From Fragmentation to Hegemony: Turning Points in Class Struggle Today

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With class struggle erupting across the world—from Chile and Bolivia to Iraq and Algeria—how does the working class use this momentum to unite mass movements and build a force capable of toppling existing regimes?

The eruption of mass movements across Latin America today is much more widespread than the cycle that occurred in 2000-2003, or that of 2013, which was centered in Brazil. From Puerto Rico, Honduras, Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia, to the resistance to the coup in Bolivia, the scene has been set for class struggle. These are processes that, with their specificities and particular dynamics, go through different moments and situations, but they constitute a cycle that gives every indication of being here to stay.

In previous articles we addressed some of the distinctive aspects of this new cycle of class struggle taking place internationally. The historic crisis that capitalism is going through does not hit all exploited and oppressed groups in a homogenous fashion, either in general or within each country. We have charted this heterogeneity and distinguished between the “relative losers” and the “absolute losers” under globalization. The convergence of both sectors, and particularly the entry of the latter into class struggle, has given a most violent and explosive character to this cycle compared to that of 2010-13, at least as far as the “Western” countries are concerned.

This heterogeneous character, and the way these movements tend to express themselves in terms of “citizenry” (even though many participants are part of the working class) are all used by governments and regimes that, together with the crucial collaboration of the trade union bureaucracies, maneuver and separate out different sectors of the class through a combination of partial concessions and repression. Just as France was a sort of laboratory for this approach during the Yellow Vests rebellion, so too is Chile confronted by this dynamic as it experiences the most important revolt in Latin America, one that has been ongoing for more than 40 days.

Now the strategic question is: how do these explosions of class struggle not exhaust themselves, but instead go on to defeat the regimes in question and open up the possibility of the constitution of a new social order? How should a political-social bloc capable of doing this be configured? Working-class hegemony for unifying the different sectors in struggle is key. Though the path towards such hegemony is far from clear, the current processes of class struggle are raising renewed conditions for its development. 

What Has and What Has Not Changed for the Working Class

A multitude of theories have proclaimed that the working class is either disappearing or has changed so much that it has become irremediably weakened. Such views include André Gorz’s “Farewell to the Proletariat,” Jeremy Rifkin’s “The End of Labour,” and those who argue that under capitalism new technologies will replace wage labor. In the autonomism of Tony Negri, for example, the working class gives way to the “multitude.” In the post-Marxism of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the obligatory starting point is abandoning the “essentialism of class.” According to them, if the working class is heterogeneous and fragmented, its unity in terms of class is no more than a symbolic unity, which has no strategic foundation apart from dogma, and if achieved would only undermine its “democratic articulation.”

What is certain is that in the last decades the working class has expanded as never before in history, but this expansion has gone hand in hand with the neoliberal imperialist offensive, causing the working class to also become much more heterogeneous and to undergo a broad process of fragmentation (into permanently employed workers, contract workers, the outsourced, those with no contract at all, unemployed workers, native and immigrant workers, etc.). This has generated a division between “first class” and “second class” workers, the latter making up almost half of the working class worldwide, particularly among women and youth. This process occurred alongside the decline of unions, which nevertheless continue to be the most widespread of the workers’ organizations. 

What did not change and has even become further developed, however, is the very factor that gives the working class its distinctive strength: It continues to hold all the “strategic positions” that keep society running (transport, big industries, services, etc.).

For example, in Chile, the cradle of neoliberalism, both the Labor Plan written in 1978 by José Piñera, the brother of the current president, and the Labor Code, which enshrined a model of employer despotism and labor precariousness, were continued under successive center-left Concertación governments for decades. The “subcontract,” or the outsourcing of jobs to third-party contractors, became overwhelmingly widespread throughout the structures of Chilean capitalism. It is almost totally generalized in areas such as telecommunications. In mining there are more “subcontractors” than there are permanent employees. In the Chilean state-owned copper mining company Codelco, by 2010 there were just over 19,000 permanent employees and over 40,000 subcontractors. This occurs in the mining sector which accounts for over 10% of Chile’s GDP and produces 27% of the world’s copper. Subcontracted dockworkers in the port of San Antonio, which exports Codelco’s copper, continue to operate one of the most important ports in the South Pacific. The country’s whole telecommunications system still depends on a legion of subcontractors. The same can be said of the railways, industry, and all fundamental sources of wealth in the Chilean economy.

