Wed May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

United Kingdom, France, and Germany: The Working Class Makes Its Voice Heard

The European working class is reacting against the deterioration in its standard of living. The successive strikes in England, those in Italy, the mega-strike that paralyzed transport in Germany, and perhaps most importantly, the extraordinary confrontation that French workers are leading against the increase in the retirement age, disprove the theories that the working class, as the social subject of revolution, is a thing of the past.

By Alicia Sagra

These theories, widely spread by many of the left, have even been popularized by some who claim to be revolutionaries. But their origin, unlike other fads, has nothing to do with an aesthetic problem but instead with a profoundly political and social one.

The search for “new” social subjects

The working class on a world, continental, and regional scale is not always on the rise. It has periods of retreat, and even profound defeat. During these periods, politicians and theoreticians, some claiming to be Marxists, have tried to make sense of new phenomena and substitutionist theories have emerged.

Thus, in the post-World War II era, some were impressed by Stalinism’s expropriation of the bourgeoisie in Eastern Europe, and the cases of the Chinese and Cuban revolutions whereby the bourgeoisie was expropriated without the proletariat at the lead, and through a “protracted war” [1] or “guerrilla warfare” and not through a workers’ insurrection. Some were also impressed by the African anti-colonial movements, which linked the national question to the racial question in which the working class had little participation.

From there, different theories emerged that argued the working class was exhausted, that it had become bourgeois, that it was won over by consumerism and alienation, and that it should be replaced by the peasants or by the unemployed poor. Some like Franz Fannon (1925-1961), whose ideas were extremely influential in the 1960s and 70s, said with reference to the Algerian process that the Algerian working class was “bourgeois” and that the revolutionary social class would be the lumpenproletariat.

On the other hand, Ernest Mandel, impressed by May 1968 in France, proposed that the parties’ center of action should revolve around the “vanguard of the masses.” Thus he put forward the approval of the “rural guerrilla” in the Ninth Congress of the Fourth International and the “urban guerrilla” in the Tenth Congress. This evidently implied a change in the social subject.

The impact of these positions was relativized when the proletariat reappeared with force on the political scene in May ’68 in France. The working class’s entry into the movement was qualitative in achieving historic victories such as establishing the retirement age at 62 and in defeating Charles de Gaulle’s Bonapartist project [2], which lead to his forced resignation in 1969. Something similar happened in Latin America with the student-worker insurrection known as “El Cordobazo” in 1969, and the great Brazilian metallurgical strikes between 1978 and 1980.

The political disaster of guerrilla warfare that led to the destruction of the best of the Latin American vanguard in the 1970s also played a role in this relativization.

But these surrogate conceptions of the working class (although no longer in the form of guerrillas) returned with force after the processes in Eastern Europe, and the confusion and demoralization created by capitalist restoration and the way in which it took place, as well as imperialism’s campaign for the “death of socialism.”

The proposals for a new social subject are part of the “opportunist current” which swept through most of the world’s left.

There are some differences today from those currents that were fashionable in the 1960s. None advocate “guerrilla warfare,” “protracted war,” or anything resembling it. On the contrary, the immense majority of the left is devoted to the parliamentary struggle, and even some of them, like the members of the former Unified Secretariat, the self-styled Political Bureau of the Fourth International, do not shy away from direct participation in “progressive governments.”

Rather, in terms of our contemporary moment, for much of the left, those who should replace the working class are not peasants but oppressed peoples in general. The Marxist programmatic proposal is that the working class should incorporate and make the demands of the oppressed their own, and thus lead them in the struggle for socialist revolution. And moreover, they propose the oppressed be the subjects of liberation. In the best of cases, multiple subjects including women, Black people, indigenous people, LGBTI, and the working class would all equally be the subjects of liberation.

Portuarios alemanes en huelga. AXEL HEIMKEN/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES

There is no doubt that all of these theoretical approaches on the social subject lead to political proposals of class alliance, which is why they are promoted by the different sectors of reformism, from political organizations such as Brazil’s PT, Unidas Podemos in Spain, Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal, and the leadership of most of the movements of the oppressed.

An attempt to use Marx to question the working class as a social subject

It is widely known that Marx and Engels understood the working class’s fundamental role as the subject of change, as evidenced by maxims such as “proletarians of the world unite,” and “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” And as synthesized in their great programmatic proposal of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary transition to reach socialism. Marx affirmed that this was his great contribution to revolutionary theory.

Marx and Engels did not defend the role of the working class in the revolution because it was the majority. The working class was never a majority. Neither was it in Russia when the revolution triumphed and the first dictatorship of the proletariat was established. Russia was a country with a peasant majority, and the working class was around 20% of the population.

Marx and Engels defended the role of the working class because of its place in production: it is the social class that creates value and, centrally, because it has nothing to lose from the revolution “except its chains.”

However, in academic circles, there is much talk of a “late Marx” who at the end of his life had relativized the question of the social subject. Sociology professor Kevin Anderson from the University of California published a book called “Marx and the Margins of the World,” which has become a world bestseller. In it, he develops this concept based on Marx’s positions on China and India, and mainly on letters exchanged with the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulitch. According to the author, in these letters Marx proposes that in Russia one could pass from the peasant commune to socialism without passing through capitalism and without the working class as the subject of change.

For us, Marx says nothing of the sort and there is no questioning in him, nor in Engels who continued his work, of the role of the working class as the social subject of the revolution. But this will be the subject of another article. What we want to point out today is the value academic “Marxism” places on questioning the role of the working class, an idea which is of course very well received by reformism.

Many follow these theories because they are passionate about the “new.” There have always been followers of the “new” which, as Nahuel Moreno said half a century ago, “is nothing more than the negation of the need for the Marxist program and party in the name of something much older: humanist socialism, individual terrorism, elitist, typical of anarchists and populists, propaganda by facts, empiricism as contempt for theory and program, the worship of facts and momentary successes”[3].

Over the years what is considered “new” changes, but the methodology remains the same and the motivations remain as Moreno described them.

But, as always, the working class has the last word. Today it is showing its strength and the force of its intervention not only in the struggles in the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France but also in the role it is playing in the Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invasion.

In agreement with Marx, we believe “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” And in accordance with Lenin, we understand the only way to achieve that goal is with the leadership of a revolutionary Marxist party. Just as we agree with Trotsky that the crisis of humanity is the crisis of its revolutionary leadership.

There is no doubt that the great task remains to advance in overcoming this crisis. Only then will we ensure that the struggles of the working class are directed toward the destruction of imperialism and the seizure of power to build the workers’ state on the road to socialism.

[1] “Protracted war,” a strategy defended by Maoism starting with the Third Chinese Revolution, which was the product of the long march by Mao’s army beginning in 1928 and ending in 1949

[2] General Charles de Gaulle led the French army in exile, and after the Second World War, he returned as a national hero. In 1958 he was elected Prime Minister and then President. His strategy was to reinforce the president’s power diminishing that of the parliament; he was responsible for the constitutional clause Macron used to approve the retirement age increase.

[3] Nahuel Moreno, Marxist Logic and Modern Sciences, Editorial Xolotl, p. 103.

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