Welcome to Striketober: Strike Wave Sweeps the U.S.
By Millie Phillips
It’s so big, it now has a nickname: Striketober.
Throughout the pandemic, increasing numbers of U.S. workers are saying we’ve had enough: enough of low wages and lousy benefits or no benefits at all, enough of sky-high housing costs, enough of precarious gig work, enough of pandemic related danger and overwork, enough of disrespect and abuse, enough of risking our lives while billionaires score record profits and avoid taxes.
As COVID restrictions have begun to ease up, stimulus checks have ended, eviction moratoriums have come to a close, and employment statistics are showing weak job growth, politicians and the media assumed unemployed or underemployed workers would go back to work eagerly, no matter how bad the pay or working conditions, yet employers are scrambling to fill vacant positions. Plus, huge numbers of workers are quitting the jobs they already had, some 3% of the workforce each month since April; a record number of 4.3 million in August alone.
This is now combined with an actual strike wave by union workers and even walkouts and protests by unorganized workers in tech, fast food, and retail occupations. With labor union membership in the U.S. lower than it’s been in living memory and labor laws designed to prevent or discourage union organizing, this strike wave come as a surprise to most, but, increasingly, even the mainstream media and liberal pundits are covering it.
So just how many striking workers are there? The numbers change daily and no one is reporting an exact figure, but Julia Conley, a writer for Nation of Change, claims 100,000 workers are either on strike or have voted to go on strike as of October 14, 2021. Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker shows at least 169 strikes occurring in 2021, 11 of which involved 1000 workers or more. A strike of nurses at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Mass., has been continuing since March and certain coal miners in Alabama have been out since April.
Workers are currently on strike against 46 employers. 10,000 workers just struck farm equipment manufacturer John Deere, and over 1000 workers at the giant food company Kellogg’s went out October 5. Strike votes have been taken by over 31,000 California healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente, a huge hospital chain, and by 65,000 workers in various trades in the film industry. The tracker also shows almost 550 labor-related protests reported in 2021. These actions are happening throughout the country and in a wide range of industries and occupations.
Though Time notes in an article dated October 8 that there were far more strikes 50 years ago, union membership was much higher then. This same article cites a July 2021 Gallup poll that shows that public support of unions is now at 68%, up from 48% in 2009 at the height of the “Great Recession.” 90% of Democrats and even 47% of Republicans approve of unions today. 48% of non-union workers indicate they’d like to be in a union. These are the highest figures in more than 50 years.
A labor resurgence was taking place even before the pandemic. (See this Time article from January 2021.) For example, there were 25 strikes of more than 1000 workers in 2019. However, withholding of labor by means other than strikes, such as widespread quitting, is a new phenomenon.
In an article for the Guardian dated October 13, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a liberal commentator, notes that job openings have increased 62% this year while workforce participation continues to drop. As pent-up demand increases for goods and services during the pandemic, Reich notes that workers have leverage and are “flexing their muscles for the first time in decades.” While Reich acknowledges this new militancy is an uncoordinated and largely spontaneous effort, he compares it to a general strike.
What does all this indicate? For one thing, it shows a growing awareness of the depravity of the capitalist system. For another, it shows an increasing willingness by workers to take action in defiance of assumptions that U.S. workers are too reactionary, divided, apathetic, complacent, or exhausted to resist.
It also shows the urgency of developing unity among all striking unions on a job site; otherwise, the bosses will just pick off the various categories of workers, including workers with seniority vs. new hires, and pit them against each other. [See accompanying article on impending unified strike at Kaiser, a health-care giant in California.]
On a political level, it underscores the dire need for Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Under the PRO Act, employers would be banned from permanently replacing striking workers. Secondary strikes would be legal. United struggle on the shop floor among the disparate unions could be secured.
