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U.S. New Left Entering the Workforce

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Juan Conatz
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Jan 8 2011 12:08
U.S. New Left Entering the Workforce

So, some of my searches for information on the US Postal Service strikes of the 70s led me to the discovery of a left wing group called 'The Outlaws' that combated the union bureaucracy, tried to seize positions and pushed for more militant action. The book Labor Struggle In the Post Office: From Selective Lobbying to Collective Bargaining describes them as "1960s style radicals" and it seems they were probably Maoist influenced. So, it got me wondering, what other accounts are out there of the New Left entering the workforce?

From my impression, after SDS crumbled and split into various sides, such as the Progressive Labor Party aligned vs. Revolutionary Youth Movement I/Weatherman (which also split into a RYM I and II, with II spliting and becoming the foundations of the New Communist Movement) a number of groups ended up concentrating working in factories, particularly in Midwest hubs such as Chicago and Detroit. Even the Socialist Workers Party, who seemed to be balancing their Trotskyist past and emerging admiration for the Cuban Revolution during this time, sent people out into Midwest. Here in Iowa, those people are still here working in slaughterhouses.

For example, the Sojourner Truth Organization did this and some of it is documented in their Workplace Papers.

I guess I'm interested because with the talk of a study group around U.S. communists and working class struggles, it seems relevant that the highest instance of left wing agitation in the workplace since the 1940s and arguably since be looked into, even if it is just me for right now. cool

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Jan 8 2011 19:14

Check out Robert Fitch's Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise. Apparently Fitch was some kind of Maoist at Berkeley in the 60s, so he personally knew some of the young students in the Independent Socialist Club around Hal Draper -- many of whom left school to work in production. Examples are grad students dropping out to work and organize with truckers in Cleveland, who helped found Teamsters for the Democratic Union. Others left the Bay Area for Chicago and worked in steel mills or for Detroit to work in auto; some went to Los Angeles and worked as teachers in ghetto schools and at least one is now at the top of the union hierarchy (who've strangely become advocates of charterization). Fitch's critique is anti-Trotskyite, which would be more tolerable if there weren't tinges of his Maoist origins. But he does have a few accounts of Draperite New Lefties on the West Coast leaving the campus and going to work in production in places like the Midwest. There's lots of information here that you're looking for, if you just read between the lines of Fitch's axe to grind with Trotskyism.

Another briefer example is written from inside the Draperites, in the first few pages of Nelson Lichtenstein's Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II. In his "Introduction" to the new 2003 edition, he talks of how with his generation:

Lichtenstein wrote:
"radicalized on the campuses and in the anti-Vietnam War movement, a 'turn toward the working class' had begun to propel thousands of student radicals into the nation's factories, warehouses, hospitals [PL was big on this, especially in SF and LA], and offices. From Berkeley, friends and comrades took off for Detroit auto plants, Chicago steel mills, Cleveland trucking companies, and all sorts of industrial jobs throughout the Bay Area" (p. vii).

A strong influence in the Draperite circle was Stan Weir, who started his working life in the 1940s after dropping out of UCLA and working at a merchant marine, where he jumped ship in New York and became close friends with both CLR James and James Baldwin, before making it back to the Bay to work in the Richmond Ford plant, the Oakland Chevy plant at the time of the Oakland General Strike in 1946, a teamster in Los Angeles, before coming back to the Bay in the 1950s and working in longshoring (until ILWU leader Harry Bridges purged him along with 81 other "B" men). Stan was obviously a strong influence on his younger comrades to not ignore the industrial working class and to leave the myopic isolation of the college community to immerse themselves within the class.

Fitch's point is that "colonizing" production with microsect organizers was a disaster. I agree with him to some extent, but without the personal grudge his book seems to be carrying from the 60s. But the proof is in the pudding because the Draper's ISC became the International Socialists, which became Solidarity with their anemic Labor Notes. Another breakaway group is the vile ISO. Yet the whole movement "back to production" does leave some interesting questions.

But reading Stan Weir and Marty Glaberman, you do get a different perspective on this. Here's what Marty said in an interview:

Quote:
Q. Some of us are involved in socialist organizations of small numbers. Could you say something about organizing in a contemporary context.

Marty. First of all everyone has a right to political ideas and to organize for your own purposes, provided you don't assume you're going to lead the next revolution. That should involve as much contact as you can make to general working class activity. That's tricky too. In the 40's everyone went into the factories. I remember a guy named Greenberg, who was a very fine musician and who ended up in a factory. He went into a factory because that was what he was supposed to do and he was a goddamn waste. Now what the hell was he going to do in a factory? Nothing. Particularly with the party line. As a person interested in music he could make a contribution to society. Not to the revolution directly, but to the revolution indirectly.

The whole idea was that your activity was a sacrifice. If it is, then it's wrong. It's not that you don't sacrifice anything, sure you take risks. You lose your job by being a radical, but basically your political activity should confirm your humanity. It should represent your humanity. In terms of the concreteness, it depends where you are. If you're on a college campus then that's where you are. The idea that you going into a factory is going to make a significant difference to the working class is nonsense. That you can support workers' strikes as an intellectual sure...

