The Revolt of the Parisian Suburbs

Translated from Prometeo Series VI No 12 (January 2006)

In our last issue we published a brief article on the revolt which took place on the outskirts of Paris and other French cities and the Bureau statement on it is published in Internationalist Communist 23. Here we are publishing a longer reflective piece from the theoretical organ of our Italian comrades of Battaglia Comunista. It underlines the point that the revolts did have their origins in the social conditions of the working class today but that they are not the way forward for it in its resistance to capitalism which has to be more political and more conscious of its own goals as a class.

The death of two youths in an EDF electricity centre, as a result of a police chase, unleashed a revolt on an enormous scale which inflamed Parisian suburbs for three weeks, as well as many other cities of France and Belgium. The material damage resulting from the revolt has been enormous. During the three weeks thousands of cars and many public buildings have been targeted, including schools and nurseries. As always happens in these situations, the French ruling class tried to muddy the waters concerning the real motives determining the explosion of the revolt, until thing reached such a level that the motivations they offered were no longer credible. In fact during the first few days of the revolt, the media, the government and the entire French ruling class tried to blame the violence on the young offspring of North African immigrants. At first they tried to make everyone believe that the cause of the revolt of thousands of Parisian youths was rooted in a racial, religious problem. Depicted as Islamic fanatics, and poorly integrated into French society, the new generation of North African immigrants were supposedly revolting against French society. Like all lies, this tale of the French bourgeoisie and partners could not last and was loudly and quickly disproved by the facts.

Firstly, the young proletarians who had unleashed the revolt had not been excluded immigrants, as bourgeois propaganda had tried to describe them, but children of workers of North African origin who by now had lived in France for three generations. After more than 50 years since the original arrival, those youths could not be described as immigrants, even from a legal perspective they are fully French citizens.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of those revolting were of clear North African origin does not authorise anyone to depict the Parisian suburbs’ revolt as a racial, or, even worse, a religious revolt. The population of the banlieue (outskirts) has an important component of North African origin; the legacy of the old colonial power. Millions of North Africans, especially in the first years of the post World War Two period were attracted by the call of big French capital, needing as never before labour power to exploit in order to o maintain the force of post-war reconstruction and launch a new cycle of accumulation. In the fifties and sixties, the Parisian periphery under the surge in immigration grew hugely, so much so that the population almost doubled within a few decades; the consequent urban expansion was inevitably chaotic with the construction of immense ghetto-quarters devoid of the minimal essential services. The difficulties of integration of the immigrant population, caused by cultural and lifestyle differences, were overcome in past decades especially because of development of the French economy; a growth which was easily able to absorb the available work force without difficulty, whether native or immigrant, thus creating the foundation for co-existence and toleration. That does not mean that the culture of racism had been defeated totally, but only shows how French economic development had favoured the integration of millions of immigrants. Within the space of three generations, their process of integration within French society has effectively been completed.

Economic Crisis and Revolt

The motives, which determined the extent of the violence of the young proletarians in the Parisian suburbs and other French cities, are to be found in their dramatic social conditions. Capitalism’s international crisis has, in the last few decades, lead to a progressive deterioration of the conditions of life and work of the global working class. Obviously, France is no exception to this scenario, so much so that economic policy measures taken by the various governments at the head of the country do not in the least differ from those taken by governments of other advanced capitalist countries. The hard frontal attack of the bourgeoisie in the confrontation with the proletariat knows no limits: wage cuts, maximum flexibility of the labour market, whether entering or leaving, in other words the introduction of an entire range of laws allowing the extension of the possibilities to exploit the labour force according to the most varied demands of capital and at the same time eliminating all bureaucratic obstacles which limit the expulsion of workers from the productive process. For the new generation of proletarians, whether they be French, Italian, American or the offspring of immigrants, capitalism in crisis can only offer social insecurity, precariousness and at best, poverty level wages. Capitalism, to ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis, determined by the falling rate of profit, can only attack the conditions of life and work of the proletariat. It is in this context that the explosion of anger of the young proletarians occurred in the Parisian suburbs. A generation which does not even have the hope to enter the world of work, which is dramatically marginalized from a society in which the wealth produced is ever-more concentrated in the hands of a few millionaires whilst at the same time millions of dispossessed have not even the minimum means to support themselves. The death of the two youths was the last straw that unleashed the explosion of social tension accumulated over the years within the new proletarian generations.

A primary consideration to take into account to understand the seriousness of the crisis which international capitalism is going through is that the revolt took place in one of the most developed areas of the planet. Paris is the capital of one of the most developed countries in the world and if thousands of young proletarians arose, it means that the crisis of capitalism is also biting deeply into the very centres of capitalism. In France, where the social state is more developed than in many other advanced capitalist countries, the continual attacks of the bourgeoisie on salaries and wages and the related cuts of social spending have created an explosive situation. The young proletarians are in a precarious situation, without hope of a stable entrance into the world of work, without public subsidies because of cutting back the social state and with a family no longer able to satisfy their own needs, as wages are reduced to the bone. Inevitable anger and tension accumulate which is ready to explode at any moment.

