Visitors can now read a translation into English of Lindsey Collen’s talk on 1 July on what the term “class struggle” actually means. This was the first part of a Seminar on Strategy held at Grand River North West, Port Louis. It was followed by plenary discussion, then an analytic paper by Ram Seegobin, which was also followed by a plenary. This Saturday, 14 July, there will be two further papers and discussions, one by Rada Kistnasamy and Rajni Lallah on class politics as opposed to electoral politics, and the other by Alain Ah-Vee and Ragini Kistnasamy on internationalism as a strategic objective.
Here is Lindsey Collen’s talk, which aimed to build a common understanding of the meaning of the term.
What the Class Struggle is (mainly in narrative form)
LALIT has asked me – but first “hello” everyone present – to tell some stories. Stories about class struggles, that is to say to give a talk with emphasis on “narratives”, a talk that will come before the speech which will analyze class struggle in historical terms in the afternoon session. This way we can get started in the process of building a common understanding of what we actually mean when we say “class struggle”. So, when we begin analyzing things later, we will already be familiar with the term. In fact the class struggle, the struggle of one class against another, or some classes against others, is a reality. Whether we like it or not, it exists. It is almost tautological that classes produce struggle. Class struggle is here. And it happens all the time. This is simply because, where there are different classes of people, classes with different real interests, there are conflicts. And these conflicts get exacerbated under crises. And, just to make it clear, in the same way as the working class carries out class struggles, so do the bosses. You can even get class struggles within sections of the working class, or within sections of the capitalist classes with different objective interests. All kinds of class struggle are happening right now, and are here, whether we want it or not.
We are going to be looking at the main class struggle today, that is to say the one between the two main classes, the capitalists and the workers. We will be looking at the manifestations of these struggles, as they have been experienced, and we will be using stories to get started. OK?
The slogan: “Class war not race war!”
(A literal translation of the catchy slogan in Kreol: Lalit de klas pa lalit de ras)
If we look at recent Mauritian history, we find that the MMM, which very quickly rose to being a huge party, began with the rallying slogan: “Class war not race war!”
When the MMM was born, just after the “race wars” around Independence (1965-68), it was just at the end of the conflicts that the boss’s political organizations had provoked. These were massive communal confrontations, egged on, in order to try to prevent Independence, which came anyway in 1968. These race wars made and later left communal and race consciousness very strong. The PMSD, which represented the capitalists politically at the time, consciously organized these conflicts because the sugar oligarchs and their allies felt that their profits, their interests, and the general control they had until then held over Mauritian society, was under threat.
So, when the MMM was born in 1960-70, the slogan that rallied masses of people behind it was “class war not race war”. And for its first 10-15 years existence, this slogan was consciously understood by everyone in the MMM, and those outside it too. What it meant was that class identity, analysis of society in class terms, organization as a working class and other oppressed classes, working on strategies as classes, all these things would bring progress, while organizing and identifying oneself in communal or race terms would doom one to disaster. It was true then. It had brought disaster. Hundreds of people dead, thousands maimed, tens of thousands displaced, and the inability to bring anyone before any Courts of justice until today, for fear of re-kindling the “wars”. Anyway, it is probably still true that this kind of analysis-and-strategy brings only unhappiness in the short term, and risks much worse in the long.
But, during the first 12 or so years of the MMM’s existence, another line gradually began to develop. It began as a marginal line (in the MMMSP and in the so-called “Lel Gos”) but got stronger and became the predominant line of the MMM leadership by, say, 1981. This line was around a totally different slogan: “One people, one nation,” or “Enn sel lepep enn sel nasyon” . This second slogan, which was distilled from a more nationalist strategy, immediately played into the hands of the capitalists. This was for a very simple reason: the capitalist system was already in power. Still is, for that matter. And as long as there is capitalist rule, if your slogan is, “We are all in the same boat”, “We must all make sacrifices”, we are all “Mauritians”, we need “national unity”, what we mean is that we want to mask, to smother class struggle on the side of the oppressed classes. When we propose strategies based on “Mauritianism,” we are just confusing issues. We pretend this is against “communalism”, but it is really against oppressed classes in Mauritius. If this kind of slogan catches on, the result is that the bosses do not have to try so hard to keep capitalist rule in place, because the oppressed have accepted not to struggle against them. Aren’t we all in the same boat? Are we not one big class of people called “Mauritians”? Are we not all “One people, one nation”? So, the growth in the popularity of this slogan signified the MMM’s gradual sliding into the total abandonment of class politics by 1981.
So, I’m telling one or two stories that situate the concept of class struggle in history. Anything we want to understand needs, of course, to be situated in the flow of history.
