Unions and Communists

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redtwister
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Oct 5 2006 21:00
Unions and Communists

So there have been several discussions of unions, with a lot of implied points. I wanted to try and state some of this discussion briefly (brief relative to 20 page threads!) and succinctly.

Firstly, I wanted to give six basic attitudes (no doubt caricatured, but the best I can do with a limited space at the moment) towards the unions.

Secondly, I wanted to go over some actual brief generalizations that I am more than happy to back up factually, that I think need to frame a proper discussion.

Lastly, I pose some questions to help generate a more focused discussion.

I thought the Aufheben quote might be a nice way to start, instead of derailing the Aufheben thread:

Quote:
Aufheben wrote:

Kolinko are exasperated by the failure of call-centre workers to act independently of unions and works councils, except on an individual basis (eg tricks to skive off). Kolinko document numerous examples of struggles which are negotiated away by unions and works councils, with negligible gains for the workers. It is possible that a rigid anti-union position has a certain validity in the context of the German corporatist 'social partnership' between the state, employers and unions.

However the critique of the recuperative role of unions has a tendency to become ideological within 'ultra-left' groups; a common characterisation of the role of unions as functionaries of capital is that they act as a 'safety valve' to dissipate the revolutionary energy of an otherwise rebellious class; this conception runs the risk of not understanding the process of struggle. The class has a critique of the unions when it is in a position to have one -- ie. through struggles and positions of relative strength. There is a danger of seeing workers as a dumb passive mass duped by the unions. This is a common contradiction of many 'ultra left' analyses which seek to differentiate a pure, autonomous class from the 'external' institutions of the workers' movment (unions, leftist parties), and in so doing, end up concluding that the class has been duped by the ideology of these external forces.

We would argue that Kolinko's critique of the unions and privileging of 'self-activity', autonomous organizing, and wildcat strikes reflects such an 'ultra-left' ideological position; this position freezes the high points of class struggle, when the balance of forces is such that it is in workers' collective interests to act outside or against the unions, and seeks to preserve them as principles or measures by which it judges the present situation.

In our experience the attitude of workers to unions varies: some are relatively pro-union, others anti-union, some both at the same time or both in different situations, and many are indifferent; yet in concrete situations of disputes, their attitude to the union is more likely to be based upon practical considerations, rather than ideological ones -- their criterion is more likely to be whether something is to be gained by following the union, or alternatively acting outside the union. In contrast the 'ultra-left' critique of the unions doesn't relate to practical situations as they present themselves.

Let me add that contrary to what people see as the ultra-Left position today, as I and George Stapleton pointed out on the Aufheben thread, the original Left Communists did not take the same position towards the unions as today’s ultra-left. Bordiga never supported an “outside and against” the unions stance, and the KAPD did so only in the midst of a revolutionary situation where the unions were viewed as an impediment to the development of the revolutionary process, not as a final word on unions.
However, does this matter?

It seems that there are several approaches to the unions.

1) The unions are workers’ self-defense organizations and the problem is that they are controlled by bureaucrats, and so communists should struggle against the bureaucracy and for “workers’ democracy” or “workers’ control” of the unions. The idea here is often that communists should form fractions in the union and that the unions are “schools of class struggle” and solidarity, though not necessarily revolutionary. One classic statement of this is the NEFAC Position paper on unions, but also by a lot of Leninists and some autonomist types.

2) The unions, at least revolutionary unions of the IWW and CGT(?) anarcho-syndicalist type, are revolutionary organs of workers’ struggle and self-organization. The problem is to build these unions against the corporatist, sectoral, bourgeois unions. These organizations are essential to the overthrow of capital.

3) The unions were workers’ organizations, but have been incorporated into the state in the era of decadence post-1914 or so, and have become an organ of the state and are in fact anti-working class, counter-revolutionary organizations. The basis of the degeneration of the unions is here theorized as a structural change in capital, usually based on Luxemburg and/or Grossman/Mattick. This covers the post-1923 Left communist view a la groups like the ICC, Internationalist Perspective, and Mouvement Communiste and also some councilists.