Passing the PRO Act, however, will require ending the Senate filibuster. As we wrote in the editorial of Issue No. 41 (October 8) of The Organizer Weekly Newsletter in relation to the 220-day Saint Vincent Hospital strike in Massachusetts, a lesson that is applicable to the entire strike wave nationwide:
“But the Democrats refuse to buck the system to ensure majority rule on the issue of the PRO Act, and also in relation to the infrastructure bill, the budget reconciliation bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, the legalization of all undocumented immigrants, and all other issues that President Biden promised to deliver. Biden is perfectly happy to shield behind the conservative Democrats (notably Senators Joe Manchin the Krysten Sinema) to explain that he is trying to deliver, but his hands are tied.
“In the early 1960s, it took a mass movement, led by Black working-class organizations and their allies, to compel President Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Today, a similar movement needs to take shape in the ranks of the labor movement and among labor’s community allies.
“The AFL-CIO leadership can and must lead the way, it must break with its age-old policy of subordination to the Democratic Party, a party funded and run by Wall Street. The Labor movement must stop providing left cover for Biden and accompanying his every anti-worker measure at home and abroad.”
Building this growing movement into a coordinated force will not be easy since U.S. workers lack political representation and militant leadership. The leadership of most unions is unwilling to educate or mobilize its membership to act independently of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party. We need a party of our own — a working-class party rooted in the unions and communities of the oppressed.
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Massive Strike in the Works at Southern California Kaiser
By Mya Shone
In what would be the largest strike so far this year in the United States, with the potential to shut down hospitals and medical clinics throughout Southern California, 31,000 members of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) along with members of the United Steelworkers Local 7600 presented Kaiser Permanente’s Southern California division with a 10-day strike notice on Monday, October 11. These frontline workers, who risked their lives providing care during the height of the pandemic, are furious with Kaiser management.
Kaiser has refused to budge from its meager offer of a one percent raise. One percent is far less than the three percent of its current contract with other unions and the four percent put on the table by UNAC/UHCP. Meanwhile, the cost of living increased five percent in California over the past year. The math is simple. A one percent raise is a wage cut. Registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, pharmacy assistants, physical, occupational and speech therapists, appointment clerks, housekeeping attendants, and many others will be confronted essentially with trying to keep up with the rising cost of food, housing, and other essentials as their real wages drop.
Kaiser’s attack on its workforce doesn’t stop there. Following the path of the once highly unionized auto industry, Kaiser proposes to weaken union bargaining power by shifting to a market-based wage structure with performance-based bonuses, as well as introducing a “two-tier” wage scale for new hires, thus slashing their pay drastically. Its offer, for example, for starting pay for newly hired housekeeping and mobility techs in the Inland Empire region of Southern California (Riverside and San Bernardino) is even less than California’s $14/hour minimum wage requirement!
While Kaiser is facing a shutdown of its facilities in Southern California, it is trying to limp along at its 24 locations in Northern California, including major medical centers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Sacramento. The stationary engineers, members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39, who maintain its critical infrastructure — power plant operators for heating and ventilation, as well as the biomedical engineers who keep the oxygen machines, MRI, CAT scans, and other sophisticated medical equipment functioning — have been out on strike, walking the picketline since September 18 with no end in sight.
After months of fruitless negotiations — with Kaiser sticking to its wage-cutting one percent raise and two-tier proposal — and with their contract expiring, the stationary engineers considered they had no choice but to strike. A building cannot function, however, without heating and ventilation. Nor can the electrical and other systems required to operate sophistical medical equipment go unmonitored and unrepaired. Right away Kaiser brought in striker replacements — independent contractor firms and technicians from the equipment manufacturers — even though they would be unfamiliar with the particular equipment and systems issues within each facility.
Fundamentally, the mammoth integrated health-care provider — both an insurance company and provider of care with its own hospitals, clinics, and physicians, with 9.27 million California members (one in four Californians) — is the state’s largest private employer. While Kaiser Permanente is ostensibly a non-profit foundation serving its members with quality patient care, it actually has been operating in true capitalist fashion: accumulating revenue from operating profits and investments (in so doing amassing $44.6 billion in cash reserves) while trying to minimize workers’ wages and benefits.
