Throughout the world, class struggle revives in the face of capitalism’s attacks
The recovery of the international working class struggle continues. Time and again throughout its long history the working class has been informed by its employers and rulers that it no longer exists, that the struggle to defend its living conditions was an anachronism and that its ultimate goal of socialism and the overthrow of capitalism were quaint vestiges of the past. After 1989 and the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, this antiquated message about proletarian non-existence was given a new lease of life, which helped to preserve a disorientation in workers’ ranks for over a decade. Today the ideological fog is clearing again and the proletariat and its struggle are once more assuming a recognisable form.
In fact since 2003 things have started to change. In International Review n° 119, 4th Quarter 2004, the ICC published a resolution on the evolution of the class struggle that identified a turning point in the fortunes of the proletariat’s fight, after significant strikes in France and Austria against attacks on pensions. Three years later this analysis seems to be increasingly affirmed. But before coming on to some of the more recent illustrations of our perspective, let us look at one of the key determinants of the development of the class struggle.
The intensification of austerity and the wearing out of illusions
One of the explanations given in 2003 for the revival of the class struggle was a new viciousness in the level of the sacrifices imposed on the supposedly invisible working class.
“The recent period, mainly since the start of the 21st century, has once more brought to the fore the obvious fact of capitalism’s economic crisis, after the illusions of the 1990s about the ‘resurgence’, the ‘dragons’, and the ‘new technological revolution’. At the same time, this new evolution of the capitalist crisis has led the ruling class to intensify the violence of its economic attacks against the working class, to generalise the attacks.“
In 2007, the acceleration and widening of the attacks on workers’ standard of living has not lessened, but rather speeded up. Amongst the advanced capitalist countries the British experience is a telling and timely illustration of this fact, and of how the packaging of these attacks is losing its appeal to its recipients.
The era of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government has recently come to an end after beginning in the froth of capitalist optimism in 1997. “New” Labour, then announced, in line with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the bogus euphoria of the 90s, that it had broken with the traditions of “Old” Labour, it no longer spoke of “socialism” but of a “third way”, it no longer talked about the working class but about the people, about inclusion and participation not division. Vast sums were spent on reinforcing this populist message. All levels of the state bureaucracy were to be democratised. Local parliaments were devolved to Scotland and Wales; a new mayorship was created for London. Above all cuts in workers living standards, particularly in the public sector, were presented as “reforms” and “modernisation”. Even the victims of these reforms were now able to have a say in their implementation.
This repackaging of traditional forms of austerity could only enjoy a certain success while the economic crisis itself could be somewhat concealed. Today the contradictions are becoming too blatant. The Blair era, instead of achieving equality, has seen a further polarisation of wealth at one end of society and of poverty at the other. This doesn’t just affect the poorest sections of the working class such as the young, the unemployed, and pensioners, who have been reduced to abject poverty, but also the slightly better off sectors who still have skilled jobs and access to credit. According to the accountants Ernst & Young, these sectors have lost 17% of their purchasing power in the past 4 years as a result of the inflation in household costs and other factors.
There are other causes beside the purely economic that are pushing the working class to reflect more deeply on its identity and purpose. Britain’s foreign policy can no longer have any pretence to be “ethical” as New Labour claimed it would be in 1997, but, as the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures have shown, is based on typically sordid imperialist interests, disguised by now proven lies. Along with the expenses of imperialist adventures borne by the proletariat, another burden is being added: the effects of ecological deterioration are falling heaviest on this class of society.
The week of 25th to 29th June, during which Tony Blair was succeeded by the new prime minister Gordon Brown, was characteristic of the evolution of the situation: the war in Iraq claimed new lives among the British forces, 25,000 homes were ruined by floods following record rainfall throughout the country, and postal workers began a series of nationwide strikes for the first time in over a decade against falling real wages and threats of job cuts. These symptoms of the contradictions of class society were only partially obscured by a campaign of national unity and defence of the capitalist state launched by the latter in the aftermath of a botched terrorist campaign.
Gordon Brown has set the tone for the coming period: there will be less “spin”, more “hard work” and more “duty”.
The increasing size of the bill that the bourgeoisie presents to the workers for payment of the economic crisis is to be seen in other main capitalist countries albeit in a different form to that of the British “model”.
In France, the clear mandate of the new president Nicolas Sarkozy is to drive home austerity attacks. Sacrifices will be demanded to fill the 2 billion Euro hole in the social security budget. A strategy, laughably called “flexisécurité”, is intended to make it easier to increase working hours, pressurise wages, and lay off workers. New attacks on public services are also in the pipeline.
In the United States, the country which is boasting the best official growth rates of the advanced capitalist powers, there were 37 million people living below the poverty line in 2005, 5 million more than in 2001, when the economy was officially in recession.
