The proletarian struggle under decadent capitalism
“The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. And, just when they appear to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something which does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them; they borrow their names, slogans and costumes.” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)
In the present period of reawakening class struggle, the proletariat is confronted not only with all the weight of the ideology secreted directly and often deliberately by the bourgeois class, but also with the weight of traditions that come from its own past experiences. If it is to emancipate itself, the working class absolutely needs to assimilate these experiences. This is the only way it can perfect the weapons it needs for the decisive confrontations that will put an end to capitalism. However, there is also the danger that the working class can confuse past experience with dead traditions; that it can fail to distinguish what remains alive, what is permanent and universal in the methods of past struggles, from those aspects which definitely belong to the past, which are circumstantial and temporary.
As Marx often underlined, this danger didn’t spare the working class in his day, in the 19th century. In a society that was in rapid evolution, the proletariat for a long time was encumbered by the old traditions of its origins: the vestiges of journeyman’s societies, of the Babeuf period, of its struggles against feudalism alongside the bourgeoisie. Thus the sectarian, conspiratorial or republican traditions of the pre-1848 period continued to weigh down on the First International, founded in 1864. However, despite the rapid changes that were going on, this epoch was situated in a single phase in the life of society: the ascendant period of the capitalist mode of production. The whole of this period imposed very specific conditions on the struggles of the working class: the possibility of winning real and lasting improvements in living conditions from a prosperous capitalism, but at the same time the impossibility of destroying the system precisely because it was prosperous.
The unity of this framework gave the different stages of the workers’ movement in the 19th century a continuous character. The methods and instruments of the class struggle were elaborated and perfected in a progressive manner, in particular the trade union form of organisation. At each one of these stages, the similarities with the previous stage outweighed the differences. In these conditions, the ball-and-chain of tradition wasn’t so heavy for the workers: to a large extent, the past indicated the road to follow.
But this situation changed radically at the dawn of the 20th century. Most of the instruments which the working class had created over decades were no longer any use: even worse, they turned against the class and became weapons of capital. This was true of the trade unions, the mass parties, participation in elections and parliament. This was because capitalism had entered a completely different phase of its evolution: its decadent period. Now the context of the proletarian struggle was completely transformed: henceforward, the struggle for progressive and lasting improvements within this society no longer had any meaning. Not only could a capitalism at the end of its tether not concede anything, but its convulsions began to destroy a number of the gains made by the proletariat in the past. Faced with a dying system, the only real gain the proletariat could make was to destroy the system.
The first world war signalled this break between the two periods in the life of capitalism. Revolutionaries — and it was this that made them revolutionaries — became aware that the system had entered its period of decline. The Communist International, in its 1919 platform, proclaimed that: “A new epoch is born. The epoch of the decomposition of capitalism, of its inner dissolution. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat.”
However, the majority of revolutionaries were still severely marked by the traditions of the past. Despite its immense contribution, the Third International was unable to take the implications of its analysis to their logical conclusion. Faced with the betrayal committed by the trade unions, the Communist International didn’t call for the destruction of the unions, but for their reconstruction. Although it asserted that “parliamentary reforms have lost all practical importance for the labouring masses” and that “the centre of gravity of political life has completely and definitively shifted away from parliament” (Theses of the 2nd Congress), the CI still called for participation in this institution. Thus, Marx’s words of 1852 were masterfully but tragically confirmed. After throwing the proletariat into disarray when the imperialist war broke out, the weight of the past was also largely responsible for the failure of the revolutionary wave which began in 1917, and for the terrible counter-revolution that followed for the next half-century.
Already a handicap in previous struggles, “the tradition of the dead generations” is an even more formidable enemy in the struggles of our epoch. If it is to win out in the end, it’s up to the proletariat to throw off the worn-out garments of the past and put on the clothing that is appropriate to the necessities that the “new epoch” of capitalism imposes on its struggles. It’s got to understand clearly the differences which separate the ascendant period of capitalism from its decadent period, with regards both to the life of capital and to the aims and methods of its own struggle.
The following text is a contribution to this understanding. Although it’s presented in a somewhat unusual manner, we felt it was necessary to show the characteristics of the two epochs side by side, in order to highlight both the unity that exist within each of the two periods, and the often considerable differences between the expressions of the two epochs (The features of the ascendant period are dealt with in the left—hand column of each page, the features of decadence on the right).
