Submitted by International Review on
While the ruling class is fundamentally weakened by the deepening of the generalized crisis, in that this reveals more and more clearly its inability to present any economic or ideological alternatives and sharpens its internal tensions, it is nonetheless able to silence its internecine struggles in order to confront the mortal danger of the proletariat.
The solutions that it lacks on an economic level are henceforth compensated by a remarkable skill on the political level. Every day, the ruling class demonstrates its ability to defend bitterly and intelligently its power and privileges. In the major industrial countries, the trump card of the bourgeois apparatus in imposing generalized austerity and the acceptance of war preparations is the left's move into opposition. This has been perfectly illustrated in Belgium and Holland.
a) The Need for the Left in Opposition in Belgium and Holland
As early as the recovery of workers' struggles in 1978, the ICC analyzed the ruling class' need for a left in opposition to break them from the inside, but experience has shown us that there are a mountain of difficulties between the bourgeoisie's objective need and its ability to satisfy it. In Belgium and Holland, while the bourgeoisie managed fairly adequately to adapt its defensive apparatus to the demands of the period, it nonetheless had great difficulty in carrying out concretely the left's move into opposition:
-- in Belgium, from 1980 on, a series of ‘transitional' governments tried to create the necessary conditions for the left's move into opposition (see the Report for the Fourth Congress) , but this only took place at the end of 1981;
-- in Holland, the right had already come to power in 1978 to carry out an austerity program (the Van Agt/Wiegel Christian-Liberal government) . However, from mid-1981 to mid-‘82 the left returned to power and this clearly ran counter to the needs of the bourgeoisie, at both the national level (the socialists lost elections and a draconian austerity had to be imposed) and the international level (generalized worldwide crisis). It was only after a year of governmental paralysis and a growing discrediting of the left that the bourgeoisie found a way to return to the situation of early '81.
All this delay and confusion was not, as some said, an expression of a better resistance to the crisis:
-- these are the two countries most geared to exports. They thus feel more quickly and heavily than others the weight of the world crisis of overproduction;
-- despite possessing its own energy resources, Holland's industrial tissue is in decline, which led the government to take austerity and rationalization measures as early as 1978 (DAF cars, the textile and shipbuilding industries);
-- in 1979 the crisis already provoked a reaction from the workers which showed that the left's place was in opposition (Rotterdam ‘79, the Limburg and Athus mines in '80, the struggles in Wallonia in 1981) .
The difficulty in putting the left into opposition was thus the expression of the Belgium and Dutch ruling classes' real internal weaknesses, whose origins lie essentially in the creation and organization of the Belgian and Dutch states:
-- the artificial creation of Belgium and Holland's restricted national frameworks slowed down the development of both these states, creating a multitude of contradictions within the Belgian bourgeoisie and hindering the development and centralization of Holland's economic and political forces;
-- the complexity and heterogeneity of the bourgeoisie's apparatus of political domination (in Belgium, the existence of regional parties made it necessary for a long time to keep the socialists in the government; in Holland, the multitude of religious and other parties ‑ hangovers from the country's historical development - makes all maneuvering very difficult for the bourgeoisie) imposed a certain delay on the left's move to the position where it could make itself most useful.
Nonetheless, despite these internal difficulties the Belgian and Dutch ruling class has shown under economic pressure and faced with the danger of the class struggle that it possesses a strong enough basis and a rich enough experience to develop a formidable apparatus designed to control and mystify the struggle.
b) The Role of the Left and the Renewal of Class Struggle
Although the development of the crisis leads to an identification of the present period with the 1930s, a comparison of the left's activity in each reveals their fundamental difference.
During the 1930s, faced with the crisis and the workers' struggles (the insurrectional strikes of 1932), the left (the Parti Ouvrier Belge ‑ Belgium Workers' Party) put forward a ‘Labor Plan' (or DeMan Plan) to "get Belgium out of the crisis." In this way, the working class was massively mobilized behind the perspective of state capitalism (nationalizations) and led to support the parliamentary action of the POB and PCB (CP) "to fight fascism".
Today, the left's tactics and activity are fundamentally different:
--it no longer speaks the language of realism, of national conciliation and of patriotic unity. On the contrary, it wants to appear critical, radical, even workerist . Ambiguous personalities (Cools, Simonet) are eliminated and it makes no effort to return to government;
-- its tactics are no longer offensive, but defensive. Far from trying to mobilise the workers behind the national capital, the left today is doing everything it can to prevent struggles from developing.
