A New Workers Movement in the US

A New Workers Movement in the US: A proposal for a refoundation through the intermediate level
By Scott Nappalos

It’s a tired truism that the workers movement in the US is floundering without a real base or path forward. A new generation of experimentation, struggle, and militants emerged from the ashes of the union’s most recent collaborationist strategy of labor-management partnership, contractualism, and labor’s historical parochialism of our-jobs-for-us. Workers centers, alternative unions, covert independent organizing, networks within corporations, and rank-and-file direct action tendencies within unions have arisen to try and build a new workers movement from the ground up. There have been attempts to unite independent unions, build new ones, link up with existing militant unions overseas and collaborate, and to drive a militant direct action class struggle line within the organizing unions. Many, if not most, of these tactics have been pursued in the past, and have met some gains with some broader limitations. At this time, the promised new workers movement has failed to arise.

There are objective reasons for these hurdles. The economy itself, and the uncertainty a seemingly endless period of austerity brings, has sewn the seeds of trying to keep one’s job come-what-may rather than open defiance and resistance (with some notable counterexamples). This is in keeping with previous trends, such as in the Great Depression when the real renaissance of workers’ struggle arose only as the economy began to improve in the mid 30s, rather than in the throws of the worst. Likewise, there is little recent experience in building, maintaining, recruiting, and spreading leadership within a militant workers movement. For years a staff-driven service model has been the dominant model of unionism, where the union is closer to a gym membership than an organizational unity for struggle on working class interests. Fewer and fewer workers have any experience with unions, and large geographical sections of the country are dead-zones to unions, with only the public sector representing any serious union presence.

At the same time, the transformation and recomposition of the US working class has created new sites of struggle and new protagonists. Labor struggles, sabotage, absenteeism, and a broad resistance to work by the working class in the industrialized economies of the 1960s and 1970s ruptured the social welfare and labor system that guaranteed profits and reigned in worker resistance for decades. In the 3rd world anti-colonial struggles further threatened capitalist industry, and it’s reliance on the 3rd world for labor, markets, and extraction of resources. These struggles forced a reorganization of industry, the work process, and the working class itself. The fordist assembly line was disassembled. Using container shipping technology, global shipping, and further mechanization, the work process was decentralized. The mass work places were often broken up into smaller units or displaced over seas. There was a huge shift to vertically integrate, merge, and bring forward a service industry as the store-front of a global production regime. All this was fueled by increased credit, financial engineering, and austerity dismantling the unions and social welfare state wherever possible, both through outright assaults, plant closures, and also through economic and policy planning by the various state and inter-state agencies.

The game hasn’t changed, but these economic shifts have the climate for organizing, and placed barriers to traditional union organizing established in the 1950s onward. We are not dealing with fundamentally new dynamics, despite what is fashionable to argue today. Workplace organizing has certain fundamentals that do not vary merely with smaller workplaces, laws regulating recognition, etc. At the same time, we have lost much of that history and collective experience, and indeed the working class organizing and to be organized in many cases is different communities. Significant sections of the US working class once organized have been thrown into permanent unemployment and despair, virtually removed from the work process through the closing of logging, production, and the shutting out of black and white labor who demonstrated militancy and power over capital. Immigration, the proletarianization of increasingly large sections of the former middle class, the rise of the prison industry recuperating the lost labor of the permanently unemployed, and an economy based on a crumbling financial base is changing the face of the American worker.

The AFL-CIO/CtW unions have generally not been able to rise to the occasion, except with sweetheart deals for employers, weak paper organizations, or using the union as a vehicle for lobbying and rallying members behind the Democratic Party. Increased precarity, immigrant labor, independent contracting, and austerity has undermined the labor-peace period that built the present unions. It is primarily independent militants who have attempted to organize to meet these challenges, with the largest unions going after the lowest hanging fruit in the public sector, health care, education, and in already highly unionized regions of the country.

This is not a matter of a “new epoch” so much as it is capital’s strategy outpacing the institutionalized form of the workers movement. Some fetishize the idea of newness, but ultimately it is less a matter of fundamental changes to the ABCs of organizing as it is a matter of the orientation, direction, and composition of the movement. This makes the emergence of a new strategy and new movement imperative. This situation has privileged experimentation. What we see is less a movement, and more dispersed attempts at reinventing organizations which are proclaimed to be the movement. A movement however is a historical moment and process, and organizations can come to represent that history, but are never identical.