Ascendance of capitalism
Decadence of Capitalism
One of the characteristics of the 19th century was the constitution of new nations (Germany, Italy...), or the bitter struggle to create them (Poland, Hungary...). This was in no way something fortuitous but corresponded to the thrust of a dynamic capitalist economy which found the nation to be the most appropriate framework for its development. In this epoch, national independence had a real meaning: it was directly part of the development of the productive forces and the destruction of the feudal empires (Russia, Austria) which were bastions of reaction.
In the 20th century, the nation has become too narrow a framework to contain the productive forces. Just like capitalist relations of production, it has become a veritable prison holding back the productive forces. Moreover, national independence became a mirage as soon as the interests of each national capital compelled them to integrate themselves into one or the other big imperialist blocs, and thus renounce this independence. The examples of so-called ‘national independence’ in this century boil down to a country passing from one sphere of influence to another.
Development of new capitalist units
One of the typical phenomena of the ascendant phase of capitalism was its uneven development according to each country and the particular historic conditions encountered by them. The most developed countries showed the way forward to the other countries, whose lateness on the scene wasn’t necessarily an insurmountable handicap. On the contrary, the latter had the possibility of catching up or even overtaking the former. This was, in fact, almost a general rule:
“In the general context of this prodigious ascent, the augmentation of industrial production in the different countries concerned took place in extremely variable proportions. We see the slowest growth rates in the European industrial states which had been most advanced before 1860. British production ‘only’ trebled, French production quadrupled, whereas German production increased sevenfold and in America production levels in 1913 were twelve times what they had been in 1860. These different rates of growth totally overturned the hierarchy of industrial powers between 1860 and 1913. Towards 1880, Britain lost its place at the head of world production to the USA. At the same time, Germany overtook France. Towards 1890 Britain, surpassed by Germany, fell into third place.” (Fritz Sternberg, The Conflict of the Century)
In the same period, another country raised itself to the level of a modern industrial power: Japan Russia went through a process of very rapid industrialisation, but this was to be strangled by capitalism entering into its decadent phase.
The capacity of the more backward countries to catch up in this way was the result of the following factors:
1) Their internal markets had great possibilities as outlets for the development of industrial capital. The existence of large and relatively prosperous pre-capitalist sectors (artisans, and above all, the agrarian sector) constituted the fertile soil so indispensable for the growth of capitalism.
2) Their use of protectionism against the cheaper commodities of the most developed countries allowed them momentarily to preserve a market for their own national production inside their own frontiers.
3) On the world scale, a vast extra-capitalist market still existed, in particular in the colonial territories that were in the process of being conquered. These could absorb the ‘excess’ commodities manufactured in the industrial countries.
4) The law of supply and demand operated in favour of a real development of the less developed countries. To the extent that, in this period, globally speaking, demand exceeded supply, the prices of commodities were determined by the higher production costs, i.e. those of the less developed countries. This allowed capital in these countries to realise sufficient profit to undertake a real accumulation (whereas the most developed countries were collecting super-profits).
5) In the ascendant period, military expenditures were relatively limited and were easily compensated for, and even made profitable by, the developed industrial countries, notably in the form of colonial conquests.
6) In the 19th century, the level of technology, even if it represented considerable progress in relation to the previous period, did not require the investments of huge masses of capital.
The period of capitalist decadence is characterised by the impossibility of any new industrialised nations emerging. The countries which didn’t make up for lost time before World War I were subsequently doomed to stagnate in a state of total underdevelopment, or to remain chronically backward in relation to the countries at the top of the sandcastle. This has been the case with big nations like India or China, whose ‘national independence’ or even their so-called ‘revolution’ (read the setting up of a draconian form of state capitalism) didn’t allow them to break out of underdevelopment or destitution. Even the USSR doesn’t escape this rule. The terrible sacrifices imposed on the peasantry and above all on the working class in Russia; the massive utilisation of almost free labour power in the concentration camps; state planning and the monopoly in foreign trade - these latter presented by the Trotskyists as ‘great working class gains’ and as signs of the ‘abolition of capitalism’; the systematic economic pillage of the countries of the east European buffer zone - all these measures still weren’t enough to enable the USSR to catch up with the fully industrialised countries and rid itself of the scars of under-development and backwardness (cf. the article on the crisis in the USSR in this issue).