4) The unions were workers’ organizations, but have been incorporated into the state in the era of imperialism or Fordism or the mass worker, and have become an organ of the state and are in fact now anti-working class organizations. Generally, councils and factory/strike committees are counter-poised to the unions as the really autonomous form of workers’ struggle. The basis of the degeneration is here under-theorized and largely empirical. This covers the classic councilist/ultra-left (and some autonomist) views, such as the Kolinko comments, Solidarity (As We See It, points 3 and 4), echange et mouvements, and the Jamesians, like Martin Glaberman.

5) The unions have always been fundamentally premised on the existence and acceptance of wage labor, and therefore capital, but was the form of organization most common to workers demanding an improvement in their immediate conditions of work (wages, working conditions, hours, even a certain amount of labor process control.) However, historically capital was forced to accept the existence of the unions, despite their impediment to capital’s direct control over the labor process, the full atomization of labor, true labor market and wage fluidity, fears that the unions were really communist, etc. The unions traded material improvements for a section of the class in return for aiding in the establishment of social peace (although at a price of course), and institutionalizing differences by industry, trade, skilled and unskilled, etc., each union looking after “it’s own”, also known as corporatism or sectoralism. The unions, in seeking to secure better working conditions, wages, etc. tend to accept legalism (at least via contracts) and tend to become incorporated into the state via state recognition and labor laws, making them even more likely to enforce the conditions that protect their institutional existence and to regard capital’s prerogatives as their own. As such, the unions must become an impediment to communist revolution (the abolition of the capital-labor relation), but not necessarily to struggles for improvement of the lot of workers within the limits of this relation. The unions therefore are not so much anti-worker as anti-communist, summed up in the demand for a fair wage rather than the abolition of wage labor. The general nature of the unions is fundamentally continuous throughout the history of capital (there is no degeneration from a heroic period, nor is there any future heroic period.) “The bureaucracy” is a non-issue, as is “union democracy”. “Revolutionary unions” are a contradiction in terms. However, the communist critique of the internal limits of the unions requires grasping the contradictory activity of the unions in the concrete, to make clear not that unions must ultimately be counter-revolutionary (as banal as the idea that Man creates God), but why these organizations act this way under these conditions to help clarify and fortify our fellow workers, whether they are strong enough to go beyond the unions or not; whether their struggle happens within the unions or outside of them. This is essentially my view, and how I more or less understand Aufheben’s point (and certainly what I have tried to enunciate from my first post on unions, to my critique of NEFAC’s workplace paper to the discussion over communists as stewards in the unions.)

6) All class struggle is fundamentally within capital, and therefore is always essentially trade unionist. Participating in class struggle is implicitly engaging in the trade unionist struggle and this is unavoidable. Critiquing the unions from a class struggle perspective is irrelevant, a kind of moralism that fails to recognize that it shares the same ground. There is no reason to not participate in the unions in principle, only for practical reasons. The problem is how to move from class struggle to communisation, the abolition of class struggle. The unions are no more an impediment than the class struggle as a whole. This view, unique as far as I know, is that of Theorie Communiste and groups and individuals influenced by their view.

Some food for thought to add to this (all examples based on the U.S. unless otherwise specified):

• The AFL-CIO played a key role in managing labor, acting as a second management and intermediary in the labor market and generally reinforced intra-class divisions, like race, gender, skilled/unskilled, etc. in the post-WWII period. Then again, this was also true of the AFL from the 1890’s forward. For example, the CIO worked with the Ku Klux Klan after WWII to break the Communist Party-led, highly integrated Southern unions, which is merely one of the most blatant examples.

• The AFL-CIO was involved in drafting legislation and supporting the U.S. abroad through nationalist, anti-worker policies and collaboration with the CIA and U.S. foreign policy agencies. Then again, so was the AFL from the 1890’s forward (drafting anti-Chinese legislation, undermining the Mexican revolution from 1910-18, etc.)

• The CIO rarely gained any actual wage raises in the 1930’s. Most often, such as at GM and Ford and Chrysler, struggles led by the most radical of the CIO unions, the United Auto Workers, no material gains were made other than recognition of the unions and collective bargaining.

