Workers in France show that class struggle lives

The mass resistance of mainly public sector workers to the Jupp‚ Plan has not broken any new ground but it has been a reminder of what the working class is capable of. With all the arrogance of a party that has a massive parliamentary majority combined with the pressures to fulfil the Maastricht criteria for European monetary union, Chirac's Gaullists hit out at the working class on all fronts. As well as tax increases and welfare cuts for all, public sector workers suddenly found their pension rights reduced.

Only the working class can oppose capitalism

There is no doubt that the government was surprised by the extent and force of the response from the working class. Possibly they believed the bourgeoisie's own propaganda that we are living in a post-industrial age when the class struggle is dead. Certainly the strikes, demonstrations and militant actions taken by wage workers have exposed all those self-proclaimed "socialists" and "revolutionaries" who have announced class struggle "at the point of production" to be a thing of the past. Just as May '68 showed that the working class had not become a mass of isolated and passive individuals within capitalism (as Marcuse's One Dimensional Man portrayed it) so in 1995 the French working class has proved that all-out class struggle is not only possible but the only way to really challenge the capitalist social order and its state. There has not been another '68 but we can still salute the example set by our class comrades in France. They have shown where our strength as a class lies. By uniting across sections and withdrawing the source of the whole of capitalism's wealth - our labour power - we can halt the capitalist attacks.

Unions side with the capitalist state

However defensive struggles do not themselves end those attacks. As long as workers accept the rules of the capitalist game they will allow their goals to be dominated by the unions. And the unions have been ready and waiting to channel workers' militancy to the safety of the negotiating table in the interests of the capitalist state. This time they have had to struggle to keep up with the groundswell of activity at the grassroots. Throughout France workers have organised their own demonstrations, often ignoring union boundaries to solidarise with co-workers from other sectors; they have continued to strike after official union deadlines. But make no mistake about it, the issue for the unions is not how to maintain workers' living standards and working conditions but how to maintain their own position in the management structure. (If pension schemes are axed what happens to the unions who manage them jointly with the bosses? If the whole of the public sector is to be restructured what will happen to the union bureaucrats?) Even so, the stalemate reached in the joint talks between government, bosses and unions before Christmas is not just a reflection of disagreements with each other about how to 'reach a settlement'. The union bosses are also there to advise on what would be acceptable or unacceptable at the grassroots. Already they have successfully divided the class. The government's climbdown over pensions has been the excuse for telling railworkers to call off their action. By further prolonging the talks at the same time as isolating workers in sectional struggles, they undermine workers' fighting spirit and prepare the way for an eventual 'package' that will be wrapped up in so many clauses, sub-clauses and conditions to disguise the extent of the concessions they have made "on workers' behalf".

At the end of the day the unions are there to defend French capitalism, just as everywhere else they defend their own national capital. And like everywhere else today this means persuading workers somehow or other to make sacrifices for the sake of 'economic growth', 'reducing state spending' or whatever. Wage cuts, lower pensions, fewer welfare services, endless job losses, insecure ('flexible') and harsher working conditions, tax increases, inflation: there is no future for the working class in the existing world order. Sooner or later the world's exploited are going to have to take things into their own hands and get rid of this blood-sucking monster which is wrecking the planet and increasing the wealth of the rich while the poor get poorer and the poorest starve to death.

Organise politically

This might seem a long way from the actions taken by 2 million or so public sector workers inside one European state but, whatever the outcome, these actions have been a reminder to governments everywhere that the working class is not dead. For revolutionaries they have given us a glimpse of the future that could become reality once the international working class realises its strength. By this we don't just mean extending the struggle to include workers from other sectors and in other countries. With more confidence this will happen anyway, as the outburst of transport workers' strikes in Belgium during the French strikes showed. However, an outburst of working class anger and maybe the overthrow of a government is one thing, the conscious attempt to overthrow the existing system and establish a different kind of society is another.

Before this can happen the struggle has to be taken onto revolutionary political ground. This can never be done by any of the organisations which today claim to represent the working class: revamped social democrats who long ago put 'social peace' before workers' lives, newly-democratised Stalinist parties, Trotskyists who have never realised the difference between state capitalism and communism, not to mention the trades unions whose very existence depends on the survival of wage labour and exploitation. What's needed is a genuinely internationalist organisation to revive the historic programme of worldwide communist revolution. This will counter in words and deeds all the reactionary ideologies pedalled inside the working class. It will lead a working class offensive against capitalism rather than defensive struggles. Such an organisation won't come into being overnight. There will have to be a process of discussion, clarification of ideas and political debate about what communism is and how to get there, based on the lessons of previous struggles. And previous struggles have shown that an experience like the one that has just occurred in France is a fertile source of political questioning amongst an advanced minority of the working class.

IBRP - January, 1996