The impossibility of any new big capitalist units arising in this period is also expressed by the fact that the six biggest industrial powers today (USA, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Britain) were already at the top of the tree (even though in a different order) on the eve of the first world war.
The inability of the under—developed nations to lift themselves up to the level of the most advanced countries can be explained by the following facts:
1) The markets represented by the extra-capitalist sectors of the industrialised countries have been totally exhausted by the capitalisation of agriculture and the almost complete ruin of the artisans.
2) In the 20th century protectionist policies have been a total failure. Far from allowing the less developed economies to have a breathing space, they have led to the asphyxiation of the national economy.
3) Extra-capitalist markets are saturated on a world level. Despite the immense needs of the third world, despite its total destitution, the economies which haven’t managed to go through a capitalist industrialisation don’t constitute a solvable market because they are completely ruined.
4) The law of supply and demand works against any development of new countries. In a world where markets are saturated, supply exceeds demand and prices are determined by the lowest production costs. because of this, the countries with the highest production costs are forced to sell their commodities at reduced profits or even at a loss. This ensures that they have an extremely low rate of accumulation and, even with a very cheap labour force, they are unable to realise the investments needed for the massive acquisition of modern technology. The result of this is that the gulf which separates them from the great industrial powers can only get wider.
5) In a world more and more given over to permanent war, military expenses become an extremely heavy burden, even for the most developed countries. They lead to the complete economic bankruptcy of the under-developed countries.
6) Today, modern industrial production requires an incomparably more sophisticated technology than in the last century; this means considerable levels of investment and only the developed countries are in a position to afford them. Thus technical factors aggravate strictly economic factors.
Relations between the state and civil society
In the ascendant period of capitalism, there was a very clear separation between politics - a domain reserved for specialists in statesmanship - and economics, which remained the domain of capital and of private capitalists.
In this period, the state, even though it already tended to raise itself above society, was still largely dominated by interest groups and factions of capital who mainly expressed themselves in the legislative part of the state. The legislature still clearly dominated the executive: the parliamentary system, representative democracy, still had a reality, and was the arena in which different interest groups could confront each other.
Since the state’s function was to maintain social order in the interests of the capitalist system as a whole and in the long term, it could be the source of certain reforms in favour of the work-forces and against the barbarous excesses of exploitation demanded by the insatiable immediate appetites of private capitalists (cf. the ‘10-Hours Bill’ in Britain, laws limiting child labour, etc)
The period of capitalist decadence is characterised by the absorption of civil society into the state. Because of this, the legislature, whose initial function was to represent society, has lost any significance in front of the executive, which is at the top of the state pyramid.
In this period, politics and economics are united:
the state becomes the main force in the national economy, its real manager.
Whether through gradual integration (the mixed economy) or through sudden overturns (the entirely statified economy), the state is no longer a delegation of capitalists and interests groups: it’s become the collective capitalist, submitting all particular interest groups to its iron rule.
The state, as the realised unity of the national capital, defends the national interest both within a particular imperialist bloc and against the rival bloc. Moreover, it directly takes charge of ensuring the exploitation and subjugation of the working class.
In the 19th century, war had, in general, the function of ensuring that each capitalist nation had the unity and territorial extension needed for its development. In this sense, despite the calamities it brought with it, it was a moment in the progressive nature of capital.
Wars were, therefore, limited to two or three countries and had the following’ characteristics:
- they were short-lived
- they didn’t lead to much destruction
- they resulted in a new burst of development both for victor and vanquished.
This is true, for example, of the Franco-German, Austro-Italian, Austro-Prussian, and Crimean Wars.
The Franco-German war is typical of this kind of war:
- it was a decisive step in the formation of the German nation, i.e. in the creation of the basis for a formidable development of the productive forces and the constitution of the important sector of the industrial proletariat in Europe (and even in the whole world if you consider its political role).
- at the same time, this war lasted less than a year, was not very murderous and, for the vanquished country, didn’t constitute a real handicap: after 1871, France continued the industrial development launched under the Second Empire and conquered the bulk of its colonial possessions.