• Wage and conditions improvements post 1941 were largely gained through wage-productivity agreements, where in return for increased wage and benefits, the unions guaranteed increases in productivity and social peace in the workplace. Most post-WWII militant workplace struggles were wildcats, which were as much against the unions as against the company.

• Unions have made wages and benefits less susceptible to market fluctuations, improving the security of the workers covered by the unions. This has included defensive strikes designed to impede the company from imposing cutbacks. This remained true through the 1970’s, excepting that the AFL and CIO, prior their unification in 1952, imposed wage freezes, no-strike contracts, etc. during WWII.

• Unions have provided a certain amount of legal and material protection against companies acting arbitrarily and also provide a certain amount of protection when organizing within the workplace, both through a collective environment of solidarity and through formal impediments to arbitrary activity, i.e. enforcement of contractual relations.

• Where there are no unions or few unions, wages, benefits and working conditions are usually worse.

• In politically radicalizing conditions and within radical organizations, the unions usually make up the right-wing of the movement and its organizations (see European Social Democracy, for example, by the 1890’s and certainly through today), though one could argue that this is less clear with European syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism. That would no doubt require a lengthy discussion of Dutch, German, French and Spanish syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism.

• Many unions have heavy stock investments, including in the corporations and industries where they are organized. The UAW bragged about just this frequently in the 1970’s and 80’s, but then again Samuel Gompers lost his diamond ring playing baseball with captains of industry in the early 1900’s.

• The unions are not beyond breaking with legalism in order to stay at the head of, control and re-direct radicalizing social struggles. One of the more famous examples was John L. Lewis’ retort to his use of communists as CIO organizers: Who gets the bird, the dog or the hunter? This encapsulates with a remarkable clarity the implicit consciousness of radical trade unionism. Another interesting example was Solidarnosc in Poland, which for all of the radicalism in and around it against the Stalinist regime, became the effective governing party under “democratic”, free market Poland. Or COSATU, which since the end of apartheid in South Africa, has acted often as the grassroots workplace wing of the now-ruling ANC.

* Unions do not always hold the workers back. Sometimes unions enable radicalism that otherwise might be difficult. A multitude of examples can be raised for this as well, esp at the level of local struggles within a particular workplace.

Some questions:
• How much have the unions functioned to gain democratic incorporation of the working class into capital?

• The craft unions corresponded most closely to the craft/skilled worker-oriented labor process; industrial unions corresponded most closely to the industrial-mass worker-oriented labor process. Do either of these any long correspond to the labor processes that seem to be developing today?

• Are syndicalism, councilism and industrial unionism, as forms of organization and politics, relics of the old mass worker and the Fordist structure of industry? This would not necessarily mean that there are no such types of industries, any more than craft labor has disappeared, but it no longer seems to be the dominant form of labor process.

• Are the COBAS and other such unions the “new unionism” or will there be no “new unionism”?

• What does workers’ defending their day-to-day conditions by whatever means available have to do with communists? That is, do we have means or methods to prescribe to those struggles?

• What is the relationship between the practical critique of the unions by the workers (break with the unions in 1917-23; wildcats in the 1960’s and 70’s; etc.) and the critique of the unions as organizations whose limits reside fully on this side of capital? This is clearly the sorest spot because it involves figuring out how one relates, if at all, to the unions in practice. To put it another way, while workers may develop a practical critique of the unions (one I would argue they must develop in a process of radicalization), while that practical critique and the communist critique reside fairly comfortably in a revolutionary situation or era, what is the proper attitude and practice of communists in a period when the workers are on the defensive or, as today, quite atomized?

cheers,
Chris

petey
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Oct 9 2006 19:02

bump

bastarx
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Oct 10 2006 00:04

Very interesting post Chris, it's a pity no-one has picked up on the discussion but I guess it wasn't controversial enough.

