Is revolutionary unionism undemocratic and insincere?

Nate Hawthorne argues against some common objections to revolutionary unionism. Adapted from a section of his article, Mottos and watchwords: a discussion of politics and mass organizations.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on September 17, 2013

“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,’” says the Preamble to our Constitution, “we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’” Some anti-capitalists reject the idea that unions can or should truly believe in ending capitalism. For them, the IWW can either reject the Preamble in order to grow, keep the Preamble but not sincerely believe in it, or keep the Preamble in a sincere way at the cost of being nothing but a small marginal group. These people implicitly reverse the Preamble to say “instead of the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system,’ our banners should only pose the common sense motto ‘a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’”

These critics sometimes use a hypothetical scenario such as: “If you call for ending capitalism, most workers won’t join because most workers don’t want to end capitalism. If a lot of workers did, the IWW would not have a real collective commitment to ending capitalism because all those new workers would not believe in ending capitalism. Your Preamble will be just empty words. Or the few members who want to end capitalism will control things while the majority who don’t care about that anti-capitalism stuff will have no real input. Revolutionary unionism can be marginal, insincere, or undemocratic, and that’s all.”

This can sound compelling, but let’s look closely. If most of the working class today do not want to end capitalism and are not willing to join an anti-capitalist union then we don’t need to worry about how to keep the organization democratic if large numbers of workers join, because it simply won’t happen. The problem dissolves. Something will have to change before lots of workers start wanting to join a revolutionary union. One possible change is that more workers will decide they want to end capitalism. The problem dissolves again. Another possibility is that many workers will begin to see some benefit in IWW membership, and they pretend to agree with the Preamble in order to get those benefits. That’s possible. Sincerity is hard to test. People might lie. The same kind of problem occurs in any organization. Currently unions often face the problem of having members who aren’t active participants and who lack a culture of solidarity, so that members crossing picket lines and don’t stand with their fellow workers. There’s no easy solution to any of this, it requires ongoing effort. We should also organize ourselves so that the benefits of IWW membership are linked to activities that deepen people’s commitment to revolutionary unionism, and to an important extent we simply have to trust each other. Part of the problem with the hypothetical scenario, “What if lots of workers join, when they don’t actually agree with the Preamble?” is that it treats people as fixed. Many workers today don’t want to end capitalism. If it’s believable that people would want to join the IWW in large numbers, then we should not assume that their beliefs will stay the same.

At the same time, we shouldn’t assume that people’s commitment to the values expressed in the IWW Preamble will stay the same. People are dynamic, which means that we face a more serious problem than “What if workers only pretend to want to abolish the wage system?!” Namely, people might sincerely agree with the Preamble but change their minds later, or they might agree but decide that they don’t want to act on that agreement. They might think one thing in a moment of anger or desperation, but then cool off and change their minds. Many people who have had radical beliefs for many years have thought a bit about what their lives would be like if they had different beliefs and commitments and have seen fellow radicals waver more strongly, and sometimes fall away. Life under capitalism is hard to endure and radical views sometimes make it harder. This problem appears in non-radical unions as well: people get tired of the work, or stop agreeing with the union. Here too there is no simple solution. The IWW will continue to face real problems with recruitment, retention, and member education for the foreseeable future. We can respond to these problems in better and worse ways, and radical critics who reject revolutionary unionism don’t help us to respond better. If anything, they encourage worse responses.

Some people will cool off and move away from the organization sometimes. We should prepare for the consequences this will have. Among other problems, we want to avoid a situation where people become only paper members. One thing the IWW does to prevent this is heavily encouraging face-to-face interaction with delegates in order to join and to stay members. This encourages the organization to be financially dependent on having real members, rather than paper members.

We should have longer conversations about how to reduce the frequency and consequences of people cooling off. Many people who have held radical beliefs for a long time have managed to take the heat of their outrage at the world, their passionate relationships with other radicals and experiences of collective struggles and combine it with ideas, values, and stories in order to create their own internal heat source, so they are less likely to cool off. We need to figure out how to make this happen as often as possible for IWW members, so that as many members as possible will own internal revolutionary unionist heat. One important aspect of this is that joining our organization is or should be an interactive activity. Joining a union can and should involve a frank discussion with a member about why the organization exists, about the organization’s core values, why the person is joining and why the current member is involved. This is a conversation between two people about their understanding of the world now and of the world they would like to see. This way, joining the IWW is a dynamic activity that shapes the direction people move in after joining. After joining, there can and should be educational components of membership in an organization, including written materials, discussions, various parts of the life and culture of the organization, and, above all, relationships with other members. All of this helps prevent the situation described in the hypothetical scenario above, where workers join the IWW but don’t believe in the Preamble. Through these kinds of activities, we practice revolutionary unionism in a way that is sincere, democratic, and continues to become a more powerful presence within the working class.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2012)