“The end of history?”
Over the past 20-30 years, with the big neo-liberal surge – here too – the dominant ideology went so far as to say that the world had reached the end of history, and that capitalism was finally established as the eternal system, stable forever. Nothing would ever change again. What did happen over this period of time was that the very concept of class struggle was denied, hidden, pushed aside and/or attacked. Karl Marx was announced dead.
This triumphalist talk, recent as it was, has disappeared and is now almost forgotten. The series of crises in the capitalist system put paid to it. The last 3-4 years have seen all the main pro-capitalist ideologues, unable to mask the instability of capitalism, moving on to denouncing the system for its excesses, and the very same people who so recently said capitalism was eternal – whether in The Economist, the New York Times, on the BBC, or anywhere else – are all asking, “Can capitalism survive?” So, today we live in times when the instability of capitalism has been admitted, once again, where everything is in constant drastic change, and when the end of crises is not even visible. And, although the triumphalism is dead and buried, we are still suffering from the 20-30 years of denying and opposing the very concept of “class struggle”.
Where there are conflicting classes, there is struggle
A word for the sake of precision: class struggle did not always exist. And this was so, for the simple reason that classes (in the sense we use now) did not exist. This word of precision is important when we are in ecological crisis (as well as economic crisis) because very soon we may have to learn from our so-called “pre-history”. If we assume humankind to have had 100,000 years of history, it is only in the last 5,000 that in a number of places here and there on the earth’s surface, that we began to have different classes, and that these classes were conflicting. The first 100,000 years saw us collecting fruit, digging up roots, eating little creatures, finding honey, doing some basic fishing, and from time to time landing a big animal. We lived in harmony with nature, as part of nature, as well as ourselves being natural creatures. And this for most of our history. We lived in harmony with other humans, too, relying on a certain collective spirit for our very survival. There were not different social classes in the sense that one group of people had a different, and conflicting, relationship to the means of survival of that society. But, with class inequality, we have inevitably landed ourselves class struggle. Where there are classes, there is class struggle. And it is this class struggle that has brought nearly all progress. And given that we want a classless society one day, we have to understand how this class struggle can bring that. How can we one day be freed from the constant conflict we live in today, conflict that we are bound to take part in, just in order to survive?
I’ll talk about some very basic forms of modern-day class struggle. I say “basic” in the sense that they are not conscious, nor successful, nor even collective. I’ve chosen to tell some of these stories, stories of this very basic form of class struggle, just to show the scope that the term can cover. And to lift off some of the “moralistic” (almost glorifying) weight the term sometimes has.
Class struggle by the individual, unconscious action
I’ll start with class struggle by an individual. It is not often that the class struggle involves the entire class, the class as a whole. It can indeed even be an individual action, representing a classinstinct. Strangely enough, it can even be quite unconscious. People do not know they are taking an action with a class meaning. When there are new sectors, this basic kind of struggle is common. When the Free Zone grew fast in the 1980s or the BPO sector since 2000, many new workers are drawn in to new work sites. In the 1980s young girls of 12, 13, 14years old would take their big sisters’ birth certificates and go get work. They had no experience of the work “market” at all. The first time a worker has a conflict with a representative of the boss in the form of a supervisor, and it is the same with the newly expanded BPO sector today, what do we hear them saying? “In that case, you can keep your job. My husband can look after me perfectly well!” And they walk right out, leaving two weeks pay with the boss. Now, this is a class struggle. Very basic. But it is there. Misguided, but there. Harming yourself as much as your boss, but there. Relying on a lack of understanding that your husband can only look after you perfectly well because he has had to sell his own labour power to another boss, but the struggle is nevertheless there. It is a kind of one-woman action from the “runaway slave” times. She has expressed natural anger because another person is dominating her. The other person dominates her, and she is dominated, because there are two classes in conflict, but she does not know it. She is not conscious of it. She has perhaps put the boss out, by disorganizing his work-site a little bit, and she has given him her two weeks’ pay. So, like it or not, we see here, a form of class struggle. There it is. Now this struggle has importance beyond itself. The worker herself has learnt something. Her colleagues on the shop floor have learnt something. Class struggle will not be the same again, either for her or for her colleagues. It will move forward. This is what we call “experience”.
Individual but conscious struggles
There is other basic class struggle on an individual basis. We see examples of it today in 2012 in a work sector despite its two centuries of experience: the port. With the threat of privatization, there have been speed-ups from the bosses. Where there are not individual piece rates, the boss puts pressure on workers, and some respond by going and walking around outside, or going to the toilet for 5 minutes every half hour. This is conscious. But it is not useful, because your colleagues have to work more to cover for your individual action. So, this is an individual, but conscious class struggle, but it is objectively harmful, so it will not last long. Experience will wipe it out.
