The revolutionary potential of the working class flows from its role in a system of social production that requires interdependence and co-operation. This class role provides the social basis for workers to first sense, and then understand, that they have a position of power to use against their oppression. They have the power of being collective producers without whom there is no production. Individual actions, even those which border on the heroic — and most of the ones that we are considering are quite the opposite of heroic — do not make the workers more aware of this power. They manifest the fact of the workers' oppression without showing the possibility and the efficacy of collective action by the workers. Thus they can't be used to draw general lessons about both the necessity and the possibility of independent working-class organization. Since this awareness is vital to our perspective, and since it cannot be lectured into the workers, some experience of collective action, no matter how minimal, is the necessary social condition — the only real base — for our perspective.
The spontaneous individual actions at the point of production are separated into a few different categories. The practical reasons why none develop logically into collective struggle will become clearer. Three such divisions are logical: actions which damage the final product, actions which cut down on production, actions which challenge the authority of the management. Though in practice these categories of individual struggle seldom appear very distinctly, it is helpful to make the separation here in order to clarify different sorts of limitations of spontaneous individual struggle.
The first case amounts to either direct or indirect sabotage, and the end result of sabotage of the product is to the benefit of the capitalist class in its role as the major consumer and taxpayer. Capitalism spends a great deal of effort to artificially maintain its profits by marketing unnecessary and shoddy goods. Sabotage by the workers only adds a statistically insignificant quantity to the mass of defective merchandise that capitalism produces deliberately. For example, it doesn't begin to compare with the deliberate pressure by the management to get the workers to work harder and faster. So long as the amount of workers' sabotage is fairly uniform across the economy, even individual firms can't be hurt very much by it. And in the event that such a variation exists for a while, at most it could only mean a few plant closures and company failures — minor readjustments for the system as a whole and of no advantage to the workers one way or the other.
Individual actions that restrict output and lower productivity do hurt management, and it will immediately take retaliatory action to change the situation. If we assume that the individual action is covert, that it does not involve a direct challenge to the authority of the management (a legitimate assumption since we will consider this aspect separately), then the management response will be to fix blame on a group of workers and take punitive action against the group as a whole. This can take many forms, but it usually means either that other workers will have to do the job of whoever is screwing around, or they will have to force him to do his share. Beyond this, such a situation is bound to bring down additional supervision, perhaps even undercover cops posing as workers, and jeopardize all the little ways that workers find to make the job more tolerable: sitting in the John, walking around and talking to other workers in slow periods, reading or eating on the job.
When a major disruption of production occurs, like the sabotage of an important piece of machinery as opposed to spending too much time in the toilet, the danger to other workers is even greater. They can be put in a position where their own job is in jeopardy, where they must choose between risking their job or fingering someone else. In any case, all examples of such covert individual actions involve risks for other workers that they haven't agreed to take, not to mention putting extra burdens on other workers.
There is another factor at play. Both variants of individual action involve screwing up the work in one way or another, and this makes the time pass slower and the work more difficult for everyone. Most workers, especially the more conscious ones, take pride in being able to do their job well. If they choose to do it badly for a while, that is one thing; but if somebody else prevents them from doing it well, they get irritated. Since workers are hostile to these sorts of individual actions for partially justifiable reasons, not just company-sucking inclinations, there is no reason to think they form a basis for initiating organized struggle.
What about challenges to the power and authority of management — usually in the person of the foreman? On the surface it would appear that these are forms of individual struggle which would demonstrate to all workers the possibility of resisting oppression on the job in an organized way. Unfortunately it is not the case. Most of these challenges concern just one worker's particular area of competence and responsibility. And often this worker has some particular ability or some other peculiar feature that makes it possible for him to challenge the authority of the management while it is not possible for every worker to do it. Sometimes it is a question of a more experienced or skilled worker, sometimes a worker who is able to get another job, sometimes a worker who is white or male when most of the work force is Third World or female, sometimes a worker who knows that the union will support him. Any of these sorts of things can give an individual worker more latitude in defending his own interests than the average worker will have. And because this is the case, the average worker will not learn from watching such confrontations that he also has the power to stand up for his rights successfully.
Often these challenges are not really challenges with the management as such, but just with an element of it. For example, it is not uncommon for a worker, particularly an older one, to appeal over the head of the foreman to someone further up the management hierarchy, bolstering the illusion that the problem is that some people in management are "fair," but others are "chickenshit." A smart manager from time to time will over-ride a foreman who gets too zealous just to encourage such notions.
