The question that we want to address in this presentation is this: how are we to analyse the class struggle? How are we to determine at any given time - and notably today - the general condition of the working class, and the possibilities that are determined by the balance of class forces, in other words by the balance of power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Understanding the balance of class forces is not simply a matter of counting strike days lost, or of measuring the degree of workers' militancy. If we take the 1930s in France as an example - where massive strikes, demonstrations, and even factory occupations involving several million workers for several weeks broke out after the electoral victory of the Popular Front in 1936 - we can see that even a massive degree of workers' militancy is no guarantee of the proletariat's ability to struggle for its own class goals: the demonstrations held on the 14th July (the celebration of French nationalism) after the strikes, saw workers marching for the first time behind both the Red Flag of the workers' movement and the Tricolor of the bourgeois state. Indeed, the workers were under the illusion that it was thanks to the election to power of their "defenders" that the bosses had been forced to make concessions. Three years after the Popular Front came to power, and three years after this massive mobilisation of the working class, the working class was marched off to six years of imperialist slaughter in defence of the bourgeoisie's national interest.
It is necessary therefore to remain true to the method of historical materialism, and to take as our starting point a general, overall understanding of the historical period in which we find ourselves, and of the different elements that determine the balance of forces between proletariat and bourgeoisie.
This was the method of Marx and Engels, as we can see for example in these words written by Engels for the Preface to the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto: "The Manifesto was published as the platform of the Communist League, a working men's association, first exclusively German, later on international, and under the political conditions of the Continent before 1848, unavoidably a secret society. (...) The defeat of the Parisian insurrection of June 1848 - the first great battle between proletariat and bourgeoisie - drove again into the background, for a time, the social and political aspirations of the European working class. (...) Wherever independent proletarian movements continued to show signs of life, they were ruthlessly hunted down. (...) When the European workers had recovered sufficient strength for another attack on the ruling classes, the International Working Men's Association sprang up. But this association, formed with the express aim of welding into one body the whole militant proletariat of Europe and America, could not at once proclaim the principles laid down in the Manifesto...".
The lesson that we draw from all the work of Marx and Engels, and from the concrete experience of the working class, is this: revolutionary action is not possible at any moment, it is not the product of the "will" of revolutionaries. When the working class suffers a heavy defeat, as it did in 1848, then the balance of class forces shifts decisively, for a period, in favour of the bourgeoisie. Time is necessary for the working class to recover from defeat.
The one point in the workers' favour is that capitalist society without the proletariat is impossible: the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers, as Marx put it. Capitalism cannot live without exploiting the proletariat, and consequently the proletariat will always be forced to struggle. When the proletariat has been defeated, there has always been new strength, new generations, to arise from the defeats of the past and to take up the struggle again.
1914 opens up a new period
With the outbreak of war in 1914 a new period opened up in the life of capitalist society: the period of capitalism's decadence. Suddenly, the proletarian struggle was being fought out for higher stakes than ever before in history. The choice was no longer between greater or lesser exploitation, greater or lesser periods of reaction: now it was between war and revolution, between the life and death not just for the proletariat but for the whole of humanity. The Communist International, founded in 1919 to lead the world wide revolution, described this new period as "the epoch of wars and revolutions" and understood its implications all too clearly: if the working class were to be taken in by the sermons of the opportunists, "capitalist development would celebrate its restoration in new, more concentrated and more monstrous forms on the bones of many generations, with the prospect of a new and inevitable world war."
What are the principal features of this new epoch - in which we are still living - that concern us today?
- The tendency towards world wide inter-imperialist war has become a permanent feature of capitalist society.
- It would no longer be possible to launch a revolution in the middle of an imperialist war. After the incomplete defeat of the working class in 1914, which meant that it was able to launch a revolutionary assault in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1919, the ruling class has become aware of the danger of revolution. The defeat of the revolutions in Russia and Germany were followed by the most barbaric counter-revolutions that the proletariat had ever suffered, but the bourgeoisie has never forgotten the fear it felt at the threat posed by the working class. The end of World War II was marked by a systematic obliteration of any possibility of workers' revolt especially in the defeated countries: the Allies left the German army to suppress ruthlessly the revolts of Italian workers in 1943, Stalin's Red Army stopped before Warsaw to allow the Nazis time to exterminate the Warsaw rising, and the British and Americans undertook a massive bombardment of Germany's industrial cities, deliberately aimed at the working class districts rather than the factories. As Germany collapsed, the Allies occupied the entire country, ignoring all the secret proposals for surrender made by the German army and secret services, to avoid facing a situation like that in 1918, when the war ended in workers' and soldiers' uprisings.
