The defeat of the old workers movement and the failure of the revolutionary minorities - Antagonism

A look at the level of defeat in the proletariat of mid-90s Britain.

This article was written in Britain in the early 90's, in the wake of the Gulf War (which the proletariat in Britain was largely apathetic to and which the radical minorities were unable to oppose) and at which point workplace struggles had reached an all time low. The following was an attempt to understand and come to terms with the level of defeat in the proletariat at that time (things really are only marginally better these few years later), particularly as the demoralisation of the proletariat in general was experienced on a personal level by the author. Although this was written in particular circumstances, the issues covered remain relevent, and this text is personally important as it represents the start of a break with the economistic or objectvist elements of Left Communism.

Since the early seventies, the proletariat in this country, as in much of the world, has been living under constantly deteriorating conditions. At certain stages, particularly in 79 and at the end of the 80's, a significant part of the class has fought back. But these reactions have really been rather feeble. And it has to be said that they were fairly soon defeated. Why is it that workers struggles in particular have achieved no notable victory in the last 15 years? If we are to talk in terms of decades we are surely talking about historical movement, not just some passing trend. I believe to understand the present conditions we must look at the socialist movements of the early years of this century and the radical theories which are associated with the 68 movement in France and elsewhere.

In the years leading up to World War 1, a powerful marxist movement developed in Europe, and especially in Germany. Basing their ideas on some of Engels' and Marx's writings, the political leaders of this movement believed it was possible to create socialism through the establishment of a socialist government. Some of their theorists believed that a gradual increase in wages (won through trade union action) would over time reduce profits to zero, and thereby introduce socialism. These ideas in some ways corresponded well with the real situation of the working class, where powerful unions had developed and which were able to win concessions from the ruling class.

At the same time as the development of this socialist movement, there developed widespread proletarian oppositon to capitalism, in many countries. There were several large strikewaves, and a series of assassinations of rulers. Violent and even terroristic actions were employed for such mild campaigns as the extention of voting rights to women. The main leaders of the various socialist movements were more or less opposed to the real proletarian movement. But the proletariat nevertheless utilised the unions and parties for ther own benefit. This primarily took the form of building proletarian community through the social aspects of the socialist movement, such as the party schools and clubs. The parliamentary activity of the social democratic movement was entirely outside and against the real proletarian movement, and was a major instrument of social democracy's integration into capitalism. Integration of the unions was inevitable due to their function of negotiation. But it would be wrong to write off the whole experience of social democracy as a capitalist conspiracy. The proletarian movement does not exist in one organisation or another, or one ideology or another, nor purely amongst non-party proletarians. The real movement groups sections of proletarians of many political tendencies, each of which have their own errors, or elements of capitalist ideolgy. The real proletarian movement, which has its spirit outside of organisations or ideology, is the only force which can correct these errors, but through action, not theorising.

This situation was radically altered by WWI. This war was in part a struggle between different imperialist powers for territory and markets. It was also an attack on the working class which had succeeded in gaining wages too high for capitalism to sustain indefinitely at this point, and which was becoming more and more uncontrollable. When the war started the socialist parties generally supported it. In the German Reichstag, both Karl Liebknecht and Otto Rühle at first voted in support of the war. Parties which opposed the conflict from the start included Bolsheviks and the Italian Socialist Party. Anarchists generally opposed the war; in Germany they were quickly hunted down and smashed. All these facts had a significant impact on the development of left-wing theory after the war.

What the first world war finally showed to many proletarians was that the old socialist movement was definitively counter-revolutionary. Its integration into capitlaism had been fought by the likes of Pannekoek and Luxembourg, but the war demonstrated the failure of their efforts. The trajectory of social democracy was determined by its political/union form. The left-wing opponents of "revisionism" did too little too late. Nonetheless, the theories these left-wingers developed, and the networks of oppositionists they formed, played a significant role later on. At the end of the war revolutions broke out in central and eastern Europe. The remains of the old socialist movement which had supported WWI, opposed these revolutions. The socialist parties which had opposed the war generally supported these revolutions but only with the intention of implementing their old programme of a socialist government.

In Germany and elsewhere some of those who had been members of the old socialist parties split from them during the war. Over time they developed radical critiques of these parties' theories and practice (based in part on their earlier attacks on "revisionism"); they were forced to do this by their history of being in the same party. These groups are sometimes called the "ultra-left".

The left-wing anarchist groups had the misfortune of having their theories proved more correct than the marxists by WWI. This meant that there was no impetus to develop new theories to understand the new era. Nonetheless the anarchists, together with the ultra-left were the strongest supporters of the revolutionary movement.