Anyway I'll offer a couple of quick comments.

redtwister wrote:
5) The unions have always been fundamentally premised on the existence and acceptance of wage labor, and therefore capital,

There's a good article by Wildcat (UK) about how the very first modern union - the miners union in the UK - acted to pacify the class struggle. It can be found in this pamphlet I just uploaded: http://libcom.org/library/outside-and-against-the-unions-long-version-treason-pamphlet

Quote:
Where there are no unions or few unions, wages, benefits and working conditions are usually worse.

No doubt true but in which direction does the causality go? Do unions win better wages or does capital accept and even encourage unions in workplaces where there has been worker militancy and/or in the more important sectors of the economy?

cheers
Pete

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Oct 10 2006 04:17
redtwister wrote:
6) All class struggle is fundamentally within capital, and therefore is always essentially trade unionist. Participating in class struggle is implicitly engaging in the trade unionist struggle and this is unavoidable. Critiquing the unions from a class struggle perspective is irrelevant, a kind of moralism that fails to recognize that it shares the same ground. There is no reason to not participate in the unions in principle, only for practical reasons. The problem is how to move from class struggle to communisation, the abolition of class struggle. The unions are no more an impediment than the class struggle as a whole. This view, unique as far as I know, is that of Theorie Communiste and groups and individuals influenced by their view.

I disagree with the way this view is discussed here and since I'm one of the proponents of the idea of class struggle as trade unionist I would like to correct this.

Engaging in class struggle is essentially trade unionist and it is unavoidable. Critiquing the unions from a principal standpoint is meaningless in the end, the critique must take place in practice and not by judging workers who participate in unions and struggles of unionist character. The unions are however based on the premise of wage labour, as is self-organised struggle. The unions are however a bigger impedement than self-organised struggle, but this does not imply that one should disregard workers fighting through unions or disdain from the use of unions on an as-needed basis. The critique is a critique of the whole problematic of leftists (ultra-leftists, leninists, anarcho-syndicalists, social democrats, autonomism etc.), basically stating that normative critique is normative (ie. moralism) and that critique must be the practical and theoretically concrete critique of unions as well as class struggle and its premise: wage labour.

Thus the need for wage-workers' self-activity is imperative, which must imply the abolishment of all representation of self-proclaimed "communists". We do not act on a "higher" level in the class struggle than any other wage-worker, we do not have any special tasks implied by our self-proclamation.

BB
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Oct 10 2006 11:37
redtwister wrote:
Quote:
Aufheben wrote:

In our experience the attitude of workers to unions varies: some are relatively pro-union, others anti-union, some both at the same time or both in different situations, and many are indifferent; yet in concrete situations of disputes, their attitude to the union is more likely to be based upon practical considerations, rather than ideological ones -- their criterion is more likely to be whether something is to be gained by following the union, or alternatively acting outside the union.

A bit off topic, but shit, i wonder how long it took to come up with that.

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Oct 10 2006 13:18

I think Aufheben’s description of the left communist position on the unions is a bit of a caricature. To say, as we do, that unions are part of the state from top to bottom does not imply that they are always holding the workers back at every moment, while the workers champ at the bit to enter into massive struggles. That is the unions’ historical role; it doesn’t translate mechanically into every situation. It greatly depends on the balance of class forces, the level of militancy in the class, and so on. Unions can equally ‘push’ workers forward for their own ends, in particular when workers are demoralised or passive and it’s not a favourable moment to enter into open struggle.
I also don’t agree with Redtwister’s idea that unions can be anti-communist but not anti-working class. This strikes me as being very close to the view of some radical Trots that unions will indeed oppose the revolution, and may even have to be destroyed, but still need to be supported and even strengthened today. It seems to introduce a complete separation between the immediate class struggle and the future revolutionary movement. If workers don’t begin to develop their autonomy from the unions in defensive struggles, it’s difficult to see where a revolution could come from. And the need for this autonomy is not a simple matter of good ideas against bad ones. It's a necessary product of material interests, because the unions stand as an immediate obstacle to workers' unity.
That said, I think Redtwister has made a good attempt to pose the different elements of the debate and it could serve as the basis for taking it forward.

redtwister
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Oct 10 2006 22:47

Thanks cph_shawarma for the clarification.