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Jan 8 2011 20:06
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Marty. First of all everyone has a right to political ideas and to organize for your own purposes, provided you don't assume you're going to lead the next revolution. That should involve as much contact as you can make to general working class activity. That's tricky too. In the 40's everyone went into the factories. I remember a guy named Greenberg, who was a very fine musician and who ended up in a factory. He went into a factory because that was what he was supposed to do and he was a goddamn waste. Now what the hell was he going to do in a factory? Nothing. Particularly with the party line. As a person interested in music he could make a contribution to society. Not to the revolution directly, but to the revolution indirectly.

This reminds me of quite a few radicals from different organizations and parties I met"back in the day". It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do the phyiscal work itself. Lots of rads just weren't cut out to deal with the tidious mental grind of factory work and so forth.

I remember have this argument in the old ACF/NA and later on. The question of industrial concentration and "into the factories". There was a whole bunch of resistance to this idea.
Some argued simply against the idea, that it was no different than the ML's. perhaps. But the most compelling argument, I thought, was not over policy, but that not every comrade was capable or even good at that sort of thing. I have always been very physical, like getting the hands dirty and shopfloor oriented, so that didn't bother me what-so-ever. But there were others, good intentioned, but not at all a good use of their time abnd abilities.

Angelus Novus
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Jan 9 2011 13:39

I wasn't aware that Fitch was a Maoist; that's news to me. I thought his assessment of that particular colonization attempt was quite astute: that the organizers were simply unprepared for the massive amount of restructuring and relocation of industrial production that was to occur in U.S. industry in the 1970s. The success within the Teamsters was contingent upon a specific constellation of factors, and even that resulted in a watering down, and ultimately abandonment, of the original political motivation.

There's something essentially substitutionist about the strategy of "industrialization". Left groups unable to actually win members in heavy industry attempting to simply become members in heavy industry, and perhaps with some luck maybe recruiting individuals here and there.

There's also a rather "sociological" conception of the working class underlying those sort of attempts. Rather than seeing the working class as constituting the vast majority of the population in industrialized societies, defined in terms of selling labour-power and not disposing of the means of production, the working class is instead conceived of in terms of according to specific criteria, particular industries, etc.

I guess the final argument "for" those sort of colonization attempts has to do with the assumption that some industries are more "strategic" than others in terms a revolutionary process, but really that argument can be extended to just about any sector of society. You could thus argue the absolute necessity of sending members into the military in large numbers, or to work as police.

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Jan 10 2011 03:47
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There's also a rather "sociological" conception of the working class underlying those sort of attempts. Rather than seeing the working class as constituting the vast majority of the population in industrialized societies, defined in terms of selling labour-power and not disposing of the means of production, the working class is instead conceived of in terms of according to specific criteria, particular industries, etc.

This seems to be the most important factor. The idealization of the factory worker as the archetypal proletarian- rather than the closest workers to them- school service personnel, teachers, teaching assistants, student workers (part-time workers and full time students, or part-time students and full-time workers), school employed tradesmen (most campuses have resident electricians, plumbers, etc), food service workers, local retail workers, etc. It's the same mentality of the 1960's New Left in its early days- abandoning the working class at home for ideological reasons (there is no such thing as a white worker, the American working class is reactionary or bourgeoisified, etc) for romantic support of struggles in far (safely) away places like Vietnam.

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Jan 15 2011 23:21
Juan Conatz wrote:
For example, the Sojourner Truth Organization did this and some of it is documented in their Workplace Papers.

Wondering if anyone has read these?

Also, Loren Goldner's review of the book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che mentions some of the 'entering the workforce' stuff.

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Finally, while Elbaum rightly says that the turn ca. 1969 of thousands of New Leftists to the American working class was largely fruitless, he does neglect one important counter-example, namely the success of the International Socialists (the renamed ISC after 1970) in building the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and through it being the sparkplugs for the election of Ron Carey as President of the Teamsters in 1991. There is no question that this development, however much it turned into a fiasco, was the most important left-wing intervention in the American labor movement since the 1940's. I no more wish to go off on a long tangent about that terribly-botched episode than I wish to expound on the history of Trotskyism; I left the IS milieu in 1969. It is rather, again, to show Elbaum's blind spot to the real flaws of his own tradition. The IS's success with TDU came at the price of burying (at least for the purposes of Teamster politics) the fact that they were socialists, not merely honest trade-unionists (It turned out that Carey wasn't even that.) Anyone educated in a Trotskyist group (and the IS, despite its rejection of the socialist character of the so-called "workers's states" was Trotskyist on every other question), in contrast to most Stalinist and Maoist groups, develops a healthy aversion to the trade-union bureaucracy and to the Democratic Party. Elbaum provides a long history of how Maoism evolved out of the wreckage of the old CPUSA after the 1960 Sino-Soviet split. Some of these groups looked back to the CP under Browder; others preferred William Z. Foster. But almost all of them saw something positive in the CP's role during the Roosevelt era, both in the Democratic Party and in the CIO. The problem of those working off of Trotskyism was, on the contrary, the "bureaucracy" that developed in exactly the era of CP influence; the problem of those working off of Marxism-Leninism was "revisionism" (Stalinists and Maoists for some reason don't have too much to say about bureaucracy, except-as in the "Cultural Revolution", when they are supporting one bureaucratic faction against another). And the concept of "revisionism" rarely inoculated these people against seeking influence in high places, either with Democratic politicians or with trade-union bureaucrats, as the CP had done so successfully in its heyday. It is certainly true that many of Elbaum's Marxist-Leninists did neither. But he seems to ignore the fact that the ability of a group like the IS to intersect the Teamster rank-and-file rebellion of the 1970's and thereafter had something to do with the fact that they, in contrast to every Marxist-Leninist around, were not approaching the American working class with tall tales about socialism in Cuba or Albania or Cambodia or North Korea. The oh-so-radical defenders of Beijing's line, whether for or against the "Gang of Four", turned out to be defending a considerable part of the global status quo.
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Jan 16 2011 06:43
Quote:
Also, Loren Goldner's review of the book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che mentions some of the 'entering the workforce' stuff.