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Submitted by amba on September 17, 2013

The problem with most unions today is not only that they are not revolutionary, but that they are not willing to fight for piecemeal, immediate changes that workers are ready to fight for. Do you believe such a fight is necessary and important? Do you believe revolutionaries should support organisations founded specfically for this fight? Such an organisation/union will be based on all workers willing to take up this fight for reforms. If it sincerely requires agreement with a revolutionary perspective as a condition for membership, it will exclude those workers who are willing to fight, often militantly, but who are not yet in agreement with a revolutionary approach. Would this not weaken the struggle for reforms and thereby also the possibilities for revolutionary struggle?


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Submitted by plasmatelly on September 17, 2013

Hi amba - lot of questions there. Certainly from a revolutionary unionist perspective, class struggle embraces the here and now struggles - the reforms - and builds for a revolutionary future.
I couldn't agree more that a fundamental problem with reformist unions is that they lack any notion of how they would rather have society organised - unless you count those still living the post war social democratic dream.
Your comments about the dilemma with wanting to expand and take on the fight yet requiring a certain degree of agreement with the revolutionary aims of the union is one that is a daily problem, though I suppose less so if we move into more revolutionary conscious times.


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Submitted by backspace on September 17, 2013

I thought this article interesting, it seems to me, however, that an important caveat to the general points made, needs to be that the revolutionary aspect of revolutionary unionism is done in a smart way - radicals need to be self-aware of how the educating process of maintaining a revolutionary outlook is carried out.

For instance, I think the base fear of many that after consideration and analysis results in a rejection of revolutionary unionism, is the social insufficiency of activist political networks to act as spokespeople for the politics they wish to see generalised. The embarrassing situation arises in the early construction of a revolutionary union in which the revolutionary component of the membership might be composed from those gravitating toward an ideology outside of periods of mass unrest, with plenty of theories and attempts at, but no established process of, how to achieve a social generalisation of those politics.

Now I think the method by which to solve this is simple, any attempt to build a successful functioning organisational construction by which to generalise this, must be a project capable of involving the best heads and hearts of the working class, whether or not they are yet convinced of the value of those politics. Such was the original nature of anarcho-syndicalism (I understand this writing is referring to revolutionary unionism), a nature I think whilst paid theoretical lip service, in practice long lost in almost all the projects that have attempted its revival.

Hence, to involve the general participation of those elements less convinced of the value of anti-capitalism, it is not so much that instances such as the preamble must be jettisoned, but instead a problem concerning the specific character of the method by which a syndicalist union's claims to revolution are married to its basic collective defence functions. The most firmly radical component of a revolutionary union's membership needs to carefully consider its need to maintain a sense of modesty (and regulate its sense of historical importance), and be self-aware of its characteristics of an activist social scene, and be prepared to avoid foisting this component on prospective and non-activist members. It needs to be aware of the general negative social character of communist networks outside periods of mass unrest.

Personally, I think there are a great deal of 'lay', lapsed or potential anti-capitalists in the world, and that this is good reason to suggest that there is a falseness to the idea that completely dropping association with socialist ideas would immediately improve things. People would be receptive to the politics, if only the real world embodiment of them were different.

It is not so much that workers reject the principles, but they might reject the way in which they are introduced to them - being handed a rather jargon laden anti-capitalist leaflet that will go straight in the bin, or something performed in a rather patronising proselytising fashion as though it were conversion to religion.

Should functional organisation be constructed through a successful alliance between those firmly radical but varying in capability, and those less politically convinced but extremely capable, I agree with this article that the key is that the union is capable of maintaining a situation whereby there is no binary of consciousness governing to what degree a member is involved in the internal life of the union. I guess the 'undemocratic/insincere' component of the accusation is levelled at how the activist social scene character of the more firmly radical or longstanding component of a revolutionary union, effectively possesses an extra layer of organisation, although informal, and that debates may occur through this with support gathered primarily within this, then the constructed suggestions presented to the wider union. This I think is a problem if this component isn't prepared to admit it exists and to be self-aware enough to limit this.

I also agree with the article that constructing a generalisation of revolutionary spirit, will not so much be built by leaflets or books, but by the attempt to create a social recomposition around a series of wider union activities, largely outside the workplace - it is here that people can comfortably discover the politics of the union and drop in and out of this as they choose, leaving the workplace primarily for struggle, without forming a binary of consciousness.