As for colonial wars, their aim was the conquest of new markets and reserves of raw materials. They were the result of a race between the capitalist countries driven by their need to expand, to divide up new regions of the world. They were thus part of the expansion of the whole of capitalism, of the world’s productive forces.
In a period when there is no longer any question of forming new, viable national units, when the formal independence of new countries is essentially the result of relations between the great imperialist powers, wars no longer derive from the economic necessity to develop the productive forces of society, but have essentially political causes: the balance of forces between the blocs. They are no longer ‘national’ wars as in the 19th century: they are imperialist wars. They are no longer moments in the expansion of the capitalist mode of production, but express the impossibility of its expansion.
They no longer aim at dividing up the world, but at re-dividing the world in a situation where a bloc of countries cannot develop, but can only maintain the valorisation of its capital at the direct expense of a rival bloc: the final result being the degradation of world capital as a whole.
Wars are now generalised across the whole globe and result in enormous levels of destruction for the whole world economy, leading to generalised barbarism.
As in 1870, the wars of 1914 and 1939 pitted France against Germany, but one is immediately struck by the differences, and it’s precisely these differences which show the change in the nature of wars from the 19th to the 20th century:
- right away, the war hit the whole of Europe and generalised across the world
- it was a total war which, for a number of years, mobilised the entire population and economic machine of the belligerent countries, reducing decades of human labour to nothing, mowing down tens of millions of proletarians, throwing hundreds of millions of human beings into famine.
The wars of the 20th century are in no way ‘youthful maladies’ as some claim. They are the convulsions of a dying system.
In a world of uneven development, with unequal internal markets, crises were marked by the uneven development of the productive forces in different countries and the different branches of production.
They were a manifestation of the fact that the old markets were saturated and a new expansion was needed. They were thus periodic (every 7 to 10 years
- the time of the amortisation of fixed capital) and were resolved by the opening up of new markets.
They thus had the following characteristics:
1) They broke out abruptly, in general after a stock-market crash
2) They were short-lived (1-3 years for the largest)
3) They didn’t generalise to all countries. Thus,
- the 1825 crisis was mainly British and spared France and Germany
- the 1830 crisis was mainly American; France and Germany escaped again
- the 1847 crisis spared the USA and only weakly affected Germany
- the 1866 crisis hardly affected Germany, and the 1873 crisis spared France.
After this, the industrial cycles tended to generalise to all the developed countries but even then the USA escaped the recession of 1900-1903 and France the 1907 recession. On the other hand, the crisis of 1913, which led into the first world war, hit practically every country.
4) They did not generalise to all branches of industry. Thus,
- it was essentially the cotton industry that was hit by the crises of 1825 and 1836
- after that, while textiles were still affected by the crises, it was metallurgy and the railways that tended to suffer the most (particularly in 1873)
What’s more, some branches often went through a major boom while others were being hit by the recession.
5) They led onto a new phase of industrial growth (the growth-figures cited from Sternberg above are significant in this regard).
6) They didn’t pose the conditions for a political crisis of the system, still less for the outbreak of a proletarian revolution.
On this last point, we have to point out Marx’s mistake when he wrote, after the experience of 1847-48, “A new revolution will only be possible after a new crisis. But it is equally as inevitable” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1850). His mistake wasn’t in recognising the necessity of a crisis for the revolution to be possible, nor in announcing that a new crisis would follow (the 1857 crisis was still more violent than that of
1847), but in the idea that the crises of this epoch were already the mortal crises of the system.
Later on, Marx clearly rectified this error, and it was precisely because he knew that the objective conditions for the revolution were not yet ripe that he confronted the anarchists inside the International Workingmen’s Association, since the latter wanted to overstep the necessary stages. For the same reason, on 9 September 1870, he warned the workers of Paris against “any attempt to overthrow the new government... (which) would be a desperate folly” (Second Address of the General Council of the IWA on the Franco-German War).
Today, you’d have to be an anarchist or a Bordigist to imagine that ‘the revolution is possible at any time’ or that the material conditions for the revolution already existed in 1848 or 1871.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the market has been unified and international. Internal markets have lost their significance (mainly because of the elimination of the pre-capitalist sectors). In these conditions, crises are the manifestation, not of the markets being provisionally too narrow, but of the absence of any possibility of a world-wide expansion of the market. Thus the generalised and permanent character of crises today.
