The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Lutte Ouvrière in the European Elections

Mar 1, 2019

The following article is a translation of an article defining the axis of Lutte Ouvrière’s election campaign. It appeared in Lutte de Classe, issue #198, March-April 2019.

In the May 26 elections for the European parliament, Lutte Ouvrière will put up a slate led by Nathalie Artaud and Jean-Pierre Mercier. During the campaign we will appeal to the class consciousness of the workers. This consciousness begins with the feeling of belonging to the social class of those who have only their wages to live on, of those who do not control their living conditions, beginning with their job, their purchasing power, and everything that depends on those things.

This consciousness begins with pride, the pride of being part of the social class whose activity runs the whole economy, from the plants to the banks, from the commercial distribution centers to transport, etc. Being part of the women and men who constitute the skeleton of social life: those who heal, teach, and transport, those who ensure the thousand and one services indispensable for the life of the collectivity, starting with nurseries up to nursing homes.

Class consciousness begins with the conviction that all those who work have the right to a decent life, corresponding to what is necessary and possible in our 21st century; the conviction that they should not accept the degradation of their standard of living, nor resign themselves to their situation.

But class consciousness on the political level is much more than that. It is the conviction of belonging to the social class that has the possibility, as well as the historical destiny of embodying a future for humanity other than the social organization dominated by big capital and by the big bourgeoisie who monopolize it.

In the past, this consciousness was embodied by parties whose goal was the emancipation of the working class through the only possible path: social revolution, the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie, the liquidation of private property in the means of production and the reorganization of the economy for the benefit of the collectivity.

This consciousness – deformed, perverted and betrayed by the big parties who once upon a time had embodied it and who stood for socialism and communism – this consciousness was erased, leaving the working class without a compass or with misleading landmarks. The poisonous climate of capitalism in its death agony weighs on the morale of the workers themselves, and even more on their vision of society and on the relationship of classes. This is not new. Class consciousness in the political sense of the term has always been a struggle against the dissolving pressures of capitalism, from its individualism to chauvinism.

This struggle has been progressively abandoned by the big parties of the working class, socialist parties and communist parties. To the point that the simplest words, the vocabulary of class struggle – beginning with exploiter and exploited, big bourgeoisie, big capital and working class – have acquired a completely different meaning than the one that was once transmitted in the workers’ tradition. The rotting influence of capitalism corrupts even the words. It reduces society down to “middle classes.” A growing fraction of the working class sees itself called “self-employed.” And when the government speaks about “reform,” it’s not to improve the situation of the exploited, be it only little by little, but to strike them with new blows.

It’s up to the militants whose goal is to rebuild a revolutionary communist party to take advantage of all opportunities to transmit the traditions and the values of the working class movement, including the precise words to designate them. Electoral campaigns constitute one of these opportunities.

National States and the European Union: Instruments of Oppression at the Service of the Big Bourgeoisie

Let’s recall that the European Parliament, like all elected bodies of bourgeois democracy, serves as a fig leaf hiding an armada of functionaries who are not elected and, behind them, the rule of big capital. The European Parliament pretends to represent the peoples of the European Union. It does not represent them any more than the national parliaments represent the interests of their own people. It cannot do that for this fundamental reason: the exploiters and the exploited have opposing interests; in a class society, the so-called “national interest” expresses the interest of the ruling class.

The present union among states, which are each at the service of their own possessing class, is tied together only by a common will to ensure to their capitalists the largest possible market, so as to facilitate the circulation of their goods and their capital. But this proclaimed common will hides the brutality of the relationship of forces between the imperialist states of Europe and the less developed part of the continent. The war carried out against the laboring classes in Greece by the imperialist powers of Western Europe, and by their banks and by their political leaders, provided the most recent illustration of that. The systematic bleeding of the former Popular Democracies by the big German, French and British capitalist enterprises is another illustration of the same thing. From the auto industry to the capitalist supermarkets, passing by way of the banks, Central and Eastern Europe has again become a terrain on which the big multinational companies confront each other, as it was before World War II.

