In the 19th century workers fought in the streets in order to defend their union organisations and to impose their right to exist on the ruling class. Today, the governments of the ruling class fight to prevent workers in struggle from going beyond the unions and to stop them leaving these organisations.
Are the unions today organisations which defend the interests of the working class?
Can the unions in our epoch prevent or even limit the permanent attack on the living conditions of the workers?
What is the future of the workers' struggle?
How can we struggle?
It is these questions that our pamphlet addressed when it first appeared in 1974. It elaborated the position of the ICC set out in our Platform:
"In the nineteenth century, the period of capitalism's greatest prosperity, the working class, often through bitter and bloody struggles, built up permanent trade organisations whose role was to defend its economic interests: the trade unions.
"These organs played an essential role in the struggle for reforms and for the substantial improvements in the workers' living conditions, which the system could then afford. They also constituted a focus for the regroupment of the class, for the development of its solidarity and consciousness so that revolutionaries could intervene within them and help make them serve as ‘schools for communism'. Although the existence of these organs was linked in an indissoluble way to the existence of wage labour, and although even in this period they were often substantially bureaucratised, the unions nevertheless were authentic organs of the class to the extent that the abolition of wage labour was not yet on the historical agenda.
"As capitalism entered its decadent phase, it was no longer able to accord reforms and improvements to the working class. Having lost all possibility of fulfilling their initial function of defending working class interests, and confronted with an historic situation in which only the abolition of wage labour and with it the disappearance of trade unions was on the agenda, the trade unions became the true defenders of capitalism, agencies of the bourgeois state within the working class. This is the only way they could survive in the new period. This evolution was aided by the bureaucratisation of the unions prior to decadence and by the relentless tendency within decadence for the state to absorb all the structures of social life.
The anti-working class role of the unions was decisively demonstrated for the first time during World War I when alongside the social democratic parties they helped to mobilise the workers for the imperialist slaughter. In the revolutionary wave which followed the war, the unions did everything in their power to smother the proletariat's attempts to destroy capitalism. Since then they have been kept alive not by the working class, but the capitalist state for which they fulfil a number of important functions:
- actively participating in the efforts of the capitalist state to rationalise the economy, regularise the sale of labour power and intensify exploitation;
- sabotaging the class struggle from within either by derailing strikes and revolts into sectional dead-ends, or by confronting autonomous movements with open repression."
(Platform and Manifesto of the ICC. 1980. Point 7).
This is the essential content of this pamphlet. But has its analysis been confirmed in the decades since 1974? The last 30 years have been tumultuous with a multitude of wars, famines, economic crises, strikes and revolts. The period has been especially marked by the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, bringing the Cold War to an end and unleashing a new phase of greater international instability and imperialist confrontation. But beneath all of these developments, and ultimately determining them, has been the gradual, but inexorable, deterioration of the global capitalist economy. The profound contradictions at the heart of capitalism that plunged it into its period of decadence some 90 years ago continue to work away. One of the fundamental consequences of this is the deepening of the antagonism between the principal classes of society: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Despite all of the efforts of the ruling class, the absolutely irreconcilable opposition between the logic of the capitalist economy and the needs both of the working class, and of humanity as a whole, tends to become more exposed.
All the elements of reality, all the essential tendencies of decadent capitalism and the class struggle upon which the analyses of this pamphlet are based, have been confirmed despite all the ebbs and flows of the class struggle at the day to day level:
- the impossibility of reforming capitalism to the advantage of the working class;
- the necessity of a massive, radical and political response from the workers;
- the impossibility of a good trade unionism;
- the historic responsibility of the working class faced with the future of humanity.
Our pamphlet retains all of its validity. The examples that were given in 1974 to illustrate our position are those that were available at that time, but we could find many others in the intervening period that are just as convincing.1 Even if the examples from this period are not quite so memorable today, they do help us to show that the role played by the unions as enemies of the proletariat and the methods they use to defend the bourgeois order have not changed throughout this time. Furthermore, the pamphlet was also part of the effort of the new generation of militants that emerged from the struggles of 1968 to rediscover the political heritage of the communist left and to apply it to the times they were living in. It therefore also has some historical significance in itself.
Nonetheless, we think it important to briefly show how our analyses have been confirmed over the last thirty years by considering each of the points above in the light of the practical experience of the class struggle these last decades.
1. The impossibility of reforming capitalism to the advantage of the working class
The last thirty years have seen a continual deepening of the economic crisis of capitalism and the exhaustion of all of the ‘solutions' proffered by the ruling class, whether the Keynsianism of the 70s, the Reaganomics of the 80s or the ‘dot.com revolution' of the 90s.2 "The capitalist system has entered its sixth phase of recession since the resurgence of the crisis at the end of the Sixties: 1967, 1970-71, 1974-75, 1980-82, 1991-93 and 2001-?, without counting the collapse of the South East Asian countries, of Brazil, etc in the years 1997-98. Since the Sixties, each decade has shown a mean growth rate lower than the preceding one:
1962-69 = 5.2%
1970-79 = 3.5%
1980-89 = 2.8%
1990-99 = 2.6%
2000-02 = 2.2%"
(International Review no. 114, "The reality of ‘economic prosperity' laid bare by the crisis")
For decades now capitalism has only been able to survive through assorted monetary and financial manipulations that ultimately only undermine its very foundations. In particular, the continued accumulation of debt, while allowing a certain economic health today, only worsens the chronic problems that endanger the very life of capitalism and threaten ever more serious acute crises tomorrow.
For the working class it is no longer just a matter of not being able to extract any lasting improvements from capitalism, but of being subjected to a sustained assault on all aspects of its standard of living world-wide. It is no longer only an increase of exploitation which the working class must combat, but the loss of the little that it thought was ‘acquired'. The capitalist machine is jammed up. It is increasingly unable to absorb more workers and spits out those from whom it can no longer extract surplus value into the street to live and die in poverty and misery. This has been true for the under-developed countries for many decades and is now becoming increasingly true for the industrial heartlands as well.
"The main indicator of the advance of the crisis is the degradation of the living conditions of the working class...In order to sustain the levels of debt, to jettison ballast and eliminate all unprofitable activity, and to let loose a furious competitive battle, all capitalist countries have pushed the worst of the crisis onto the working class. Since the 80's the lives of the ‘privileged' workers of the central countries - here we are not talking about the frightening conditions of their brothers in the Third World! - have been branded by the red-hot iron of mass unemployment, the turning of permanent working into temporary, the proliferation of wretchedly paid part-time jobs, the lengthening of the working day through a multitude of subterfuges including the '35 hour week', the cutting of subsidies and social spending, the steep rise in accidents at work.
"Unemployment is the main and the surest indicator of capitalism's historic crisis. The ruling class in the main industrialised countries understands the gravity of the problem and has developed a policy of politically covering up unemployment, so as to hide it from the workers' and the population's eyes. This policy has condemned a mass of workers to a tragic merry-go-round (a temporary job, several months of unemployment, a part time job, a training scheme, another period of unemployment...and so on and so on) together with a scandalous adulteration of the statistics, which has allowed them to broadcast its ‘permanent success' in eradicating unemployment.