The workers movement presently should be judged based on the quality of its worker-militants who are building it on the shop floor. The NGOs and unions have institutionalized the left, and have siphoned off significant sections of the left as opposed even to recent history where militants stayed workers on the shop floor building a movement and developing leaders out of the working class. Numerically staff may not represent a majority of the movement, but the ideological leadership, energy, and direction of the movement has been institutionalized. The bureaucratization of the left, through the unions and grant funding, has drained much of the pool of energetic and inspired leadership that may have built movements. Generally speaking the pool of shop-floor militants committed to fighting exploitation as such and building a movement in workers’ interests, rather than merely changing the conditions and following the unions line on electing more liberals (or conservatives), is relatively small, sparse, and scattered. Moreover, there is not much crossover or interaction between militants spread out in the different organizing projects whether inside existing unions, in alternative unions, workers centers, or independent organizing. While many are active in trying to build the new organization, the base for such a movement is presently lacking.

There is another possibility though to build a new workers movement beyond merely trying to build a particular organization, none of which presently have the strength, clarity, or breadth to initiate such a movement at this time. Militants linked in an organization dedicated to building a cross-organizational workers movement itself opens up a possibility for coordinated activity and organizational unity against the capitalist offensive in this crisis and future ones. Such an organization is an intermediate organization, an organization with a clear strategy and agenda for a workers movement that is more united than a union say, where everyone may join just to better their work. Such an intermediate organization could bring together the best organizers to preserve the lessons of struggles, test and develop strategies, and develop leadership that might otherwise be isolated. By uniting under a program of building a direct-action class-struggle worker-run movement, militants from organizations that otherwise would not interact could come to struggle together. Ultimately we want a unification of this movement, but at the present we can only recognize experimentation and a plurality of organizational attempts will be necessary.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, various workers organizations began to push for a new workers movement based on class unity, direct action, revolutionary class struggle, and an end to sectarian electioneering by the socialist parties. Militant unions, revolutionary groupings, and tendencies within existing craft unions began to build a network for such a movement. Meetings, congresses, and publications were developed, and in 1905 this work culminated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World out of this network.

We have it backwards. People are trying to be the IWW today. Whether wobblies, lefty staffers in the UE, worker centers, etc.; the strategy is a field of dreams. If we build the organization, the workers will come. Without building unity first, developing strategy, building bases, and actively constructing a basis for a movement, we will find it difficult to build a lasting base. Movements are not outside history, but find their strategy and ideology in the lessons of struggle and history they carry. The IWW did not emerge spontaneously, or out of a series of articles and arguments, but as a concrete solution to existing problems and lessons in the experiences of a tendency in the working class. This is in opposition to rather merely inventing a basis intellectually as many do, or rather than trying to just impose one from a particular moment in history outside of the recent experience of the working class as the some in the present IWW and labor movement attempt to do. Presently, these experiences do not exist in the recent memory of the North American working class. We have a different challenge from the militants who were in the IWW, CIO, TUEL, or whatever, and likewise need a different strategy and orientation to movement building; an orientation based not on a union, but on intermediate organization.

Our path to build a new workers movement is through unifying militants under this aim in an intermediate organization, base building through class struggle and liberatory education, and a unification of autonomous organizing through collective experimentation. We should be the movement to reinvent the workers movement, rather than assuming we already are and trying to sign people up on a dream.

At present, any unification of militants though is premature if it is not preceded by a stable base building of militants in intermediate organizations in various locales. This strategy must be a goal, and not a first step, as without roots in collective experience in struggle, testing and re-testing these ideas, it is likely to deviate into an intellectual exercise or a paper organization. The experimentation in the workers movement that brought these concepts to light have not yield their foundation, organizations of militants. Our task then is to consolidate these gains and lessons, and build the blocks of the future intermediate organization.

21 Responses to “A New Workers Movement in the US”

  1. Frank Edgewick Says:

    An interesting article and definitely in a direction I can get behind. I have a question that is a little out of place, but since you mention it twice, I have to ask. Aside from geographically limiting organising, what problems do you see with the strategy of density pursued by SEIU and UNITE HERE? I have seen some of UH’s numbers comparing densities and wages and the data is pretty compelling. Also, as you say, it is a question of low hanging fruit. UH seems to have the strategy of maximising density and then branching into new centres to be densified (?) in order to use resources most effectively. Obviously this strategic need is based on their use of paid organisers with a limited reach and high overhead, but in terms of what they do, it seems pretty solid. Transformative work is transformative work no? Obviously, the model of the worker centres and the IWW with their emphasis on unpaid organisers in the locale means they can do great work in low density zones, but from the point of intermediate organisation, isn’t the strategy of density complementary?

