Strikes in France - A Brief Introduction

The document which follows was written by an Italian comrade of Battaglia Comunista as a preliminary introduction to the text we have called “The Strikes in France May 2016” which appeared on the site some days ago. His intention was simply to put the strikes in context for Italian readers. This slightly adapted translation intends to do the same for English speakers and should be read in conjunction with the text mentioned above and the more recent one on “Up All Night”. A longer evaluation will appear in due course.

What is striking about the El Khomri law (so-called after the Minister for Labour), especially when compared to the rest of Europe, is not its content but the reaction that it has provoked amongst wide sectors of the working class and so-called "civil society", i.e. students and significant layers of the declining petty bourgeoisie (in the process of proletarianisation or already partially proletarianised), which has been seen mainly during the nightly meetings of "Nuit debout" [Up All Night]. In fact, the "Labour Law" does not differ, in substance and often in specific measures from what governments of all political stripes have implemented across Europe (to remain in the old continent) for at least a quarter of a century. It is, of course, all about making the labour force more "flexible", more "productive" for the needs of every firm (private or "public"), to eliminate as far as possible any obstacle to the extortion of increasing amounts of surplus value. Put another way, laws from a previous era that still "limited" and "regulated" workers' exploitation (broadly construed) were no longer tolerable with capitalism in its current state. The deep crisis in the global economic system makes the bosses more “vicious”, urges them to put pressure on their governments to eliminate all that prevents the extraction and realisation of a "fair" profit, a profit, that is, adequate for the current organic composition of capital, for the investment needed to continue the process of accumulation, and the insatiable hunger of an abnormal financial speculation, that not only appropriates a large part of the wealth produced by the working class, but also mortgages the future. In short, behind the war of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat and the social strata closest to it are not only social factors but also one of the most serious crises of capitalism, of which the imperialist wars, with their tragic "side effects" such as the flight of millions of human beings in desperate conditions, is “only” the other side of the coin.

Welfare is finished, it's time for workfare. In other words, cutting through the incomprehensible language of bourgeois politics, the compulsory levy on deferred and indirect wages has to carry on, but less and less of this tax on wages goes to social services (pension, health, education etc.), whilst more and more is sucked in by the economic and financial "institutions" of the bourgeoisie, or rather their companies wherever and however they are operating. Subsidies to the unemployed, distributed indiscriminately and almost indefinitely (as the capitalists put it) must be cut: anyone unemployed must get rid of the "legitimate" suspicion of being “a shirker” and accept any job, any wage, any hours - although this greatly complicates her/his life and lowers its quality – or risk losing benefits. Even the feeble obstacles to the overwhelming power of the boss in "factory" must be scrapped: whether a sacking is fair or not does not matter in the eyes of bourgeois law; to keep up appearances and in keeping with the dominant logic of the market, peanuts are enough to get rid of those no longer considered fit to lend their labour power to the self-proclaimed business community, especially when the struggle demonstrates the deceit of this "community" founded on exploitation, and therefore on the irreconcilable opposition between exploiters and exploited.

Collective agreements now have to take second place to the company (or local, regional ...) agreement because they are more flexible for the needs of business, to adapt more quickly and promptly to the ups and downs of the market in a period of uncertainty. It’s easy to understand how, especially in small companies – the majority, everywhere – where the bosses’ control is more direct, where unionisation is lower (leaving aside any assessment of the trade unions), where, in many cases, there is no contract. Where it does exist that, it will be generally worse than the already ungenerous national contracts. In addition this will weaken the sense of belonging to a single category (if not class), encouraging the development of selfish and narrow-minded corporatism, less open to solidarity with other workers. If in other historical periods, with a less passive class (by a long way) more inclined, so to speak, to social conflict, collective bargaining appeared in the eyes of the bourgeoisie as the lesser evil and even a useful element in its general economic planning – all the more if the indicators for the rate of profit did not point down – today the difficulties of the process of accumulation and the substantial class "silence" (partly a product of those difficulties) pushes capital to accelerate its overall attack on the living conditions of the proletariat. The Jobs Act in Italian, "Loi Travail" in France, the Peeters Law in Belgium, and before them all, the Hartz IV Law in Germany, just to remind ourselves of some of the stages of this "via dolorosa" of the working class: all go in the same direction.