Occupying these “strategic positions” gives the working class the capacity to paralyze these industries and with that the very functioning of society. There is no other force—no other movement or class—that has such a definitive and decisive capacity; this is fundamental if we are thinking in terms of revolution. Furthermore, occupying these strategic positions places the working class in a privileged position to articulate an independent power that can coalesce the exploited and oppressed based on units of production (company, factory, school, countryside, etc.) with its own self-organization and self-defense for the defeat of the capitalist state. Based on the control of these key positions of social production and reproduction, a new (socialist) order that replaces capitalism can be created, one that can liberate society from exploitation and oppression.

In other words, the working class has not been irremediably weakened. It has changed and become more fragmented, but it retains its strategic strength. Of course, this strength can be used in a corporative fashion by specific sectors that hold it apart from the interests of the rest of the class, or it can be contained or suppressed by union bureaucracy and employer blackmail. But in all cases, working-class hegemony returns to the terrain of actual politics and strategy. The thing that is really new is that the eruption of the mass movement and the new cycle of class struggle that we are now living through pose new and better conditions for resolving it.

The Working Class, the Youth and the “Movements”

Guy Standing recently wrote in El País that the rebellions across the globe, and particularly in Chile, are rebellions of the “precariat.” In his book “The Precariat: A New Dangerous Class,” he explains this concept, in which he refers in particular to young workers who have insecure work, unstable jobs, and precarious contracts, and are subjected to an unstable life as a whole. The description fits many of those taking part in the mobilizations and actions that have been seen across Chile in the last 40 days. They are young people who, for the most part, have no “legal” right to strike in their workplace or union, but have walked off their jobs and headed for the demonstrations convinced that they owe nothing to the regime inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. Of course, in Standing’s scheme, it is a question of erecting the “precariat” into a new class in order to erase the other part of the class off the map. 1 But what would happen if these youth definitively struck at the consciousness of the “established” workers’ movement, if it headed toward and then into the units of production and turned its attention toward “strategic positions”?

We can learn something about this from the Dockworkers Union of Chile (UPC—Unión Portuaria de Chile), one of the militant unions that has played a central role in the general strikes that have occurred since the rebellion began. It is a “de facto” organization, but it has enormous power because of the strategic position it occupies. As Frank Gaudichaud points out, not only has it led historic solidarity strikes, but it has also managed to sit down and negotiate with the most powerful business people in the country over the heads of the intermediary contractors: “In the case of the dockworkers, affiliation is maintained even though the contracts with the stevedoring companies last eight hours and the workers have no assurances that they can be hired again for the next day, week or month. The second characteristic and obstacle that differentiates them from traditional unionism is that, in order to be able to negotiate their action, they must actually lift the veil and force the real employer counterpart to establish itself as such.” 2 This represents a significant questioning of the conditions of subcontracting, in which main employers usually hide behind contractors when faced with challenges or complaints from subcontractors.

But this is not just about young workers. The women’s movement that has emerged as a powerful mass movement in many countries, has one of the most important expressions internationally in Chile. For example, this year’s 8M (March 8 demonstrations) in Chile was the largest mobilization across Latin America and one of the largest in the country since the fall of the dictatorship. At the same time, the Chilean student movement has led some of the most important student struggles of recent times. In 2006 there were “los pingüinos” (“the penguins”—a reference to black-and-white school uniforms) fighting the privatization of education inaugurated by Pinochetism. It was followed by massive university struggles for free education in 2011. It was not by accident that this was able to catalyze the subway “mass evasion” tactic, the anger that lit the fuse of the current rebellion. There are also the indigenous Mapuche communities that fight for the return of their ancestral lands, for the right to national self-determination and against state repression. November 14 saw demonstrations to mark the one-year anniversary of the brutal assassination of Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca by the Carabineros.

It is, of course, in the interests of Piñera and the regime that all these forces express themselves in a disorganized fashion, in a set of unconnected and particular demands, and that they negotiate “from above” with the bureaucracies of the Social Unity Roundtable and the parliamentarians of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and the Communist Party. Gaudichaud is correct when he points out that “without the organized wage workers, the territorial, indigenous, educational, ecological, feminist and neighborhood struggles will not be able to overcome the model, let alone ‘bring it down,’ even if they have shown a great capacity for mobilization and even for winning notable victories against the state and the big extractive companies. Without the other social movements and the communities in struggle, the workers’ movement is condemned to keep sinking into fragmentation and to demand portions of partial improvements for only a few sectors of wage workers.” 3

The Strategic Articulation of Material Forces and Their Enemies

Faced with the question of how to harmonize the different demands and forms of struggle of city and rural workers, the unemployed, working women, bankrupt peasants, and the “millions of toil-worn ‘little men,’ to whom the reformist leaders never gave a thought” once the great processes of the class struggle are set in motion, Trotsky argued in the Transitional Program that “History has already answered this question: Through soviets. These will unite the representatives of all the fighting groups. For this purpose, no one has yet proposed a different form of organization; indeed, it would hardly be possible to think up a better one.” Today, more than 80 years after these words were written, and despite the post-Marxism of Laclau, no better and more democratic method has yet been invented. Trotsky pointed out that no revolutionary program can exist without the proposal to set up bodies of self-organization and a united front of the masses, such as the “soviets” or councils. This is just as valid today.

