Let us start with a little background. The incident that set the riots off was the death of two young men, from an ethnic minority, who were electrocuted after they had been chased by police into a building holding an electric generator. The boys’ deaths might have passed as just a tragic accident but for the fact that they came as part of the ongoing and persistent harassment of racial minorities of all ages by the French police.
Systematic racism provided the spark for three weeks of rioting, but the fuel for the fire came in the form of decades of deprivation and social exclusion. Immigrant and ethnic communities are on the sharp end of the cuts in social provision and wages that have been taking place in all imperialist countries (not only in France).
The current imperialist policy of clawing back reforms previously granted started as a result of the deepening economic crisis of imperialism, and has been particularly severe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, the imperialists have gone on the offensive, while crowing about the ‘failure’ of socialism to demoralise the workers. Clearly, they no longer feel under the same pressure as formerly to divert profits in order to stave off revolution.
Every western imperialist nation is busy restricting education for the working classes, dismantling health and medical services for the poor, cutting pensions, raising the retirement age, selling off affordable social housing, slashing wages, jobs and benefits. The poorest sections of the working class feel these things first.
The poorest sections of the French working class are the racial minorities and it is to their credit that they took to the streets in anger. It is also to the credit of a number of white workers who joined them to protest about the racism of the French state and to protest about the austerity measures being forced on the French working class as a whole.
State repression will achieve the opposite of its intended effect
By resurrecting repressive laws put onto the statute book back in the fifties, when French imperialism tried, and failed, to prevent the liberation of its Algerian colony, the ruling class may have temporarily subdued the riots, but it has also drawn attention to its vulnerability. If the imperialists insist on treating sections of their home population as colonial subjects, then why should they expect their current repressive efforts to achieve any more successful outcome than was achieved in North Africa?
Recently, the French fascist Sarkozy (himself descended from Hungarian immigrants, ironically) blathered about “steam-cleaning” the “scum” and “riff raff” from the suburbs, just as his colonial predecessors once ranted against Ben Bella and the Algerian liberation movement. It did them no good then: the torture, the death squads and the internments only awoke the Algerian people to yet more determined struggle, until French colonialism was successfully “steam-cleaned” out of their country. And it will do them no good now either, however many heads they break trying.
A sign of things to come
The November uprisings were an early taste of what imperialism will be faced with from much broader sections of the working class in the coming period of economic and social crisis. The so-called ‘underclass’ at the sharp end of poverty and social disadvantage, with a correspondingly keener sense of injustice, and with very little to lose, may be the first to mount such fierce resistance. But, as the crisis deepens, and as the crumbs from the superexploitation table get scarcer, it will become progressively harder for bourgeois propaganda to convince French workers that social rebellion is the exclusive preserve of ‘violent immigrants’. It will become harder to lie to the ‘native’ French worker, to con him that his class position is forever separable from that of his African or Arab brother.
When Mohammed, a construction worker who helped build the tower blocks in Clichy-sous-Bois, going on to live there in the seventies, told the Financial Times of 9 November, “It was a paradise and I had Italians, Portuguese and Polish people as neighbours,” he was clearly talking about conditions of relative prosperity before the end of the capitalist boom. He was talking about conditions that even to a degree lifted some of the most disadvantaged corners of French society out of the abyss.
By the same token, when that same worker went on to explain that this taste of “paradise” has long since gone down the drain, with rocketing unemployment and deteriorating housing, shops and amenities, then it is only in degree that his experience differs from that of the rest of working France. Thanks to divide-and-rule racism, the slump arrives first and hardest in Clichy-sous-Bois, helping for the moment to soften the impact upon the rest of the working population. For example, the Financial Times also reported that “In some riot-torn suburbs, with big immigrant populations, unemployment is running at up to 40 percent, compared with 10 percent among the population at large.”
A riot, in itself, is not a revolutionary act; more often, it is a cry of impotent despair. But it can also be a turning point, if the people rioting realise that capitalism is the cause of their misery and so start to look to the possibility of taking power for themselves.
It is therefore only to be expected that, as in this country, bourgeois tabloid race-hate campaigns and Labour ‘terror’ laws both work to encourage the population at large to blame the Muslim community for the multiplying ills of decaying capitalist Britain. The ruling class understands that the proletariat divided will fall; but united will surely triumph.
Treachery of social democracy
Meanwhile, on both sides of the Channel, social democracy, fattened on the superprofits derived from imperialist exploitation, is doing all it can to hide the truth from the labouring masses about who are their real friends and who their real enemies. The French rioters have done the working class a tremendous favour by forcing these enemies of the working-class movement within the working-class movement to hold up their hands and confess their treacherous nature by condemning the riots.
France shares with Britain the misfortune that its working-class movement has been utterly hobbled through the stranglehold of social democracy, even if in France social democracy may to some extent still be prepared to wage at least a few purely economic struggles. Precisely because of this stranglehold, the revolutionary movement has very little connection with the masses that might enable it to provide a scientific leadership to this spontaneous resistance – a leadership that would maximise the achievements of that resistance.
Lessons and tasks
The lesson must be: let us redouble our efforts to break all the threads that link the working-class movement to social democracy. The proletariat needs its own class leadership, not the social-democratic sham provided by imperialism.
Revolutionaries must therefore:
1. Each improve both the quantity and quality of their own work as individuals;
2. Build the revolutionary communist party on the basis of scientific and revolutionary Marxism-Leninism;
3. Do everything possible to smash to smithereens the pernicious influence of social democracy on the working-class movement.
The dictatorship of monopoly capital is preparing a class war against the whole proletariat to snatch away all the remaining gains that the working class achieved when the Soviet Union was in existence. It is up to revolutionaries now to make the preparations that will ensure that the proletariat is victorious, not only in the struggle to defend its gains, but, more importantly, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and to establish its own class rule – the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist economic system.