How Should Revolutionaries Intervene in the Class Struggle?
The following text was written by a young militant who has been in discussion the ICC for some months now and participated in the Days of Discussion conference last spring (see Internationalism 151, "North American Political Milieu: Days of Discussion Conference"). The text describes the author's efforts to grapple with complex issues pertaining to the union question and the intervention of revolutionaries in the struggle. We think this an extremely important documentation of the process by which new revolutionary militants develop political understanding, familiarize themselves with the theoretical acquisitions of the workers movement, attempt to seek out a collective framework to find the link between theory and practice, and to reflect on their experiences. We salute the combative spirit of the comrade, his commitment to the working class, his political honesty and selfreflection, his materialist method, and in particular his willingness to share his experience with others.
Ever since the "financial" crisis (really a crisis of the palliatives applied to the longer term crisis of overproduction) came out into the open last fall, I've been struggling to try to contribute to helping the working class fight back against the attacks of capitalism in crisis. I had been interested in "revolutionary" politics and theory for about 5 or 6 years ever since I finished college, starting with anarchism, then after a brief flirtation with situationsim, becoming interested in left communism. Up until that point my knowledge of revolutionary politics was entirely theoretical and academic-I had engaged in online discussions with anarchists, trotskyists and one self-described "council communist," and was a regular reader of Loren Goldner's website, the trotskyist World Socialist Website, and your and the IBRP's sites. What initially attracted me to left communism was the left communists' understanding of the Russian Revolution's degeneration and emphasis on the activity of workers themselves in the revolution-historically, I was "on the side" of the lefts in the Comintern (Luxemburg and the KAPD were "right" and Lenin was "wrong"), but because of the absence of a revolutionary situation right now in the 21st Century, I did not have a clear idea of what the correct approach for communists to take in the present period would be. I also was somewhat put off by what I perceived as the left communists' "impractical" lack of "activism." I had no idea what left communists actually did, besides what I perceived as arguing too much about small differences, but I thought they had a correct analysis of many questions (support for "workers' states," nationalism, the Russian question).
As the crisis began I got in touch with some Trotskyists and anarchists in my city and began discussions with them about what to do as a communist and how they conceived of their role in the class struggle. At the same time, I was voraciously reading libcom.org for ideas about class struggle and criticism of Trotskyism and the transitional program specifically. I had literally no militant experience at all and was trying to understand how, as a communist, I was to relate to the rest of the working class and contribute to the advancement of class consciousness, especially now that the crisis had come out into the open. About a month later, I contacted Internationalism and began discussing with them. Around the same time, the city agency I'd been working at for only 1 month announced that due to a $1 million budget gap, they would be laying off 71 employees and drastically scaling back services to residents. Since I was so new (still on my probationary period) I was told (by union stewards and most other workers) to update my resume and call my former employer to beg for my old job. I contacted a citizens' group to save city services, and also began talking extensively with Internationalism about what I could do to intervene in this issue, often in very immediate terms-should I join the citizens' group and try to push it towards working class positions? How would left communists intervene here? etc. My main concern again was how do revolutionaries intervene in the class struggle and what is their role?
Discussing things like the Trotskyist transitional program, reading the ICC's incredibly lucid book, Communist Organizations and Class Consciousness, and attending the Days of Discussion in April all gave me a much clearer picture of how the ICC conceived of intervention in the class struggle. I agreed very much with the general approach taken by the ICC, but still thought they had a somewhat extreme position on some things especially on the unions and working in "community based" activist groups. I continued to read the ICC's texts, especially about the revolutionary nature of the working class, and I also read Herman Gorter's defense of the left in the ComIntern. As a fight for a new pension and talk of a potential strike came onto the, I again began talking to the ICC, and also posted a thread on libcom.org, about how to convince people to stick together and also to take decisions in their own hands. Initially I thought the main thing for me to stress as a communist was for workers of different unions to stick together, so I went to a union meeting to ask if we were coordinating our contract negotiations with those of other city-workers in other unions.
