Editorial: The difficult resurgence of the class struggle

Printer-friendly version

The "peace" between Israel and the PLO in the Middle East shows itself to be just another prolongation of the unending war in this part of the world. Since the First World War the Middle East has been a major battle-ground for conflicting imperialist interests and it will remain so as long as capitalism exists. In this respect it is no different from all the other regions of the world where war has been continuous in open or latent form.

In Yugoslavia the war continues. Now battles are even taking place within the various camps; between Serbs, between Croats and between Muslims! These most recent conflicts give the lie in a very tragic way to the "ethnic" explanation for this war. And on this question the media has fallen silent! Under the cover of the "peoples'" "right to independence" ex-Yugoslavia has become a sinister experiment for the new confrontations between the great powers, produced by the disappearance of the old imperialist blocs. Here too there can be no turning back; capitalism has a free hand to carry out its war diplomacy in the name of "humanitarian" aid.

In Russia the situation just gets worse and worse. The shipwrecked economy has declined dramatically and the political instability that has already dragged whole areas of the ex-USSR into bloody war is more and more gnawing at the very heart of Russia. The danger that the kind of chaos existing in Yugoslavia will spread is a very real one. Here too capitalism has no perspective other than war.

Wars and crisis, social decomposition; this is the "future" that capitalism offers humanity for the last decade of the century.

In the "developed" countries which form the nerve center of this world capitalist system of terror, death and misery, workers' struggles have erupted over the last few months after four years of reflux and passivity. These struggles show that workers are beginning to mobilize against the austerity plans that are of a brutality unknown seen since the Second World War. They also contain in embryo the only possible response to the decadence and decomposition of the capitalist mode of production. In spite of all their limitations they already constitute a step towards the battle of class against class, a massive and international struggle of the proletariat. This is the only way to check the attacks against living conditions, the misery and wars that today stalk the planet.

The development of the class struggle

For several months now strikes and demonstrations have been on the increase in the main countries of Western Europe. The social calm that had reigned for nearly four years has been definitively broken.

The brutality of the redundancies and wage cuts and all the other austerity measures accompanying them, has provoked a growing discontent. On several occasions this has led to a renewed combativity, and a clear determination not to give up in the face of threatened attacks against all the living conditions of the working class.

The firm control of the movement everywhere by the trades unions does not reduce the importance of this development in the class struggle. In every country, the unions' calls for demonstrations and strikes are symptomatic of the growth in combativity within the ranks of the workers. Because of the place they occupy in the capitalist state as guardians of social order on behalf of the national capital, the unions see clearly that the working class isn't ready to passively accept the attacks against its living conditions. So they take the lead. The unions adopt a strategy that aims to prevent the development of the class struggle. They do so by misdirecting workers' demands and imprisoning them in corporatism and nationalism and by derailing the will to struggle into dead-ends. But the fact that they are adopting such a strategy is an indication that a real resurgence of class struggle is now taking place at an international level.

The resurgence of workers' combativity

The end of 1993 has been marked by strikes and demonstrations in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Britain, France and Spain.

The strikes and demonstrations in Germany[1] at the beginning of autumn set the tone. Every sector was affected by a strong wave of discontent. This forced the unions to orchestrate wide-spread maneuvers in the main industrial sectors. In particular a demonstration of building workers in Bonn on the 28th October in which 120,000 participated, and in the car industry, the "negotiation" of the 4 day working week accompanied by wage reductions at Volkswagen.

The first indications of the resurgence of international class struggle emerged in Italy in September 1992 when there was a large mobilization against the measures of the Amato government and against the official unions who had agreed to the measures. Since September 1993 strikes and demonstrations have increased there. As the large main unions have been severely discredited in the eyes of the workers, the rank-and-file union structures have taken up the baton. On 25th September 200,000 people demonstrated in response to an appeal from the "co-ordinations of the factory councils". On 28th October 700,000 people participated in demonstrations organized throughout the country and 14 million joined the 4 hour strike organized for the same day. On 16th November there was a demonstration of 500,000 workers in the building sector. On the 10th December demonstrations of metal workers at Fiat took place in Turin, Milan and Rome.

In Belgium on 29th October 60,000 demonstrators marched in Brussels in response to the appeal of the FGTB, the socialist union. On 15th November staggered strikes were organized in the public transport sector. On 26th November, which the bourgeois press named "Red Friday", a general strike against the prime minister's "global plan" was called by the two big unions, the FGTB and the Christian union, the CSC. This was the largest strike since 1936 and it paralyzed the whole country.

