Where the global class struggle is going

By Sam Marcy (Nov. 25, 1993)

The following is excerpted from a talk by Workers World Party Chairperson Sam Marcy. It was given at the Workers World Party conference Nov. 14.

The last few years have seen a dramatic change in the situation of the working class and, even more so, of the oppressed peoples throughout the world.

It's not just the downward economic trend. It's the catastrophic destruction of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It's easy to say let's just go on from here. But we can't do that. The demise of the USSR has raised everything in a new way. For many years the USSR served as a bastion of support for the working class, the oppressed peoples, and the poor and downtrodden everywhere.

Of course, we have never been uncritical supporters of the leadership of the USSR. But we have always been firm supporters of the Soviet Union as a workers' state.

To adjust ourselves as though nothing had happened would be a grave error. Modern history has not known such a significant and fundamental collapse for the workers' movement.

Need class definition of China

Where is it all going now that the USSR is gone? What is China? Can we really proceed to analyze the world situation and not have a clear class definition of what the state is in the Peoples Republic of China and where it is going? Or shall we allow the State Department to do all the thinking?

You would think the ruling class would be very happy since the collapse of the USSR. But as we can see, when they get into a small battlefield in faraway Africa, the vast machinery of the U.S. State Department and the military are unable to subdue the country of Somalia--which has no missiles and no nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has folded its tents and is slowly moving out its soldiers--making sure to leave enough there to control the area politically and to wait until the day when they can get a government in Somalia responsive to their imperialist needs.

That alone should show how weak imperialism is in another respect. Yes, the USSR has fallen, but imperialism has not become strengthened to the point where they can move into Somalia and say, See what happened to the USSR? Give up. Turn in your weapons.

No one has does that. Nowhere. Above all, not in Cuba or north Korea.

The fundamental characteristic of imperialism is not so much its military aggression, which is the effect of the imperialist economic system. Basically, imperialism means the spread of monopolies all over the world. As we all know, first come the missionaries, then the merchants, then the marines.

Our problem is how to construct a position for the next period, considering the fact that the events in the USSR hang over the whole movement, whether they are conscious of it or not. Even those who do not care much about it must ultimately calculate its consequences.

The U.S. and China are in a constant struggle, first and foremost because China, despite recent developments, is still a workers' state. It still has a progressive social system compared to imperialism. And while it has deviated in its politics dramatically over the years and is moving faster and faster in the direction of capitalism, we should not take the position that everything is all over in China.

When movement wrote off USSR

A similar situation arose before the Second World War. The Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin, in an effort to avoid an imperialist attack from the Allies (France, Britain and the U.S.), pulled a diplomatic turnaround and made a pact with Nazi Germany.

That stunned the movement, since the Nazis were regarded as the main and fundamental enemy at that time. But from a class point of view, Hitler's regime was no less capitalist than France, Britain and the U.S. The fight between them and Germany was over the colonies, over who would get what, since Germany had freed itself from the Versailles Treaty and wanted to take back what it had lost in the First World War.

The issue was rivalry between the two biggest imperialist blocs over who would dominate Europe. One was fascist in form and capitalist in essence. The other was democratic in form but, from a class point of view, the bourgeoisie was in power. The working class could only rise to the historical occasion by disregarding the form of the state and battling against both blocs, without forgetting, as of course no one in their right mind would, that one was fascist and the other still bourgeois democratic.

Knowing how to go from here to there has been a central problem of revolutionary Marxist politics since Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. It's all well and good to proclaim: Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains! And to make a ringing declaration for the workers to arise from their slumber in unvanquishable numbers. But it's also necessary to know where and how.

This is the part of Marxism that is most difficult but also most necessary. It is why there must be a workers' party.

If the workers could respond to their own interests spontaneously, there would be no need to have a special organization. If politics automatically reflected economics, it would negate the necessity for a working class party.

But the history of victories and defeats shows that the workers do not automatically respond to conditions in a correct political direction. And the reason is more complex than generally understood.

I think I should digress for a little.

Economics as a science

When the bourgeoisie were taking their first baby steps into the world, after having emerged as a new class from the corners of feudal society, they also developed the sciences. As the bourgeoisie began to grow, science and technology began to move rapidly ahead.

This new class had its own tutors and students, its own philosophers and political thinkers, many from the petty bourgeoisie. They tried to analyze the new society from the vantage point of the other sciences. The intellectual elements developed chemistry, astronomy, physics and so on. And then they said to themselves, it's time to analyze economics.

The aristocratic philosophers had looked down on economics. They saw it as something only the lower classes should be involved in. But times were changing.