Twenty-three years ago, most of Kaiser’s unions bought into the false promises of labor-management cooperation, for the most part coming to agreement on contractual issues time and time again. No longer. UNAC/UHCP told Kaiser that it considered the partnership cancelled since the many months of failed negotiations exposed Kaiser’s “bad faith.”
“How do you tell caregivers in one breath you’re heroes,” stated Charmaine Morales, RN, UNAC/UHCP Executive Vice President, “but in the next say I want to take away your wages and benefits? Even say you’re a drag on our bottom line.”
The pending UNAC/UHCP unified strike in Southern California presents Kaiser with a massive worker showdown. Despite Kaiser’s bluster, it is highly unlikely that it would be able to keep its 15 medical centers and 235 medical offices serving 4.6 million people throughout Southern California (including in Los Angeles and San Diego) functioning at even the barest minimal level should the nurses and a majority of other employees walk off the job.
While Kaiser has operated primarily in California since 1945, it has expanded to other states with locations as well in Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, and a smattering of facilities in Oregon, Georgia, and the Washington D.C. area. Nationally Kaiser has 12.5 million members and is growing rapidly, increasing by 129,000 new members in just the first quarter of 2021. It has 216,738 employees and had operating revenue of $88.7 billion in 2020.
UNAC/UHCP is affiliated with the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO. It is a member of a national Kaiser bargaining coalition, the Alliance of Health Care Unions (AHCU) which includes 21 union locals representing 52,000 Kaiser workers in eight states.
The AHCU formed after a split in 2018 from The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU) which today represents more than 85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers who are members of 11 union locals, primarily from national unions such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). CKPU contracts expire September 30, 2023. The 18,000 registered nurses who are members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United bargain separately with Kaiser Permanente, while Kaiser’s 23,597 doctors have their own for-profit corporation which is subsumed under the non-profit Kaiser Permanente umbrella.
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Call to Action: Override the Senate Parliamentarian, Citizenship for All, Now!
Thank you for endorsing the Movement for Papeles Para Todos’ organizational petition demanding that the Democrats in Congress override the Senate parliamentarian and enact citizenship for all, now. Over 60 organizations endorsed!
The fight is far from over. Congress has until October 31st to provide citizenship to our communities. This is why on September 30th, undocumented families from PPT risked arrest and deportation by occupying the Golden Gate Bridge to send a powerful message to Congress. Our message was clear: our communities cannot wait another 20 years of failed promises; citizenship for all, without exclusions!
As the PPT petition made clear, for us to win “We must return to the fighting spirit of the 10 million undocumented immigrants that paralyzed the entire country in the Spring of 2006. The time is now.”
For this reason, PPT issues this call to mobilize on Saturday 10/16 in San Francisco and on Tuesday 10/19 in San Jose (see fliers below), to culminate in a national mobilization on Saturday 10/23. To actively participate in the Bay Area Coalition for Economic Justice and Citizenship for All and plan for the 10/23 mobilization, please contact me.
Distribute widely. All out for 10/16, 10/19, and 10/23!
on behalf the Movement for Papeles Para Todos (PPT)
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CHINA Dossier Document No. 1: Who Can Defend China?
The following article is reprinted from issue no. 198 (October 8, 2021) of the weekly newsletter of the International Workers Committee Against War and Exploitation, For a Workers’ International (IWC). It was published originally in La Tribune des Travailleurs, the weekly newspaper of the Independent and Democratic Workers Party (POID) of France. — The Editors
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Why the Offensive by the United States Against China?
On September 21 at the United Nations, US President Biden declared, hand over his heart, that he did not want a “new Cold War,” that the US is “not in conflict” with China but only “in vigorous competition.”
But a week before this speech, Biden had announced the formation of a new US-British-Australian military alliance against China: AUKUS. The Australian government then seized upon this occasion to cancel its order for French submarines in favor of US nuclear-powered submarines, which would enable a rapid military attack by Australia against the Chinese coast.