In one way or another all of these individual confrontations are channeled away from any area where they might encourage collective action. You can yell at the foreman, but do it in the office, not out on the floor. When an attempt is made to use a confrontation as a means of organizing a struggle, the latitude that is normally allowed is quickly taken away. For example, a worker can refuse to work at a job because it is not safe, and it is likely that the foreman will just try to assign someone else to do it. But if the same worker tries to make an issue out of the unsafe condition and to get everyone to refuse the job, he'd better be ready for trouble.
The conception of the omnipresence of class struggle in "Call to Organize" (a 1970 manifesto by Sojourner Truth), although necessary to counter the widespread idea on the Left in this country that the point of production is a sea of tranquility, is too Utopian to provide a firm basis for a plan to work. The spontaneous resistance at the point of production which has just been discussed has two features which both must be taken into account. It is action, struggle — but it is individualistic. This dual character means that any attempt to mechanically transfer such individual forms of resistance to oppression into a base for a coherent struggle against this oppression is bound to understate the real difficulties and to lead to an uncritical submission to spontaneity or to silly attempts to provide "leadership" by providing "models of individual militance."
What are really important are the examples of collective struggles in the factory and the conditions for further developing these. Though this narrows the initial base, the base is still there, more evident in some factories than in others, of course. So the question is: How can a mass independent working-class movement be built from these elements of collective struggle? Where do we begin? How do we work? These are the issues I will deal with in the rest of this paper.
Almost all Left groups have standard advice for people who are doing production work. It generally goes something like this: Learn the job and the grievances; single out the natural leaders and most advanced workers; make friends, but keep low until you have some time on the job and people will listen to what you have to say. Then try to get the advanced workers together, perhaps in a discussion group, so more general political issues can be raised; maybe at that time it will be possible to begin pushing a definite program, circulating some leaflets, and so on.
Usually this advice is put within the framework of the inner-union caucus perspective, but that isn't essential. Then there are variations depending on the Left-wing group involved. In the Communist Party the emphasis will be put on studying the contract, attending union meetings, and getting on a committee. Other groups will stress developing cadre through communist education as a pre-condition for mass work or involving the advanced workers in the "movement."
Depending on the conditions, any or all of these bits of advice can be all right. But they leave all of the real questions and all of the difficult problems unanswered. In the first place, any job has a number of more or less distinct groupings among the workers, not uncommonly with a good deal of hostility between them. Once a worker gets identified with one of these groupings, it is difficult to break that identification down. The reason it is important to be aware of this is that there are at least three or four social groupings which have the potential of providing an initial cadre of people to work with. There are the younger workers, the Black and Latin workers, the various opposition groupings within the union local, and the de-facto leadership of various department struggles. Each of these social groupings presents specific possibilities and problems for pulling together a working cadre. This is not understood by most Left groups. Their tendency is to select one or another of these social groupings to work in, ignoring its limitations and the potentials elsewhere.
For example, it is very common to find Left people who argue that Black and Latin workers are more open to struggle in general, and to revolutionary organization in particular, than are workers generally. The same basic argument is commonly extended to young workers. In fact, it is often claimed that the organizing potential in the basic industries flows almost exclusively from the influx of young and Black and Latin workers into these jobs. The implication is that the experience which these workers have gained outside of the process of production — in the ghetto communities, in the schools, in the army — is what makes them potentially more revolutionary inside of the factory.
What does it mean to say that a worker is open to revolutionary ideas? Fundamentally it means that he is open to seeing that working people are a class that has the power to make a revolution (a socialist revolution, that is). Are Black, Latin, and young workers more open to such an understanding? The answer is that they are more open to some aspects of it and less open to other aspects of it than most workers.
These workers have a relatively vivid experience of aspects of the capitalist structure where the contradictions are sharper and the crises more advanced than at the point of production. Certainly this makes them more aware that the only real answer to their needs and grievances is a revolutionary answer. But it does not necessarily make them more aware that the working class and only the working class can make the revolution. It is true to say that Black, Latin, and young workers (not to ignore the differences between the three groups) are more open to general revolutionary propositions than are the masses of workers, but it does not necessarily follow from this that they are more open to the specific forms of revolutionary organization and action which are suited to the point of production.
