At first sight, everything seems to favour an explosion of working class anger. The crisis is obvious and no one can escape it. Less and people believe that it’s coming to an end despite the daily assertions to the contrary. The whole planet seems to be in a desolate state: wars, barbarism, famine, epidemics, the devastating manipulation of nature and our health in the name of profit.
With all this in front of us, it’s hard to imagine that any feeling other than indignation and revolt could seize hold of our minds. It’s difficult to think that workers can still believe in a future under capitalism. And yet the masses have not fully taken the path of struggle. Are we to conclude that the game is up, that the steamroller of the crisis is just too powerful, that there’s no going beyond the demoralisation it has brought with it?
It can’t be denied that the working class today is experiencing major difficulties. There are at least four reasons for this.
The first, and by far the most crucial, is quite simply that the proletariat is not conscious of itself, that it has lost its ‘class identity’. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1990s saw a huge propaganda campaign to convince us that we had witnessed the historic failure of communism. The boldest – and most stupid – commentators even announced ‘the end of history’, and the final triumph of peace and democracy. By amalgamating communism and the rotting carcass of the Stalinist monstrosity, the ruling class sought to discredit in advance any perspective aimed at the overthrow of the capitalist system. Not content with trying to wipe out any prospect of revolutionary change, it went on to portray any kind of working class struggle as no more than a ‘cultural memory’, like dinosaur fossils or the cave-paintings of Lascaux.
Above all, the bourgeoisie has insisted over and over again that the working class in its classical form has disappeared from the social and political scene. Sociologists, journalists, politicians and tabloid philosophers peddle the idea that social classes have disappeared, lost in the shapeless magma of the ‘middle classes’. The bourgeoisie has always dreamed of a society where the proletarians see themselves as mere ‘citizens’, divided into a whole series of socio-professional categories – white collar, blue collar, employed, casual, unemployed, etc – who are separated by divergent interests and who can only express themselves politically by trooping one by one into the election booths. And it’s true that the barrage about the disappearance of the working class, pumped ceaselessly from books, papers, TV and internet, has served to prevent many workers from seeing themselves as an integral part of the working class, still less as an independent social force.
In the second place, this loss of class identity makes it extremely difficult for the proletariat to affirm its own struggle and its own historical perspective. In a context where the bourgeoisie itself has no perspective on offer except austerity, every man for himself and a scramble to survive, the ruling class takes advantage of the lack of class consciousness by setting the exploited at each others’ throats, by dividing them and blocking any unified response, by pushing them towards despair.
The third factor, a consequence of the first two, is that the brutality of the crisis is tending to paralyse many workers, who fear falling into absolute poverty, fear being unable to feed their families and ending up on the street, isolated and exposed to repression. Even if some of them, with their backs to the wall, have been driven to express their anger openly, like the ‘Indignados’ in Spain, they still don’t tend to see themselves as a class in struggle. Despite the relatively massive character of these movements, this limits their capacity to resist the mystifications and traps created by the ruling class, to re-appropriate the experiences of history, to step back and draw lessons with the necessary depth.
There is a fourth important reason to explain the current difficulties of the working class to develop its struggle against the system: the whole arsenal of bourgeois control, whether the openly repressive parts, like the police, or more insidious and much more effective ones like the trade unions. On the last point in particular the working class has still not overcome its fears of struggling outside the domination of the unions, even if less and less workers have deep illusions in the capacity of the unions to defend their interests. And this physical containment is reinforced by an ideological containment which has been more or less mastered by the unions, the media, the intellectuals, the left parties, etc.
The key to this ‘mind control’ is without doubt the ideology of democracy. Every significant event is exploited to vaunt its benefits. Democracy is presented as the framework where freedom can flower, all opinions can be expressed, and power is legitimised by the people; where everyone can take initiatives, have access to knowledge and culture. In reality, democracy only offers a national framework for the cultivation of the power of an elite, the power of the bourgeoisie. All the rest is illusion, the illusion that by entering the ballot box you are exercising some kind of power, that the voice of the population can be expressed by voting for its ‘representatives’ in parliament. We should not underestimate the weight of this ideology, just like the shock caused by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes at the end of the 80s, which greatly strengthened the hold of democracy.
We should also add the influence of religion to this ideological arsenal. It’s not new, since it has accompanied humanity from its first attempts to make sense of the world around it, and has long been used to legitimate all kinds of hierarchical power. But what’s different about today is the role it plays in diverting the thought of a part of the working class confronted with the need to understand a capitalist system in a state of bankruptcy, in particular by explaining the ‘decadence’ of the current order by showing how far it has strayed from the values elaborated thousands of years ago by religion, especially the monotheistic religions. The strength of religious ideology is that it does away with the extreme complexity of the situation. It offers simple answers, easy to follow solutions. In its fundamentalist forms, it only convinces a minority of the proletariat, but it general it feeds like a parasite on the reflection going on in the class.