Particular conjunctures in the economy are no longer determined by the relationship between productive capacity and the shape of the market at a given moment, but by essentially political causes: the cycle of war-destruction-reconstruction-crisis. In this context, it’s no longer the problems of the amortisation of capital which determine the length of phases of economic development, but, to a great extent, the level of destruction in the previous war. Thus we can understand that the length of the expansion based on reconstruction was twice as long (17 years) after the second world war than after the first (7 years).
In contrast to the l6th century, which was characterised by ‘laisser-faire’, the scale of recessions in the 20th century has been limited by artificial measures carried out by the state and its research institutes, measures aimed at delaying the general crisis. This applies to localised wars, the development of arms production and the war economy, the systematic resort to printing bills and selling on credits, generalised indebtedness - the whole gamut of political measures which tend to break with the strictly economic functioning of capitalism.
In this context, the crises of the 20th century have the following characteristics:
1) They no longer break out abruptly but develop in a progressive manner. In this sense, the crisis of 1929 at the beginning displayed certain characteristics of the crises of the previous century (a sudden collapse following a stock-market crash). This was the result not so much of economic conditions being similar to those of the past, but of the backwardness of capital’s political institutions, their Inability to keep pace with new economic conditions. But, later on, massive state intervention (the New Deal in the USA, war production in Germany, etc...) spread the effects of the crisis over a decade.
2) Once they’ve begun, they last for a long time. Thus, while the relationship between recession and prosperity was around 1:4 in the 19th century (2 years of crisis in a cycle of 10 years), the relationship between the length of the depression and the length of the revival has been around 2:1 in the 20th century. Between 1914 and 1980, we’ve had 10 years of generalised war (without counting the permanent local wars), 32 years of depression (1918-22, 1929-39, 1945-50, 1967-80): a total of 42 years of war and crisis, against only 24 years of reconstruction (1922-29 and 1950-67). And the cycle of the crisis isn’t finished yet...
Whereas in the 19th century the economic machine was revived by its own forces at the end of each crisis, the crises of the 20th century have, from the capitalist point of view, no solution except generalised war.
These crises are the death-rattles of the system. They pose, for the proletariat, the necessity and possibility of communist revolution.
The 20th century is indeed the “era of wars and revolutions” as the Communist International said at its founding congress.
The forms taken by the class struggle in the 19th century were determined both by the characteristics of capital in this epoch and by the characteristics of the working class itself.
1) Capital in the 19th century was still very scattered amongst numerous capitals: factories with more than 100 workers were rare, semi-artisan enterprises being much more common. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that we see, with the rise of the railways, the massive introduction of machinery, the proliferation of mines, the developing predominance of the large-scale industry we know today.
2) In these conditions, competition took place between a large number of capitalists.
3) What’s more, technology was but little developed. A poorly-skilled work-force, recruited mainly from the countryside, made up most of the first generations of workers. The most qualified workers were artisans.
4) Exploitation was based on the extraction of absolute surplus value: a long working day, very low wages.
5) Each boss, or each factory, confronted the workers they exploited directly and separately. There was no organised bosses’ unity: it wasn’t until the last third of the century that bosses’ unions emerged. In these separate conflicts, it was by no means rare to see capitalists speculating on the difficulties of a rival factory hit by industrial conflict - taking advantage of the situation to grab their rivals’ clientele.
6) The state, in general, remained outside these conflicts. It only intervened as a last resort, when the conflict became ‘a threat to public order’.
As far as the working class was concerned, we can observe the following characteristics:
1) Like capital, it was very dispersed. It was a class that was still being formed. Its most combative sectors were very much tied to artisan work and were thus strongly marked by corporatism.
2) On the labour market, the law of supply and demand operated directly and fully. It was only in periods of rapid expansion of production, which resulted in a shortage of workers, that the workers could mount an effective resistance against the encroachments of capital and win substantial improvements in wages and working conditions.
In moments of slump, the workers lost their strength, got demoralised and let slip some of the gains they’d won. An expression of this phenomenon was the fact that the foundation of the First and Second Internationals - which marked a high point in class combativity - took place in periods of economic prosperity (1864 for the IWA, 3 years before the crisis of 1867, 1889 for the Socialist International, on the eve of the 1890-93 crisis)
3) In the 19th century, emigration was a solution to unemployment and the terrible poverty which struck the proletariat during the cyclical crises. The possibility for important sectors of the class to flee to the new world when living conditions became too unbearable in the capitalist metropoles of Europe was a factor which prevented the cyclical crises from provoking an explosive situation like June 1848.