The union of all the peoples of Europe is a necessity for this continent, whose history is so shared, whose people are so intermixed, and whose economies are so interdependent – but which nonetheless has so often been torn apart by wars. But the European Union is not a union of the peoples. It is the association of bands of gangsters – the imperialist countries of Western Europe, the most powerful of them being Germany, France and Great Britain – who together rule the continent.

Whether capitalist gangsters of different countries are associated, or whether they confront each other, they always carry out a war against those who have only their work by which to live.

In the May 26 elections – whose object is a European Parliament and whose pretext is the future of Europe – we will stand for the political interests of the working class. The unification of Europe is part of our program. The split of this continent among rival national states that defend the particular interests of the national bourgeoisies is one of the most reactionary and damaging aspects of the capitalist organization of society.

Already a century ago, Trotsky defended the perspective of a Socialist United States of Europe. The incapacity of the bourgeoisie dominating Europe to achieve that expresses its incapacity to achieve anything progressive, that is, anything going in the direction of the progress of human society.

With the two fratricidal wars that became world wars, the rivalry between the French, German and British imperialist bourgeoisies dug a bloody gulf between peoples who had woven among themselves economic, cultural and human links during a common history. This rivalry between bourgeoisies weighed on the workers even when it did not result in a war. Invoking a need to be competitive with other countries, the different bourgeoisies worsen the conditions of work and of wages of all the workers.

For a century, economic interdependence has become ever stronger. Globalization has multiplied links and enlarged them at the scale of the planet. The United States of Europe must be integrated in a world-wide federation of peoples, settling collectively the big world-wide problems concerning the very future of humanity: global warming, pollution of the oceans, the threat of extinction for many living species, and thus of life itself.

The big problems cannot be solved on the basis of private property in the means of production, nor on the basis of competition and the splitting up of the world into national states.

Europe could be unified only by the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie, thus assuring a democratic life for all its peoples and, in particular, to the minorities who are oppressed today.

How could capitalism open up a perspective as grand as that of a Europe without borders integrated into the whole human community? It is not even able to ensure the satisfaction of the most elementary needs of everyone, although the productive forces of all humanity have reached a level where these needs could and should be satisfied.

As long as the present organization of society persists, revolutionary communists, even while acting to overthrow it, continue to defend the elementary democratic rights of everyone to circulate and settle freely whatever their origin, European or not. They affirm that workers belong to the same class, with the same interests and the same fight to carry out for their emancipation. Revolutionary communists counterpose internationalism to all forms of nationalist demagogy. They consider that the strengthening of borders and the hunt for migrants are expressions of the reactionary evolution of society, and that they are deadly harmful for the workers’ interests.

The political parties of the bourgeoisie competing in the European election are divided between those who present the European Union as an opportunity and those who denounce it as the origin of all evil. Both lie, each as much as the other.

We don’t intend to align with one or the other of these two camps. To focus the debate on a choice between more or less of the European Union is a false debate, leading the workers, once again, to forget their class interests.

Counterposed to Big Capital, the Camp of the Workers

Lutte Ouvrière is running in these elections in order to make the material and political interests of the working class heard. This starts with vital requirements facing the crisis of the capitalist economy, which pushes growing masses into destitution and poverty. We run to show that even these most elementary requirements cannot be satisfied without calling in question capitalism and the reign of the big bourgeoisie over society.

We run to defend the elementary right of the popular classes to have a life worthy of the 21st century, on the material level, as well as on the immaterial one of human dignity.

Even to impose this right, it is necessary to expropriate the capitalist class, to wrench from them their property in the big plants, the banks, the commercial distribution centers, the big means of production, and to put them at the disposal of the collectivity.

The working class will be able to become conscious of this necessity only through struggles for its survival. But in order that these fights not be diverted into dead ends, or that they not nourish political forces violently hostile to the working class, it is necessary for the working class to have a program of struggle, goals and an organization. It is necessary to have a revolutionary workers party.

During the short period when the Yellow Vest movement developed and expressed the despair and the revolt of some of the most crushed-down parts of the working population – workers in small shops, retirees, unemployed – it raised many problems. These questions, widely known, ought to guide us concretely to formulate our interventions.

The big contingents of the working class – those at the big companies – were not set in motion. But they recognized the problems raised by the movement, because they shared these problems. Hence the sympathy among the workers, from which the Yellow Vest movement benefited.