My hope was to get something of a sense of clarity out of the many diverse discussions on unions on this list and simply to see if I got it right or wrong, understanding that disagreement on how we understand each others' positions is not the same thing as "misunderstanding" them.

Believe it or not, I was less looking to start the argument over than to put my understanding of the different points out there for other people's criticism and clarification.

I am going to China for 10 days and so i will not be able to reply much on your points, but hey, I talk too much anyway.

Cheers,
Chris

redtwister
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Oct 10 2006 22:52

Alf,

The idea of anti-communist but not anti-working class refers to the treatment of the working class as a positive, sociological entity, working class as another identity, and communism as the realization of workers' power, rather than as the abolition of class relations. In that sense, the unions can very much defend workers within the confines of capital at times. Their impediment is to the formation of the proletariat as the determinate negation of capital, not to the working class as class for and within capital.

I am not thrilled with my phrasing, however, and am willing to take suggestions on a better way to express the idea succinctly.

Cheers,
Chris

alibadani
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Oct 11 2006 03:14
redtwister wrote:
In that sense, the unions can very much defend workers within the confines of capital at times.

What times?

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Joseph Kay
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Oct 11 2006 05:43
redtwister wrote:
I am not thrilled with my phrasing, however, and am willing to take suggestions on a better way to express the idea succinctly.

the unions support the class in itself and oppose it for itself?

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Oct 13 2006 10:28
Joseph K. wrote:
redtwister wrote:
I am not thrilled with my phrasing, however, and am willing to take suggestions on a better way to express the idea succinctly.

the unions support the class in itself and oppose it for itself?

I don't think the phrase in bold makes any sense...

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the button
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Oct 13 2006 10:32
Steven. wrote:
Joseph K. wrote:
redtwister wrote:
I am not thrilled with my phrasing, however, and am willing to take suggestions on a better way to express the idea succinctly.

the unions support the class in itself and oppose it for itself?

I don't think the phrase in bold makes any sense...

Perhaps if you hyphenate it: -

the unions support the class-in-itself, and oppose [the class]-for-itself.

I think that makes it clearer, but I still don't agree with it, like.

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Oct 13 2006 10:38

i mean unions do rely on the existence of a class-in-itself for their own existence, and at some point they tend to oppose conscious self-organisation (class-for-itself) - is such a generalisation on the role of unions is untenable? probably, or at least not very useful.

(not my thoughts; i was just trying to rephrase 'succinctly' what redtwister said wink)

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Oct 13 2006 13:32

Trade Unions are nessary for the time, but only as a defensive reaction. What is really needed is workers control and mangement of industry - it is exciting to see this happening in certain Latin American countries as part of a revolutionary agenda of co-operation and co-management.

Communism fails to give over power to the workers, with its belief in what Michael Albert calls the co-ordinator class - that those revolutioanries who implement revolution are necessary to manage the state, rather than put the workers at the heart of the decision making process. I'm sceptical about Albert's PArecon view of the future, but he is right on this point.

Unions are a great base for collective workers action, but the agenda must now move to workers control rather than jsut protecting (slave) wages and negotiating conditions, IMO of course.

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Oct 13 2006 14:07

I think the issue here is whether or not the unions even defend the most basic interests of the class

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Oct 13 2006 14:18

Clearly it is a contentious issues if they do or not - but disbanding unions is not the right way to go because they are an important as an organisation of workers - hence my post saying that unions agenda needs now to change to pushing for workers control of industry via takeovers and buy-outs - this would make them sucessful defenders of class interest.

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Oct 13 2006 20:35

It seems to me there is a problem here, one of, to paraphrase Chris, treating unions as a positive, sociological entity. What 'the unions' do is not the same as 'unions' as a concept or in general, anymore than 'the Marxists' is the same as 'Marxism.' The actions of organizations calling themselves unions have been and often are problematic, counter-revolutionary, etc. The same is true of organizations and individuals calling themselves Marxist. The latter do not discredit Marxism. Without a clear idea of what 'union' is supposed to mean in abstraction, it's not at all clear what 'the unions' tells us about 'unions' in general. Pete once made a distinction between Unions and unions, which works for Communists and communists. The former are definitely no good. The latter are a matter for more discussion.

