Letter from Marty Glaberman to Zerowork

A critical letter from Martin Glaberman in 1977 to one of the Zerowork collective about the journal and its politics.

Zerowork.org introduction

The following letter from Marty Glaberman — a central member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency and later the group Facing Reality — to Paolo Carpignano, a member of the Zerowork collective, contains several critiques of the theory and style of the articles in Zerowork #1 and Zerowork #2. Some of his theoretical critiques, e.g., of the treatment of "class", revealed some basic differences between the positions of those earlier groups and the one laid out in the two issues of Zerowork. Marty's own writings, especially those written for fellow workers, tended to be clear and devoid of Marxist jargon — although he was well acquainted with the theoretical innovations, e.g., the theory of state capitalism, that had led some of his comrades to break with their earlier Trotskyist connections. Despite these disagreements, Marty remained a good friend of those of us involved in the Zerowork collective.

December 28, 1977

Dear Paolo,

I had been hoping to write to you sooner and in some detail, but I keep having to put that off. So, rather than continuing to delay, I will write somewhat more briefly.

I have a number of problems with Zerowork (apart from details, some of which are bad and some of which are good). The first is a rather superficial attitude toward theory which has several aspects. A number of people associated with Zerowork were either in or familiar with the James-Johnson- Correspondence-Facing Reality tendency. It is a tendency, which, while small, had a certain significance, particularly in some of the areas with which Zerowork is/concerned. Yet I find a total absence of any knowledge of the tendency or the work it did over a period of 30 years. Some of the things that relate to this is what seems a considerable ambivalence to "Marxism" (which always seems to be in quotes). Marxism seems always to be identified with the worst states and movements in the world and yet there seems to be an unwillingness to come to grips with the subject. Is Zerowork Marxist, anti-Marxist, non-Marxist, unconcerned with the question???

Relating to this is a considerable lack of precision on the subject of class. When articles deal with the industrial proletariat of the industrialized nations, it doesn't matter. But in other areas a lot of nonsense creeps in. (On Vietnam, for example, peasants and proletarians are used interchangeably, which reduces a lot of what is said to superficial journalism.)

The slightest acquaintance with the James tendency (and others, such as the British IS) would make someone aware of the theory of state capitalism. Yet everyone who writes for Zerowork talks about the socialist countries, the achievement of socialism in Vietnam, as if the theory of state capitalism never existed. First, at this late date, it is totally pointless to go through that whole discussion again and argue with people about it. But, second, to pretend (or, even worse, believe) that it never existed displays a total lack of seriousness. And, third, this lack destroys the usefulness of much that appears in the journal because it takes the propaganda of the Communist parties of various kinds at face value — that is, it accepts their self-definition as socialist societies. It is nonsense to think that anything has been accomplished when you have proved that their "socialism" has not solved any of the problems of the working class.

There is a lot of revolutionary language about the working class. But much of it boils down to rhetoric, rather than substance, because there is no sense of a revolutionary working class struggle for power, to destroy this society and to create a new one. That derives from several factors. 1. The inability to distinguish between work under capitalism and work in any other society. 2. The strange insistence that the struggle is over money (the struggle for the wage, whatever that means). It would help if someone read State Capitalism and World Revolution where we demonstrated that it is the labor bureaucracy which seeks to substitute the struggle for money and fringe benefits for the struggle over the workplace. In any case, if the significance of working class struggle is more money and, hopefully, an end to work, how does the working class establish its control over society and the means of production? That is, what does the revolution consist of? And 3. The above lack of precision on the question of class.

The differences that stem from very different theoretical perceptions are so extensive that to prepare a critique of the two issues of Zerowork would involve producing a work several times the size of the journal. There is no point to that. That famous line in the first issue that people seemed to want to apologize for ('Our analysis of the crisis implies a rejection of the basic proposal of the Left: socialism.") no longer seems like an accident. If you accept the CP’s view of themselves as valid and if you have no view of the revolutionary process and the creation of a new society then that line begins to make a certain kind of sense. The alternative which Zerowork offers seems somewhat less than a clarion call: more money for less work.

