A turning point in the class struggle

Printer-friendly version

The acceleration of the world crisis of capitalism is more and more reducing the margin of manoeuvre open to the bourgeoisie, which, in the logic of capitalist exploitation, has no choice but to attack the living standards of the entire working class head-on and with increasing violence.

Violent and frontal attacks on the working class

Each national bourgeoisie is adopting the same measures: redundancy plans which don’t leave any economic sector untouched; relocation of plant and investment; increasing hours of work; dismantling of social protection (pensions, health, unemployment benefits); wage cuts; the growing precariousness of employment and housing; deterioration of working and living conditions. All workers, whether at work or on the dole, whether still active or retired, whether they are in the private sector or the public sector, will from now on be confronted with these attacks on a permanent basis.

In Italy, following attacks on pensions similar to those in France and a wave of redundancies in the FIAT factories, there have been 3,700 job cuts (over a sixth of the workforce) at the Alitalia airline.

In Germany, the Socialist and Green government led by Schroeder, with an austerity programme baptised “Agenda 2010”, has begun to cut health insurance, increase the policing of work stoppages, increase sickness contributions for all employees, increase pension contributions and raise the retirement age which is already set at 65. At Siemens, with the agreement of the IG-Metall union and under the threat of relocating to Hungary, it is making the workers work between 40 and 48 hours instead of the previous 35 without any wage increase. Other big enterprises are negotiating similar agreements: DeutscheBahn (the German railways), Bosch, Thyssen-Krupp, Continental, as well as the entire automobile industry (BMW, Opel, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Daimler-Chrysler). The same is true in Holland, a state where workers have for a long time been supposed to have worked shorter hours. The Dutch minister of the economy has announced that the return to the 40 hour week (with no compensatory payments) would be a good way of re-launching the national economy.

The “Harz IV plan”, which is due to come into effect at the beginning of 2005 in Germany, shows the direction that all bourgeoisies, and first and foremost those in Europe, have begun to take: reducing the length and amount of unemployment benefits and making it harder to obtain them, notably by forcing people to accept offers of employment which pay a lot less than the jobs they have lost.

These attacks are not limited to the European continent but are taking place on a world scale. While the Canadian aircraft builder Bombardier Aerospace intends to cut between 2,000 and 2,500 jobs, the US telecommunications firm AT&T has announced 12,300 lay-offs, General Motors 10,000 more, posing a threat to its Swedish and German plants, and the Bank of America has announced 4,500 lay-offs in addition to the 12,500 planned last April. Thus in the USA, where unemployment is reaching record levels (they are talking about “growth without jobs”), more than 36 million people, 12.5% of the population, live below the poverty line. In 2003 1.5 million more people had precarious jobs while 45 million are deprived of any social protection. In Israel, whole municipalities are bankrupt and municipal employees have not been paid in months. Not to mention the frightful conditions of exploitation facing workers in the third world, where there is a race to lower wages as a result of frenzied competition on the world market.

Most of these attacks are presented as indispensable “reforms”. The capitalist state and each national bourgeoisie claim that it is acting in the general interest, for the good of the community, to preserve the future for our children and future generations. The bourgeoisie wants us to believe that it is trying to save jobs and guard unemployment, sickness and pension benefit funds, whereas in fact it is in the process of dismantling social protection for the working class. In order to get workers to accept such sacrifices, it claims that these “reforms” are all about “solidarity” between “citizens”, that they will make society fairer and more equal, as opposed to any defence of egoistic privileges. When the ruling class talks about greater equality, its real aim is to reduce the living standards of the working class. In the 19th century, when capitalism was still in full expansion, the reforms carried out by the bourgeoisie really did tend to raise the living standards of the working class; today capitalism can’t offer any real reforms. All these pseudo-reforms are not the sign of capitalism’s prosperity, but of its irreversible bankruptcy.

The working class is beginning to respond to the attacks of the bourgeoisie

The resolution we are publishing below was adopted by the central organ of the ICC last June.

The central aim of this text is to demonstrate the existence of a “turning point” in the evolution of the class struggle, an analysis we already put forward after the struggles of spring 2003 in France and Austria against the “reform” of pensions. Through this text we want to answer the questions posed by some of our readers and sympathisers who have expressed doubts about the validity of this analysis.

Since 2003, the reality of the class struggle in the shape of a number of social movements has given a much more tangible confirmation that there is indeed a turning point in the class struggle at an international level.

