux of the 1970s. This doesn't mean that this need is always concretized in an immediate and optimum manner. But all the specific examples (whether for electoral or other reasons) which show the inability of the bourgeoisie to clearly put its left parties into opposition must be understood as expressions of the particular weakness of this class -- manifestations of a political crisis which can only get worse and worse.
5. Only by going into opposition could the left retain some credibility in the eyes of the workers, make them believe its lies, sabotage from within the struggles inevitably produced by the growth of mass poverty.
Freed of its governmental responsibilities, the left today can use a more ‘radical', ‘working class' language. It can take up certain aspirations of the class, the better to stifle them. It can call for struggle, for the extension of struggle, even for its ‘self-organization' when it has the guarantee that its unions will keep control of this ‘extension' and that this ‘self-organization' remains isolated.
In the coming period, the left and the unions, as they've already begun to do, won't spare any effort to deafen the proletarians with their ‘combative' language, to disorientate them with their facade of intransigence and with their adroit division of labor between the union hierarchy and ‘rank and file unionism'. All this is aimed at exhausting proletarian combativity, dispersing it, preventing workers coming to a real understanding of what's really at stake in the struggle.
6. Even if it's being done in a preventative, systematic manner, coordinated on a world scale, this new offensive of the bourgeoisie has not, as yet, met with a total success. The developments over the last years - the Rotterdam strike (September 1979), the British steel-workers' strike (January-April'80), the metal workers' strike in Brazil (April ‘80), the New York transit strike and the strikes in Gorki and Toggliattigrad (May ‘80), and above all the immense movement of the workers in Poland -- have confirmed the perspective put forward by the 3rd congress of the ICC: "after a period of relative reflux during the mid-1970s, the working class is once again tending to the combativity which it showed in a generalized and often spectacular manner after 1968." (‘Resolution on the International Situation', IR18)
Thus while the movement of the left into opposition has enabled the bourgeoisie to strengthen its positions, this was a strengthening only in relation to the old tactic of the ‘left in power', which had become out of date with the aggravation of the crisis and the resurgence of class struggle: it doesn't constitute an absolute strengthening vis-a-vis the working class.
7. In the same way, while this strengthening certainly has taken place, it's only for the moment. As the struggle moves forward it will tend to overcome the obstacles which the left puts in way of the development of class consciousness. Thus in the last two years, another point made by the3rd congress has also been confirmed: "Even if it doesn't appear immediately in a clear way, one of the essential characteristics of this new wave of struggle will be a tendency to take off from the highest qualitative level reached by the last wave. This will express itself in a more marked tendency to go beyond the unions, to extend struggles outside professional and sectional limits, to develop a clearer awareness of the international character of the class struggle." (‘Resolution on the International Situation')
This confirmation has essentially been supplied by the workers of Poland. The struggle in Poland has provided answers to a whole series of questions which were posed in previous struggles without being answered in a clear way:
-- the necessity for the extension of the struggle (Rotterdam).
-- the necessity for self-organization (steel strike in Britain).
-- the attitude towards repression (Longwy/ Denain).
On all these points the struggles in Poland represent a great step forward in the world-wide struggle of the proletariat, which is why these struggles are the most important for half a century.
But these struggles have in turn posed a new question for the proletariat - a question which the workers in Poland can't answer for themselves: the necessity for the world-wide generalization of the struggle.
Capitalism itself has already begun to answer this question through the unity it's displaying against the working class -- a unity within the blocs and also, despite all their imperialist antagonisms, between the blocs.
From the west to the east, all capitalist countries are pushing their internal divisions into the background in the face of the proletarian danger. They are drawing common lessons about the most effective measures to take against the working class: the utilization of nationalist, democratic, trade unionist mystifications; threats of military intervention; repression.
In regions like Central America (El Salvador), the Middle East, SE Asia, the proletariat is isolated because it isn't strongly concentrated and doesn't have the same traditions of struggle as in Europe or North America. In these areas a bloody and ferocious repression is being meted out to the sound of crocodile tears from the leaders of the major powers, who are the main suppliers of aid to those who actually carry out the repression.
Thus its important to underline the fact that it's Europe and the main industrialized countries which will provide the most solid base for the next revolutionary wave -‑ which will then rebound to the proletariat of the under-developed or weakly industrialized countries. We cannot envisage this happening in a completely simultaneous way, but the internationalization of the world class struggle certainly demands the generalization of the struggle to several countries at the same time.
The further development of the proletarian struggle depends on this question being answered. This includes Poland itself, where the present obstacles - threats of intervention, nationalism, democratic and trade unionist illusions - can only be overcome through the development of world struggles, more particularly in the Russian bloc (to overcome the first two obstacles) and in the western bloc (to overcome the second two).
In Poland, the crucial question of the world-wide generalization of the struggle can only be posed. It's up to the world proletariat to provide the answer.