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The loneliness of the working class, today

The loneliness of the working class, today
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Let us clarify something immediately. We speak of the «Working class» because both from theory and eye-viewing reality it exists, and under no circumstances has it been reduced to a wax manikin in the Museum of Antiquity, as some would have us believe.

Now to the theory. Marxism has richly demonstrated that capital can survive on the sole condition that it extracts surplus value the non-paid part of the working day whence profits are derived, which are then used by capital for new investments and additional surplus value, and so on. Hence, capital must have live labour, flesh and blood in the form of labour power, without which it would perish. To imagine a capital without labour is to conceive of an automobile without an engine. So much for this reasoning, for the moment.

Now to reality. What is that incessant flood of legal and illegal manpower that courses into the United States from Mexico, from the Caribbean, from Asia, if not a working class? Or into Great Britain from India, from Pakistan, from Central Africa, or the Caribbean? Or into France from North and Central Africa, from Indo-China? Or into Germany from Turkey, from the Middle East, from Italy? Or into Italy from North Africa and the Middle East, from the Philippines, from Eastern Europe? And what if not a working class fills the factories of China and the Far East, the mines of South Africa, of Brazil, of Russia, of Chile, of Peru, the working fields of the Middle East, the oil wells of Venezuela (whence from time to time we catch echoes of some long and violent strike or horrendous workplace incident)? And what if not a working class is that world-wide army of the unemployed and underemployed, who in the dramatic conditions of their difficult and often impossible survival indicate how appropriate and deserving they are of being called «proletarians»: those whose only material goods for sale are their own children?

In sum, the working class exists! In fact, thanks to the inexorable diffusion of the system of capital to all corners of the globe in the last several decades, it has grown hugely in numbers. It «no longer exists» only for those... who don't want to see it or...

are afraid to see it True, statistically and numerically it exists; yet, it is as if it did not exist. In all corners of the world there are struggles and strikes, and all the news media try to relegate such events to minor notices. What is missing is the class in its totality as a class: able to connect and draw from these isolated events, able to make felt its numerical weight in society, able to present a real, not just a potential, challenge to the social order. This assertion does not surprise us. Rather, it is for us a great confirmation.

Because, so long as «Working class» remains a purely numerical and statistical concept, so long as it remains subordinate to «economic» or «national» needs, so long as it even battles but for immediate «sectoral» interests, it remains a class for capital.

It remains only that conglomerate of individuals who undergo exploitation and just from time to time, when the screws are turned too tight, rises to right somewhat the balance, but always within the very system of exploitation.

It is only when the 'Working class» begins to move outside the delimited area assigned to it by capital, taking the high road out from under subordination, to fight not simply defensively but offensively for itself as an international «class», it is only then that it becomes a class for itself and no longer for capital.

Now, how come all this is not happening today? Why is this reawakening so late in coming?

The fact is the international working class has some good reason for not having returned to the world stage. It is completely alone! Think about this enormous and devastating solitude. For decades (more than a half century!), the working class -both the «older sector' in the Euro-American areas and the «younger» in the rest of the world-- has been snared between the rhetoric of the democratic-capitalistic devil and the deep blue sea of vile and deceptively murderous Stalinism («real existing socialism»).

On the one hand, it was told that only the «free world» opponent of «Soviet totalitarianism» could guarantee a happy tomorrow under the banners of an uninterrupted economic boom, an increasing liberty, and an endless progress. Until, one fine day, an economic crisis blew away this house of cards. And guarantees, liberty, progress, and full employment became empty words, deceptive hopes that fool only the very fools themselves.

On the other hand, it was led to believe that the USSR was «the homeland of socialism» with all the other «socialist homelands» as satellite followers, from China to Cuba and Vietnam to Albania; that all those economies were «socialism» an action: a socialism one could attain peacefully and piecemeal without too much pain, utilising a series of small adjustments and reforms that would turn the predatory capitalistic wolf into the ironic socialist lamb. Again, one splendid morning, the entire «socialist camp» dissolved like snow beneath the tropical sun, and those thumping «vanguard» parties, along with their brethren around the world, admitted that all those decades they had undertaken a quixotic venture: for, behold, the «market economy» is both eternal and the very best.

There's more. For decades (again, more than a half century), the political leadership of this working class has by necessity been occupied by parties and trade unions that called themselves «labour» but which taught them to defend the nation from this or that enemy, to consider democracy as a supreme good, to take existing society as «the best of all possible worlds» to subordinate their needs as an exploited class to the national wellbeing, to stand up for causes not their own, to rush to defend the economic system that abused them, to revere moderation and obedience, and to forever submit themselves to whatever call against danger.

Why should the class not feel itself alone when, year after year, trade unions that should defend it with drawn swords have not ceased to actively collaborate in dismantling those defences that historically belong to them - those minimum and precarious guarantees that had been won with struggle, those social lifesavers that keep their head above water? Take only Italy, and looking back only to the last few years - although the process is really international in scope and has been picking up steam for decades: there has been the selfdiscipline on strikes, the abolition of the cost of living increase, the reform of wages, the reform of pensions....Why not feel itself alone when the parties that should defend it openly declare themselves as convinced and dogged upholders of that system of exploitation, and for that reason receive applause from the international business circles, who see in them the right leadership to lead in this period of economic crisis, of ever deeper recessions, and ever growing unemployment? There can be no doubt: the working class is alone!

