The central reality of the society we live in – a society that, with various secondary differences, dominates every country on the planet today – is the conflict between the small minority which controls and profits from the creation of wealth, and the actual creators of that wealth. The conflict between the capitalist class and the working class, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Everyday we are told the opposite of this simple truth. We are brought up to believe that what really defines us is something else: nationality for example. We are told that we belong to this or that ‘nation’ and that our interests, hopes and fears lie with the achievements of that nation, whether on the football pitch, the marketplace, or the battlefield. Or we are taught to accept that what really unites us with some, and divides us from others, is our religion, our adherence to a particular set of beliefs about God or the afterlife.
We are certainly not told that we live in a society based on the exploitation of one class by another; that while the exploiters may engage in perpetual competition with each other to establish who is the biggest boss of all, the exploited have no interest whatever in competing with each other, and every interest in uniting their forces across all national or religious divisions. Instead, our ears are battered with the argument that this whole idea of class is out of date, something from the 19th century, irrelevant for today. Especially since the collapse of the so-called ‘Communist’ regimes in 1989: that supposedly proved that class conflict was a thing of the past. Most outdated of all was the quaint notion that class struggle could lead to the replacement of capitalist society by a new and higher form of social life.
We can’t be surprised if the ruling class likes to argue that there’s no such thing as class conflict, that the British, or the French, the Chinese, Muslims, Jews or Christians form a true community regardless of wealth or class. Because as long as the exploited are fooled by this lie, they will not be able to stand up for their own interests, and will more willingly sacrifice themselves for the economic profit or military glory of their masters. Indeed, in the period that followed the collapse of the eastern bloc (which wasn’t communist at all, but a particularly fragile part of the world capitalist system), this lie was proclaimed so loudly that it had a visible effect on the ability of the workers to struggle for their most basic economic demands.
A new period of class confrontations
Today, however, that situation is coming to an end. The explosion of struggles in France in the spring showed that a new generation of the working class is waking up to the reality of capitalist society. Although it was centred round the students, it was without doubt a working class movement.
This was true both of its demands and its forms of organisation. The movement arose as a response to an attack on the whole working class - a new law (the CPE) officially abolishing job security for all workers under 26. The students raised the demand for the repeal of this law as a means of uniting all workers in a common struggle. They therefore appealed to the waged workers and the unemployed to join the movement by participating in their general assemblies and demonstrations. The growing threat that the movement would spread throughout the French working class was the major reason why the government decided to back down and scrap the law. Behind the demand for the abolition of the CPE lay the fundamental principle of working class solidarity.
But the proletarian nature of this movement was also clearly expressed through its forms of organisation, in particular the general assemblies held in the university faculties. Not only did these assemblies use the classic methods of working class self-organisation – elected and revocable delegates, commissions responsible to assemblies – they also opened themselves out to the working class as a whole, inviting university employees, parents, pensioners and others to take part in the mass meetings and contribute to their discussions. The assemblies not only became the organisational lungs of the movement, they also became a living focus for the development of class consciousness, of a deeper understanding of the goals and perspectives of the movement.
The events in France were not an isolated phenomenon. They were preceded by a whole series of struggles which, in different countries and in different ways, showed the same capacity of workers to recapture the methods of struggle that really belong to them:
- solidarity across the generations, as in the New York transit strike last December, where workers argued that their struggle against attacks on pensions was also a struggle for future workers;
- solidarity across divisions of sect or sector, as in the Belfast postal strike where workers openly defied the taboo on unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, or the Heathrow strike last summer where baggage handlers and others walked out in support of sacked catering workers;
- spontaneous strikes which don’t get bogged down in the union rigmarole of ballots and cooling-off periods, as in the Belfast post, Heathrow, and recent movements by car workers against redundancies at SEAT in Spain and Vauxhall in Merseyside;
- massive and simultaneous movements in which workers from different sectors begin to forge links of mutual solidarity, as in the strike wave in Argentina last year.
These trends have also continued after the movement in France:
- in Vigo, Spain, where thousands of metal workers from different factories held common general assemblies in the streets and invited workers from other sectors to take part in them;
- in Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of textile workers took part in a vast and militant response to bloody repression by the state. Massive demonstrations toured the factory districts calling on more and more workers to join the movement.
These are only the most significant of many other examples. And there is every likelihood that there will be many more in the period ahead.
Towards the mass strike
In May 1968 the strike of ten million workers in France launched a wave of class struggles which rapidly spread across the globe. It marked the emergence of a new generation of proletarians that had not been cowed by the dark period of counter-revolution and world war which followed the defeat of the great revolutionary movements of 1917-23. It was the response of this new generation to the first effects of the capitalist economic crisis, which had been hidden by the reconstruction period after the Second World War.
In the years that followed, there were further international waves of class conflict, which saw workers making important strides towards the unification and self-organisation of their struggles, especially during the mass strikes in Poland in 1980.
This whole period of rising class struggle posed many fundamental questions about the means and methods of the class struggle, but the movement did not reach the stage where it could offer a political, revolutionary, alternative to the growing barbarism of capitalist society. The collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989 was followed by a period of retreat and disarray in the working class.
The struggles in France this year, and all the other important movements which preceded and followed it, show that once again a new generation of the working class is beating on the doors of history. This generation has not been brought up in the demoralising atmosphere of the ‘death of communism’, and at the same time it is increasingly aware of the grim future capitalist society has in store for it: job insecurity, dwindling health, pension and unemployment benefits, mounting state repression, the decomposition of social ties, endless war, and the threat of ecological breakdown.
The gradual collapse of the entire capitalist system is 40 years more advanced than it was at the end of the 1960s. As the deepening crisis intersects with the rise of a new, combative generation of proletarians, all the conditions are coming together for the outbreak of enormous class confrontations at the very heart of the capitalist world order - for the development of the mass strike, and, beyond that, of the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. WR 1.7.06