In France in October there was the strike of the Air France ground staff followed by a whole series of demonstrations and local strikes, including in particular the public transport strike on 26th November. In Britain 250,000 civil servants went on strike on 5th November. In Spain on 17th November 30,000 metalworkers assembled in Barcelona against planned redundancies at the SEAT car factory. On 25th November a big day of union demonstrations was organized throughout the country against the government's "social pact", which includes reductions in wages, pensions and unemployment benefits. Tens of thousands of people participated in Madrid, Barcelona and throughout the country.

The black-out

In every country the media propaganda; press, radio, television tries as much as possible to keep quiet about events concerning the working class.

In particular workers' movements in other countries are practically never "covered". And although some papers sometimes mention strikes and demonstrations very briefly, in the "popular" press and on the television there's almost a total black-out. For example, practically nothing of the strikes and demonstrations in Germany filtered through into the media in other countries. When the reality of "social unrest" cannot be kept hidden because the events are taking place within the country, or because it concerns maneuvers of the bourgeoisie which are useful for propaganda purposes, or because what is happening is sufficiently important to force its way into the news, the media systematically present only what is specific to each situation. It's the problem of this or that particular enterprise or it's the problem of this or that particular sector or it's the problem of this or that specific country. It's always the most corporatist and nationalist of the unions' demands that are presented. Or else it's spectacular and fruitless acts that are publicized such as minority confrontations with the agents of law enforcement (in France during the conflict at Air France, in Belgium during "Red Friday").

But behind the black-out and the misrepresentation of reality, the situation is basically the same in all of the developed countries and in Western Europe in particular; the class struggle has returned. The increase in strikes and demonstrations in itself already marks a resurgence of workers' combativity, a growing discontent with the lowering of the "standard of living" which is daily spreading to every strata of the working population, and with mass unemployment.

This development in the class struggle is only the beginning and it's coming up against difficulties produced by the conditions of the current historic period.

The difficulties of the working class in confronting the strategy of the union and the state's political apparatus

The working class is beginning to rediscover the path of struggle following an important period of reflux in workers' combats which has lasted almost four years.

The lie that Stalinism=communism still weighs heavy

Firstly the working class has been disoriented by the ideological campaigns on the "end of communism" and the "end of the class struggle" which has been hammered home since the Berlin wall went down in 1989. By presenting the death of Stalinism as the "end of communism", these campaigns have directly attacked the latent consciousness in the working class of the need and the possibility to fight for a different kind of society. By using and abusing the grossest lie of the century - the identification of the Stalinist form of state capitalism with "communism" - the propaganda of the bourgeoisie has greatly disoriented the working class. The majority have understood the collapse of Stalinism as a demonstration that it's impossible to create a system other than capitalism. Rather than making the consciousness of the class clearer about the capitalist nature of Stalinism, the end of the latter has made the lie about the "socialist" nature of the USSR and the eastern countries more credible. This has generated a deep reflux in the consciousness of the working class which was gradually escaping the clutches of this lie in the struggles that developed after the end of the 60s. This is mainly why the level of workers' demonstrations and strikes is the lowest known in Western Europe since the second world war.

The confusion about its own perspective - that of communism - which has been so nefariously identified with Stalinism's bloody, capitalist counter-revolution, has reigned in the working class for decades and persists today. It is still maintained by the propaganda of the bourgeoisie; those factions who denounce "communism" in order to laud the merits of liberal or socialist "democracy" as well as those factions who defend the "socialist gains" such as the communist parties and the Trotskyist organizations[2].

The bourgeois media take every opportunity to maintain this confusion. During the confrontation in Moscow in October 1993 between Yeltsin's government and the "parliamentary insurgents", their propaganda relentlessly presented the "conservative" deputies as the "real communists" (insisting that the "communists" could only come to an agreement with "fascists" of course). Thus they again increased the ideological smoke-screen about "communism" and once more used the corpse of Stalinism to drive home their message against the working class. As for the communist parties and Trotskyist organizations, disillusioned by the ravages made by the crisis in the USSR and the ex-"socialist" countries, they're gradually finding their voices again to defend the idea that the "socialist gains"[3] were a boon... before the "return of capitalism".

The bourgeoisie will go on maintaining the lie that Stalinism is identical to communism, a lie which hides the real communist perspective. The working class can only rid itself of this obstacle to the development of its consciousness by laying bare the counter-revolutionary role of the left organizations of capital - whether social-democracy, Stalinism and its "destalinised" variations, or trades unionism. This it can only do through practice, through its struggle.

The weight of trade unionism

The promise of a "new world order" which was to open up a "new era of peace and prosperity" under the banner of "democratic" capitalism has also contributed to a reflux in class struggle, in the capacity of the working class to respond to the attacks on its living conditions.