  2. hi Frank, thanks for your comment. Can you connect the dots further for me about how density compliments intermediate organization? I take your point that transformative work is transformative work. I know there’s a link between transformative work vs work that changes the balance of power, but I’m not super clear on what that link is beyond “losses make it hard to gain/retain organizers.” I tend to think of intermediate organization as more about orienting toward transformation and density makes me think about balance of power.
    take care,

  3. If I hear you right Frank, I think that’s true. In a way, the site and form of the transformative work is not the issue. That’s a common and important mistake to note.

    As I’ve understood it, the density strategy is about targeting industries and particularly mass workplaces (>1000 employees) in order to garner the bargaining power necessary to (eventually) be able to negotiate industry standards. SEIU’s Justice for Janitors is based off that model. Sections of the IWW have put forward something resembling this, but through building networks of organizers (developed through shopfloor grievance fights that are often not openly union) across an industry, until a density of organizers and experience in struggle exists that would allow for targeting of businesses and imposing industry standards.

    Whatever could be said about the strategy, it’s preliminary since it’s never been achieved, and the J4J campaign has a number of well-known cases where the janitors tried to fight the union because significant gains promised were never really achieved. It could take even a decade to see how it will play out on the terms SEIU lays out, though I think there’s already evidence that it’s not working (workers can only “take one for the team” so long until they break ranks). Beside’s that, the strategy of backroom negotiations for quick recognition in exchange for weak agreements clearly minimizes the amount of struggle and transformation possible in such organizing efforts.

    But I take it you mean that we could do that work in such density environments? If so I agree. An organized force inside or outside the unions acting independently at the intermediate level could focus on the struggles and political work that raises consciousness dynamically.

    The political element is that consciousness in struggle is not a matter of scale, site of struggle, form, or even strategy. It’s about the relations of workers to workers, their fights, and how their ideas evolve alongside their collective process. Business unions typically try to channel collective energy into legalistic channels and periodic shows of force which can be demobilizing in terms of consciousness. Revolutionaries need to focus on the collective fights and keeping the gains and organizers across the ebb and flow of struggle, these are things which are sometimes parallel with the SEIU strategy, but often running opposite to it.

  4. I think for me we would need to unpack what we mean by density. Density is something we are all behind right? By density we mean a strong union presence across an industry. The problem is there are two ways of measuring this, one is the number of stewards and activists on the floor fighting the boss and the other is by legal representation. Legal representation can mask a total absence of any union at all, and this is the criteria by which most unions measure ‘density’ the number of shops for which they have legal bargaining rights. You need some basic movement to get representation but the bar for keeping it is incredibly low.

    So now consider SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, I haven’t heard any examples of back room deals up here in Canada but the strategy is pretty interesting still from a perspective of density. Basically in order to avoid the pit-falls of LRB elections they are making a strategic decision to bully them in public into legal ‘voluntary recognition’. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this tactic given their goals are legally enforceable industry standards. However a struggle in the media for legal standards get the goods but I don’t think it is going to be very empowering. I don’t mean this as a slight against SEIU, I think they are doing what they do on a level we can only dream of right now but developing rank and file leadership that stays on the job is not one of their stated goals. But it’s pretty clear that for them density is first and foremost based on a legal status and for us it is based on activity. This means the two can work together but I think we all agree that the means by which legal status is maintained undermines rank and file activity.

  5. […] was posted to recompositions here. It actually was a rough draft, but it’s probably better to get it out when I’m not […]

  6. don’t know if anyone will see this.

    i like this idea but it seems to me that it is super general, not even mentioning what are attempts to do this through existing forums like Labor Notes, the Excluded Workers Congress, the network of workers centers nationally, the national day labors network, the class struggle anarchist conference, and so on (the limits of my language are the limits of my world).

    moreover, it seems to me that the primary form of connecting in the present is going to be based on relationships–much easier now then in the past to develop–and on building a critical mass behind a core of projects where this type of inter-organizational collaboration is productive.

    where are there efforts already being made? the food chain workers alliance seems like a good place to think about, and as far as i know the CIW is doing the best work of anyone in the country at present. also some sort of dual card organizing seems possible here, specifically if it had to do with issues that go beyond narrow workplace concerns–education, patient safety, etc, etc.

    love to y’all.

  7. oh, just getting follow up comments if they appear. db

  8. Thank for this, it is very thought provoking. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by base building?

    I am a new organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network and feel relatively new to these sort of politics you all seem to be into… I like them though. I was drawn to SeaSol when I recognized that tons of people don’t and are not radicalized by words – written or spoken. Solid experiences obviously radicalize people so much more, and as such I feel each fight we engage in SeaSol is an education in and of itself: demonstrating to a demoralized and atomized public that people can change their situation through collective action; and giving SeaSol people solid organizing and fighting experience.