Hence, also, the number of workers, including in the big companies, attracted to the traffic circles and the demonstrations.

Hence, the discussions that came out of all this, breaking with the climate of resignation, be it only because some people had dared! This was the main contribution of the movement of the Yellow Vests.

What will be left after the movement stabilizes and steps back?

The problems that were raised remain. The protest movements that will come – and there certainly will be some, given the certainty of attacks by the bourgeoisie – will turn around the same problems, as long as they involve one or another category from the world of labor: problems linked to unemployment and to the purchasing power of workers and of retirees; questions linked to social injustice, to the growing inequality between the world of the exploited and that of the exploiters; questions linked to the policy of the government and the lack of transparency in its decisions.

The questions posed have already been hijacked – and they will be more and more – by political currents representing diverse options for the bourgeoisie, running from the reformist left like Melenchon to the far right, in all its shades, including the most openly fascist. Bringing their own answers, all these currents will interpret, water down and transform the questions.

The movement produced a certain number of “Yellow Vest militants,” some of whom had no political engagement before, and others who, even if they had one, had taken their distance from it. This militant nucleus obviously played a role in the organization and the duration of the movement. Many were disgusted by the institutional parties. Nonetheless, they were led into political preoccupations in a context dominated by reformist ideas, at best, and, even more, by reactionary ones. The movement itself pushed toward politicization. But there is no spontaneous generation of ideas and of programs. To contest the established order does not say what should be put in its place and who will do it. Those militants found themselves in a dead end. Even if they succeed in building a political force, be it only by presenting a slate of yellow vests for the European election – which is not at all sure – this could produce different genres, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, or Podemos in Spain.

For revolutionary communists, the European election campaign can and must be an opportunity to give answers to the questions raised by the movement, answers that correspond to the interests of the exploited or oppressed majority of the population – answers that the movement could not bring because of its social composition, and because of the policies proposed by the forces that tried to play a role in the movement, most of the time hidden behind the mask of apoliticism.

The low level of people’s income seemed to be the common preoccupation of the movement. But demands around this question were trapped from the beginning, because this issue counterposed the small businessmen involved in the movement against the wage-earners, beginning with their own employees.

Instinctively, the Yellow Vests tried to solve this contradiction by ignoring it, that is to say, by avoiding what could upset people. But the apoliticism widely shared by many sincere Yellow Vests did not enable the movement to develop. On the contrary, it was one of the main brakes on it. It allowed the far right, in particular, to put itself forward behind a mask, while pushing its anti-worker perspectives.

The exploited classes cannot become conscious of their own political interests when they forbid themselves to raise them, out of fear they will divide the movement.

All the popular classes live under the crushing weight of big capital on society. But if one forbids oneself to speak of social classes and exploitation – all things judged as “political” – it is impossible to become conscious of this reality, and to draw all the conclusions about the relationship between classes, to understand in what ways the different interests of the different popular classes are opposed, and how they coincide, and how they can lead up to common perspectives.

Protest movements embracing various popular layers can lead up to a common perspective, unifying all the popular categories who are victims of the dictatorship of big capital, only if the working class mobilizes itself as such.

The working class is at the heart of the capitalist system. It is the only class not tied by private property to any aspect of the system, and the only one that can push a protest movement against the system up to its overthrow.

The working class will be able to do this only by acting where it is strong, where the main contingents of workers are concentrated: in the big workplaces – those of production, but also of finance, of transportation, and of the distribution of goods. The working class will have to be the best fighter, the spokesperson for all the social categories who are victims of the capitalist order. It will be able to do it only under its own flag, with its own demands, and its own means.

Block the Economy? Or Run It in the Common Interest?

In the beginning, the bourgeois media focused on “the original character” of the Yellow Vest traffic-circle blockages, which perturbed economic life and made the movement more visible. But this also froze the movement in narrow limits.

The political perspective of the working class is not to block political life. It is to reorganize it, to run it differently. It is to take from the big bourgeoisie its property in the big means of production and its command over all economic life.

From this difference in perspective, flow the different responses to the problems raised inside the Yellow Vest movement.

To begin with, the problem of purchasing power. This problem is shared by various categories of the working population: the workers in little businesses, retirees, unemployed – the most dispersed and crushed layer of the working class – who constitute its majority.