"A study of the percentage of unemployed between 25 and 55 years old gives more precise figures than the general unemployment figures which dilute the percentages by mixing them up with youngsters (18-25 years) many of whom are in full time education and workers who have taken early retirement (56-65 years):
Unemployment levels between the ages of 25 and 55 (1988-95)
Great Britain 13.1%
"In Great Britain the percentage of families where all the members are unemployed has continued to rise:
(International Review no. 106, "Report on the economic crisis")
For those in work the reality is increasing hours and workloads and decreasing real wages: "Wages have fallen continuously for more than 10 years...‘The average weekly wage - adjusted for inflation - of 80% of workers in the United States fell by 18% between 1973 and 1995 from $315 to $285 a week... These figures have been confirmed during the last five years: unit labour costs in the US fell by 0.8% between July 1999 and June 2000. In 1973 the average hourly wage was $11.50 whilst in 1999 it was $10. The level of exploitation in the US has risen relentlessly: in order to receive the same level of income (discounting inflation) workers had to work 20% more hours in 1999 than 1980" (ibid).
The result of this is an increase in poverty: "The UNO has produced an index called the Index of Human Poverty (IHP). The 1998 figures for the percentage of the population that live below the IHP minimum are:
Great Britain 15.1%
Germany 10.4%" (ibid).
A recent study in Britain, using various measures of poverty, found that in 1999/2000 25% of the population were living in poverty (Poverty: the facts. Child Poverty Action Group 2001).
A major focus of the attack on the working class' living conditions has been the social wage. In the US millions are unable to afford any medical cover: "in 2001, according to the New York Times, 1.4 million people, 800,000 of whom earned more than $75,000 lost their health insurance" (Le Monde Diplomatique December 2003 - English language edition). "In Britain the rationing of health care through lack of resources and lengthy waiting lists effectively denies care to millions. In France plans are being drawn up to significantly change the funding of healthcare, pushing the cost onto the patient" (ibid).
At the time of writing, the most recent attack is on workers' pensions. Across the developed world the bourgeoisie are concluding that workers are living too long and being given too much money. "The British case is a particularly edifying example of what the working class can expect: since the "Thatcher years', 20 years ago, pensions have been based on private pension funds. But the situation has become much worse since then. By transforming pensions into private funds, the idea was that shares in these funds would bring in a lot of money as the stock exchange rose. The opposite has happened. With a collapse in share prices, hundreds of thousands of workers are reduced to poverty (the basic state pension is about €120 a week). Some 20% of pensioners live below the poverty line, condemning many of them to continue working beyond the age of 70, generally in poorly paid and precarious jobs" (International Review no. 114 "The massive attacks of capital demand a mass response from the working class"). Workers face the prospect of working to 70 or beyond, of paying more in pension contributions, or of enduring even greater poverty in old age. That living longer should become something to fear is truly a condemnation of the inhuman world that capitalism has created.
Socialism or barbarism: the choice facing the working class
It is possible to sum up the real acceleration of the historic decadence of capitalism in two figures: in the middle of the 80s more than 30 million people per year were dying of hunger in the world (more than during the four years of the First World War!) while at the same time the world's military expenses were greater than a million dollars a minute! During this time, the production of the means of subsistence in every country was reduced because of... overproduction.
Capitalism's tendency towards barbarism has accelerated over the last two decades as it entered its phase of decomposition. Arising from the inability of the ruling class to impose its solution to the economic crisis in the form of war, on the one hand, and from the inability of the working class to impose its solution of revolution on the other, all of the contradictions of capitalism pile up. Devoid of any perspective for the future all of the worst features of capitalism are magnified in a war of each against all: "...as its name suggests, decomposition leads to social dislocation and putrefaction, to the void. Left to its own devices, it will lead humanity to the same fate as world war. In the end, it is all the same whether we are wiped out in a rain of thermonuclear bombs, or by pollution, radioactivity from nuclear power stations, famine, epidemics, and the massacres of innumerable small wars (where nuclear weapons might also be used). The only difference between these two forms of annihilation lies in that one is quick, while the other would be slower, and would consequently provoke still more suffering" (International Review no. 62, "Decomposition, final phase in the decadence of capitalism").
No, the last decades have not invalidated the basic idea of the pamphlet, according to which it is not possible to reform capitalism or draw from it lasting reforms for the benefit of the exploited. While in the 19th century, during capitalism's period of ascendancy, such reforms were possible, this is no longer the case in its period of decadence. Today the total opposition between the logic of capitalist economic laws and the most elementary interests of the working class deepens more and more.
Increasingly, the survival of capitalism involves the absolute pauperisation of the proletariat; increasingly, the very survival of the proletariat demands that it take the class struggle to more global, more unified and more radical levels. Ultimately, the choice facing the working class and the whole of humanity is socialism or barbarism.
2. The necessity for a massive, radical and political response by the working class
Has the experience of the class struggle these last decades confirmed not only the necessity, but also the possibility of such a response by the working class?
In the final analysis, the sole response which would allow the proletariat to definitively stop the machine which crushes and oppresses it every day, would be a total, social revolution: the destruction of the machine of exploitation itself, the installation of new social relations based on production for human needs instead of the accumulation of capital. At the end of the day, there is no other alternative.
The loud proclamations that "another world is possible", which flow from the mouths of today's anti-globalisation movement, fall on the rocky ground of their illusions in the ability of the state to offer protection against the infamous multi-national and trans-national corporations and the ideology of ‘neo-liberalism'. All they can summon up is an alternative capitalist world, a nostalgic vision of Keynesianism and the welfare state, oblivious to the fact that these were the precursors of today's more open exploitation. Such a vision is a trap for the working class, because it seeks to keep its struggle within capitalism, choosing between the ‘social' and the ‘neo-liberal' models, which are just two faces of the same coin.
It is essential to recognise, as all great revolutionaries have, from Marx, to Lenin and Luxemburg, that the immediate struggles of the proletariat today are the vital link to its revolutionary struggle tomorrow. To separate the two, whether ignoring the daily struggle as do many supposedly ‘pure' revolutionaries, or seeing only the daily struggle as reformists, including the anti-globalisation movement, do, is to condemn the working class to sterility.
Revolution doesn't ‘replace' the daily resistance of the exploited class: it is the logical outcome of it. The daily struggle reinforces the unity of the working class; it deepens its understanding of its struggle and of the enemy that it faces,and so prepares it for the revolutionary struggle to come.
Today, the working class has been under a sustained and intense assault from the ruling class for many years. The form of the attack varies - in some countries a gradual, piecemeal, approach has been successfully used, in others a more overt, confrontational approach has been employed - but the outcome is always a worsening of the living conditions of the working class.
What can the working class do in order to limit and push back, at least momentarily, the offensive of the bourgeoisie?
The dominant class will not respond to appeals, which it only sees as a sign of weakness. It will only retreat when it is confronted with such a force that it can do nothing else without risking a dangerous destabilisation of its political power.