So the best, most brilliant and forthright of the bourgeois philosophers began to dispassionately analyze capitalism itself and look for the wellsprings of its economic development.

Its leading lights, such as Adam Smith and others, began to study economics as a science instead of leaving this field just to the merchants and capitalists.

At the beginning, they had a dispassionate view of the early capitalist system. They tried to explain it the way it really was. For instance, Adam Smith came to the conclusion that a commodity, when exchanged for another commodity, must have some equivalence. And he determined that commodities were exchanged based on the amount of labor embodied in them.

This was revolutionary. Marx was later to elaborate upon it.

They hoped that by analyzing the system, they could bring about that free and equal society that all the utopian socialists looked forward to, so that the human race could be perfected and could develop without poverty and hunger, exploitation and oppression.

But having made the discovery about the amount of labor in a commodity, they soon realized that if they continued their analysis further, they would have to condemn the bourgeoisie as a whole and look to the working class as the liberators of society. That is where the science of economics was leading them.

They realized that labor time was what gave commodities value. To go further would be to say that the workers give the labor time, that those who appropriate the labor don't make any significant contribution, so it is time for the expropriators to go, to be expropriated themselves.

So the bourgeois economists, after making a singular but momentous contribution, got to the edge of the water, saw what was coming, and stepped back.

From then on a scientific exploration of economics had to be picked up by those who were really concerned with the direction of events.

After a while, it was no longer possible for the bourgeois economists to be objective about anything. This is how it is today. You can get any number of economists to find out what it will cost to establish a plant in Taiwan or New Jersey, how many workers it would take, how productive it would be and so on.

But they will never be able to find out why the capitalist market goes up, stays up for a while, and then collapses in a monumental wave of destruction that can lead society to ruin unless the forces of unbridled capitalism are reined in.

They are even more unbridled today than in the days of Adam Smith, or Marx and Engels. Yet this is complicated by the vast military establishment, which is part of the armor of the big imperialist powers.

Intellectuals abandon workers

With the collapse of the USSR has come also a denial of the truth of Marxism, and the enlivening of all kinds of capitalist theories. There is also a less majestic view of the working class than used to prevail decades ago.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, intellectuals throughout the world, especially those from poorer backgrounds, would worship the working class and the poor peasants--especially in Russia and China. They had an affinity to the poverty and conditions of the masses. How could they help liberate them?

But this is absent today. Now there's nothing but scorn and disdain for the workers as a class.

A lot of capitalist propaganda has seeped into the working class as a result of the collapse in the USSR.

But our position will be significantly improved, first of all because the next capitalist crisis will come. No government or body will be able to stop it. It may be late in coming, especially to impatient revolutionaries, but it will come.

After the First World War, from about 1921 to 1929, it appeared that capitalism was headed into a tremendous boom as a result of the havoc and destruction caused by the war. The boom would be so vast that capitalist crises would be virtually eliminated for decades to come. Capitalism had reformed itself and was rising endlessly.

Then the collapse came in 1929.

The situation now is about the same. Economic collapse is sure to come. It is possible to divert it temporarily here and there, it's possible for the capitalist state to steer investment into some areas as against others, but you never know when that has already been overdone.

Many petty-bourgeois economists would now be predicting a capitalist crisis, were it not that any economic thesis dispassionately and objectively written is rejected. It has to point clearly in the direction of capitalist growth or they don't want it.

At the moment they are giddy with success at their fruitful investments in China. And China seems to be going along with it.

They are expanding in all areas of the world and seem to have no intention of stopping. But the laws of capitalist economics are still there.

Clinton's attack on unions

Let me point out the remarks made by President Clinton on the NAFTA treaty, in which he pointedly attacked the unions. He said the unions would be to blame if the treaty were rejected by Congress, and that they had been organizing against him.

On the other hand, he said, the employers have done very little to organize their forces, and he urged them to do so against the unions.

This is very new in U.S. presidential politics. At least since the time of Roosevelt, presidents, especially Democrats, spoke favorably of the unions at least in form and leaned on them for support. Even during the Eisenhower and Nixon periods, the president wouldn't take it on himself to roundly denounce the unions.

We might have expected many unions to have immediately passed resolutions denouncing Clinton for his unwarranted attack, which amounts to union busting and strike breaking. But there has been an eerie silence, which is a dangerous situation.

Clinton is doing something else in relation to the trade union movement that is not so obvious or talked about in the capitalist press. As you all know, the miners' union in the United States has always been in the forefront of the struggle. It has been the most militant and in many respects the most progressive of all the unions.