In fact, it is quite common for such workers to define their revolutionary position in distinction to the non-revolutionary, or even counter-revolutionary, essence of the masses of workers. This inevitably leads to sectarianism, avoiding the grievances flowing from the work process and the fight for the programmatic leadership of the masses of workers, and seeing the revolution occurring independently of any of this. Beyond this, many of the struggles that these workers have experienced have been in arenas where mass mobilization was a tactic that didn't immediately raise the issue of power in the way it does at the point of production. Thus many of these workers don't understand the importance of mass participation in struggle, and are likely to counterpose various Leftist military or semi-military tactics and small group conspiratorial organization to a mass line and mass organization.
This is not to deny the tremendous positive impact on the consciousness and activity of workers that struggles outside the point of production have had — particularly the struggle for Black liberation. Certainly it is a greater advance that a large percentage of Black workers in basic industry consider themselves "revolutionaries." Workers have learned a lot from these struggles, but, to repeat, nothing they have learned will magically create the specific forms of revolutionary organization and action which are suited to the factory.
Wherever there is any life in the local union there will always be a number of individuals or groupings that make up more or less of a "Left" or militant opposition to local leadership forced to be "mature" and "responsible" by the terms of the contract and by the web of working relationships with the management that are a part of their offices. Since in most situations there is little alternative to the union for those workers who want to be active on economic issues, it would be foolishly sectarian to discount the possibility of recruiting some workers from this grouping into an initial cadre. This is particularly true since almost every older worker who has some contact with socialist ideas and many of the leaders in dealing with departmental issues and grievances will be in the union opposition.
But care is needed in relating to this grouping of workers. A lot of militant talk has got to be discounted as rhetoric, and a lot of activity has got to be examined for various opportunistic and careeristic motives. The local union leaderships are filled with people who were known for their militance and activism — until they were elected. That in itself should rule against taking such workers at face value. Two important tests when considering such workers as potential cadre are whether most of their work is organizing against the management or whether that is subordinated to a fight against the union leadership, and whether the agitating and organizing that is done actually develops the involvement and participation of other workers and doesn't just build blocs for campaigns for union office. Most important, a communist should never get so involved with the inner-union opposition that he or she becomes isolated from the workers who are cynical about union politics.
The last grouping from which members of initial cadres might be recruited is the leadership which develops in departmental or shop struggles. (Though sometimes this group is thoroughly mixed in with the union opposition, that isn't always the case, particularly if there has been a lot of job action.) At first it might seem that these workers are already engaged in direct struggle with the management and should easily see the importance of building independent organization. In fact, there are Left groups which argue as if the revolution would be successful already if various union bureaucrats and self-proclaimed socialist vanguards would just leave these militant workers alone. But that is just another brand of utopianism. Though these workers have a good sense of the power of collective action and the importance of unity, they lack any clear perspective which could take job actions out of the framework of reactions to oppression and incorporate them into an offensive strategy. This limitation of leadership is one of the reasons why virtually all job actions fail to develop a continuing momentum that can place a constant pressure on the capitalist control of the production process. And, as should be expected, the lack of any perspective for the activity on the job is paralleled by a confused and contradictory position on all general political issues.
In short, the initial cadre of workers must have a number of different characteristics which show up among different social groups in the factory. It must be open to a general revolutionary critique of capitalism; it must be aware of the importance of organization; it must be able to provide leadership for the struggles that develop on the job. Workers radicalized outside of the job are more likely to accept a radical critique than they are to see the possibility and necessity of building mass struggle and organization. The trade-union opposition might want to get organized and even accept a few revolutionary propositions, but they won't see why this should go beyond a struggle for control of the union. The leader of job actions is likely to be great whenever a spontaneous struggle arises, but to have no idea of what to do in other situations or how to relate job issues to general political issues. Each of these limitations in areas of possible support for our perspective help spell out the sorts of political problems that are involved in implementing it.
The first goal of a communist in a factory is to become a political center so that his or her ideas and approaches are more than just talk, so that after a few months they have the force and prestige that ordinarily would come only after years of experience on a job. In the future it is likely that this will be easier because of the possibilities of identifying with known and admired struggles in other factory situations, as, for example, identification with the Flint Strike would have been possible and helpful in the early CIO period. Now, however, it is a difficult and delicate problem.
Still, there are a number of ways to approach the difficulty, any one of which may work depending on the circumstances. At this point also it is necessary to stress the fact that there are a number of different ways to achieve the end, because every Left group seems to have a favorite tactic which it puts forth as a necessary first step in factory organizing. Such fixation on a certain tactic is dangerous because it maximizes the chance of a mistake, and a mistake involves more than just wasting some time or even getting fired. It can mean polarizing the workers in the immediate area in such a way that no work is possible.
