The aim of this report was above all to combat the prevailing bourgeois ideological campaigns about the ‘end of the class struggle’ and the disappearance of the working class’, and defend the view that, in spite of all its current difficulties, the proletariat has not lost its revolutionary potential. As we insisted in the opening sections, omitted here for lack of space, the bourgeoisie’s dismissal of this potential is founded on a purely immediatist conception which identifies the state of the class struggle at any given moment as the essential truth of the proletariat for all time. Against this shallow and empiricist approach, we counterpose the marxist method, which holds that “the proletariat can only exist world historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a world-historical existence” (German Ideology). The report on the class struggle was thus framed in the context of the historic movement of the class since its first epic attempts to overthrow capitalism in 1917-23, and then through the decades of counter-revolution that followed. We begin here as the report focuses more particularly on the evolution of the movement since the resurgence of class combats at the end of the 1960s. Some passages dealing with more recent and short-term developments have also been left out or compressed.
1968-89: the reawakening of the proletariat
…And here resides the whole significance of the May-June events in France in 1968: the emergence of a new generation of workers who had not been crushed and demoralised by the miseries and defeats of the previous decades, who had become accustomed to a relatively higher standard of living in the “boom” years after the war, and who were not prepared to bow down in front of the exigencies of a national economy once more sliding into crisis. The ten-million strong general strike in France, which was accompanied by a huge political ferment in which the notion of revolution, of changing the world, once again became a serious matter to discuss, marked the re-entry of the working class onto the scene of history, the end of the counter-revolutionary nightmare which had lain on its chest for so long. The importance of Italy’s “rampant May” and “hot autumn” the following year is that it provided firm proof of this interpretation, especially against all those who tried to prevent May 68 as little more than a student revolt. The explosion of struggle among the Italian proletariat, politically the most developed in the world, with its powerful anti-union dynamic, showed quite clearly that May 68 was no flash in the pan but the overture to a whole period of rising class struggles on an international scale. Subsequent massive movements (Argentina 69, Poland 70, Spain and Britain 72, etc) provided further confirmation.
Not all the existing revolutionary organisations were able to see this: the older ones, particularly in the Bordigist current, had grown myopic over the years and were unable to see the profound change in the global balance of forces between the classes; but those who were able both to encapsulate the dynamic of this new movement, and to reassimilate the “old” method of the Italian left which had made it such a pole of clarity in the depths of the counter-revolution, were able to declare the opening of a new historic course, markedly different from the one that had prevailed during the height of the counter-revolution, dominated by the course towards war The reopening of the world economic crisis would certainly lead to a sharpening of imperialist antagonisms which, if left to their own dynamic, would drag humanity towards a third, and almost certainly final, world war. But because the proletariat had begun to respond to the crisis on its own class terrain, it acted as a fundamental obstacle to this dynamic; not only that, by developing its struggles of resistance, it could open up its own dynamic towards the second world revolutionary onslaught on the capitalist system.
The massive and open nature of this first wave of struggles, coupled with the fact that that they had once again made it possible to talk about revolution, led many of the more impatient offspring of the movement to “take their desires for reality” and think that the world was already on the brink of a revolutionary crisis in the early 70s. This kind of immediatism was based on a failure to grasp:
- that the economic crisis which provided the impetus for the struggle was still very much in its initial phases; and, in contrast to the 1930s, this crisis was being met by a bourgeoisie armed with the lessons of experience and the instruments that enabled it to “manage” the descent into the abyss: state capitalism, the use of bloc-wide organs, the capacity to put off the worst effects of the crisis through the resort to credit and through spreading its impact out onto the peripheries of the system;
- that the political effects of the counter-revolution still had a considerable weight on the working class: the almost complete break in organic continuity with the political organisations of the past; the low level of political culture in the proletariat as a whole, with its ingrained distrust for “politics” resulting from its traumatic experience with Stalinism and social democracy.
These factors ensured that the period of proletarian struggle opened up in 68 could only be a long drawn out one. In contrast to the first revolutionary wave, which had arisen in response to a war and thus very rapidly hurtled onto the political level - too rapidly in many ways, as Luxemburg noted with regard to the November revolution in Germany - the revolutionary battles of the future could only be prepared by a whole series of defensive economic combats which - and this was in any case a fundamental feature of the class struggle in general - would be forced to go through a difficult and uneven pattern of advances and retreats.