- More than ever, the overall balance of class forces is determined internationally, not country by country. We are living in an epoch of world war and world revolution. This means that an apparently revolutionary situation in one country (for example, in France or Spain in 1936) cannot reverse a course towards war which is determined by an international defeat of the working class. And conversely, a defeat for the working class in one country does not necessarily mean a general defeat of the course towards revolution.
- Contrary to what revolutionaries had thought on the basis of the experience of the 1870 Paris Commune (and which seemed to be confirmed by the experience of the Russian revolutions in 1905 and 1917), a historic course towards war and a historic course towards revolution cannot be simultaneous. On the contrary, they are antithetical. For the bourgeoisie to be able to undertake all-out generalised imperialist war, the working class must be prepared to die on the battlefield and to accept the greatest material privation on the home front: in other words, it must be utterly defeated.
As we have said, the defeat of the revolutionary wave begun in 1917 was followed by the most terrible counter-revolution in history. Not only was the class physically smashed, the ideological disaster was even worse. What had once been the highest expressions of working class consciousness (the Social-Democracy prior to 1914, the Communist International after 1919) were destroyed, or worse still were defending rampant counter-revolution in the name of the proletariat itself. It is important to distinguish the defeat which made possible the First World War - which the working class overcame three years later - and the physical and political defeat that followed the revolutionary wave. This defeat was made still worse by many workers' belief in the existence of a "socialist fatherland" in the USSR whose consequences were twofold: under the influence of the Stalinist parties, they were made subject to the imperialist interests of Russia, while at the same time they were divided from those workers who, rejecting the barbarity of the Stalinist USSR, saw no other solution than to turn back to the Social Democratic parties. Things were made still worse by the fact that the Allies victory over fascism was presented not as a victory of imperialist powers, but as a victory of the working class. The internationalists were reduced to a tiny handful of militants in little groups completely bereft of any influence on the action of their class.
So profound was the defeat that during the economic boom of the post-war Reconstruction period, it became quite the fashion for self-proclaimed revolutionary ideologues like Marcuse to pronounce the disappearance of the working class' revolutionary nature; its place was henceforth supposedly to be taken by other social strata - the students, black people in the USA, the peasants in the Third World, etc.
The Reconstruction period also gave birth to another illusion within the bourgeoisie: that it had definitively overcome its economic problems, that the terrible crisis of 1929 was no more than a memory. But by the end of the 1960s the illusion was wearing thin as the first signs of a return of the economic crisis returned to haunt the capitalist world. And with the return of the crisis, came the renewed danger of war. Like Germany in 1939, the USSR at the end of the 1960s found itself encircled militarily by its main imperialist rival, encumbered with a war machine whose enormous expense could only be compensated by the fruits of victorious war. Around the world, the armies and proxies of the two greatest imperialist powers fought in innumerable conflicts of "national liberation" (Vietnam, Africa, Latin America); in Germany, they confronted each other on either side of the "Iron Curtain" with the most gigantic accumulation of military power the world had ever seen, backed up with the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war.
Yet imperialist war did not break out. Why?
The answer lies in the events of May 1968 in France - or rather in the reawakening of the working class and the end of the counter-revolution of which these events were an expression.
The ideologues of the bourgeoisie would like us to think of May 1968 as a "students' revolt", so it is worth taking a moment to remember the reality of these events: in fact, France in 1968 witnessed the biggest strike in history, with more than nine million workers on strike and the entire country at a complete standstill: so frightened was the French President (de Gaulle) that he disappeared to Germany to meet the officer commanding French occupation forces there, and to assure himself of the support of the army in case it became necessary to crush the revolt with troops. And France was only the beginning: 1969 in Italy, workers' revolts in 1970 in Poland, then again in 1976, a miners' strike in Britain in 1973 which forced the government to impose a three-day working week for want of coal in the power stations, the famous "Cordobaza" in Argentina in May 1969 which saw the workers virtually taking control of the industrial region of Cordoba. These are only a few examples of a wave of class struggle that swept the world's industrial areas, in both developed and Third World countries, and on both sides of the Iron Curtain dividing the two imperialist blocs.
