Global struggle in era of dead-end capitalism

Based on a talk given by Larry Holmes, Workers World Party First Secretary, at an Oct. 20 leadership meeting.

Mass work and political and ideological work need to be based on a common understanding of the ways that the wholly unique current global crisis of the capitalist system has changed the dynamics of the global class struggle.

The analytical basis for such a common understanding is not new to many revolutionaries. In recent years, it has been written about; Workers World Party has published several books about it. The development of the capitalist crisis and its consequences for the class struggle are a living process. Accordingly, a Marxist assessment of it must also be a work in progress.

Having an understanding of the features of what we have termed “capitalism at a dead end” is a starting point. Alone, this understanding does not provide a blueprint for how revolutionaries should respond to every development in the day-to-day class struggle against capitalism and imperialism. But there can be no argument about what to do unless we are reacting to the same crisis.

“Low-Wage Capitalism” and “Capitalism at a Dead End” written by Fred Goldstein are considered exemplary by many in the progressive movement, and even by some in the ruling class. Goldstein shows how capitalist production and the division of labor are global; why the crisis of capitalist overproduction is permanent; why the technology that has been used to displace and pauperize workers will nonetheless be one of the big nails in the coffin of capitalism; and how the role of finance capital has grown in relationship to the production of socially useful things and services.

But what about the political and ideological significance of these changes for the class struggle?

Without a common understanding of the big picture and how it has changed the norms of the worldwide class struggle, many progressive forces will be like small boats in a raging storm, sailing around in circles because they are unable to see through the rain. To adjust to the needs of the class struggle today necessitates being able to see and change any conceptions that have become outdated.

Throughout revolutionary formations, there are different levels of consciousness, different experiences and views of what is most important to do. These include some who consider themselves to be revolutionary communists and have a worldview similar to ours.

AFL-CIO Convention through Marx’s eyes

All organizations invested in the class struggle have become, to one degree or another, used to the norms that govern, to a large extent, the course of the class struggle worldwide and the struggle for socialism and communism. These norms have, on the surface, appeared to be unchanging for a long, long time. However, these norms have reached a turning point. What are these norms?

In a relative sense, the dynamics of the class struggle are constantly changing. The capitalist class is always waging a struggle against the workers and the oppressed. The only variation is the scope and intensity of the capitalist attacks. Likewise, in a relative sense, the working class, its organizations and its vanguard organizations are also constantly changing.

But even with these constant changes, up until fairly recently, the norms of the class struggle appear not to have been affected. What would signify a change in the norms of the class struggle? From the perspective of the working class, the norms would change if there was a substantial, generalized and long-standing change in the willingness of the working class to engage in the class struggle, coupled with a similarly fundamental increase in the class, political or even ideological consciousness of wide sections of the working class.

Clearly, even with the tremendous struggles in Wisconsin, Chicago and North Carolina, no case can be made as of yet that the working class, as a whole, has broken through old norms. On the other hand, the escalation of the capitalist ruling-class offensive against the working class in most of the world can no longer be described as merely episodic phases of deeper exploitation and oppression. To the contrary, the current scale of the capitalist assault is unprecedented, widespread, more or less permanent, and escalating.

The main norm that stubbornly persists, but cannot persist indefinitely, is that the ideological development of the working class and its organizations still lags far behind the evolution of the crises of the capitalist system. The contradiction between economic developments and political consciousness has never been greater than it is today. But that is changing as well.

The AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles showed that the organized labor movement is struggling to come to terms with the reality that the norms of the class struggle have changed. In particular, there is a realization that the organized labor movement cannot endure by merely defending a smaller and smaller section of the working class against the capitalist offensive.

There is at least the beginning of an understanding that the fate of the organized labor movement depends, in no small part, on the ability of labor to fully embrace — with respect to both organization and program — that a much greater percentage of the working class is not organized and that more and more of the working class is either unemployed or marginally employed.

The overriding lesson of the recent AFL-CIO convention is that it showed some in the highest echelons of the organized labor movement are painfully aware that the movement in its present form will be smashed by global capitalism if nothing changes.