Struggle of the miners

At one time, it had half a million members in this strategic industry. It often refused to deal with minor government officials, so-called conciliators, and demanded direct talks with the president. Often the union leaders would disregard Congress or the courts, relying on their own strength. No president would want to risk evoking a veritable class struggle by attacking the miners.

At one time during the Second World War, it appeared Roosevelt was close to doing so in a struggle with John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers. Although things nearly came to a break, both decided it was better to find a medium where there could be collaboration. Of course, this meant class collaboration, but each side was able to save face.

That's how strong the miners' union was. And other unions gathered strength from it.

Many small unions were able to grow because the miners could lend them money and send them organizers. The miners also knew how to organize picket lines, mass demonstrations and so on.

And just because the miners' union has lost many members in the struggle against restructuring and the closing of mines, that does not diminish the significant historical role the miners still play today.

We are necessarily preoccupied with the U.S. military encirclement of Korea, the attempt to strangle Cuba, where China is going, what's happening in the USSR, the Philippines, Africa, and our next-door neighbor Haiti. But even though we pay such close attention to these events, we can't close our eyes to what is happening in the labor movement here.

If it is left to the opportunists, a strong militant movement can be diverted. We must all bear in mind, we are Workers World because the workers are the decisive class in society and we can't do anything of a fundamental character until we get stronger in the workers' movement.

As usual, the miners have their demands. In the recent period they rolled up a considerable war chest in the struggle with the coal operators. The miners have a strong treasury to counter that of the operators and the bankers and bosses who stand behind them.

If the struggle were between the miners and operators alone, the miners would have nothing to fear. They can and often have beaten the operators. And it is a multinational union, with a considerable number of Black members and officials.

As long ago as 1940 when John L. Lewis went to meet Roosevelt and talk to him about the union, he was accompanied by two other UMW officials, one of them Black.

There are many industries in which the unionized workers can defeat their own bosses. Why don't they win consistently? Because of the intervention of the capitalist state. The state intervenes, presumably as an umpire but in reality as an ally of the bosses and bankers. That militates against strong victories by the workers.

Clinton orders miners to negotiate

What is this latest battle between the miners and the Clinton administration? The miners had achieved a considerable advantage over the operators in the current strike. The operators, feeling weak, pursued a court case demanding the union pay millions of dollars in fines levied against it during the Pittston strike four years ago. The court, of course, is an ally of the bosses. But the miners have enough money to fight a court case to the highest level.

Seeing that the miners may possibly get a reversal from the courts, the operators called on the aid of their strongest ally--the president himself.

The president issued an order commanding the miners to negotiate with the operators. The miners say, We have negotiated long enough. We're going to take whatever action is necessary to win our rights. And Clinton says that the so-called public policy commands they give in to government conciliation.

The miners have much experience with that. If they close the mines, there's no profit for the bosses. Miners will not cross the picket lines. As it says in the old song, there are no neutrals in Harlan County. You're either a union man or woman or a low-down, dirty, lousy scab.

So Clinton ordered his solicitor general to go to court and seek an order to stop the miners by forcing the union to pay the $52 million fines. And the lower court has said that the miners have a big bloated treasury.

It's an opening of the class struggle. We don't know how it will end. We support the miners and we urge all other unions to take an interest in this struggle, to prepare ourselves for the coming days.

Who's in the working class?

The party's task has to be first of all to strengthen ourselves politically and to put the working-class struggle right on the front burner. And when we talk about the working class, we mean the multinational working class.

The struggle against racism has to have the top priority, it must be innate in every member of our party. We'll probably have to fight racism until the last day before the revolution, and thereafter as well.

[in answer to a question asking how to define the working class today.]

We have to start from the Marxist conception of the class struggle: that there are two basic classes in capitalist society. That was true 100 years ago, and it is just as eminently true today. Today the working class is more numerous than 100 years ago.

Who are the workers? Are they the miners, the steel workers, the garment workers, the electrical workers? Or are they the new workers in the service industry, in retail trade, in various stores big and small?

It's important that this question be properly answered, and I'll do my best.

Whoever is subjected to exploitation and oppression is in the working class. Whoever benefits from the labor of others is not.

There are many workers in the police department or in 101 different establishments removed from the basic industries and from the conception of the working class as explained in The Communist Manifesto. So we have to broaden the conception of the working class.

It is true that a worker in the steel mills or mines or garment industry is somewhat different than a worker who is a clerical employee in the police department. But the clerical employee in the police department may feel the oppression, and may be exploited as much as any other worker.