I think Pete's question is really important:

Quote:
does capital accept and even encourage unions in workplaces where there has been worker militancy and/or in the more important sectors of the economy?

A friend of mine told me that in HR school they teach now that a union (a Union, I mean), can be a valuable part of managing the workers, providing "labor peace" in the way the CIO used to sell themselves to bosses. I don't know of situations of management actually encouraging unionization, though I wouldn't be surprised if it happened in some situations.

cheers,
Nate

ps- hi Chris! xox!

bastarx
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Oct 14 2006 02:24
Nate wrote:
Pete once made a distinction between Unions and unions,

Actually I'm pretty sure I was paraphrasing the late Harald Beyer-Arnesen (for those who don't know he was a Norwegian anarcho-syndicalist who died last year, and an intelligent and comradely contributor to many online discussions). Harald meant IIRC that there is a difference between 'Union' as a structured organisation and 'union' as in solidarity among workmates against the boss. But thinking about it now I'm not sure it's especially useful to use union.

cheers
Pete

PS. Good to see you here Nate.

alibadani
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Oct 14 2006 03:45
revol68 wrote:
for once I think Alf is onto something, the role of Unions in sabotaging even the most defensive of struggles is clear as day.

Hell just froze over

alibadani
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Oct 14 2006 03:52

A Union would be any attempt at a permanent organisation of workers in the workplace, outside periods of struggle. These are indeed hopeless in all cases.

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Oct 14 2006 23:34

Good to be here Pete, and thanks for saying so. I'm always behind the times so of course I catch onto libcom late. smile

I'm not married to any of the terms here, but I do think it's important to be clear on what we mean and how the same word can mask differences. So, to be honest, in my opinion some of what the IWW has done fits into the category of Union. Some of what it's done, though, is more like a council or a spontaneous action which doesn't lead to organization after a particular situation has changed. Other times it's a union, like what I'm for.

Alibadani, I don't see why a permanent organisation in the workplace is hopeless. My relationships with my co-workers and their relationships with each other forms something organized, in the sense of being patterned or having a structure/shape that could be mapped. That it's an informal organization doesn't make it necessarily any less organized. Let's say my co-workers and I decide that we are going to deal with our problems as workers at work - the problems which are in my view ineliminable from the wage relationship - for as long as we work there, to the best of our ability and in as uncompromisingly a way as possible. Let's say we also decide that part of that effort is going to be to talk to new people about why and how we do this and try to get them to take part in that effort. Is that hopeless no matter what? Cuz that's not much more than what I mean by the word union.

alibadani
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Oct 15 2006 10:08

Well my fellow mid-westerner Nate,

The scenario you describe is likely if you and your colleagues decide to struggle for something. The problem is when the struggle ends, it ends. Workers, except perhaps a combative minority, go back to life, maybe a little more conscious and maybe a lot more. Trying to maintain the organisation at this point always fails, or else it ends up becoming the old crap union. The examples are endless.

If, unlike many on this forum, you are open to left-communist ideas, and if you don't mind reading long pamphlets laced with Marxist terminology, then take a while to read Unions agaisnt the Working Class by the ICC. It all boils down to one word: decadence. (Sorry guys I obviously can't live without that word.)

If not then I guess experience teaches in the long run.

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Oct 15 2006 10:35

Just to add: the "combative minority" can indeed decide to stay together, to draw lessons, to agitate, or whatever, but they will be deceiving themselves and their fellow workers if they claim to be the unified organisation for the next struggle. That's what unions were once, and are no longer (as explained in our pamphlet); it's what general assemblies have to be in today's conditions, but by definition, they can only exist for the struggle and during the struggle.