The response of the French bourgeoisie to May 68 set the tone for the world bourgeoisie’s counter-attack: the electoral trick was used to disperse the class struggle (once the unions had successfully corralled it); the promise of a left government was dangled in front of the workers, conveying the dazzling illusion that it would sort out all the problems that had motivated the upsurge and institute a new reign of prosperity and justice, even a little bit of “workers’ control”. The 1970s could thus be characterised as “years of illusion” in the sense that the bourgeoisie, faced as it was with a relatively limited development of the economic crisis, was far better placed to sell these illusions to the working class. This counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie broke the impetus of the first international wave of struggles.
The inability of the bourgeoisie to actually realise any of its false promises meant that it was only a matter of time before the struggle resurfaced. The years 1978-80 witnessed a very concentrated burst of important class movements: Longwy-Denain in France, with its efforts to extend beyond the steel sector and its challenge to union authority; the Rotterdam dock strike, which saw the emergence of an autonomous strike committee; the massive movement in Iran which led to the fall of the regime of the Shah; in Britain, the “winter of discontent” which saw a simultaneous outbreak of struggle in numerous sectors, and the steel strike of 1980; and finally, Poland 1980, the culmination of this wave, and in many ways of the entire period of the resurgence so far.
At the end of this turbulent decade, the ICC had already announced that the 80s would be “years of truth”: by which we meant not, as is often misconstrued, that this would be the decade of the revolution, but a decade in which the illusions of the 70s would be worn away by the brutal acceleration of the crisis and of the resulting assault on working class living standards. A decade in which the bourgeoisie itself would speak the language of truth, of “blood sweat and tears”, of Thatcher’s “there is no alternative”; a change in language that also corresponded to a change in the ruling class’s political line up, with a hard-nosed right in power openly implementing the necessary attacks, and a falsely radicalised left in opposition, charged with derailing the workers’ response from the inside. And finally, the 80s would be years of truth because the historic alternative facing mankind - world war or world revolution - would not only become clearer, but would in some sense be decided by the events of the ensuing decade. And indeed the opening events of the decade showed this to the case: on the one hand, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan sharply highlighted the bourgeoisie’s “answer” to the crisis, and opened up a period of greatly sharpened tensions between the blocs, typified by Reagan’s warnings about the Evil Empire and the gigantic military budgets invested in such schemes as the “Star Wars” project. On the other hand, the proletarian response could be glimpsed very clearly through the mass strike in Poland.
The ICC always recognised the crucial importance of this movement, which provided the “answers” to all the questions posed by the preceding combats: “The struggle in Poland has provided answers to a whole series of questions which were posed to previous struggles without being answered in a clear way:
- the necessity for the extension of the struggle (Rotterdam);
- the necessity for self-organisation (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” (Resolution on the Class struggle, 4th ICC Congress, 1980, published in International Review no.26)
In sum, the Polish movement showed how the proletariat could pose itself as a unified social force capable not only of resisting capital’s onslaught, but also of raising the perspective of workers’ power (a danger well appreciated by the bourgeoisie who temporarily shelved their imperialist rivalries to smother the movement, particularly through the construction of the Solidarnosc union).
Having answered the question: how to extend and organise the struggle - to unify it - the Polish mass strike posed another question: that of the generalisation of the mass strike across national frontiers, which would be a precondition for the development of a revolutionary situation. But as our resolution expressed it at the time, this could not be an immediate prospect: the question of generalisation had been posed in Poland, but it was up to the world proletariat, and particularly the proletariat of Western Europe, to answer it. In trying to keep a clear head about the significance of the event in Poland, we had to fight two different deviations: on the one hand, a serious underestimation of the importance of the struggle (for example, in our section in Britain, among the partisans of the union strike committees in the British steel strike, who considered the movement to be of lesser importance than what had taken place in Britain); and on the other hand, a dangerous immediatism which exaggerated the short-term revolutionary potential of this movement. In order to criticise these symmetrical errors, we were obliged to develop the critique of the theory of the weak link.
