Revolutionary Class Union

James P Thompson writes on the necessity of workers to form revolutionary unions.

Submitted by vasily on May 14, 2024

"In order to understand the social movement it must be looked at as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of the human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence."*1)

"Just as the real reason why people dress differently in winter than in summer is to be found in the different climatic conditions, so, the real causes of all social changes and revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in their more or less confused ideas of right and wrong or of truth and justice, not in the philosophy but in the economics of each particular epoch."*2)

Cannibalism was very prevalent among the ancients. We of today are shocked at the very thought of cannibalism. And yet, cannibalism is, in many ways, one of the most humane forms in which man was ever devoured by his fellowman.

When the productiveness of labor reached the point where man was able to produce not only enough to maintain himself, but more, then cannibalism died out and slavery began.

With the beginning of slavery, of course, society divided into classes. Morality took on a class character. Instead of "whatever is in the interest of the tribe is good", we have this formula, "Anything that is in the interest of the ruling class is good and anything against their interest is bad." "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class."*3)

The master class was forced to organize in order to rule, and behold, "The State" appears! The State is merely the organized powers of oppression and coercion used by the ruling class to maintain themselves in their position as a ruling class. The State changes in form from time to time as conditions change, and it wears many different national uniforms, but it never loses its identity as "The State". The class machine of oppression known as "The State" will only disappear when the world's last class struggle ends.

In the fifth century the barbarians of the north swept down over western Europe and plundered everywhere until they reached the sea, then turned back. The slaves who fled to the woods at their approach were tilling the soil. They trembled at the sight of the organized barbarians, but the barbarians said to them, "Fear not, we will not kill you. Go on and till the soil, but remember, all you produce over and above what is necessary to maintain you you must give to us." Then followed over a thousand years of feudalism, those horrible centuries of blood and tears known as the dark ages during which the ruling class, led by their kings, claimed a divine right to rule and rob their fellowmen.

It was indeed a dark age. The phantom-haunted fogs of ignorance, superstition and fear hung like a pall over the human race. "The voice of liberty was strangled and murderers sat upon the thrones. The fires of persecution climbed around the limbs of countless martyrs. Brave men and women languished in dungeons and darkness." *4) "All the Mount Calvaries of truth and discovery were white with the fire-bleached bones of thinkers." *5)

Fortunately, society is not a solid crystal. It is an organism, not only capable of change but constantly changing. Gradually within feudal society, production for exchange, i. e. the capitalist mode of production, developed. The factory system came and later on machinery and modern industry. The discovery of America and the opening up of the world's markets increased the demand for commodities.

A commodity, by the way, is "any useful thing produced by labor for exchange" *6), and, note carefully, production for exchange is the capitalist mode of production. As capitalism developed within feudal society the capitalist class, i. e. the bourgeoisie, grew in wealth and power. They were compelled to pay heavy tribute to the Bishop and the King, but in spite of the reactionary forces that were hampering and trying to block and roll back the wheels of progress, capitalism developed. The capitalist class grew in wealth and power until they were able seriously to challenge the ruling class.

Here we have a situation that must exist before a revolution is possible, i. e. "the old society must be pregnant with the new." *7)

Finally came the trial of strength between the new and the old. A series of revolutions shook the world. The old went down before the greater power of the new! The capitalist class became the ruling class. The capitalist mode of production prevailed. The whole social structure changed to conform to the conditions arising from the capitalist mode of production. And behold! Capitalism, the paradise of the capitalist, the epoch of the bourgeoisie.

In feudal society the land owning class was the ruling class and that one great interest was represented by governments in the form of absolute monarchies. As the capitalist mode of production develops in any country there develops alongside of the "land interest" many other interests: merchant, manufacture, transportation, oil, steel, lumber, etc., all among the capitalist class. In the early stages of capitalism none of these interests was powerful enough to rule its own industry, to say nothing of rule the country. Here we have the foundation for Democracy. With the triumph of this class capitalist governments were formed. The absolute monarchy gave way to the constitutional monarchy or the Republic. The representative form of government appeared.
"The economic mode of production and exchange forms the basis of the whole social structure." *8)

Capitalism demands an educated working class. Workers who could neither read nor write would not be able to sort freight, read price tags, count money, keep books, use the tape measure, the square, the micrometer, etc. With the coming of capitalism the free school system appears. It is to the interest of the capitalist class to increase the productiveness of labor, in order to shorten that part of the working day during which we produce wealth for ourselves and correspondingly lengthen that part of the working day during which we produce surplus value for them. They educate us in order to make of us perfected instruments of production. But it is not enough that we merely work for them. They mis-educate us in order to get us to fight for them! Think of a slave class fighting to defend a slave system!

Capitalism is based on wage slavery. The capitalists hire wage workers to produce wealth, give them part of that wealth in the form of wages and keep the rest. We do not sell our labor to the capitalists; we sell our labor power. "That which confronts the capitalist in the market is not labor but the laborer and that which we sell is our labor power". *9) Labor power is just as different from labor as a machine is different from the work it does. "Labor power is the mental and physical capabilities of man which he exercises when he produces wealth". *10)

To illustrate what a wage slave is, suppose you owned a nice automobile and some one should say to you, "I want to use your car until it is all worn out. I will give it gas and oil enough to keep it running until it can't run any more." Surely you would not agree to that. You wouldn't allow anybody to use your car until it was all worn out just for gas and oil.