It is a fact: “More than ever, confrontation with China is Joe Biden’s top international priority. And the US president is coolly plotting his course, even if it means doing collateral damage among his allies” (Agence France-Presse, September 21). Biden’s policy, states the think tank Atlantic Council Institute (quoted by AFP) is indeed “a form of continuity” with Trump’s policy and his “America First” motto, both in substance and “in the rather unilateral method,” where “Europe takes a back seat.” It was with the same logic of focusing against China that the US administration handed Afghanistan over to the Taliban, after 20 years of occupation.
Who needs this march to war?
Faced with the crisis of the system of private ownership of the means of production, the capitalists – starting with those who are the most powerful in the world: those of the United States – need to restore their profit margins. As the market has been saturated for a long time, there is only one way to do so: attacking the workers and all their gains, demolishing any and all obstacles that keep them from plundering.
The Chinese market has largely escaped this plunder, despite decades of Chinese bureaucracy’s policies of “opening up to capitalism.” The capitalists say it very clearly: “The Covid crisis, emanating from China, has changed the perception of this country, considered opaque by international investors. … Whatever the interest of private companies in the huge Chinese market, it remains a given that this market will never resemble a classic Western market.” (Capital, 28 August)
Capital goes on to state that the Chinese government does not “fit into the framework of what is usually understood by free economy. … The world has discovered that in China, far from the entrepreneurial dream, fortunes and careers were made and unmade by party technocrats. No one should become so rich and powerful as to oppose the current status quo.” Today, the severe crisis of the capitalist system demands that all obstacles to the imperialist plundering of China be removed.
How is the Chinese government reacting?
Faced with this offensive, the Chinese government is looking for allies. On September 17, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which China heads up, along with Putin’s Russia, approved Iran’s bid to become a member. But this structure, which is supposed to serve as a counterweight to US policy, has its limits: it includes some of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, but also India and Pakistan, whose governments – although opposed to each other – are loyal allies of the United States.
On the domestic front, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party, launched the so-called “common prosperity” policy in August. The draft five-year plan unveiled on August 27 “reflects far more concern about the employment situation in China than in the past (Trivium, August 30). The aim is to “strengthen emergency responses to the risks of large-scale unemployment.”
Faced with these risks, and the US threat, the Chinese government has taken coercive measures against certain billionaires: the boss of Alibaba Corp., the boss of Didi (the Chinese Uber), the bosses of a few food-delivery platforms, and some others. On another front, the government has banned the lucrative private-tuition sector, commandeering thousands of private schools.
What about Chinese workers?
The Chinese government’s measures against a few billionaires are not the reflection of a “desire to return to socialism,” as the BBC warns, worriedly (September 23). For socialism is about benefitting the workers – and in China, workers have no say and no right to organize freely, either in trade unions or politically.
The same Chinese regime that takes measures against a few billionaires throws delivery workers (and other categories of workers) in jail just for organizing in their workplaces and striking for their demands. The website Sinocism (September 2) provides the following summary: “On the one hand, companies that exploit workers are repressed, on the other hand, people who help workers are arrested. So only changes approved and directed by the Party are allowed.”
In Hong Kong, the Chinese regime has just forced the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) to dissolve itself! This is the confederation that represented about 100 workers’ trade unions, organizing 145,000 workers. Of course, to justify its repression, the Chinese government accused the HKCTU of being “foreign-funded,” by which it means funded by the United States. [See two articles below on the dissolution of the HKCTU.]
Who can defend China?
When Biden, following Trump and on behalf of Wall Street, focuses the great bulk of his efforts against China, who is he targeting? He is targeting Chinese workers and their gains from the 1949 Revolution, including State ownership of the economy. So repressing workers’ strikes and independent trade unions, as the bureaucracy does, can only contribute to weakening China in the face of the US offensive.