Hence the importance of developing coordinating committees and bodies of self-organization, which can potentially become the seeds of councils in the future, the basis of an alternative power of the working class and the oppressed. Not only is this key for the independent perspective that it opens up, but even in their initial forms, the bodies of self-organization are fundamental for the ability of the most advanced sectors of the movement to influence the most backward, as well as for counteracting the action of the regime, which will politically exploit the breaches opened up by the fragmentation within the working class and its allies. It is also vital for strengthening the perspectives of tactics such as that of the Workers’ United Front (“march separately, strike together”) against the bureaucracy, in order to impose the unity of action of the workers’ movement. And in turn, it is crucial for the articulation of the “strategic positions” to the territory, the unions with the “movements,” the youth with all other workers, etc., as well as for the organization of self-defense against repression.

Our comrades of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) in Chile have been a driving force behind initiatives of this kind. The most important is without a doubt the Emergency and Protection Committee in Antofagasta, the capital of the region where about 50% of the country’s mining production takes place. The committee brings together education workers, civil servants, dockworkers, students, local residents, human rights organizations and communication professionals, among others, as well as social and political organizations. It provides medical assistance to the wounded and legal assistance in the face of state persecution. It has also promoted important united front actions, such as the march of 25,000 people on November 12 with sectors of the United Workers’ Center (CUT—Central Única de los Trabajadores) union federation. On that day, another important element of articulation was the pickets that local residents set up on the roads that lead to the mines, which made it possible for mineworkers to stop work and join the demonstrations. At the same time, the committee has been upholding the perspective of a general strike that continues until the Piñera government falls and the repression ends, that calls for no confidence in the government’s policy and its constituent assembly farce, and calls for moving toward a free and sovereign constituent assembly in which the working and poor people can decide on and organize solutions to the problems faced by the great majority of the population.

These are still small initial examples, but developing and expanding organizations such as the Emergency and Protection Committee would raise the concrete possibility of a strategic articulation of forces through self-organization and the united front. This was seen in the 1970s with the beginning of the development of cordones industriales, which, due largely to the policies of the Communist and Socialist Parties, did not manage to transform themselves into a real alternative (armed) power.

These tendencies do not, of course, develop without confronting significant obstacles. The overcoming of fragmentation is far from automatic. Not only is it a social fracture, but the whole structure of the capitalist state is configured to reinforce it. The statization of the mass organizations, starting with the unions but also the “movements” with their respective bureaucracies, is an essential element. In the case of Chile, the bourgeoisie was in charge of systematically weakening these. There are also other kinds of mechanisms that work alongside this, such as the “economic constraints that act directly to enforce bourgeois class power: among others, the fear of unemployment or dismissal” that Perry Anderson has referred to.

When all this seemed to fail, as occurred on the day of the November 12 strike, the most important since the fall of the dictatorship, the bourgeois parties immediately closed ranks to negotiate a new and major deception, the so-called Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution, which included a sector of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), in an effort to pull part of the movement off the streets. At the same time, they pushed ahead with the “anti-encapuchados law” (encapuchados—protesters wearing hoods or masks) to target the youth who remain mobilized and continue to face off against repression, as well as the law that gives the armed forces the power to “safeguard critical infrastructure” without needing to call a state of emergency, as a way to ensure that the state can guard the “strategic positions.” In this context, the recent strike of November 26 saw the Social Unity Roundtable in charge of ensuring that the strikes did not go beyond pressuring the regime, and the next day it sat down to negotiate with the government. November 26 also saw the government brutally repress local populations to prevent residents from going out and setting up pickets as they did on November 12.

This whole series of measures was an inverted reflection of the very unity seen during the November 12 strike, a unity between workers, youth, and popular sectors that also attracted an important sector of the middle classes in the mobilizations. The government’s measures did not, however, prevent thousands of people from gathering again on Friday November 29 in the main squares of the country against repression.