But, mark you well, if you are a wage worker that is what you are doing with your body. The capitalists use you until you are all worn out and all they aim to give you is what the chattel slaves got, what the serfs got, what a horse gets, a bare living, and you are not even sure of that. How about your children? You parents spend many happy hours teaching your children how to walk and how to talk. Long years are spent upon their education. When they get to be wonderful young men and women with their eyes brightly shining like the headlights on a new car, and with their veins and arteries like the wiring on a new car, and their hearts beating without a murmur, like the smooth running of new engines, then the capitalists say to the proud parents, "We want to use your children to produce wealth for us and for our children. Just as we have used you to produce wealth for us, so our children want to use your children to produce wealth for them when we are gone."

The parents ask, "What are our children to get for the use of their bodies during the precious years of their lives?" Answer, "Gas and oil". A mere living wage. The endless chain that starts and ends with work. Work to get money, to buy food, to get strength to work. Every increase in the productivity of labor, every invention, every victory of science and triumph of genius in the line of industrial progress, only goes to increase the wealth of a parasite class while the workers are only supposed to get what slave classes always got, a bare living and often not even that. This is wage slavery, the foundation of capitalism.

But capitalism is only a passing stage in the economic development of mankind. As capitalism spreads over the earth it produces the wage working class, i. e. the proletariat, the great class whose historic mission is to end exploitation of man by his fellow man. "Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product." *11)

"The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie to save from extinction their existence as factions of the middle class. They are, therefore, not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay, more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheels of history." *12)

In the early days of capitalism the wage workers were not conscious of their historic mission, they had no idea of revolution. Their whole idea of success was to work hard, save their money and get into business. When looking for employment they would take any job they could get, no matter how long the hours or how short the pay. They reasoned, "it is better to work hard for small wages than to remain idle, and consume what you have saved." Of course, the employers, the buyers of labor power, when they found that the sellers of labor power were willing to take any price offered, didn't offer much.

As a result, the workers soon found themselves working many hours a day for very small pay. They didn't get enough to live and keep themselves in normal condition, to say nothing of saving anything. They grew rapidly weaker and smaller. They were perishing. Then the unrest began. They realized that something must be done. But still no idea of revolution. They reasoned that capitalism was all right but it needed some improvements, some reforms. The capitalists in some cases gave such improvements as seemed necessary to keep from "killing the chickens that were laying the golden eggs." Marx said, speaking of the English Factory Acts : "Apart from the working class movement that daily grew more threatening, the limiting of factory labor was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation." *13)

But the workers were not satisfied. They wanted more than a living wage. They wanted a saving wage. What hope was there for them if they could not save something for their old age? And how were they to get into business? In some cases, the politician framed up the old age pension idea. They told the workers: "With an old age pension you won't need to save anything for your old age. When you get old the dear government will take care of you." They aim to get the workers to be satisfied with a mere existence wage and then work them to death before they have a chance to get old.

But the workers want to escape from wage slavery. Some of them soon learned that the laws of society are not made by the subject class, that reforms are either economically unsound or politically impossible. That the workers can get only what they have the power to take. If they have the power to take, and begin to exercise that power, the capitalists will often try to get ahead of them and give, hoping to get credit that they do not deserve and deceive the workers into the belief that the benefits do not come because of their own organized powers but because of kindness in the hearts of the capitalists. Rest assured, that if the workers allow their organized power to weaken, the hearts of the capitalists will harden accordingly. In the light of this fact how foolish it is for the workers to ask the capitalists to give them the shorter working day or week, or any other thing that they have the power to take.

Many workers have not learned these things yet and so much valuable energy is wasted in building organization founded upon the rights of labor, the right to vote, etc. "The rights of labor are only for times of relative peace in the class war. When the crisis comes these so-called tissues of civilization are brushed aside and the mailed-fist of the capitalist class is thrust in our faces." *14)

Organizations founded upon the rights of labor are built upon sand, and when the storm comes the winds blow the sandy foundation away and the organization collapses. Clearly, the organization of the proletariat must be founded upon the solid rock of proletarian power. Liberty and power are identical.

A favorite plan of the workers in the early days was for one alone to ask the employer for more pay. It usually worked out about as follows: One worker would say to the others, "I am going to ask the boss for more pay and if he doesn't give it to me I am going to quit." The other workers, each speaking for himself, would say, "Go ahead and ask him and if he gives it to you, I will ask him." The boss usually answered by saying, "No, if I give you more pay all the others will want more."