This balance of class forces works at both a historical level and a more immediate level, but it is the former that is most important. At the historical level, this balance of forces determines the direction in which history is moving, either towards world war or towards a confrontation between bourgeoisie and proletariat: this is what the ICC has termed the course of history. The bourgeoisie was able to launch the first and second world wars because the proletariat had been defeated. In the one through the internal disintegration of much of the Second International due to the weight of reformism and opportunism, in the other because of the defeat of the revolutionary wave that began in 1917 and the subsequent physical and ideological crushing of the revolutionary proletariat. It took the emergence of a new generation of workers after the massacres of 1939-45, and the return of the open crisis after the years of post-war reconstruction, for the historic course to turn again towards decisive confrontation between the classes, reopening the perspective of communism. The strikes of 1968 and the years that followed were the expression of this change. The course of history has not been reversed since, despite in particular the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the resulting retreat in working class struggle.
Within this framework there have certainly been shifts in the balance of class forces but without any decisive change. Indeed, this relative stalemate between the classes is at the root of the present, and final, phase in the life of capitalism, its decomposition. However, this stalemate is not marked by a lessening of social tensions but by their increase and multiplication. The years since 1989, when the working class has seemed to be in retreat, show every bit as much as those before it, when the working class was launching international waves of struggle, that the only language possible between the two antagonistic classes of society, is that of force, of class violence. The possibility that the historic course offers to the working class and the whole of humanity has to find expression in the daily struggle of the working class through the determined effort to establish a favourable balance of class forces. This can only be achieved if the proletariat:
- refuses any attitude of resigned passivity;
- gives itself the means to unify its forces beyond professional, racial and national categories;
- takes its combat directly to the centre of power of the dominant class: its state and its government;
- conceives its struggle as one of class against class, and assumes the defence of its own interests against the economic logic of the system.
The experience of workers' struggles since 1968 confirms this reality. There is a setback or a hold on the struggles when they do not spread, or radicalise; there is success when, on the contrary, the struggle spreads, providing itself with a framework of unitary, autonomous organisation, co-ordinated and centralised, when the struggle remains firmly on its own class terrain by clearly affirming its working class character, and when it puts forward common unifying demands.
Thirty years of struggle
In the first fifteen years after the appearance of this pamphlet, the struggle of the working class went through periods of greater and lesser intensity within a historical and international dynamic of developing struggle. In the next fifteen years, following the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, the class struggle went into a serious retreat and the working class experienced an immense disorientation and loss of confidence, from which it is still recovering. But even at the worst moment, it has never lost its potential and has never ceased to pose a threat to the ruling class at the historical level. Throughout all of these developments the ICC has sought to understand the balance of class forces and the perspective for the class struggle at the international and historical level. In 1988, on the 20th anniversary of May 1968, we reviewed the evolution of the class struggle over the two preceding decades:
"During these years the class struggle hasn't developed in a linear way. On the contrary it has gone through a complex, uneven development, full of advances and retreats, passing through successive waves interspersed with periods of calm and counter-offensive by the bourgeoisie. If you look at these 20 years of struggle on a global scale - the only way which allows you to grasp the dynamic of the proletarian struggle - you can distinguish three major waves of workers' struggles.
"The first wave, opened up by May '68, lasted until 1974. For around 5 years, in nearly all countries, both the industrialised and the less developed, in the east as well as the west, workers' struggles went through a new development. Already in 1969 in Italy (the ‘hot autumn'), a powerful wave of strikes in which clashes between workers and unions multiplied, confirmed that May ‘68 had indeed started a new international dynamic in the class struggle. In the same year in Argentina (Cordoba, Rosario) the working class launched massive struggles. In 1970 in Poland, the workers' struggle reached new heights: in generalised street confrontations with the militia, the working class forcing the government to back down. For the workers in the Eastern bloc countries it confirmed that it was possible to fight against state totalitarianism; for the workers of the whole world, the myth of the working class nature of the eastern bloc countries suffered a blow. Then, in this international context of class combativity, particularly significant struggles developed in Spain (Barcelona 1971), in Belgium and in Britain (1972).
"However, after 1973 the mobilisation of the workers was to start slowing down. Despite the important struggles waged by the working classes in Portugal and Spain when the regimes in these countries were being democratised (1974-77), despite a new wave of strikes in Poland in 1976, on the global level - and in particular in western Europe - there was a clear reduction in the level of workers' mobilisations.
"But in 1978 a new wave of workers' struggles exploded on an international scale. Shorter in time than the previous one, we saw, between 1978 and 1980, a new deployment of proletarian forces, striking in its international simultaneity. The massive strikes of the oil workers in Iran in ‘78, those of the German and Brazilian metal workers in ‘78 and ‘80; the miners' struggle in the USA in 79 then the New York transport strike of '80; the violent struggles of the French steel workers of ‘79 and the Rotterdam dockers' strike in the same year; the ‘winter of discontent' in Britain in 78/79 which led to the fall of the Labour government, and the big steel strike at the beginning of 1980; the strikes in Togliattigrad in the USSR in ‘80 and the struggle in South Korea at the same time... all these struggles confirmed that the social calm of the mid-70s had merely been temporary. Then in August ‘80, the most important workers' struggle since the 1920s broke out in Poland. Drawing the lessons of the experiences of ‘70 and ‘76, the working class displayed an extraordinary level of combativity, of organisation, of control over its own forces. But the dynamic was to falter in front of two deadly obstacles: first, the illusions the workers in the east have in ‘western democracy' and particularly in trade unionism; and secondly, the national framework. Solidarnosc, the new ‘democratic' union, formed under the attentive eyes of the ‘democratic' forces of the western bloc, zealously propagating the most ingrained nationalist ideology, was in the forefront of distilling and cultivating this poison. The failure of the mass strike in Poland, resulting in the military coup by Jaruzelski in December 1981, clearly posed the question of the responsibility of the proletariat of the more central countries, those sections of the class with the greatest historical experience: not only at the level of their capacity to advance the internationalisation of the workers' struggle, but also because of the contribution they can make to overcoming illusions in ‘western democracy' which still weigh heavily in many countries.
"The fall of the Labour government in Britain in the face of a wave of strikes illustrated what was to be the response of the bourgeoisie to this second wave: the ‘left' in government had been discredited. It was essential to put the left in opposition where it could carry out its sabotage from within the struggles, allowing the government, usually in the hands of the right, to speak the language of ‘truth'. This strategy had, and still has, an effect.
"After the period of reflux in the international class struggle following the defeat in Poland, a new wave of struggles began at the end of '83 with the public sector strike in Belgium. In Hamburg in West Germany there was the occupation of the shipyards. In 1984 Italy saw a powerful wave of strikes against the elimination of the sliding scale, culminating in a demonstration of nearly a million workers in Rome.
"In Britain there was the great miners' strike which lasted a year and which, despite its exemplary courage and combativity, showed more than any struggle the ineffectiveness in our epoch of long isolated strikes. In the same year there were important struggles in India, USA, Tunisia and Morocco.
