Self-activity, strategy and class power

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Kim Müller
Joined: 13-12-07
Sep 6 2008 08:43
Self-activity, strategy and class power

I hope it is not totally inapproriate that I throw this text into the forum as well, as I would be very glad for some comments and critic of it, for some more explanation of what I mean with Faceless resistance check this here is one -
We wanted an expression or a term that tied together the various informal and immediate class struggle practices that existed: go-slow, sabotage, work-to-rule and theft. We wanted a term that tied together these cases and then we started using "faceless resistance", because the struggle is to a large extent invisible, it is not out in the open. Later on, people have developed it to include masked protests, we had that in mind ourselves, but never sad anything about it. We saw that there were parallels with militant street struggles in the workplace, that there were points of connection.

Self-activity, strategy and class-power

In this short text Kim Müller writes about why Kämpa Tillsammans see the workplace struggles as central and their strategic view on faceless resistance and self-activity.

Seven long years
About seven years ago a few work comrades and I wrote about the experiences of our struggles at the bakery we used worked at. Personally this constituted a start for a more forward looking and long term work in class- and political organization. Even though some of us (especially the members of Kämpa tillsammans!) already had grappled with these issues a lot, the publication of the first texts was a step into the leftist arena. The publication came quite soon after the riots during the EU-summit in Gothenburg and were received with both enthusiasm and doubts. Some saw it as a much needed "turn" towards our everyday life and others were puzzled by our refusal to have a political position on the trade unions. They did not comprehend having a trade union position that was based on the interest of the class rather than a political motivation to strengthen one of the various factions. On the other hand out texts were received quite well by some union activists both from LO and SAC - simply put those who sees the working class' independent workplace struggles as central and/or had experiences from active workers' collectives.

The strategy forms the battle plan and its goals decides the individual battles which shall lead to the goal. This means the strategy outlines the different operations and incorporates the individual battles in the strategy.
- von Clausewitz

The Other Workers' Movement
When we wrote those first few texts about the job we had we were not familiar with the concept of "militant investigation/research" and how they were applied. But we had already started getting interested in those political currents that put the primacy on the working class' struggles and we were soon reading about what comrades in Italy, France, USA and Sweden had done and written about before us. We recognized ourselves in the struggles of previous generations that we read about, and we identified with those previous workers who had similar insecure work conditions and had engaged in uncompromising class struggle. In this way we saw our history and our historical predecessors both in texts and struggles. When we in our workplaces turned to the union for help but instead got cold feet, and instead started directly, and outside of the unions, to struggle together with our work comrades it was easy to identify with the theories that argued that there was an "other" workers' movement next to the official one. We were the temporary employed who created influence through sabotage, wage increase through theft and reduction in working time through 'go-slow' actions.

Faceless resistance is a result in itself: an unmediated struggle doesn't lead to a victory or gain but is itself a victory and a gain. If I leave work half an hour earlier than I should, something I often do, I have already won through the act of reducing my own workday. My goal is realized and a partial victory has been won. Of course new goals and situations occur out of this. But the important thing about faceless resistance and self-activity is that the means is in a way becomes the goal. Faceless resistance thus seem to have a completely different character than a mediated struggle in the way that it doesn't function the same way as mediated struggle: unmediated struggle doesn't generate a goal, but is a goal.
- Marcel

These struggles, or practices, that struck management directly and made out lives immediately easier we came to call "faceless resistance" for lack of a better name. This was during a time when the left, our political environment, to a large degree saw that it was "calm" or "peace" at the workplaces, in stark contrast to our understanding of our situations at the workplaces. I still argue that an everyday class war is occurring and no peace is possible as long as capitalism exists.

The party, the trade union, the leftist group etc. are means - ways in which to organize the movement/struggle. They lead to a victory or a loss (...) faceless resistance is the movement, the struggle, the victory...
- Marcel

The concept of faceless resistance is one way to describe those methods of struggle that workers already use daily. We often emphasized the tactical in these methods. Especially in the form of "the politics of baby steps" where you struggle together and can take on larger struggles afterwards as workers start to learn to know each other. In the first workplace reports we described how workers' collectives were developed/built through the struggle and how its members supported each other. In later texts, e.g. "Proletarian management" (Management för proletärer), we wrote more detailed about how workers' collectives are formed. One of the things we stressed was that regardless of the view on the role of the trade unions, every successful struggle at workplaces came from the solidarity between workmates; a strong workers' collective.

The fact is that all forms of class power comes from self-activity. Representatives of various sorts can never do anything without the "the black man standing behind me with a Molotov cocktail."Note Raven is referring to the (maybe false but thats not the point) quote by Martin Luther King Jr - “I am only effective as long as there is a shadow on white America of the black man standing behind me with a Molotov cocktail.” -Kimmuller 9/4/08 6:26 AM . Every organizer of various sorts will USE this self-activity for their own union/party/organization. Our position is that it is the self-activity that should be organized, developed and circulated.