Despite the strength and omnipresence of union control over the struggles, despite workers’ hesitation to enter into struggle faced with bourgeois manoeuvres aimed at intimidating them, despite the proletariat’s lack of self-confidence, it has become clear that the working class is beginning to respond to the attacks of the bourgeoisie, even if this revival is still a long way below the level of the attacks themselves. The mobilisation of the Italian tram drivers and the British postal workers and firemen in the winter of 2003, then the movements of the FIAT workers at Melfi in the south of Italy in the spring against redundancy plans - in spite of all the weaknesses and isolation of these struggles - were already signs of a revival of class militancy. But today there are many more examples and they are more significant. In Germany last July, more than 60,000 workers at Mercedes-Daimler-Chrysler took part in strikes and demonstrations against threats and ultimatums by the bosses. The latter demanded that workers either accept certain “sacrifices” regarding their working conditions, increase productivity (this applied in particular to the workers of the Sindelfingen-Stuttgart factory in Bade-Wurtemberg), and accept job-cuts at Sindelfingen, Unturkheim and Mannheim – or face the relocation of the plants to other sites. Not only did the workers of Siemens, Porsche, Bosch and Alcatel, who all faced similar attacks, take part in these mobilisations; at the same time, when the bosses tried to foment divisions between the workers of different factories, many workers from Bremen, to where the jobs were to be relocated, associated themselves with the demonstrations. This is a very significant embryo of workers’ solidarity. In Spain, the workers at the shipyards of Puerto Real near Cadiz in Andalusia, as well as in Sestao in the Bilbao region, launched a very hard movement against privatisation plans which involved thousands of job-cuts – plans set in motion by the left-wing government despite its previous promises to the contrary.

More recently, a demonstration organised by the unions and “alternative worldists” in Berlin on 2 October, which was supposed to “close” a series of “Monday protests” against the government’s Hartz IV plan, attracted 45,000 people. On the same day, a gigantic demonstration took place in Amsterdam against the government’s plans, and it had been preceded by important regional mobilisations. Officially there were 200,000 participants, constituting the biggest demonstration in the country for ten years. Despite the main slogan of the demo, “No to the government, yes to the unions”, the most spontaneous reaction of the participants themselves was surprise and astonishment at the size of the demo. It should also be remembered that Holland, alongside Belgium, was one of the first countries to see a revival of workers’ struggles in the autumn of 1983.

Each of these movements is a sign of the reflection going on in the working class. The accumulation of attacks by the bourgeoisie is bound to sap the illusions that the ruling class is trying to spread. Workers are becoming increasingly anxious about the future which this system of exploitation is reserving for their children, for the future generations. Conscious of its responsibility in the slow maturation of consciousness going on in the class, the ICC has intervened very actively in these struggles. It produced leaflets and distributed them widely in Germany in July and in Spain in September. On 2 October, both in Berlin and Amsterdam, it achieved record sales for its press, which had already been the case during the struggles of spring 2003 in France. These are further illustrations of the significance and potential of the current turning point.

Wim 11.10.04

Resolution on the evolution of the class struggle

At its plenary meeting in Autumn 2003, the central organ of the ICC highlighted the fact that there is a change in the evolution of the international class struggle: “The large-scale mobilisations of the spring of 2003 in France and Austria represent a turning point in the class struggles since 1989.” However the report adopted by the plenary meeting judged that “both internationally and within each country, the level of militancy is still embryonic and very uneven” and it goes on to say that: “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 present evolution is undoubtedly of the latter kind. In this sense, the recent mobilisations by no means signify a spectacular immediate alteration of the situation…

Eight months after these perspectives were adopted by our organisation, we must ask to what extent they have been verified. That is the aim of the present resolution.

1. One thing that has certainly been confirmed is the absence of any “spectacular immediate alteration of the situation” given that following the struggles in Spring 2003 in various European countries, France in particular, there has been no massive or striking movement in the class struggle. In this sense, there is no decisive element that enables us to confirm the idea that the struggles of 2003 represent a real change in the development of the balance of class forces between the classes. So it is not by looking at the situation in the class struggle over the last year that we can establish the validity of our analyses, this must rather be done by examining all the elements of the historic situation which determine the present phase of the class struggle. The basis for this kind of examination is the analytical framework that we have developed for understanding the present historic situation.

