Review by Bob Myers of Class Power on Zero-Hours, by Angry Workers of the World (387 pages, £9.00, distributed by PM Press)
Here is the opening paragraph of Class Power on Zero Hours:
In January 2014 we chose to move to a working class neighbourhood on the fringes of west London. We felt an urgent need to break out of the cosmopolitan bubble and root our politics in working class jobs and lives. We wanted to pay more than just lip service to the classic slogan, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. Over the next six years, comrades joined us and we worked in a dozen different warehouses and factories. We organised slowdowns on the shop floors, rocked up on bosses’ and landlords’ doors with our solidarity network, and banged our heads against brick walls as shop stewards in the bigger unions. We wrote up all our successes, as well as the dead-ends, in our publication, WorkersWildWest, which we gave out to 2000 local workers at warehouse gates at dawn. We tried to rebuild class power and create a small cell of a revolutionary organisation. This book documents our experiences. It is material for getting rooted. It is a call for an independent working class organisation.
I only met the authors of the book, members of a group called Angry Workers, a few weeks ago, instantly liked them – and so looked forward to it. When I read it, I found myself in a continual inner debate: “Is this right?…. no it can’t be. Wait a minute, maybe it is. ...” and so on. And, having finished the book, this is still how I feel. So I can only write this review with this debate going on in my head, and look forward to developing it with the Angry Workers, and hopefully with many other people.
Through my inner debate runs a clash of political backgrounds and of generations. I became active in the labour movement as a teenager, in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the 1968 uprisings in Paris and elsewhere. The Vietnam war was in full swing. I and many other people thought revolution was around the corner.
We nearly all joined one left wing political group or another but, though we didn’t see it at the time, all these groups were really sects – almost like religious sects – that all believed they and they alone were the “revolutionary vanguard”, the organisation that would lead the masses to victory. I joined the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), and my whole political education was based on the idea that we (the party) were the leaders, and the masses were the followers. The WRP fell apart in 1985 when its leader (guru) Gerry Healy was outed as a serial sexual abuser of young women in the party.
It has taken me and other ex members years to think our way out of the nonsense of us as the “revolutionary vanguard”, and find our way back to the idea Marx expressed in the quote above: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.
I felt we had made progress ... and then along come these young people who not only worked that out long ago, but are trying to put this outlook into action.
I hope this review will encourage other people to read Class Power on Zero-Hours, and join the debate and possible activity/organisation arising from it.
The first part of the book, the bulk of it, is very detailed reports of what followed from the Angry Workers’ decision to move to Greenford and get jobs there. This is when my first bell rang: “Is this right?” How many people have the luxury of choosing where to go and live, where to work, to pursue their political activity? Is this political activists playing at being workers? But hold on, hold on: isn’t that what I did in the 1970s?
My parents were that not untypical wartime romance – she was a middle class radical and he was a working class lad from a London East End Jewish family. They met working in a factory. I went to grammar school, but got interested in politics and left school as soon as I could. I worked for a little builder’s firm as a painter and decorator, but left to work as a labourer on a big building site in order to be more involved in the builders’ trade union. Then I trained as a sheet metal worker and worked in aircraft and car factories.
So the Angry Workers are only doing what I did, but with much more thought behind their actions.
Their accounts of working in west London are highly detailed about the exact nature of the work, of the people they worked alongside, and of their efforts to build up working class organisation inside and outside their workplaces. They describe a world that few political activists have anything more than a theoretical (usually wrong) knowledge of: a world of zero hour contracts, of immigrant labour, of terrible working conditions and poor housing. Or rather, they did not just describe it, but were part of it, and fought against the conditions. And this is not just about a few places in Greenford: these are conditions for millions of people globally.
In their efforts to help their co-workers develop resistance to ruthless exploitation, the Angry Workers had to confront huge divisions in the workforce: language problems, newly arrived migrants, older settlers, transient labour, the divisive effect of “ethnic elders” who exploit their hold over “their” community, to make money, to gain power. The employers are skilled at promoting these “leaders” to management and supervisory jobs, precisely because of their hold over “their” people. (Here the Angry Workers take a swipe at the fashionable US union recruiting strategy of “finding the natural leader” in a workplace. The “natural leader” is nearly always climbing the ladder.)
This world of temp labour, of people on zero hours, of workplaces without unions – or with unions that are so much in bed with the employers that it might as well be non-union – is a world away from my life in factories in the 1970s, with 100% union membership, where attendance at union meetings was obligatory – a fine if you didn’t attend – where apprentices are slowly introduced to this culture and so on.
But of course that was before Thatcher, before the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and before the full effects of globalisation put an end to this world, for the most part. Class Power on Zero-Hours describes the world my children now live in. One of them worked in a restaurant kitchen, where an argument with the boss resulted in a basin of custard being poured over the boss’s head: it seems to many that the only way to protest now is with individual outbursts of anger.
Class Power on Zero-Hours describes the production processes in a ready meals factory, and the slow, patient efforts to build up workers’ organisation to oppose many conditions of work – and is very honest about the success/failure of their campaign. And this is something I really appreciate: the authors’ willingness to admit failure, to stand back and say, “well, that didn’t work”. This contrasts with the outpourings of most of the left political groups, who are always right and always know the answer.
The Angry Workers also joined mainstream trade unions and tried to push them to be effective in the factories, but it was pretty hopeless. Their description of how these unions behave is a challenge to all those who still cling to the hope that they can be reformed or radicalised. The Angry Workers shake their heads at the left groups who spend their days trying to win leadership positions in these unions, claiming this will alter their direction. It doesn’t. They also worked with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), activists who organise among people the main unions can’t/won’t touch: Uber drivers, Deliveroo couriers, immigrant cleaners and so on. But for the Angry Workers, the touchstone is always, how activities actually assist the self organisation of the class. On this measure, the IWW also comes in for criticism.