He also gets into it in the Insurgent Notes article The Demise of Andy Stern and the Question of Unions in Contemporary Capitalism which is absolutely worth the read.

Also, I'm feeling uncomfortable about finding the last couple of posts by Angelus Novus agreeable over the last week or so.

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Jan 18 2011 21:37

I remember running across this awhile back, which showed that it wasn't just leninists that fell into this trap.

I think Angelus Novus and Devoration are exactly right. It seems bizarre to abandon organizing among those around you in order to move to a new place where the working class is more working classish. My feeling is that most of the people who did it faced difficulties assimilating into the communities that they had moved to and were less effective than they would've been if they'd just stayed put.

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Jan 25 2011 07:21
Angelus Novus wrote:
I wasn't aware that Fitch was a Maoist; that's news to me.

Yeah, he was in the Bay Area Revolutionary Union at Berkeley. BARU morphed into the Revolutionary Youth Movement II within SDS before eventually becoming the RCP.

I met a comrade today who was in SDS at Stanford in the late 1960s and knew -- and conflicted with -- Fitch back then. Fitch later moved to New York City and ended around the Trotskite group Workers Power.

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Jan 19 2011 02:57

Juan, our mutual friend Erik F tells me that the first piece at the top of this page is definitely worth reading -
http://www.revolutionintheair.com/histstrategy/antiwar.html

I've not read it yet but plan to.

There's also a book about French analogs to this, The Assembly Line by Robert Linhart, supposedly pretty good, not read that either yet.

I think Angelus and others are totally right about the bad ideas informing these projects - the fetishization of manual labor etc. I think there's still a core insight within "industrial concentration" though, that could be tied to better ideas. If we take "industry" just to mean "an industry" then "concentration" just means "pick an industry and network with radicals within it as part of a larger organizing agenda." And the other two bits that are valuable in these ideas, that make them still worth drawing on, is making the waged workplace into more of a center of attention for people on the left today, and making attempts to diversify the left and its reach, because some sections of the working class are over-represented.

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Jan 19 2011 07:22
Nate wrote:
Juan, our mutual friend Erik F tells me that the first piece at the top of this page is definitely worth reading -
http://www.revolutionintheair.com/histstrategy/antiwar.html

I've not read it yet but plan to.

Don't bother.

Max Elbaum is a Stalinist who currently trumps for Obama. His old Bay Area Maoist group, Line of March, was popularly known as March in Line because of its nutty Scientology-esque "criticism/self-criticism" sessions and it's worship of the authoritarianism of "Lenin, Mao and Che."

So-called Anarchists like Chris Crass consider this regurgitated Third Worldism the model for anti-oppression organizing -- sans any mention of class -- today.

Loren Goldner's critique skewers Elbaum's Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che.

CORRECTION: I skimmed the Ph.D. dissertation that you linked and it seems like Elbaum-lite. More fluff about déclassés so confused about social class that they needed to "turn" to the working class and join class collaborationist unions. The New Communist Movement was ultimately a dead-end of "anti-revisionist" Stalinism. If any of you see something useful to plumb from this dogma, please share it with us -- to me, it's worse than meaningless.

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Jan 19 2011 07:10
Nate wrote:
Juan, our mutual friend Erik F tells me that the first piece at the top of this page is definitely worth reading -
http://www.revolutionintheair.com/histstrategy/antiwar.html
.

Yeah, I think he was reading it the last time I was up in the Twin Cities for organizer training and we discussed it briefly.

Quote:
So-called Anarchists like Chris Crass consider this regurgitated Third Worldism the model for anti-oppression organizing -- sans any mention of class -- today.

Well, as I remember it, The Catalyst Project mentions class, just in the 'classism' form, which reduces class to cultural indicators and vague amounts of money, basically.

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The New Communist Movement was ultimately a dead-end of "anti-revisionist" Stalinism. If any of you see something useful to plumb from this dogma, please share it with us -- to me, it's worse than meaningless.

Well, I don't know a whole lot about the NCM. What I know is basically from the Wikipedia article, which mentions the Sojourner Truth Organization as part of the NCM. If that's true, well, I think a lot of the stuff they did was interesting and a number of those folks became anarchists or later joined libertarian organizations, including someone I'm pretty close to politically and work with often.

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Jan 19 2011 07:20
Juan Conatz wrote:
Well, I don't know a whole lot about the NCM. What I know is basically from the Wikipedia article, which mentions the Sojourner Truth Organization as part of the NCM. If that's true, well, I think a lot of the stuff they did was interesting and a number of those folks became anarchists or later joined libertarian organizations, including someone I'm pretty close to politically and work with often.