2. In the context of this resolution, we can give no more than a summary of the determinant elements in the situation of the class struggle:

- The entire world situation from the end of the 1960s has been marked by the end of the counter-revolution which weighed on the proletariat during the 1920s. The historic resurgence of the workers' struggles, characterised in particular by the general strike of May 68 in France, the “Italian hot autumn” of 69, the “Cordobazo” in Argentina the same year, the strikes in the winter of 1970-71 in Poland, etc, opened up a course towards the confrontation between classes. Faced with the worsening of the economic crisis, the bourgeoisie was unable to use its “classic” response - world war - because the exploited class no longer marched behind the flag of its exploiters.

- This historic course towards class confrontations, and not towards world war, has been maintained to the extent that the proletariat has not suffered a direct defeat or a profound ideological defeat leading to its mobilisation behind bourgeois banners such as democracy or anti-fascism.

- However this historic resurgence has encountered a series of difficulties, especially during the 80s, because of the manoeuvres used by the bourgeoisie against the working class but also because of the organic break experienced by the communist vanguard following the counter-revolution (absence or lateness in the emergence of the class party, lack of politicisation of the struggles). One of the growing difficulties encountered by the working class is the increasing decomposition of moribund capitalist society.

- It is the most spectacular manifestation of this decomposition - the collapse the so called “socialist” regimes and of the Eastern bloc at the end of the 1980s - that is at the root of the serious reflux in consciousness within the class, as a result of the impact of the campaigns around the “death of communism” which the collapse made possible.

- This reflux of the class was further aggravated at the beginning of the 1990s by a series of events which accentuated the feeling of impotence on the part of the working class:

· the crisis and the Gulf war in 1990-91;

· the war in Yugoslavia from 1991 onwards;

· the plethora of wars and massacres in many other places (Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor, etc) with the frequent participation of the big powers in the name of “humanitarian principles”.

- The massive use of humanitarian themes (as in Kosovo in 1999 for example), which exploit the most barbarous expressions of decomposition (such as “ethnic cleansing”), has added another source of disorientation for the working class, especially for those in the more advanced countries who are invited to applaud the military adventures of their governments.

- The attack on the United States on 11th September 2001 has allowed the bourgeoisie of the advanced countries to develop a new series of mystifications around the theme of the “terrorist threat”, and of the necessary fight against this threat; these mystifications were used in particular to justify the war in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and the Iraq war of 2003.

- On the other hand, during the 1990s there was a pause (in the form of a certain downturn in unemployment) in the inevitable worsening of the economic crisis, which could otherwise have offered an antidote to the campaigns that followed 1989 around the “failure of communism” and the “superiority of liberal capitalism”; because of this the illusions created by these campaigns persisted throughout the decade and were reinforced by those created around the “success stories” of the Asian “dragons” and “tigers” and around the “new technological revolution”.

- Finally, the fact that the left parties came to power in the vast majority of the European countries in the second half of the 1990s, an event that was made possible both by the reflux in the consciousness and the combativity of the class and also by the relative calm at the level of the intensification of the economic crisis, has enabled the ruling class (and that was its main aim) to carry out a series of economic attacks against the working class while avoiding the massive mobilisations of the latter, which are one of the conditions for the renewal of its self-confidence.

3. On the basis of all of these elements we can identify a real change in the balance of forces between the classes. We can get an initial idea of this alteration simply by observing and comparing the situation prevailing at the time of two important episodes in the class struggle during the last decade in France, a country which has acted as a sort of “laboratory” at the level of the class struggle and the bourgeoisie's manoeuvres to counter it, ever since 1968 (but also during the 19th century). These two important episodes are the struggles of autumn 1995, mainly in the transport sector, against the “Juppé plan” to reform the Welfare system and the recent strikes in the public section in spring 2003 against the reform of the pension system obliging workers in this sector to work a greater number of years to receive a lower pension.

As the ICC stressed at the time, the struggles of 1995 were an elaborate manoeuvre on the part of different sectors of the bourgeoisie to refurbish the unions’ prestige at a time when the economic situation did not yet oblige them to undertake violent attacks, and in order to allow the unions to encapsulate and sabotage the future struggles of the proletariat more effectively.

By contrast, the strikes of spring 2003 followed a massive attack against the working class that was necessary to deal with the deepening capitalist crisis. The unions did not intervene in these struggles in order to polish up their image, but rather did their best to sabotage the movement and ensure that it ended in a bitter defeat for the working class.