I didn't say much at the union meeting because it began with a motion from the people who were crowded in the staircase, and couldn't see or hear anything, to adjourn until we could get a bigger meeting place. The president of the local quickly and dismissively took a vote and only counted the front rows, angering the people in the back and causing a big demoralizing shouting match. The format of the meeting was not one of discussion but of monologue. The only people who got to talk were people who were prepared to yell and I had thought I would be able to say all my ideas and have them discussed. I was disoriented by the president's writing off of the people who were in the back and I honestly don't think I intervened in a positive way at all-I only asked if a meeting between both memberships would be possible and they said "maybe," and I didn't have a response. I was, however, able to do was talk with coworkers face to face before and after the meeting about their frustrations with the unions-their inaction, their blaming this inaction on the members' lack of militancy/loyalty (the same in their eyes), as well as the co-opting militant workers into committees and steward roles.
Talking with Internationalism, they stressed the importance of not taking an immediatist attitude towards this struggle in trying to propose things that are way beyond where people are, or getting myself victimized for any exemplary actions. The most important thing, they said, was that people begin to discuss what's going on and what they can do about it-that they identify as workers under attack and try to independently discuss as workers what to do about it. This would be the best guarantee for any kind of real class struggle or political reflection or move toward class consciousness in the whole struggle.
The next week there was a rally planned with 4 unions: 2 city-worker unions, the transit workers for the regional transit authority, and an SEIU union with workers in the public schools. The rally began with various democrats running for city and state government denouncing the current administration from a stage, followed by speeches from each union president, answered by each union chanting its local number. After being told that the official rally was over, "but some folks are going to march around city hall" (which is in the center of a roundabout in the middle of downtown), most people started marching on the sidewalk around it, but then just stood in the road and took the street corner, chanting "no contract, no peace" and "shut it down." I don't think this was sanctioned by any of the union leadership I think the workers just did it and then other people followed suit. After about 15 minutes in one of the busiest intersections downtown, we marched around city hall again, this time in the street (although by this time the police had blocked off the streets for us) with the same chants. After once around everyone met up at the corner of city hall and was addressed by some men in suits who I later found out were union officials. Their basic message was "it's good you came out for this rally even though there was such short notice--you need to do that even moreso in the future, whatever the union president says, you do-we say ‘jump,' you say, ‘how high?'" Despite the fact that the blocking of the street wasn't their decision, they still chose to use their time to hammer home their message that the union membership can't know about any planned job actions in advance and just needs to wait and listen to the union leaders.
After all this, I realized that if I wanted to "ever act or speak in such a way that the class consciousness of the workers shall be roused and strengthened" (Herman Gorter, Open Letter to Cde. Lenin, 1920), I would need a clearer analysis of the unions and try to encourage workers to discuss and decide things on their own. Further meetings called by the union have been nothing more than monologues from these same suit-wearing union officials, and one other march, but in both cases workers either sit and listen to a sermon from the union, or just march in line--and they have no control of the struggle. Recently, the mayor has threatened to lay off 3000 of us and close down entire city departments unless the state legislature passes a regressive tax for the city to fill the budget gap, so the union has told us to call our representatives and urge them to pass this, and to remove from it punitive pension-related amendments. None of this action is done as workers, though--it is only as "citizens" begging their representatives. Like the sermons on obedience, the calling of meetings in small halls during the workday with little notification, and all the other actions of the union, it pre-empts, and in a way prevents the independent and conscious action of the workers.