Whereas, in the ‘30s the control of the working class was directly assumed by the POB, the union commission being a mere appendage of the party, today the unions are in the front line, within the struggle, to try and derail it. The left's campaigns during the ‘30s, around the DeMan Plan for example, aimed to mobilize the workers in favor of radical measures in defense of the national economy, as a precursor to the defense of the nation. The struggles were ‘politicized' on a bourgeois terrain. The measures were new and able to deceive the workers who had lost all class perspective. Today, the only alternative that the left can propose is a ‘better-wrapped' or ‘fairer' austerity. After years of crisis, of socialist ministers and ‘reasonable' austerity, its plans no longer have the same power of deception. This is why the left's efforts are concentrated on the union terrain, to divide the class by emptying its struggles of any perspective and so breaking its combativity.
The left's different behavior today is explained by the complete reversal in the dynamic of the balance of class forces since the 1930s. In the 1920s, the working class had been defeated on the international level and in those countries where the workers had not been physically crushed the left's aim was to enroll them under the anti-fascist banner for a new world war. Today, an undefeated proletariat's struggle against austerity is tending towards unification on the national and international level; the left is trying to prevent this development and push the class off-course.
c) The Left in Opposition to Confront the Struggle
All through the last two years, the working class in Belgium and Holland has constantly come up against the left in opposition and often undergone the bitter experience of its refined sabotage techniques within the struggle. These revolve around three major axes:
-- occupying the terrain: the strength of both the left and the unions is not derived from any original perspectives or new solutions put forward to confront the deepening of the crisis. Their strength lies in their organization within the class; their apparatus for controlling the workers; the weight of old pre-conceived ideas within the proletariat - in particular the still wide-spread conviction that a struggle can only be developed, organized and won through a union organization. Through this occupation of the social terrain, the left and unions can still weigh heavily on the struggle's development and orientation;
-- isolating or refracting the working class response: faced with generalized austerity and attacks on working class living conditions, the left can defuse the thrust of the movement by preventing its quantitative extension (limiting it to the factory, the industry or the region) . In this respect, it must be said that the left makes very skilful use of the system's internal contradictions, of the false oppositions or various ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie to either divide or submerge the proletarian struggle;
-- regional conflicts (Flanders/Wallonia) are systematically used to prevent the extension of struggles throughout Belgium;
-- in Holland, feminism is used to divide the workers of different sexes, and set them against each other, while pacifism was used directly to break the state employees' strike.
Moreover, the struggle can also be isolated and controlled by defusing its combative dynamic. Thus, during the autumn of 1983 in Belgium the unions managed to take control of the movement and reduce it to an empty shell by means of a formal, but empty generalization of the strike. In reality their efforts at dispersal aim above all to separate the extension of the movement from its self-organization - these being the two components that are vital if it is to develop. To achieve this aim, the unions can act on different facets of the struggle:
-- at the level of methods of struggle: sit-down strikes, occupations, self-management, "new methods of struggle" ("savings strikes", etc);
-- at the level of preparation: emphasizing the financial and technical aspects (leaflets, strike pickets ...);
-- at the organizational level: putting the struggle under the control of the unions, or of union strike committees run by union officials or rank-and-filists;
-- at the level of the struggle's perspectives: keeping it within the logic of the system and its crisis; fighting for ‘real cooperation', to save the factory, the region, or for ‘fair sacrifices', or ‘to make the rich pay' for nationalizations ... ;
-- trapping the workers' anger within the union framework: as we have seen, the unions have a central role to play in the ‘left in opposition' strategy, and this role is even more important in Belgium and Holland due to the discrediting of the socialist parties by the bourgeoisie's own internal conflicts. This is why the union leaderships have ‘worn out' more quickly and explains, given the persistent combativity of the workers, the growing importance of rank-and-file unionism which has played a central part in both Belgium and Holland over the last few years in the major struggles that have broken out (Rotterdam ‘79, the 1981-82 strike wave in Belgium, the state employees' strike in Belgium and Holland in 1983). The vital function of rank-and-filism has been confirmed in the period that has just come to an end:
-- through the concentration of the leftists in union rank-and-file work;
-- through the attempts at coordinating rank-and-file ideas and forces on the national level ("Vakbond en Demokratie" in Belgium, or "Soliclariteit" in Holland) .