"In 1985 there was the massive strike in Denmark, and several waves of wildcat strikes shook that other ‘socialist paradise': Sweden; the first big strikes in Japan (railways); strikes in Sao Paolo when Brazil was in full transition towards ‘democracy'; there were also important struggles in Argentina, Bolivia, South Africa, and Yugoslavia. 1986 was marked by the massive strike in Belgium in the spring, paralysing the country and extending by itself in spite of the unions. At the end of ‘86 and the beginning of ‘87 the railway workers in France developed a struggle which was remarkable for the workers' attempts to organise independently of the unions. In spring ‘87 there was a whole series of strikes in Spain directly opposing the plans of the ‘socialist' government. Then there were the struggles of the miners in South Africa, the electricity workers in Mexico and a big wave of strikes in South Korea.
"Through a good part of the year there were also the struggles of the school workers in Italy who managed to organise outside of and against the unions. Finally, the recent mobilisation of the workers of the Ruhr in Germany and the resurgence of strikes in Britain in 1988...confirmed that this third international wave of workers struggles, which has now lasted for more than four years, is far from over". (International Review 53, "20 years since May 68 - Class struggle: the maturation of the conditions for revolution").
The article goes on to identify the lessons learnt by the proletariat during this period: "a loss of illusions in the political forces of the left of capital and first and foremost the unions towards which illusions have given way to distrust and, increasingly, an open hostility...the growing tendency to abandon ineffective forms of mobilisation, the dead-ends which the unions have used so many times to bury the combativity of the workers, such as days of action, token demonstrations, long and isolated strikes... the attempt to extend the struggle...the attempt by workers to take the struggle into their own hands..." (ibid). The article concludes by noting that, while "it is less easy to talk of revolution in 1988 than in 1968", not only had the revolutionary objective been affirmed but that "the conditions for its realisation haven't stopped maturing" (ibid).
Just a year later, faced with the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the ICC recognised that the situation was greatly changed:
"The historic crisis of Stalinism and the collapse of the bloc it dominated, constitute the most important historic facts since the second world war. An event on such a scale cannot fail to have its repercussions, and indeed is already doing so, on the consciousness of the working class, all the more so since it involves an ideology and political system that was presented for more than a half a century by all sectors of the bourgeoisie as ‘socialist' or ‘working class'. The disappearance of Stalinism is the disappearance of the symbol and spearhead of the most terrible counter-revolution in history. But this does not mean that the development of the consciousness of the world proletariat will be facilitated by it. On the contrary. Even in its death throes, Stalinism is rendering a last service to the domination of capital; in decomposing, its cadaver continues to pollute the atmosphere that the proletariat breathes. For the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie, the final collapse of Stalinist ideology, the ‘democratic', liberal and nationalist movements that are sweeping the eastern countries, provide a golden opportunity to unleash and intensify their campaigns of mystification. The identification that is systematically established between Stalinism and communism, the lie repeated a thousand times, and today being wielded more than ever, according to which the proletarian revolution can only end in disaster, will for a whole period gain an added impact within the ranks of the working class. We thus have to expect a temporary retreat in the consciousness of the proletariat. (...) In particular, reformist ideology will weigh very heavily on the struggle in the period ahead, greatly facilitating the action of the unions. (...) Given the historic importance of the events that are determining it, the present retreat of the proletariat - although it doesn't call into question the historic course or the general perspective of class confrontations - is going to be much deeper than the one which accompanied the defeat of 1981 in Poland." ("Theses on the economic and political crisis in the eastern countries", International Review no. 60).
Underneath, and driving this development, was the passage of capitalism into a new historical phase: that of its internal decay, of its decomposition. The ICC had identified the existence of this phenomenon before 1989, but the collapse of the Eastern bloc led it to deepen its analysis: "This phase of decomposition is fundamentally determined by unprecedented and unexpected historical conditions: a situation of temporary ‘social stalemate' due to the mutual ‘neutralisation' of the two fundamental classes, each preventing the other from providing a definitive response to the capitalist crisis" (International Review no. 62, "Decomposition, final phase in the decadence of capitalism"). This presents a serious danger to the working class:
"In fact we must be especially clear on the danger of decomposition for the proletariat's ability to raise itself to the level of its historic task. Just as the unleashing of the imperialist war at the heart of the ‘civilised' world was ‘a bloodletting which [may have] mortally weakened the European workers' movement', which ‘threatened to bury the perspectives for socialism under the ruins piled up by imperialist barbarism' by ‘ cutting down on the battlefield (...) the best forces (...) of international socialism, the vanguard troops of the whole world proletariat' (Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis in the Social-Democracy), so the decomposition of society, which can only get worse, may in the years to come cut down the best forces of the proletariat and definitively compromise the perspective of communism. This is because, as capitalism rots, the resulting poison infects all the elements of society, including the proletariat.
"In particular, although the weakening grip of bourgeois ideology as a result of capitalism's entry into decadence was one of the conditions for revolution, the decomposition of the same ideology as it is developing appears essentially as an obstacle to the development of proletarian consciousness.
" (...) The different elements which constitute the strength of the working class directly confront the various facets of this ideological decomposition:
- solidarity and collective action are faced with the atomisation of ‘look out for number one';
- the need for organisation confronts social decomposition, the disintegration of the relationships which form the basis for all social life;
- the proletariat's confidence in the future and in its own strength is constantly sapped by the all-pervasive despair and nihilism within society;
- consciousness, lucidity, coherent and unified thought, the taste for theory, have a hard time making headway in the midst of the flight into illusions, drugs, sects, mysticism, the rejection or destruction of thought which are characteristic of our epoch" (ibid).
This analysis has been fully confirmed by developments over the last decade and a half. For the first three years there was a profound retreat in the class struggle as the full force of the campaigns about the ‘death of communism' and the ‘victory of capitalism' hit home. But by 1992 there were signs that the working class had not lost its ability or its will to struggle. Beginning with a large mobilisation in Italy in the autumn of 1992, with a million workers taking part in one strike, the resurgence spread to a number of other countries. In October there was a struggle in Britain against pit closures. At the end of 1993 there were movements in Germany, Belgium, Spain, and in Italy again. However, while these struggles showed a returning militancy that broke the calm of the period since 1989, they were marked by serious confusions: "...what mainly characterises this resurgence is the hold the unions have over the current struggles, the almost total absence of autonomous initiatives on the part of the workers, the fact that the rejection of unionism is very weak. If the consciousness, however vague, of the possibility of overthrowing capitalism is lacking, combativity is caught in a trap. Restricted to formulating demands within the capitalist framework, it finds itself on the home ground of unionism." (International Review no. 76, "The difficult resurgence of the class struggle").
Faced with this challenge from the working class the bourgeoisie stepped up its campaign. Ever since the collapse of the Eastern bloc it had sought to discredit the very idea of communism, the fact that there is an alternative to capitalism, with the lie that Stalinism equals communism and that the revolutionary struggle of the working class can only lead to bloody dictatorship. Now it sought to prevent the anger and militancy that it recognised in the working class from pushing it into struggles where it would begin to overcome its confusion and disorientation. The bourgeoisie sought to use the combativeness stirring in the working class against the development of its consciousness by keeping it trapped within the capitalist framework. Above all, this meant reinforcing the grip of the trade unions. To this end a whole series of manoeuvres were launched that aimed to present the unions as the only real defenders of the working class. At the forefront of these were the strikes in France at the end of 1995 where, through a series of provocations, the ruling class was able to draw substantial parts of the working class into action behind the unions and to create the illusion that a victory of some sort had been gained. The unions were cast in a radical light, leading a movement in which there were mass assemblies and delegations and in which ‘radical' rank and file unionists played a leading role. This was followed by movements in other countries. Some, such as those in Germany and Belgium, followed the French example, while others, such as the dockers' strike in Britain and the UPS strike in America were more adapted to the circumstances in the particular country.
