19th Prague Theoretical – Political Conference "Socialism: Scientific or Surrealist?"
Allow me to introduce today’s subject starting from the class struggle that’s going on in my country and in many other European countries.
On October the 27th, Belgium witnessed its second day of general strike in a space of two weeks. That day, more than 100.000 workers, of different political backgrounds, marched through the streets of Brussels. For aljost two months now, workers have been organising strikes, demonstrations and meetings.
The object of their unanimous anger is a plan of the social democrat-liberal coalition to make them work longer before they can retire. In Belgium, the official age of retirement is 65 but the workers can take early retirement at the age of 58, provided they have a career of at least 25 years. These regulations were obtained by struggle and also because government and capitalists wanted to avoid class struggle when they closed factories or laid off large groups of workers. The government wants to abolish these rights and grant early retirement only at the age of 60 and after a career of 38 or even 40 years. The argument is that these measures are unavoidable in order to keep up social security funding with an ageing population.
The workers categorically reject these plans for three major reasons.
In the first place older workers are just not able to work longer. For years capitalists have imposed greater flexibilty in working hours and in skills. Readaptation is permanent. Every year they have to work faster and under greater stress. Of course capitalists can boast that Belgian productivity is twenty percent above the average in Europe. But the other side of the coin is that a lot of workers are no longer able to function, neither physically nor psychologically. The majority of them say they are exhausted, worn out at the age of 55 or even 50 in some branches.
Workers also reject the government plan because they don’t see the logic in it. Older, exhausted workers are supposed to work longer while 600,000 others are unemployed, 145,000 of them younger than 25. Why does the government want to take away the possibility of finding a job and a decent income from the unemployed especially the younger ones, by replacing their fathers and mothers who yearn for a well-earned rest?
Third reason to reject the plan: the workers cannot understand why the government on the one hand reduces by one billion euros the social taxes paid by capitalists to finance social security funds and on the other hand asks the workers to work longer to fill the gap made by those gifts to the capitalist class.
This situation on the whole leads many workers to question the capitalist system. They may not yet be convinced that the socialist system is a realist alternative, but they begin to see that the capitalist system is a surrealist, an absurd and an inhumane system.
Our party disposes of many medical centres in different industrial towns. Together they form the association "Doctors for the people." These doctors have analysed the medical dossiers of 1150 of their patients, workers aged between 50 and 55. Two out of three suffer from one or more chronic diseases. This study is corroborated by numerous academic studies. An American study has examined if private pension funds will be able to pay their pensioners in the years to come. It comes to the conclusions that there should be no problem. At Boeing’s, the workers who worked till the age of 65 benefited from their pension for only 18 months. At Lockheed’s, it was 17 months. The study draws the conclusion that "workers who retire at the age of 65 or later tend to die within two years. Those who leave at 50 generally reach the age of 80." On hearing about these studies, revealed by “the doctors for the people,” many workers said: "The government wants to reduce the cost of pensions by sending us to death sooner."
They are right: fifty years ago, more than half the workers died before they reached the legal age of retirement. They paid all their life and got nothing in return. In the second half of the twentieth century, medical progress, but above all social struggle and the threat of the workers’ sympathy for the social achievements of real existing socialism forced bourgeois governments to concede some social rights. Today many workers live some ten to twenty years after retirement. But for capitalism in crisis this progress has become unacceptable. At the Lisbon summit of 2000, quoting World Bank studies, European leaders started talking about the ageing of the population as if it were a natural catastrophe, a tsunami of elderly people that will submerge us, take away our prosperity and make pensions and health care unaffordable. The Lisbon summit set the goal of keeping 70 percent of people above the age of 55 at work. In Belgium it is hardly 25 percent. In all of Europe the same measures are or will be taken.
Of course we know the real goal of Lisbon is not keeping social security affordable. Lisbon set out the objective of making the European economy the jost competitive in the world, capable of beating the American rival in the first place. But in order to be successful, European imperialists have to overcome their major handicap: they have to destroy the social protection they had to concede during previous decades. They have to introduce the American model where capitalists pay only half as much for social protection as their European rivals. That’s why they want people to work longer so that capitalists can pay less for social security.
What we see is a clash not of civilizations, but of visions of society. Can or must society guarantee a decent old age? Can or must society guarantee a decent job for all young people?
The European population is ageing. That’s a fact. But why should this be a problem? It would be a problem in a society where there’s not enough money. But this is not the case. It is possible in Europe to have less people working without cutting down living standards. Today, workers produce 17 times as many goods as 100 years ago. Each year they produce more. The question is: who gets hold of the riches they produce.
The problem is that in this society the workers of Belgium for instance have no access to the 30 billion euros of profits they procured last year for the shareholders of Belgian enterprises and banks.
