the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jun 12, 2011
The following article is a translation of a presentation made on June 12 by comrades of Lutte Ouvrière in one of the forums at their annual festival in France.
The catastrophe at Fukushima Japan has shone a light on the risks of nuclear power.
It’s a major problem, particularly for the people who live near the nuclear power plants, those in the region of Fukushima first of all. But it’s also a problem for people near Fessenheim in Alsace France, for example, who are wise not to trust declarations made by EDF or Areva managers about the safety of their nuclear facilities.
We wish to look at the problem from the communist point of view.
Problems raised by nuclear power are similar to all the scientific and technical problems that accompanied the beginning of every new advance during the whole history of capitalism.
For more than two centuries, the bourgeoisie has developed the productive forces to an extent never before known. In expanding from one economic sector to another, the capitalist mode of production unified the planet into a vast world market. In utilizing the steam engine, in introducing scientific and technical advances everywhere, capitalism multiplied humanity’s productive capacity. In this way, the bourgeoisie played a progressive historic role. To repeat one of Marx’s formulations, the bourgeoisie had “created marvels even more astounding than the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals.”
This unprecedented development of productive forces made possible a spectacular lengthening of life expectancy. It allowed humanity to master the laws of nature in every field: from biology to medicine, from physics and chemistry to all fields of technology.
But these upheavals in the way of producing wealth were launched, from the beginning, by the capitalists’ search for profit. Under such a condition, each scientific advance, while opening the door to improvements for humanity, turned into a deadly threat against human beings, as well as against nature.
The invention, for example, of the spinning jenny and mechanical looms, instead of liberating the artisans from tiresome labor, ruined them and transformed them into proletarians, condemned to slave away in industrial settlements.
To lower wages, the bourgeoisie sent children of six or seven years into the mines. To extract coal at the lowest cost, the bourgeoisie caused the death of tens of thousands of miners – on the spot in explosions or in the collapse of inadequately shored up mines, or little by little with silicosis.
For more than a century, the bourgeoisie literally asphyxiated the inhabitants of the big industrial cities with smog loaded with coal soot.
Since the introduction of coal and the steam engine, each new invention, each new advance went through the same scenario.
It’s not possible here to make the list of all the catastrophes – social, economic, sanitary and environmental – provoked by the search for profit. The list would be too long!
To the victims of coal, we can add the victims of lead, of asbestos, of dioxin, and of many other toxic substances.
All the industrial catastrophes – from the coal mine in Courrières in 1906 which killed more than 1000 miners, to the chemical plants in Bhopal, India, which killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people in 1984 – were primarily the result of the irresponsibility and the greed of the industrialists who knowingly took risks with the health and the lives of the workers and the people living nearby.
In the middle of the 19th century, Marx and Engels denounced the way the capitalist thirst for immediate profit ravaged workers and nature. Engels wrote poignant pages about the fate of the proletariat in Great Britain during the 1840s. In the same book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, he also denounced the pollution and the diseases caused by savage industrialization.
But Marx and Engels were not denouncing technology, nor scientific progress. On the contrary. They denounced the organization of society, that is, private property in the means of production.
What characterizes capitalist society is the fact that all the machines, all the means of production – as complex and efficient as they might be – are put to work by the minority of private owners that possess them. Each choice, each decision is taken as a function of their own private interests, and often their most immediate ones, ignoring the more long-term consequences on human beings and on the environment, as well as on the whole of the economy.
This minority accumulates most of the wealth, while the majority of the population has to wait to have access to technical, medical and cultural advances, if they have access at all.
The owners of capital condemn tens of millions of able-bodied workers to unemployment and poverty, while others have to slave away and wear themselves out on the production lines.
They use new technical means, disregarding the health of workers, consumers and the nearby area, disregarding public health as well as nature.
Faced with the dictatorship of the capitalists over all the means of production, faced with the waste this produces, faced with the numerous ravages it provokes, it’s necessary to put the capitalists’ activity under the control of the workers, and to expropriate the capitalists.
It’s only then that society will be able to choose collectively how it wants to produce wealth, taking into account all the consequences, immediate, as well as long-term.
This is the perspective that communists ever since Marx and Engels have advocated. Already necessary in the epoch of coal, this perspective has become more vital in the period of nuclear power because, in the years intervening between coal and nuclear power, the means of production, as well as the harmful character of capitalism have multiplied many times over.
That is the heart of the problem.
It’s completely understandable that people are alarmed and revolted by the catastrophe of Fukushima.
We should be revolted by Tepco’s lies about the conditions at the plant and its falsified reports as it avoided carrying out costly maintenance work. Tepco and all the other owners of nuclear power plants gamble with the lives of the workers and the population when they economize on safety, when they avoid warning people in the nearby area about accidental discharges of radioactivity, when they transport radioactive waste through the middle of urban zones, when they resort to subcontractors whose employees are given less protection and no regular medical examination.