At times I thought these reports of workplaces activities were too long. But the Angry Workers are clearly reacting to endless debates among people on the “left”, who are happy to spend hours writing resolutions about the “role of the working class”, while having virtually no real knowledge of the class as it actually exists.
What’s more, these long reports of their work are very much linked to proposals for future work/collaboration. They want to work with people who are building roots/organisation in a working class locality. Part of this is the preparation of reports detailing the situation of the working class in that district.
Part of Class Power on Zero-Hours is about the divisions in the global working class. The Angry Workers concentrate on exactly these divisions in the factories they worked in. Simply waving a flag with “Workers of the World Unite” on it does nothing to overcome the fragmented nature of the class, they assert. They try to develop concrete proposals for how these might be overcome.
And this is where I am totally with the authors: that the task in front of humanity has to be the global re-organisation of production/supply by the producers themselves, and it is vital to look at how present production under capital deliberately divides the working class – and what strategies might alter this. On this basis they look at the weaknesses of many global protests, such as the Arab Spring, that have directed their protest only to questions of “politics” in the state/governmental sense. Against these protests, they counterpose the need for strikes in strategic industries that would begin to raise the question of the dominance of capital and its barriers to humanity.
This is the great strength of the book. Unlike many groups, the Angry Workers are not fascinated by “politics”, are not dancing like a moth near a candle around either the parliamentary charade, or the supposedly more revolutionary politics of the left. They continually go back to the social revolution, that is, the revolution in the way human society organises its activity of creating everything it needs, not just the political revolution of changing people at the top which always leaves the fundamentals unchanged.
There are things I want more discussion on. Are the Angry Workers’ concrete proposals a bit too schematic? Is the elevation of strikes in strategic industries really how the world is going to move towards revolution? I’m not sure. Coronavirus is pushing us all into a new world where I think we can begin to glimpse how myriad social movements of anger will rise and begin to merge, but for sure the Angry Workers’ emphasis on the centrality of the working class and the production process is 120% correct.
I don’t want to try to summarise the chapters of the book that follow the workplace reports. Please get the book and read them for yourselves. I was excited by Chapter 14, “Revolutionary Transition and its conditions in the UK”. In the WRP, things were so easy to foresee: the party would gain mass support, and we would then topple the Labour Party. But once you ditch all that nonsense, and place the social revolution centre stage – the reorganisation of production under the control of the producers – then what is your road map? I’d only got as far as seeing the need for it, but the book goes much further:
The revolutionaries of today seem to shy way from regional complexities and the challenges they pose for a global social transformation and instead go hiding in new catagories, such as the “multitude” or the “surplus population”. It is therefore only logical that their vision of what a revolutionary transition would entail is equally vague, ranging between nihilistic scenarios of insurrection and communisation – to dusty ideals of general strikes and councils. We therefore want to outline some basic steps a regional working class uprising would have to make in order to defend itself and expand to other regions.
You might think that this is all rather abstract or hypothetical, but during the last few years we’ve seen people willing to risk their lives to defend a square or storm parliament. There is no lack of revolutionary anger. What we haven’t seen is a section of the working class that focuses on the real centres of power – the grain baskets, manufacturing centres, ports, power plants, with the aim and a plan to take them over ...
I and many others, had an outlook based upon the Transitional Programme written in 1938 by Leon Trotsky, the only leader of the Russian revolution not murdered by the dictator Stalin. He started:
The economic prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have already in general achieved the highest point of maturity that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate.
And from that proposition, he goes on to say that the only thing stopping revolution is the crisis of revolutionary leadership. From then, 1938, til now, most of the left concentrated on this “politics” of leadership. In reality, over those 80 years, the productive forces did develop and above all created two vital things for the future – a truly global working class, and the means of global communication whereby the “free association of producers” could become a reality.
So for me and most of the “left”, the Transitional Programme was a series of political demands to help guide the masses towards the understanding they had to seize state power. In Class Power on Zero-Hours, the transitional programme is a road map towards the seizure and reorganisation of production. We always used to think that this would follow the taking of state power. I am now convinced that it is only in the process of striving towards the social revolution that any lasting, useful political revolution can take place.
It is not necessary that you agree with the Angry Workers’ outline; what’s important is to begin collaborative work on this. Is that outline a bit too schematic? For example, where do the protests by young people about the climate fit in? Where do a thousand other social protests fit in? But the fundamentals are right.
From this book, and from reading global reports about the Coronavirus situation by the Angry Workers and others, it is clear that, all over the world, there are people breaking out from the sectarian, dogmatic and wrong “left”, or coming at the debate from completely new backgrounds, who are trying to find a way forward for humanity.
My inner debate about the book kept focussing on: is it a way forward for the working class, or is it a guide for “activists”? But, while many people will write their programmes for “the working class” that are read by virtually no-one, I think the Angry Workers are right to see that it is exactly these new, mostly young, people who are coming into the debate that are the possible transmission of thought/action into the wider movement. Their insistence on directing attention to the revolutionary potential of the working class, and to what that revolution really is, is spot on.
■ Buy Class Power on Zero-Hours here (PM Press)
■ The introduction to Class Power on Zero-Hours is here
■ Video of book launch on facebook
This review was published on People & Nature. The cartoon is from the Class Power site.