4) These particular conditions made it necessary for the workers to create organisations of economic resistance: the trade unions, which could only take a local, professional form, restricted to a minority of the workers. The main form of the struggle - the strike - was particularised and prepared long in advance, generally waiting for a period of prosperity to confront this or that branch of capital, or even a single factory. Despite all these limitations, the trade unions were still authentic organs of the working class, indispensable not only in the economic struggle against capital, but also as centres of the life of the class, as schools of solidarity where the workers could come to understand that they were part of a common cause, as ‘schools of communism’, to use Marx’s expression, open to revolutionary propaganda.
5) In the 19th century, strikes generally lasted a long time; this was one of the preconditions for their effectiveness. They forced the workers to run the risk of starvation; thus the necessity to prepare in advance the support funds, the ‘caisses de resistance’, and to appeal for financial assistance from other workers. The very fact that these other workers stayed at work could be a positive factor for the workers on strike (by threatening the market of the capitalist involved in the conflict, for example).
6) In these conditions, the question of financial, material, prior organisation was a crucial issue for the workers to be able to wage an effective struggle. Very often this question took precedence over the real gains which it made possible to win, and became an objective in itself (as Marx pointed out, replying to the bourgeois who didn’t understand why the workers should spend more money on their organisation than the organisation could win from capital).
The class struggle in decadent capitalism is, from the standpoint of capital, determined by the following characteristics:
1) Capital has reached a high degree of concentration and centralisation.
2) Compared to the 19th century there’s less competition from the numerical point of view, but it is more intense.
3) Technology is highly developed. The work-force is increasingly qualified: the simplest tasks tend to be done by machines. There are continuous generations of the working class: only a small part of the class is recruited from the countryside, the majority being children of workers.
4) The main basis of exploitation is the extraction of relative surplus value (speed-ups and increases in productivity)
5) Against the working class, the capitalists have a far higher degree of unity and solidarity than before. The capitalists have created specific organisations so that they won’t have to confront the working class individually.
6) The state intervenes directly in social conflicts either as the capitalist itself or as a ‘mediator’, Ic an element of control, both on the economic and political levels of the confrontations, in order to keep conflicts within the bounds of the ‘acceptable’, or simply to repress them.
From the workers’ point of view, we can point to the following traits:
1) The working class is unified and qualified at a high intellectual level. It only has the most distant relationship with artisan work.
The centres of combativity are thus to be found in the big modern factories and the general tendency is for the struggle to go beyond corporatism.
2) In contrast to the previous period, the big decisive struggles break out and develop when society is in crisis (the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Russia came out of that acute form of the crisis known as war; the great international wave of struggles between 1917 and 1923 took place in a period of convulsions - first war, then economic crisis - only to die down with the economic recovery that came with the reconstruction).
That’s why, in contrast to the two previous Internationals, the Communist International was founded, in 1919, in a period of the most intense crisis, which in turn had given rise to a powerful surge of class combativity.
3) The phenomena of economic emigration which we’ve seen in the 20th century, notably after World War II, are not, either in their origins or their implications, comparable to the great waves of emigration last century. They express not the historic expansion of capital towards new territories, but the impossibility of economic development in the former colonies; the workers and peasants of the ex-colonies are forced to flee from their misery towards the very metropoles which the workers were leaving in the past. They thus offer no safety-valve when the system enters into acute crisis. Once the reconstruction is finished, emigration is no answer to the problem of unemployment, which hits the developed countries just as it had previously hit the under-developed ones. The crisis forces the working class up against the wall and leaves it without any escape route.
4) The impossibility of lasting improvements being won by the working class makes it equally impossible to maintain specific, permanent organisations based on the defence of its economic interests. The trade unions have lost the function for which they were created. No longer able to be organs of the class, and still less ‘schools of Communism’, they have been recuperated by capital and integrated into the state, a phenomenon facilitated by the general tendency for the state to absorb civil society.