I'm pretty underwhelmed by the stuff I've read by STO too. I'm open to be convinced otherwise; what do you find relevant about STO's theory and practice?

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Jan 19 2011 07:29
Hieronymous wrote:
I'm pretty underwhelmed by the stuff I've read by STO too. I'm open to be convinced otherwise; what do you find relevant about STO's theory and practice?

Well, they were primarily based in the Midwest and did a fair amount of workplace agitation, while attempting to take on what race meant in the U.S., specifically how it related to class. I guess that's why I've had an interest in them. They were also, apparantly not batshit like the rest of NCM.

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Jan 19 2011 07:34
Juan Conatz wrote:
They were also, apparantly not batshit like the rest of NCM.

Fair enough.

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Jan 19 2011 07:38

That's not to say, I agree with them wholeheartedly or anything. I mean, for example, I think there's something for me, a guy who's lived in small town Iowa and been primarily a farm laborer the last 2 years, to learn from the CPUSA farmers association front groups during the 1930s, even though politically, they are Stalinists.

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Jan 19 2011 14:28

I'd recommend reading up on the Great Depression-era Farmer's Councils, which 'bordered on insurrections' in some cases.

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But the proof is in the pudding because the Draper's ISC became the International Socialists, which became Solidarity with their anemic Labor Notes.

I'm curious as to how Solidarity developed over time since its founding in '86. It seems to be one of the big fish of the left-wing labor movement in the US (as far as entryism into labor unions and union-community groups goes).

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Jan 19 2011 15:26

Perhaps we all learn good and bad lessons from different movements, groups and tendencies. It's a question, I suppose, of what you take away from them.

I still favor some form of policy of "industrial concentration" when it makes sense and can be applied in a manner that isn't silly......like sending an educator into a warehouse or something like that. There can be a form of "industrial concentration" amongst folks in the same town or networking folks in similiar occupations. If all one does is look at the M-L model of the past and try and replicate that, well, it will not go to far from a libertarian workers point of view.

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Jan 19 2011 17:30
devoration1 wrote:
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But the proof is in the pudding because the Draper's ISC became the International Socialists, which became Solidarity with their anemic Labor Notes.

I'm curious as to how Solidarity developed over time since its founding in '86. It seems to be one of the big fish of the left-wing labor movement in the US (as far as entryism into labor unions and union-community groups goes).

Strictly speaking, the IS didn't "become" Solidarity as Goldner has it. Solidarity was a merger between the IS with Workers Power (itself an IS split) and supporters of Ernest Mandel's Fourth International who had been expelled from the U.S. SWP. Later on, another Fourth Internationalist group, The Fourth Internationalist Tendency, joined up, as did a group of individuals expelled from the U.S. SWP with views similar to the Australian DSP. So all in all, in terms of constituent groups, a fairly heterogeneous mix. AFAIK, the majority of members are not people directly involved in a strategy of "industrial concentration", or even people who regard trade unionism as their primary arena of political activity.

Labor Notes is also officially a separate project, BTW, and is not not controlled or directed by Solidarity, though the founders of the project were all in the IS.

Regarding the Sojourner Truth Organization, I agree with the post above assessing their output as underwhelming. On the one hand, they make allowances for a positive reception of figures like C.L.R. James, but it was never a "Johnsonite" group and over on the Maoist Kasama blog, a former member stated that the influence of Johnsonite thought has been inflated in retrospect due to the fact that STO is now best known as the organization that people like Noel Ignatiev came out of.

If you go through the STO archives website, you'll find a handful of interesting documents related to workplace organizing or Marxist theory, but also a lot of awful, awful crap related to support for various national liberation struggles. In fact, by the mid-1970s, the orientation of the organization had shifted entirely away from workplace organizing and exclusive toward third world solidarity work.

Then again, I find much of the Johnsonite tendency proper to be theoretically underwhelming these days. I remember discussing this a while back with a member of Endnotes who concurred: the Johnson-Forest tendency was more interesting as a political tendency than CLR James was as a "thinker". From James, I find that his most enduring work are the histories he wrote when he was an orthodox Trot, like the Black Jacobins or his Comintern history. His attempts at "theory" strike me as really bad, Engelsian dialectic of nature kind of stuff. Martin Glaberman had a lot of interesting and insightful things to say about shopfloor struggles in the Fordist era. But really, the entire Johnsonite project seems to be a huge misreading of the period of post-war capitalism.

Angelus Novus
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Jan 19 2011 17:41

P.S., regarding workplace organizing...meh. Most people have to work, and organizing where you are also means talking to co-workers. If you're a student or school pupil, it means organizing there, etc. So far, so good.

What most political tendencies that place primary importance on the workplace do, however, is assume that political radicalization occurs at the point of production. I suppose it can, but that is in no way necessary. A lot of people develop anti-capitalist politics on the basis of anti-fascist work, neighborhood struggles/struggles against gentrification, anti-war protests, etc. Insofar as these people also have to sell their labour-power to survive, that political radicalism will carry over into the workplace. But I don't see any automatic connection between struggles over working time and wages and an explicitly communist consciousness.