Yes, we should be revolted by the active complicity of governments with the industrialists. The Japanese government closed its eyes to the lies and failures of Tepco. It smothered repeated warnings from scientists, especially from seismologists, about inadequate safety standards. After the catastrophe, the government let Tepco manage the damaged plant as it wanted, and it accepted Tepco’s continual lies. Worse, it rushed to Tepco’s financial rescue, under the pretext this would allow Tepco to compensate the victims.
We should be revolted by the fact the government raised the legal limit of the amount of radiation the population or the workers can undergo, and by the fact the government reopened the schools in the district of Fukushima, knowing perfectly well that the children will be exposed to elevated doses of radiation, without knowing what the consequences will be.
Making the population and the workers take these deadly risks is a crime – one more added to the thousands of crimes and ignominies committed by capitalism. This criminal behavior – by the private managers of the nuclear power plants as well as by the governments that cover up their actions – raises alarm. But it’s necessary that alarm be transformed into revolt.
And if a revolt materializes, it’s necessary that it not be turned against technology, but against the cause of this catastrophe, that is to say, against the social organization responsible for this umpteenth catastrophe – against the capitalist system and the state apparatus that perpetuates it.
The German government has announced that it wants to get rid of nuclear power. We will see in the coming years what this means, and what it will change, or not change, about the dangers that threaten the population.
But we can already see that Germany will import some nuclear power from its neighbors in order to replace the electricity produced by the nuclear power plants it is going to close. And we know that the amount of radioactivity produced by an accident from a “neighbor” would not stop at borders. It’s necessary to discuss these problems at least on the level of a whole continent.
Moreover, even if the proposed final shut down date – 2022 – is respected, this leaves more than ten years for the private exploiters of German nuclear power to cause an accident. Which capitalist would carry out maintenance work on facilities promised for the scrap heap?
And then, who will dismantle these facilities, an operation that has never before been carried out? How long will it take? Under what conditions will the workers and those living nearby find themselves?
The case of asbestos gives eloquent testimony about such problems. Workshops for removing asbestos exist almost everywhere. But the work is often carried out by workers hired by sub-contractors, badly trained, badly equipped, directly suffering the ill effects of the asbestos they are supposed to remove. It took a whole campaign to make the French government give up its plans to have the old asbestos-filled aircraft carrier Clemenceau taken apart in a workshop in India, where the workers would permanently breathe in the poison.
We could also bet that this announcement about stopping the German nuclear power plants will service as a pretext for the operators to increase their prices – just as the accident at Fukushima did. For them, all pretexts are good, and “saving the environment” is a very useful one.
If prices go up, this means that the popular classes will have even more difficulty to heat their homes, and that their means of transportation will be even more run down – while the wealthy will continue to take private jets when they want. In the capitalist market, it is obviously the user who ends up paying the bill. And, once again, the poor will pay.
In this capitalist society, every choice, every policy turns back against the population, the workers, and finally against the interests of society.
Insofar as decisions are not taken consciously and collectively, weighing all their consequences, but only in secret administrative councils, or by governments entirely in the service of private owners, there will be dangers everywhere.
The future must not abandon technology, we must not try, in a reactionary and illusory fashion, to withdraw into small, local production. More than ever, production must be collectivized, the means of production socialized, on the level of the whole planet. This is precisely the result for which the whole development of the productive forces has prepared.
For technical progress to benefit all of society, without destroying human beings or nature, it is necessary and vital to put an end to capitalism.
But, someone asks, what about the present?
It’s necessary that the workers, the consumers, the neighbors of all the industrial facilities be able to make all the decisions, technical as well as economic, that they be able to oversee how the decisions are carried out, that they have a permanent control over all the steps of implementing the decisions.
It’s necessary that the workers be able to exchange all the information they have and that they be able to make it public without any hindrance. Even more than other facilities, the nuclear power plants must be totally transparent. To impose such a control is a permanent fight, which must be carried out as collectively as possible. It’s necessary that we not let ourselves be exploited, nor endangered, nor poisoned.
This is where the problem of nuclear energy joins all the other problems. It’s necessary to get rid of industrial and commercial secrecy, to get rid of business secrets in all the workplaces; they serve only to hide the worst attacks against society by the capitalist owners. Control by society over all economic activity is the only way to open a perspective of scientific and technical progress mastered by humanity.
To be able really and durably to impose such control, it’s necessary to take the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists who own them, in order to place them under the direct and conscious control of the workers.
It is only thus that we will be able to completely master the production of riches to satisfy the needs of humanity without risk for the population, without endangering nature. The decisions of society in all domains could be made collectively, on the scale of the whole planet, taking into account the long-term consequences, as well as the immediate ones.
We’ll end with this quote from Marx: “From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”