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Oct 15 2006 22:51

Thanks for the reference Ali. I'm open to left communist ideas and would eventually like to read what I understand are the classics - Bordiga, Pannekoek, etc. I don't know that stuff at all. It'll take me a minute to read that pamphlet but I will definitely take a look at it, and let me be the first to say all power to the midwest. wink

Certainly there are rises and falls both in the shop and outside it. The struggle, though, can come in both given and produced forms. Two scenarios. First - the boss says "we're going to cut your wages." People may say "oh well" and do nothing. Not a struggle. Or people might say "let's get together and do something." The role of the union or the shop/organizing committee - what y'all are calling the combative minority - is to push for people to do this and to provide whatever experience they have in doing this effectively (for instance, trying to get people to see why ideas like "we'll just appeal to the boss's humanity" are less likely to succeed than other tactics).

Second scenario - nothing may change in the shop objectively, no cuts etc, but the union or shop/organizing committee could agitate people so they start to change their minds. This could involve getting people to move from finding some practice unacceptable that they used to find acceptable. Or it could involve getting people to move from resignation to thinking they can make some impact in the workplace by collective action.

In either scenario, if a struggle does start what is likely to happen is exactly what you said - the struggle ends. A rise, then a fall. One of the tasks during the struggle is to try to get a few more people to be part of the union /shop committee/organizing committee/combative minority - to get a few more people plugged into the group who has made a decision to try to start new struggles and to try to contribute as much as possible to struggles that come up on their own.

petey
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Oct 16 2006 02:30
alibadani wrote:
periods of struggle.

which (climbs back up on hobbyhorse) NOBODY has been able to define. if we know them only in retrospect, what's the use?

booeyschewy
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Oct 20 2006 04:12

hey all, glad to see this discussion. I'd be excited to see redtwister characterizations of positions expanded. Personally I vascillate on these questions, and would benefit from the exercise. Thanks redtwister for breaking it down like that.

Responding to the above debates, I'm curious what people would say about a thread of struggle that exists within some places and groups in the IWW. The form of organizing that takes place there is not to try and establish an administrative body for bargaining, but instead tries to assist and further direct workplace struggles, and bring active workers out of those struggles. The organization then is more like a group of revolutionary workers that tries to build off of experience and drive struggle towards revolutionary ends. There has been success both in winning gains outside of the contractual model, and of building revolutionaries out of these struggles.

Some days I worry about the role of such a group in controlling struggle, and also degenerating into leninist-esque vanguardism. On the otherhand the characterization seems in line with informal workgroups/workplace resistance groups/whatever.

More broadly I think this addresses what is something of a turning point for anarchist groups, that is can syndicalist unions transcend the Union form or is even coordinating workplace bodies institutionally such that it will build bureaucracies. I take it that is how the "permanent" bodies critique intends it.

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Oct 24 2006 15:50

hey Booey,

I don't know. For one thing, there's not really one IWW way of doing things. There are contract campaigns and service unionism in the IWW, and in some cases the left communist critique has something to grab onto there. There's other forms as well, some of which have less for the left communist critique to grab hold of or maybe nothing at all for it to grab.

The idea that permanent structure is automatically going to lead to reactionary stuff is ridiculous, and it fetishizes a lack of structure. Most people I know who are pro-permanent structure and organization will concede that structure and organization are subject to risks - they can be abused, they can create certain problems if we're not careful etc - which is to say that nobody's perfect. I've heard a lot less willingness to criticize lack of structure/permanent bodies from folks who are for lack of structure/permanent bodies.

Two things about this are really frustrating. First, if the negative dynamics of permanent organizations are simply what permanent organizations _must_ do, then any attempt to challenge negative dynamics in a permanent organization is quixotic. If most members of the IWW held this belief that would actually make it more likely for the IWW to act in negative ways, because those members wouldn't try to prevent negative dynamics. They would just say "this is what permanent organizations do."

Second, there's a confusion which goes on. Lack of a permanent formal body does not mean there's a lack of a permanent informal body. Informal work groups can last a long time and be shot through with negative dynamics just as much as formal organization, and it simply is the case that these exist all throughout the class. Many forms of spontaneous struggle are actually the product of longterm organization, just not formal organization. (For instance, intermodal trucker strikes a few years ago in the US.)