And not to sound like a broken record, but in countries like Great Britain, the U.S., or Italy that underwent a process of industrial dispersal in the 1970s, heavy industry also no longer has the "strategic" importance that Leninist groups once assigned to it**. I think this is also the rational core of analysis underlying groups like Endnotes. Not so much an abandonment of the working class (which is the majority of society), but a recognition that future struggles for communism will not be conducted in terms of "taking over production". In a way, I think it's a smarter version of the analysis offered by the Wertkritik people, who write off class altogether.

**Footnote: Germany, interestingly enough, has an important heavy industrial sector, due to its export-oriented economy, but ironically, this leads to the part of the class in these industries to be the most politically conservative, making common cause with the export-oriented strategy of German capital, supporting neo-liberal governments that pursue this strategy and having unions that didn't do anything to really oppose the Hartz reforms, since the unemployed are not their constituency. Germany has an almost classical "labour aristocracy" in the Leninist sense.

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Jan 19 2011 19:12
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What most political tendencies that place primary importance on the workplace do, however, is assume that political radicalization occurs at the point of production. I suppose it can, but that is in no way necessary. A lot of people develop anti-capitalist politics on the basis of anti-fascist work, neighborhood struggles/struggles against gentrification, anti-war protests, etc. Insofar as these people also have to sell their labour-power to survive, that political radicalism will carry over into the workplace. But I don't see any automatic connection between struggles over working time and wages and an explicitly communist consciousness.

I would say that many anarcho-syndicalists (which I am) probably would agree with much of what you said above. Perhaps we believe that the workplace (where we spend so much of our time) is a bit more important. But nowhere we most of us disagree or not encourage and participate in the other struggles.

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Jan 20 2011 10:50
Angelus Novus wrote:
P.S., regarding workplace organizing...meh. Most people have to work, and organizing where you are also means talking to co-workers. If you're a student or school pupil, it means organizing there, etc. So far, so good.

What most political tendencies that place primary importance on the workplace do, however, is assume that political radicalization occurs at the point of production. I suppose it can, but that is in no way necessary. A lot of people develop anti-capitalist politics on the basis of anti-fascist work, neighborhood struggles/struggles against gentrification, anti-war protests, etc. Insofar as these people also have to sell their labour-power to survive, that political radicalism will carry over into the workplace. But I don't see any automatic connection between struggles over working time and wages and an explicitly communist consciousness.

I would rephrase this to say that anti-capitalist awareness can come from those partial struggles, but it is struggles over how we reproduce ourselves as labor-power -- involving work, rent, obtaining means of subsistence, etc. -- that class consciousness develops and given the right conditions can go beyond what is permitted and attempt what is possible during a revolutionary rupture (which we all know rarely occurs).

But maybe it's here where we diverge because I see the centrality of organizing around concerns of class, where the issues of production and reproduction become unavoidable. And yeah, it's harder for struggles to lead to revolutionary consciousness, let alone class consciousness, in places that have been deindustrialized like the U.S. To my study of history, it is class struggle among value-creating production workers that have led to most revolutionary upsurges. This was reinforced by reading some of the excellent interviews with the Honda workers at the Nonhai plant in Guangdong, China last summer. As inspiring as the strikes were, they were hardly revolutionary. Yet the way the strike wave spread to other workers in other company's auto plants and then electronics production workers showed how readily class consciousness comes to proletarians working in the belly of the value-creating beast. To riff on the Strike! book discussion thread, it seemed like a micro version of the dynamic Luxemburg describes in The Mass Strike. I can't wait to see the direction further explosions in China take.

But truly internationalist class consciousness, with modern characteristics, would be the strike wave spreading to include workers in maritime on the high seas and workers in longshore, trucking, railroads, warehouses, and retail in North America (or wherever else the China goods get shipped). Oh yeah, and the logistics workers who coordinate the global flow of commodities, as part of the further streamlining of the just-in-time production system.

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Jan 20 2011 12:24
Hieronymous wrote:
To my study of history, it is class struggle among value-creating production workers that have led to most revolutionary upsurges.

I disagree strongly.

Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, none of these revolutions occured on the basis of wage or labour-time struggles growing into a generalized revolution. Often the catalyst was war, or a political crisis.

The one major exception I can think of was the GDR in 1953, which wasn't really a full-fledged revolution, and was mixed up with all sorts of problematic anti-communist (in the sense of pro-capitalist) politics.

The shopfloor is where the capital relation has its "genesis", so to speak, but that doesn't mean it's the point of origin for resistance to that relation.

I know Zizek is cheesy, but I actually like his Matrix analogy, where even though the "real" is where the humans are all trapped in pods hooked up to machines, Neo has to wage the struggle within the simulated matrix itself. Similarly, even though the ultimate goal is to break the capital relation, it's naive to think this is some stageist, automatic process growing out of workplace struggles.

Prioritizing the shoop floor arises from a Trad-Marxist base/superstructure model, where only the economic "base" counts and political and ideological struggle is all just fluffy "superstructure."

P.S. maybe the mods want to move this thread to theory?