The ultra-left groups were at first in the Russian controlled Communist (or 3rd) International. They tried to work together with these partly reconstructed social democrats in developing new theories and practise. One important idea was the theory of decadence which was accepted by all fractions of the 3rd International. It stated that following the outbreak of WWI, capitalism was henceforth decadent. This meant that the capitalist mode of production was now a fetter on the development of productive forces. Capitalism was now no longer able to grant reforms. This meant the new era was one of war and revolutions. These opinions no doubt seemed fairly plausible in the aftermath of the first world war and with the first Communist seizure of power. The flip side of this theory was that the counter-revolutionary practise of the old socialist movement was viewed by the 3rd International as right for its time but now out of date and reactionary. This meant that the members of the 3rd International did not have to confront the reality of their former capitalist praxis, which probably aided the 3rd International's rapid development into an entirely capitalist force. Of course the theory of decadence was not taken up by the anarchist movement which, having rejected social democracy from the start, had no need of this psychological crutch. It may seem trivial to talk about the psychological resistance of radicals to changing their ideas, but there are many instances of a very slow or difficult development. For example Lenin famously believed the edition of the German socialists' newspaper which announced their support for the war to be a fake. It also took many radicals many years to alter their ideas about social democracy. It took Bordiga, the Italian Communist, until the nazi-soviet pact to realise that the revolution in Russia was completely defeated. A good personal account of a traumatic break with Trotskyism and Leninism can be found in 'The Russian Enigma' by Ante Ciliga.

Meanwhile back in the class struggle ... The unfolding of the revolution in Germany and the development of Bolshevik lead capitalism in Russia resulted in ultra-left splits from the 3rd International. The splitters (who later called themselves council communists) argued that parliaments and unions were capitalist and could not be used by revolutionaries. As time went by they added Bolshevism and political parties to this list. The revolutionary wave that followed world war one eventually subsided. The council communists, its most radical product, argued against the existence of mass organisations outside of a period of mass revolutionary struggle. Their organisations eventually fizzled away to nothing.

The working class remained organised in unions, and in socialist and Communist (Bolshevik) parties. All these were capitalist organisations. Far from being 'decadent', capitalism showed that it was still able to develop productive forces.

After WWII (which was fought for economic reasons) capitalism entered a long boom (which had ended definitively by 1972). The programme of capitalism in this period was based on that of the (de-radicalised) social democratic and communist parties. In Britain and other western countries the state implemented reforms and worked together with the unions. This compromise between capital and the representatives of the proletariat, ensured the growth of capital at a fast enough rate to allow a constantly rising standard of living for western proletarians. The implementation of reforms by the state, along with the continuing organisation of the working class in unions and left-wing parties helped preserve (and strengthen) working class illusions in trades unionism while simultaneously separating it from any radical critique.

In the 50's there were a number of proletarian uprisings in Eastern Europe. The totalitarian form of government together with the weakness in the economy lead to attacks on the entire national proletariat simultaneously. This resulted in proletarian resistance that was both unified and total.

The strength and flexibility of western capitalism forestalled any widespread revolt until 1968. This revolt was anticipated and theorised by the Situationist International. It was a revolt against alienation rather than the response to an economic attack by capital. It started amongst students but after these were involved with street battles with the police it spread first to other young proletarians and then to the mass of workers. It showed itself to be a modern and revolutionary movement by the fact that it formulated no demands as such. It did not aim at a dialogue with the bourgeoisie. The communist party and it's unions did however succeed in isolating most workers in 'their' enterprises and putting forward wage demands. The movement gave an impetus to the creation of radical groups in many countries, but these tended to degenerate into economistic marxist groups which, ironically, argued the 68 uprising was caused by the onset of an economic crisis (one which had hitherto gone unnoticed).

The 68 movement kicked off a wave of class confrontations around the world. With the oil crisis of 72, capitalism entered its long recession, giving an increased economic motive to revolts. The crisis was both effect and cause of the class struggle; brought on by proletarian revolt, it was simulataneously an important weapon in capital's arsenal. However as the conflicts continued, the radical groups which had been born out of the early struggles tended to disappear, or become smaller, more isolated and more dogmatic, or else went over to counter-revolutionary marxism.