    Leftist types in Seattle seem to be simultaneously excited, intrigued and critical of us. We have a very good track record of small victories against (truthfully) mostly peoples former bosses and landlords. We have a long way to go for sure, but i feel proud that we are on the path and taking the steps that can’t be skipped. I feel we are base building, but I would like to know what other people mean by that term. Some concrete examples would be nice too!

    Also about SeaSol, I have a lot of respect for the original founders and organizers who brought it together. I like their persistence and instilling a sense of the group growing into something larger and more powerful, but recognizing we can’t skip any steps or pretend about our current capacity.


  9. DB, I did not mention those groupings (labor notes, day laborers network, csac, etc) because I don’t think they represent an attempt at building up an intermediate organization. Perhaps labor notes does, but the orientation of labor notes, whose political core at this time is the political organization Solidarity, is to build a reform movement in the unions primarily by electioneering to capture leadership. The flagship campaign of that movement was Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which was an attempt to build locals perhaps in theory through building power, but realistically was primarily focused on national leadership. They won that leadership at one point, and it immediately became clear how hollow a victory it was, with no real power being built at the base and all the reformist promises crumbling from the top down. TDU has not recovered since, and there has not been a serious attempt to draw out the lessons of their top-down attempt to change the unions from within.

    Some of the other examples you give (CIW, national day laborers, etc) are NGOs. There is a whole slew of non-traditional sectors of the working class that are legally excluded from organizing. Various left-led NGOs have stepped up to fill that void, but they are attempts in my opinion to build working class movement. They provided needed legal and organizational support, and in some limited ways can develop leaders. CIW for example is effectively 2 organizations: an external solidarity campaign primarily run by NGO staff organizing students and supports, and an internal workers campaign. Its workplace component is wholly autonomous from its external component, and we can raise real questions about the degree to which it builds lasting organizers and organization on that front. ROC is another example. ROC is fairly explicit in its role as a service provider focusing primarily on legal work, and with a layer of NGO bureaucracy autonomous from the workplace organization. There are objective features of the work that we applaud and lessons we can learn from. However in terms of building a workers movement, we have to have a delineation. These NGO bureaucracies, with their politics on tight strings from funding via capitalist grant organizations, and their service orientation tend to entrench themselves above building organizations run by and for the working class. None of this resembles in anyway a network of militants or an intermediate organization, unless you consider the NGO bureaucracy the network of militants.

    CSAC is a meeting of anarchist organizations. Within CSAC there is a labor coordination group, which could seek to build a movement of workers’ militant networks. At the present though, it is primarily a discussion forum for the revolutionary level, and does not have a rooted praxis in intermediate organization of the working class. To my knowledge few if any revolutionary organizations do. It is an advance and should be supported, but we need to recognize that all revolutionary groupings at this time are not adequately addressing the workers movement, and we need to step it up.

    There is a lot of potential for organizing in unionized industries, and I think the best path is through building organization independently from the unions which can seamlessly operate outside and inside the unions.

    On Seasol- I think Seasol started as an intermediate organization, and is in the process of transitioning to a mass organization. That is an experience everyone in the workers movement needs to learn from. I see seasol as in the process of working out the problems in our movement in the division between activists and workers, ideology derived from abstracted leftist practice vs a praxis built from struggle, and organization arising out of struggles vs artificially constructed in abstract. These issues are strong and difficult, and Seasol has already had to face some of the limitations. Still I have hope and respect for the work being done moving in the right direction, and am a supporter.

  10. i’m new to the blog, and have been catching up on the posts. i really like it, but i have a few questions encompassing a lot of what i read so far – not just from this post.

    in this post it says:

    “At present, any unification of militants though is premature if it is not preceded by a stable base building of militants in intermediate organizations in various locales.”

    can you define more explicitly this level or type of unity between local intermediate organizations that is at this point only a goal? is it possible to have any type of organizational formation at this time that facilitates the sharing of skills and lessons of these intermediate militants?

    the sense i get from reading the posts on this blog is that that type of organization is the vision the authors of this blog have for the IWW, and are critical classical syndicalism both as a theory, and as a model appropriate for today. is this accurate?

    also, towards the end of this post the author advocates “liberatory education”. in the post “Defining Practice” Nappolis distinguishes between the mass, intermediate and political layers defining the latter as the “attempted unity of ideas.”

    i want to note for a second that in that post the division between the political and mass mirrors the division between mental and manual labor. the mass level is defined as having “common practices with a diversity of ideas”. was this intentional or am i misreading this?

    i would agree with a particular reading of this; that many of the political ideas that unify political organizations are just that: ideas; and specifically ideas that don’t currently have any material weight in the world because of the level of activity by the working class.

    my question is: do political organizations have any contributions to make at this moment? can they contribute to the liberatory education, and could you say more about this liberatory education. what is the role of political ideas and theory right now?