Conversely, the workers of the world must stand with their Chinese brothers and sisters, with the workers’ strikes, with the HKCTU and with the independent underground unions in mainland China. Defending the Chinese working class, helping them to win their right to form their own organizations, is the best way to oppose Biden’s threats of war against China.
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CHINA / HKCTU Document No. 2
Communiqué from the China Inquiry Commission
(Press Statement by the HKCTU – October 3, 2021)
The China Inquiry Commission today learned of the decision of the Executive Committee of the HKCTU, Hong Kong’s independent trade union confederation, to prepare for the dissolution of the union, which will be put to a membership vote on October 3, 2021.
After throwing HKCTU President Carol Ng and General Secretary Lee Cheuk-Yan in jail earlier this year, the government has now decided to physically threaten the still active confederation leaders after a shameful smear campaign, forcing them to resign. This follows the termination of the HKPTU teachers’ union last month, a 95,000member union affiliated to the HKCTU, and presages further attacks on the trade union movement, for example on the HAEA, the hospital staff union, now accused of breaking the law.
This trade union confederation, which is independent of the government and formerly counted a hundred or so unions and 145,000 union members, is thus being forced by a government led and monopolized by the Chinese Communist Party to give up defending workers’ demands and rights.
The China Inquiry Commission, which has placed international workers’ solidarity at the heart of its work, considering that “the right of workers to independent organization knows no borders,” condemns these attacks on independent trade unions and workers’ rights organizations. For example, the AMRC (Asia Monitor Resource Centre, a regional workers’ information organization based in Hong Kong), is also being forced to leave Hong Kong.
It was the AMRC that in 1994 campaigned to expose the working conditions of toy workers in China as dictated by Hong Kong bosses in the Shenzhen Economic Zone, where 87 young workers lost their lives one night in 1993 in a factory fire, doors padlocked from the outside and bars on the windows. And it is the same people who yesterday protected the bosses in Shenzhen who today have launched an assault against the HKCTU and the AMRC in Hong Kong.
The China Inquiry Commission again appeals to the leaders of the international labor movement: It is your imperative duty to strongly condemn these attacks on the Chinese labor movement and to demand respect for the inalienable right to freely form trade unions. J. Wong, who still chairs the HKCTU, said yesterday: “The labor movement has always emphasized international solidarity. The HKCTU’s cooperation or relationship with unions in other regions is natural and justified, the government has never in the last 30 years said that this violates the law”.
- September 20, 2021
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CHINA / HKCTU Document No. 3
“The People United Will Never Be Defeated”: Oct. 3 Dissolution Statement of the HKCTU
Established on 29 September 1990, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) has gone through just about 31 years of unforgettable experiences with the people of Hong Kong. The June Fourth massacre impressed upon us that it was the task of the time to form a confederation to unite independent trade unions. Then and now, there are similar waves of emigration from Hong Kong due to political reasons. Then, HKCTU chose to stay, work with the grassroots, develop trade unions, promote labour rights, and ally with the public as the handover of sovereignty and an uncertain future approached.
The 1997 handover was followed by a financial crisis and subsequent economic recession, wage cuts and job losses. Even as the economy recovered and companies made more profit several years later, worker’s pay and conditions did not catch up. Meanwhile, the government put a set of neoliberal policies in force, including civil service reform, lump-sum grants for social welfare services and expansion in outsourcing. Massive and numerous labour disputes broke out. In addition to intervening in the disputes, HKCTU began raising the demands for a minimum wage, regulation of working hours, 17 days of statutory holidays for all, restoration of rights to collective bargaining, universal pension etc.
Some of these demands were realised in full, some in part and some still ignored by the government. Regardless, the significance lies in every group of workers who found the courage to stand up against exploitation and joined the campaigns. Always in our memories are the 2007 bar-benders’ strike, 2013 dock workers’ strike, 2017 cleaners’ strike and cases of collective resistance beyond count all over the years. The significance of HKCTU over these 31 years is to have empowered numerous workers to try to change their destiny.