This set the pattern for a campaign of the type of deliberate provocations that has always been one of the most important weapons in the bourgeoisie's arsenal. However, even at its most successful, this did not mean that the ruling class had mastered the working class: "The scale of these manoeuvres did not call into question the underlying reality of the revival of class struggle. In fact, it could be said that these manoeuvres, for all that the bourgeoisie was usually one step ahead of the workers, provoking movements in unfavourable conditions and often around false issues, were a measure of the danger posed by the working class..." (International Review no. 96 "Report on the class struggle"). This has been shown by the necessity for the ruling class to constantly adapt its weapon, to keep up with the evolution of the class struggle. In 1998 500,000 workers participated in strikes in Denmark (out of a working population of just 2 million): "Despite the failure of the strike and the manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie, the significance of this movement is not the same as that of December 1995 in France. In particular, whereas in France the return to work went along with a certain euphoria, a feeling of victory which left no room for putting unionism in doubt, the end of the Danish strike brought with it a feeling of defeat, and few illusions in the unions. This time, the bourgeoisie's objective was not to launch a huge operation to restore credibility to the unions internationally, as in 1995, but to ‘wet the powder', to anticipate the discontent and growing combativity which is asserting itself little by little in Denmark, as it is in other European countries and elsewhere" (International Review no. 94 "Against the poverty and barbarity of capital. One answer: international proletarian struggle").
It is at this level that the class struggle has taken place in recent years. The process has not been one of waves of struggle as between 1968 and 1989, but a more diffuse and contradictory struggle in which the real potential of the working class is seen more in the continual manoeuvres of the ruling class than in the moments of unofficial action by the working class, significant as these are. If the ruling class shows again and again that it is able to get ahead of individual struggles, or even of particular parts of the working class, it has never been able to strike a definitive or even long-lasting blow against the militancy of the working class as a whole. However, it is at the level of its consciousness, of its understanding of the relationship between the classes, of the methods of struggle and of the ultimate purpose of struggle that the proletariat faces the greatest difficulties. The disorientation and loss of confidence that the working class experienced after 1989 still weigh on it, as do the illusions in democracy and the possibility of winning gains from capitalism that it had challenged but not shaken off between 1968 and 1989. However, the deepening of the economic crisis, the ever more direct attacks on the working class as well as the revelation of capitalism's dead-end expressed in the current proliferation of wars, creates again the conditions through which the working class can understand the truth about capitalism.
"The Communist Manifesto describes the class struggle as a ‘more or less veiled civil war'. The bourgeoisie, in trying to create the illusion of a social order in which class conflict is a thing of the past, is nevertheless forced to accelerate the very conditions that polarise society into two camps, divided by irreconcilable antagonisms. The more bourgeois society sinks into its death agony, the more the veils hiding this ‘civil war' will be cast aside. Faced with ever-increasing economic, social and military contradictions, the bourgeoisie is obliged to increase its totalitarian grip over society, to outlaw any challenge to its order, to demand more and more sacrifices for less and less reward." (International Review no. 99 "Report on the class struggle")
The last thirty years as a whole confirm not only the necessity for a massive, radical and political response from the working class but also that it is a realistic possibility. The workers' combativeness remains intact. While the period between 1968 and 1989 was marked by tendencies within the proletariat to challenge the unions, and to take control of its struggle, the class still lacked the essential political understanding of its enemy, and of the wider context and goals of its struggle. Today, the deepening of the crisis and the sharper polarisation between the classes that actually exists beneath the surface, creates the conditions in which a real politicisation of consciousness is possible; but at this point it is a situation that has only just begun to evolve. "The large-scale mobilisation of the spring of 2003 in France and Austria represent a turning point in the class struggles since 1989. They are a first significant step in the recovery of workers' militancy after the longest period of reflux since 1968...the simultaneity of the movements in France and Austria, and the fact that in their aftermath the German trade unions organised the defeat of the metal workers in the east as a pre-emptive deterrent to proletarian resistance, show the evolution of the situation since the beginning of the new millennium. In reality, these events bring 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" (International Review no. 117, "The evolution of the class struggle...") It is essential to grasp the significance of this development: "The importance of struggles today is that they can be the scene for the development of class consciousness. The basic issue at stake - the recovery of class identity - is an extremely modest one. But behind class identity, there is the question of class solidarity - the only alternative to the mad competitive bourgeois logic of each for himself. Behind class identity there is the possibility of reappropriating the lessons of past struggles, and reactivating the collective memory of the proletariat" (ibid).
Today, the working class has the capacity not just to resume the class struggle, but to do so at a higher level, with the political understanding essential if it is to go from defence to offence, from the struggle to survive to the revolutionary transformation of society.
3. The impossibility of a good trade unionism
The integration of the unions into the capitalist state
The unions were created as organs of the workers' struggle against capitalism. Today they exist as organs of the state within and against the working class. This change in their nature was expressed most clearly during World War One when the unions declared a cease-fire in the class war in order to enrol the working class in the imperialist war. Since then, in all countries, in peace and war, the unions have been central to the bourgeoisie's plans for containing the working class and managing the crisis. While the extent of the unions' direct integration into the state varies between countries, in every country they serve the ruling class most effectively by sabotaging the workers' struggles from within.
Participation in the management of the capitalist crisis
When the bourgeoisie imposes sacrifices on the workers, in order to preserve its profit margins, the unions generally begin by declaring ‘No sacrifices', only to add immediately afterwards: ‘unless they are shared out among the whole population'. Concretely, that ends up in some spectacular negotiations between government and union'3, even if this is with official mediators rather than the government directly. The question is never ‘sacrifice or not', but always, evidently: ‘how to organise the imposition of sacrifices'. And the last act of this script, played out a hundred times, is always the same: new sacrifices by the workers for the profit of the national capital. And the unions cry victory because... ‘It would have been worse if we hadn't been there'.
Official spokesmen of the government, official representatives of the workers, the unions officially negotiate anti-working class laws and sign the official documents which forcibly impose the demands of the state to maintain the profitability of the national capital at the expense of the conditions of life of the workers.
The unions reason in terms of the national capitalist economy. They situate their actions in the logic of the dominant economic system. When the logic of the capitalist machine demands more sacrifices, the unions have the job of presenting them to the workers in the name of a so-called realism which in fact only consists of considering the economic crisis as a sort of ‘natural cataclysm' - such as an earthquake or a sudden freeze - and capitalism as an eternal given of nature.
In the 1980s it was in the name of such ‘realism' that the French unions signed, first with a government of the right, then with a government of the left, the deal to systematically reduce unemployment pay and a number of other benefits. It's always in defence of this ‘realism' that the unions are directly or indirectly associated with the elaboration of all the political and economic measures taken against the working class. It was in co-operation with the German unions that the government reduced family allowances; it was alongside the Spanish unions that the ‘Socialist' government introduced the reduction of pensions; it was with the ‘experts' of the British trade unions that the Conservative government prepared half a million job cuts in the public sector, and it was with the Italian unions that the ‘centre-left' government organised the destruction of the sliding scale of wages. It was with the FGTB (Belgian Socialist union) that the government imposed a 10% cut in unemployment pay.