It is often argued that revolutionaries are obligated to make their positions known to other workers, to keep their "politics up front," as the phrase goes. This then, assuming that the proper politics are kept up front, is supposed to coalesce the advanced workers around the source of such wisdom. There is a little validity to this notion, but it shouldn't lead anyone to hasten to publicize his revolutionary credentials. Besides the clear danger of being fired before being prepared to make an issue of it, there is the greater danger of not being taken seriously by the more conscious workers, while being taken too seriously by the most backward workers. Then the potential base regards you as a nut while the opposition thinks that you are a real threat — and that's bad.
The stress on arguing politics on the job needs to be overhauled. It is a hangover of a movement that functioned primarily among students. This doesn't mean that it is wrong to confront political positions directly and that one should skirt around the edges of the touchy issues. It just means to use good sense. Don't feel obligated to challenge everything you don't like; don't confuse stating your own mind with changing someone else's; don't waste time arguing with lost causes; don't overestimate the importance of "winning" or "losing" arguments. It is a lot easier to win arguments, or even to make verbal converts, than it is to change the way the workers act. But the fundamental way that consciousness is changed is by changing social practice. Unless this is done, polemical victories and ideological converts are not going to be very meaningful. In fact, talking too much can polarize the workers over abstract or peripheral issues in a way that inhibits direct action.
There are no magic "raps" which can transform a new worker into a leader on the job, and there are no heroic actions which can accomplish this either. If a communist is so careful about risking his job that he takes a lot of crap from the foreman, other workers are going to have some questions about him. But on the other hand, getting a reputation for "not taking any shit" won't automatically change his status either. In the first place, that posture is likely to involve the political mistake of putting too much stress on the foreman or other low management figures. Then, most workers aren't impressed with confrontations which appear to be over pretexts rather than real issues, and a clever foreman can make this appear to be the case most of the time. In fact, the foreman can easily make it appear that what is actually wanted is preferential treatment. But, of course, the most serious drawback of the confrontation approach is the risk that your neck will get overextended and you will get suspended or fired. Then that is the issue, and it is hard to organize around yourself, especially at the beginning.
Another common idea should be brought in at this point. Many Lefties begin work in a factory convinced that there are one or two issues which they must emphasize. These issues might be valid ones, for example the denial of equality to women workers and workers of color or the necessity to expose the role of the union, or they might be foolish. But assuming that they are issues of over-riding importance for a production organizing strategy, that does not mean that they must always be the initial or the most important tactic when the work is just beginning. Here again good sense is needed. There will be times when taking a clear stand on such issues, either in discussions or in a leaflet, either on the job or at a union meeting, will be absolutely essential. But this will not always be true. On this point as on all others, any time a communist allows a sense of moral obligation to over-ride political judgment, a mistake is being made. That point has to be made, but it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that certain organizing issues do have a strategic importance, and the strategy must always determine the tactics. Any approach which evades these issues when they are relevant is opportunistic — and historically that has been the main weakness.
A traditional way to begin work is to attempt to take advantage of the union structure by filing a lot of grievances; or, perhaps, running for shop steward or trying to set up a department grievance committee. At times this sort of work can help, but it must be combined with more independent forms of activity, or no basis will be laid to explain the sharp break with the union structure that must occur relatively early in the work. Unless this kind of activity is undertaken very carefully, it can raise false hopes that basic changes in working conditions can be won through the grievance procedure. Then, when this illusion is shattered, the result can be an even greater cynicism and sense of futility. Two other implications of this approach should be recognized. It will involve a lot of reliance on the inner-union opposition — usually not a good idea — and it will make it more difficult to address all of the issues which cannot be directly attacked at department level, and these of course are usually the most important issues.
Perhaps the most popular initial approach to factory work is to "put out a leaflet," to begin distributing in-plant agitation and propaganda. Just the ability to lay out a more or less coherent line, put it in writing, and handle the technical problems of producing and distributing a leaflet or a newsletter will give a communist some political leverage, assuming, of course, that other workers know who is responsible. But this won't exist forever, and, more important, it can be effectively canceled if the material has bad or incomprehensible politics. But beyond the problem of bad politics that don't improve because they are written rather than spoken, there are several other issues involved in this approach.
The first is the problem of security. It is almost always risky just to distribute leaflets and newsletters, and it is even more so to let it get known by the management and union leadership involved in the preparation of them. But, on the other hand, if we want the written material to be of maximum help, it is important that the workers be generally aware of who is behind it. If this is kept secret, much of the political potential will be lost, particularly the possibility of getting support when the union and the management combine to suppress the material, as they almost inevitably will.