At the same time, this awakening of the class struggle was accompanied by a burgeoning political awareness which found expression in the development of existing groups and the emergence of new ones: one of the most important aspects of this new proletarian political movement was the effort to overcome the separation between the generations: as revolutionaries sought to renew their links with the class struggle of the past they worked to rediscover the positions of the Communist Left: the works of Pannekoek, Gorter, the KAPD, Rosa Luxemburg, and Bordiga were published once again. They also worked to renew the international ties that had been broken by the counter-revolution: one example was the international network of correspondence and discussion that led to the formation of the ICC in 1975.
Clearly, these groups were in a tiny minority and had no significant, direct impact on the class struggle itself. But they were symptomatic of a process going on within the working class, and especially within the new generation of workers who had not experienced either the counter-revolution or the world war. This new generation was confronted with the end of the post-war boom and the beginning of the economic crisis, and reacted against it in a wave of struggles that held great promise for the future.
A decade later, in 1979, this upsurge of class struggle was put to the test by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With all that has happened since, it is easy to forget, or to neglect, how critically important this event was: for the first time since 1945, the Soviet Union invaded a country outside its own bloc, outside its own immediate glacis: the USSR was increasingly crippled by the economic crisis, and by the enormous weight of the arms production needed to maintain its status as the world's second imperialist power, against its stronger US rival. As with Germany in 1914 and 1939, the weaker of the imperialist powers threatened once again to plunge the world into generalised war, this time with the threat of nuclear weapons looming in the background. The world was faced with a critical question: what would be the reaction of the working class? Would the course towards revolution opened up by the struggles of the 1970s be overturned? Would the bourgeoisie be able to impose its own solution to the economic crisis of decadent capitalism: world war?
The answer was given by the magnificent struggle of the Polish workers in 1980, who showed without a shadow of a doubt that the working class in Europe - which was where the crucial confrontation between the two blocs was bound to take place - was not prepared to lay aside its own interests in the interests of the nation state, whether it be the "socialist" states of the Soviet bloc, or the "democratic" states of the US bloc. The Polish workers who developed their own organisations on the same basis as the workers' councils (mass meetings, elected and revocable delegates responsible to the mass meetings that elected them, negotiations with the government conducted in the open where all could hear...) were certainly not prepared to be drafted into the armies of the Warsaw Pact and marched off to war.
We should mention here that the history of the 1970s and early 1980s also led the ICC to modify its view of the historic alternative: "course towards war or course towards revolution". Whereas a course towards war necessarily means that the proletariat has been physically and ideologically defeated, and is no longer able to prevent the outbreak of war, the reverse is not true of the course towards revolution since the bourgeoisie remains the dominant class in capitalist society right up to the moment of the world wide seizure of power - not even the victory of the Russian revolution was able to guarantee the victory of revolution world wide, despite the optimistic predictions of the Communist International which we have quoted above. Consequently, the ICC 5th Congress in 1983 adopted a term better adapted to historical reality: "The existence of a course towards class confrontations means that the bourgeoisie does not have a free hand to unleash a new world butchery: first, it must confront and beat the working class. But this does not prejudge the outcome of this confrontation, in one way or the other. This is why it is preferable to talk about a 'course towards class confrontations' rather than a 'course towards revolution'"(Resolution on the international situation, published in International Review n°35).
The Polish struggles of 1980 had averted the threat of imperialist war - but history does not stand still and the question remained open whether the working class would continue to maintain its resistance to the development of the crisis and bar the way to war. In the event, the continued uneven development of the class struggle during the 1980s showed that the working class remained undefeated, and that the road to world war remained closed. Some of the struggles in these years reached heights not seen since the beginning of the 20th century, or in certain cases ever. A few examples:
- a strike wave that hit Holland in the 1980s was the biggest seen in that country since the mass strike of 1903;
- the British miners went on strike in 1985 and held out for an entire year, while the Thatcher government set up what almost amounted to a military occupation of the mining districts
- Denmark saw in 1985 the biggest strike in its entire history
- in spring 1986, the entire state sector in Belgium came out on strike;
- France saw at the end of 1986 a massive rail strike that last for several weeks, and at the end of 1988 a massive strike of hospital workers: in both cases the unions had great difficulty keeping up with events;
- in 1987, the entire education sector in Italy undertook a massive series of struggles against the government: here too, the workers called into question the "classical" union organisations.
