As we understand the general rise in fuel taxes has been withdrawn by the French government and certain categories most in need have been granted a (temporary) financial relieve. Faced with this partial (and possibly temporary) retreat by the French authorities, flanked by measures like attempting to foster a nationwide “social dialogue” while simultaneously trying to turn on the screws of state repression, the “yellow jackets” mobilization in France seems to be in decline.
The following text undertakes an attempt of drawing lessons from this inter-class mobilization in comparison with those that may be drawn from the recent wave of struggles in Iran, which has shown a more clearly pronounced proletarian character, but so far has met relatively few echoes within political milieus claiming adherence to proletarian internationalism.
What’s going on? Have those yellow jackets blocking roads and power stations been workers?
No, certainly not all yellow jackets were workers. This movement in France started as a “people’s movement”, in which workers were lumped together with members of the middle layers, small entrepreneurs and farmers. It opposed the increase in fuel prices by the Macron government, a measure affecting the entire population. By designating Macron as the person in charge, the “yellow jackets” movement linked the struggle to the demand for a change of government, new elections and some changes in the political system. These “political” demands did not affect the power of the state and capital. They were also partly inspired by the ultra-right that hoped to benefit from it by gaining power nationally. The movement of the yellow jackets was not a movement for demands of the working class.
But as the movement spread, more and more workers joined it, especially unemployed, pensioners and pupils, and students from working-class families. This group is referred to as “workers in yellow jackets”. As part of the working class, they have specifically joined in with the demand for an increase in the minimum wage (in French “SMIC”). This created a proletarian dynamic of its own within the movement of the yellow jackets, one that took a completely different direction than the latter’s petty-bourgeois goals. The Spanish blog ‘Nuevo Curso’ (1) has rightly pointed out that the workers in yellow jackets have thus reacted to decades of failure of the trade union movement and the so-called “workers’ parties” (from PS and PCF to Trotskyists and Maoists) to defend the workers against attacks on their wages, working conditions, employment, benefits and provisions. And behold, as workers’ demands came out stronger, the ultra-right quickly withdrew, and Macron was forced to make commitments. For the first time in decades, the state bowed. Not in response to the significance of the “yellow jackets”, but to prevent a mass movement by workers. Thus, the workers in yellow jackets were a phase, a step within a longer lasting movement, in what the council communists have called “the movement of the workers” – against a “workers movement” that has conformed itself to the persistence of capitalism and the state, defending the latter against the workers’ struggle. Faced with the dying out of the yellow jackets movement, this text tries to draw lessons from the workers’ struggle in the Middle East, and especially in Iran, in favor of a continuation of this movement of workers in France and throughout the world, and of the beginning of a new phase of proletarian struggle against the attacks of capital.
Why should we learn from the struggles in Iran?
Many workers in France and beyond think that the French working class is the most radical and combative in the world. Blockades and fights with the riot police seem to confirm this view. This is largely the appearance with which the post-Stalinist C.G.T. and the street fighters of the Black Blocks in particular hide how the trade union movement in France divides the workers’ struggle into one of different sectors, professions, regions and enterprises. When this division has paralyzed the extension of the struggle and the last workers are exhausted, fights with the riot police and, if possible, court cases against “violent” workers serve to put an end to the struggle. The blockades by the yellow jackets and the street fights with the riot police seem to confirm this image of a radical proletariat in France. However, when we compare the struggles in Iran with those in France, we see some striking differences.
While the struggle of the yellow jackets in France began as a “people’s movement” of the middle classes which was joined by workers, in the Middle East at the turn of last year it was, conversely, a strike movement of oil workers in Iraqi Kurdistan that spread to the enterprises in Iran and finally brought the proletarian youth in all big and small cities onto the streets to shout slogans against the war. A second difference was that the riots in Iran took on a political character from the outset, by turning against both the “reformist” and the “conservatives” within the state. In the 2009 elections, by contrast, parts of the middle class that were manifesting for “reforms” still dragged workers along with them in an internal factional struggle of capital. In the riots at the turn of 2017–2018, for the first time since the mass movements that led to the fall of the Shah in 1979, (2) workers in Iran acted as an independent class. In their wake they set in motion parts of the middle layers, from shopkeepers to farmers, and categories such as students and women. As long as the mobilization endured, the Basij police was lured into a cat-and-mouse game via social media and was often forced to withdraw. The regime did not dare to deploy the heavily armed “Revolutionary Guards” (Pasdaran).
In subsequent mass struggles in Iran and Jordan we also see that the movements at enterprises (strikes) and those on the streets alternate. This depends on the possibilities offered by a mass struggle to resist the repressive forces on the streets. The street is the best place to find support among other workers and the population in general. On the other hand, in France we see that enterprise workers are almost entirely encapsulated by the state-recognized trade union movement. In the strikes of the sugar cane workers of Haft Tapeh (Khuzestan) a “free trade union” plays a minor role, but the strength came mainly from the General Assemblies (GA) of strikers who at least tolerated their spokespersons at the strike committee, and perhaps even elected them. In the struggle at Haft Tapeh, despite certain restrictions, the GA and a committee overcame the lack of organization that had caused the street protests of December 2017-January 2018 to bleed out. Therefore not only the existence of political demands, but this form of organization and the proposals for the creation of a ‘Shora’ (a workers’ council) as well, offer much better prospects for the struggle in Iran than those in France, where the unions still have a firm grip on the workers.