I would go so far as to say that informal organizations are so much a part of the material existence of the class that if permanent organization = counterrevolutionary then the class is not capable of revolution, because the class's existence is largely predicated on permanent informal organizations (networks of friends, families, workplace support and action groups, etc).

Luckily it's not the case that permanent = reactionary. Nor does permanent = set in stone or nonrevisable.

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Oct 24 2006 16:26

Just to clarify, Nate mate: the "left communist" position that I hold to is that there can't be permanent mass organisations in this period of history, except during an openly revolutionary period. It's not based on any unchanging distrust of permanent organisations as such. The crucial issue is indeed whether an organisation seeks to act as some kind of permanent representative body, i.e.to assume the function of a trade union. It does indeed seem that most 'revolutionary unionist' groups, whether of the IWW or Solfed type, are caught in this dilemma between being a minority grouping of militants who want the revolution, and a general 'union' that aims to organise workers as workers and not just as revolutionaries.

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Oct 24 2006 21:54

Thanks Alf. I think that's a pretty fair point. I mean, if there _were_ permanent mass organizations who were pro-revolution then this moment would not be what it is! It would be much more like a revolutionary period. We might disagree on this (do we?), I think that working to build mass organization has the potential to bring the revolution closer. Other (counter-revolutionary) outcomes are possible too of course, like the case of the CIO in the US.

Also, if the quote you put around "left communist" are meant to indicate that I've used the term wrong or misrepresented some position, then I apologize. Any misuse on my part was accidental and not an attempt to insult. I know very little about what I think is left communism (Bordiga, Pannekoek - councilists). I'm really interested but am not sure where to start and don't have much time.

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Oct 24 2006 22:12

I think nate does a good job of drawing out what sometimes seems to me a false dichtomy that I think ultimately comes from looking at organizations purely structurally and deterministically. That is people make an analysis based on something having some set of properties, and then deduce that any organization with those properties must follow some other institution with the same features.

More realistically it seems like the path of an organization is a complex dynamical evolution across time. The structure itself is moved by and constituted by the microlevel interactions of the people and groups within. On the other hand some paths clearly have dangers (i.e. contracts, paid staff,etc)., but seems less like something you can prejudge ahistorically and without knowledge of the deeper dynamics and context.

I personally have never followed the similarly deterministic arguments that either you have a worker's organization that accepts anyone or you have an ideologically based one... an ideological one naturally exclude a mass base and therefore can only be political sects (this is a gross oversimplification since my fucking spacebar is dying! but is innuciated from strange bedfellows such as malatesta leninists and insurrectionists). That line of thought always seemed to me to miss the fact that these unions admit people not who are revolutionaries but instead agree to be a part of a revolutionary organization. The whole point of such organizations is to build revolutionaries through struggle. I feel like that's too simple of a reply to be right though. Maybe I'm missing something in the critique that's more subtle.

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Oct 24 2006 22:40
Quote:
Thanks Alf. I think that's a pretty fair point. I mean, if there _were_ permanent mass organizations who were pro-revolution then this moment would not be what it is! It would be much more like a revolutionary period. We might disagree on this (do we?), I think that working to build mass organization has the potential to bring the revolution closer. Other (counter-revolutionary) outcomes are possible too of course, like the case of the CIO in the US.

Except left communists claim social-democracy as part of their heritage and so maintain all of the fictions about anarchosyndicalism that the second international built up. Their theory makes them unable to conceptualize that some 'mass organizations', like the IWW, are built by the working-class, and some, like the CIO, are built by the employing class. Instead they are all "Unions" and because the "Unions" which were created by the bourgeoisie (particularly in their marxist flavor) acted in the interest of the bourgeoisie, then all "unions" must act in the interest of the bourgeoisie.

Decadence in a nutshell: the second international was right until 1914, including by saying that all of its revolutionary critics were "petty-bourgeois" and "unscientific". After that, it was only the left-wing to emerge from the second and third internationals (but who had supported them in the meanwhile against revolutionaries) which was right; those who had seen where the second international was headed all along were still "petty bourgeois" and "unscientific".