For the working class, behind the problem of purchasing power lies “the two basic economic evils which summarize the absurdity of the capitalist system, that is, unemployment and the high cost of living.” (As Trotsky discussed in the Transitional Program.)

The fact that a growing number of the unemployed are reduced to relying on public welfare programs is a catastrophe for the whole society. As in Trotsky’s time, the only valid goal in front of this catastrophe is to share out the existing work among all the workers, without any loss in pay. The length of the work week must be determined in relation to how much work is to be shared among how many people. To defend the purchasing power of wage-earners and retirees from increases in the cost of living due to price increases, aggravated by increased taxes, the only worthwhile goal is to increase wages and pensions and automatically index them to keep up with prices.

In expressing the legitimate will of better controlling what the state does with our taxes, the Yellow Vest movement raised the problem that the so-called “elite” hold a monopoly over decisions – although in a limited, very confused and ambiguous fashion. Essentially, the answer on which almost all the movement agreed was “Macron Quit!” Added to that was the right for the population to decide questions in a referendum.

Those elites in the state power, who are so well embodied in the person of Macron and his class contempt, are not suspended in the air. Behind them is the big bourgeoisie. Even those members of the state apparatus who do not come from the big bourgeoisie are trained to serve those who monopolize capital, the real power in society. To take on the capitalist class was not one of the goals of the Yellow Vest movement. They were content with denouncing the unfairness of the government’s actions getting rid of the tax on big fortunes.

Transparency over how and why decisions are taken is a legitimate preoccupation, but only the workers can pursue it up to the end, interpreting it in relationship to their class interests. The replacement of the chief of state by another person or the referendum provide a false solution to a real problem. The basic question, which was raised in a confused way by the Yellow Vests, is: who controls and in whose interests?

The answer cannot be limited to transparency in the functioning of the state. It must aim, as much and even more, at the functioning of the capitalist companies, on which the functioning of the economy and the society is based.

Transparency in the running of the companies can be achieved only by suppressing industrial and commercial secrets and by workers’ control over the companies.

The working class as a whole and in all its diversity is the only one able to realize control over economic life.

Even the capitalist class is not able to control, monitor and master the economy – except through the intermediary of the wage earners. In the companies to assure their functioning, in the banks, the insurance companies, and even in the hedge funds, the big bourgeoisie has to go through the intermediary of a whole hierarchy of wage earners, down to the least-paid employees.

Together and organized – that is to say, linked together, guided by class consciousness and a program – these employees would have no difficulty in exercising control, and this time not in the interest of a parasitic class, but in their own interest and in the interest of all the laboring classes. Together, they have the means not only to expose all the particular schemes and all the individual frauds that fill the news today, but also to bring to light the appropriation of the whole economy by big capital, and the hijacking of the collective forces of production for the benefit of a parasitic minority.

In acting together as a class, in bypassing local or sectoral interests, the workers in struggle will take, through control, the first step toward complete reorganization of the economy – that is, wrenching the means of production from their parasitic owners, giving work to all, and sharing it fairly. The old slogan of the laboring classes, “make the rich pay,” will have its full meaning at last.

Unity of the Struggle under the Leadership of the Working Class

When the Yellow Vest movement was growing, recruiting for the most part from the most crushed layers of the population, it pulled along at the same time other categories: liberal professions, peasants, craftsmen, people from the vast category of “entrepreneurs” who do not exploit anybody, and even small bosses.

The unity of the movement sincerely invoked by a number of Yellow Vests would not have been contradicted by the workers’ affirmation of their demands and their class perspective. Quite the contrary.

If the workers do not defend their own class interests, if they do not stand for their own policy, such a movement can lead only, in the best case, to a partial response to the demands of petty-bourgeois categories.

On the contrary, in affirming a class policy, workers can at the same time offer a policy to other categories of the popular classes while defending their own interests.

It would be in the interests not only of the wage earners, but also of the little peasants, the craftsmen, even certain small bosses, and everyone who provides goods for the big supermarkets, to be associated together to control the big capitalist companies. Control of the supermarket chains would show that when retail prices are increasing while the revenue of those who provide the goods decreases, it is because capitalist profit lies between them – profit of the supermarket chain, as well as of the banks.