However, in spite of the differences, these two episodes in the class struggle have characteristics in common: the main attack affected all sectors or broad sectors of the working class (in 1995 the “Juppé plan” for reform of the Welfare system, in 2003 reform of public sector pensions) and was accompanied by a specific attack against a particular sector (in 1995 reform of the pension system for railway workers, in 2003 the “decentralisation” of a number of staff within the national education system) which appeared to be the spearhead of the movement because it expressed greater and broader combativity. After several weeks of the strike the “concessions” made in relation to the specific attacks made it possible to get the sectors concerned back to work, which aided the general return to work because the “vanguard” had stopped struggling. In December 1995, the movement of the rail workers came to a halt when the proposed reform of their pension system was abandoned; in 2003, the government's “backdown” on the “decentralisation” measures concerning certain categories in the school system, contributed to the return to work in the education sector.

In spite of this, the return to work took place in a completely different atmosphere on these two occasions:

- in December 1995, although the government retained the “Juppé plan” (which had also received the support of one of the main unions, the CFDT), the prevailing mood was one of “victory”: on one point at least, the pension system of the railway workers, the government had quite simply withdrawn its proposal;

- at the end of spring 2003 on the other hand, the insignificant concessions made on the position of certain categories of personnel in the national education system, was in no way felt as a victory, but quite simply as the reluctance of the government to give way on anything else, and the feeling of defeat was aggravated further by the authorities’ announcement that the strike days would be deducted in their entirety from wages, contrary to what had previously happened in the public sector.

To try and make a general assessment of these two episodes in the class struggle, the following points can be emphasised:

- in 1995, the feeling of victory that was spread forcefully throughout the working class, greatly helped to renew the credibility of the unions (a phenomenon that was not restricted to France but involved most of the European countries, especially Belgium and Germany where bourgeois manoeuvres similar to those used in France were put into operation, as we have pointed out in our press);

- in 2003, the marked feeling of defeat which was produced by the spring strikes (in France but also in other countries such as Austria) did not discredit the unions as they managed not to drop their mask and, in certain situations, even came across as being more “militant” than the rank and file. However, the workers’ feeling of having been defeated marks the beginning of a process in which the unions will lose credibility, once the sheer extent of their manoeuvring makes it possible to demonstrate that under their leadership the struggle is always defeated, and that they always work towards such a defeat.

In this way, the perspective for the development of the struggles and the consciousness of the proletariat is much better after 2003 than after 1995 because:

- the worst thing for the working class is not a clear defeat but rather the sense of victory after a defeat that is masked (but real): it is this sense of “victory” (against fascism and in defence of the “socialist fatherland”) which has been the most efficient poison to plunge and maintain the proletariat in the counter-revolution during four decades of the 20th century;

- the union, the main instrument of control over the working class and for sabotage of the struggles, has entered into a trajectory in which it will be weakened.

4. If the existence of a transformation in the struggles and the consciousness of the working class can be assessed in an empirical way by means of the simple examination of the differences between the situation in 2003 and that of 1995, the question is raised: why has this change taken place now and not, for example, five years ago?

It is already possible to give a simple answer to this question: for the same reasons that the anti-globalisation movement, which began just five years ago, has now become a real institution whose demonstrations mobilise hundreds of thousands of people and the attention of the whole media.

To be more precise we can present the following elements in reply:

After the enormous impact of the campaigns around “the death of communism” from the end of the 80s, an impact that was in proportion to the enormous importance of the event marked by the internal collapse of those regimes that were presented for more than half a century as “socialist”, “workers”, “anti-capitalist”, a certain period of time, in fact a decade, was necessary for the fog of confusion created by these campaigns to evaporate, for the impact of their “arguments” to diminish. Four decades were necessary for the world proletariat to emerge from the counter-revolution, a quarter of this time was necessary for it to raise its head from the blows received from the spearhead of this same counter-revolution, Stalinism, whose “stinking corpse has continued to poison the atmosphere that it breathes” (as we wrote in 1989).

It was also necessary to counter the idea, promoted by Bush senior, that the collapse of the “socialist” regimes and of the Eastern bloc would make possible the opening up of a “new world order”. This idea was brutally belied from 1990-91 onwards by the crisis and the Gulf war and then by the war in Yugoslavia which lasted until 1999 with the offensive in Kosovo. After this came the September 11th attacks and now the Iraq war, while at the same time the situation in Israel-Palestine continues to degenerate. Day after day it becomes increasingly evident that the ruling class cannot put an end to these imperialist confrontations and to world chaos, any more than it can put an end to the economic crisis that constitutes the backdrop to the former.

The recent period, mainly since the start of the 21st century, has once more brought to the fore the obvious fact of capitalism’s economic crisis, after the illusions of the 1990s about the “resurgence”, the “dragons” and the “new technological revolution”. At the same time, this new evolution of the capitalist crisis has led the ruling class to intensify the violence of its economic attacks against the working class, to generalise the attacks.