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Jan 21 2011 08:01

I never claimed these struggles were over "wage" or "labor-time struggles," although a few were. During the phase of the extraction of absolute surplus-value in the late 19th and early 20th century, many struggles were over the working day. In the U.S., the classic example of this was the struggle over the 8-hour day, beginning in the early 1870s and reaching its peak in the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886. And yes, some were against war and occurred during political crises. The 1919 Steel Strike was over the changes wrought by management that were rationalized by Taylorism, as part of the transition to the extraction of relative surplus-value.

But workers in production are often simply fight the class war against the brutal conditions and alienation of industrial production. I've never met an assembly line worker (and there aren't many left around here) who didn't hate their work and once they'd saved enough money, planned to immediately find a less dehumanizing line of work.

Perhaps the best example of an "alienation" strike was the series of strikes, slowdowns and sabotage at the Lordstown, Ohio GM plant in the early 1970s. This brand-new plant had the fastest assembly line the world. The struggles against it were against the nature of work itself, not for higher wages or over "labour-time."

Other struggles were sparked by workers in production and then reached insurrectionary and near-revolutionary intensity, or became overtly revolutionary ruptures in the cases of Russia and Spain and the earlier 19th century aborted revolutions in Europe.

Here's a short list:

Quote:
-1830 Revolution in Europe
-Chartists and Luddites in England in the mid-19th century
-Revolution of February, the journées of March, April and May and the June insurrection of 1848 in Paris; March Revolution in Baden, Vienna Austria, Berlin, Saxony and Bavaria
-1871 Paris Commune
-1905 Petrograd Soviet
-1917 soviets and factory committees throughout Russia
-Late January-early February 1918 strike wave in Austria (beginning in the industrial environs of Vienna spreading outward to Lower Austria, Styria, Upper Austria, Tyrol, and the industrial suburbs of Brno, the Moravian capital); in Hungary, a strike wave developed and paralyzing Budapest; in Bohemia Kladno miners struck; in late January, war weariness, food shortages and the annexationist demands of the German imperialists’ high command summoned forth a savagely repressed strike in Berlin (spreading to Mannheim, Danzig, München and Köln before repression took hold), a political strike against German militarism, the war and for peace; at precisely the same moment in Britain, on the Clyde and in Sheffield but also in Barrow, Coventry, Erith, London, and Woolwich, workers nearly pulled off a general strike against the imperialist world war
-January 1919 uprising in Berlin based on the metalworking proletariat (which cost Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht their lives), that adventurous putsch known as the March Action (1921)
-1919 general strike in Seattle; month-long Winnipeg general strike
-Occupation of the factories by Italian metalworkers in September 1920
-The revolutionary situation beginning in August 1923 with a general strike in Berlin and ending with the Hamburg insurrection in late October
-Great strike of 1926 in Britain of mineworkers
-January 1925 strikes in Japanese textile mills, the months long general strike by the industrial and port proletariats of Canton beginning in June of that year, the wave of strikes in early 1926 up and down coastal China
-1926 strikes in in-land industrial Wuhan, the general strike and insurrection of March 1927 in Shanghai, and the insurrection of December 1927 in Canton, on all of which the communes of Canton and Shanghai rested
-First wave of strikes in autos, glass, rubber in steel in the USA (1933-1934)
-The 3 citywide general strikes in the U.S. in 1934; sparked by teamsters in Minneapolis, auto parts factory workers in Toledo, and longshore and maritime workers in San Francisco
-In the U.S., the extraordinarily huge sit-downs beginning in auto (1937-1938)
-Defeat of the generals’ revolt in July 1936, the defense of Madrid (December 1936), the May Days in Barcelona (1937)
1945-1946 strike waves that sweep France, Italy and the U.S. in the aftermath of the last imperialist world war
-1946 South Korean general strike, beginning with railroad workers in Taegu
-1946 general strike in Senegal
-Hungarian Revolution (1956) and the formation of workers councils that were running most production in the country within 48 hours
-May 1968 in France
-“Hot autumn” of 1969 in Italy
-Cordones in Chile (late summer-autumn 1973)
-1987 Great Strike in South Korea with 3,749 work stoppages from June to September
-1989 spontaneous strike wave across China sparked by Tienanmen Square protests in Beijing
-Wave of strikes by textile and electronic assembly workers that rolled over the export processing zone of Saigon in January-February 2006
-May Day 2006 general strike of Latino workers across the U.S.
-Massive, riotous strike upsurge by the Dhaka, Bangladesh garment and rail proletariat in July and, in particular, September-October of 2007

(many of these thanks to Will Barnes)

syndicalist
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Jan 21 2011 14:50

I really am not sure why workplace struggles are only about "wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment". They're not always. Sometimes they are, but not exclusively.

I suspect what we want to get out of all our struggles (aside from victories) is helping to build self-confidence and self-organization.....and to be able to bring to these a revolutionary perspective and try and share that perspective within these struggles....with an obvious aim of helping to further radicalize folks.

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Hieronymous
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Jan 21 2011 17:30

Agreed (to what syndicalist wrote).

Unlike the Leninists (whose party brings consciousness to the working class), most dialectical theorists like Marx, Luxemburg, CLR James, Marty Glaberman, as well as pedagogical Marxists like Lev Vygotsky, among many others, saw the process as action preceding consciousness. I do too.