The unions continue this work today. In May 2005 staff at the British Broadcasting Company were faced with large job cuts. The unions staged a campaign against them that consisted of workers standing outside their workplace wearing badges during one lunch hour and then staging a one-day strike while asking the managers to be ‘realistic'. As one of the unions involved put it: "The unions will resist all compulsory redundancies. Through the coming months we will stand together in workplaces to oppose the scale and extent of cuts, and work in the public arena with Licence Fee payers, politicians, and opinion formers, to make the case that the BBC offers the best value for money in British broadcasting." (emphasis added). The result? Job losses as planned.
The sabotage of the struggles
It is impossible to enumerate the thousand and one manoeuvres which the unions in Europe have used to sabotage strikes and arouse nationalist intoxication over the last decades, in order to contain any expression of proletarian revolt in a dead-end:
- diverting the content of struggles towards nationalist dead-ends;
- isolating the struggle by country or locality;
- disorganising any possibility of unification;
- channelling militancy towards useless and demoralising actions;
- undermining the practice of class solidarity.
Concrete examples of these are not lacking:
- In 1979 the union apparatus diverted the militancy of the French steelworkers into nationalist actions against train-loads of German iron ore to the cries of ‘Let's produce French'.
- They isolated the British miners' strike by presenting it as a struggle of one sector opposed to the others. This was summed up in the slogan "coal not dole". The miners' union, the NUM, only showed itself radical in language in order to give credibility to the ‘working class nature of the unions'... and thus the ‘working class nature' of the refusal of all the other official unions to actively support the miners' strike.
- They isolated the steelworkers of the Lorraine in 1984 by getting them to set up barricades on the roads into the region, which not only cut them off from workers of other regions, but moreover, isolated them from each other.
- In Western Germany, they ‘organised' a gigantic campaign of struggle for the 35-hour week in order in practice to disorganise the combative push in the working class; a strike carefully controlled and directed by the unions, ‘revolving', town by town, region by region, hour by hour, in order to avoid any excessive accumulation of forces.
- In Italy they channelled the anger of the working class towards spectacular and hopeless actions, which went from the blocking of trains up to the organisation of the ‘March on Rome' (March 84) which pulled together nearly a million workers for a depressing stroll through the streets of the city.
- During the miners' strike in Britain they perverted the movements of solidarity that developed within the working class by presenting financial collections and ‘sales for...' as a substitution for active solidarity through participation in the struggle.
The single most powerful example of how unions sabotage the workers struggle was the mass strike in Poland in 1980. In its first days the strike reaffirmed the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. Starting with a single strike at a single factory the strikes developed sporadically during July 1980 and then exploded into a mass movement in August. Strike committees were formed and then linked up through an inter-factory committee: "The strike committee then had 400 members, two representatives per factory; at the height of the movement there were between 800 and 1,000 members. Delegations went back and forth from their factories to the central strike committee, sometimes using cassettes to record discussions. Strike committees in each factory took care of any specific demands, the whole was co-ordinated by the central strike committee" (International Review no. 23, "Mass strikes in Poland 1980: the proletariat opens a new breach"). On the back of the mass strike the advocates of ‘free' trade unions came to the fore. Drawing on the illusions of the workers in democracy and supposedly independent unions they were able to take control of the movement, leading it first into the dead-end of creating the union Solidarity and then into the arms of the state. "Never was the proletariat stronger than when there were no unions, when it was the assemblies of workers in struggle which had the responsibility for running the struggle, for electing, controlling, and, when necessary, revoking the delegates elected onto the movement's centralising organs.
"Since that time, the creation and development of Solidarity has permitted the following situation: a deterioration of living standards far worse than that which provoked the strikes of summer 1980 has been met by the workers with a much weaker and more dispersed response. It's Solidarity that has been able to achieve what the old unions were unable to do: make the workers accept a prolongation of the working week (the giving up of ‘free Saturdays'), a tripling of the price of bread and massive increases in the price of other basic necessities, and increasingly severe shortages. It's Solidarity which has managed to drive the Polish workers into the impasse of self-management, which they showed little interest in last year, and which gave them the ‘right' to decide - as long as this is compatible with the views of the ruling party - who should be in charge of their exploitation. It's Solidarity which, by demobilising so many struggles, has prepared the ground for the authorities' present offensive on the issues of censorship and repression" (International Review no. 27, "One Year of Workers' Struggles in Poland"). In December 1981 the Polish state led by General Jaruzelski staged a coup, reasserting its authority and throwing leaders of Solidarity, such as Lech Walesa, into prison. The Polish workers were isolated from their class comrades in other countries, in particular from those in the west because their struggle was presented as being against ‘communism', for the ‘true' Poland, including the Catholic church and, above all for western freedoms of democracy and independent trade unions. The 25th anniversary of the strike occurred while this introduction was being completed and was used by the bourgeoisie to repeat all of these lies. With the benefit of hindsight the bourgeoisie now argue that Solidarity, inspired by the late pope and led by his altar-boy Walesa, began the process that resulted in the end of ‘communism'.
While not on the same scale, similar practices continue today:
- In 1995-6 the Liverpool dockers were further isolated by the ‘international solidarity' run by the unions. This solidarity was limited to calls for dockers in other parts of the world to ‘black' British registered ships, leaving the Liverpool dockers to continue the strike alone, with all power having being surrendered to the unions.
- In Britain in 2002 the Fire Brigades Union isolated the militancy of the fire fighters by presenting them as a ‘special case', deserving of a pay increase completely at odds with those of other workers.
The radicalisation of the unions and the trap of rank and file unionism
The political and union forces of the bourgeoisie, in particular those in the industrialised countries have a great deal of experience. They recognise that their repeated participation in attacks on the working class and their sabotage of workers' struggles will tend to lead to mistrust amongst workers, especially those who have the most understanding of the historic goal of the proletariat's struggle. They try to divert this mistrust towards the leadership of the unions which is ‘too remote' from the workers, ‘too reformist' or ‘too bureaucratic'. They thus encourage the illusion that you can have ‘a good trade union'.
This may take the form of a ‘radicalisation' of the unions, with the election of a more ‘left wing' leadership and the promotion of radical demands, such as very large pay increases or changes in government policy and so on. In the strikes in France in 1995 the unions took up a very critical, even hostile attitude towards the government. In Britain, as New Labour settled into power there was a deliberate distancing between the unions and government and more recently still a number of unions have reduced their financial contributions to the party or even threatened to break from it altogether.
It may also take the form of a ‘critical', ‘anti-leadership' or even ‘anti-union' tendency. These have taken a variety of forms and names - ‘base unionism', ‘rank and file', ‘co-ordinations' - but what unites them is the defence of the basic trade union form. They are the most pernicious form of union self-defence.