This wave of struggle was by no means limited to Europe, as we can see in the example of the Korean workers' movement and the struggles in towns like Kwangju during the 1980s. However, it was above all the struggles in Europe that determined whether the bourgeoisie of each bloc would be able to launch an imperialist war, for several reasons:
- because Europe is where the working class is the most concentrated, and has the longest historical experience, both politically and organisationally, the working class globally could not be defeated without a crushing defeat of its main battalions;
- because Europe is also where the bourgeoisie is the most concentrated, and the most experienced in dealing with the working class;
- because Europe, at the time the most concentrated industrialised area of the planet was the main prize for the bourgeoisie of the USSR, a prize which would have enabled the Russian bourgeoisie both to eject its American rival from the European subcontinent, and to grab the advanced industrial capacity which the USSR lacked, thus increasing its own military potential.
What were the main characteristics of this period?
- A constantly reaffirmed militancy of the workers in defence of their own living standards, in particular in struggles against redundancies.
- A profound distrust of government.
- A growing distrust of the trades unions as "organisers" of the struggle, which led to the development of rank-and-file union structures (controlled by political organisations of the far left), especially in France and Italy, whose aim was to pre-empt the workers' own mass meetings and to keep the organisation of the struggle firmly within the hands of the trades unions.
The period of the 1980s was thus characterised by both a fundamental strength, and a fundamental weakness of the working class:
- On the one hand, the strength of the class struggle, and above all the fact that - unlike the 1930s - the workers continued to fight in defence of their own living conditions and refused to allow themselves to be enrolled under the banners of the "defence of the socialist fatherland" or the "defence of democracy", meant that it was impossible for the ruling class to unleash its own "solution" to its crisis: imperialist war.
- On the other hand, the proletariat as a whole was unable to develop its struggles beyond an immediate defence of its existence within capitalism. To a large extent, the workers still lived with the illusion that it was possible to return to the conditions of the 1960s and the Reconstruction period, that it was enough to strike for improved wages or against redundancies to push back the attacks of the capitalist class: they completely underestimated the fact that the attacks of the bourgeoisie were not due to the "bad policies" of this or that head of state (the "reactionaries" Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan for example), but to the inexorable descent of world capitalism into its insoluble crisis. The continued weakness of the communist left around the world was itself an expression of the proletariat's inability to rediscover its own historically determined goal: the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a new, communist society.
In effect, the social situation at the end of the 1980s was marked by a stalemate: the bourgeoisie unable to go to war, the proletariat unable to launch a revolutionary offensive.
As a result of this stalemate, the Cold War came to an end, not with a general imperialist bloodbath like that of 1914 or 1939, but with a historically unprecedented event: collapse of one of the two imperialist blocs, followed by the disintegration of the other for lack of an imperialist rival.
The period that followed was to be one of profound disorientation for the working class:
- The collapse of Stalinism, and the revelation to the eyes of workers all over the world of the weakness, corruption, and backwardness of the Stalinist regimes allowed the victorious democratic bourgeoisie around the world to mount an enormous campaign which said in effect: "Look! This is what you get when you try to create communism", or alternatively "Communism is a nice idea, but it could never work in practice - just look at the USSR".
- The counterpart to the "defeat of communism" was of course the "victory of capitalism". Capitalism, we were told, might not be perfect but it was the only society possible: there is no point struggling against its effects. Indeed, one bourgeois ideologue even went so far as to declare the "end of history". There seemed to be no possible perspective outside the continued development of the capitalist economy no matter how much misery it created for humanity as a whole and for the working class in particular.
- This ideological blow to the proletariat's sense of itself as a class able to play a part in history, was combined with the apparent boom of the so-called "new economy" fuelled by the Internet. This tended to reinforce the idea that nothing was possible outside capitalism.
