Marx in Detroit

The final section of chapter 8 of "Storming Heaven". On the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 23, 2023

One of the most distinctive aspects of workerist historiography in the 1970s was to be its reconsideration of revolutionary unionism. The cavalier dismissal of syndicalism during the preceding decade was now commonly replaced by an appreciation of that 'patient daily' mass work (Sereni 1974: 27) practised by the less demagogic of Italy's own revolutionary syndicalists during the early years of the twentieth century (Antonioli and Bezza 1973). So too that of the Catalonian movement before the Second World War, which offered many parallels, in the opinion of Roberto Bordiga (1976), to the modern Italian situation. In both the textile and building industries, which were then central to Barcelona's economy, unskilled migrants had possessed a determinate weight, just as they did in the industrial triangle of the 1960s. Scattered across a multiplicity of small enterprises, such workers found a reference point in the syndicalists' territorial forms of organisation, much as their Italian counterparts had made use of the case del Popolo in the years before Mussolini's rise to power. Constantly challenging the legitimacy of class relations in the labour process, the anarcho-syndicalist-led Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was to be illegal for much of its existence. One of its most important lessons had been the fight to hire unemployed workers through a reduction in working hours, a goal which had been pursued not for the sake of a work ethic, but rather to preserve unity in the sphere where labour could do most damage to capital. Yet the most interesting aspect of the Spanish experience, according to Bordiga, lay in the libertarian movement's efforts at insurrection. Whatever its self-image, he argued, the relations between the CNT and the Spanish anarchist groups of the FAI (Federaci6n Anarquista lberica - the Iberian Anarchist Federation) represented 'one of the few examples of a genuine "party of autonomy'" alien to both councillist ideology and Leninism (Bordiga 1976: 82, 83). On the other hand, he continued, if a political body separate from the mass movement was needed to impose a 'break' upon the pattern of class struggle, it was also clear that 'the "premature insurrections" betrayed a fundamental extremism which impeded the anarchists' passage from a function of provocation and rupture of the movement to the tasks of the political recomposition of the Spanish proletariat'. Above all, the Iberian libertarian movement had lacked a 'modern theory of power', and was thus unable to surpass the crisis of insurrectionalist politics which followed the failed uprisings of 1934 (ibid.: 86).

Despite this curiosity about both the Italian and Spanish experiences, it was to be to the Industrial Workers of the World that workerist historians returned again and again. Such interest was part a broader fascination with the American working class already evident in the mid-1960s, and which had been stimulated further by the growing social unrest which characterised the US as the decade progressed. A riddle to many European leftists, for whom its often bloody struggles and indifference to socialist politics spelt only a provincial backwardness, it was precisely this combination which made the American working class so appealing to operaismo. To some degree, this line of thought had been inspired by workerism's earlier contact with associates of C.L.R. James, such as George Rawick and James Boggs. At the 1967 conference 'Workers and State', Rawick (1972a: 53; 1972b: 137) had argued that the gains won during the New Deal period – ‘when the American workers, in a direct clash, conquered the highest standard of living ever know by a working class’ – were second in revolutionary significance only to the Russian proletariat's seizure of power in 1917. This view was echoed by Tronti (1972: 27): ‘ the American class-struggles are more serious than European ones’, he wrote, ‘ in that they obtain more results with less ideology'. Where he went further than Rawick, however, was in asserting that this factor lent a clarity to class struggle in the US which was absent in its European counterpart:

The history of the European working class is literally submerged in the ideas of Marxist intellectuals. But the history of the American working class is still naked, without anyone having thought it out. The less critique of ideology needed, the easier it is to further scientific discoveries. The smaller the contribution of leftist culture, the more the class pregnancy of a given social reality comes forward. (ibid.: 56)

Yet naked or not, little was known of American labour historiography in the Italy of the early 1970s. Indeed, for those who did not read English only a few texts, critical or otherwise, were then available. One of Primo Maggio’s most important functions at the time, therefore, was to help in introducing the American experience to the left of its own country. In the journal's third issue, for Ortoleva (1974:- 37) offered a survey of a variety of interpretations of American class relations, from Rawick and Daniel Guerin to the work of G.D.H. Cole. Stressing the 'commonly neglected dialectic between class struggle and the transformation of the state', Ortoleva's gaze, like that of many of his contemporaries in the American new left, focused upon the ‘Progressive Era’ at the turn of the century. This was a time when federal state involvement in industrial matters had first taken a systematic form. At the centre of this period, too, stood a unique experiment on the labour front: the revolutionary union movement popularly known as the 'Wobblies'.