The Gulf war in 1991 gave the lie to the promises of "peace" and acted upon consciousness as a factor clarifying just what this "peace" resulting from the "triumph" of capitalism really means. But at the same time it produced a feeling of powerlessness that brought combativity to an end.

Today the economic crisis and the generalised attack on living conditions that comes in its wake, is pushing the proletariat to emerge slowly from its past passivity. The fact that combativity is returning is an indication that all the promises of "prosperity" have solved nothing. The facts are these. Capitalism can offer nothing but misery. Sacrifices made are the prelude to more sacrifices demanded. The capitalist economy is sick and the workers have to pay for it.

The present resurgence of class struggle is marked therefore by a confusion that continues to exist in the working class about the general perspective of its struggles historically - the real communist perspective of which it is the bearer. But at the same time it's also marked by an awakening consciousness of the need the fight against capitalism.

This is why what mainly characterizes this resurgence is the hold the unions have over the current struggles, the almost total absence of autonomous initiatives on the part of the workers, the fact that the rejection of unionism is very weak. If the consciousness, however vague, of the possibility of overthrowing capitalism is lacking, combativity is caught in a trap. Restricted to formulating demands within the capitalist framework, it finds itself on the home ground of unionism. This is why at present the unions manage to drag workers off their own class terrain:

- by formulating demands within a corporatist framework, within that of defending the national economy, to the detriment of demands that are common to all workers;

- by "organizing" "actions" aimed at dissipating the discontent, at making the working class believe that through such actions it is fighting for its own demands when it is really being dragged into dead-ends, diverted into isolated actions. That's when it's not simply being trotted out into inoffensive processions for the state.

The bourgeoisie is preparing for the confrontation...

With a few recent exceptions such as at the beginning of the movement of the miners in the Ruhr (Germany) in September, all the movements that have developed have been encapsulated and "organized" by the unions. All of them, including the more radical actions of base unionism, have taken place under the vigilant eye of the main unions and their leadership, when the latter haven't directly inspired them[4]. They are able to maneuver in this way because of the low level of consciousness in the working class of the real role the unions play in sabotaging their struggles. It's also because the bourgeoisie has prepared its strategy against the "social consequences of austerity", in other words against the danger of the class struggle.

The working class may have difficulty recognizing its class nature, becoming conscious of what it is but the bourgeoisie has no difficulty understanding that workers' struggles, strikes and demonstrations are dangerous. The ruling class knows that the class struggle is a danger for capitalism both from its general experience throughout its history and from the specific experience of the waves of struggles that it has had to contain, encapsulate and confront in the course of the last twenty five years[5]. With the particularly brutal measures required by the present economic mess, they are forced to plan the attacks and also the angry reactions that they are bound to provoke.

It is not therefore surprising that the bourgeoisie chose the timing of the explosion of workers' struggles in Italy in September 1992 to allow the anger of the proletariat in this country to erupt prematurely in order to prevent it contaminating other European countries[6]. Similarly most of today's movements more or less follow a timing decided by the unions. The "days of action" and also the publicity given to certain "examples" like Air France or "Red Friday" in Belgium is on the whole programmed by the political and union apparatus of the dominant class with the aim of allowing the working class to "let off steam". And they do so in unison with their "partners" in other countries.

Massive anti-working class measures, the ideological and political disorientation of the working class, illusions in the unions and a bourgeoisie that plans its strategy with great care: this is why the workers' combativity has not really checked the attacks against them. What's more the proletariat also suffers from the pressure of social decomposition. The general mood of "everyone for himself" is a drag on the need to develop solidarity and the collective struggle and facilitates the divisive maneuvers of unionism. Moreover the bourgeoisie uses the consequences of its own decomposition to hinder the working class in the development of its consciousness.

...and uses decomposition

Decomposition eats away at the flesh of bourgeois society. Lies and plots reign supreme in the battle for a slice of the cake getting visibly smaller, and this pushes the members of the bourgeois class into a corrupting attitude of looking out for number one.

The scandals and the various goings-on in the world of politics, finance, industry, sport or royalty, according to country, aren't just a masquerade. They correspond to the sharpening of rivalries within the dominant class. Nevertheless the one thing that anyone who is anyone is agreed upon is the need to publicize these goings-on to the hilt in order to occupy the media terrain.

In Italy, we have the example of the "clean hands" operation. The official explanation is that it aims to make politicians behave more morally and decently. In reality it's the settling of accounts between different factions of the bourgeoisie, between the different clans within the political apparatus. Basically this means between the pro-US tendencies (for 40 years the Christian Democratic Party were the US's zealous servants) and the tendencies that lean towards the Franco-German alliance[7]. In the same way in France the Tapie scandal and other media political soap operas are systematically given pride of place on the "news". To tell the truth no-one gives a damn but that's one of the results it's aiming for. They give as little information as possible and the message between the lines - "politics is dirty" - is very useful at a time when workers are trying to deal with political questions. In Britain it's the soap opera around the royal family that plays this role of monopolizing the "news".