5) The proletarian struggle tends to go beyond the strictly economic category and becomes a social struggle, directly confronting the state, politicising itself and demanding the mass participation of the class. This is what Rosa Luxemburg pointed out after the first Russian revolution, in her Mass Strike pamphlet. The same idea is contained in Lenin’s formula: “Behind each strike lurks the hydra of revolution”.
6) The kind of struggles that take place in the period of decadence can’t be prepared in advance on the organisational level. Struggles explode spontaneously and tend to generalise. They take place more on a local, territorial level than the professional level; their evolution is horizontal rather than vertical. These are the characteristics which prefigure the revolutionary confrontation, when it’s not simply professional categories or workers from this or that enterprise who are moving into action but the working class as a whole on the scale of a geopolitical unit (the province, the nation).
Similarly, the working class can no longer equip itself in advance with the material means needed for the struggle. Given the way that capitalism is now organised, the length of a strike isn’t in general an effective weapon (the rest of the capitalists can come to the aid of the one affected). In this sense, the success of a strike no longer depends on financial funds collected by the workers, but fundamentally on their ability to extend the struggle: only such extension can represent a threat to the whole national capital.
In the present period, solidarity with the workers in struggle is no longer a question of financial support from other sectors of workers (this is an ersatz solidarity which can easily be put forward by the unions to divert the workers from their real methods of struggle). What counts is for these other sectors to join the struggle.
7) Just as the organisation of the struggle doesn’t precede the struggle but is born out of it, so the workers’ self-defence, the arming of the proletariat, can’t be prepared in advance by hiding a few rifles in cellars, as groups like the Groupe Communiste International think. These are stages in a process which can’t he reached without going through the preceding stages.
The role of the revolutionary organisation
The organisation of revolutionaries, produced by the class and its struggle, is a minority organisation constituted on the base of a programme.
Its functions are:
1) theoretical elaboration of the critique of the capitalist world,
2) elaboration of the programme, the final goals of the class struggle,
3) dissemination of the programme within the class,
4) active participation in all phases of the immediate struggle of the class, in its self-defence against capitalist exploitation.
In relation to the last point, in the 19th century the revolutionary organisation had the function of initiating and organising the unitary economic organs of the class, on the basis of a certain embryonic level of organisation produced by previous struggles.
Because of this function, and given the context of the period - the possibility of reforms and a tendency towards the propagation of reformist illusions within the class - the organisation of revolutionaries (the parties of the Second International) was itself infected by reformism, which trades in the final revolutionary goal for immediate reforms. It was led to seeing the maintenance and development of the economic organisations (the trade unions) as virtually its sole task (this was known as economism).
Only a minority within the organisation of revolutionaries resisted this evolution and defended the integrity of the historic programme of the socialist revolution. But, at the same time, a part of this minority, in reaction against the development of reformism, tended to develop a conception that was alien to the proletariat. According to this conception, the party was the only seat of consciousness, the possessor of a finished programme; following the schemas of the bourgeoisie and its parties, the function of the party was seen as one of ‘representing’ the class, of having the right to become the class’ organ of decision, notably for the seizure of power. This conception, which we call substitutionism, while it affected the majority of the revolutionary left within the Second International, had its main theoretician in Lenin (What is To Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward)
In the period of decadence, the organisation of revolutionaries conserves the general characteristics of the preceding period, with the added factor that the defence of the proletariat’s immediate interests can no longer be separated from the final goal which has now been put on the historical agenda.
On the other hand, because of this latter point, it no longer has the role of organising the class:
this can only be the work of the class itself in struggle, leading to a new kind of organisation both economic - an organisation of immediate resistance and defence - and political, orientating itself towards the seizure of power. This kind of organisation is the workers’ council.
Taking up the old watchword of the workers’ movement: “the emancipation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves”, the revolutionary organisation can only fight against all substitutionist conceptions as being based on a bourgeois view of the revolution. As an organisation, the revolutionary minority does not have the task of elaborating a platform of immediate demands to mobilise the class in advance. On the other hand it must show itself to be among the most resolute participants in the struggle, propagating a general orientation for the struggle and denouncing the agents and ideologies or the bourgeoisie within the class. During the struggle it stresses the need for generalisation, the only road that leads to the ineluctable culmination of the movement: the revolution. It is neither a spectator nor a mere water-carrier.