The problem is that this society, in order to preserve the billions for the shareholders, has to destroy the collective insurance of workers against illness, unemployment and old age.
The population is ageing. As a result, there will be in Belgium 200,000 to 300,000 fewer potentially active people in 2030 if nothing changes in the pension regulations. Again that should be no problem. It could even help reduce unemployment, all be it only by half. But in this system it apparently is a problem. Belgian capitalists write that "early retirement will lead to tensions on the labour market because fewer young people will enter this market with inflationary wage tendencies as a consequence." In other words, this system sees full employment as a danger. It needs an army of unemployed who compete with each other as this competition pushes wages and working conditions downwards and preserves profits. The problem is that lack of job security is inherent to the system and will only disappear with it.
Belgium is one of the richest countries in the world. As I said, it could easily uphold its current social protection. To pay the pensions of our ageing population, the social security budget should increase by 3.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product by 2030.
This could easily be taken from the increased income of capital owners. In the last twenty-five years, the part of income of capital owners in the GDP has increased by 10 percent. The part of income of labour has diminished by the same 10 percent. Whereas the real income of the workers has increased by only six percent during those years, the income of capital revenue has increased by 125 percent.
This was achieved by government measures decided at a national but also at a European level: on one side tax cuts on corporate profits and corporate social security contributions — today Belgian capitalists pay 4.5 billion euros less than they would have to pay if contribution quota were still at the level of 1993. On the other hand, for the workers there are tax increases, fewer public and social services that on top of it are more expensive. Why not reverse the current and take from the rich and give to the poor?
The problem is that in Belgium, as in all capitalist countries, the state protects those shareholders and elaborates its policy in their interest. Today, all workers can see the scientific truth in what Marx wrote in his Class struggles in France: "The state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by the other."
This truth was also illustrated when, on the first general strike on October the 7th, the strikers built picket lines that closed the access to industrial zones. These picket lines help the workers of the many small enterprises, where unions are not allowed, to participate in the strike. The Interior minister immediately ordered the police to dismantle these picket lines. Everywhere capitalists asked courts to intervene and order picket lines to let strike breakers pass the lines. And the courts obeyed. Huge penalties were imposed on those who contravened. The right to strike was made practically meaningless in that way. All this was done in the name of the principles of “liberty and equality.” “Liberty to strike, yes, but also liberty to go to work,” capitalists, government, courts and corporate media shouted with one voice. But how can there be liberty to strike in factories where striking means dismissal, where no unions are allowed? What does liberty to strike mean for all those workers with temporary contracts, with loans to repay?
There can be no equality between the owner of capital, of the factory and the worker who needs to sell his labour force. Workers’ organisations cannot impose their strength only by persuasion in a society where capital owners can threaten to starve strikers, where the owners of the factories also own the newspapers and the TV stations. As soon as class struggle develops a little, the myth of the neutrality of the state collapses. Strikers can see its real role, as the scientific analysis of Marxism describes: its essential function is to protect, under the cover of abstract formula on freedom, the freedom of the capital owner against anyone and anything who would want to oppose him. He is free to close down his factory and condemn 10,000 workers made jobless to poverty. He is free to destroy thousands of tons of milk and butter to keep prices high. He is free to live in a castle of twenty rooms while families have to survive in insanitary blocks, where rats run among the playing children as we have seen in France during the last few days. We have never seen a capitalist police or court take sides with striking workers against a capitalist.
How can one doubt the scientific conclusion drawn by Marx in the same work: "The working class must eliminate the old oppressive state machinery used against it.”
How can one doubt the necessity of the socialist revolution when seeing the ultimate bankruptcy of so-called democratic socialism. In Belgium social-democracy is the father of those attacks against older workers. Today it plays its role of dividing the working class by trying to oppose younger and older workers. It accuses the unions who listen to their rank and file members of “irresponsibility” and “selfishness” of “endangering the future of the pension system.” In line with Bernstein, their ideological father, it preaches unavoidable obedience to the unalterable law of competitiveness. Bernstein gave the order “not to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs,” not to destroy capitalism but to try and get as many of the crumbs that fall from the capitalist’s table. Colonialism massacred and plundered, but it had its good side, he said: the huge profits made by the plunderers also benefited a part of the working class to a small extent.
Nowadays, however, the capitalist crisis is deepening, the battle between the monopolies is becoming fiercer and hitting more and more people not only in the oppressed countries but also in the imperialist homelands. That’s why the dominant sectors of social-democracy are losing their control over their traditional voters. In France and Holland, a left opposition defeated social-democracy in the European referenda. In Germany millions turned away from social-democratic policy and voted for the new left party. In Belgium a lot of trade unionists openly turn their backs on social-democracy and come closer to our party. There’s a growing desire for an anti-capitalist opposition, for an alternative where collective values are at the centre of society.
Unbridled capitalism imposes chaos, war, social regression, hunger, racism, crime, poverty and the spreading of easily curable diseases on the world. People aspire more and more to a world where economic planning is made according to the needs of the majority, where the riches of a few are used to solve the problems of the immense majority, where young people can plan their lives and have jobs and where older people have a right to rest. A world where people come first, not profit.
Faced with these aspirations, the jost reactionary bourgeois forces intensify their brainwashing. People have to believe that this system represents "democracy, liberty and human rights" and above all that communism is no alternative. Communism opposes the idea that the rule of capital is eternal. So they try to criminalise communism. Even the idea of revolutionary struggle against imperialism has to be considered a crime. They tried to impose votes in this sense in the European Parliament, in the Council of Europe. In your country they forbid communist symbols. I don’t think we are on the eve of a new socialist revolution, but in the eyes of the reactionary bourgeoisie in Europe, it is high time to prevent the unthinkable from happening again. Never again must the workers take control of the riches they produced themselves. What they call nostalgia for socialism is growing in the former socialist countries. In the agenda of a parliamentary audition of the European Council on the so-called crimes of communism, in December 2004, we read that communism should be condemned at the same level as Nazism "to prevent a repetition of history and the spreading of an illusory nostalgia in the minds of young people who might consider a communist regime as an alternative to liberal democracy."
Unfortunately, these attacks also have their influence within the ranks of anti-capitalist forces and even within the communist movement. At the moment when class struggle and the reactionary forces put the propagation of socialist revolution on the agenda, some trends in the International Communist Movement present themselves to take over the role of the discredited social-democracy. Hiding behind words about the transformation of capitalism and a society "that goes beyond the capitalist and patriarchal logic," they offer a reformist project. To socialist revolution they oppose "transformation of capitalism," Instead of collective ownership of productive forces they talk about "going beyond capitalist logic." Not a word about the origin of exploitation and the oppression of workers: the private ownership of the means of production and the accompanying anarchy that leads to economic crises inherent to the system. They talk about combating monopolies without saying that they are the inevitable consequence of the fierce competition between capitalists, that they lead to imperialism where the imperialist powers, such as the EU, divide the world by war.
They call themselves communists but situate their project for an alternative society at the level of the transformation of the European Union. Not a word is said about the European Union as an imperialist construction, conceived by the jost powerful and aggressive monopolies of the continent, united in the European Round Table of Industrialists, among others. They promise not a socialist Europe, but "another Europe," a "sweeping transformation" of the European Union, starting with its institutions. "We want the elected institutions, the European parliament and the national parliaments, to have more power and control." That is the revival of the old social democratic illusion that through the development of democracy, one could create an alliance capable of imposing another policy, a "new social contract." Sure, we communists are fighting to defend and expand the people’s democratic rights but we do so with the aim of developing the revolutionary class struggle. We know that as long as the monopolies hold the real state power both at the national level and at the level of the European Union, they will never submit to a policy other than the pursuit of maximum profit. Socialism, the working masses’ only alternative, is not possible without breaking the political and economic power of the monopolies.
Some within the International Communist Movement declare "they will not take the same roads as those taken in the 20th century." In short, socialist revolution will not be necessary any more to break the power of monopolies. It will be sufficient to pursue the "politics of transformation" to make the European superpower an engine of social progress, democracy and peace.
When they say that "another world is possible," they propose nothing else but the dream of a ‘humanised’ capitalism without the "excesses" of globalisation. They say that "they cannot follow the same roads as those used in the 20th century." That is to say, they will not follow the roads of Lenin and Stalin, the communist roads of the twentieth century. But they definitely do follow the roads of Kautsky and Bernstein, which to our knowledge are also twentieth century roads.
The working class and the people of the world are recovering from the blows they had to take after the counter-revolution of 1989-91. They oppose imperialist wars, reject imperialist European policies, wage struggles against anti-social policies. In order to be able to orient them we have to clearly reaffirm our goal, which is socialism, the power of the working class over capital. We have to strengthen our parties as the vanguard of the working class, deeply rooted in the masses and above all among the organized workers in the unions. We have to lead them in their struggle and struggle within capitalist institutions such as parliament; we have to protect the social and democratic rights of the workers but we have to do it with the aim of educating the workers on the oppressive character of these institutions and the necessity to break them and build workers’ power: the dictatorship of the proletariat.
That is what is on the agenda. The reactionary anti-communist forces know it. Even intelligent social-democrats like Oscar Lafontaine, who is not a surrealist but a former president of the German Social-Democratic Party and leader of the new German Left party, seem to understand that better than a lot of comrades within the Communist Movement. In the preface of his latest book he quotes the German bishops who warn that increasing social inequality “is not sustainable and could lead to a pre-revolutionary climate if it continued over the short or long-term.” And as we know, it will continue.