Winning the war of position: working-class hegemony and class unionism

This article makes a number of arguments about the direction the IWW should take in its organizing, including taking a longer-term perspective than the next few years.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 23, 2012

It is readily apparent to any working-class person that the economic oppressions of capitalist society, numerous though they may be, are only one facet of the system of social control exercised by bourgeois society. The dominant culture is one of homogenous individualism, materialism, and intellectual vapidity. It is not a culture natural to a free and free-thinking people; but rather a culture designed to maintain the integrity of an unjust social order, designed to favor an exploiting class over a mass of oppressed working people – using each and every tool, political and ideological, that it can exploit in its battle for continued dominance.

This multifaceted system of oppression, which dominates the working class on an economic, political, social, and cultural level, is what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci termed a class hegemony. He used hegemony as a term to describe the general superstructure of a class society, denoting not only the direct political and economic dominance of the capitalist class, but also its cultural ideas, social mores and institutions, and the social conventions and prejudices that it reinforces within the working class in order to prevent its coalescence along class lines. The development of such a hegemony, like the development of class struggle generally, proceeds upon lines of long dormancy, where the political legitimacy of the ruling class seems generally accepted and unassailable. Inevitably, the capitalist social system enters into profound crisis, when the dominant ideas of the ruling class no longer retain their legitimacy. The coercive powers retained by the ruling class, both through the state and through their dominance of social and cultural institutions are open to attack. Historically these crisis points are when mass movements have been able to create popular hegemonies – organizations of the oppressed classes that represent their political, social, and cultural identities – and these popular hegemonies have wrested change, by reform or revolution, from the ruling classes.

Naturally, such distinct phases of class struggle within capitalist society would necessitate differing approaches to the fight. Gramsci argued that in states where the capitalist system is newly developing and bereft of the supports of bourgeois social and cultural dominance, the resulting strategy for the oppressed class would be a direct political and economic attack on the institutions of capitalism – a war of assault. Conversely, in states where capitalism is highly developed and thoroughly integrated into the social fabric, Gramsci thought that the working class must engage in a longer term struggle, fighting to develop its own identity as a class and to build organizations to wrest control, from the ruling class, over the cultural values and social institutions that determine their identity. This approach was termed by Gramsci as a war of position – literally building the new society within the shell of the old.

This is not to say that the two strategic approaches are incompatible. Indeed, the IWW’s organizational structure, with its strategic focus on organizing industrially in the workplace and rejection of political engagement wholesale, is optimal for Gramsci’s projected war of assault. In its heyday, it functioned effectively as an organization of struggle for the working class, and was perfectly structured to attack capital at the point of production, where large masses of workers were concentrated. Yet the most lasting contribution of the IWW was to working class identity and culture, through song and poetry and stories and organizational knowledge that informed later generations of labor struggle.

Our time is a time of crisis within the capitalist system. This is not to say that revolution is around the corner, a fruit waiting to be plucked from a low-hanging bough. It does mean that our time is one in which it is possible, and absolutely necessary, to work to build a working class hegemony – one that allows us to challenge the dominance of the ruling class over our collective identity and their control over our social and political lives. The IWW’s orientation toward the organization of the working class in the workplace is fundamentally correct and necessary. In the final analysis, the the real power of our class comes from our controlling role in production, distribution, and service within the capitalist system. However, the conditions of modern capitalism do not lend themselves well to mass organization of our class solely at the points of production, distribution, or clerical management. Many social and cultural antagonisms within the working class itself impede organizational efforts on a daily basis, and resolving them in order to facilitate the organization of our class as a class cannot be done without confronting them outright.

This will require extending the model of struggle that we employ in the IWW from solely workplace disputes, involving the conflict between workers and bosses, to broader social conflicts in our communities. If we want to organize the working class as a class, we must not only work to build organizations of struggle, but also to build a culture of class solidarity and equality by whatever means possible. I would argue that the best way forward is to extend our model of direct action resistance to capitalism to the community at large, an approach that I term class unionism. The IWW could reach, and organize, a mass of the working class, by working both in the workplace and in the community. In practice, this would effectively mean two complementary modes of organization: the organizing of industrial unions within the economic framework of capitalism, and the organizing of community unions, to oppose the tyranny of capitalist social relations and foster the development of working class identity and culture, within the social relations of capitalist society. The combined social and economic power of such unions – class unionism – would give true meaning to the idea of building the new society within the shell of the old, and exemplify a working class hegemony in opposition to bourgeois society.

The IWW should not be looking solely at the current crisis, important though our efforts at resistance here and now may be. We must also look forward to the crisis 20 or 30 years from now, and our organizational strategy should reflect such a longsighted approach toward the organization of the working class. It is the historic task of the working class to abolish capitalism, and class society in general, and it is the stated task of our union to help to organize the class toward that goal. The approach of class unionism embraces fully the task of building a working class hegemony, representative of the political, economic, social, and cultural interests of the working class, and should inform the strategy of our union going forward in the struggle.

Yours for the OBU,

Originally posted: April 6, 2012 at The Nebraska Worker