These elements explain why, despite continued expressions of working class militancy in a number of countries, the 1990s marked a serious reflux both in the broad class struggle, and in the fortunes of the organisations of the Communist Left. Those who still held high the flag of proletarian revolution and internationalism were regarded as, at worst, the henchmen of Stalinism, and at best, as dreamers lost in an unrecoverable past. And yet, despite this, the working class as a whole - above all in the most developed countries where the proletariat's political and organisational experience is greatest - had not been defeated in a head-on confrontation with capital, nor did the bourgeoisie succeed in gaining the workers' willing or enthusiastic adherence to the ideology of bourgeois nationalism. The proletariat, in short, remained undefeated. The course towards generalised imperialist war remained closed.
A turning point in the class struggle
The large-scale mobilisations of the spring of 2003 in France and Austria represented a turning point in the class struggles since 1989. They were a first significant step in the recovery of workers' militancy after the longest period of reflux since 1968. Of course the 1990s had already seen sporadic expressions of this militancy. However, the simultaneity of the movements in France and Austria showed the evolution of the situation since the beginning of the new millennium. In reality, these events brought to light the growing impossibility for the class - despite its continuing lack of self confidence - to avoid the necessity of struggle faced with the dramatic worsening of the crisis and the increasingly massive and generalised character of the attacks.
This change affects not only the militancy of the class, but also the mood within its ranks, the perspective within which its actions are placed. We are witnessing signs of a loss of illusions not only concerning the typical mystifications of the 1990s (new technological revolution, individual enrichment via the stock exchange, the profitability of "wars for oil"), but also regarding the hopes of the post World War II generation about a better life for the coming generation and a decent pension for those who survive the horrors of wage labour.
Not every turning point in the class struggle is as significant, or as dramatic, as those of 1917 or 1968. These dates stand for alterations in the historic course, whereas 2003 merely marks the beginning of the end of an ebb within the continuity of a course towards massive class confrontations. More generally, we must be able to distinguish between situations where, so to speak, the world wakes up the next morning and it is no longer the same world, and changes that take place at first almost unnoticed by the world at large, like the almost invisible alteration between the ebb and flow of the tide. The evolution begun in 2003, and continuing today three years later, is undoubtedly of the latter kind.
A particularly significant aspect of the 2003 struggles in France and Austria is that they broke out in reaction to attacks by the state on workers' pensions. The aggravation of the crisis has forced the bourgeoisie to raise the retirement age. In doing so, it has sacrificed a social shock-absorber, which played a large part in making the working class accept the increasingly intolerable levels of exploitation imposed in recent decades, and in hiding the full extent of unemployment.
The bourgeoisie responded to the return of mass unemployment in the 1970s with a series of state capitalist welfare measures, which made absolutely no sense from an economic standpoint and which are today one of the main factors underlying the enormous rise in state debt. The current dismantling of the Welfare State can only provoke a profound questioning of the real perspective that capitalism offers society.
Not all capitalist attacks provoke the same defensive reactions from the working class. It is easier to struggle against wage cuts or the lengthening of the working day, than against the reduction in the relative wage as a result of the growth in labour productivity (thanks to technical improvements), which is part of the process of capital accumulation. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: "A wage cut, leading to the reduction of the real living standard of the workers, is a visible assault of the capitalists against the workers and as a rule (...) it will be replied to as such with immediate struggle, and in the best of cases be beaten back. As opposed to this, the lowering of the relative wage apparently takes place without the least personal involvement of the capitalists, and against this the workers, within the wage system, i.e. on the terrain of commodity production, have not the slightest possibility of struggle and resistance" (Introduction to national economy).
The rise in unemployment poses the same difficulties for the working class as the intensification of exploitation (the attack on the relative wage). When unemployment affects young people who have never worked, it does not have the same explosive effect as do redundancies. The existence of mass unemployment tends, indeed, to inhibit the immediate struggles of the working class not only because it is a constant threat for a growing number of those still in work, but also because it tends to pose questions which cannot be answered without raising the issue of radically changing society. Concerning the struggle against the relative decline in wages, Luxemburg added: "The struggle against the lowering of the relative wage therefore also signifies the struggle against the commodity character of the labour force, in other words against the capitalist production as a whole. The struggle against the fall of the relative wage is thus no longer a struggle on the terrain of commodity production, but a revolutionary, insurrectionary movement against the existence of this economy, it is the socialist movement of the proletariat" (idem).