The central element of this critique is a recognition that the revolutionary breakthrough requires a concentrated and above all a politically experienced or “cultured” proletariat. The proletariat of the Eastern countries has a glorious revolutionary past but this has been all but erased by the horrors of Stalinism, which explains the huge gap between the level of self-organisation and extension of the movement in Poland, and its political consciousness (the domination of religion but above all of democratic and trade unionist ideology). The political level of the proletariat in Western Europe, which has had decades of experience of the delights of democracy, is considerably higher (a fact expressed among other things, by the fact that the majority of the world’s revolutionary organisations are concentrated in Western Europe). It is to Western Europe, first and foremost, that we must look for the maturation of the conditions for the next revolutionary movement of the working class.
All the same, the profound counter-revolution that descended on the working class in the 1920s has taken its toll of the entire proletariat. It could be said that the proletariat of today has one advantage over the revolutionary generation of 1917: today there are no large workers’ organisations who have only just gone over to the ruling class, and who are thus capable of commanding tremendous loyalty in a class that has not had time to assimilate the historic consequences of their betrayal. This was a major reason for the defeat of the German revolution at the hands of social democracy in 1918-19. But there is a down side to this. The systematic destruction of the proletariat’s revolutionary traditions, the proletariat’s acquired distrust for all political organisations, its growing amnesia about its own history (a factor that has accelerated considerably in the last decade or so) constitute a grave weakness for the working class of the entire globe.
At all events, the Western European proletariat was not ready to take up the challenge posed by the Polish mass strike. The second wave of struggles was blunted by the bourgeoisie’s new strategy of placing the left in opposition, and the Polish workers found themselves isolated at precisely the time they most needed the struggle to break out elsewhere. This isolation (consciously imposed by the world bourgeoisie) opened the gates to Jaruzelski’s tanks. The repression of 1981 in Poland marked the end of the second wave of struggles.
Historic events on this scale have long term consequences. The mass strike in Poland provided definitive proof that the class struggle is the only force that can compel the bourgeoisie to set aside its imperialist rivalries. In particular, it showed that the Russian bloc - historically condemned, by its weakened position, to be the “aggressor” in any war - was incapable of responding to its growing economic crisis with a policy of military expansion. Clearly the workers of the Eastern bloc countries (and of Russia itself) were totally unreliable as cannon fodder in any future war for the glory of “socialism”. Thus the mass strike in Poland was a potent factor in the eventual implosion of the Russian imperialist bloc.
Though unable to pose the question of generalisation, the working class of the West did not go into retreat for long. With the first series of public sector strikes in Belgium in 1983, it launched a very long “third wave” which, though not starting at the level of the mass strike, did contain an overall dynamic towards it.
In our resolution of 1980 cited above, we compared the situation of the class today to that of 1917. The conditions of world war had ensured that any class resistance would immediately have to confront the full force of the state and thus pose the question of revolution. At the same time, the conditions of war brought numerous disadvantages - the capacity of the bourgeoisie to sow divisions between the workers of “victor” and “vanquished” nations; to take the wind out of the revolution’s sails by ending the war, etc). A long drawn out and world wide economic crisis, on the other hand, not only tends to create uniform conditions for the whole class, but also gives the proletariat more to time to develop its forces, to develop its class consciousness through a whole series of partial struggles against capitalism’s attacks. The international wave of the 1980s definitely did have this characteristic; if none of the struggles had the spectacular features of a France 1968 or a Poland 1980, they nevertheless combined to bring important clarifications about the goals and aims of the struggle. For example: the very widespread appeals for solidarity across sectoral boundaries in Belgium in 1983 and 1986, or Denmark in 1985, showed concretely how the problem of extension could be solved; the efforts at taking control of the struggle (railway workers’ assemblies in France 1986, school-workers’ assemblies in Italy 1987) showed how to organise outside the unions. There were also fledgling attempts to draw lessons from defeats: in Britain for example, following the defeat of the militant but long drawn out and isolated miners’ and printers’ struggles of the mid 80s, struggles in Britain towards the end of the decade showed that workers were unwilling to be drawn into the same traps (the British Telecom workers who struck quickly and then returned to work before they could be ground down; the simultaneous struggles in various sectors in the summer of 1988). At the same time the appearance of workers’ struggle groups in various countries provided answers to the question how should the most militant workers act towards the struggle as a whole; and so on. All these apparently separate streams were running towards a point of convergence, which would have represented a qualitative deepening of the world-wide class struggle.