The housing boom, fuelled by low interest rates and easy mortgages has up till now helped to disguise the growing pauperisation of the American working class. But as interest rates have increased, mortgage defaults and house repossessions have mushroomed. The housing boom has now bust, the “sub-prime” mortgage market has collapsed and, at the same time, many illusions in workers’ prosperity and security.
The pay of US workers fell 4% between 2001 and 2006. The trade unions are brazenly assisting this reduction. For example the United Auto Workers Union recently agreed an almost 50% reduction of hourly wage rates, and a slashing of severance pay for 17,000 workers at the Delphi auto parts manufacturer in Detroit. (At the beginning of the year a factory of the same company in Puerto Real, Cadiz in Spain was closed with 40,000 workers put onto the streets).
This isn’t an American peculiarity. The ver.di union in Germany recently negotiated a 6% wage cut and a 4 hour increase in the working week for Telecom workers and had the nerve to announce it had achieved a worthy compromise!
In the automobile sector again, in the United States General Motors plans 30,000 redundancies, Ford 10,000; in Germany Volkswagen plans 10,000 new redundancies; in France 5,000 are projected at PSA.
ABN Amro, the foremost bank in Holland, and the British bank Barclays announced their fusion on 23rd April which will lead to the loss of 12,800 jobs while 10,800 will be sub contracted. Airbus will sack 10,000 employees, Alcatel-Lucent will let the same number of telecommunication workers go.
The international scale of the revival of class struggle is closely connected to the fact that the economic conditions faced by proletariat are fundamentally the same around the world. Thus the tendencies we have briefly described in the developed capitalist countries are replicated in different ways amongst the workers of the capitalist countries of the third world. Here we see a more brutal and murderous application of increasing austerity.
The expansion of the Chinese economy, far from representing a new opening for the capitalist system depends to a large degree on the increasing destitution of the Chinese working class, that is, reducing its living conditions below the level at which it can reproduce itself and continue to live as a proletariat. The recent scandal of the conditions in 8,000 brick kiln and small coal mine operations in Shanxi and Henan province is a case in point. These manufactures depended on the kidnapping of children to work as slaves in hellish conditions and they were only rescued if their parents could find and reach them. Its true that the Chinese state has now introduced labour laws to prevent such “abuses” of the system and to give migrant workers more protection. However it is likely that, as in the past, such laws will remain un-enforced. Underlying such abuses in any case is the logic of the world market: American companies lobbied strongly against even the mild conditions of the new labour laws. Multinational corporations: “argued that the rules would substantially increase labor costs and reduce flexibility, and some foreign businesses warned that they would have little choice but to move their operations out of China if the provisions were enacted unchanged.”
The situation is substantially the same for the working class in those third world countries that have not opened up to foreign capital in the same way as China. In Iran, for example President Ahmadinejad’s economic watchword is “khodkafa’i” or “self sufficiency”. This has not prevented Iran from suffering its worst economic crisis since the 1970s, which has led to a sharp fall in the standard of living of the working class that is now facing 30% unemployment and 18% inflation. Despite increased revenues from the rise in oil prices, petrol has recently been rationed in Iran, since refined oil products, as well as half the country’s food has to be imported.
The class struggle is worldwide
The stepping up and broadening of attacks on the working class throughout the world, is one of the essential reasons why the development of the class struggle in recent years has continued. We cannot here list all the struggles of the world working class that have occurred since 2003 – we have covered many of them in previous editions of the International Review. Instead we will refer to some of the latest ones.
In the first place we should stress that this cannot be a comprehensive survey, since the international class struggle is not officially recognised by bourgeois society or its media as a distinct and historic force to be widely understood and analysed and therefore publicised. On the contrary many of the struggles go unreported, or are completely distorted. Thus the extremely important struggle of the French students against the CPE in the spring of 2006 was at first ignored by the world’s media and then only recognised as an addendum to the aimless violence of the French suburbs in the previous autumn. In other words the media attempted to bury the valuable lessons about workers’ solidarity and self-organisation that this experience provided.
Typically the International Labour Organisation, generously funded by the United Nations, is not at all interested in the events of the international class struggle. Instead it proposes to alleviate the plight of the billions of victims of the rapacious capitalist system by legal defence of their individual human rights within the institutions of this same system.
However the official ostracism of the class struggle is a measure of its power and potential to overthrow capitalist society.
In the past year, approximately since the mass movement of the French students was ended by the withdrawal of the CPE by the French government, the class struggle in the major capitalist countries has continued to try and answer the accelerated pressure on wages and conditions of work. This has often taken place in sporadic actions, in many different countries and industries, while others have threatened to strike.
In Britain, in June 2006 a spontaneous walkout of Vauxhall car workers took place. In April this year 113,000 Northern Ireland civil servants staged a one day strike.