However, the proposals raised at the LA convention were, at best, half measures and not enough to extend the reach of organized labor to the tens of millions of oppressed workers who need to be organized and mobilized. Most importantly, there was no hint at the convention that labor was moving in an anti-capitalist, mass-organizing, class-struggle direction and away from the inhibitions imposed on it by the capitalist-led Democratic Party.

Some very good, militant trade unionists believe that if only organized labor was more militant and rejected business unionism and class collaboration, all the problems would be remedied. This is of course true, but it’s only part of the truth.

The other part of the truth was concisely summarized by none other than Karl Marx, speaking more than 150 years ago about the direction that the labor movement must eventually take:

“Apart from their original purposes, [the unions] must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class.”

Excerpted from a document written by Karl Marx in 1866 entitled “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future.”

Revolutionary perspective and the class struggle

The attack on the Boston school bus drivers by the union-busting, French-based Veolia corporation is an example of the end of the norms in the class struggle. The grave situation for the workers and oppressed in Detroit is another.

There is an inherent contradiction between a minimal fightback program and the maximum fightback program that this crisis frankly exacerbates.

Whether it be the fight against union busting or the struggle of workers to win the basic right to organize in the South, as revolutionary Marxists, we can never lose sight of the fact that our class cannot secure victories in the struggle or, for that matter, have its social needs met under capitalism.

Indeed, a distinguishing characteristic of the present capitalist crisis — albeit a general and fluid characteristic to which there can and will be many exceptions — is that the deeper and more permanent the economic crisis of capitalism gets, the more likely the biggest lesson that the working class takes away from the class struggle in this period is that the whole capitalist system must be overturned. This is an inevitable conclusion that important sections of our class and its vanguard organizations must arrive at, however unevenly. This conclusion is the central ideological revelation.

If there is no revolutionary perspective, no socialist objective, then the class struggle becomes a dead end for our class.

At the same time, revolutionaries must engage in the struggle of the day, be it local or international, and engage in the struggle with the enthusiasm, tactics and energy to take the struggle as far as it can go — including sometimes winning.

But the outcome of any struggle is temporary. This is true whether the workers are temporarily victorious or whether our class suffers a temporary defeat. It’s all temporary because the struggle continues and goes back and forth at least until capitalism has been securely deposited into the dustbin of history.

Needless to say, the crisis of capitalism at a dead end must oblige revolutionaries to put forward the maximum program of socialist revolution. Just as importantly, any skill at guiding the class struggle from a lower to a higher level — a task that takes considerable experience to accomplish — must constantly be refined, reviewed and replenished.

One obvious thing that can be discerned from the changes in the dynamics of the world class struggle is to not allow any subdivision of our class — on a geographic, organized, unorganized or any other basis — to fight its own battle with the ever-more-centralized capitalist establishment (centralized by the greater global role of finance capital). Even where one can’t effect widespread classwide solidarity, it has to be made known that a strategy of fighting an endless number of separate guerilla battles with capital is a losing strategy for our class.

The ideological struggle for communism cannot be diminished or altogether forgotten in the midst of the day-to-day mass struggle.

In between a minimum and a maximum fightback program, transitional demands can be developed, as well as goals that weave a bridge between the two extremes. Class solidarity and working-class internationalism become more than just slogans but become decisive in this period. So does the much-needed increase in the mass organization of our class on the highest political level.

If there could have been a huge banner on the stage of the AFL-CIO convention — a banner reflecting that the only way to end the workers’ struggle is to destroy capitalism — that would have been a huge contribution to the drive for world socialism.

Building people’s assemblies and workers’ assemblies is helpful because the assemblies drive the need for massive, classwide organization. The most insidious feature of the global capitalist crisis is that it poses, in the sharpest and most decisive way, a political crisis for the working-class movement. What crisis? The simplest one: If the perspective is not for our class to be organized on both the widest basis and the most ideological basis possible under the circumstances, the capitalist crisis will be used to pit worker against worker on an ever-greater scale.

Even if workers’ assemblies are not fully understood, the conception of a workers’ assembly will automatically, intuitively be viewed by many as ideological. It will be understood as a bold attempt to organize the working class on a more ideological and political basis, in addition to organizing for basic demands and defending against attacks.

One cannot fight capitalism based on an old conception of trade unionism in the class struggle, of relying on capitalist reforms, or on a policy that addresses only one section of our class.