Everyone here at this seminar will have hundreds of examples. We can share some later in the plenary.
Collective but unconscious class struggle
We can even get more bizarre forms of basic class struggle. In 1978, at a factory in St. Pierre called Maurice Knitters Ltd, the bosses increased piece rate work, instead of counting so many lines for your day’s wages, they counted more. It was very stressful work in the first place, because you had to count stitches all day long, and it took awful concentration. Counting 4 blue, 17 white, 4 blue, 3 white stitches all day to make the pattern on a pullover. So, how did workers react to the speed up? There were a number of industrial problems. First they tried to refuse work. (Le Peuple, 21 September, 1978). They refused work in a weird way. They began to faint. To fall over, unconscious. First 3 one day, then 4 the next, then 5 and so on. At their machines.
Until one day, 26 young women fainted in the factory. (The Nation, 27 September, 1978)I still remember this. And how could people explain all this. The workers began to say, “What is this?” Then some said, “The factory is haunted. Evil spirits. Tit Alber.” [Laughter]. Naturally. There was no other conceivable explanation. Anyway, work slowed down, that is for sure. And the boss had a problem on his hands. What could he do about it? For the sake of the true story, I must tell you what the bosses did do. They brought in a Catholic priest called Father Souchon and his verger, Mr. Barthelmy – from whom I got the whole story. They would go and swing the first unconscious girl on to a long table. The priest would slap her lightly on both cheeks, sprinkle holy water on her face. She would come around. And he would call “Next!” So, that is interesting, that the capitalist had to call in a representative of a previous ruling class, from before capitalist rule.
Anyway this was not isolated. Even 10 years later, there was another example. At City Knitwear in Curepipe, in 1987 another 20 or so workers began fainting, and lying completely unconscious (Lagazet Lalit de Klas, 16 August, 1987)
These basic, or elementary forms of class struggle, do not, on their own, bring any big changes, of course. But they are key parts of a learning process. They are the building blocks of consciousness of one’s class. So, like it or not, there is class struggle. Understand it as such or not, it takes place anyway. And this is how, when we analyze it, on the worksite, or today in this seminar, we develop what is called “experience”.
And the class struggle is constant from the bosses’ side, too. He will increase piece rates, he will decrease pay for absences. He will break your unity.
Class struggle, collective and conscious
What we normally understand by the term “class struggle” is something both collective, even if small, and conscious, even if erroneous. And this happens all the time. Right now it is happening. It happens in millions of ways. This constant struggle is what we usually mean by the term.
In a factory, 4 or 5 workers meet, discuss and decide to delegate two of their number to go and see the boss or his representative to put in a complaint about something at work: whether a dysfunctional toilet, or wages. Instead of just moaning, a few workers put their heads together, talk things over, and act on the basis of a formulated demand. It is conscious, it is collective and, however small the scale, this is the class struggle.
Class struggles that are erroneous
When we put forward our demands, they may, of course, be ill-thought-out, or even erroneous. They may be collective and conscious but not much use, or even counter-productive, either for the workers concerned or for their class. I shall give a simple example, from women workers in cane fields. Although unions do not like these kinds of arrangements, the bosses like them, and they “allow” women workers to collect some fire-wood in their lunch break and take it home. So, when the national-level class struggle succeeded in getting labourers’ transport to be upgraded from lorries to buses, the women wanted this enforced by the union. The delegates however were wise enough to ask whether they would give up their beloved “fire-wood”, and they said, “No, no, no. We want to take fire-wood home! Forget the buses with upholstered seats!” So, they had come to a union meeting having already formulated a demand that was erroneous, in terms of being something that brought direct consequences on them themselves – that they had not anticipated! i.e. they would have to give up their bits of wood that would damage the upholstery. But the discussion is important. Through discussing it, there is progress. That is what is called class consciousness, that is what is called “experience” – and the two things go hand in hand. Collectively workers develop a higher degree of consciousness of the effect, direct and indirect, of their real life demands.
There are other erroneous demands. When workers want to take time out of work, it is frequently the case that they think they can get the upper hand on the boss by giving the excuse of “religion”. “We need time-off because of a prayer,” they say. But this kind of time-off divides workers, as everyone is not religious, nor of the same religion. The more sophisticated demand is: “Let’s demand the 44-hour-week instead of 45!”
Class struggle, collective and well planned
But class struggle is a means by which we bring progress. It is a way of changing reality.