Perhaps Rosa put it best: "The working classes in every country only learn to fight in the course of their struggles." And being conscious of class makes solidarity the appropriate practice of that fight. It is the practical experience of struggling that gives the self-confidence that allows further working class self-activity and self-organization.

I remember a discussion two years ago in Oakland, by some visiting Mouvement Communiste comrades from France, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the "Hot Autumn" of '69. They had just translated Fiat in the hands of the workers: The “Hot Autumn” of 1969 in Turin (LA FIAT aux mains des ouvriers. L’automne chaud de 1969 à Turin), by Diego Giachette and Marco Scavino, from Italian to French. They explained how The Hot Autumn was sparked at FIAT's Mirafiori plant in Turin as the class struggle spilled past the factory gates as workers coordinated movements for self-reduction; in September '69 FIAT workers refused to pay for the trams and buses, as well as going into stores to demand 30, 40 & 50% reductions in prices, backed only by showing their factory ID badges. They squatted houses, formed neighborhood committees that self-reduced their rents, occupied government offices, and thousands of workers collectively burned their electricity bills. The social wildcat moved from factories to universities, from working class districts to the entire social terrain. Young workers made demands for more pay with less work; massive worker-student assemblies made unconditional demands for "workers' power" and even began to question the nature of work itself. The government and the unions were helpless in stopping these new forms of working class offensive.

Eventually, by the end of the 1970s, this cycle of struggles was defeated. But the goal had been "workers' power." I think that's the point: workers' power begets class power and the consciousness of a world that's possible beyond capitalism. But I'll end with a quote by Rosa Luxemburg:

Rosa Luxemburg wrote:
The [proletarian] revolution is the sole form of "war" -- and this is also its most vital law -- in which the final victory can be prepared only by a series of "defeats"!... The revolutions have until now brought nothing but defeats, but these inevitable defeats virtually pile guarantee upon guarantee of the future success of the final goal.
Angelus Novus
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Jan 21 2011 19:36
Hieronymous wrote:
Unlike the Leninists (whose party brings consciousness to the working class)

I'm not arguing for some party bringing consciousness to the working class from "outside" (and in this day and age, where the working class is the vast majority of the population in industrialized countries, including among "intellectuals", the concept of "outside" itself is vanishing), I'm simply arguing that the workplace does not necessarily enjoy any strategic priority.

We seem to agree that most major social upheavals are not immediately precipitated by wage and time struggles. You also seem to be arguing, as far as I can tell, for a sort of "workplace struggles as a school of struggle" approach. Fine by me: as I said, I think people should try to "organize" wherever they are, which is also going to include the workplace for the vast majority of people.

What I argued against is the approach undertaken by many Leninist and New Left groups of the 1960s and 1970s of intentionally planting members in purportedly "strategic" industries regarded as "key". If we agree that's a sterile and vanguardist approach to revolution, then I'm not sure we actually disagree about anything.

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Nate
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Jan 22 2011 04:31
Hieronymous wrote:
Nate wrote:
Juan, our mutual friend Erik F tells me that the first piece at the top of this page is definitely worth reading -
http://www.revolutionintheair.com/histstrategy/antiwar.html

I've not read it yet but plan to.

Don't bother.

(...) CORRECTION: I skimmed the Ph.D. dissertation that you linked and it seems like Elbaum-lite. More fluff about déclassés so confused about social class that they needed to "turn" to the working class and join class collaborationist unions. The New Communist Movement was ultimately a dead-end of "anti-revisionist" Stalinism. If any of you see something useful to plumb from this dogma, please share it with us -- to me, it's worse than meaningless.

I haven't read it, I can't tell you what it offers. Erik recommended it and he's a smart serious communist with a lot of experience in conflict at the point of production, so I take his advice really seriously. Also for what it's worth I find "that book is not worth reading at all" to generally be a bit hard to take seriously.

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Jan 22 2011 07:28
Nate wrote:
I haven't read it, I can't tell you what it offers. Erik recommended it and he's a smart serious communist with a lot of experience in conflict at the point of production, so I take his advice really seriously. Also for what it's worth I find "that book is not worth reading at all" to generally be a bit hard to take seriously.

I have now read it. It still sucks. Nearly everyone posting on this thread is highly critical of the legacy of hardcore sectarian leftist parties parachuting cadre into working class communities to colonize production -- and recruit. It failed miserably and it left an ugly legacy that's still an incredible obstacle to overcome.

I have absolutely no sympathy for the post-WWII CP, nor do I find anything relevant about Third Worldism, the New Communist Movement, the Marxist-Leninist October League, PL, Maoists or Stalinists generally -- or Trot groups like the post-ISC Draperites dropping out of graduate school at Berkeley to work in factories. With one notable exception: Frank Bardacke, who I had the good fortune to meet and hang out with a couple weeks ago when he came to town to promote Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s. I've read Bardacke's piece on the farm workers and it's excellent. And he didn't work in production before returning to grad school and a cushy academic job, he worked most of his adult life in the fields and factories of the agricultural area (Watsonville, California) where he still lives.

Nate, I think Erik is a good guy too, but I can't for the life of me figure out why he'd waste his time reading about how fucked up the Maoists and Stalinists were. Except according to Kieran Walsh Taylor's dissertation, they weren't. I've gotten much, much more out of what I've read in Rebel Rank and File already, as well as Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which is one of the best histories of the contemporary U.S. working class that I've ever read. But radicals like Stan Weir, in his Singlejack Solidarity, and Marty Glaberman, in his Punching Out, show the run up to the 1970s -- having lived through the period at shopfloor militants themselves -- better than anyone else.