During the 70s, the general tendency of the different political masquerades which the bourgeoisie used to govern the proletariat consisted of putting into office ‘governments of the left' (Labour in Britain, Democrats in the USA, Social-Democracy in Western Germany), or at least orienting the policies of its ‘left' forces into a perspective of participation in government (‘Historic Compromise' of the Communist Party in Italy, ‘Common Programme' of the Communist and Socialist parties in France). The ‘official' representatives of the workers participated in government with the view of demanding ‘momentary sacrifices' from the workers in exchange for better tomorrows. The presence of these ‘workers' organisations' in government would serve as a guarantee that the fruits of these sacrifices would be of great profit to the working class.
But the tomorrows never came and the economic crisis and the attacks against the workers, far from attenuating, only worsened. The wave of struggles in ‘78-‘80 showed, for the bourgeoisie, that carrying on with the participation (or the association) of its forces of the left in government - with the support of the unions - would not only no longer hold back the workers' struggle, but would also reduce their ability to play the role of policemen in the workers' ranks, since they openly appeared as responsible for the situation faced by the workers.
The 80s began with a reversal of the bourgeoisie's orientation in the main industrialised countries. The ‘workers' parties (Socialist, Social-Democratic or Democratic in countries such as Britain, Germany or the United States; Communist Parties in ‘Latin' countries) returned to opposition, again taking up a ‘radical', ‘intransigent', even ‘revolutionary' language in order to try to regain the indispensable credibility for their function as saboteurs of the workers' struggle.
In France, the proletariat had experience of the ‘left in government' later on. But, in a short time, the same reality was imposed: after 3 years of the participation of the PCF (Communist Party of France) in government and the accelerated loss of credibility of the CGT (General Workers Union - historically close to the Communist Party): the latter quit the government in order to return to opposition under threat of losing all control of the struggles.
We should note that this ‘radicalisation of language' wasn't general to all the unions, nor even to a single union. In reality, in every country, the union structures know how to share out the roles: there were the unions which ‘radicalised' and those who were more ‘realist', then within each union there were ‘combative' tendencies and those that were more ‘prudent'. These are the two complementary points of the union pincers. Thus,
- the miners' strike in Britain was divided between the ‘radicality' of the miners unions and of its leader Scargill on one hand, and the ‘realism' of the whole of the Trade Union apparatus on the other;
- the struggles of the German workers in ‘84, between the ‘radicalism' of IG Metal and the ‘moderation' of the apparatus of the DGB;
- the strike of the workers of Talbot in France at the beginning of ‘84, between the ‘radicalism' of the CFDT and the ‘prudence' of the CGT;
- the reactions of the workers in Belgium at the beginning of ‘84, between the ‘bold' tone of the FGTB and that of the ‘conciliatory' (Christian) CSC.
This distribution of roles between the unions was accompanied by another division of labour, between the official unions and the various ‘critical' union tendencies, either within the unions or outside them. It is these tendencies that the proletariat systematically came up against in the years before 1989 when it tended to break out of the framework of the union leadership. The more a struggle succeeded in loosening the direct grip of the official unions, the more it came up against this ‘shamefaced unionism', this unionism of spectacular and verbose actions which has no other function than to try to polish up the image of the unions, of an impotent form of organisation that belongs to the past. Rank-and-file unionism only criticised the ‘leaderships' in order to better defend the possibility of ‘transforming' and ‘regenerating' the unions - and thus fighting in them; it only criticised the official unions to better defend the idea of ‘pure' unions.
The ‘leftist' organisations of the Trotskyist, ‘autonomous' or anarchist and Maoist types specialised in this sort of work. Their militants often constituted the main animators of these last vestiges of union life in factories in times of social calm and were the most adroit and sophisticated saboteurs of the combat in times of conflict.
The union ‘shop-stewards' (factory delegates) in Britain, the ‘union councils' in Italy, the ‘assemblyists' in Spain, or the movement in ‘Longwy 79-84' in France, the ‘combative' tendencies within Solidarity, in reality all constituted an indispensable complement to the union leadership and the ‘official' unions.
The ‘co-ordinations', a new variety of base unionism
The phenomenon of the co-ordinations first appeared in France and Italy. This is explained by the fact that traditional unionism had suffered the most discredit in these countries. In Italy, the unions' discredit began in an important way in the big strikes of 1969 (known as ‘the hot autumn'). Thereafter, insofar as the struggles of the Italian proletariat were amongst the most important struggles of the world proletariat, the continual use of the unions by the Italian bourgeoisie to sabotage the struggles led workers to distrust them more and more.
During the powerful movement in the Italian education sector in 1987, the clear discredit suffered by the official unions led to the creation of the "Cobas" (rank and file committees) which appeared as authentic organs of combat aimed at unifying the struggle under the control of the workers themselves, not the unions. But while the Cobas began as organs of the working class, their attempt to maintain a permanent existence after the struggle had died away led them inevitably onto the terrain of traditional unionism: corporatism, and in general a readiness to compromise with the demands of the bosses. As genuine working class life drained out of them the Cobas became dominated by the leftists and were transformed into a weapon for sabotaging the struggle.
In France, workers' distrust towards the unionsdeveloped as a consequence of the left being in government, supported by the unions, between 1981 and 1986. This government was responsible for unprecedented attacks against the working class (notably, the massive redundancies in the steel, car and shipping industries). The lesson of the way in which the Cobas could be used to prevent the struggle from generalising outside a particular trade or industry, while at the same time maintaining a façade of "workers' control", was not lost on the trades unions in other countries. It was in France that the co-ordinations achieved their hour of glory, first in the big railway strike of December 1986 and then in the hospitals' strike of the autumn of 1988.
One of the aspects of the co-ordinations' anti-working class activity (usually animated by leftist groups or by dyed-in-the-wool unionists who opposed the main unions in order to keep a grip on the situation) was to give the impression to the workers that the existing unions did not defend their interests because they were organised across whole branches of industry. By creating organs based in a particular job sector (for example the train conductors, the train drivers, or the nurses, etc.) the struggling workers were supposed to be much more able to control them and to defend their own specific interests without having their demands submerged amongst those coming from all the other sectors. Furthermore, the hostility that the leaderships of the big unions showed towards them enabled the co-ordinations to present themselves as a ‘different' type of organisation because they actually represented workers' interests. In reality, the essential role of the co-ordinations was to keep workers in different trades apart, and to reinforce all the workers' illusions about the ‘specificity' of their particular job (the extra ‘qualification' of nurses in the hospital movement, or the long-standing separation between drivers and other trades on the railways, for example). In this sense, they were nothing other than a variety of rank and file unionism, created to take the place of traditional unionism in sabotaging struggles when workers' militancy threatened to overflow the latter.
Since that time in the second half of the 1980s, the co-ordinations have disappeared from circulation mainly because of the reflux suffered by the class struggle. However, it is not unlikely that they will reappear in the course of future struggles. If the proletariat is to avoid falling into the same traps as those laid by the bourgeoisie previously, it will have to assimilate the lessons from the second half of the 1980s. The lessons from the experience with the co-ordinations were summed up in an article in the International Review from the end of 1988:
"The need to unify the struggle, felt more and more pressingly by the workers themselves, is bound to come up against a multitude of manoeuvres aimed at dividing the working class and fragmenting its struggles, which will involve a division of labour among all the bourgeoisie's political forces, and especially the left, the trade unions, and the leftist organisations. What is confirmed by the events in France, is that one of the ruling class' most dangerous weapons will be the ‘co-ordinations', which will be increasingly used as the unions are discredited and workers become more ready to take control of the struggle themselves.
