A critical letter from Martin Glaberman in 1977 to one of the Zerowork collective about the journal and its politics.
The following letter from Marty Glaberman — a central member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency and later the group Facing Reality — to Paolo Carpignano, a member of the Zerowork collective, contains several critiques of the theory and style of the articles in Zerowork #1 and Zerowork #2. Some of his theoretical critiques, e.g., of the treatment of "class", revealed some basic differences between the positions of those earlier groups and the one laid out in the two issues of Zerowork. Marty's own writings, especially those written for fellow workers, tended to be clear and devoid of Marxist jargon — although he was well acquainted with the theoretical innovations, e.g., the theory of state capitalism, that had led some of his comrades to break with their earlier Trotskyist connections. Despite these disagreements, Marty remained a good friend of those of us involved in the Zerowork collective.
December 28, 1977
I had been hoping to write to you sooner and in some detail, but I keep having to put that off. So, rather than continuing to delay, I will write somewhat more briefly.
I have a number of problems with Zerowork (apart from details, some of which are bad and some of which are good). The first is a rather superficial attitude toward theory which has several aspects. A number of people associated with Zerowork were either in or familiar with the James-Johnson- Correspondence-Facing Reality tendency. It is a tendency, which, while small, had a certain significance, particularly in some of the areas with which Zerowork is/concerned. Yet I find a total absence of any knowledge of the tendency or the work it did over a period of 30 years. Some of the things that relate to this is what seems a considerable ambivalence to "Marxism" (which always seems to be in quotes). Marxism seems always to be identified with the worst states and movements in the world and yet there seems to be an unwillingness to come to grips with the subject. Is Zerowork Marxist, anti-Marxist, non-Marxist, unconcerned with the question???
Relating to this is a considerable lack of precision on the subject of class. When articles deal with the industrial proletariat of the industrialized nations, it doesn't matter. But in other areas a lot of nonsense creeps in. (On Vietnam, for example, peasants and proletarians are used interchangeably, which reduces a lot of what is said to superficial journalism.)
The slightest acquaintance with the James tendency (and others, such as the British IS) would make someone aware of the theory of state capitalism. Yet everyone who writes for Zerowork talks about the socialist countries, the achievement of socialism in Vietnam, as if the theory of state capitalism never existed. First, at this late date, it is totally pointless to go through that whole discussion again and argue with people about it. But, second, to pretend (or, even worse, believe) that it never existed displays a total lack of seriousness. And, third, this lack destroys the usefulness of much that appears in the journal because it takes the propaganda of the Communist parties of various kinds at face value — that is, it accepts their self-definition as socialist societies. It is nonsense to think that anything has been accomplished when you have proved that their "socialism" has not solved any of the problems of the working class.
There is a lot of revolutionary language about the working class. But much of it boils down to rhetoric, rather than substance, because there is no sense of a revolutionary working class struggle for power, to destroy this society and to create a new one. That derives from several factors. 1. The inability to distinguish between work under capitalism and work in any other society. 2. The strange insistence that the struggle is over money (the struggle for the wage, whatever that means). It would help if someone read State Capitalism and World Revolution where we demonstrated that it is the labor bureaucracy which seeks to substitute the struggle for money and fringe benefits for the struggle over the workplace. In any case, if the significance of working class struggle is more money and, hopefully, an end to work, how does the working class establish its control over society and the means of production? That is, what does the revolution consist of? And 3. The above lack of precision on the question of class.
The differences that stem from very different theoretical perceptions are so extensive that to prepare a critique of the two issues of Zerowork would involve producing a work several times the size of the journal. There is no point to that. That famous line in the first issue that people seemed to want to apologize for ('Our analysis of the crisis implies a rejection of the basic proposal of the Left: socialism.") no longer seems like an accident. If you accept the CP’s view of themselves as valid and if you have no view of the revolutionary process and the creation of a new society then that line begins to make a certain kind of sense. The alternative which Zerowork offers seems somewhat less than a clarion call: more money for less work.
What I see as the theoretical confusion of Zerowork is helped by two additional things. One is the tendency to create a jargon that is acceptable to the initiated and serves to distort the view of reality — the creation of special terms to replace perfectly reasonable terms that have long been in use. The second is the need to call everything a crisis without any empirical justification. If you are talking about the permanent crisis of capitalism, that is one thing. But if you are talking about special immediate crises, that has to be born out by reality. Zerowork authors have a tendency to call everything a crisis which sounds very revolutionary but, of course, leaves capitalism with a crisis that is very abstract.
There is, naturally, much that is useful in Zerowork, in the way of concrete information, etc. The level of theoretical confusion that I see, however, makes it difficult for me to see how the journal can be used concretely within the left.
I don't know whether this is the kind of criticism that you were looking for. I hope it is of some use to you.
Best wishes for the New Year.