And a huge potential
The picture we have painted might sound a bit desperate: faced with a bourgeoisie which knows how to use its ideological weapons, with a system which threatens most of the population with poverty, when it’s not already deep inside it, is there still room to think positively, to find some hope? Is there really a social force that can undertake a radical transformation of society, no less? We can answer this question without hesitation: yes! A hundred times yes!
It’s not a question of having blind confidence in the working class, a semi-religious faith in the writings of Karl Marx, or of gambling desperately on a revolution. It’s a matter of taking a certain distance, serenely analysing the situation and going beyond the immediate, trying to understand the real meaning of the present struggles of the class and studying in depth the historic role of the proletariat.
In our press we have already argued that since 2003 the working class is in a positive dynamic compared to the retreat it went through after the collapse of the eastern bloc. This analysis has been drawn from a number of more or less significant struggles, but all of them have the characteristic of showing that the working class has been tending to rediscover its historic reflexes, like solidarity, collective discussion, or more simply an enthusiastic response to adversity.
We saw these elements at work in struggles like the one against the ‘reform’ of pensions in France in 2003 and 2010, in the struggle against the CPE, again in France, in 2006, but also in a less extensive way in the Britain (the wildcats at Heathrow, the Lindsey refineries), the USA (New York subway), Spain (steelworkers of Vigo), in Egypt, Dubai, China, etc. The Indignados and Occupy movements in particular reflected something more general and ambitious than the struggles in the enterprises. What did we see in the Indignados movement? Workers from all horizons, unemployed, part-time, full-time, coming together to take part in a collective experience and to get a better understanding of what’s at stake in this period. We saw people regaining their enthusiasm simply from being able to discuss freely with others. We saw people talking about alternative experiences and considering their gains and limits. We saw people refusing to be no more than victims of a crisis which they didn’t bring about and which they refuse to pay for. We saw people coming together in spontaneous assemblies, adopting forms of expression that favour reflection and the confrontation of ideas, and which put limits on those who come to disturb or sabotage debate. Finally and above all, the Indignados movement gave rise to an internationalist sentiment, an understanding that everywhere in the world we are subjected to the same crisis and that our struggle crosses all frontiers.
Certainly we did not hear many talking explicitly about communism, proletarian revolution, working class and bourgeoisie, civil war, etc. But what these movements did show is above all the exceptional creativity of the working class, its capacity to organise itself, which derive from its inalienable character as an independent social force. The conscious reclaiming of these characteristics is still at the end of a long and tortuous road, but it is undeniably in motion. It will inevitably be accompanied by a process of decantation, reflux, partial discouragement. But it will fuel the thinking of minorities who are placed in the avant-garde of the struggle of the working class on a world scale, and whose development has been visible and quantifiable in the last few years.
Finally, even if the difficulties facing the working class are enormous, nothing in the situation permits the conclusion that the game is up, that the working class will no longer have the strength to engage in massive and then revolutionary struggles. On the contrary, the living expressions are multiplying, and by studying what they really are, not on the surface where only their fragility is obvious, but in depth, then the potential, the promise for the future that they contain can be grasped. Despite their sporadic, dispersed, minority character, we should not forget that the main qualities of a revolutionary are patience and confidence in the working class. This patience and this confidence are based on an understanding of what the working class is, historically speaking: the first class which is both exploited and revolutionary, and has the mission of liberating the whole of humanity from the yoke of exploitation. This is a materialist, historical, long-tern vision. It is this vision which enabled us to write, in 2003 when we were drawing up a balance sheet of our 15th international congress:
“As Marx and Engels said, ‘it’s not a question of considering what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, takes to be true today, but of considering what the proletariat is and what it will be led to do historically, in conformity with its being’. Such an approach shows us that, faced with the blows of the capitalist crisis, which will give rise to more and more ferocious attacks on the working class, the latter will be forced to react and to develop its struggle”. https://en.internationalism.org/wr/264_15cong.htm
. This is not to say that there have been no important material changes in the shape of the working class in the last few decades, above all through deindustrialisation and the relocation of traditional industries to the ‘peripheries’ of the system, or that these changes have not added to the difficulties of the working class in maintaining its class identity. We will return to this in another article.
. Lenin would have added a sense of humour!