Class, Party, and Leadership

Of course, the action of the mass movement does not, to paraphrase Clausewitz, act on an inert material “but against a living and reacting force.” Hence the game of “action and reaction” that goes into configuring the different moments in a process of class struggle, moments of advance and retreat, in which the movement is more on the offensive or the defensive. The bourgeoisie itself takes note of all this, as we can see when Piñera went from his initial stance of “estamos en guerra” (we are at war) to the concession of a few crumbs with his “social agenda” which preceded the day of strikes and demonstrations on October 23. After the turning point of November 12, the regime launched its Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution maneuver, only to then intensify the repression against those who continued to mobilize. In Brazil, where the anti-worker offensive is the harshest in the region, Bolsonaro’s Economy Minister Paulo Guedes announced this week the postponement of certain attacks, such as the administrative reform, while other assaults against workers remain in place. This is all due to the current climate of struggle across the region.

From the point of view of the working class, taking account of this dynamic of action and reaction is crucial. That is why the work of building a revolutionary party did not begin on the day of the storming of the Winter Palace in Russia. What is needed today is a revolutionary political organization that can shape the vanguard through each shift in the relationship of forces. In this manner it will forge its own currents in the unions, the student movement, among women, in the mass organizations, all under the perspective of developing bodies of self-organization (councils), capable of articulating volumes of force in order to successfully combat the bureaucracies and break down the borders that keep the working class divided among itself and from its allies.

This, and no other, was the history of Bolshevism led by Lenin. From its origins in the Russian Social Democracy, it was constantly nourished by the experience (both theoretical and practical) of the international socialist movement as part of the Second International. At the beginning of the 20th century, it put forward the need to intervene in the wave of strikes, overcame the idea that the workers should dedicate themselves only to the economic struggle and should instead seek to forge real “tribunes of the people,” and developed a newspaper and a network of cadres throughout Russia. Later, it learned the need to go on the offensive in the revolution of 1905, assimilated the new innovation of soviets, and organized the insurrection in Moscow. The subsequent defeat was followed by the struggle to keep the revolutionary basis of the party from descending into headlong retreat, against the skepticism that hit the ranks of Social Democracy. Then, faced with the workers’ upsurge of 1912, the party threw its doors wide open to organize the workers who came out to fight, created Pravda, a widely circulated newspaper that received 11,000 reports from workers a year, and was financed by hundreds of workers’ circles. There was also the experience of the revolutionary use of the parliamentary tribune (Duma) in different periods. In 1914, in the midst of the First World War, the minority led by Lenin struggled for revolutionary internationalism.

Years later, the revolution broke out in February 1917 and defeated the czarist regime. Lenin and most of the main Bolshevik leaders were in exile. Trotsky later asked, “who then led the February revolution?” And he replied: The workers, trained by Lenin. He was referring precisely to the whole previous history of advances and retreats in which the Bolshevik Party shaped that vanguard of workers. The same Bolshevik militants and the same vanguard that Lenin counted on for support on his return in April 1917 to stamp a revolutionary course onto the Bolshevik Party, with the proposition of “All Power to the Soviets,” against the conciliatory policy of an entire section of the party leadership. With that vanguard he strengthened the party from its ranks, as well as its leadership with the incorporation of leaders like Trotsky, which allowed for the success of the October insurrection. This is what brought about the triumph of the Russian Revolution.

A revolutionary party cannot be improvised at the moment of revolution; without learning the lessons from moments of advance and retreat in class struggle, without assimilating the most varied experiences, it is impossible to build such a party. The current processes that we have looked at pose new and better conditions for fighting for working-class hegemony, which is fundamental for the triumph of the mass movement and for opening up the possibility of establishing a new social order. In the case of Chile, the massive eruption of youth willing and prepared to confront the regime is an example of this. It is in the context of these battles, both now and through the different moments of the process, in which our comrades of the PTR have been fighting to set up a revolutionary party to the extent that their strength allows. Together with them, the PTS and our sister organizations across the world are part of these struggles. We take advantage of the experience of each country, of each process, from an internationalist perspective. We are convinced that outside these experiences and learning their lessons and conclusions, and regardless of how many diplomatic agreements are made on paper, there can be no real struggle today for the reconstruction of the Fourth International.

Translation: Sean Robertson

This article first appeared in Spanish at Ideas de Izquierda (IdZ) on December 1, 2019.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For a discussion of the Standing thesis, see Nicolás Del Caño, “Rebelde o precarizada” (Rebellious or Precarious), Ariel (Buenos Aires, 2019).
2. Franck Gaudichaud, “Pensando las fisuras del neoliberalismo ‘maduro.’ Trabajo, sindicalismo y nuevos conflictos de clases en el Chile actual” (Considering the Fissures of ‘Mature’ Neoliberalism: Work, Unionism and the New Class Conflicts in Chile Today), Theomai 36 (2017).
3. Ibid.

About author

Matías Maiello

Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).