  11. a few things…

    the co-opted nature of existing mass organizations and organizations on the left generally have and it seems to me will continue to result in struggles with an insurrectionary character in the US. There is great need for groups of militants to engage and push these struggles to the next level.

    second, another reason they don’t have weight is the lack of political organization of militants, and more particularly the lack of specifically anarchist political organizations.

    i agree about the worry re: vangaurdism though leadership is crucial as well. moreover, it seems to me that political education is best tied to practice, or in the case of political organizations, tied to reflection and building organizers who are already engaged.

    all for now and i like this blog too!

  12. I saw a couple questions in there:

    What kind of unity (for political, mass, and intermediate)- I may have been sloppy with talking about unity, I didn’t intend to lay that out as a division of labor with a thinking political sector and an active mass sector. There’s two ways to come at this stuff, one just understanding the concepts & two thinking about the existing practices. With the first, The bigger issue for me is just the level of unity necessary to do their jobs. You can’t coordinate to build your objectives, vision, and towards your goals without a level of agreement on that stuff. That’s necessary for political organizations, but not mass organizations, because mass organizations can flourish with disparate practices and ideas. That should guide us in a way (not try to impose artificial unity in mass work, and overcome populist orientations towards political work). The intermediate level needs unity around the practices and core of what it’s trying to do, so enough say to push certain practices within say the labor movement. The intermediate level is messy, but some examples we could look at are perhaps the Frente de Estudiantes Libertarios in Chile, the socialist teachers current in Puerto Rico, the Education Workers Network in Europe (and an unrelated one in Miami), and in some instances various IWW projects.

    Looking at where things are at in our time, it’s not neatly separated like that, and I’m not sure it’d be desirable either. Some of the best ideas come out of mass work, and sometimes the best mass work comes out of political organizations (and the worst thinking!). There’s some clarification of this stuff in a MAS document that explores what the intermediate analysis means in practice here

    “One should not conceive of this work as literally bringing mass militants to new intermediate organizations (though this is possible) formed as such. As discussed before, all organizations existing today are mixtures of mass, intermediate, and revolutionary with their composition changing as struggles change, militants change them, and new forces emerge within them. An intermediate organization approach then is as much about what our political work looks like and prioritizes, as it is the location of struggle. Intermediate organization is as much an analysis of actually existing practices at the mass level, as a proposal for future work and organizations, and as a methodology for how to act as revolutionaries within these existing practices.”

    Classical syndicalism- Ok speaking only for myself here, because I know many of my comrades disagree with me. It’s an open question. I don’t think the caricature of syndicalism attacked by platformists or the other one by various marxists actually has an accuracy. Syndicalism had some weaknesses historically, but it also was and is the best example of mass revolutionary movements, and went further than any other in approaching anarchist communism. So I defend the history and the power that that tradition has to offer, and think in the realm of the development of revolutionary consciousness it has something unique to offer developed in the practice of the working class that is little understood and written about. That said I do agree with certain revisions of the history. I don’t think strategically building independent unions in every situation is a good idea. I also don’t follow the current (a minority perhaps) that thought the mass revolutionary organization was sufficient. To me syndicalism is a method of how we struggle rather than a theory just of organizations. This essay was at least in part an attempt to reconcile that (probably controversial) thesis with the strategy developed by comrades here.

    The role of political organizations- The role of political organization is crucial today in my opinion. Unconscious political organization already exists to fill those gaps. I’ve been trying to convince friends they’ve been functioning as a political organization for years, but it’s tough slogging. The problem is that in a time without mass organization in a serious capacity the ability to develop militants falls on our shoulders, if we want to avoid the integration of activists into the existing channels of working in capitalism. With that understanding I look to intermediate organization methodology because in my practice I’ve seen how difficult it is to do that work (the work of a political organization) in the present environment without that orientation. I hate to use the analogy, but it needs to be like the fish in the river. It’s just that now the rivers are running dry, and we need to find a way to deepen the bed.

  13. From jubayr: “i want to note for a second that in that post the division between the political and mass mirrors the division between mental and manual labor. the mass level is defined as having “common practices with a diversity of ideas”. was this intentional or am i misreading this?”

    Hi jubayr, I think that’s a misread and perhaps the article could be more clear on this. Much of the ideas and concepts in Scott’s article are parallel and in conversation with the especifista current within south american anarchism.