The "humanitarian" campaigns to "take in a foreigner" in Germany or "get a child out of Sarejevo" in Britain, and the inflated coverage of murders committed by children in Britain and France also illustrate how decomposition is used by bourgeois ideology to maintain a feeling of powerlessness and fear. It is also used to turn attention from the real problems - economic, political and social.

To cap it all there's the systematic use of images of war, from the Middle East or Yugoslavia for example. The images are transmitted to hide the underlying imperialist interests and to create a sense of guilt amongst workers in the countries at "peace" to persuade them to accept their conditions of exploitation.

The perspectives for the class struggle

All these difficulties for the class struggle don't mean that the battle is already lost and that the workers can expect nothing. On the contrary. Although it obstructs the struggle, the very fact that the international bourgeoisie is mounting this concerted strategy against the working class shows that there is a real tendency towards mobilization, combativity and reflection on what is at stake in the present situation.

Workers have returned to the unions more "by default" than out of profound conviction. The situation is different to that in the thirties when the historic defeat of the working class was signified by tens of millions joining the unions. It's also more "by default" than out of a conviction in bourgeois politics that the proletariat still tends to follow the left wing parties of capitalism that pretend to be "workers' parties. This too is unlike the 30s when workers were enthusiastic about the "national fronts" (with their corollary of submission to "national socialism" and "Stalinism").

Social decomposition and the use the bourgeoisie makes of it combine with the maneuvers of the unions and their rank-and-file extensions to poison combativity and confuse the development of consciousness in the working class. However the economic crisis and the attacks on living conditions act as a powerful antidote. This is the terrain on which the proletariat has begun to respond. This is only the beginning of a long period of struggles. Repeated failures of economic demands are painful. But they also give rise to a deep reflection on the ends and means of the struggle. The mobilization of the workers is already leading to such a reflection. The bourgeoisie is not making a mistake when they publish a widely publicized "critique of capitalism" from... the pope. Suddenly intellectuals are publishing articles in "defense of Marxism". This kind of maneuver is designed to combat the danger of an early reflection that is taking place in the working class.

In spite of all the difficulties, present historic conditions trace a path towards class confrontations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Today's resurgence in combativity is only the first step towards them.

The job of revolutionary organizations is to actively participate in this reflection and in the development of working class actions. In the struggles we must relentlessly denounce the bourgeoisie's strategy of division and dispersion. We must reject corporatist, categorical, sectional and nationalist demands, oppose the unions' methods of "struggle" which are just maneuvers to damp down the fire. We must defend the perspective of the general struggle of the working class, the perspective of communism. We must call to mind the workers' past experiences in learning how to control the struggle through its general assemblies and with delegates elected and revocable by those assemblies. Where possible we must fight for the extension of struggles beyond sectoral divisions. We must encourage and animate discussion circles and struggle committees in which all workers can discuss and clarify the balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the nature of their combat that offers a perspective for the development of broader class confrontations in the years ahead.

OF, 12th December 1993


[1] See International Review no. 75.

[2] As for anarchism which sees Stalinism as the consequence of "Marxism", in spite of its "radicalism" it's condemned to rally to the side of the bourgeoisie. In its anarcho-syndicalist variation it attaches itself directly to the bourgeois state through its unionism. In its political variation it's the expression of the petite-bourgeoisie and makes its stand in the bourgeois camp as do the social strata that it represents. This is what it did in Spain in 1936.

[3] In France the Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvriere, has mounted an enormous fly-posting campaign throughout France to denounce the "return of capitalism" in the USSR and calling for the defense of the famous "workers gains".

[4] This includes the demonstration in Italy called by the "co-ordinations..." and the brawls on the airport runways in Paris during the Air France strike.

[5] What's more, the generation of men who were twenty years old in 1968 now runs the capitalist state. This is a generation that is particularly experienced on the "social" question. Let's bear in mind that in France Mitterand is surrounded by old leftists from May 68. Also that the first great service that Chirac performed for his class was in May 68 when he organized secret meetings between the Pompidou government (of which Balladur was part...) and the Stalinist union, the CGT. These meetings prepared the agreements that were to bury the movement.

[6] On the struggles in Italy, 1992 see International Reviews no.72 and 71 (supplement).

[7] For more on Italy see International Review no.73.

Recent and ongoing: