Since its beginnings, the proletariat’s struggle in defence of its own interests has carried within itself the perspective of ultimately destroying capitalism and establishing communism. But the proletariat does not pursue the final goal of its struggle out of pure idealism, guided by some divine inspiration. It is led to undertake its communist task because the material conditions within which its immediate struggle develops, force the class to do so since any other method of struggle can only lead to disaster.
As long as the bourgeoisie, thanks to the vast expansion of the capitalist system in its ascendant phase, was able to accord real reforms to the workers, the proletariat’s struggle lacked the objective conditions necessary for the realisation of its revolutionary programme.
Despite the revolutionary and communist aspirations expressed even during the bourgeois revolution by the most radical tendencies in the workers’ movement, in that historic period the workers’ struggle could not go beyond the fight for reforms.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, one of the focal points of working class activity was the whole process of learning how to organise itself to win economic and political reforms through trade unionism and parliamentarism. Thus side by side within the genuine organisations of the class, one could find ‘reformist’ elements (those for whom the whole struggle of the class was simply the struggle for reforms) and revolutionaries (those for whom the struggle for reforms was simply a step, a moment in the process which would ultimately lead to the revolutionary struggle of the class). Also in this period the proletariat was able to support certain fractions of the bourgeoisie against other more reactionary fractions in order to push forward social changes favourable to its own development and favourable also to the development of the productive forces.
All these conditions underwent fundamental changes under decadent capitalism. The world has become too small to contain within it all the existing national capitals. In every nation, capital is forced to increase productivity (ie the exploitation of the workers) to the most extreme limits. The organisation of this exploitation has ceased to be a matter conducted solely between individual employers and their workforce; it has become the concern of the state and all the thousand and one mechanisms created to contain the class, direct it and steer it away from any revolutionary danger - condemning it to a systematic and insidious repression.
Inflation, a permanent phenomenon since World War I, immediately devours any wage increases. The length of the working day has either stayed the same, or has been reduced only to compensate for the increased time to get to and from work and to avoid the total nervous collapse of the workers, subjected to a shattering pace of life and work.
The struggle for reforms has become a hopeless utopia. In this epoch the proletariat can only engage in a fight to the death against capital. It no longer has any alternative between consenting to be atomised into a sum of millions of crushed, tamed individuals, or generalising its struggles as widely as possible towards a confrontation with the state itself. Thus it must refuse to allow its struggles to be restricted to a purely economic, local, or sectional terrain and instead organise itself in the embryonic forms of its future organs of power: the workers’ councils.
In these new historic conditions many of the old weapons of the proletariat can no longer be used by the class. In fact the political tendencies who continue to advocate their use only do so in order to tie the working class to exploitation, to undermine its will to fight.
The distinction made by the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century between the minimum and the maximum programme has lost all meaning. The minimum programme is no longer possible. The proletariat can only advance its struggles by situating them within the perspective of the maximum programme: the communist revolution.