Over the past decade when political conflicts sharpened and intensified, HKCTU was always present in the history-defining social movements from 2003 to 2014 and to 2019 alongside the people of Hong Kong. Amongst the trade union alliances in the city, I daresay there is only HKCTU that intervenes in industrial strikes and cares for social justice. We never regret doing our job; we only regret not doing it well enough. I can say with pride that our actions have been completely true to HKCTU’s fundamental principles of solidarity, dignity, justice and democracy.
In the Extraordinary General Meeting this afternoon, our affiliates passed the motion to disband HKCTU and authorise the remaining Ex-co members to take care of the matters until the dissolution process is complete. The affiliates understood HKCTU’s situation and struggled to make this decision with a heavy heart.
Most of the staff members of HKCTU and its training centres will be laid off in the next two months. Regarding our assets, we shall offer staff members a compensation package above the statutory requirements, and provide grassroots affiliates with rental and secretarial support, so that they can adapt to the impact of HKCTU’s disbandment quickly. After other necessary expenses, the remainder of the assets shall be divided among all the affiliates.
The end of HKCTU is indeed a huge blow to the independent labour movement. Nevertheless, we are highly faithful that the workers’ power of resistance will not therefore fade away. Contradictions bring opposition. Exploitations lead to struggles. A Chinese proverb says: “It is riskier to suppress freedom of speech than to prevent flooding with embankments; as water breaks the dam, casualties will only increase.” One may block the river, but without a way to channel the water, the only result would be a deadlier flood. A regime that deals with the one who raises the problem instead of the problem may feel proud for a moment, but the future of this country is destined to be hopeless.
We would like to acknowledge all the brothers and sisters who have been on the side of HKCTU for all these years – members of the Ex-co, staff and affiliates, volunteers, all the current affiliates as well as LEE Cheuk-yan, the General Secretary and Carol NG, the former chair, who gave their everything to HKCTU. Even as HKCTU ceases to exist, our friendships keep long lasting and our beliefs remain as one.
Finally, we wish to encourage fellow unionists and Hongkongers not to worry too much or feel depressed, for these are the times we need to put our willpower and wisdom to the test. Even without the institution of HKCTU in the future, I believe all the brothers and sisters who came to the meeting today will still take care of each other. When will we be back? We do not know the answer, but let me reply by quoting the lyrics of a song from the Chilean social movement in the ’70s: “The people united will never be defeated (El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido)”. No matter what the path before us turns out to be like, we will walk on together.
Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union
3 October 2021
 The HKCTU has its origins in the Chinese trade union-linked center, formed in 1967 in the struggle against British colonialism (which controlled Hong Kong until 1997).
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OUR REVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
The Paris Commune of 1871: Its History, Its Significance, and Its Relevance Today
One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1871, revolution broke out in France, giving birth to the first workers’ government in history.
Erased from official history by the supporters of the bourgeois order, falsified by many fashionable historians, its history and its lessons form part of the heritage of the world labour movement and deserve to be known and studied by all workers, young people and activists who – like the Communards before them – want to put an end to war and exploitation.
The French section of the Fourth International (Internationalist Communist Tendency)
organised a video conference on 30 April 2021 on the topic “The Paris Commune of 1871: Its history, its significance and its relevance today”, from which we publish below the first of two of the presentations. Major excerpts from the second presentation, by Christel Keiser, were published in our previous issue (No. 41) of The Organizer Weekly Newsletter.
The 2-part series on the Paris Commune is reprinted from the August 2021 issue of The Internationale, the theoretical magazine of the Fourth International-OCRFI. It has been left in its original British spelling.
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Marxist Theory of the State and the Lessons of the Paris Commune
By Marc Mouhanna
Marx’s writings, in particular The Civil War in France, demonstrate the importance of the Paris Commune for Marx and Marxists: it is intimately linked to the question of the state, a question central to both their theory and their practical struggle.