By the end of the 70's in Britain the workers struggles had reached an extremely high level, with many wildcat strikes confronting the unions, the bosses and the Labour government. But there was almost no theoretical complement to this radical practise. The 79 movement was able to defeat the government's wage policy but not neutralise the states first counter attack, the 79 election. (If Labour had won, their wages policy would have been legitimised by democracy, enabling tougher measures against those opposing the policy). The new Conservative government had no connection with the unions and undertook to reduce union power in the state. It was able to carry out a planned assault on one stronghold of union and working class power, after another. The unions were of course not anticapitalist, but most militant workers still believed that these could advance their interests. Most wildcat strikes involved shop stewards or union branches going against the national bureaucracy. When the tories eliminated or neutralised trade unions in particular areas, far from unleashing a torrent of wildcat strikes no longer held back by this mediation, the workforces affected instead became less active. These workers experienced the defeat of the union as their own defeat. Although wildcat strikes were and are common, these are still generally mediated by rank-and-file unionism. The defeat of the revolutions following WWI meant that workers were largely separated from radical currents. The apparent success of the Labour party and unions had given them the illusion that these were still their organisations. With the Labour party attacks in the 70's and the unions' defeats in the 80's workers have tended to be left with no revolutionary theory or organisations, and no non-revolutionary theory or organisations either. This vacuum has so far lead to a gradually increasing mood of defeat within the working class. The only significant undefeated struggles since the 70's in Britain have been the intermittent riots and the anti-poll tax movement. Both of these have been struggles of the proletariat, not workers.

At the end of the 80's, the marxist capitalist states in Eastern Europe underwent a wave of mass struggles. Some of these struggles remained largely on the terrain of civil rights but some involved mass rioting and looting. The struggles managed to overthrow the Communist governments in country after country. The large numbers of proletarians engaged in these struggles, together with the defeat of these despotic governments, make those struggles appear to be working class victories. Unfortunately the opposite is true. These people's revolutions have merely introduced a moderated thatcherism into Eastern Europe, smashing the social wage, sacking inefficient (i.e. well-organised) workers. The people's revolutions were in any case prompted by the state itself (especially by Gorbachev and, in Romania, by the Securitate).

A reading of Marx, or council communism, or situationism, could make you expect that these peoples' revolutions would inevitably develop a proletarian content. Marx/council communism argues that as the revolution unfolds, the proletariat is forced to develop its more revolutionary praxis in order to assert its own interests. Situationism argues that the illusions Stalinism fostered were a weight that kept the proletariat passive. That shattering of these myths should have resulted in greater radicality in the proletariat. All these radical currents have been proved wrong on this point.

The defeat of Stalinism has been a totalitarian victory for capitalism. Whilst the world was split into two mutually hostile camps, one of which claimed to be proletarian, there was at least a choice as to how people could live. The destruction of Stalinism has just provided a massive propaganda victory for self-defined capitalism. Now unmasked capitalism, it seems, is the only society possible. In the west the defeat of Stalinism hasn't even significantly weakened the counter-revolutionary marxist left. In the east the political vacuum caused by the practical defeat and ideological implosion, has not been filled by anarchism or revolutionary communism, as some advocates of these tendencies predicted, but rather by resurgent fascism.

This article has rambled a bit so I'll restate the main points here. Various radical theories including Marx, council communism and situationism have predicted the imminent opening of a revolutionary period. These predictions have not only been disproved in fact, but these analyses have shown themselves to be wrong. The defeat by free-market capitalism of left-wing capitalist organisations and ideologies which were mistakenly believed to be anticapitalist has not proved to be any kind of victory for the proletariat. The (relative) defeat of Labourism and Stalinism has not prepared the way for revolutionary praxis but has just resulted in the demoralisation of the proletariat. We are not in a revolutionary period nor does it seem we are about to enter one. This perhaps bitter realisation should have significant consequences for the activities of radical minorities.

Afterword on the unions
At this point in time it is possible to trace a whole historical arc in the union movement. Unions were in the first place created by workers to defend their own interests. The practise of negotiation meant that they needed to be recognised by the bosses. So unions tended to defend only the interests of workers within capitalism, as variable capital. Unions, over a period of time, came to be an institution of discipline for the working class. Certainly by the 1900's, and often much earlier, unions were percieved by the elements of the capitalist class as acting in there interests, ensuring order in the workplace, in return for negotiation rights. From the 1930's onwards, widespread unionisation was a deliberate tactic of capital. This has ensured a relative end to revolutionary struggle in the most advanced countries. The position from the eighties onward has been that workers have been sufficiently defeated that unions are no longer as greatly needed as in ealier periods. Capitalism has been pursuing a slow policy of de-unionisation, as funding union structures is an unneccessary expense. In addition, unions, as a fraction of capital, have a different set of interests to finance capital especially.

Taken from the Antagonism website.