The response of the bourgeoisie to the Parisian revolts has been exclusively repressive, with the declaration of a three-month state of emergency, and curfew to quell the revolt. They offer only vague promises of ridiculous allocations to alleviate the dramatic conditions in which millions of young proletarians are forced to live. This in fact demonstrates that the capitalist crisis is such that the bourgeoisie cannot risk giving more crumbs to the proletariat, in fact it always tries to further cut back what is left of the social state and reduce salaries, wages and pensions. These will be the motives why in the near future more young proletarians will revolt as they did in Paris, perhaps in the any periphery of a large European or North American city.

A Revolt of Young Proletarians

The capitalist crisis and the response of the bourgeoisie in recent decades has produced a significant change in the composition of the proletariat. Understanding all the facets of this diverse composition means avoiding very serious political errors, such as not understanding properly the reasons for and the way in which the Parisian revolt was expressed. It is methodologically incorrect to define the young people in revolt as lumpenproletarians, which, if they were, would not merit the attention of the revolutionary vanguard.

Whilst up to the sixties the proletariat was concentrated in huge factories and its main component was the working class, in recent decades this framework, under the pressure of economic crisis and the response of the bourgeoisie to that crisis, has changed profoundly. Capitalist restructuring, changing the factories where tens of thousands of workers find themselves shoulder to shoulder has dampened the consequences of huge concentrations of workers. The sector of manual labourers has obviously reduced at least in the advanced capitalist areas, whilst new sectors of the proletariat have emerged, atomised with no reference point, the large factory where class consciousness matures and the class struggle is carried out. The revolt of the Parisian suburbs is the expression of the social conflict of a sector of the proletariat that in recent years has greatly expanded, especially amongst the younger generations. So we cannot label as lumpenproletariat millions of young offspring of workers who suffer exclusion from the world of work and social marginalisation. Marx, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party correctly saw and wrote that:

As regards the lumpenproletariat, which means passive stagnation, of the lowest strata of the old society, it is thrown here and there during the course of a proletarian revolution; but due to its own conditions of life, it would prefer to be bought off and put at the service of reaction.

The quote clarifies how the revolt of the Parisian periphery was not carried out by the lumpenproletariat but by a section of the proletariat. From a sociological point of view how can we define as lumpenproletarians millions of young people who through capitalism’s fault will never enter the world of work, unless underpaid and in precarious conditions? A lumpenproletarian is one who refuses entry into the working world whilst having the possibility of doing so not a person who endures a decision imposed by capitalism. For Marx, beggars, prostitutes, delinquents, the lumpenproletariat properly defined, apart from a vestige of the old feudal society which does not manage to integrate itself into modern bourgeois society, is made up of those who refuse the logic of capitalist exploitation but which in every case remain on the margins of society and are politically an instrument for maintaining bourgeois order. On the contrary, the young Parisians who revolt and burn cars do so as people excluded from world of work and demand to be allowed in and take part in it.

The change in the composition of the proletariat is inevitably reflected in the way in which the class struggle manifests itself. Anyone who expects the social conflict to occur exclusively as it did thirty to fifty years ago has not really understood the changes that have been imposed within the proletariat. If in the past class struggle saw as its sole protagonist the working class in the factory, today, due to the changes in social composition, the new generations of proletarians express social conflict directly on a territorial level and outside of the factory. If previously social conflict began within the factory on an economic-trade union terrain, to later also develop in very few cases on the political terrain, today important sectors of the proletariat express a social conflict with a different character, it does not arise from the economic-trade union terrain but occurs immediately and potentially on political terrain. The classic schema founded on social conflict arising from an economic-trade union basis to later grow on the political terrain is no longer at all true for the new generations of precarious proletarians and those excluded from the world of work. Social conflict potentially expresses itself on an immediately political level but for that to happen, and the French experience is a good illustration of it, the presence of the revolutionary party is required.

The Necessity for the Revolutionary Party

The Parisian revolt saw thousands of young proletariats take the lead role and for three weeks unleashed the anger accumulated over years. Violence seemed to be an end in itself, as the movement had set no demands, neither economic nor political. It was a proletarian uprising, from its sociological composition, but one which expressed itself in a way characteristic of a lumpenproletarian revolt. That the revolt assumed these characteristics is the logical consequence of the total ideological disarming of the proletariat over recent decades; disarming so deep as not to allow the various sectors of the proletariat the consciousness of belonging to a single social class. If we consider that the new generations of the proletariat do not live the reality of the factory and therefore everyday life does not offer them the slightest possibility of maturing the minimum class-consciousness, then the difficulty is multiplied.

These are the reasons why today more than ever it is necessary to work to build the revolutionary party of the proletariat; a political organisation that is capable of co-ordinating the moments of struggle arising from the various sectors of the proletariat and knows how to propose a truly modern alternative to the barbarism of capitalism. The construction of the class party, which can only occur at the international level, is the task that the dispersed revolutionary vanguards will have to solve in the near future. It is necessary to construct such a political organisation beforehand, before the proletariat produces its own fights and revolts. When these break out, the party must already be present in the area and at the work place to know how to guide the struggle, giving the correct recommendations to help revolutionary consciousness mature within the class. If the Party cannot be built in time, we run the risk of being passive spectators of the class struggle, as in the case of the French revolt, without being able to provide correct guidance to the struggle.

A proletariat divided on the ground, incapable of recognising itself, will also be capable of putting up extraordinary moments of struggle, but, in the absence of a revolutionary organisation with a political platform capable of providing a clear reference point within the class, it will inevitably be defeated by bourgeois reaction.

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