The following article was first printed in Revolutionary Transit Worker No. 34.
For decades now the whole working class has been under attack. Blacks, Latinos and immigrants have been hardest hit by economic and racist attacks. Outbreaks of resistance have been infrequent and limited. Overt class struggle has been pretty well contained. But even though most workers don’t recognize it today, big working-class fightbacks are not only possible -- they are inevitable. Such massive struggles, which our transit strike began to hint at, are absolutely terrifying to the capitalists.
In fact, the bosses would love for class struggle to just be considered an “old-fashioned” notion from the past. However, in the light of recent experience, a good number of transit workers are already thinking about the need for “class struggle.” It’s the key to what our lives are going to be like, and will make the difference for future generations as well.
The great bulk of people would vastly prefer to live in a world free of poverty, unemployment, racism and war. This kind of world, which really does put human need before profit, is only possible under socialism. Many workers today, including the racially oppressed and the poorest sectors, would readily agree that this is the kind of world they would want for themselves and future generations. But they think it’s a pipedream. When they are able to experience their own power in united mass actions that win victories, they will begin to see that our class can turn this vision into a reality.
The class struggle -- the conflict between the capitalists and the workers -- is at the very heart of the capitalist system. It explains how it works and where it is going. This scientific understanding was first explained by Karl Marx. The capitalist class makes profits at the expense of the working class’s wages and living standards, so the two sides are inevitably driven into conflict. The workers create the wealth and the bosses take the lion’s share.
Capitalism has always been brutal in its methods. But it developed technology and a worldwide system of production which laid the material basis or groundwork for overcoming scarcity and creating abundance for all. People could have everything they need to live well. But it’s impossible to achieve under the capitalist system, which is driven to pursue profits rather than human needs. Therefore, as Karl Marx pointed out, only a workers’ or proletarian socialist revolution could bring about a society of abundance for all .
By the birth of the twentieth century it became apparent that capitalism was no longer a progressive system on a world scale. Development could now only happen in one sector at the expense of other economic sectors. For example, it could develop the productive forces but only through imperialism, which looted and superexploited the peoples of the economically backward countries. And even in the economically advanced countries, inter-imperialist wars, depressions and fascism confirmed that the system had become reactionary. Another major depression leading to fascism and a Third World War will now become inevitable if revolution doesn’t stop it in time.
Previous historic systems like feudalism and other more primitive societies were overthrown when they outlived their usefulness and could no longer bring humanity forward. Likewise the capitalist system is now retarding further advances for humanity. However, what is striking about capitalism is that it developed the modern working class, which is now the class positioned to bring about its overthrow. Just like workers make the transit system run, it is the overall working class which allows the economic system as a whole to run. Nothing can be built or moved without us.
As well, the vast majority of workers have no real stake in maintaining capitalism because we don’t own any means of production or businesses; we aren’t bosses. Indeed, workers have to sell their labor power to the bosses in exchange for paychecks. As the fundamental source of their profits, our strategic economic position gives the working class the power to forge decisive change.
By using our power and by learning through big struggles and the lessons of the class struggles that went before us, workers develop advanced or revolutionary class consciousness. This consciousness means not only the ability to take the working-class side on the immediate issues. It also means understanding our need and ability to organize to overturn the capitalist state, and create our own workers’ state on the road to socialism.
If the capitalist state, ruled by the capitalist class, was overthrown by the workers, it would mean creating a new state ruled by the working class and oppressed people. This new state would nationalize the banks and corporations, without compensating the bosses, and would set us on the path of creating socialism. It would mean full employment, decent guaranteed health care, housing, education and retirement for all, and a program of public works and re-industrialization of the economy. Technology would not mean layoffs but reduced hours of work with no loss in pay.
Socialism can only be built upon abundance -- which could only be achieved by pooling the combined industrial power and resources of many countries, not just one country alone. And so a revolutionary society would plan for international cooperation based on supporting socialist revolutions elsewhere and the creation of federations of workers’ states. Over time, the material basis for every form of oppression would be removed. Racism, sexism, and hostilities against different nationalities would die out over time, since there would be no need for vicious combat among workers, who are all forced to fight each other for the miserable jobs and other crumbs that capitalism offers us.
There are good reasons for workers’ current skepticism about the power of our class to lead a fight against capitalist attacks. As RTW consistently points out, the biggest reason is the current misleaders of the working class, like Roger Toussaint and the rest of the union bureaucrats. They have engineered decades of defeat for the working class. It is they who have made us feel powerless to change things. They work overtime to hold back workers’ struggle and prevent us from exercising and recognizing our own class strength. When they are forced to call some struggles, they try to limit them and prevent them from spreading. This happened with our strike most blatantly. And since then, transit workers have seen more obvious barriers to further struggle thrown up by Toussaint and his partners-in-betrayal.
But it is also true that even under misleadership, partial victories are more than possible. In fact those victories are exactly what will give workers the confidence to go even further. Thus revolutionary workers fight hard alongside our fellow workers to build successful class struggles today, and especially to build the fighting unity of the whole working class. That is the best way for more workers to see their own power in action. There is no need to “instigate” our fellow workers: it is the conditions of capitalism itself which eventually force workers to act to defend ourselves, to engage in mass fightbacks.