"Against the bourgeoisie's manoeuvres aimed at keeping the struggles under the control of the ‘co-ordinations', the working class must be aware that its real strength lies not in these so-called ‘centralising' organisms, but first and foremost in its own general assemblies or mass meetings. The centralisation of the class' combat is an important element in its strength, but over-hasty centralisation, without all the workers being involved in controlling the struggle, can only end up with handing over control to the forces of the ruling class (especially the leftist organisations) and to isolation, i.e. the two elements of defeat. Historical experience has shown that the higher the level in the pyramid of organs created by the class to centralise its combat, the greater the remove from the level where all the workers are directly involved, the easier it is for the left-wing forces of the bourgeoisie to take control and put their manoeuvres into practice. This has been true even in revolutionary periods. It was true in Russia, where for most of 1917 the Executive Committee of the Soviets was controlled by the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, which for a time led the Bolsheviks to argue that the local soviets should not feel themselves tied to the policy conducted by this centralising organ. Similarly in Germany in November 1918, the Congress of Workers' Councils could find nothing better to do than to hand over power to the Social Democrats, who had gone over to the enemy camp, thus signing the death warrant of the Councils themselves.
"The bourgeoisie understands this perfectly. This is why it will systematically encourage the appearance of ‘centralising' organisms, which it will easily be able to control as long as the working class remains insufficiently mature and experienced. And to better protect itself, it will whenever possible create such organs in advance, especially with the help of its leftists, giving them their ‘legitimacy' afterwards through sham mass meetings, so as to make sure that these meetings do not create their own centralising organs: elected and revocable strike committees in the factories, central strike committees at the town or regional level, etc."
(International Review no. 56, "France: The Co-ordinations in the vanguard of sabotaging the struggles").
Good trade unions are impossible in our epoch. It is not because the union leaderships are rotten and have ‘sold out' that the unions no longer have a place in the workers' combat today. On the contrary, it is because trade unionism - that's to say the struggle for reforms in respect of the dominant economic laws - has become ineffective and anachronistic in capitalism in decline, that unions - great or small, official or unofficial - are inevitably absorbed by the state. All of the tendencies that defend the possibility of a ‘good class trade unionism' - whatever the original motivations of their protagonists - only bar the route of the workers' struggles towards the sole opening possible: the mass strike, radical, political and self-organised. They are the last rampart that the workers' struggle will have to breach in order to free itself from the union fortifications.
4. The working class' historic responsibility for the future of humanity
After the collapse of the Eastern bloc the bourgeoisie promised a ‘new world order' of peace, prosperity and democracy. Today that promise lies in ruins. Instead of peace there has been sixteen years of uninterrupted war in which acts of barbarism have become commonplace, whether it be the ‘ethnic cleansing' in ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the forcing of parents to mutilate their own children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) or the high-tech massacre of retreating Iraqi conscripts in the first Gulf War. Instead of prosperity millions are condemned to starve amid plenty and die of curable illnesses in the ‘under-developed' world, while millions more sink into poverty and despair in the rotting heartland of capitalism. As for democracy, it has indeed spread further around the world, via the moneybags of the ex-Stalinist Mafia in Russia, on American tanks in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the multi-coloured ‘people's' revolutions in parts of the former Eastern bloc. Permanent war, growing poverty and a descent into barbarism - this is the future capitalism holds for humanity.
But the capitalist mode of production is no more of an eternal reality of nature than, in their time, ancient slavery or feudalism were. Like all systems of exploitation, capitalism is a human creation, a collection of social relationships imposed by the degree of development of the productive forces and by the economic and political power of one class over the others. Its survival directly depends on the outcome of the constant reality that is the struggle between the principal classes of society.
Through more than two centuries of struggle, the world working class has shown that its combats are not mere dispersed skirmishes without continuity. The workers' struggles of today are in continuity with those of the silk weavers of Lyon in 1834, those of the workers of the Paris Commune in 1871, those of the Russian Revolution in 1905 and 1917 and those of the German workers during their insurrection of 1919. It is a struggle which has a historic continuity and logic of its own, the end of which can only be a total, social revolution, bearing a new society which will finally master its productive forces and its historic becoming: communism.
"Behind each strike, lurks the hydra of revolution" Lenin said. He knew, as Marx said, "not only to see misery in misery". The actual development of workers' struggles throughout the world over recent decades, and despite the setback after 1989, confirms that the revolutionary potential of the working class remains intact. It shows that another world is possible. It is the hope of humanity.
Despite union sabotage, despite gigantic campaigns of ideological intoxication, despite police repression, despite the threat of unemployment that permanently weighs on each worker, despite the co-operation of the whole international bourgeoisie faced with the proletarian danger, the struggles of the last decades demonstrate an unbroken militancy. Between 1968 and 1989 the struggle often developed spectacularly. The struggles of the workers in Poland in 1980 were the most important proletarian manifestation since the international revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War; the strikes of the public sector in Belgium and Holland were the most important in this sector in these countries in the whole of their history; the attack by the French steelworkers on the Socialist Party HQ in Longwy 1984 was an unprecedented event in this country; the occupation of the naval dockyards by the German workers in 1984 was the first since the 20s and the mobilisation for the 35 hour week, the most important since the same period; the British miners' strike of 1984-85 was the biggest strike in this country since the General Strike of 1926.
After 1989 the class struggle seemed at times to have disappeared, but it has merely returned to its roots, to appear again, equal to the tasks ahead of it and ready to engage its enemy once more. "Proletarian revolutions, however, such as those of the nineteenth century, constantly engage in self-criticism, and in repeated interruptions of their own course. They return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin the task again; with merciless thoroughness they mock the inadequate, weak and wretched aspects of their first attempts: they seem to throw their opponent to the ground only to see him draw new strength from the earth and rise again before them, more colossal than ever; they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which any retreat is impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, his salta" (Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Loius Napoleon Bonaparte)
It is in the further development of the present struggles that the sole force capable of breaking the apocalyptic logic of decadent capitalism and offering a future to humanity can be found.
It is through these combats of resistance that the world proletariat is preparing to assume its historic responsibilities.
But the proletariat cannot emancipate itself, nor even defend its most immediate interests, without the greatest unity and without the most penetrating and ruthless lucidity. The unions and trade unionism in our epoch disarm the working class by dividing and blinding it. The working class cannot develop its strength and its consciousness without fighting outside and against the unions. This idea, which is the basis of this pamphlet, remains the order of the day.
1. For more recent examples readers should refer to articles in the International Review and particularly in the ICC's territorial press.
2. See "Thirty years of the open crisis of capitalism" in International Review nos. 96, 97 and 98
3. It is a classical and generalised tactic of the unions to make negotiation in itself the main objective of a struggle which is going on, leaving to one side and avoiding the real demands that are at the origin of the mobilisation.