What I see as the theoretical confusion of Zerowork is helped by two additional things. One is the tendency to create a jargon that is acceptable to the initiated and serves to distort the view of reality — the creation of special terms to replace perfectly reasonable terms that have long been in use. The second is the need to call everything a crisis without any empirical justification. If you are talking about the permanent crisis of capitalism, that is one thing. But if you are talking about special immediate crises, that has to be born out by reality. Zerowork authors have a tendency to call everything a crisis which sounds very revolutionary but, of course, leaves capitalism with a crisis that is very abstract.

There is, naturally, much that is useful in Zerowork, in the way of concrete information, etc. The level of theoretical confusion that I see, however, makes it difficult for me to see how the journal can be used concretely within the left.

I don't know whether this is the kind of criticism that you were looking for. I hope it is of some use to you.


Best wishes for the New Year.

From www.zerowork.org


Aug 10 2013 19:27

Glaberman mentions State Capitalism and World Revolution and the point he makes there is interesting, about substituting demands for wages instead of other issues. I believe Mario Tronti and maybe Negri as well wrote the opposite, in favor of wage demands and seeing them as much more politically important. If I'm right about that, it may have been one of the sources of this stuff in Zerowork as I think Zerowork was influenced by that stuff. That reminds me of this bit from Theorie Communiste: "the struggle 'for' (and even 'over': Negri) the wage, will never result in anything but the wage." (http://libcom.org/library/beyond-ultra-left-aufheben-11 that's the best bit of that piece IMHO)

Anyway, I found State Capitalism and World Revolution online here - http://www.scribd.com/doc/37315416/James-State-Capitalism-and-World-Revolution

I haven't read all of it but I found the bit about wage demands that I think Glaberman was referring to. It's on pages 40-42. I'd be very interested in hearing if people know of similar criticisms of struggles over money in particular.

In my opinion they write overly favorably about the strikes in the early days of the CIO. Still, the point is interesting. They write about those strikes that

“The workers would examine what they were told to do and then decide whether it was satisfactory to them or not. This rejection of the basis of capitalist economy is the preliminary basis of a socialist economy. (...) Because it was not and could not be carried through to a conclusion, the inevitable counterpart was the creation of a labor bureaucracy. The history of production since is the corruption of the bureaucracy and its transformation into an instrument of capitalist production, the restoration to the bourgeoisie of what it had lost in 1936, the right to control production standards. Without this mediating role of the bureaucracy, production in the United States would be violently and continuously disrupted until one class was undisputed master.”

The workers’ attempt at control was

“deflected by the bureaucracy, with the result that rationalization of produc­tion, speed up, intensification of exploitation are the order of the day in industry. The bureaucracy inevitably must substitute the struggle over consumption, higher wages, pensions, education , etc., for a struggle in production. This is the basis of the welfare state, the attempt to appease the workers with the fruits of labor when they seek satisfaction in the work itself.

The bureaucracy must raise a new social program in the realm of consumption because it cannot attack capitalism at the point of production without destroying capitalism itself. The series of pension plans which have now culminated in the five-year contract with General Motors is a very sharp climax of the whole struggle. This particular type of increase in consumption subordinates the workers to production in a special manner after they have reached a certain age. It con­ fines them to being an industrial reserve army, not merely at the disposal of capital in generalbut within the confining limits of the specific capitalist factory which employs them. The effect, therefore, is to reinforce control both of em­ ployers and bureaucracy over production. But along with this intensification of capitalist produc­tion and this binding of the worker for five years must go inevitably the increase of revolt, wildcat strikes, a desperate attempt of the working class to gain for itself conditions of labor that are denied to it both by the employers and the labor bureaucracy. While the bureaucracy provides the lead­ ership for struggles over consumption, it is from the workers on the line that emerges the initiative for struggles over speed up. That is precisely why the bureaucracy, after vainly trying to stop wildcat strikes by prohibiting them in the contract, has now taken upon itself the task of repressing by force this interruption of production. It expels from the unions work­ ers who indulge in these illegal stoppages, i.e., who protest against the present stage of capitalist production itself. The flying squads, originated by the union for struggle against the bourgeoisie, are now converted by the bureaucracy into a weapon of struggle against the proletariat, and all this in the name of a higher standard of living, greater consumption by the workers, but in reality to ensure capitalist production."