However, the violence and the increasingly systematic nature of the attacks against the working class has not yet provoked any massive or spectacular response or even a response comparable in breadth to that of 2003. In other words, why did the “alteration” in 2003 appear in the form of a change in direction and not as an explosion (such as was seen for example in 1968 and the years that followed)?

5. There are various levels of response to this question.

In the first place, as we have often pointed out, there is the slow development of the historic resurgence of the proletariat: for example, there were 12 years between the first major event of this historic resurgence, the general strike in May 1968 in France and its culmination, the strikes in Poland in the summer of 1980. Likewise, there were 13½ years between the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 and the strikes of spring 2003; that is, a longer period of time than between the beginning of the first revolution in Russia in January 1905 and the revolution of October 1917.

The ICC has already analysed the reasons for the slowness of this development in comparison with that which preceded the 1917 revolution: today the class struggle is provoked, not by imperialist war, but by the economic crisis of capitalism, a crisis which the bourgeoisie is quite capable of slowing down, as it has amply shown.

The ICC has also highlighted other factors which have contributed to slowing down the development of the struggle and the consciousness of the proletariat, factors linked to the organic break imposed by the counter-revolution (and which has delayed the construction of the party) and to the decomposition of capitalism, especially the tendency towards despair, to flight and to cocooning which has affected the proletariat.

In other ways, to understand the slowness of this process we must also take into account the impact of the crisis itself. In particular the fact that it is expressed by a rise in unemployment, which constitutes an important inhibition on the working class, especially on those of the new generation, who are traditionally the most combative but who are today often thrown into unemployment without even being able to experience associated work and solidarity between workers. When workers are made redundant as a result of massive lay-offs, this can create an explosive situation, although this is not easily expressed in the classic form of the strike because the strike is by definition ineffective against redundancies. But insofar as the rise in unemployment is simply a result of not replacing those who retire, as is often the case today, workers who fail to find a job often have difficulty knowing how to react.

The ICC has often demonstrated that the inexorable rise in unemployment is one of the most conclusive demonstrations of the definitive failure of the capitalist mode of production, one of whose essential historic functions was the massive and world wide extension of wage labour. However, at the moment unemployment is mainly a factor of demoralisation for the working class, one that inhibits its struggle. Only in a much more advanced stage of the class movement (in fact, when the perspective for overthrowing capitalism reappears, if not massively, then at least significantly within the ranks of the proletariat) will the subversive character of this phenomenon become a factor in the development of the class’ struggle and consciousness.

6. This is in fact one of the reasons for the slow development of workers' struggles today; the relative weakness of the class’ response to the growing attacks of capitalism: the feeling, still very confused but which can only develop in the coming period, that there is no solution to the contradictions of capitalism today, whether at the level of its economy or other expressions of its historic crisis, whose irresistible character is shown up more clearly by each passing day, such as the unending military confrontations, the growth of chaos and barbarism.

This phenomenon of the proletariat's hesitation before the greatness of its task has been stressed by Marx and marxism since the middle of the 19th century (in particular in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). This phenomenon partly explains the paradox in the present situation: on the one hand the struggles have difficulty spreading despite the violence of the attacks that the working class is suffering. On the other hand, there is evidence of a development within the class of a deepened reflection, even if this mainly below the surface today, which can be seen in the appearance of a series of elements and groups, often young, who are turning towards the positions of the Communist Left.

In this situation, it is important to take a clear position on the scope of the two aspects of the present situation which contribute to the relative passivity of the proletariat:

- the impact of the defeats that it suffered during the recent period, which the bourgeoisie has done all in its power, in particular through its arrogant declarations, to ensure leads to the greatest level of demoralisation possible;

- the systematic blackmail used around the question of “delocalisation” to oblige the workers of the more developed countries to accept major sacrifices.

For some time to come, these elements will work in favour of “social peace” to the benefit of the bourgeoisie, and the latter will not hesitate to exploit this “vein” to the full. However, when the hour of massive struggles comes, as it will because the mass of workers cannot do otherwise faced with the breadth of the attacks, then the sum of humiliations suffered by the workers, the enormous feeling of impotence and demoralisation, the “every man for himself” which has weighed it down throughout the years, will be turned into its opposite; the refusal to submit, the determined search for class solidarity, between sectors, between regions and between countries, the opening up of a new perspective, that of the international unity of the proletariat with the aim of overturning capitalism.

ICC, June 2004

Life of the ICC: 

Recent and ongoing: