US and World Politics

Yellow Vest Movement Raises Big Questions

By Bonnie Weinstein

Capitalism is in a crisis it can’t solve. It can only lead us to a breakdown of catastrophic proportions—a breakdown that could end all life on earth. The only way to prevent this catastrophe is to end capitalism and establish socialism. This is what Marxists have known for a very long time. But a revolutionary socialist vanguard must be re-established in the ranks of the current struggles of the worlds’ working class.

The Yellow Vest movement in France seems to be ripe for a regeneration of such a vanguard party formation.

In a December 8, 2018 article that appeared in Time magazine by Lorne Cook and Mike Corder titled, “Yellow Vest Protests Grow in Belgium and The Netherlands,” the authors note that the French Yellow Vest movement has spread to countries that traditionally had a strong “social safety net,” i.e., free healthcare, education, etc.

This social safety net is now being eroded and privatized everywhere. This was expressed in the article by two sisters who were among those protesting:

“In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a few hundred protesters in the high-visibility vests that have become a symbol of the movement walked peacefully across the downtown Erasmus Bridge singing a song about the Netherlands and handing flowers to passers-by.

“Sisters Beb and Ieneke Lambermont, aged 76 and 67 respectively, were among them.

“‘Our children are hard-working people but they have to pay taxes everywhere. You can’t get housing anymore. It is not going well in Dutch society,’ Ieneke said. ‘The social welfare net we grew up with is gone,’ she said. ‘The government is not there for the people. It is there to protect its own interests,’ she said.”

This certainly seems to be the underlying motive for the Yellow Vest protests. Masses of working people are fed up with “trickle down economics” that only trickle down into the pockets of corporate CEOs while the rest of us must swallow “austerity measures” that place the entire economic burden of running a capitalist government—its infrastructure, war machine, health services, housing, education—squarely on the backs of the working class and the poor.

The concessions made by French president Emmanuel Macron are a drop in the bucket and do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the French working class. They can’t make ends meet. Youth coming of age can’t afford to have a home of their own. Families are doubling up on housing, going without necessary medications while working long hours at multiple low-paying jobs. These conditions are not limited to France but are increasing everywhere including in the U.S.

Migration from violence,
poverty and war

Compounding this problem is the forced migration of workers fleeing war—either directly carried out by the U.S. government and their allies or funded by them—at the expense of the whole working class.

This includes the centuries of imperialist plunder of the world’s resources leaving nothing but ruin, poverty and pollution everywhere they go.

This is the capitalist modus operandi in Africa, the Middle East, India, Latin America—anywhere there is abundant labor or natural resources needed by capitalist interests.

The populations effected are forced to leave their homelands. They have no choice. And the burden of helping these desperate people falls on the backs of their fellow workers wherever they go.

This is no accident; this is how capitalism turns worker against worker. This is at the root of the current “migrant crisis.”

The fermenting of racist ideology against undocumented workers is designed to divide, conquer and diffuse working-class solidarity. Clearly, we all want the same thing—a happy, healthy, comfortable and productive life.

The power of the working class

The only way that capitalism can survive is to make the working class cover the expenses of their wars and plunder. That is the material foundation of their power.

This is not an “immoral choice of evil men.” It is the fundamental nature of capitalism itself.

Yet at the same time, it’s the working class that actually produces all the necessities of life upon which every one of us depends.

We don’t need the capitalists; they need us to obey them so they can continue to steal our wealth.

That’s what capitalism is—a tiny dictatorship of the owners of the means of production who rule over the masses of workers who labor to produce the wealth the capitalist class privately owns. All the while we workers are barely earning enough to survive.

Nothing left to lose

The Yellow Vest movement has taken hold in those countries that had a social safety net that provided for a more comfortable lifestyle as long as the profits for the ruling elite continued to rise.

Today capitalism can no longer make these concessions. They have conquered and plundered the world. There’s no where else for them to go to increase their rate of profit but to extract it from the masses of workers—by any means necessary—war, repression, taxation, incarceration, militarization and police occupation of workers’ communities everywhere.

Capitalism is the ultimate state of war. They are at war with each other all over the world.

The world’s working class is not only the cannon fodder for these wars, but we are paying for the costs of war, occupation and oppression directly from our own pockets.

Democratic roots of workers’ power

What we are seeing in the Yellow Vest movement in France is a profound realization of the French working class that they have nothing to lose. They can’t earn enough to survive so they’ve taken to the streets and have lost all faith in their politicians and even in their union leaderships who are in “partnership” with the bosses just like they are here in the U.S.

They’ve been sold out over and over again and have lost the safety net they fought for and won through their labor struggles of the past.

They want a re-distribution of wealth, higher wages, pensions, the return of the social safety net (which we in the U.S. never had) and they want to tax the rich to pay for it.

This is an insurgent fight against austerity from the ground up.

It has great potential if it is able to cross borders and solidify with workers from other countries in a battle against capitalist rule.

It needs to become a profoundly democratic, anti-capitalist, pro-socialist movement able to expand working-class consciousness, and build unity and solidarity among all workers.

It must reject bourgeois politics in favor of forming an independent, democratically structured, working-class party that can challenge the rule of the capitalist class.

What is missing in this movement so far is a revolutionary socialist vanguard party that can lead the working class toward this goal. That is the missing link in the Yellow Vest movement. It is a crucial first step to building a mass party of the working class.

While small reforms can be won through mass demonstrations and protests it takes much more organization to win significant improvements in the daily lives of workers.

What is a vanguard party?

In a 1967 article by James P. Cannon titled, “The Revolutionary Party and Its Role in the Struggle for Socialism”1 Cannon wrote:

“The greatest contribution to the arsenal of Marxism since the death of Engels in 1895 was Lenin’s conception of the vanguard party as the organizer and director of the proletarian revolution. That celebrated theory of organization was not…simply a product of the special Russian conditions of his time and restricted to them. It is deep-rooted in two of the weightiest realities of the 20th century: the actuality of the workers’ struggle for the conquest of power, and the necessity of creating a leadership capable of carrying it through to the end. …the vanguard party is based on two factors: the heterogeneity of the working class and the exceptionally conscious character of the movement for socialism…Under class society and capitalism, the toilers are stratified and divided in many ways; they live under very dissimilar conditions and are at disparate stages of economic and political development. Their culture is inadequate and their outlook narrow. Consequently they do not and cannot all at once, en masse and to the same degree, arrive at a clear and comprehensive understanding of their real position in society or the political course they must follow to end the evils they suffer from and make their way to a better system. …It has to be constituted by those elements of the class and their spokesmen who grasp the requirements for revolutionary action and proceed to their implementation sooner than the bulk of the proletariat on both a national and international scale. Here also is the basic reason that the vanguard always begins as a minority of its class, a ‘splinter group.’ The earliest formations of advanced workers committed to socialism, and their intellectual associates propagating its views, must first organize themselves around a definite body of scientific doctrine, class tradition, and experience, and work out a correct political program in order then to organize and lead the big battalions of revolutionary forces. …It has to be constituted by those elements of the class and their spokesmen who grasp the requirements for revolutionary action and proceed to their implementation sooner than the bulk of the proletariat on both a national and international scale.”

In a YouTube video of the massive December 8, 2018 protest in Paris titled, “Yellow Vests shift to the left,2” demonstrators indicated that there was a “…convergence of movements that are different and today we started from a demonstration in which there were railway workers; there was the Adama Committee against police violence; there were sex workers organizations, there were LGBT organizations, so we are seeing today that this movement is the place where demands come together.”

A vanguard party encourages this convergence because not only do the divergent sections of the working class have common interests but, by uniting together in the struggle to achieve common goals, they multiply their power.

The vanguard party recognizes that barriers between workers are manufactured by the capitalist class for the very reason of preventing them from seeing their interests as common, and that they have the same enemy—the capitalist system.

The conscious revolutionary socialist leadership that embodies the vanguard party is capable of formulating demands that are reasonable and that expose the fundamental inability of the capitalist system to grant them.

There are many reasonable reforms that could ease the disastrous plight of the working class today.

  • We could institute a sliding scale of wages and hours, i.e., shorten the workweek with no reduction in pay to put everyone to work.
  • We could seize the profits of private medical corporations; nationalize the entire healthcare industry and provide universal healthcare for everyone—including pharmaceuticals.
  • We could make all education free from cradle to grave by ending the privatization of education and provide quality education for everyone on an equal basis.
  • We could embark on massive public housing developments—built to last and built for the utmost comfort and beauty—with clean, green open spaces with rents capped at one-quarter of income.
  • We could expand public transportation to make it more convenient than private automobiles.
  • We could revamp our entire energy grid to the most modern, safe and efficient systems available today and end all use of fossil fuels.
  • We could upgrade our water and sewage systems to ensure clean water for everyone.
  • We could recycle goods and materials, end wasteful production methods and enact a vast pollution-clean up campaign.
  • We could upgrade all manufacturing and industry to ensure they are safe for our environment and for the safety, health and welfare of the workers.

A revolutionary vanguard party, by raising these demands, will help the working class see how these reforms would benefit everyone.

By ending war, and the manufacture of the weapons of war, trillions of dollars could be freed up to accomplish these tasks.

In addition, we could establish a progressive taxation of private profits of the wealthiest since they, too, would benefit from these reforms.

These are rational demands that are attainable through the power of a united working class. But this vanguard must be a integral part of the working class uprising. It must emerge from the ranks of those struggling against injustice and for a better life and show how best to strengthen them through unity and action.

This is what is needed in the Yellow Vest movement and all the recent uprisings around the globe.

The vanguard party knows we must learn from the lessons of the past. The capitalist class always sells us out. The vanguard party is able to show how the sharp decline in organized labor is due to the bureaucratic leadership of our unions who have “partnered” with the capitalists in order to get workers to accept concessions instead of win victories.

The workers vanguard knows this has never worked because increasing the rate of private profits is in diametric opposition to satisfying the needs and wants of the working masses.

The capitalist class and the working class are class enemies. We cannot co-exist.

The fact is, capitalism can’t fix the ills it has created. And it can’t stop the continued destruction it wreaks.

Our only hope is that a new, revolutionary vanguard of the working class will rise to the challenge to lead the formation of a mass working class party that can disarm the capitalist class and build a socialist world.

Real freedom, equality and democracy is the product of united, world working-class rule. There is nothing this power can’t accomplish.