The 1930s revealed how, with mass unemployment, absolute pauperisation explodes. Without the prior defeat of the proletariat, the "general, absolute law of capitalist accumulation" risked becoming its opposite, the law of the revolution. With the re-emergence of mass unemployment from the 1970s on, the bourgeoisie responded with measures of state capitalist welfarism; measures which economically make no sense, and which today are one of the main causes of the unfathomable public debt. The working class has an historical memory. Despite the loss of class identity, with the deepening crisis, this memory slowly begins to be activated. Mass unemployment and the slashing of the social wage today conjure up memories of the 1930s, visions of generalised insecurity and pauperisation. The demolition of the "Welfare State" will confirm the marxists' predictions.
When Luxemburg writes that the workers, on the terrain of commodity production, have not the slightest possibility of resistance against the lowering of the relative wage, this is neither resigned fatalism, nor "the revolution or nothing" pseudo radicalism of the later Essen tendency of the KAPD, but the recognition that this struggle cannot remain within the boundaries of the "minimum programme" (immediate economic demands) and must be entered into with the greatest possible political clarity. In the 1980s the questions of unemployment and the increase in exploitation were already posed, but often in a narrow and local manner: "saving British miners' jobs", for example. Today the qualitative advance of the crisis can permit questions like unemployment, poverty, exploitation, to be posed more globally and politically, as are the questions of pensions, health, the maintenance of the unemployed, working conditions, the length of a working life and the ties between the generations. This, in a very embryonic form, is the potential revealed by the recent movements in response to the pension attacks. This long term lesson is by far the most important one, of greater significance than questions such as the pace with which the immediate militancy of the class is likely to recover. In fact, as Luxemburg explains, being directly confronted with the devastating effects of the objective mechanisms of capitalism (mass unemployment, the intensification of relative exploitation) makes it more difficult to enter the struggle. For this reason, even if the development of struggles becomes slower and more torturous, the struggles themselves become politically more significant.
Solidarity at the centre of the class struggle
A striking feature of many recent struggles, which the ICC has highlighted in its press, is the centrality of workers' solidarity to both the aims and the methods of the struggle:
- solidarity between workers in different plants against attempts at management blackmail, as we saw in the strikes by Daimler-Chrysler workers at Sindelfingen and Bremen in 2004 - and in the support they received from their comrades in Spain;
- solidarity with laid-off workers, for example in the Gate Gourmet strike at Heathrow (August 2005) and the SEAT strikes in Spain (December 2005);
- solidarity between the generations, expressed in the strike on the New York transit system ( December 2005) to defend the pay of future workers, and powerfully in the struggles to defend pensions or against the CPE labour contract in France (spring 2006);
In the aims and the slogans of these struggles, there is the clear sign of a slowly maturing political awareness within the working class: an awareness that the continued survival of capitalism threatens the very future of humanity, and that the solidarity that lies at the heart of the proletariat's very nature is both a critical factor in the struggle itself, and the key to a new society: communism. For communist society is based on the rediscovery, at a higher, world wide level, of the fundamental basis for all human society: the solidarity which will be the foundation for the construction of a world human community.
The inexorable development of the capitalist crisis and capitalism's descent into an inferno of imperialist war and ecological disaster, and the assertion in struggle of workers' solidarity as one of the fundamental weapons of the working class, form the objective and subjective conditions which determine the possibilities open to revolutionaries; which determine also, the enormous responsibilities that they confront in participating to the utmost of their abilities to the development of the course towards the decisive class confrontations that must open the road towards the proletarian revolution itself.
ICC, October 2006
 Manifesto of the CI's First Congress, quoted in International Review n°107.
 Since the defeat of the revolutionary wave, it has become a common tactic of the ruling class to present to the workers their own worst defeats as if they were victories.
 Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands: founded in April 1920 in Heidelberg after its militants were expelled from the Communist Party (KPD). Originally the party remained a "sympathising member of Communist International." In 1922 the KAPD split into two factions, both of whom kept the name but are referred to as the KAPD Essen Faction and the KAPD Berlin Faction. Among the militants active in the KAPD was Jan Appel, who was present at the founding congress of the ICC.