Finally the workers got the union idea! Then, instead of "I want more," they went up together and said, "We want more, and if we don't get it we will all quit." It was a good idea and worked well. The organized workers having power were respected more and, above all, they respected themselves more. The union movement developed fast. The employers were afraid of this new power. They, being the ruling class, finally passed a law taking away from labor "the right to strike"—but they could not enforce it! The workers said, "We may not have the right to strike, but we have the power to strike!" And they went on strike in protest against the law that tried to make it a crime to strike. After a long and bitter struggle, during which many brave union workers went to jail, the right to strike was won by the organized workers.

Thus early in the labor movement was demonstrated a vital point, one that should be carefully noted, and that is, the difference between, and the relation between, the rights of labor and the powers of labor.
The unions at first were rather small autonomous groups, formed for the most part on trade or craft lines and with little, or no, idea of class solidarity. They did not recognize the irrepressible class struggle in society. Their idea was that capital and labor were brothers. In other words, the interest of the robbers and the robbed are identical! Their only hope of escape from wage slavery was to "work hard, save money, and get into business."
With the development of machinery and modern industry the meager savings of an individual worker are unable to cope, in a business way, with the giant combinations of capital. With the coming of "Big Business," millions of petty land holders, small shop keepers and petty bourgeoisie generally are being crushed out of business and forced into the ranks of the proletariat.

"In the sphere of agriculture, modern industry has a more revolutionary effect than elsewhere, for this reason, that it annihilates the peasant, that bulwark of the old society, and replaces him by the wage worker." *15)
The wage working class, the proletariat, is rapidly increasing in numbers and importance. "They dominate the nerve centers of the economic life." *16)

They are the living parts of modern industry. The industries run when they run them, and stop when they stop. They are the only class that is able to operate the modern machinery of production. "The proletariat cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air." *17)

This great class is coming! All other classes are going! "The centering of the management of industry into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class." *18)

When one craft is on strike all the other crafts remain at work and help to break the strike. When coal miners are on strike in one district or country, the transportation workers help the employing class by bringing in coal from other districts or countries. Thus the workers of one industry scab on the workers of another industry. The capitalist class cannot whip the working class. They can only defeat us so long as they can get one part of our class to whip the other part. We "defeat one another in wage wars."

The employing class, organized as a class, in employers' associations, etc. transfer orders, where possible, and back up each other in the class war. They know that if one group of workers fight and win, other workers will be encouraged to do likewise, and the more they get the more they will want. So, no matter how much the capitalists fight among themselves, they are as one against labor.

Now, we have, on a bigger scale, somewhat the same condition as existed before the first labor union was formed. When the members of one craft ask for more pay the employers say: "If we give you more then all the other crafts will want more."

From these conditions, and not from the brain of any savior or superman, comes the idea of industrial unionism. The idea that the industrial workers of the world, the proletariat, should organize as a class and back up each other in the great struggle for life and freedom.

This grand idea of solidarity of labor, a solidarity that knows no race, no creed, no country, is a result of historically developed conditions and has been developing for years in industrial countries.
Not only are the wage workers getting the idea of class organization but, because of the development of "big business", they are giving up the idea of becoming capitalists and, glory of glories, they are becoming consciously revolutionary!

In Chicago, Illinois, U. S. A., in the year 1905, an organization named "The Industrial Workers of the World" was formed. The present writer had the privilege of rewriting the Preamble of this organization in 1908, and it has stood unchanged from that day to this.

A study of the Preamble and Constitution of this organization will show the form and spirit of a 20th century revolutionary labor organization. The Preamble says in part, "It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized; not only for the every day struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."
Thus the old society is pregnant with the new. The powers that rule the world today will never surrender to a weaker power. Clearly the thing to do is to build the power of organized labor. To try to save the petty bourgeoisie—farmers, shop keepers, etc.—is not revolutionary but reactionary. Reformers try to patch up capitalism. Reactionaries try to roll back the wheels of history. Revolutionists build the new within the shell of the old.

Capitalism is rapidly spreading over the earth, but the coming of the modern world is the coming of the proletariat. As Marx so well said, "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

When the organized power of the proletariat becomes greater than the organized power of other classes, then will come the revolution! The old power will go down before the greater power of the new. Capitalism based on production for sale will give way to production for use. Thus will end the world's last class struggle. The age-long exploitation of man by his fellowman will cease forever, and this will be the crowning achievement of the human race.

Industrial Workers of the World, unite. You have a world and life itself to gain!



1 month 4 weeks ago

Submitted by Steven. on May 21, 2024

Hi Vasily, thanks for these contributions. We have approved both of them, and approved your account to post future contributions directly so they won't have to go through moderation.
Just a couple of notes though:
– this article looks like it should have footnotes which are missing?
– In the intro box, please don't just paste the beginning of the article, please write a short sentence explaining what the text is about, and giving necessary information about when/where it is from. I have tried to do that with your existing submissions but with this article for example it wasn't clear to me where or when it was from.
Many thanks and look forward to more of your contributions!


1 month ago

Submitted by vasily on June 15, 2024

Greetings. Sorry for the late reply. I appreciate your comment and the information you provided. I took this from an old pamphlet of the IWW, it was actually here in libcom but the link no longer works, so I decided that it would be best for some parts of it to be reuploaded here once again