Nevertheless, at a certain point, the time factor began to play less and less in favour of the proletariat. Faced with the deepening crisis of a whole mode of production, a historic form of civilisation, the workers’ struggle, though slowly advancing, was not keeping pace with the overall acceleration of events, was not raising itself to the level required to affirm the proletariat as a positive revolutionary force, even if its combats continued to block the road to world war. Thus, for the vast majority of mankind, and of the proletariat itself, the reality of the third wave remained more or less concealed - by the blackouts of the bourgeoisie, certainly, but also by the slow, unspectacular nature of its progress. The third wave was even “hidden” from the majority of the proletarian political orgaisations, who tended to see only its most overt expressions, and only then as separate and unconnected phenomena.
This situation, in which, despite an ever-deepening crisis, neither major class was able to impose its solution, gave rise to the phenomenon of decomposition, which became more and more identifiable in the 1980, at various inter-related levels: social (growing atomisation, gangsterism, drug addiction, etc), ideological (development of irrational and fundamentalist ideologies), ecological, etc etc. Arising out of the impasse in the class struggle, decomposition then acted in its turn to sap the capacity of the proletariat to forge itself into a unified force; as the decade moved to a close, decomposition had moved more and more to centre stage, culminating in the gigantic events of 1989, which mark the definitive opening of a new phase in the long descent of obsolete capitalism, a phase in which the whole social edifice begins to crack, shudder, and fall apart.
1989-99: The class struggle faced with the decomposition of bourgeois society
The collapse of the Eastern bloc thus confronted a proletariat which, while still combative and slowly developing its class consciousness, had not yet reached a point where it was able to respond to such an enormous historic event on its own class terrain. The collapse of “communism” stopped the third wave dead in its tracks and (except for a very restricted politicised minority) had a profoundly negative impact on the key element of class consciousness - the ability to develop a perspective, an overall goal for the struggle, more vital than ever in an epoch in which there can be no Chinese wall between the defensive combat and the offensive, revolutionary struggles of the class. The collapse of the Eastern bloc assaulted the class in two ways:
- it enabled the bourgeoisie to develop a whole series of campaigns around the theme of “the end of communism”, the “end of the class struggle”, which deeply affected the capacity of the class to invest its struggles with the perspective of building a new society, to pose itself as an independent force hostile to capital, with its own interests to defend. The self-confidence of the class, which played absolutely no autonomous role in the actual events of 1989-91, was shaken to the core. Both its fighting spirit and its consciousness went into a very considerable retreat, certainly the deepest since the resurgence of 1968; the trade unions profited greatly from this loss of confidence by enjoying a major comeback as the “only thing the workers have” to defend themselves;
- at the same time the collapse of the Eastern bloc further unleashed all the forces of decomposition which already lay behind it, more and more subjecting the class to the putrid atmosphere of every man for himself, to the nefarious influences of gangsterism, fundamentalism, etc. The bourgeoisie, moreover, while equally, if not more affected by the decomposition of its system, was able to turn its manifestations against the class: a classic example being the Dutroux affair in Belgium, where the sordid practices of bourgeois cliques were used as an excuse to drown the working class in a vast democratic campaign for “clean government”. In fact, the use of the democratic mystification became more and more systematic, since it was both the logical “conclusion” to be drawn from the “failure of communism”, and is the ideal instrument for atomising the class still further and tying it hand and foot to the capitalist state. The wars provoked by decomposition - Gulf massacre of 1991, ex-Yugoslavia, etc - though allowing a minority to see the militarist nature of capitalism more clearly, also had the more general affect of increasing the proletariat’s feelings of powerlessness, of living in a cruel and irrational world where there is no solution but to bury your head in the sand.
The situation of the unemployed sharply highlights the problems facing the class here. In the late 70s and early 80s, the ICC identified the unemployed workers as potential source of radicalisation for the class movement as a whole, comparable to the role played by the soldiers in the first revolutionary wave. But under the weight of decomposition it has proved harder and harder for the unemployed to develop their own collective forms of struggle and organisation, being particularly vulnerable to its most destructive social effects (atomisation, deliquency, etc). This is true above all of the generation of young unemployed proletarians who have never experienced the collective discipline and solidarity of labour. But at the same time, this negative weight has not been lightened by capital’s tendency to “de-industrialise” those “traditional” sectors where workers have a long experience of class solidarity - mines, shipbuilding, steel, etc. Rather than being able to bring their collective traditions to the other unemployed workers, these proletarians have tended to become drowned in a more amorphous mass. The decimation of these sectors had also of course had its effects on the struggles of the employed as well, since it has helped to disperse important sources of class identity and experience.
The dangers of the new period for the working class and the future of its struggle cannot be underestimated. While the class struggle was definitely a barrier to war in the 70s and 80s, the day to day struggle does not halt or slow down the process of decomposition. To launch a world war, the bourgeoisie would have had to have inflicted a series of major defeats on the central battalions of the working class; today the proletariat faces the more long term, but in the end no less dangerous threat of a “death by a thousand cuts”, in which the working class is increasingly ground down by the whole process to the point where it has lost the ability to affirm itself as a class, while capitalism plunges from catastrophe to catastrophe (local wars, ecological breakdown, famine, disease, etc) until it reaches the point where the very premises of a communist society have been destroyed for generations - if we are not talking about the very destruction of humanity itself…
For us, however… despite the problems posed by decomposition, despite the reflux in the class struggle than we have been through over the past few years, the proletariat’s capacity to struggle, to respond to the decline of the capitalist system, has not vanished, and the course towards massive class confrontations remains open. To show this, it is necessary to re-examine the broad dynamic of the class struggle since the onset of the phase of decomposition.
The evolution of the struggle since 1989
As the ICC had predicted at the time, in the first two or three years after the fall of the Eastern bloc, the reflux was very marked, both at the level of consciousness and of combativeness. The working class was under the full force of the campaign about the death of communism.
By 1992, the effects of these campaigns were beginning, if not to wear off, then at least to diminish, and the first signs of a revival of class militancy could be discerned, in particular with the mobilisations by the Italian workers against the Amato government’s austerity measures in September of 1992. This was followed by miners’ demonstrations against pit closures in Britain in October. The end of 1993 saw further movements in Italy, Belgium, Spain, and in particular Germany, with strikes and demonstrations in a number of sectors, notably construction and automobiles. The ICC, in an editorial aptly entitled “The difficult resurgence of the class struggle” (International Review no.76), declared that “the calm that has reigned for nearly four years has been definitively broken”. While saluting this revival of fighting spirit in the class, the ICC also emphasised the difficulties it faced: the renewed strength of the trade unions; the capacity of the bourgeoisie to manoeuvre against the class, particularly by choosing the time and issues around which the bigger movements would break out; similarly, the capacity of the ruling class to make full use of the phenomena of decomposition to reinforce the atomisation of the class (at that moment, the use of scandals was highlighted in particular - for example the “Clean Hands” campaign in Italy).
In December 1995, the ICC, and the revolutionary milieu in general, faced an important test. In the wake of disputes on the railways and a highly provocative attack on the social wage of all workers, it appeared as if France was on the verge of a major class movement, with strikes and general assemblies in many sectors and workers raising slogans which stressed that the only way to win demands was to struggle all together. A number of revolutionary groups, sceptical of the class struggle in general, became wildly enthusiastic about this movement. The ICC, however, warned the workers that this “movement” was above all the product of a gigantic manoeuvre by the ruling class, aware of the mounting discontent within the class and seeking to strike a pre-emptive blow before this simmering anger could express itself in a real militancy, a real will to action. In particular, by presenting the trade unions as champions of the workers’ struggle, as the best defenders of working class methods of struggle (assemblies, massive delegations to other sectors, etc), the bourgeoisie was trying to boost the credibility of its trade union apparatus, in preparation for more important confrontations ahead. Though the ICC was widely criticised for its “conspiratorial” view of the struggle, this analysis was confirmed in the period that followed. The German and Belgian bourgeoisies launched virtual carbon copies of the French strikes, while in Britain (the Liverpool docks campaign) and the USA (the UPS strike), there were further attempts to strengthen the image of the trade unions.