I don't want to get too far beyond the letter to Zerowork and what's referenced in it so I won't get into it in any detail here. But, I think these points could be really interesting in relation to SolFed/Fighting For Ourselves on the 'representative function' of unions and Gramsci on unions vs councils. I mean particularly the points here about bureaucracy and the substitution of wage-demands instead of demands for control/satisfaction/dignity.

Aug 11 2013 00:42

State Capitalism and World Revolution this was an early reading of mine in the 1970s. Someone had an old a battered copy of it. I've got a reprint edition somewhere.

Anyway, this document is instructive, but also written from a Trotskyist perspective. Not a criticism, but observation. And it was really a theory and set of observations which were in transition, in dvelopment. It was written some time around 1949/50. So critique of bureacracy and bureaucratic collectivist socialism ("state socialism") was not fully played out. The rise of the worst elements of CIO bureaucratic trade unionism was just almost uniformily consolidarited. The white workers rise in living standards and large scale shopfloor trade offs were just happening. The revolts of 1956 in Hungry, Poland or even 1953 East german rebillion had not hit the stage.

So there will prolly be gaps in the document. But it's a valued read.

EDIT: OK, 1950 --- http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/idb/swp-1946-59/db/n04-1950-db.pdf

Nate--- This book takes things in a certain way, but worth a look, if you've not done so already.
Marxism and Freedom: from 1776 Until Today (1958)by Raya Dunayevskaya.

Joseph Kay
Aug 11 2013 07:52

I think lots of the claims about demands tend to be quite absolute. Or rather, I think an explicitly relative approach is instructive:

E.g. in the kind of mass struggles you had in auto plants in the 1960s and 70s, I've no doubt that even double-digit pay deals were much more quantifiable and reconcilable with capitalist imperatives than more nebulous demands for control, autonomy, meaning, or outright refusal of work. So you could say in that context, wage demands were definitely a means to represent the struggle on terms amenable to capital, to mediate in a way which maintained the wage relation (and therefore, the position of the mediators).

But in most workplaces in the UK today, wages are falling and there's very little collective resistance. I think from that low base, it would be very heartening to see widespread strike action (esp if unofficial/self-organised), even if its demands were very modest inflation-linked pay claims or whatever). So from this low base of self-activity, certain kinds of wage struggle wouldn't necessarily have much to do with emergent bureaucratic inertia or representation.

Now in both cases, the result of wage claims is the continuance of the wage system. So in that sense, TC are right. But i fear it's a trivial correctness - what matters more is the direction of movement. From a low base, these things could be encouraging developments. From a situation like the 1960s/70s industrial insurgency, wage claims were a way to tame and mediate the movement. But imho it's the movement that matters.

That's also where I'd take issue with the TC point - even the most boring wage struggle *always* results in *something* more. If it's a bureaucratically stage-managed one day symbolic strike, it could result in demoralisation, disillusionment etc. If it's self-organised, wildcat action which scares the shit out of the bosses it could result in strengthened solidarity, confidence, organisation etc. And there's lots of permutations in between those two poles. All this is less visible and much harder to analyse, but is far more important than the demands themselves imho.

Aug 12 2013 04:22

JK, I agree on all counts. That said, I like the point about wages substituting for other kinds of struggles if reformulated something like this. What we fight over collectively creates tendencies in how we interact, in the sense that it makes us more likely to discuss some things and less likely to discuss other things. That doesn't mean there's a single best or worst thing to fight over. It means that when we're able to select among things to fight over there are probly criteria that should enter into those decisions, criteria that aren't obvious and are easy to skip and are probly specific to our being radicals etc. Does that make any sense?