    In my mind the Leninist conception of mass movements does create that distinction with the party as the leadership, repository of ideas and possessing the scientific analysis of marxism and with the mass movements as only capable of ‘trade union’ consciousness or basic level economic fights. I to post a review of something that touches on this soon at machete408. In practice though I think we can see how this plays out for many Marxist/socialist group whereby mass movements and orgs are recruiting grounds, places to push lines, control from above and to treat opportunistically. I know these are big generalizations but I think folks with experience with movements and the left have all seen this play out.

    I think the approach that some of us would have, Scott chime in if you differ, is that mass movements are to be respected in their own right. They are not just the engine or motor of revolution but they are going to develop their own ideas in the process of struggle and that’s essential process if we see the future society as one where working class people actually have a meaningful and qualitative control and decision making power in society and not some for of guided rule from above, whomever that may be. Its not just direct action and level of organization (militancy sans theory) but exactly that process of thinking, reflection and theory building that I would say defines a self conscious class-for-itself.

    I could elaborate more on the role of the political organization, but I would recommend this recently published interview with one of the especifist groups in Brazil. I think they are pretty articulate on these points.

    “Especifismo in Brazil: An Interview with the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FARJ)” see: http://anarkismo.net/article/19343

    -Adam W.

  14. […] can stand on its own but interestered readers should look at a few other pieces: Defining Practice A New Workers Movement Intermediate Level and Trajectories of […]

  15. hi Jubayr, all,

    I’m way late to the party but I wanted to throw my two cents in, in part to get some thoughts down before I re-read Scott’s article that’s just been posted to this blog. Jubayr, great comments and questions, which have deepened the conversation, thanks for that. I’d like to hear your answers to those questions too. I expect that some of my good friends here will disagree on some points I make.

    I think it’s important to distinguish formal from substantive. It seems to me that in very general terms moving forward stuff will work better if it happens in an organized and disciplined way. Formal organization or not strikes me as a tangent for that, as there are ways to be disciplined and organized informally and formal organization’s aren’t necessarily organized or disciplined.

    As for unity of militants, I think there are different kinds of unity. I think in actual practice formal unity on theoretical particulars (say, agreement that Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation is basically correct, or agreement on a basic framework of organizational dualism of the sort that the various anarkismo affiliates seem to have) leaves a lot of room for serious differences and disunity on particulars that matter a lot. I’m beginning to think then that its better to focus on building institutions that play particular functions, such as one that “facilitates the sharing of skills and lessons of these intermediate militants,” in Jubayr’s words.

    I think the point about the resonance between mental/manual and political/mass is an important one, in that it’s important to push against impulses – often unconscious, I think – in that direction. Put simply – formal political organizations can shape who talks to whom about what, in ways that pull the mental part out of the mass part. Want to fight? Go to the mass organization and participate along side others who do so. Want to think? Go to the political organization. That seems to me to happen a lot, and the thinking over occurs tied to the vocabularies and traditions of the political organization with insufficient translation into vocabularies and traditions within the mass organization (let alone substantive involvement of people from the mass organization). This isn’t just the fault of radicals, far from it, but if we start to think about this division as acceptable or desirable then we make the problems worse I think. I like Scott’s clarification that he quoted — “all organizations existing today are mixtures of mass, intermediate, and revolutionary with their composition changing as struggles change, militants change them, and new forces emerge within them.”

    For me about “do political organizations have any contributions to make at this moment?”, I’ve begun to joke that I’m a liquidationist, though I’m not really: I don’t think political organizations should dissolve themselves. I’ve just become skeptical about the purposes and effects of actually existing political organizations, in ways that make me much more sympathetic than I used to be to criticisms of organizations voiced from within the insurrectionary anarchist milieu.

    This gets back to the issue of formal organization. I’m one of the friends that Scott has “been trying to convince friends [that we’ve] been functioning as a political organization for years.” Within the taxonomy Scott laid out I think he and I and various friends are doing activity within what he called the political level. That’s not an organization, though. In a lot of the political work I’ve been part of (mostly but not exclusively as part of mass work within the IWW and helping develop militants out of that work) I think political organizations acting as political organizations have mostly been a non sequitur and sometimes a negative force. The good political work I’ve seen and been part of has basically exclusively been done informally (but the best of it has been informal yet disciplined and organized) and the existence of memers of formal organizations *acting in their capacity a members of those organizations* has for the most part been a non sequitur, or it has sometimes been a negative because it exerts a pull on who talks to whom about what. (In an IWW context political organizations tend to pull IWW members toward talking with non-IWW members about non-IWW stuff; if it meets those people’s needs that’s great and I’m for it, but it doesn’t do anything for IWW projects which is what I’m personally invested in). That doesn’t mean there are no good people involved who are part of the IWW and political organizations, far from it. But it does mean that I don’t see the point of formal political organization for work I’m involved in.