The scale of these manoeuvres did not call into question the underlying reality of a revival of class struggle. In fact, it could be said that these manoeuvres, for all that the bourgeoisie was usually one step ahead of the workers, provoking movements in unfavourable conditions and often around false issues, were a measure of the danger posed by the working class.…
The most important confirmation of our analyses was provided by the huge strike in Denmark in the early summer of 1998. At first sight, this movement bore many similarities to the events of December 1995 in France, but as we said in the editorial of our International Review no.94, this was not the case: “despite the failure of the strike and the manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie, the significance of this movement is not the same as that of December 95 in France. In particular, whereas in France the return to work went along with a certain euphoria, a feeling of victory which left no room for putting unionism in doubt, the end of the Danish strike brought with it a feeling of defeat, and few illusions in the unions. This time, the bourgeoisie’s objective was not to launch a huge operation to restore credibility to the unions internationally, as in 1995, but to ‘wet the powder’, to anticipate the discontent and growing combativeness which is asserting itself little by little in Denmark, as it is in other European countries and elsewhere”.
The editorial also points out other important aspects of the strike: its sheer scale (a quarter of the workforce out for two weeks), which was a real testimony to the level of anger and militancy building up in the class, and the intensive use of rank and file unionism to mop up this militancy and the workers’ dissatisfaction with the official union machinery.
Above all, it was the international context which had changed: a growing atmosphere of combativeness which was expressing itself in numerous countries, and has continued to do so:
- in the USA over the summer of 1998, with the strike of nearly 10,000 workers at General Motors, of 70,000 Bell Atlantic telephone workers, of health care workers in New York, and the violent confrontations with the police during a massive demonstration of 40,000 construction workers in New York;
- in Britain, with the unofficial strikes by care workers in Scotland, of postal workers in London, and the two electricians’ strikes in London which showed a clear willingness to struggle despite the opposition of the union leadership;
- in Greece, in the summer, where struggles around the education sector led to running battles with the police;
- in Norway where a strike comparable in scale to the one in Denmark took place in the autumn
- in France, where there has been a whole series of struggles in different sectors, including education, health, post, and transport, most notably the strikes by bus drivers in Paris in the autumn, where workers reacted on a class terrain to one of the consequences of decomposition - the growing number of attacks on transport workers - by calling for more jobs rather than more policing;
- in Belgium where a slow but definite growth in combativeness, expressed in strikes in the car industry, in transport, in communications, has been countered with a huge campaign of the bourgeoisie around the theme of “fighting trade unionism”. This has taken an absolutely explicit form with the promotion of a “Movement for Union Renewal” which uses very radical, “unitary” language and whose leader, D’Orazio, has been given a halo of radicalism by being put on trial for “violence”;
- in the third world, with strikes in Korea, rumours of massive social discontent in China, and most recently, in Zimbabwe, where a general strike was called to channel workers’ anger not only with government austerity measures but also with the sacrifices demanded for the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo; this strike coincided with desertions and protests amongst the troops.
Other examples could be given, although it has been difficult to obtain information because - in contrast to the big, well-publicised manoeuvres of 95-96 - the bourgeoisie has responded to most of these movements with the black-out tactic, which is additional evidence that these movements express a real and mounting militancy which the bourgeoisie certainly does not want to encourage.
The responses of the bourgeoisie and the perspectives for the class struggle
Faced with this growth of combativeness, the bourgeoisie will not remain inactive, but has already launched or intensified a whole series of campaigns, both on the direct terrain of the struggle, and in the more general political sense, to undermine the militancy of the class and impede the development of its consciousness: a revival of “fighting” trade unionism (eg in Belgium, in Greece, in the British electricians’ strikes); the propaganda barrage about “democracy” (victory of left governments, Pinochet affair, etc); mystifications about the crisis (“critiques” of globalisation, calls for a “third way” which uses the state to rein in a rampant “market economy”); continuation of the slanders against October 1917, Bolshevism, and the communist left, and so on.
In addition to these campaigns, we will certainly see the ruling class making maximum use of all the manifestations of social decomposition to aggravate all the difficulties faced by the working class. There is thus a very long road to travel between the kind of movement we saw in Denmark and the development of massive class confrontations in the heart-lands of capital, confrontations that will once again offer the perspective of revolution to all the exploited and oppressed of the earth.
Nevertheless, the development of the struggle over the recent period has shown that, for all the difficulties it has faced in the last decade, the working class remains undefeated, and still retains a huge potential for fighting against this moribund system. Indeed, there are several important factors which can serve to radicalise the present movements of the class and take them towards higher level;
- the increasingly open development of the world economic crisis. Despite all the bourgeoisie’s attempts to minimise its significance and distort its causes, the crisis remains the “ally of the proletariat” in that it tends to lay bare the real limitations of the capitalist mode of production. Over the last year we have already seen a major deepening of the economic crisis, and yet we know that the worst of it still lies ahead; above all, the great capitalist centres are only just beginning to feel the effects of this latest plunge;
- the acceleration of the crisis also means the acceleration of the bourgeoisie’s attacks on the working class. But it also means that the bourgeoisie is less and less in a position to stagger these attacks, to dilute them, to aim them at particular sectors. More and more the entire working class will be under the cosh, and all aspects of its living standards will be under threat. Thus the necessity for massive attacks by the bourgeoisie will increasingly highlight the necessity for a massive response from the working class.
- at the same time, the bourgeoisie of the main capitalist centers will also be compelled to engage in more and more military adventures; society will be increasingly permeated with an atmosphere of war. We have noted that in certain circumstances (ie immediately after the collapse of the Eastern bloc), the development of militarism can increase the proletariat’s sense of powerlessness. At the same time we noted even at the time of the Gulf War that such events can also have a positive effect on class consciousness, particularly amongst a more politicised or more militant minority. And it remains the case that the bourgeoisie is unable to mobilise the proletariat en masse for its military adventures. One of the factors explaining the wide “opposition” among the ruling class to the latest raids on Iraq was the difficulty of selling this war policy to the population in general and the working class in particular. These difficulties are going to increase for the ruling class, as it will be forced to show its military teeth more and more overtly
The Communist Manifesto describes the class struggle as a “more or less veiled civil war”. The bourgeoisie, in trying to create the illusion of a social order in which class conflict is a thing of the past, is nevertheless forced to accelerate the very conditions that polarise society into two camps, divided by irreconcilable antagonisms. The more bourgeois society sinks into its death agony, the more the veils hiding this “civil war” will be cast aside. Faced with ever-increasing economic, social and military contradictions, the bourgeoisie is obliged to increase its totalitarian political grip over society, to outlaw any challenge to its order, to demand more and more sacrifices for less and less reward. As at the beginning of capitalism’s life, when the Manifesto was written, the workers’ struggle tends once again to become the struggle of an “outlaw” class, a class which has no stake in the existing system, and where all its rebellions and protests are effectively forbidden by law. Herein lies the importance of three fundamental aspects of the class struggle today:
- the struggle to build a balance of forces in the workers’ favour: this is the key to the working class being able to reassert its class identity against all the corporatist divisions imposed by bourgeois ideology in general and the trade unions in particular, and against the atomisation aggravated by capitalist decomposition. It is above all a practical key, because it arises as an immediate necessity in every struggle: the workers can only defend themselves by enlarging the front of their struggle as widely as possible;
- the struggle to break out of the union jail: it is the unions which everywhere enforce capitalist “legality” and corporatist divisions on the struggle, which seek to prevent the workers from constituting a balance of forces in their favour. The ability of the workers to confront the unions and develop their own forms of organisation will thus be a crucial yardstick for the real maturation of the struggle in the period ahead, no matter how uneven and difficult this process may be;
- the confrontation with the unions is at the same time the confrontation with the capitalist state; and the confrontation with the capitalist state - and its anticipation by the more advanced minority - is the nub of the politicisation of the class struggle. In many ways it is the bourgeoisie which takes the initiative for making “every class struggle a political struggle” (Manifesto), because it cannot, in the end, integrate the class struggle into its system. The “confrontational” approach has been, and will more and more be, inaugurated by the ruling class. But the working class will have to respond, not simply on the terrain of immediate self-defence, but above all by developing an overall perspective for its struggles, by locating each partial struggle in the wider context of the fight against the whole system. This consciousness will necessarily be limited to a minority for a long time to come, but it will be a growing minority, and this growth will be expressed by the increasing impact of the revolutionary political organisations on a wider stratum of radicalised workers. Hence the vital necessity for these organisations to follow very closely the real development of the class movement, and to be able to intervene within it as effectively as their means permit.
The bourgeoisie may try to sell us the lie that the class struggle is dead. But it is already preparing for the “unveiled civil war” that is inevitably contained in the future of a social order which has its back to the wall. The working class, and its revolutionary minorities, must also be prepared.
 This report was written in December 1998, well before the outbreak of the war in ex-Yugoslavia.