Now Marx and Lenin have taught us - and the experience of the last one hundred fifty years has confirmed it - that by itself the class cannot successfully take that difficult and decisive step forward that will change a working class for capital to a working class for itself a class that, however dimly, not fully sensing it even, is the bearer of an historical change that goes beyond temporary or immediate goals. Hence, if the loneliness of the working class - that delay, that passivity, that inability

to overcome present bounds - implicitly indicts the parties and trade unions for betrayal, their total abandonment, their definitive and irremediable abdication, at the same lime it also implicitly calls for the necessary help that can only come from the outside, from a revolutionary vanguard, from a party that unfortunately does not exist yet, but which we are seeking to resurrect.

There is this point of fact: this loneliness leads to all sorts of problems. The delay mentioned above, the diffidence, the caution, but also something more problematic and dangerous. The view that the working class is in some mechanical fashion always and forever revolutionary is one of those Stalinist and «ouvrieriste» myths and has nothing to do with Marxism. The working class is revolutionary because of the place it occupies in the internal order of capitalist production, and for that it is destined to subvert and become the destroyer of that order.

But this duty is not given once and forever and always presupposes - here, too, we fall back on theory and practice - the active presence next to the class, and one step ahead of it, of a political party that embodies its historical interests. Without the party, in the middle of this loneliness, the revolutionariness of the class fades, passes away, and is relegated to the attic, so to speak.

Let us remain alert, nonetheless. As in nature, so in society and politics, a vacuum will not persist: it will be filled. Hence, if the space abandoned for more than half a century by the opportunists on the Left is not filled by political forces with a revolutionary perspective, forces that undertake despite the damning circumstances of the present to move along revolutionary lines, that don't simply speak about a revolution that is to come, but prepare for it in the now when it is nowhere on the horizon, then the vacuum not occupied by the forces of revolution will be taken by other forces, more or less solidly counterrevolutionary, that will again misdirect the prolific energy of the class, squandering its power and redelivering it tied hand and foot to its exploiters. Wild talk, you say? But recall what happened in Poland in the early 1980s, when a powerful worker's movement, precisely when left to its own devices, replaced its red banners with the black robes of the Madonna of Czestochova, turned to parliamentarism, was institutionalised and defeated. Think about how, in the very absence of a revolutionary political party, the class actions in Latin America - violent, wide-spread, continuously erupting onto the surface - were harnessed and channelled along democratic and parliamentary lines by the more or less political forces of «the theology of liberation.» Think about the function played by Islamic fundamentalism, a real and true Cordon Sanitaire that, under the banners of a religious fanaticism, prevents the power of the working class and oppressed masses of an enormous and vital area of the planet from fulfilling its class and internationalist duty (1).

Wild talk? On the contrary! As we have said before, faced with the widespread destructiveness of the capitalist world, its disintegration, its dissolution, given the lacerating suffering of ever larger numbers of people, the progressive brutalisation of every aspect of social life - the violence, the drugs, the insane wave of homicides, the perversions - and the winds of war that blow from every corner and will continue to blow, the only realistic perspective is revolutionary.

If we do not believe in the Stalinist and «ouvrieriste» mystification that the working class is always and forever revolutionary, let us not forget that the working class has its own history, not only of compelling defeats and vile betrayals, but also of great victories and unparalleled heroism. This ignored history, overlooked, entombed in silence, and therefore rendered invisible, lies buried in the abyss of a collective experience - here, too, history is our referent - and can burst forth and intrude onto the scene. The present solitude bespeaks of abandonment, uncertainty, bewilderment, frustration, diffidence, and renunciation. But it also bespeaks of something that will become clearer in the coming months and years: that the working class is looking around, seeing and pondering what is going on about it. And that what is done and said to and about this class - for it and against it, to its hide and in its favour - leaves and will leave indelible traces. Like a beast that tenses itself for a great leap, the working class is gathering its forces: silently, cautiously, knowingly.

It falls upon us, on the revolutionary vanguard who share with Marx and Lenin an understanding of what must necessarily be the relationship between party and class, to undertake that humble, wearing, subterranean, patient work, so that at the instant of the leap the working class will know that it is no longer alone.

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  1. A marginal comment, because more is not merited. In Italy, the undeniable attraction that the Northern League has for certain «sheltered» elements in the northern working class is a prime example of how free space is occupied. The Democratic Party of the Left and Rifondazione comunista [both spin offs of the old Stalinist PCI] that continuously attack Bossi and the League are primarily responsible for the situation, since they abandoned any revolutionary perspective some seventy years ago, that is, from the Congress of Lyons in 1926. [back]

Source: »Internationalist Papers«, n. 6, may 1997

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