Since the function of leaflets and newsletters is not just general education or agitation, but to help create a base of independent organization, they must aim toward mobilizing the workers for certain specific struggles. It can easily happen that the literature can make threats, pledges, and calls to action that it can't back up with a base of real strength. This hurts. When something is put on paper, the authors are committed to it; and if they can't deliver, the credibility of their organizing work is damaged.
If written material is too heavily relied on, a few mistakes of this sort can lead to pulling back from a practical program toward more general and sometimes more "revolutionary" propaganda. But then, instead of linking together a cadre of workers around a definite plan of action, the literature attracts a circle of contributors and readers who agree with its general stance on the issues but are not necessarily committed to — or even interested in — doing any organizing work in the factory. While the production and distribution of literature will definitely help to stir things up in the plant, by itself this work will not pull together the elements of an independent organization. Because this can often be the path of least resistance, it is necessary to be constantly on guard against the tendency to let the written work become a substitute for the other sorts of organizing work which are also necessary. Generally on this point it is important not to let the rhetoric get out of hand; to develop a practical program that flows from the general perspective; and to avoid letting the analysis outstrip the program or the program outstrip the actual base of support among the workers.
Once a beginning is made and a group of workers begins to pull together around our perspective, then what do we do? Though this question raises a host of issues, this paper is basically concerned with just one: the role of direct action on the job. The "Call to Organize" placed a great deal of emphasis on direct action, treating it as the direct opposite of parliamentary legalistic maneuvering inside the union structure, which in turn was the essence of everything that we opposed.
There is a base of growing struggle, of direct action, in the factory, though as pointed out earlier the "Call" exaggerated this base. But this is a base of spontaneous struggle, and some attention must be paid to just what that word "spontaneous" means. A spontaneous action is not held together by a leadership which sees it as part of a general strategy for sharpening the class struggle. Lacking such leadership, its demands are seldom clearly stated and related to its tactics. Because it is not incorporated into a conscious class-struggle perspective, by a combination of some selective concessions and repression by the management and union working in tandem the action will be absorbed and its energy dissipated over a period of time. The management seldom has to respond to spontaneous direct action, even when it reaches the stage of large-scale wildcat strikes, with blanket repression: firings, suspensions, transfers, not to mention injunctions and police.
It makes a great deal of difference, however, when a conscious grouping is deliberately organizing direct action as a part of a strategy to supplant the union and make things tough for the management. The leadership of such direct actions can expect management to use all of its resources to isolate and crush it. "Direct action" organized as a part of a perspective will entail an entirely different risk-benefit calculus for the workers than the direct actions that occur spontaneously as a response to the conditions of work. It is clear that the risks will be increased enormously. This leads some people to argue that we can't afford direct action, or that we will only be able to afford it after we build a strong organization. But along with increased risks go increased benefits, so that direct action, while more difficult by far than the "Call" would lead us to expect, is no less essential than it claimed.
The following selection from Gramsci helps to lay a theoretical base for this argument.
Philosophy in general does not in fact exist: various philosophies and conceptions of the world exist, and one always makes a choice between them. How does this choice come about? Is it merely intellectual, or is it more complex? And does it not often happen that there is a contradiction between the intellectual fact and the norm of conduct? What then will the real conception of the world be: the one which is logically affirmed as an intellectual fact, or the one which results from real activity of a certain person, which is implicit in his action? And since actions are always political actions, can we not say that the real philosophy of anyone is contained in his politics? This conflict between thought and action, that is the co-existence of two conceptions of the world, one affirmed in words and the other explaining itself in effective actions, is not always due to bad faith. Bad faith can be a satisfactory explanation for some individuals taken singly, or even for more or less numerous groups, but it is not satisfactory when the contrast shows itself in the life of large masses: then it cannot be other than the expression of more profound contradictions of a historical and social order. It means that a social group, which has its own conceptions of the world, even though embryonic (which shows itself in actions, and so only spasmodically, occasionally, that is, when such a group moves as an organic unity) has, as a result of intellectual subordination and submission, borrowed a conception which is not its own from another group, and this it affirms in words. And this borrowed conception it also believes it is following, because it does follow it in "normal" times, when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but precisely subordinate and submissive. (Antonio Gramsci: The Modern Prince, page 61)
The working class as it exists under capitalism has two conceptions of the world. One is essentially capitalist. It accepts private property as necessary; sees competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and selfishness as basic characteristics of "human nature"; and does not challenge the notions of right, justice, and freedom which serve to maintain the dominance of the capitalist class. As Gramsci says, this capitalist conception of the world is not just an intellectual fact. It is a pattern of conduct. The working class, in ". . . 'normal' times when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but precisely subordinate and submissive . . ." acts as if capitalism would be here forever. But not all times are "normal" times. There are instances when sections of the working class move "as an organic unity," as part of a potential ruling class, and in the process demonstrate in action that class's "own conception of the world, even though embryonic."