Self-activity as strategy
For many of those who were struggling at workplaces it was enough, people understood what we meant. But at the same time we felt it wasn't simply enough to just describe why we saw self-activity of workers as central to the long-term development of the class struggle. I am convinced that the class struggle is the dominant struggle in society and their clearest expressions are to be found at the workplaces. This conviction is not just based on the fact that it is there that the daily struggle and exploitation happens, but also because it is there that we most easily can find the community that enables us to struggle together. If we are to get any serious and permanent change of society it has to be based on the struggle against wage-labour that occurs at the workplaces. From the concrete experiences of collective struggles together with workmates and neighbours we have come to the conclusion that the only realistic possibility to create changes in society happens through self-organized workers' struggle. So what we are doing, the struggles and dissemination of experiences, is something that goes beyond the "microlevel" of the individual workplace. It is a part of the strengthening and construction of "the other workers' movement" - the only movement that can seriously change our current society. The working class' self-activity is not just a tactic to benefit our direct needs but also a strategy, an overall and long-term plan to increase our power as a class and abolish all classes.

Translation by Khawaga

Steven.'s picture
Joined: 27-06-06
Sep 6 2008 09:31

Hi Kim, thanks for posting that text.

I like the stuff that you guys right, and I agree with a lot of it, about the primacy of the workplace etc and on the importance of self activity, regardless of the unions (I do also like you on non-position on the unions, as I'm having trouble coming up with a clear one myself. Although I think it sounds a little unfair if you're signed in the other groups only come up with positions on the unions in order to strengthen one political faction or another, as opposed to because they believe it is the right thing)

One thing I would take issue with, however, is the focus on these more individualised acts of resistance like shirking and theft, like they are a positive thing. I have flirted with this position myself, in large part because I want to see that the working class is not defeated. And it's true that there is mass individualised resistance - anyone who's worked in an English office will know just how much work is avoided. I'm quite proud of the fact that an English worker is about half as productive as a French one.

However, the predominance of these types of resistance now is due to the current weak, atomised state of the working class today. That there are more sickies than strike days is a sign that we have suffered huge defeats, and that widespread organisation within the class has been severely damaged.

It seems like you talk more about types of action like go slows and work to rules as opposed to strikes. Maybe this is for a couple of reasons, because they seem less typically "leftist", or less "outdated", or perhaps because they seem like more viable courses of action for people in very precarious work?

But I think there is a problem with them, because they are types of action which are very difficult to carry out collectively. With a strike everyone walks out, together, and just stops work. It's difficult to victimise individuals, and individuals who don't join with the collective are easily identified as scabs, and so feel the social pressure to conform with their colleagues. With go slows or work to rules, with a few exceptions like assembly line workers say, it can be very difficult to carry them out collectively, as it is very easy for individual workers to be picked on by management, who can go up to them and say "do this task now" and then watch them do it. Many workers with more weakened resolve, or with difficult personal circumstances say, could be leaned on, and when workers see others start to cave the whole action can start to collapse.

I'm not saying I'm against these types of action - quite the opposite. But there's a reason that strikes are fetishised by the left, because they are powerful. And I think we should recognize that some aspects of the class today which we could romanticise are due to the defeats of the past 30 years.

Kim Müller
Joined: 13-12-07
Sep 6 2008 15:28
Steven. wrote:
It seems like you talk more about types of action like go slows and work to rules as opposed to strikes. Maybe this is for a couple of reasons, because they seem less typically "leftist", or less "outdated", or perhaps because they seem like more viable courses of action for people in very precarious work? .

First of all I am not opposed to strikes, but I am rather sceptical to large "legal" strikes, which I think is more often used against the working class the for the class. The most recent big strike in Sweden was nurses and that is very troublesome, I mean, the employers actually save money when they were on strike, and the strike was a big failure. But that is not the reason we don´t speak so much about strikes. I agree with a lot of your analysis, that we have seen a lot of defeats the last decades, but the main reason we speak about the actions that we speak of is because we speak from our own experience, and, sadly enough, there are very few wild cats strikes in Sweden today. I think it is important to analyse the ongoing class struggles that I take part of, and the kind of actions that happens in the places I have worked is mostly go-slows, theft and such, but looking forward, I think the way of building that crucial collective spirit in a workplace is made from these kind of small actions. But individual go-slows are very hard to do in a way that will not hit other workers, these things will have to be collective.

In Sweden right now, to strike is very hard to do and might get you fired afterwards (there is probably only 20-30 strikes in a year), so we have to find other ways, or actually, we have to look at the types of struggles already going on and make them more collective and more effective. I sure hopes the strike rate will increase (and we are organizing a "strike"-workshop at the Our Power-conference in november). But it is better imo to speak about the actual ongoing struggles and not how we wish them to be. I hope that was a reasonable answer.

And yes, it is a bit unfair with our non-position on the unions, because a "non-position" is also a form of position, so my strategic position on unions is that they shouldn't be trusted but my tactical position is that I will use all mean that is possible, and that will often include a union.

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Joined: 7-05-06
Sep 6 2008 22:44

You have a point, Steven - but bear in mind that absenteeism, work theft, low productivity etc was also endemic at the high points of UK struggles of the 60s and 70s, alongside all the strikes. (Hence the famous phrase 'Britain is the sick man of Europe'.) I think the reason left groups romanticise or prioritise strikes is not for their effectiveness for workers - most in the last 20 years have not won much at all and have often been demoralising - but, partly, for their potential as an arena for left groups to have an influence; proposing more radical candidates than the predictably 'sell-out' union leadership, selling papers/recruitment attempts on demos and pickets etc. The left also see the working class as a 'mass' that is a potentially powerful weapon to wield under the left's leadership; it does not want to see individual autonomous initiative nor unruly working practices such as "faceless resistance". It's not what the leftist future union boss or state boss want to encourage or inherit in its 'mass' of workers.