I’ll give an example of one from the year 1970. Workers in this struggle told us about the strike.
There was a boss, some kind of field manager, who would abuse women labourers in the fields on the Medine Sugar Estate. He would give the sirdar instructions to send a woman of his choice to work in a field on her own, and then he would go there and abuse her sexually. The workers all got more and more furious. And they all feared instant dismissal for protest of any kind. They did not know how to resolve the problem. The general level of consciousness in the country as a whole was very low on this severe kind of sexual harassment. And there was lots of unemployment, meaning they could easily be replaced.
One day, things came to a head. The boss in question asked a very young girl, 12 or 13 years old, who was helping with her mother’s piece rates (another abysmal practice that used to exist), to be sent to work alone at the foot of a mountain. There he abused her. Workers were furious.
That night, all the labourers got organized. You must remember that workers came from all the villages around the Medine Sugar Estate: Tamarin, Bambous, Petite Riviere, Canot, Beau Songes, Cascavelle, Plaisance, Bassin, Palma and Cite Barkly. And they all worked in different sections of Medine, over a huge area. Thousands of workers. And the workers knew that if you are absent three days, you have broken your work contract, and so you can be fired, so strikes are not easy. The Industrial Relations Act made any strike illegal, and reason for instant dismissal.
How did they organize a protest? They organized an 8-day strike over the whole of Medine, but they went out, section by section, one section at a time. On Day One, Palmir went on strike. No-one in the Palmir section turned up at work on Monday. The top bosses didn’t know why. All 300 workers in Palmir were absent. The next day, when the bosses got to work, they found that all the Palmir workers were back at work, without any explanation, but everyone in the La Mecque section was out on strike. All 300. Now, it was the boss who was suffering Tit-Alber! They could not understand what was happening. Wednesday, Palmir and La Mecque labourers came to work, but now the Bassin section were 100% absent. Finally after 8 days, when the bosses asked why, some men workers explained. The predator was removed from being in charge of women workers. He had been brought under social control. Until today workers call the strike “Lagrev Merven”. Yes, that was the kind of organization needed to bring progress at that work-site. It was done consciously, collectively, and with fantastic planning. And that was over 40 years ago.
The art of class struggle, or even the “science” of class struggle, is knowing what demands to rally behind at the same time as choosing the appropriate method of rallying. At that moment, the demand for that male boss to be removed from a place where he could be a sexual predator, rallied all the workers, and the method they used also corresponded to the courage workers had at that time. Its success was total, and there was not even revenge action by the bosses.
This gives an idea of how workers at the level of the site can have heroic class struggles. This continues today. All over the country.
The bosses also participate in the class struggle, on the other side
The bosses, too, are in the class struggle. Very organized they are, in their Mauritius Employers’ Federation, or their Joint Economic Council. And they have a structural advantage. The “State” is their best tool in the class struggle. The State is theirs. It is not for nothing that we call it the “bourgeois State”. The capitalist class erected its State, when it deposed the State of Kings and nobles, their “Court”. Through participating in democracy, workers can chip off the odd gain, but the State favours the bosses, because it is theirs. It is their instrument in the class struggle.
In general, the bosses, off their own bat, seek to increase piece rates, increase “productivity”, like workers not to be absent, like to control workers with “bonus” payments for different forms of obsequiousness, or to enable double-cuts for absence from work. The bosses like to keep a reserve of unemployed workers outside their factories. Then they can say to workers, “If you don’t like the work, I’ve got 10 like you lined up at the gates”. Bosses also like to control your life outside the work-site. Recently we have had the big CSR push, with bosses now organizing “social work” in working class neighbourhoods. They want to set up bazaars, plant trees, plan roads, decide on universities. Turn adult working people into infants, unable to take decisions, not just at work, but in our neighbourhoods.
The highest level of class struggle in Mauritius
The highest class consciousness, signified by a class struggle in Mauritius (at the level of the site) is without a doubt one that took place on a small sugar estate in the year 1971. In the month of December it all came to a head. Workers in it, told us about it.
There was this estate called Anna. Now we know the Domaine Anna, and the Anna Restaurants. It’s the same place. At the time the Anna sugar estate employed 70 labourers. Their cane was crushed at the Medine mill.
Anyway, in 1971, a fantastic movement took place there, on that estate. Workers, in the inter-crop season, work on the basis of individual piece-rates. When you get to work in the morning, you choose a line between two rows of cane, and you, say, if its weeding, you weed it. Then, when you are finished, the sirdar will come along with his long stick called a “golet” and measure how much work you have done, individually, and mark you up for the pay you will get at the end of the fortnight.