When do workers act as an organic unity? Clearly, individual workers can, and do, participate in collective activity outside of the factory, as Black or Latin people, women, consumers, taxpayers, students, or even "citizens." But even if these struggles are totally composed of workers in a sociological sense, they don't develop conditions where the participants in them become aware that they are members of a class that has the capacity to make a revolutionary transformation of the entire society. This happens when workers struggle in an area that is closer to their collective social role of producers.
The place where workers, as workers, can move in "organic unity" at this stage of the political development of the class is at the point of production. Does this mean strikes, for example? It does, and it doesn't. Some strikes involve mass participation in struggle, but most clearly do not. No alternative conception of the world is manifested in those strikes where the union and the management co-operate in the orderly closure of operations; where picketing is only a dull and tiring public-relations chore; and where the bulk of the workers just disappear till a new contract is signed. And this is the character of most present-day strikes.
It is in the course of the struggle of the workers themselves to gain some control over the large part of their lives which is spent at work where the alternative conception of the world is most likely to show itself. Such direct actions, as opposed to most officially sanctioned strikes, allow workers to directly participate in defining the problem, setting the goals, working out the tactics. This makes them a party to the various confrontations with the other side. And it is through such participation and confrontation that the "embryonic" alternative conception of the world manifests itself in changed ways that workers think, act, and relate to other workers.
While job action is the necessary basis for building a mass revolutionary movement, in itself it is not sufficient. Gramsci is very careful to use the adjective "embryonic" when talking about the new attitudes and relationships which materialize during a struggle. Like anything embryonic, these characteristics will not survive unless proper conditions for their survival are created. For present purposes, only one such condition needs to be mentioned. There must be a conscious leadership that puts the lessons of the particular struggle into a form in which they can be understood and socialized — made into the basis for a new sort of "normal" behavior for the workers. Without such a leadership, both reason and experience indicate that the job actions will peter out and the routine of capitalist control over production will be speedily re-established.
If the direct action is not integrated into a revolutionary perspective, it will just buttress one or another aspect of false consciousness among the workers. Either it will support exaggerated reformist ideas about what is possible to win ("if we just stick together"), or it will support cynicism and resignation ("the workers won't stick together when the going gets rough"). Either direct action is integrated into a revolutionary perspective, or it is absorbed within the framework of capitalism. There is no other alternative.
Direct action at the point of production creates the conditions for the workers to begin to appreciate the necessity and possibility of socialism, but this lesson will only be learned to the extent that there is some grouping attempting to teach it. In the absence of such teachers, the various lessons that capitalism constantly beats into the workers (you get what you deserve, look out for Number One, take it to the union, nobody gives a damn about anyone else) will be the lessons that are learned. Any Left group which relies on direct action to develop an autonomous working-class consciousness and an independent revolutionary workers' movement by itself, is going to wait forever.
Though this last position is present in the Left in this country, it is not a big factor. Perhaps this is because production organizing is in such a primitive stage here that most groups haven't discovered all of the ways of relying on spontaneity in this area. However, the opposite position, that direct action is only one among a number of possible tactics and approaches toward building a mass revolutionary working- class movement, not an essential part of any such attempt, is very popular.
It is easy to see how conditions support this position. On one hand, it is extremely difficult to build a base of direct action in a factory situation in a short time. Management repression is immediate and harsh. The issues at hand for such actions — departmental and shop issues for the most part — are often not the issues which concern the workers most. On the other hand, there is a growing group of workers radicalized by experiences outside of the production process who are already open to revolutionary ideas and organizations. So it seems that the risks far outweigh the benefits, and that a revolutionary mass movement can be built without taking the risks involved in emphasizing organized job actions.
