Practicing Proletarian Reason

Submitted by libcom on July 27, 2005

Practicing Proletarian Reason
On seniority and labor's emancipation

Editor's note

As the 1960s "Freedom Now!" struggles against racism and segregation continued into the 1970s fights against discrimination in hiring and union representation, union bureaucrats and even left labor activists limited the given choices to either supporting Black and women workers' rights or supporting seniority rights. Raya Dunayevskaya, in a letter to autoworker and colleague Felix Martin in 1975, posed a more total view of the issue of seniority in relationship to liberation.

This letter is part of a new pamphlet by News & Letters which contains writings by Felix Martin (Isaac Woods), columnist and Labor Editor of NEWS & LETTERS for 27 years until his death last year. It represents a lifetime of work, revolt, and thinking as well as NEWS & LETTERS' uniqueness as a newspaper uniting workers and intellectuals. To order a copy, see the ad at the end.

The letter has been prepared for publication here and will be included in the SUPPLEMENT TO THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, July 25, 1975.

Dear Isaac,

Permit me to say a few historic-philosophic things on the question of seniority precisely at the time we have no definitive position on the question because...not only must all aspects be considered as a totality, but also there is then greater objectivity than at a point when one "must" take a position.

Marx, from the very start of being a revolutionary, declared, "The proletariat is revolutionary, or nothing." He said so not only because he was so set on spontaneity and what he called "the self-organization of the proletariat," but because, again from the very beginning, he considered the proletariat not only as revolutionary force, but as Reason. Thus in the 1844 Silesian weavers' strike-as against Lassalle and all other socialists, communists, Left Hegelians, and whatnot that were opposing Prussia, but who called for themselves, the intellectuals, to be elected to parliament and speak "for" workers and thus both avoid their "anarchy" and rioting and breaking up machines and other "backward" features-Marx insisted that they, those poor, supposedly backward masses, were in advance of the great 1789-1793 French Revolution.

He said so because (1) "the reason of these poor Germans were in inverse ratio to poor Germany." In a word, whereas "poor Germany," though they had reached the height of philosophy with Hegel, were only talking of dialectics, change, transcendence, the "poor German masses" were acting, doing it. (2) It may not be good to break up machines-and workers will surely learn otherwise once they see machinery helping them produce instead of throwing them out of work-but in action, that is in fact, machines do "represent" the bourgeoisie and all "truth is concrete." (3) And, moreover, they are nowhere backward as compared to the intellectuals. For...they found the deeds to the machines and made a bonfire of these.

So they are not just against machinery but private property, and even the French Revolution had not gone that far in overthrowing feudalism; private property remained, only this time belonging not to the lords, but to the capitalists, whereupon the opposition between haves and have-nots had grown to open contradiction, [that of] capitalists/workers, with this overwhelming advantage: the have-nots are now united by the very method of production with hundreds, thousands in a single factory-the revolutionary force, the gravediggers of this society which "produces" them.

By the time Marx was involved, first in actual revolutions-1848-and in all sorts of daily activities-unions, women's struggles, against child labor, national struggles be it in Poland or by slaves for freedom in USA-just as class struggle was the first and remaining major contradiction, the concrete now became internationalism. The International Workingmen's Association was established against blacklegging [scabbing], against slavery, against Tsarism in Poland especially, and against Bonapartism in France, but the overwhelming majority were English trade unionists. Yet the minute the Paris Commune burst forth-and many British trade unionists said they joined for international labor solidarity, not for proletarian revolution-he hesitated not one moment to discount their membership, and placed [ahead of them the] Paris Communards who never had belonged to the IWA.

Not only that-and this is most applicable to our day on the question of seniority vs. affirmative action and visa versa-just as in the 1850s after defeats of proletarian revolutions of 1848 and "bourgeoisification" of the proletariat in Great Britain because it was the empire then and Marx demanded "going lower and deeper," so in 1871, when trade unions said they were the masses and IWA was small, Marx concretized that "going deeper and lower" as the International appealing to the masses, whom the trade unions didn't know how to touch: unskilled workers, East side of London Jewish ghettoes, peasants newly arrived in cities, women.

None in the Second International, even when it was still revolutionary and all Marxists belonged to it, grasped that "lower and deeper." The only one who organized the unskilled and women before [there was] the Second International was Marx's daughter Eleanor, and precisely where Marx pointed to-East London gas workers and women. It took nothing short of outright betrayal in 1914 before ever Lenin "discovered" "going lower and deeper," though he must have read [Marx] dozens of times before...

When he did "discover" [this he] said, "Never again with the Second International." STATE AND REVOLUTION came next, but when the Russian Revolution of 1917 did succeed, what happened to the trade unions?

Because there was no national trade union in Russia before 1917, three different organizations arose spontaneously: trade unions became national, but meanwhile shop committees at the point of production, and soviets were organized. Three different focal points were too much, but when Lenin started out for "single" rule, it was not at all what anarchists claim, that it was either political or trade union monolithism, but [rather] workers must chose one. Yet at once arose both the "right"-Trotsky insisting that trade unions be incorporated into state "since it was a workers' state already"-and the "left"-not only anarchists, but Bolshevik Shlyapnikov saying there should be no political party, calling for a "workers' congress." That sounded great except if you looked at Kronstadt which broke out at once, not to mention world capitalism and the remaining White Guards in Russia. In any case...Lenin insisted the only [way] the workers' state can be sure of remaining is if workers have the right to criticize, and if they are permitted other forms of organization, and if they are not incorporated into the state.

When we get to the American scene in the 1920s, we find that we Bolsheviks couldn't for the life of us see that either the damned American Federation of Labor would ever organize the unorganized, or the Blacks would be permitted in anywhere. So we organized the American Negro Labor Congress, the Trade Union Educational League, women workers in isolated places but especially garment and textiles. But after many years of struggle and failures, from below did arise the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By "from below" I do not mean out of nowhere because we certainly were there too, but from within and outside at one and the same time...

Presently, both Blacks and women find they have very little chance of getting in, not only because of labor bureaucracy, but, most tragically, the rank and file likewise do not recognize any value in "affirmative action." Believe me, no one in the movement is unaware of how long it took to get seniority, nor its absolute indispensability as against the boss who can otherwise fight at will. At the same time we cannot use just the past and old arguments since the opponents this time are not bosses but "lower and deeper layers." We also know the bosses would nevertheless use that against workers, even as they use the Equal Rights Amendment against working women who fought hard to win the rights. But here, too, we always defend the gains and demand proletarian women be consulted for working out any ERA on the basis of men too gaining the rights, not on basis of giving up rights. With seniority, instead of at once running to a "conclusion" and line, let's keep all avenues open, maintain dialogue with those excluded, or more precisely first hired, first fired.