Why is a revolution that overthrows the existing power necessary to bring down capitalist exploitation? Why must the working class take political power? Will it simply take the place previously occupied by the current rulers? In order to deal with these questions, and to understand how the Paris Commune was an event that provided new and concrete answers to them, it is necessary to go back to the Marxist analysis of the state.
The state seems a mysterious thing at first sight: it seems to exist above society and gives its leaders the power to organise it. Whoever holds the reins of the state runs the whole of society. This is, however, an idealist view, which corresponds to a magical conception of political power, according to which the thinking of the head of state directs the whole life of the community. Marx dismantled this mystical view. To do this, he applied dialectical analysis to the state, showing that the realities we believe to be eternal and fixed are in fact fluid and provisional, because the state is not an eternal fact. It is not the state that makes society, but on the contrary, it is first of all society that makes the state.
An instrument serving the interests of the ruling class
The state has not always existed. In the distant past, there was what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism”, a society not divided into classes, because people were not able to produce more than the bare necessities, which were immediately consumed.
The development of the productive forces of mankind at that time did not allow for overproduction to happen. Later, as people became able to produce more, the possibility arose of accumulating goods that were not immediately consumed. These goods, in quantities too small to be redistributed to the whole of society, were monopolised by a minority, thus constituting a possessing class. The emergence of a ruling class and of inequalities then threatened the community with social war. It is in this context that the state appeared, answering the need to curb class oppositions: settling itself above the classes, claiming to embody the general interest and to represent the community as a whole, it took on the role of conciliator. In reality, under the mask of the general interest, the state – an instrument servicing the interests of the ruling class – was bound to ensure the rule of this class.
Thus, the state was the result of a social situation of domination where the issue was to perpetuate it in the face of the aspirations of the oppressed classes to overturn this situation. The state was to consist of “special bodies of armed men”, a minority exercising “organised violence” (1).
The state is therefore in no way independent of society. It is the effect of a transformation of social relations: the relations under which men produce together what satisfies their needs. And since it looks after the interests of the ruling class, the state has a class content. The ancient state, where production was essentially based on slavery, was the instrument of the slave-owners and aimed to guarantee the maintenance of that ownership. The medieval state, in feudal society, was the instrument of the noble lords for subduing the serfs and indentured peasants.
As for the modern state, it is not the realisation of real equality, the suppression of the division of society into classes; rather, it is “the instrument of the exploitation of wage labour by capital” (2).
The state is therefore never the agent of change, but of stability. Only a transformation of social relations can lead to a transformation of the state, as the French Revolution did, as a consequence of the growing economic importance of the bourgeoisie in feudal society.
Thus, the end of capitalism cannot be decreed by a head of state who by definition serves the interests of the bourgeoisie and the maintenance of its economic and social domination.
Marxism affirms the inevitable decline of capitalism, a system based on private ownership of the means of production which in its ascendant phase was a factor of progress for humankind, but which now comes up against its own limits: those imposed by the law of profit. From that point on, capitalism enters its stage of decay and develops destructive forces that are harmful to humankind (machinery, which today expressed as the digital economy, money, the arms industry, the drugs industry, the destruction of human labour-power through unemployment, the breaking down of social rights, public services, etc.).
Hence the need to overthrow it, which can only be accomplished by the class that has nothing to lose by its abolition: the proletariat. But Marx does not consider that it is enough to abolish the state, as the anarchists think: the state is not an autonomous reality, it is an effect of economic domination and not a cause of this domination, even if it contributes towards maintaining it. The abolition of the state would not abolish the social relations that underpin exploitation and class oppression. Marx asserts that the proletariat has as its purpose to take power and even to establish its dictatorship, which alone will allow it – through the abolition of private property of the means of production and their socialisation – to carry out the progressive transformation of society into a society without classes, without oppression and without exploitation.