Without downgrading this process of radicalization at all, it is no substitute for the sort of collective experience involved in direct job action. A grouping whose individual members all regard themselves as "revolutionaries" is not necessarily a revolutionary group. This is the case, not so much because the individuals may be mistaken or hypocritical about their own politics, though that is far from uncommon, but because the test of whether a group of workers is revolutionary is whether it is able to find a programmatic link between the immediate needs of workers and the struggle for socialism. No amount of propaganda and education will build such a link by itself. It comes through the workers' experiencing in struggle their distinctiveness from the capitalist class; the weakness of the capitalist class; the possibility of working-class unity; and the possibility of constructing a society of freely associated producers — socialism.
But the argument goes even further. Direct action is also needed in order to develop a cadre of workers who can provide the skeleton of a future mass movement. Why is, this true? Because we can't take an individual's politics at the value he or she places on them. A worker is revolutionary because he shows in action that he can act in the way necessary to create the conditions for making a revolution, not just because he is willing — or even anxious — to be called a "revolutionary."
Members of any sort of cadre group must be constantly tested, not by seeing if they can re-state the "correct" position on all of the major questions, but by seeing if they can develop a revolutionary practice and provide leadership for the masses of workers. Everything said in the course of this paper means that this practice must involve developing and leading job struggles of masses of workers in ways which maintain and strengthen the revolutionary potentials that are manifested in such struggles. What should be thought of a worker who claims to be a revolutionary but who is constantly opposed to attempts to generate and lead struggles of the workers? — who always argues that such actions are "premature," that "the workers aren't ready"? We should think that it is best to look elsewhere for cadre, that's what we should think. If the program doesn't stress direct action from the outset, how can potential cadre be put to this sort of test? As was said earlier, it is not necessarily the case that the workers most ready to adopt a generally "revolutionary" political stance are also those workers most ready to act out a revolutionary political practice.
Up to now mass struggle, mass organization, and mass movement have been used loosely, but they are not interchangeable. We must consider the general issue of organization: what we mean and what we don't mean by mass revolutionary organization; the relationship between mass organization and cadre groupings of revolutionary workers, and the relation of communist organization to both.
If all that was needed was a change in the leadership of the existing trade unions, a caucus of all those interested in fighting to reform the union and get a different leadership would be all the organization necessary. To expand the base of support for the caucus, communists would urge the masses of workers to participate more fully in the existing unions. It is quite conceivable that the goal would be to get revolutionaries into the union leadership, in which case the caucus would be limited to those willing to work on such a program.
However, it is necessary to do more than just change the leadership. (If more evidence of this is needed, consider the European labor movement, where much of the leadership is composed of various types who would be indignant at any suggestion that they weren't revolutionaries.) The problem with the unions isn't primarily bad leadership — and the solution isn't to replace it with good leadership. The problem is that the existing unions are more of a buffer between classes than an instrument of the workers, and this class collaborationism of the existing trade unions is so deeply rooted in their historically developed structure and function that organizations must be built that are a real alternative to the trade unions for the masses of workers, that are independent of the existing trade-union structure, and that aim at supplanting it. Such organizations will have two distinct characteristics: They will be revolutionary organizations, and they will be mass organizations. It is important to understand just what is — and what is not — entailed by each of these characteristics.
In the current movement, virtually anything that appears to be worthwhile is called "revolutionary," so naturally the term is losing any distinctive content. In applying the term to mass workers' organizations, something more specific is meant here. Such an organization is revolutionary if it rejects the bounds and limits placed on the class struggle by capitalist legality, which is fundamentally based on the current requirements for maintenance of capitalist property relations. It is revolutionary if it sets its goals and determines its tactics according to what the workers think is necessary and not what capitalism says is possible. The other side of the sloppy popular talk about revolution is the revisionists' attempt to restrict its relevance to the direct struggle for state power, which, of course, is not currently "on the order of the day." That too conveniently eliminates any distinction between revolutionary and reformist methods of work in a non-revolutionary or prerevolutionary situation. On one hand, everything is revolutionary; on the other hand, nothing can possibly be revolutionary.
To supplant the existing trade unions, we need a form of organization that struggles for reforms, but does not confine that struggle according to capitalist criteria of practicality and rationality. In other words, these organizations will not go along with the management- rights clauses, the labor-management harmony crap, and the no-strike agreements; and that, in practice, will make them objectively revolutionary.
It is important to realize the significance of calling such organizations "objectively" revolutionary. It means that communists will be involved in a constant struggle inside such organizations with a whole gamut of non-revolutionary ideas and approaches, trying to prevent the revolutionary characteristics of the movement from being submerged. Beyond this there will be a constant struggle with various non-Marxist revolutionary as well as quasi-revolutionary positions.