Then, some men workers, who had bicycles, started going to work earlier than the lorry with the women workers and the men who didn’t ride bikes, and the bike-riders chose the best lines (i.e. ones with least weeds, in this case), and starting earlier, finishing the piece rates required early, and going off home. Thus the workers who were potentially weaker who came by the estate lorry, would have harder lines to do, and get lower wages, and often miss their piece rates, which meant losing their end of the year bonuses as well, and also meant risking being laid off the following crop season.
The men on bikes started to compete as to who would get there first to get the “best” lines, arriving in the pitch dark. This of course meant women or anyone with asthma or rheumatism or any other illness, thus forced to come on the lorry, were disadvantaged. Slower workers were even more systematically punished. As a whole, workers began to hate this individual piece-rate system. But, they did not know what to do about it. And all got even worse, when on Thursday nights after the Indian film, some men workers would not go to sleep, but go choose lines at about midnight, and complete them soon after the other workers arrived at day-break!
The workers realized that they were struggling more against each other than against the boss and his piece rate system, which they grew to detest. They began to discuss it. In fact, the more advanced workers had been bringing it up for years, and their arguments fell on deaf ears.
I should mention that, while we are talking about inter-crop work, during the cane-cutting season, there were not individual piece rates. 6 workers shared a collective piece-rate, because they all loaded into one big trailer, which would be towed away to be weighed at the mill, and the total weight of cane cut would be divided by 6. So, your pay was collectively calculated by the trailer you filled up with 5 others. This was so until the end of the crop season in early December.
So, when the workers met and discussed how they were making fools of themselves by competing to get to work in the dark, they planned things, and took a decision: They announced to the sirdar that they would work for a collective piece-rate in the inter-crop season, as well as in the crop season. The boss would lose nothing. “Let’s all start work at the same time, when the lorries arrive, and then we each choose a line at random. Whoever is finished his line first, glances up the different lines nearby, and chooses one which is, for whatever reason, the furthest from completion, and he comes in from the other end. As the next person finishes, they do they same thing. Then everyone finishes at the same time, and the sirdar measures the totality (easier for him) and divides by 68 workers present. Everyone would work at a reasonable speed.
So, they did this.
Day one was fantastic. Work was wonderful. No rush, no competing. All dignified. They called it “sistem nuvo”. The new system.
Day two, the same.
And on Day three, the sirdar said the bosses had asked them to stop work early and go to the Offices.
At the offices, the boss told them to wait. So, they all sat around, waiting. When it reached time to go home, the boss said they should go home. The next day, when they arrived at work, the sirdar told them to go to the office immediately. Which they did. They were told to wait. They sat around waiting. They waited all day. When it reached time to go home, the boss sent word that they should go home. On the third day, the orders were the same as the second. But at the end of the third day, they noticed that jeeps of police were called in. The boss then announced that they had all been fired.
They had, he said, lying, broken their work contract.
But the boss had instructed them not to work. The workers were in the right. So, what did they do? They went to Court. And the case dragged through the Courts for months, years.
This story became the country’s finest piece of theatre, the two-hour play, Tras, by Henri Favory. But, I’ve told all this to show how a group of 68 labourers of the Anna sugar estate had imagined and implemented an advanced form of organization for work. Absolutely extra-ordinary. And the bosses, who lost nothing by this, felt threatened. They are not stupid, the bosses. If you can work like this, bosses are no longer necessary. They do not want you to see this reality. You will see how a classless society is possible. That would not do! So, the bosses set a trap, a trap the workers could not avoid, because wage slaves are obliged to listen to the boss’s instructions. He sacked them all. And they were black-listed on all sugar estates.
So, this was one of the highest possible levels of consciousness. And it was at the level of a tiny bit of the class: 68 workers at Anna sugar estate in 1971.
Class struggle at neighbourhood level
At neighbourhood level, there is constant class struggle. When there is not a bus service or it shuts down too early, and you organized to improve things, that is a class struggle. And if you organize for Government to put up a new Health Centre in your area, this too is class struggle. Note that it is better for your class to demand a government health centre than, for example, to fight for a private doctor to come and set up shop in your area. A private doctor would serve only those with ready money. And this, in turn, divides you.
Sometimes neighbourhood groups have awful demands. Recently one group opposed the government having a distribution point for Methadone for addicts “in our neighbourhood”. This is on the slippery slope to being a fascistic demand. How to get drug addicts out of sight, rather than working out how to organize rehabilitation, or how to prevent drug abuse in the first place.