In today's struggles, rank-and-file unionism plays a double role:
-- taking control of radical struggles to prevent them going too far and therefore to sabotage them under cover of radical language and spectacular action (confrontations with the police in the 1982 steelworkers' strike) to restrain their extension and radicalization;
-- bringing the ‘lost sheep' back into the union fold while at the same time winning the confidence of the most combative workers through their radical talk and ‘tough' actions (Rotterdam 1979 and 1982, 1983 public sector strikes in Belgium and Holland) .
Rank-and-file unionism is already one of the bourgeoisie's most pernicious weapons, now that the traditional unions are more and more often contested and overtaken by the workers' struggle. Thanks to its flexibility, which can even tolerate a superficial anti-unionism, it will be used by the bourgeoisie right up to the revolutionary period and within the workers' councils to push the proletariat away from the combat for revolution towards the logic of unionism and self-management. While its already frequent utilization allows the bourgeoisie momentarily to control the movements, to stifle any perspective of revolutionary struggle and to cripple the self-organization of the class, it nonetheless indicates the bourgeoisie's historical weakness and in the long-term heralds the discrediting of its most radical weapons of mystification.
The proletariat against the left in opposition
The bourgeoisie's hesitations and its accumulated delay (which had to be overcome abruptly) in taking the necessary draconian austerity measures, Belgium's long-standing role as ‘laboratory' in the vanguard of the world bourgeoisie's attack on workers' living conditions in Western Europe, have all profoundly affected the conditions of the class struggle. Under heavy and almost continual attack, the class has been forced to react - and has done so at regular intervals (winter 1981, February-March 1982, September-October 1983). For this reason, the workers' struggles in Belgium and later in Holland have expressed especially clearly not only the obstacles and problems facing the world working class and which it will have to overcome (particularly in the industrialized countries) but also the movement's strength and dynamic.
From February 1981 on massive strikes broke out in a whole series of factories (Caterpillar, British Leyland, FN) in the steel industry and in public transport, in both Flanders and Wallonia, against the austerity measures applied by a government where socialist ministers held key positions (Economy and Labor ministries). They showed the bourgeoisie that a rapid and appropriate strategy was urgently needed to attack the working class directly. By November 1981, after an early election, the right was in power; a few weeks later, the left was demonstrating its formidable effectiveness in opposition.
a) The Strikes of February-March 1982: Disarray faced with the retreat in class struggle
The movement of February-March 1982, which mobilized tens of thousands of workers around the Liege, Charleroi and Hainaut steelworkers against the sharp drop in wages that followed devaluation, was without doubt the most important movement in Belgium since the 1960-61 general strike. Breaking out a few weeks after the putsch in Poland, they showed, through their great combativity and through the tendency towards widespread struggle going beyond corporations or particular demands in the face of a general anti-proletarian attack, through the tendency to express class spontaneity and to call into question control by the unions, through the confrontation with the state and especially with the police, that the defeat in Poland had not fundamentally shaken the world proletariat's combativity, and that the working class' disarray faced with the bourgeoisie's ideological counter-offensive was not eternal, and did not express a profound and long-term retreat in the class struggle.
Nonetheless, the proletariat's general confusion after the defeat in Poland and its inexperience in dealing with the maneuvers of the left in opposition were to affect the 1982 struggles profoundly and encouraged neither their development nor their ability to put forward clear perspectives. Thus, we should note:
-- firstly, the isolation of the struggle in Belgium, surrounded by complete social calm in the other industrialized countries, plunged in the depths of the bourgeoisie's ideological campaigns over Poland;
-- the limitations of the movement which developed around the actions of the steelworkers in Wallonia while the unions managed to defuse any attempts at resistance in Flanders (eg the long struggle at Boel/Tamise);
-- the relative ease with which the unions prevented the movement's extension by their open efforts at division: between unions, between sectors, between regions (Liege against Charleroi), allowing the bourgeoisie to keep the movement firmly under control, maintaining a particularly arrogant tone, while giving way on nothing.
b) September-November 1983: At the Heart of the Recovery in Class Struggle
The long struggle in the Belgium (September-October) and Dutch (October-November) public sectors is the most important movement of workers' struggle since the combats in Poland in 1980. It has renewed the positive characteristics of the previous movement, but benefits from the accumulation of objective conditions allowing an international recovery in class struggle:
-- a long period of austerity, unemployment and attacks on the working class, generalized throughout the industrialized world, without bringing the slightest improvement in the health of the economy;
-- the working class in Belgium has gone through the experience of the left in opposition and its mystifications at the same time as this experience has spread to neighboring countries (the left in opposition in Holland and Germany);
-- the struggles in Holland and Belgium are part of a new international wave of combats against capitalism.