    To put it another way, Scott says that “unconscious political organization already exists to fill (…) gaps” and he implies that some of his friends like me are part of such. (And I’ve been an active force in that unconsciousness, as I repeatedly deny that stuff I’m doing counts as a political organization.) To use Scott’s words, for me in the stuff I’m part of, the ‘unconscious political organizations’ are often doing at least as good at filling gaps as formal political organizations and in some cases are doing better. In the light of that, I don’t see the point of formal political organization and its trappings (aims and principles etc). I also think the ‘unconscious’ character (I would prefer to say latent and informal but whatever) has been important to the success of some efforts. In stuff I’ve been part of I think if the ‘unconscious’ stuff became explicitly and formally a political organization it would have sabotaged the process. And stuff I’ve been part of that headed more in that direction has often gotten less dynamic and less effective at the aims it had (sometimes because the aims changed as a result – again, who is talking to whom about what and in order to do what).

    None of which is to speak against political organization as such – I’m not really a liquidationist. I just think that different circumstances call for different practices and I’m not convinced that there are common practices across N America that formal political organization is a fix for. Formal political organizations are tools for some purposes in some places, like anything else, not a tool for all purposes in all places.

    Adam said “mass movements (…) are not just the engine or motor of revolution but they are going to develop their own ideas in the process of struggle and that’s essential process if we see the future society as one where working class people actually have a meaningful and qualitative control and decision making power in society and not some for of guided rule from above, whomever that may be.” It seems to me that that process of developing ideas in struggle is political or at least borders on what Scott calls the political level. That’s the place where I think it matters to be above all, at least for the time being. If membership in a formal political organization facilitates being in those locations and/or improves one’s activity there then that’s the thing to do. It’s not clear to me that it always does so and in some cases I think it actively impedes it (in part due to simple time pressures.)


  16. On formality vs informality. I think formal political organization is critical at this time in particular, but we shouldn’t be colored by emotional responses to actually existing self-proclaimed political organization. We should start from the opposite direction- what is the impact of not having formal political organizations in our mass work? I used to believe that political organization was unnecessary, that good anarchosyndicalist mass work was sufficient. 10 years of practice in the IWW showed me otherwise. Even IWW aside, there are countless examples in our work of the best and the brightest going on to become liberal NGO and Democratic party bureaucrats, joining groups like ISO/FSP/FRSO and abandoning on the ground mass work, integrating with and believing the business unions are the movement, etc.

    There’s a pressure on mass work in our times to seek legitimacy, to stake territory, to grow numerically, and to “win real changes in people’s lives”. This pressure, placed by the relative weakness of autonomous direct action practices, creates an institutional gravity towards downplaying the role of political consciousness and development. A major IWW campaign led by revolutionaries recently suffered too from this, and felt major employer assaults which they were more exposed to because they consciously decided not to engage and build politically in their day-to-day mass work. Many IWWs repeat the mantra that the politics don’t matter, we can just downplay the preamble, use different colors, etc. After seeing now many from a few generations of IWW leadership lost to integrating with various liberal, electoralist, and collaborationist institutions, we need to be asking how we can prevent this. The branch I started with lost repeatedly it’s most active leaders from workplace campaigns to such institutions (NGOs, Leninist parties, Business unions). Some of this is inevitable. Some of this we could aid by having real popular and political education internally. But there are real limits in the sense that mass organizations need to be open enough to where they aren’t dominated by any political current. It will be hard to function, if we try to insulate from leninism, electoralist liberalism, etc., inside say the IWW (outside of some major change in the practice and consciousness of workers where the IWW is). If the IWW were to develop critiques of elections, ngos, leninist parties, etc., it would open up the union at this time to sectarianism, splits, and make recruiting very difficult. Long term we all want this, but want it as a practice, not merely positional assertions. I’m not sure if it’s better to start with a highly defined organization & to try an advance that direction, but in general the IWW seems to move towards increasing populism in order to grow numerically. There are competing currents, and our current represents an alternative, but new generations of IWWs experiment with jettisoning years of collective proletarian history in pursuit of new shops, new numbers, and new buildings with red flags (adopting no-strike clauses, using NLRB elections, trying for contracts, abandoning the revolutionary content in the IWW’s official literature, etc).

    Realistically whenever IWWs have tried to deal with this stuff it has been outside the organization. Some left out of a feeling of an inability to strategize and develop politically inside the organization, and create new political organizations to do mass work. Some projects that integrated with the IWW were started by members who organized politically, left the union, built their project, and rejoined. We have been a part of a number of attempts to develop our ideas and practices, and always had to create new spaces for that. Looking across all those years, within our spheres and outside them, you can see that there’s an organic need & a tendency towards that organization & when the mass organization does not provide the opportunities and the space for it, there are tensions and people find it elsewhere.