Already in ‘Class Composition and the Theory of the Party’ Bologna (1972: 9) had praised the IWW as 'a class organization anticipating present forms of struggle’. The chance to explore a political tendency whose origins and development were 'completely independent from the traditions of both the Second and the Third Internationals' was forced to wait, however, until the failure of Potere Operaio's born-again Leninism. From the first issue of Primo Maggio (Buonfino 1973; Cartosio 1973) it was clear just how much importance its editors placed upon the experience of the One Big Union. Then again, workerist interest in the IWW is not difficult to explain. The most immediate point of attraction lay in the priority that the Wobblies had given to the organization of the unskilled components of the American working class. From its foundation in 1905, the IWW had committed itself to organising the increasingly 'uniform mass of wage slaves' called to tend the factories of the Machine Age (IWW 1905: 7). Such workers were new to the American labour movement, then dominated by the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor, and often new to the continent itself. 'Before World War One', notes David Brody (1980: 15) 'close to 60 per cent of the industrial labor force was foreign born', condemned to those jobs with the poorest pay and conditions. In the North in particular, where industrial development was then concentrated, divisions between the skilled and unskilled largely followed those which separated unionised, native-born male workers from the predominantly European immigrants. Concerned to protect their power over the labour process from the encroachments of management, and imbued with a sense of superiority over the 'Hunkies', the majority of American skilled workers perceived the new levy of machine operators as a threat. Barred even from voting due to gender or nationality, immigrant workers for their part found themselves outside the formal political sphere no less than the world of organised labour. In a similar fashion, many of the Western rural labourers were likewise excluded from civil society through their mobility and lack of a recognisable craft. For both groups, the IWW offered a form of organization which cut across trade lines, and an approach industrial disputation which relied upon the direct action at work of ‘the workers themselves, without the treacherous aid of labor misleaders or scheming politicans’ (Justus Ebert, quoted in Kornbluh 1972:35).

The second aspect of the IWW's attraction for operaismo lay with its attitude to the problems that faced workers from day to day. Certainly, many Wobblies saw strikes and action on the job as ‘mere incidents in the class war ... tests of strength, periodic drills in the course of which the workers train themselves for concerted action' (Andre Tridon, quoted in Kornbluh 1972: 36). All the same, few dismissed the fight to improve wages, hours and conditions as inconsequential in themselves. For the IWW, the struggle between capital and labour at the point production was by definition a political struggle, uniting the socially marginalised even as it attacked the rate of surplus value. As 'Big Bill' Haywood put it in 1911,

industrial unionism is the broadest possible interpretation of the working-class political power, because by organizing the workers industrially you at once enfranchise the women in the shops, you at once give the black men who are disenfranchised politically a voice in the operation of the industries; and the same would extend to every worker. (Haywood 1911: 50)

There was also an earthiness about the IWW's approach to working-class aims which struck a chord with workerism's own thematic of needs. Contempt for 'pie in the sky', whether of the religious or political variety, led to a number of splits between the Wobblies and more conventionally minded leftists, and fuelled a running ideological battle with the 'Starvation Army' and other evangelists (Hill n.d.: 133; 1913: 129). Behind the IWW's frequently repeated maxim that the new society must grow within the old there lay, not only a rather mechanistic conception of change, but also a sense that the materialism which drove contemporary America held a grain of rationality lost to those motivated by socialist or Christian asceticism. It was not a sign of corruption by the capitalist Mammon to fight 'bread and butter' struggles for more money and less work. The real problem, Haywood claimed, lay with a system which placed the machine - a potential source of collective freedom from toil - at the disposal of a minority committed to nothing more than their private gain (Bock 1976: 121). The Star of Bethlehem, another Wobbly propagandist once insisted, led 'only to Heaven, which nobody knows about. These are the three I.W.W. stars of education, organization, and emancipation. They lead to porkchops which everybody wants' (quoted in Kornbluh 1972: 71).

The most discussion of the Wobblies the 1970s was again the work of a German historian. Published in Feltrinelli's 'Marxist Materials’ column, it was flanked by contributions from two editors of the North American journal Zerowork, both similarly concerned with The Formation of the Mass Worker in the United States 1898-1922 (Carpignano 1976; Ramirez 1976). The centrepiece of the volume, Gisela Bock’s contribution focused upon the problem of the adequacy of the project and practice of the IWW - America's own ‘other’ workers movement – to its working class in the first quarter of the century. Despite its title, however, the essay dismissed simply as a transposition of Roth's work on to the US of the Progressive Era. To begin with, the narrower timeframe of Bock's essay freed the text from some of the more sweeping generalisations that had characterised her compatriot's efforts, leaving the reader with a sense of the complex nature of the divisions running through the American workforce. Certainly for Bock (1976: 65-70), like Roth, the major fracture within the class was that between those organised in craft unions and the rest. Not only did the former wield considerable power by dint of their knowledge of production, they were also often successful in exercising control over the means of entry to their professions. If the craftworkers' oft-voiced fear that immigration threatened their jobs was sincere in its conviction, the reality of the time seems to tell another story. Rather, a dual labour market then acted in America to exclude the majority of wage labourers from sharing in the relative privilege won by their skilled brethren (ibid.: 68). Yet while the position of the individual craft worker was often secure, the continued predominance of their stratum as a whole was less certain, as industrial expansion increasingly took the form of mechanised production demanding only common labour. In the decade before the US entry into the First World War, the simplification and interchangeability of factory labour took impressive strides. In such circumstances it was often tempting to assume, as the IWW itself frequently did, a commonality of collective interest amongst workers which their situation 'objectively' promoted. Such a peccadillo, however, was firmly resisted by Bock. As she was well aware, ethnic and sexual divisions interlaced and further complicated distinctions of wage and industry within the unskilled and semi-skilled layers of the workforce:

