Appendix 2: on workerism and economism

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The October 2013 report on the class struggle developed more on the question of economism and workerism, which have retained a heavy weight in the proletarian movement and the ICC itself, and require further in-depth analysis integrating in particular the analysis of Lenin in What Is To Be Done. We reprint here the section of the 2013 report dealing with this issue: as with the rest of the report, this was not widely discussed in the ICC at the time.

"Workerism and economism, which have been posed in a new light by the break-up of the old industrial sectors in the central economies. The combat against these ideologies has a long history. Workerism tends to separate the industrial workers from other components of the class, glorifying the former and arguing that theirs is the only true class struggle. Economism, which is usually closely linked to workerism, puts its emphasis on the day to day ‘economic’ struggle and underestimates the political dimension of the class movement. Both tend to be hostile to the revolutionary political organisation, and above all to the theoretical aspect of its activity, much preferring to focus on the ‘immediate’ and the ‘practical’ questions of the struggle than on its historical dimension and above all on its ultimate goals. Already in the times of the Communist League, the ‘intellectual’ Marx had to battle against the prejudices of those who saw themselves as ‘pure’ working men who favoured action over reflection.

These arguments would resurface in a more sinister way in the demagogy of the social democrats who used them to prevent revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg intervening in the workers’ councils during the German revolution. It was above all Lenin in What is to be Done who provides us with the most thorough critique of economism as a form of opportunism, and who insisted that the class struggle could only be grasped as both an economic and a political movement (to which Rosa Luxemburg added: and a great cultural movement as well). But these ideologies have proved remarkably persistent, and are a potent force for blocking and even destroying revolutionary energies. Two examples: workerist prejudices, the perceived divide between the ‘real workers’ of the Workers Voice group in Liverpool and the ‘petty bourgeois types’ who formed the ICC’s section in Britain were a factor in undermining the efforts at regroupment in Britain in the early 70s. More recently, the strength of these old mystifications can be seen in the revival of anarcho-syndicalist currents who argue that we should go beyond the divide between political and economic organisation and fuse the two elements in a ‘revolutionary union’ which can concentrate on ‘workplace organising’ around immediate economic demands. But we can also detect these influences in certain analyses of the ‘social revolts’ which have been put forward within the left communist milieu (ICT, Devrim, but also within the ICC). The underlying emphasis of these analyses is to see all the movements of the past two years as ‘cross class’ or ‘inter-classist ’movements, and to identify strikes as the only ‘real’ class struggle (cf. the recent headline over an ICT article about the miners’ strikes in South Africa: ‘This is class war’ – as though other expressions of struggle were not). From a more obviously bourgeois standpoint of course there is also the ideological mystification which holds that the revolts in Spain, Brazil, Turkey etc are movements of the ‘middle class’.

In the phase of decomposition the employed sector of the working class certainly remains a crucial element in the development of a radical class movement; resistance, strikes and self-organisation beginning at the workplace will make an indispensable contribution to the growing capacity of the working class to sense its own power in society. But given the enormous weight of precarious working and permanent unemployment, the ‘real movement’ of today’s proletariat has no choice but to draw in those vast masses who are more or less excluded from the workplace: this is already the key to understanding why the principal social revolts of the last two years belong to the proletariat. As we said some time ago in our theses on unemployment, the unemployed may have lost the workplace, but they have gained the street.

There is another aspect to this problem which eludes an analysis limited by workerist spectacles. To a far greater extent than in the period 1968-89, the proletarian character of a movement, and its prospects of evolution, will be shown less in its sociological or economic character and more in its political character, in the extent to which ‘theory has gripped the masses’, in its capacity to locate the immediate struggle in the perspective of the revolution and communism. We can see this reflected in the question of demands. The outbreak of the movement in Turkey, for example, began around the defence of a small area of green in Istanbul, threatened by the insensate urban development projects which characterise a large part of the ‘growth’ of capitalist economies today. This was not at all the only factor in the explosion of the movement – the repression the state doled out to the original protesters was probably a far more potent element. But behind the concern for a small plot of green is the growing awareness of the ecological question, the dawning realisation that capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable interchange between humanity and nature. This kind of reaction is very different from the struggles of the 68-89 period, where there was a much wider divorce between ‘class issues’ (mainly economic demands) and largely petty bourgeois campaigns about the environment. It is a step towards the proletariat becoming what Lenin referred to as a tribune for humanity. We can see a similar development around the problem of violence against women and other ‘social’ questions".

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