By Mark Osborn
How can exhausted, downtrodden workers, bombarded with prejudices, come to see their place in the world as part of a revolutionary class? Or will better-off workers always see their interest in getting what they can out of the system, and will worse-off workers always be helpless objects for charity and welfare?
These questions were answered in practice in France in May 1968. In April 1968 many people were still saying that the working class had been irrevocably tamed. By June they were eating their words.
The spark of student action lit a huge fire of discontent as French workers struck in the biggest strike ever. Office workers joined factory workers and black joined white, as workers proved to themselves that they could unite to change society. Millions of people who previously had not even joined trade unions came on to the stage as players in world politics.
In the heat of the action and influenced by a small group of revolutionaries, the workers in Nantes formed their own Central Strike Committee or Workers’ Council.
They helped to organise the distribution of food, the schooling of children and the control of traffic.
Alongside all the conservative ideas in workers’ heads, there are always some different ideas.
Suddenly they found that they could do something about those ideas. They had the power to stop society by their general strike; and they had the power to restore society by organising themselves in workers’ councils.
We can see the same transformation of workers’ outlook even in some small strikes.
Workers do have the ability to change society. In times of upheaval, the creativity which is usually buried under a dead weight of inertia comes to the fore. Workers’ ability to organise, to control, to plan — an ability which capitalism develops but at the same time restricts — flowers. France 1968 was not unique. The same working class creativity has been shown in Poland in 1980–81, in Portugal in 1974–75, in Hungary in 1956, and in many other times and places.
While even parliamentary democracy is important — well worth defending against coups and dictators — it is not the end of the story. Democracy for the working class is not just a matter of parliamentary elections. Workers can organise their own “parliaments”, like the Central Strike Committee in Nantes, with a more direct and flexible form of democracy than Westminster.
It is important to get socialists elected to Westminster. But if we did get a socialist majority in the House of Commons, that would only be the start of the story. That socialist majority would face obstruction and defiance from the House of Lords, the monarchy, the courts, and the top ranks of the civil service, the police and the army. The final weapon of the old ruling class — which it would certainly try to use rather than quietly go down to defeat — would be armed resistance, like Pinochet’s coup against Allende in Chile in 1973.
We could defeat the obstruction, and reduce the armed resistance to manageable size. In France in 1968, some police and troops refused to be used against the strikers.
But victory or defeat would not depend on votes in parliament. They would depend on how well workers were organised, and how boldly they acted, in the workplaces and the streets.
When parties based on the working class cut down their aims in order to avoid clashing with everyday conservative prejudices, then they fail to serve the workers.
We need a labour movement that gives a lead, rather than always backpedalling to seem respectable.
We can win socialism — but first we need to organise for it!