[F]ar from immediately homogenising the class, the devaluation of skills and the expropriation of knowledge and skill over the labour process often reinforced the mechanisms of competition amongst the workers themselves. Then there were the welfare and profit-sharing programmes in the manufacturing industry which, together with the new hierarchies created by scientific management, often succeeded in melding the interests of the firm with those of the American and skilled section of the workers. This was capital's reply to the political risk of a tendential homogenisation of the class and of struggles. (ibid. : 107)

Second, Bock's treatment of the relation between organisation and class was more sophisticated than that of Roth's book. At no point in her account, for example, did the Wobblies appear as the logical-historical emanation of class autonomy that Roth made of the revolutionary Unionen and Red Armies of 1920. If anything, the protagonists of the struggles of 1909-14 were presented as the saviours of the IWW itself, restoring to it a sense of direction and purpose which the repression and factional brawls of its early years had all but destroyed (Bock 1976: 108). Paul Buhle (1973) and Serena Tait (1973), she argued, were right to emphasise the clarity with which some American exponents of industrial unionism perceived the vanguard anti-capitalist role of unskilled machine operators. None the less, Bock (1976: 107) also made plain the often mechanical manner in which the Wobblies expressed the relation between class organisation and industrial structure, with the first commonly seen as an unambiguous response and adaptation to the second. Nor, unlike Roth, did Sock's discussion of the collapse of the organisational forms of the 'other' workers' movement hinge solely upon the ferocity of state persecution; after all, the Red Scare which followed the war had also driven the nascent Communist movement underground, without however destroying it. As Bock was to indicate, an important part of the answer for the IWW's decline lay in its inability to grapple with the changes to working-class experience ushered in with the 1920s, especially the influx of women and African-American workers on to the labour market. Instead, the sympathy within certain Wobbly circles for technicians and taylorist principles betrayed a growing detachment from the IWW's initial rejection of the capitalist organisation of labour (ibid.: 1 79-87).

The true novelty of Bock's work when compared to earlier workerist efforts, noted Tillman Rexroth (1978: 36-7), was its extension of the notion of class composition beyond the bounds of the factory. Drawing upon the ideas of Lotta Femminista, Bock had placed emphasis upon the contribution of the unpaid domestic labour of women to the reproduction of labour-power. While the links established in the essay between struggles and the vagaries of the business cycle were somewhat sketchy, she had broken with the prevalent mechanistic reading of the nexus between technical and political composition. In the process, she had discovered the identity of the mass worker to be above all one of a certain relation to labour and the wage, rather than the immediate reflection of a given sociological structure. Thus, unlike Roth,

if G. Bock avoids the theory of recomposition in the sense of a mere series of manoeuvres to divide and rule ... she also avoids the danger of teleologising the theory of recomposition in the sense of the so-called mass worker thesis. Already the fact that the book begins with the period in which the passage from skilled to mass labour had already essentially occurred - that passage whose European variant continues even today to inflame passions - indicates that G. Bock does not intend by 'recomposition' the secular constitution of the mass worker. Rather she is interested in the more subtle differentiations within the model of class composition, without which all the contours of that theory collapse; she speaks of a 'permanent' or better 'periodic' restratification of the class, and not of a unitary development verifying itself by degrees up to the arrival of massified labour. (Rexroth 1978: 32)

Reviewing Bock's essay in the winter 1977-78 issue of Primo Maggio, Bruno Cartosio (1978: 56) indicated the pertinence of the study in the fact that in the Wobblies' time, as in the Italy of the 1970s, there existed 'a phase of very strong political recomposition of the class which did not produce the party’. In this respect, Negri (1978: 62) had been quite right to consider the success of a Comintern-style party as 'impossible' in the US. Praising Bock's piece as ‘perhaps the best' of the works on the IWW to appear so far Italian language, Cartosio also drew attention to what he saw as its occasional ideological distortions. One of the more striking of these was its use of Tronti's 'suggestive but void' notion of passivity as a form of 'organisation without organisation' to explain the relative quietude of the American industrial front during the 1920s. Struggles did continue in that decade, despite the effective curtailment of immigration after 1924; these, however, had been confined for the most part to technologically primitive industries such as mining and textiles. Here too, he argued, lessons could be derived for the present, given the tight relation which such efforts to resist restructuring illustrated between political behaviours and the organic composition of capital. Still, works such as Bock's were only the beginning of the workerist appraisal of labour history, an undertaking to which Cartosio (1978: 56) looked forward with some confidence.

Barely three years later, such quiet optimism would be shaken by the reverses - both political and theoretical - that operaismo had come to suffer. Now, Primo Maggio would see its role in quite a different light, as

the conservation of a thread, however tenuous, of proletarian memory in times in which the destruction of social identity seems to have assumed devastating dimensions, and the re-elaboration of categories of theoretical reflection, however partial and provisional, in a world in which, as never before, the left appears deprived of a cultural and ideal identity. (Revelli 1981a: 9-10)