Does the most controversial or, on the contrary, the indispensable central point for French bosses, Article 2 of the "Loi Travail" not resemble the infamous Article 8 of Italian Law Sacconi 2011, which allows opt-outs from national contracts? Everywhere law after law, has confirmed and accelerated the general trend to worsen living and working conditions of the working class. They are written into the DNA of the accumulation process of capitalism, which, having reached a high organic composition of capital, is compelled to put greater emphasis on weapons, wrongly considered by many to be a marginal legacy of a historically outdated stage of capitalism, namely the devaluation of labour power (i.e. lowering wages) and the lengthening (and life) of working time; in short, the extortion of absolute surplus value.

From this point of view there is thus nothing surprising about the conduct of the French Government. The same cannot be said for the behaviour of the major (not all) French unions, led by the CGT, at least compared with those elsewhere. At the time of writing this note, in addition to the actions already taken, an indefinite strike on the railways and in other transport sectors has been called. Are we thus witnessing the conversion of French trade unionism to a revolutionary perspective? Nothing of the sort, of course, because, the use of "hard" methods of struggle it is not, in itself enough to define the class identity of a body. The union by its very nature is the body which bargains over the price of labour power, thus it depends on capitalism, not on its overthrow. The history of trade unionism, and not just in France, confirms this. What politically characterises a struggle, and those who lead it, is the direction that they want to give to this struggle and the unions aim not only for the withdrawal or amendment of the El Khomri law, but for a policy of reforms, perhaps incompatible with the current state of capitalism. Previously in France, there were all-out strikes and vast protest movements (1995, 2006), but, if they temporarily slowed the bourgeois attack (which in itself is no mean achievement), they did not stop it and they sowed very little – to our knowledge – revolutionary class consciousness. The great determination to fight, selflessly launched by the French proletariat, was then, after all is said and done, conducted by the union, just as is happening so far this time. The union does not mind, in line with its Stalinist tradition, supporting the forces of bourgeois order in the suppression of certain combative and opposition elements within the union itself in the demonstrations.

Of course, we do not think that everything that is happening is the work of a preconceived plan by the union, even though the approval of Article 2 might cause it problems and weaken it further. There is much social anger and it is growing, but until now it is expressed mostly at the union level, captured and directed by majority unions (CGT, FO) and the so-called alternative union (SUD). Despite the mistrust, despite the disenchantment with trade unionism, this continues to be the reference point of the organised social explosions of anger. You always feel in these circumstances the lack of a pole of class attraction, which could organise and direct the profound social discontent against capitalism, in order to overthrow it.

We’ll come back to what is happening here with a more accurate evaluation of what is going but, if nothing else, proletarian combativity has reappeared on the streets.

Monday, June 6, 2016


The article above by a comrade from Battaglia Communista ends with this simple but powerful statement.

You always feel in these circumstances the lack of a pole of class attraction, which could organise and direct the profound social discontent against capitalism, in order to overthrow it.

What the writer means by "in these circumstances" is the debilitating power the Unions still hold over the working class, which helps prevent it coming to a proper consciousness of its actual historical calling as an exploited class bearing a revolutionary new world order within its being.

But what does the writer mean by the phrase "a pole of class attraction" which the class is said to lack? Does he mean "a pole of regroupment" as this idea was developed by some comrades in the 70's to attract workers searching for communist enlightenment and having the vocation to be a communist militant in a left communist organisation?

Or does he mean something less tangible but none the less politically potent like a kind of duty or an ethical imperative within the working class to free and thus save itself - and by implication humanity and the planet - from the now utterly negative and totally destructive dictatorship of the deranged bourgeoisie at the end of its tether?

A fully and explicit consciousness on behalf of the working class of the only solution available now to the impossible situation into which capitalism has finally got itself, which way-out is the proletarian revolution organised world-wide, is what we need. (So easy to say!)

Then there is the need for a rediscovery of the revolutionary idea itself on a mass scale. A kind of new Renaissance. This starts with our admission of the feeling that things could be different and we the working class can change them for the better. We can rid ourselves of submission to the Unions and their imprisoning concern with money bartering alone, to the exclusion of all else and everything else. We can vocalise and theorise our social discontent. We can discover and give a name to the source of all our woes: capitalism. And this is surely the pole of class attraction we currently lack and so badly need? That we can actually set ourselves free if we put our minds to it and if we admit and discuss our innermost thoughts and their validity about the decaying social world, and work to overthrow it together.

Or does he mean "the communist party"? But how does the Party emerge? Does the class coming to consciousness of itself as a class produce the Party, or does the class need the Party to show the it the way forward and demonstrate practically the consciousness needed for the tasks in hand? Or somehow, dialectically, do these two things, Party and Class, emerge, grow and mature together?

I think the original piece did mean a revolutionary organisation, a party, when refering to "the lack of a pole of class attraction".