Another form of class struggle is around the movement to set up co-operatives. When shops charge any old prices, often neighbours will club together and set up a shop run on co-operative lines. Or, planters will get land for inter-line cropping by clubbing together into a planters co-op.
The women’s struggle and the class struggle
The women’s struggle also integrates with, falls into place next to, inter-acts with the class struggle. We call this “articulation”.
In the recent struggle for the (at least partial) decriminalization of abortion, almost everyone in favour relied upon class realities, in arguments during the debate. This class element was a driving force in favour. If since Independence, as former Health Minister Jeetah estimated, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 women have had to have recourse to abortion, even though it has been completely illegal, they have done so in very different ways depending on their different social classes. If rich, they could perhaps get a legal abortion – it is only an air flight away – and also thus get a medicalized abortion. If they are a little less rich, they can get an illegal abortion which is nevertheless medicalized, being in a private clinic. It is only poor women who have to resort to illegal abortions that are dangerous as well. This class reality put those against the Bill into the embarrassing position of having to be in favour of wanting poorer women to suffer for being poor. This class reality helped to win an overwhelming majority. Only 20% of MPs voted against. All this to say that often the women’s struggle has class elements in it. And note that once the total criminalization of working class women is over, working women will, no doubt, be freer to contribute to advancing their class, as a class and politically.
The working class languages
The same can be said for the mother tongues, Kreol and Bhojpuri. They are in fact working class languages. The struggle to promote them, gives a powerful weapon to the oppressed classes, to use in their struggle. This means one victory, the introduction in 2012 of the Kreol and Bhojpuri languages into schools, means more future victories. It is evident that if workers are forced to speak the boss’s languages, it is a disadvantage to them. Whereas, it is to their advantage if the boss has to speak the working class’s languages.
So, outside of the work-site, there are all sorts of class struggles that take place. And there are all sorts of struggles that have a big element of class in them. And these struggles take place all by themselves.
Perhaps the highest class consciousness: at one time in England
But, of all the countries in the world, it is in England in the 1970s that class consciousness – as opposed to political consciousness - had perhaps reached its highest level ever. What with the big industries all over Europe, and maybe most advanced then in Britain, class consciousness was very high. And we will also be noting the limitations of this high class consciousness, when not accompanied by political consciousness.
I will tell a story now about when I was in England in the year 1971. I was a “san papye” in London. It was called “having no cards”. I got a job in a sandwich bar, here we would call it a Lotel Dite. Just like the Providence in Desforges Street. We were 6 workers, 3-4 British, and 2-3 with no cards. Here, why I am laughing, is because we were the sector where you could be sure there was the very lowest level of class consciousness in the whole of the UK at that time. It was a sandwich bar for working class people, and it took illegal workers. My work would involve cutting bread into slices and then buttering it and putting various things in, ham, cheese and onion, chopped liver, etc. and then serve at the counter, from which clients would come and give orders and take their food, which ranged from fried eggs and bacon to sausage and mash. On my first day at work, an English working class woman who was most experienced, called me aside and said, “Tea break is at … ” – we started work at 6 am – “.. nine o’clock. If you are in the middle of cutting a sandwich you can finish cutting it, but you cover it with the hand-towel and you stop work. You never start a new sandwich. Do you understand? You work for the boss not one extra second. Do you understand?” I said yes I understood. “And,” she added, “when the15 minute break is over, we start working at the very same moment. I do not want to see you arrive at the workbench one second late. Do you understand?” I said yes I understood. “If any new girl like you does not follow these guidelines, well … we, the other workers, will make you leave. Do you understand?” I understood fast. In this sector, where illegal workers were changing every other day, she had to transmit to me a kind of concentrated form of class consciousness, built up over 200 years, in a few minutes. If I am late in the morning, this means I am guilty of an action against my fellow workers. True? She asked me. I thought about it. True, I replied. “Here in England,” she said, “we can have as much paid sick leave as we need. But if you, in your ignorance take sick leave when you are not sick, we, the other workers will know. Then, too, we will make you leave.” So, I learnt all this in a few days. I worked there happily for 6 months or so.
Typographers patronize their bosses
In that same period, a year or two later, when I was studying at theLondon School of Economics, LSE, and we were, in fact, studying class consciousness amongst typographers, I had the privilege to learn about the highest class consciousness, that amongst typographers, at the very end of lead typography. Other than amongst miners, class consciousness, was probably the highest there.
The typographers, all over the UK, refused to work on piece rates. They thought this the height of barbarity. Amongst them, everything was organized collectively. All workers were unionized, of course.