In Spain, 18th April, there was a demonstration of 40,000 workers from all the enterprises of the Bay of Cadiz, expressing their solidarity in struggle with their class brothers sacked at Delphi. On May 1st an even bigger movement mobilised workers from other provinces of Andalucia. Such a movement of solidarity has in reality been the result of the active search for support by the Delphi workers, of their families and notably their wives organised in a collective to win the widest possible solidarity.
At about the same time spontaneous walkouts, outside of union control, took place at Airbus plants in several European countries to protest the company’s austerity plan. These often involved young workers, a new generation of proletarians who have played the most active part in these struggles. In Nantes and Saint-Nazaire in France there was a real will to develop active solidarity with the production workers of Toulouse who had stopped work.
In Germany there was a series of strikes over six weeks by 50,000 Telecom workers against the cuts referred to above. At the moment of writing German railway workers are on a strike over pay. There have been numerous wildcat strikes by Italian airport workers and others.
But its in the third world in the recent period that we have seen the continuation of a remarkable series of explosive and wide scale workers’ struggles risking brutal and bloody repression.
In Chile a strike of copper miners hit one of the principal economic activities of the country. In Peru this spring an indefinite nation-wide strike of coal miners took place – the first in 20 years. In Argentina during May and June, Buenos Aires metro workers held general assemblies and organised a strike against a pay “deal” concocted by their own union. In September last year in Brazil, workers at various Volkswagen plants in Sao Paulo took action. On the 30th March this year 120 air traffic controllers, in reaction to the dangerous state of air travel in the country and the threat to imprison 16 of their number for striking, stopped work, paralysing 49 of the country’s 67 airports. This action was particularly remarkable because this sector is mostly subject to military discipline. The workers nevertheless resisted the intense pressure of the state up to and including that of the calumnies of the supposed workers’ friend – President Lula himself. For several weeks a strike movement affected the steel sector, the public sector, and universities – the most important class movement in this country since 1986.
In the Middle East, increasingly ravaged by imperialist war, class struggle has raised its head. Public sector strikes occurred in autumn last year in Palestine and in Israel over a similar question: unpaid salaries and pensions. A wave of strikes hit numerous sectors in Egypt at the beginning of the year. In cement factories, in poultry rearing, in mines, buses and railways, in the health sector and above all in the textile industry workers unleashed a series of illegal strikes against big cuts in real wages and the reduction of bonuses. The statements of the textile workers showed clearly their consciousness of belonging to one class fighting the same enemy and moreover the necessity for class solidarity against divisions between enterprises and those created by the unions.
In Iran, according to the business newspaper the Wall Street Journal: “a series of strikes have continued in Tehran and at least 20 other major cities since last autumn. Last year, one major strike by transport workers in Tehran brought the city of 15 million to a standstill for several days. Right now tens of thousands of workers in industries as diverse as gas refining, paper and newsprint, automobile, and copper mining are on strike.”
At demonstrations on May Day, Iranian workers marched through several cities shouting “No to slave labour! Yes to freedom and dignity”.
In Guinea, West Africa, a strike movement gripped the whole country during January and February this year against starvation wages and the inflation of food prices, alarming not just the regime of Lansana Conté but the bourgeoisie of the whole region. The bloody repression of this movement left over 100 dead.
We are not intending to present here an incipient revolution, nor a consciously international effort by the world’s workers. These struggles are still mainly defensive in nature, and compared to the workers struggles from May 1968 in France to 1981 in Poland and beyond, appear less dramatic and more limited. The weight of long term unemployment and growing social decomposition are still a heavy weight on the development of class combativity and consciousness.
Nevertheless these events, which are global in nature, are indications of a weakening conviction of the world’s workers in the catastrophic policies pursued by the ruling class at the economic, political and military levels.
Today, compared to previous decades, the stakes of the world situation are much greater, the scope of the attacks wider, the danger of the world situation vastly increased. The heroism of the workers today in challenging the might of the ruling class and the state is therefore all the more impressive, if quieter. The contemporary situation has posed a wider reflection by the workers than the purely economic and corporate. The global attack on pensions, for example, brings out the common interests of the different generations of workers, young and old. The need and search for solidarity has become a striking feature of many workers’ struggles today.
The long term perspective of the politicisation of the workers’ movement is reflected in the emergence of tiny but significant minorities on a global scale looking to understand and join the internationalist political traditions of the working class, and in a greater echo and success for the propaganda of the Communist Left.
The general strike of French workers in May 1968 brought to an end the long period of counter-revolution that followed the failure of the world revolution in the 1920s. It generated several waves of international proletarian struggle that finally came to an end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today a renewed assault on the capitalist system is on the horizon.
. International Review, n° 119, “Resolution on the evolution of the class struggle”.
2. New York Times, April 17 2007
. The Economist, September 14 2006
. International Herald Tribune, June 30/July 1 2007.
. On this subject see World Revolution nº304.
. Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2007