1948-01 Strikes [Pannekoek]
Source: Western Socialist, January 1948.
In the workers’ movement two chief forms of fight are distinguished, often denoted as the political and the economic field of fight. The former centred about elections for parliamentary or analogous bodies, the latter consisted in strikes for higher wages and better working conditions. In the second half of the 19th century there was a common opinion among socialists that the former had a fundamental importance, was revolutionary, because it set up the aim of conquering political power, and thereby revolutionising the structure of society, abolishing capitalism and introducing a socialist system. Whereas the latter was only a means of reform, to maintain or improve the standard of life within capitalism, hence accepting this system as the basis of society.
That this distinction could not be entirely right was soon shown by the practice of parliamentarism. Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, had already indicated some measures of reform preparing for the future revolution. In later times the socialist parliamentarians were working and struggling continually for reforms; the socialist parties to which they belonged, put up an elaborate program of “immediate demands”; and they could win increasing numbers of voters. First, and most manifestly, in Germany; then in other European countries. The final aim of a socialist revolution gradually receded to the background. What, under the name of fighting for socialism, this political fight really achieved, was to secure for the working class a certain acknowledged place in capitalist society, with certain standards of working and living conditions, of course never really secure, always unstable but existing somehow, always disputed and always in need of defense.
Both these forms of fight, trade-unionism with its strikes as well as parliamentary socialism were now instruments of reform only — for a large part handled by the same persons, union leaders sitting in parliament. And reformist doctrine asserted that by their activity, by accumulated reform in parliament and “industrial democracy” in the shops, they would gradually transform capitalism into socialism.
But capitalism had its own ways. What Marx had expounded in his economic studies, the concentration of capital, came true in a far mightier degree than perhaps its author had surmised. The growth and development of capitalism in the 20th century has brought about numbers of new social phenomena and economic conditions. Every socialist who stands for uncompromising class fight, has to study these changes attentively, because it is on them that depends how the workers have to act to win victory and freedom; many old conceptions of revolution can now take more distinct shape. This development increased the power of capital enormously, gave to small groups of monopolists dominance over the entire bourgeoisie, and tied State power ever faster to big business. It strengthened in this class the instincts of suppression, manifest in the increase of reactionary and fascist trends. It made the trade unions ever more powerless over against capital, less inclined to fight; their leaders ever more became mediators and even agents of capital, whose job it is to impose the unsatisfactory capital-dictated working conditions upon the unwilling workers. The strikes ever more take the form of wild strikes, breaking out against the will of the union leaders, who then, by seizing the leadership, as soon as possible quell the fight. Whereas in the field of politics all is collaboration and harmony of the classes — in the case of the C. P. accompanied by a semblance of revolutionary talk, such wild strikes become ever more the only real bitter class-fight of the workers against capital.
After the war these tendencies are intensified. Reconstruction, reparation of the devastation or shortness of productive forces, means capitalist reconstruction. Capitalist reconstruction implies more rapid accumulation of capital, more strenuous increase of profits, depression of the standard of life of the workers. State power acquires now an important function in organizing business life. In the devastated Europe it takes the supreme lead; its officials become the directors of a planned economy, regulating production and consumption. Its special function is to keep the workers down, and stifle all discontent by physical or spiritual means. In America, where it is subjected to big business, this is its chief function. The workers have now over against them the united front of State power and capitalist class, which usually is joined by union leaders and party leaders, who aspire to sit in conference with the managers and bosses and having a vote in fixing wages and working conditions. And, by this capitalist mechanism of increasing prices, the standard of life of the workers goes rapidly downward.
In Europe, in England, Belgium, France, Holland — and in America too, we see wild strikes flaring up, as yet in small groups, without clear consciousness of their social role and without further aims, but showing a splendid spirit of solidarity. They defy their “Labor” government in England, and are hostile to the Communist Party in government, in France and Belgium. The workers begin to feel that State power is now their most important enemy; their strikes are directed against this power as well as against the capitalist masters. Strikes become a political factor; and when strikes break out of such extent that they lay flat entire branches and shake social production to its core, they become first-rate political factors. The strikers themselves may not be aware of it -neither are most socialists-they may have no intention to be revolutionary, but they are. And gradually consciousness will come up of what they are doing intuitively, out of necessity; and it will make the actions more direct and more efficient.
So the roles are gradually reversed. Parliamentary action deteriorates into a mere quarrel of politicians, and serves to fool the people, or at best to patch up dirty old capitalism. At the same time mass strikes of the workers tend to become most serious attacks against State power, that fortress of capitalism, and most efficient factors in increasing the consciousness and social power of the working class. Surely it is still a long way to the end; so long as we see workers going on strike and returning to work simply at the command of an ambitious chief, they are not yet ripe for great actions of self-liberation. But looking backward on the developments and changes in the past half-century we cannot fail to recognize the importance of these genuine proletarian class-fights for our ideas of social revolution. How thereby the propaganda-tasks for socialists are widened, may be considered another time.