Then, as had been happening since the end of the Second World War, US capital came into the business. These American bosses said, “This will not do! We are going to set up piece rates. It is in your interests. You can earn more. We must have bonuses for presence!” Etc, etc, etc. Workers, unions, worker representatives like shop stewards all refused. It was categorical. Anyway, two or three years passed, and at every meeting the bosses would come up with the same line. Piece rates must be introduced, they said.
After 3 years, the unions were sick of the boss’s constant moaning. They announced, “OK, stop nagging us. We have agreed! Institute your piece rates, and shut up!” The boss was pleased. At long last, he had won. Or so he thought.
He implemented his complicated systems of measurement of work, counting everything. He calculated everyone’s pay separately, organized a web of bonuses and so on. Then, at that time, you got paid in cash in a “pay packet” by the week. So, when Friday came, each worker, for the first time, got a different amount of money, based on your production rates, if you had been absent, etc.
The boss was pleased.
But what did the workers do? When the boss went home, they stayed on in the mess, and poured all their money into the middle of the table, added upon a calculator what the total was on the pay slips, divided by the number of workers, and thus shared it out equally. They had only agreed so as to shut the boss up. (This sector then got decimated when electronic typesetting came in, and it was done in Ireland and Spain, and whole newspapers and magazines were shipped in by air, daily.)
We have seen class consciousness on the site, we have seen forms that are individual (strangely) and mostly collective, almost all conscious moves, we have seen class struggles in the neighbourhood, and we have seen the most highly developed. But, it does not, on its own, bring progress of a generalized, society-wide kind.
This need something else.
If you have high class consciousness, you work in dignity, but you remain a mere worker, selling off your hours of life. All decisions are still taken by the boss. The typographers finally lost, because their political consciousness was not high enough. Capitalists got around their class consciousness. And the system itself remains unchanged. Within this system, so long as it remains, you will always be its wage slave. You will always be selling yourself.
Strikes and politics
Workers world-wide – and here I’m reversing a bit, so as to leap forwards later – realize that there comes a time, when negotiations just don’t work on their own. There is only one thing left to do, or to threaten, and that is to with-hold your labour, and as a group, you say, “Under those conditions, we will not work.” And here we see the difference between a slave and a modern worker; you can refuse to work. However, when you with-hold your work, as a group, the State comes into play. Remember I mentioned this is a powerful tool that the capitalists have, their State?
So, in general, workers have used and do use strike action as a tool of the struggle, as a means of expressing their class consciousness in action. In fact, the strike is the tool par excellence of the working class. So, let us look at strikes.
Strikes can be spontaneous or planned, they can be in just one sector or in one factory. They can be short – an hour or so – or a few days. They can be unlimited. All this applies anywhere. A “general strike” refers to a strike of all sectors, or at least many, many sectors, in a country (or a big area). It is an advanced form of class struggle. In Mauritius this kind of generalized strike has often taken place. It reached its highest level in Mauritius in August 1979.
And it went beyond a general strike. And this is when it becomes political, in the best sense of the word. In August 79, cane labourers and sugar mill workers went on strike to prevent mill closures and for union recognition. Bosses had refused to recognize the two main unions. But before going on strike themselves, the two unions had met with the elected representatives of the dock workers and transport workers. They had said to them, “If we manage to keep a strike going for one week in both the fields and the mills, and it is a success, in the second week, can we rely on you to come out on a strike of solidarity?” Both said yes. So, after a week of strike in the sugar sector, started on 7 August - I remember the date - then a week later dock workers and bus workers downed tools. So, it was a general strike. But then it turned into a general strike movement. Which is something else altogether.
A general strike movement
What exactly is a general strike movement? When the dockers and bus workers had come out on strike the fizzy drinks workers took a decision and came out. Municipality workers followed. The jute factory workers. And then, this is how you see it unfolding, unfurling, neighbourhood committees came in to Port Louis, demonstrating in favour of the strike – from Bambous, from Plaisance, from Ste. Croix. Self-organized demonstrations, from everywhere join up. The women’s movement comes in. Planters’ groups come and offer help.
That is a strike movement. Until the whole of the working class is in it. And to show how it draws everyone in, a last story on this.