I don't mean that the police department is a working-class organization. But let us put it in the context of historical evolution and not have a finished formulation for a phenomenon that could be changing. For instance, most of the members of the police department in Germany in the period from 1918 to at least 1928 were social democrats and communists. The old regime had been replaced by a government in which socialists and communists were more dominant.

They didn't control the capitalist state, but they were sufficiently influential to make sure that mostly communist and socialist workers got these jobs. How did they act in the case of a strike? That was one of the problems for the bourgeois Weimar Republic. It couldn't rely on the state to do its work.

It was for this reason among others that the ruling class said this business of letting radicals control the fundamental levers of our society can't be! And they resorted to fascism as an external force to destroy the working-class movement.

We look at any phenomenon historically and in evolution, not as a static element. The police department today is an instrument of capitalist rule, and we're strongly opposed to it.

But in certain sections of the country, in small cities with Black mayors, one would hope they would change the police department previously organized by the white establishment to one reflecting the Black majority. When that happens, it also often happens that the bankers say the city is losing money, that it has to go out and get loans. And pretty soon the mayor is afraid to put the city completely under the control of a Black administration.

But suffice it to say that, for now, the police are what we used to say about them 10 years ago--a bunch of pigs.

The middle class and native bourgeoisie

So we have to broaden our conception of the character of the struggle. The working class is wider than the basic industries, the manufacturing industries, and must include all who are oppressed by big capital.

That doesn't mean to negate the existence of the petty bourgeoisie, which is a middle element between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie are owners of their own means of production, or have high salaries in the capitalist administration. Some may make a great deal of money one day and find themselves on the streets the next. They are merely administrators of capitalist institutions.

The native bourgeoisie in any oppressed or even newly liberated country suffers from the oppression of imperialism, but not in the same way as a worker in an oppressed country, and not the same as a peasant.

So in our search for where to draw the line on this, we must ask, Where is the oppression? Who is the oppressor? We must not forget that the overwhelming majority are the workers.

Privatization

[In answer to a question about where the Party stands on privatization.]

The means of production in capitalist society are owned by the ruling class. The capitalist state assists the ruling class to maintain its position. There are periods in capitalist society when a capitalist recession or a breakdown endangers the ruling class so that it may not be able to exercise enough control and ownership over the means of production.

There come periods of crisis when the ruling class says, We own only the debts on some of this property. It would be good to sell them off and get money for it.

But they find few buyers. So they resort to selling them to the capitalist states and municipalities. In that way they relieve themselves of the burden.

In New York City during the Depression, it was very important for the city government to buy up properties like the subways and the utilities because they were collapsing. And it was important for the capitalists to sell them in order to raise cash.

Over a period of years it became possible for the ruling class, especially in times of recession, to sell some of its assets to get cash and rebuild. But purchasers being scarce, they tried to push them onto the cities and states. That's why you have so-called public ownership of the utilities, some telephone companies, and other institutions.

Publicly owned doesn't mean the public as a whole really owns them. It means the capitalist state administers this or that utility and the profits ultimately redound to the original owners in stocks, bonds, interest to the banks or whatever.

In all the big cities, there has been a drive to purchase some of these utilities so the city can provide them cheaper. But once the city takes them over, it sometimes finds itself in a position where it cannot meet its own obligations. Before you know it the original utility owners, who now have a lot of cash, can purchase it all back.

So the issue is not really public vs. private ownership. Public ownership under the capitalist state is also private ownership.

The only way to get around private ownership for good is by expropriating the original capitalist owners.

Much confusion is caused by the fact that the workers' movement, the trade unions especially, don't want to raise the question of expropriation.

[Question: What about when the capitalist state exercises some responsibility to the workers in areas such as education, sanitation, health care and social welfare. Are we for or against the privatization of those services?]

We're against their privatization. But it's important to understand the process of development under which this takes place. In times of capitalist recession and/or when the working class is on the move and very militant, it becomes risky for the capitalist class to own private property such as utilities. It would rather dispose of them for the time being.

In the present period, many of the cities, especially the smaller ones, are willing to privatize despite the long-established custom of these properties being publicly owned. That may seem to be a process that concerns only the city and the masses as a whole. But tremendous layoffs take place as a result of the privatization.

We have to fight layoffs wherever they occur and under whatever circumstances, even when the city government is progressive or made up of elected Black officials. The question of layoffs is central to the working-class struggle. We can't permit it any more than we do in private industry.

We are a working-class organization and nothing is more central to the struggle than layoffs, particularly when a recession is in progress.



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