Not to leave control over the banks in the hands of big capital is the only way to put an end to the use of credit for the profit of the parasitic big bourgeoisie. It is the only way to offer the indispensable loans that the little peasant, the craftsmen, independent businessmen and many other petty-bourgeois categories need to do their jobs, without providing profits to finance capital.

The laboring population mobilized for this control will naturally lead to the necessity of expropriating the banks and the private financial companies, regrouping them in a new state bank put under the control of the workers.

All that seems very far away and abstract today. But if the Yellow Vest movement showed anything, even on a small scale and within narrow limits, it is how quickly things can change when the laboring classes who today are resigned set themselves in motion.

In a way, the Yellow Vests have also raised the problem of the party. Their movement did it mostly in a negative way. The hostility toward the institutionalized parties was the brand of the movement at its beginning. But the movement itself raised the question of how to structure itself, in particular for the European election.

The discussion around this aspiration facilitates things for us to assert that it is not sufficient to reject the parties of the bourgeoisie. A party for the exploited and for the poor is needed. It is necessary to explain also that the party of the exploited must know which social class is the enemy of the exploited, who are their friends and possible allies. The revolutionary communist party can be constituted only around a shared objective, around a program.

With the crisis, in this situation where the bourgeoisie is on the offensive, taking back rights from the workers, any serious demand by the wage earners will need a difficult and determined fight. But when the workers really fight for their class interests, they will realize through their experience that as long as the bourgeoisie rules the big industrial and financial companies, it will turn them around; they will realize that the only means to really go forward is to control what is going on in the companies. It is necessary to know what is the real margin of profit, and where the profits go, how much are invested, how much are given to the shareholders.

The question of power, as well as the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, will be raised, as it has been raised already by the big social struggles. Then, “the working class will take consciousness of this truth that if they want to live capitalism should die,” according to the expression of the French CP when it was communist.

The fight for immediate, daily demands and the fight for the emancipation of the workers must be a single and identical fight. It is necessary today that the most combative workers be convinced of this: to militate for the interests of the workers is to militate for the social revolution!

For a Workers Revolutionary Communist Party

With the step back and a kind of stabilization of the Yellow Vest movement, it has become more and more of a field where political currents and militants are acting – even a field for paramilitary training – some with their banners deployed, some still hidden behind pretended “apoliticism.”

Other movements of contestation will inevitably occur.

It is necessary to seize all opportunities to display the ideas and the program of the revolutionary workers current.

It is necessary to do as much as possible to politically arm the workers. It is necessary to arm them not only for the defense of their material interests, but also for their defense in the face of the activity of far-right groups in the movement. The existence of groups like that in a movement is a warning.

Capitalism in crisis and the mobilizations it fosters objectively open the possibility for the working class to gain a superior consciousness of itself. But this also can allow the strengthening of currents who are in favor of authoritarian solutions to preserve the capitalist order.

The emergence of a revolutionary workers party will be the most concrete expression of the working class becoming conscious; at the same time it will be the indispensable tool for the development of the workers’ consciousness.

The social upheaval – of which the Yellow Vest movement gave an advance taste – can confront the workers with many other necessities, including that of defending themselves against fascist groups.

This has nothing to do with the little war that takes place between far-left groups and far- right groups, amid the indifference, even the hostility, of the workers. These skirmishes may be advance signs of a necessity that will be imposed on the workers. But this little war does not come out of the class struggle.

The class struggle, if it develops and becomes wider, will make it indispensable for the workers to find the means to defend themselves and to defend their organizations. The class struggle, led by a conscious proletariat, is also what can give a perspective against all the kinds of rottenness that surge out of decaying capitalist society, such as racism, under all its forms.

It is only the regaining of confidence in itself by the working class that can guarantee even elementary democratic freedoms, and not the hypocritical speeches of the political leaders of the bourgeoisie.

Our electoral campaigns must allow us to defend and propagate revolutionary communist ideas, but they must also allow all those who recognize themselves in these ideas to understand that they are not the only ones, and to recognize us as defenders of these ideas.

It is in this sense that our electoral campaign is part of our objective to recreate a revolutionary workers communist party.