This is what happened in the 1930’s and in a different way with the return of a recession in the early 70’s. Workers became confident and were radicalized in great numbers. The working class searches for its own alternative to capitalism only when it knows its own strength to actually achieve big changes.
A further barrier to constructing the workers’ alternative is confusion about what socialism actually is. This is not accidental: it is the legacy of the greatest historic setback for the revolutionary movement, the overturn of the workers’ revolution in Russia. That revolution had been led by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. In 1919 the revolutionaries of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks, joined with revolutionary workers around the world to form what was called the Third International, dedicated to leading the socialist revolutions developing in other countries.
But the Soviet Union became isolated, as reformist misleaderships played a decisive role in betraying other revolutions, such as in Germany. Under those conditions, a faction arose inside Russia and the Third International, which rejected proletarian (workers’) internationalism rather than fight for international revolution. The faction was led by Stalin, who justified his actions with the theory that socialism could be built in one country alone. He succeeded in gaining the leadership in Russia and of the International. In the hands of Stalin and his followers, the Third International turned to betraying revolutions in other countries.
By the end of the 1930’s, this leadership had restored capitalism in the Soviet Union itself. Trotsky and his followers formed a Fourth International, based on Marx and Lenin’s understanding of the need for working-class internationalism, to fight Stalin’s betrayals. But Stalinism, a totalitarian system which actually used fake socialist or communist parties and rhetoric to suppress the working class, became dominant for an important historic period.
With the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites from 1989 through the early 90’s, many workers concluded that socialism had failed. In reality Stalinism never had anything in common with authentic internationalist socialism. It was rather just a statified form of national capitalism. The fall of Stalinism created an opening for workers internationally to start re-discovering authentic Marxism, which is now also called Trotskyism.
Today capitalism is on a global offensive that is wiping out past gains. As profit margins have fallen in the system as a whole, competition between capitalist firms and nations has become ever more vicious. The “race to the bottom” in which capitalists try to outdo each other in finding the cheapest labor possible is prevalent. At root this is an intensified method of capitalist class struggle by the bosses. A greater and greater part of this drive is the super-exploitation of workers in poorer, neo-colonial countries, backed by different forms of covert intervention and control -- and overt imperialist military intervention such as in Iraq. No surprise that masses have already rebelled against this system internationally, and in a number of cases, like that of the Iraqi resistance, they have put U.S. imperialism in a bind. It is becoming more difficult for the major imperialists, particularly the U.S., to simply dictate terms abroad.
The U.S. rulers are also well aware of the need to escalate the attacks against workers and the poor at home. Much of the working class is facing layoffs and cutbacks based on firms threatened by closures, bankruptcy or the like. But even companies with healthy profit margins, like Exxon and Wal-Mart, are expert at maintaining low wages in the U.S. while sucking the blood out of workers in other countries. (This in fact is a large part of why they are profitable.) In short, much of the working class is stuck in low-wage jobs and has little in the way of health care and retirement plans.
A key focus of these recent attacks has been pensions -- for workers who have them. Pension funds have been underfunded for years. The stock market boom of the 90’s hid the fact that the bosses weren’t meeting their fund obligations with hard cash. When stocks went down, the funds ended up short of cash. Now the bosses are demanding that workers either pay into the pension funds themselves, accept inferior plans or give up on their claims. A similar cruel pattern is at work with health plans.
Transit workers are in better shape than most workers, because of their strategic position and immediate factors like the surplus the MTA ran this past year. But the MTA, like the government as a whole, is burdened with an enormous debt, and therefore with huge interest payments it has to make to the banks and Wall Street. In the face of this fiscal reality, and in the context of a system moving toward greater austerity for the masses of people, transit workers, like others, will face threats of layoffs and other cutbacks in the future that are worse than what is already afoot.
The needs of the ruling class to boost profit rates also dictates escalated racist and anti-immigrant attacks across the board -- to keep the working class down through divide-and-conquer methods. And it produced the horror of man-made disasters like Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, where masses of mainly Black and poor working-class people on the Gulf Coast died because of contemptuous neglect by the capitalist system.
Given capitalism’s necessary priorities, the desperate plight of joblessness and homelessness perpetrated by the government’s lack of response to Katrina is the future for many others as well -- if capitalism is allowed to continue. And the growing capitalist rivalries internationally will mean the development of massive military conflicts beyond what already exists, up to and including a Third World War and the destruction of civilization as we know it. Only the working class, through socialist revolution, can stop this nightmare.
We argue that socialism is the only solution. But the socialist perspective in no way means that we should not fight to build a defense against the immediate attacks today. On the contrary, it is absolutely necessary, and revolutionaries make the very best fighters for today’s struggle. But in order to fight most effectively, workers also have to understand that there can be no lasting concessions from the capitalist system. To win security and abundance for all, the working class will have to take matters into our own hands. In order to both win our battles today and build toward this future socialist revolution, we urge interested workers to get in touch with the LRP, to learn more about the strategy, tactics and history of our movement.
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