The organisation of revolutionaries aims to stimulate the appearance of workers’ circles or groups and to participate within them. In order to do this, it must recognise that they are ephemeral, immature forms which, in the absence of any possibility of creating trade unions, respond to a real need in the class for regroupment and discussion as long as the proletariat is not yet in a position to create its fully-formed unitary organs, the councils.
In accord with the nature of these circles, the organisation of revolutionaries must fight against any attempt to set them up in an artificial manner, against any idea of turning them into the transmission belts of parties, against any conception which sees them as embryos of the councils or other politico-economic organs. All these conceptions can only paralyse the development of a process of maturation in class consciousness and unitary self-organisation. These circles only have any value, can only fulfil their important but transitory function, if they avoid turning in on themselves by adopting half-baked platforms, if they remain a meeting place open to all workers interested in the problems facing their class.
Finally, in a situation where revolutionaries are extremely dispersed, following the period of counter-revolution which has weighed down on the proletariat for half-a-century, the organisation of revolutionaries has the task of working actively towards the development of a political milieu on the international level, of encouraging debates and confrontations which will open the process towards the formation of the international political party of the class.
The most profound counter-revolution in the history of the workers’ movement has been a terrible test for the organisation of revolutionaries itself. The only currents that have been able to survive are those who, in the face of storm and tempest, have known how to preserve the fundamental principles of the communist programme. However this attitude, indispensable in itself, this distrust towards all the ‘new conceptions’ which in general, have been the vehicle for abandoning the class terrain under the pressure of the triumphant bourgeois ideology - such attitudes have often had the effect of preventing revolutionaries from understanding all the implications of the changes that have taken place in the life of capital and in the struggle of the working class. The greatest caricature of this phenomenon is the conception that class positions are ‘invariant’, that the communist programme, supposedly arisen ‘en bloc’ in 1848, ‘doesn’t need to have a dot or comma changed’
While it must remain constantly on guard against modernist conceptions which often do nothing but propagate old wares in a new package, the organisation of revolutionaries must, if it is to live up to the tasks for which it was engendered by the class, show itself capable of understanding the changes in the life of society and the implications they have for the activity of the class and its communist vanguard.
Now that all nations are manifestly reactionary, the organisation of revolutionaries must fight against any idea of supporting so-called ‘national independence’ movements. Now that all wars have an imperialist character, it must denounce any idea of participation in today’s wars, under whatever pretext. Now that civil society has been absorbed by the state, now that capitalism can no longer grant any real reforms, it must fight against any participation in parliament and the election masquerade.
With all the new economic, social, and political conditions facing the class struggle today, the organisation of revolutionaries must combat any illusion in the class about restoring life to organisations which can only be an obstacle to the struggle - the trade unions. It must put forward the methods of struggle and forms of organisation that came out of the experience of the class during the first revolutionary wave of this century: the mass strike, the general assemblies, the unity of the political and the economic, the workers’ councils.
Finally, if it is to truly carry out its role of stimulating the struggle, of orientating it towards its revolutionary conclusion, the communist organisation must give up tasks which no longer belong to it - the tasks of ‘organising’ or ‘representing’ the class.
The revolutionaries who pretend that ‘nothing has changed since last century’ seem to want the proletariat to behave like Babine, a character in a tale by Tolstoy. Every time Babine met someone new, he repeated to them what he’d been told to say to the last person he’d met. He thus got himself beaten up on numerous occasions. To the faithful of a church, he used words he should have been addressing to the Devil; to a bear he spoke as though he was addressing a hermit. And the unfortunate Babine paid for his stupidity with his life.
The definition of the positions and the role of revolutionaries we have given here in no way constitutes an ‘abandonment’ or a ‘revision’ of marxism. On the contrary, it is based in a real loyalty to what is essential about marxism. It was this capacity to understand - against the ideas of the Mensheviks - the new conditions of the struggle and their implications for the programme which enabled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to contribute actively and decisively to the revolution of October 1917.
Rosa Luxemburg took up the same revolutionary standpoint when she wrote in 1906 against the ‘orthodox’ elements of her party:
“If, therefore, the Russian revolution makes imperative a fundamental revision of the old standpoint of marxism on the question of the mass strike, it is once again marxism whose general methods and points of view have thereby, in a new form, carried off the prize.” (The Mass Strike)