And if anyone is interested in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and all the RUMs, I'd suggest they read the classic, Georgakis and Surkin's Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, as well as James Geschwender's Class, Race, & Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Muhammad Ahmad's We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960-1975. The latter is light years better than Taylor's dissertation, since it covers Ella Baker, Robert Williams, the Boggs (Jimmy and Grace Lee), CLR James, Malcolm X, SNCC, RAM, the Panthers, LRBW and the RUMs. While I don't entirely agree with all of Ahmad's political conclusions, its being published by Charles Kerr says a lot. I has very little of the Stalinist and Maoist dreck of so many other accounts.

Ahmad's account also tells of how -- and why -- the core of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Michigan all joined the Black Panther Party, so as not to have to compete. Likewise, some comrades in Oakland have been doing oral history with ex-Panthers and they tell of the Black Panther Caucus at the Fremont GM plant (which closed last year after having been the GM-Toyota joint venture NUMMI since 1984), which tried to emulate the rank-and-file organizing style of the LRBW (our only evidence of the results are from the few Caucus newsletters that these former Panthers have hung on to -- we're hoping to scan them and put them online, maybe here on libcom). I like what Detroit: I Do Mind Dying says about DRUM:

Quote:
More like the IWW of an earlier generation of radicals than like a trade union, DRUM had many aspects of a popular revolutionary movement that could go in many directions. Although not always clear about its tactical methods or all of its strategic goals, DRUM was an illustration of what James Boggs had written in 1963 in The American Revolution: "Historically workers move ahead by the new. That is, they bypass existing organizations and form new ones uncorrupted by past habits and customs." DRUM had no intention of sharing the economic pie with Chrysler, and it had no interest in making cars for a profit. DRUM wanted workers to have all the pie and to produce good only for social needs. DRUM concentrated its organizing efforts on black workers, but it was conscious of the long-term necessity of organizing all workers. Its immediate program was a combination of demands for the elimination of racial discrimination and demands for workers' control, which would be beneficial to all workers, regardless of race, sex, or age. DRUM publications regularly stated that the organization was working in the best long-term interests of all workers and that the overall struggle must be fought on class rather than racial lines. p. 36

And lastly, if one wants to read a scathing Situ-tinged critique of black nationalism and the excesses of the Panthers, showing a natural rebel moving in a libertarian socialist direction, read Jimmy Carr's Bad: The Autobiography of James Carr. Sadly, he was out of prison for such a short time before being gunned down and killed, that he wasn't able to put his ideas into action.

Nate, part of my scorn is that in the Bay Area many of the sectarian hacks glorified in Taylor's account are still running around and meddling with any class conflicts, always preaching Lenin's flawed theories, especially on the need for leadership of the trade unions and the unconditional defense of all the nations victimized by imperialism. Some people actually still believe these Bolshevik fairy tales.

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fnbrill
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Jan 22 2011 09:39
Hieronymous wrote:
Unlike the Leninists (whose party brings consciousness to the working class), most dialectical theorists like Marx, Luxemburg, CLR James, Marty Glaberman, as well as pedagogical Marxists like Lev Vygotsky, among many others, saw the process as action preceding consciousness. I do too.

I think this is a wrong method for presenting a pretty complex discussion. Action precceeds consciousness? Well, yes and no. I don't agree with Leninists that consciousness comes from outside the class or is injected into it. But conversely there's a spontanious-ist "action begets consciousness" model which I've yet to see any proof of occurring, eg the later IWWs, the Johnson-Forrest tendency, Glaberman, etc. What did CLR James move from pretty good positions in 1950 to a nationalist in the 1970s?

To me, sometimes the failure of the Leninists is wrongly ascribed to their vanguardism - will i agree is a fault wasn't their most serious fault. The problem with the leninist model, which carries over to the J-FT, AO and folks like the STO is their essentially social-democratic view of what socialism is. If your vision of the new society is one of a new administration of the same thing (a workers' state, classical syndicalism, etc) it will lead to reformism. Your choice in organizational strategy flowing from your belief in leninist or spontaniousist development of consciousness will decide if you wind up with stalinist state-capitalism or failed insurrections and factory occupations which go nowhere.

What's important here is that so much of the content here is a discussion of strategy - all important and thoughtful - but it's a roadmap to nowhere in particular. What it needs to come from is a class lesson coming from Karl and Eleanor Marx that socialism is a new mode of living not simply a new administration.

Apologies in advance for the late night ramble.

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Ed
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Jan 22 2011 18:00
Hieronymous wrote:
likewise, some comrades in Oakland have been doing oral history with ex-Panthers and they tell of the Black Panther Caucus at the Fremont GM plant (which closed last year after having been the GM-Toyota joint venture NUMMI since 1984), which tried to emulate the rank-and-file organizing style of the LRBW (our only evidence of the results are from the few Caucus newsletters that these former Panthers have hung on to -- we're hoping to scan them and put them online, maybe here on libcom).

Just in case you were wondering, we would love this shit.. smile