Workers are for the most part feeling threatened and a good number are eager to struggle (many of the "professionals" are not as eager), but the unions only tell us to wait for them-you could say they serve to abort class consciousness before it is born, or that they act as a contraceptive to class consciousness. I'm not certain that I share all of the ICC's positions on the unions, but I certainly see the necessity for stressing rank-and-file control of the strike and not trying to work within the union, except to speak to members about the need for discussion during the meetings (which is often not really possible, because there is no discussion during the meetings). I've tried to read more about the theoretical underpinnings of the ICC's position on unions and am beginning to move closer to their position--especially seeing that the unions, as permanent, legal organs, are basically not allowed to suggest or even condone most forms of struggle that might actually push back the bosses' attacks (solidarity strikes, mass protests that really disrupt things, etc.). The unions cannot really act as an instrument for workers struggling as an independent class. They also tend to demoralize people and drastically reduce their willingness to fight, by roping them into ineffective actions that affirm neither their common situation with other workers or their potential power as a class, but only make them feel powerless. Many of my coworkers are just plain tired of being told to do things by the union that don't work and would rather give in than to struggle the way the union is proposing. Workers are now suggesting taking furloughs and other givebacks, partly I think because all their frustration was channeled into things that didn't work-the best paid are ready to give back and the worst paid want to fight but don't see the point because all they can conceive of is the union-led fight. This is an essential point about the class struggle requiring active self-conscious and self-confident fighters-if the workers are to be steadfast, they will need to understand deeply what they are doing and why they must be actively engaged in it if they are to resist bourgeois propaganda.
Another event served in helping me make a break with leftism last year: I attended a protest to close a video-game based army recruiting center for minors and children. At this rally were a number of Trotskyist, Maoist, liberal, and Christian front groups and across the street was a right-wing counter-protestor with a megaphone elaborating all the connections these groups had to the worst sorts of dictators and nationalist movements, and the whole protest was geared toward liberals, NOT workers. Nothing the protest was about went directly to anything specific about capitalism, but only a war which was conceived of as an aberration. This can in no way increase either the self-consciousness OR the self-confidence of the working class as a class. These kinds of "demands" don't emanate from the proletariat as an exploited and revolutionary class in capitalism but from the minds of idealists-this kind of struggle is not materialist and it seeks to chain the proletariat to causes and concerns based on general human abstract ahistorical and classless morality. What is revolutionary about the working class, especially in a system that is in permanent crisis, is the fact that it cannot "escape" exploitation-it can only fight exploitation directly by resisting increased exploitation until it is strong enough to go on the offensive and abolish exploitation. Every defensive "economic" struggle of the working class fights exploitation head on--workers are exploited de facto by competition, and THE way they fight that is by uniting against competition, against "competitiveness" and the sacrifices demanded by private production for exchange to say "no layoffs, no cuts, no nothing" and in doing so, they confront exploitation head on and attack the very heart of the system. They can't run, they can't hide, they MUST fight. Marx asserted, "theory is only realized in the masses to the extent that it is a realization of their needs." What makes the working class revolutionary is only the consciousness of itself and its real material historical interests. This is precisely what is ignored in substitutionist conceptions--by directing attention toward political concerns (especially in a reformist sense), rather than beginning with the economic struggle which inevitably becomes political, these groups serve as the left-wing of capital, whether that is their intention or not.
While I still have many questions about the exact nature of the unions I'm certain that they don't help workers become more self-conscious, more self-confident, and more unified as a class, and they specifically derail the independent action of workers that could actually beat back attacks on their living standards by channeling them into ineffective, divisive, classless, unconscious action.
I'm trying to clarify and deepen my understanding of the union question as well as the importance of the revolutionary minority, and deepen more and more my understanding of how to intervene in class struggle. As Communist Organizations and Class Consciousness says,
"Far from following passively the flux and reflux of their class' struggles, the communists' role is to organize themselves so as to accelerate the revolutionary tendencies smouldering within these struggles. ...once revolutionaries have understood the bankruptcy of an old political system, of a previous organizational form and political practice, their responsibility is not to wait until the rest of the workers have caught up before organizing themselves on a clear basis and putting forward a perspective for the struggle. ...how is the proletariat as a whole to become aware of the death of these old forms of organization and of the bankruptcy of past political positions if its most conscious elements themselves hesitate to say that they are dead and to propose a new orientation?"
I want to clarify my understanding of the unions and deepen my conviction about exactly how revolutionaries and workers should relate to them, so I can present a clearer vision and not hesitate to try and push the workers' consciousness forward. What the working class needs above all at this moment in history is to gain confidence in its own strength, not in the strength of union-hacks to bargain above their heads or in the legal methods of struggle they prescribe, but confidence in themselves and consciousness of themselves as an exploited but revolutionary class-a class without whose labor the world stops turning.
J Jogiches 9/15/09