A limitation that still has to be overcome by both the workers in the Middle East and in France (and other countries with a long industrial history) is the unification of the struggle of the non-working proletarians (young people, unemployed, pensioners) and of the employed workers. In Tunisia and in southern Iraq unemployed have moved to companies and demanded work. In southern Iraq, in part, they were demobilized soldiers having fought in the army against Islamic State (Daech). In the future, striking workers can include unemployed people in their enterprises, let them participate in their General Assemblies, or include them in their Workers’ Council
through delegates of these Assemblies and of non-working people as delegates of Assemblies of unemployed. This, of course, not in order to lock oneself up in the enterprises, but to massively take to the streets and stand up to repression. It goes without saying that former soldiers are important to what then will quickly turn into an armed struggle in defense against repression, ultimately to destroy the state. However, the revolution is not an exclusively or mainly military issue, it is the conscious self liberation of a productive class that carries the future of a production and distribution for the needs of the population, without profit, capital and money. In this perspective it goes along with restarting production by enterprises at strike to provide for food, public transport and energy in popular and working class neighborhoods. That is the way as well to win over the hesitant middle layers to revolution.
What to do and what not
So much for the lessons that can be learned from the struggle in France and in the Middle East. It should be clear that progress in the workers’ struggle is not a mechanical process. The road ahead is still long. In the Middle East we have seen five waves of mobilizations in 2018. (3) Internationally, many more waves of struggle, with upsurges and declines, even defeats, will follow. Workers’ struggle does not automatically emerge from crisis, war or repression. Class consciousness is not the result of external intervention either. It cannot be circumvented by handy slogans, putsch tactics or by concessions to bourgeois ideology within the working class. The lessons from the class struggle must be learned at a mass level, in mutual conversations and in the struggle itself. The most conscious and most militant workers, who together will constitute the vanguard, play a decisive role in this process, along with those parts of revolutionary minorities able to integrate the historical lessons drawn by the internationalist communist lefts of Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. from the revolutionary workers’ struggle of 1917 – 1923 into the struggle’s current practice. The connection between the vanguard within the working class and the current small revolutionary groups can best be made within nuclei of revolutionary-minded enterprise and unemployed workers, as these were constituted by the communist left in the past. (4) The workers’ struggle in the Middle East in 2018, in response to the consequences of the economic crisis and imperialist wars, has shown the beginnings of working class independence, both in its demands and in the goals posed, and qua organization and international extension as well. Thereby the international proletariat rediscovers the mass struggle – which the communist lefts saw as characteristic of the new period of capitalism, that of imperialism – and both the necessity and the possibility of a proletarian world revolution, in which the masses of workers overthrow capitalism and create a communist society.
Iran’ s proletariat, openly suppressed by state terror, could more easily rediscover the forms and content of the mass struggle than was the case in France and other older industrialized countries, in which the dictatorship of capital hides behind democratic deceptions; in which the state holds the working class in its grip through the tentacles of its trade union movement, and where bourgeois ideology dominates the thought and actions of the workers. This difference in the point of departure is comparable to the relative ease with which the workers in Russia came to act independently as a revolutionary class in 1917 and the problems of the revolution in Germany and other industrialized countries. The struggle in the old industrialized countries is more difficult, more protracted and deeper. The French left-wing communist group IGCL has pointed out the danger that is already emerging in the old industrialized countries and that will worsen if the workers’ struggle does not continue, but collapses: the identification of workers with “the people”; the rallying of workers behind the bourgeois flag of nationalism. (5) Specifically the leftwing populist post-Stalinists of Mélenchon’s ‘La France insoumise’ (6) in France and of Wagenknecht’s ‘Die Linke’ (7) and ‘Aufstehen’ (8) in Germany take up the competition on voters against the populist ultra-right, with nationalist slogans and a “critical” stance on immigrants, thereby following the example of the erstwhile Comintern’s nationalist campaigns. (9)
Fredo Corvo, December 31, 2018
Source: Wat arbeiders in gele hesjes kunnen leren uit Iran, ‘Arbeidersstemmen’, January 01, 2019.
Translation: H.C., January 12, 2019
Last corrected: February 10, 2019
References update: April 3, 2019
1 ‘Nuevo Curso’, 15 December 2018: Los chalecos amarillos se desmovilizan… ¿Y qué de malo hay? (“The yellow vests demobilize… What is so bad about it?”)
2 For an account of the so-called “Islamic revolution” in Iran, see for instance Wikipedia: Iranian Revolution.
3 See for a balance sheet: Iran: What after the repression against the workers of Haft Tapeh and the steelworkers in Ahvaz? (blog article on Libcom, 24 December 2018).
4 The group ‘Proletenstemmen’, more or less linked to the Group(s) of International Communists (GIC) in the 1930s, consisted of unemployed who went to the companies in strikes and helped to extend the fight. See GIC: Stellingen omtrent revolutionaire bedrijfskernen, partij en dictatuur (“Theses on revolutionary enterprise nuclei, party and dictatorship”). The Italian communist Left had enterprise groups with a similar function.
5 See for instance: The IGCL on Marxism and the National Question (Revolution or War #10, September 2018), or its communiqué of December 2, 2018 (footnote 9).
6 “France insubordinate”
7 Comparable to the ex-Maoist ‘Socialistische Partij’ (SP) in the Netherlands.
8 “Stand up”
9 See On the movement of the “Yellow Vests” in France: Communiqué on the social revolt in France (IGCL, 2 December 2018) and the history summary by Ph. Bourrinet: The Workers’ Councils in Germany 1918-23 (Part 2/2).
Illustration: Workers from the Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) on the 36th day of their protests, mid-December 2018. Source: Iran News Wire, 16 December 2018