This ripening of the objective conditions for the renewal of the class struggle is confirmed by the development of the following characteristics within the combats in Belgium and Holland:
1) A tendency towards massive and unitary movements involving large numbers of workers and affecting whole sectors, or even several sectors simultaneously in the same country. In 1983, in both Holland and Belgium, the whole public sector was in struggle - ie 20% of the working population. Workers from all the unions took part. Never in the history of the Dutch working class has the public sector fought on such a scale, while in Belgium, the movement overcame the divisions between Flanders and Wallonia and was on the point of extending to the private sector.
2) A tendency towards spontaneous upsurges of struggle, to some extent escaping from union control, especially at the beginning. The engine drivers in Belgium and the busmen in Holland came out spontaneously, against union orders. In Belgium, the other sectors (post office, local transport workers) joined the struggle spontaneously. The power of this spontaneous extension can be measured by the fact that:
-- the unions were obliged to give their blessing to the strike and even - formally - to extend it, adopting a laissez-faire attitude in the ranks in order to regain control of the movement;
-- the unions in Holland had enormous difficulty in stopping the strike.
3) A tendency towards a growing simultaneity of struggles on an international level. The movements in Belgium and Holland broke out in the same sectors, at almost the same moment, while at the same time, postal workers in France were also on strike; this in two neighboring countries whose large working class concentrations are outward-looking, well-versed in class struggle and at the heart of the industrialized world. This goes a long way to explain the fear of the bourgeoisie which showed itself in the international news blackout of these movements and in the conciliatory attitude of the Belgium government.
These characteristics have been confirmed by the strikes in April 1984 which, although not on the same scale as those the previous autumn, demonstrated the strengthening of the following tendencies:
-- the increasingly obvious simultaneity of struggles in a large number of industrialized countries (struggles in Belgium, France, Britain and Spain during the month of April), and the confrontation with both the mystifications of the left in opposition (Britain and Belgium) and the austerity of the left in power (Spain, France);
-- the accelerating rhythm of class confrontations (the April strikes followed only 5 months after the public sector movement);
-- the continual confrontation with the left in opposition, strengthening the workers' tendency to call into question trade union strategies and to take charge of the struggle themselves.
The central and persistent weakness, common to all these struggles, is the working class' inability on the one hand to stand up to the maneuvers of the left in opposition - especially the unions - within the struggles and on the other to put forward its own class perspectives. While the workers are becoming more and more aware of the unions' role in their daily attitude of champions of ‘reasonable austerity', they remain helpless when the same unions deploy all their cunning within the struggle. This weakness is linked to a lack of experience and self-confidence on the workers' side, and an impressive capacity for adaptation on the part of the bourgeoisie, especially through trade unionism.
The left in opposition's major form within the struggle is rank-and-file unionism, which is the spearhead of the bourgeoisie's response to class struggle. Making use of brief or isolated struggles, rank-and-file unionists use combative talk and pseudo-radical actions to win the confidence of combative sectors of the working class, and spread the idea of the possibility of a different kind of unionism from that of the ‘union leaderships' (within the traditional union structure if possible, outside it if necessary). Thus in Belgium, these ‘combat unionists' have taken the lead in a whole series of isolated struggles, often coming up hard against the union leaders (Boel/Tamise, Fabelta, Motte, ACEC, Valfil, FN, Brugeoise et Nivelles, etc). In Holland, the 1982 Rotterdam dock strike, for example, was entirely conducted by the ‘rank-and-file' under the slogan "We are the union!".
It is from such struggles that rank-and-file unionism has drawn its experience and won the necessary authority for derailing and sabotaging more large-scale strikes: for example, in 1982, the rank-and-file unionists took the initiative in setting up an inter-sector regional strike committee in Hainaut province, to isolate and exhaust the workers combativity within the regional framework. It was they who led the steelworkers towards a confrontation prepared and provoked by the bourgeoisie to liquidate the movement. In both Belgium and Holland 1983, it was they who had the job (in the framework of a generalization in form decreed by the bourgeoisie) of wearing down the movement with actions that were ‘radical', but at the same time dispersed, isolated and without any perspective.
These elements confirm and explain the slow development of the struggle in the industrialized countries. However, with the system in a total economic dead-end, with increasing attacks on working class living conditions and responses from the workers, even the bourgeoisie's most radical mystifications will tend to wear out as class confrontations become ever more massive, powerful and simultaneous.