The Police Station in Line Barracks used to be a wooden building with quite a big reception area. During the general strike movement, there was a great confusion of activity there: workers and delegates being arrested and released on bail, barristers visiting clients arrested for illegal demonstration, and so on. Others arrested for pasting up posters. Others still for trespassing on boss’s property. In the middle of all this hullabaloo, there was a lone woman and her boy child of 6-7 years old. She had been kicked out of her house by her landlord. He had put all her things out on the pavement, and she was here to report it. And this woman, sensing the atmosphere, understanding vaguely what was going on, created a space in the packed crowd in that reception area, and began dancing, literally dancing, stamping her feet, hands in the air, [Lindsey gets up and demonstrates]. And the woman is singing out loudly, “Sole solution, revolution! Sole solution, revolution!” that she had heard crowds chanting in a march. She had been drawn into the general strike movement, so strong was its gravity. And her little boy then, leaned over, as sega singers might, and clapped his hands together in time with her chanting, and said, “Alali la, mama, alalila, mama!” (“There you go, Mom, there you go!”) Just to show how everyone, even a child can get drawn in. His class position, his mother’s class position, as tenants, exposed during an uprising. Their class consciousness was spontaneous and total.
And this was in a moment of near insurrection.
This was in 1979. And the uprising in 1980 – which was a continuation of the 1979 one – was the same movement.
This shows how far a strike can go, how close it becomes to political consciousness, as it becomes a movement. And the organized working class has drawn in the wretched of the earth. Even a lone woman and child.
But the class struggle on its own, does not necessarily produce political strategies. By itself the class struggle does not aim at taking power. When I say that the strike movement had an element of an insurrection in it, it means that participants began to say, “Why are there bosses at all, where does the Government get its legitimacy, what is the State to support the bosses this way?” Everyone began speaking like this in the movement. But only an advanced form of political consciousness could have prepared us. At that time, political consciousness was not that advanced. The MMM, as a party was not leadership of the movement, of course, because it was still at the level of purely electoral politics. Berenger, as a leader of the unions, was in it. Was one of the leaders. But the collective leadership was us, LALIT de klas. We were the leadership of this creative, dynamic, whirling nation-wide strike movement. But, politically we were no more than a wing, a current, a tendency within the MMM. We were the leadership of a monthly publication. How can a publication [Lindsey laughs mockingly at herself], how can it possibly have a level of political consciousness to take power? It is impossible. But it shows that when a revolutionary situation develops, it has its own internal creativity. It may take a thousand different forms, this being just one example. And if ever at this moment, the working class is strong enough, politically as well as in terms of class consciousness, this can produce a moment for taking power. At that moment, class consciousness was ripe, but political organization and consciousness was still “electoral”. There were leaders in the MMM like l’Estrac, like Jugnauth, like Nababsing, who were then much as they are now. They were not about to lead any revolution against capitalism. But where revolutions have been successful, there has been political consciousness present. And for lasting success of course it needs international political consciousness. Otherwise, one way or another, the revolution will be overturned by international capitalism. In two weeks time, we will devote a lot of time to the importance of this international dimension to our strategies.
All this to say, before we begin discussion, that the class struggle has all sorts of practical forms. We see it every single day. Like it or not, it is there. And then, as political militants, we nurture it further. Why is it important, this nurturing? Because the working class struggle brings change, increases democracy. And if the working class comes to power, it will be the end of class rule. We can all, in association decide what to plant, what to produce, how to decide, what to keep as capital, and how to share the produce. We can look after the planet democratically instead of having to suffer what Shell, BP, Caltex and all the other multi-nationals decide. Today, the working class is 90% of the people on the planet. In the past 20-30 years, everyone even in India and China has been drawn into the working class – there is no longer an immense peasantry in the world. The Occupy Wall Street movement called the working class the 99% against the 1% that controls big capital. When we say working class, what do we mean? No more than everyone who, in order to live, has to sell his labour power to a boss, or to the State that exists in the favour of the bosses. Working people have to sell their hours of life, in order to survive. Under capitalism, the general tendency is for everyone to fall more and more into these two major classes – the one that sells its labour, and the other that buys this labour power.
So, we sell our labour power, us the vast majority of humankind. When there is more unemployment, this helps the capitalists, because it lowers our price. But if there is too much unemployment, this can destabilize the whole system. Which is why here, there are at present so many courses, so many new institutions offering courses, training, degrees, diplomas, to cushion the unemployment. And banks, already suffering from a glut of liquidity, are forcing money on unemployed people so that they become small entrepreneurs, even knowing 4 out of 5 will be bust in 3 years’ time. It masks the unemployment.
So when we talk about “class struggle” it is both very ordinary, something happening every day, and also something very important because it brings progress.
This first session, through narratives, aims at helping us get a common meaning for the term, as a kind of introduction to the analytical session later today. That’s it, comrades. OK?
Transcribed and then translated and slightly adapted from
Lindsey Collen’s speech at the Seminar on Strategy organized by LALIT
1 July, 2012, GRNW, Port Louis, Mauritius.