But if it is not possible to abolish the state, how can the proletariat fulfil its purpose of social transformation by seizing state power? The state and the existing institutions are bourgeois institutions, serving the interests of the bourgeoisie. They cannot be made to serve opposing interests. It is not the individual at the head of the state that shapes the institutions, but rather, those institutions shape the individual, since he/she must adapt to his/her function. Capitalism cannot therefore be abolished by reforms carried out within the framework of the bourgeois institutions. This means that we cannot expect a revolution through the ballot box. What is needed is a revolution that overthrows not only the existing government, but also the existing relations of production.
But it seems that there is a contradiction between the end and the means when Marxism affirms that the proletariat must seize political power not only to end capitalism, but to end all class domination. Because, as we have seen, political power – state power – exists only due to the division of society into classes. How can the proletariat achieve the abolition of all class rule by using the instrument for maintaining class rule?
The seizure of power and the workers’ state: the experience of 1871
The Paris Commune of 1871 provided a practical answer to this question, which Marx had left unanswered until then. The key to the problem was not to be found in a theory elaborated by Marx, but in the real historical movement. Marx understood the Paris Commune to be the “a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing [class] against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” (3) Indeed, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”
It is not a question of taking control of and running the state machinery which faced it in its struggle. On the contrary, it is a question of “doing away with all the old repressive machinery” and of shifting the centre of gravity of society – which until then existed outside of and above the working class, expressed in the state machinery – towards society itself. “The Communal Constitution would have restored to the social body all the forces hitherto absorbed by the state parasite feeding upon, and clogging the free movement of, society.”
The working class cannot simply smash the state machinery: it cannot avoid substituting its organisations and its institutions for those of the bourgeoisie. But the workers’ state is no longer a state in the full sense of the word. It is a contradictory state, a state which no longer places itself above society, which no longer acts for the benefit of a minority of owners, in opposition to the majority of the exploited. The form of organisation of the Commune was already in itself profoundly revolutionary. “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.” Concretely, “the first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.” The Commune “was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms.”
In this way, the municipal councillors could not be free from those who mandated them. “The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time” – not a parliamentary body that would decide from above and leave the execution of decisions to others. “Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune.
So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government.”
Replacing the standing army with the people under arms, civil servants and representatives who were made answerable and revocable, paid at the worker’s wage – such are the essential measures which guarantee the anchoring of the workers’ state to society.
The men and women of the state share the fate of the people and answer to them for their mandate.
“The taking possession of the means of production in the name of society”
As we can see, the workers’ state, the Commune as government of the working class, is an immediately decaying state, doomed to gradually disappear.
Engels wrote, in Anti-Dühring: “The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production in the first instance into state property. But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, abolishes also the state as state. (…) When at last it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society – the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society – this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not “abolished”. It dies out.” (original emphasis)
Obviously, the proletariat does not replace the bourgeois state machinery with the workers’ state in one fell swoop: the organization of the proletariat does not arise in one fell swoop following the overthrow of the bourgeois state. On the contrary, forms of organization begin to be constituted well before this overthrow, in the very struggle within capitalist society which it aims to abolish. During the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie taking over the state machinery was only completing politically its growing economic domination (the domination of capital), after economic power had prepared the ground for the political conquest. But the proletariat has no particular form of ownership which allows it to dominate the rest of society: its only property is its labour-power, which is the common property of all people. So its wealth consists of nothing else but its organization: in trade unions, in political parties, in factory committees, in strike committees, and finally in workers’ councils (soviets), the form finally found in Russia for the dictatorship of the proletariat, once in 1905, appearing in the course of the struggle against the autocracy, and a second time in 1917, establishing a dual power in the face of the bourgeois Provisional Government.
On 23 November 1871, Karl Marx wrote: “The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organization of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point. On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. (…) Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organization to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise, it will remain a plaything in their hands (…).” (4)
(1) V I Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 1, discussing Engel’s conception of the state as set out in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
(3) This and the following quotes in this section are from the chapter entitled “The Paris Commune” in Karl Marx, The Civil War in France.
(4) Letter to Friedrich Bolte In New York, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol.44 (Letters 1870-73), Digital Edition, Lawrence & Wishart (2010), pp.258-9.