Let me use the Flint sit-down strike to clarify my point. On one level the strike was a major reform struggle aimed at improving the wages and conditions of the General Motors workers and forcing GM to recognize the United Auto Workers as the representative of the workers. Most of the workers who participated in the strike did not see themselves as revolutionaries. Their goals were certain basic improvements of their immediate conditions. Even the strike leadership, many of whom were communists, did not see the struggle as a revolutionary one. In fact, GM was saying more about the revolutionary implications of the sit-down than the workers were.
But on another level, the Flint strike was a revolutionary struggle. The workers took possession of the means of production — not, it is true, to operate them for the common good, but in order to get some power over the work process. This was a challenge to the institution of capitalist private property that was clearly recognized as such by the capitalists. It was "illegal"; it went far beyond the permissible bounds and limits of labor organizing at a time when even picketing was of dubious legality. Beyond this, the way the strikers organized themselves — particularly their refusal to accept any external authority, even that of the local UAW leadership — foreshadowed the possibility of workers' self-government.
What happened was that the revolutionary potential of the struggle was lost in the wake of the attainment of some of its reform demands. As time passed, the UAW leadership presented the struggle only as a dramatic tactic to win a reform victory, and no communist leadership tried to teach the workers the various ways that the struggle had demonstrated their revolutionary potential. The mass-participation characteristics that were developed during the struggle were gradually replaced by typical inner-union parliamentarism. But this happened not just because of the strength and resilience of capitalism, but also as a result of the choices, mistakes, decisions, policies of the workers and union leaders involved. There was no clear struggle between a reformist and a revolutionary approach to the activity and organization that was developed during the strike — and there certainly could have been. Of course, that possibility was much harder to see at a time when the right to organize unions hadn't been won in basic industry, and thus the limitations of trade unionism weren't such a clear part of the workers' collective experience. But now it is clear that such struggles create conditions to build mass organizations which move increasingly out of the orbit of capitalist hegemony.
This clarifies the notion of "revolutionary" organization, but we must also spell out what is meant by "mass" organization. Lenin argued that workers' organizations should be trade unions and that these should be open to all workers who understand the need to struggle against the management and the government, and that they should function as publicly as possible. That in a nutshell is what is meant by the concept of "mass" organization.
But isn't this a foolish idea, considering that any attempt to set up such an organization will immediately lead to repression by management and the existing union? Doesn't this situation require that the organization be much more secret and conspiratorial, and that membership be closely restricted? It is true that the labor contract for practical purposes makes this type of mass workers' organization illegal, if and when the management decides to take action against it. This is a fact that must be taken into account, but it shouldn't dominate the perspective.
The general characteristics of trade-union organization mentioned above were developed by Lenin at a time when trade unions were totally illegal in Tsarist Russia. Even so he argued for organization as open and public as possible, saying that the problem of maintaining security should be met by keeping the movement "so free and amorphous that the need for secret methods becomes almost negligible so far as the bulk of the members is concerned." That should be the response now also. As the movement gains strength, it will be able to win some de-facto legality and can use this to develop a more explicit organized form. But even while conditions prevent us from functioning in a completely public manner, the aim must be to utilize the possibilities that exist to the maximum in order to involve masses of workers and not just a small conspiratorial cadre. The reason this emphasis on the mass character is vital is that there is a major tendency to let the difficulties in functioning openly, the de-facto illegality of organizations of the type we aim to build, turn the work away from the masses of workers toward the development of a cadre group through internal education and so on.
Though the difficulties in functioning openly are certainly real, there is no alternative to using whatever possibilities exist and working to expand these possibilities as rapidly as possible. This follows from the absolutely essential role of direct action spelled out in a previous section of the paper. There is no way that direct action can be developed if a conspiratorial cadre grouping becomes a substitute for, rather than a means to, a mass organization.
It is true that generally a relatively small group of workers will initially accept the perspective and begin to try to implement it. These will be those workers with sufficient commitment and understanding to spend the time and effort needed to test out political programs and approaches in periods when the overall struggle is at a low level. In effect they will constitute a cadre group, and at times this cadre group will be the extent of the organization — perhaps even of the movement. As the struggle develops these workers will form the leadership and the backbone, the core, of a mass trade-union form of workers' organization. It is a political mistake to organize this cadre group as rigorously and conspiratorially as the party organization of "professional revolutionists." That would damage both the leadership role of the party and the autonomy of the workers' organization — not to mention undermining all of the work to establish more open organization. It is the cadre groupings that serve as the social basis for developing a factory organizing perspective and as a primary source of recruits for the party of revolution.