    I think Nate is merely hung up on naming organization & having public positions as the hallmarks of organization. I would say any group that has criteria of joining, that coordinates it’s activities strategically & responds collectively to issues in their work, that publishes, and that organizes it’s forces is a political organization. It’s enemies would have no doubt about that, and would call it as such. Informality in that instance is based on anemic fear & an overemphasis of the management of appearances. I don’t think it’s tenable for a conscious organized body of revolutionaries to deny their organization, nameless or no.

  17. Scott, I’ve revised this paragraph a few times to try to make this a productive response. I’m having trouble finding points of contact between what I wrote and what you said in response. Suffice it to say, my opinions here aren’t a matter of “emotional responses to actually existing self-proclaimed political organization[s]” nor is this a matter of “anemic fear” on my part. I request an apology from you for saying so, and I would appreciate if in the future you’d try to avoid speculating on my motives or imputing political/character failings to me when I disagree with you.

    Nevertheless, here’s my reply to what you wrote. You write “there’s an organic need” for political organization. I don’t agree. There’s a sort of political need some people develop. Something starts to itch and they want it scratched. If we’re doing our mass work well, we should be increasing the frequency of this happening. One way to scratch that itch is by political organization but that’s not the only way. You have a low estimation of current political organizations generally (hence your phrase “self-proclaimed political organizations”) and so your point about political organization is not primarily about actually existing organizations. Rather, if I understand you correctly, you think that some hypothetical genuine (ie, not simply self-proclaimed) political organization would be a step forward. I’m unconvinced and I don’t think you have much evidence. You point to past failings then you hypothesize that they might have gone differently had there been a genuine political organization in the mix at those time. I think for most of those failings I probly have a different evaluation. What I definitely don’t see is positive evidence of gains to be had via political organization for folk in the circles I (we?) move in.

    You say that “when the mass organization does not provide the opportunities and the space for it, there are tensions and people find it elsewhere.” Indeed. And in my view forming or joining a political organization is precisely a means of “find[ing] it elsewhere.” More often than not, joining or starting a political organization is what IWW members do when they downgrade the IWW in their list of priorities. You can hypothesize if you like that perhaps a better political organization that acted within the IWW would stem that but I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical not lease because, as I tried to say, most of the times when folk in my/our circles have joined or formed political organizations or have taken steps in that direction it has been at best mix and often counter-productive (polarizing and narrowing). As I said, in my experience joining or forming a political organization tends to change who people talk with and the subjects they talk about (whether as cause or as effect). I don’t see any point in that, I certainly don’t see it as something needed across the board for radicals in our current historical moment. Thus a political organization is not a solution to issues of people leaving the IWW.

    Finally, to be clear, in all of this I’m neither saying that the IWW is the thing for everyone nor am I saying that political organization is never a thing for anyone. Political organization is a thing for some of the people some of the time. People already in political organizations should do what’s best for them. People in the IWW who aren’t in political organizations should join or start them if they have needs that can’t be met in the IWW. People who want to build up the IWW should do that. I’m in that last category. For people in this category, forming or joining a political organization is a non sequitur, it’s the wrong tool for that purpose. In my view the thing to do instead of new political organization is to make it so that the mass organization does provide this space and opportunity. That is, I think the thing to do is to orient toward and build the political level within the mass organization.

  18. Sorry I wrote that in a bad mood, and was too ad hominem. I think I was ranting, and it didn’t totally correspond to what you were talking about. I apologize.

    What are the other ways to scratch the political itch?

    The problem for me is not people leaving the IWW or changing their relationship with the IWW. That is secondary. The real problem is that if we as revolutionaries, through our work, recruit and develop new militants in our struggles & in that work we fail to engage or politically develop those militants there’s a problem. I think the IWW is better at this than most other projects I’ve seen. And yet I’ve also seen a chronic problem in which little to no political engagement of shopfloor recruits occurs, and those people move on to other groups that fill that void.

    The problem is this, if we agree (and I’ll walk with you there) that we should build the political level within mass work, how would that be feasible in the present environment of the IWW. To short-circuit parasitic reformist and electoralist groups such as ISO, NGOs, union bureaucracies, etc., there would need to be popular education and engagement within. But that would create massive divisions, and would in essence move the IWW towards an open anarchosyndicalist union. I’m pretty sure you don’t support that. On a practical level this work must occur outside the IWW (and the other unions, tenant groups, etc) or risk creating likely unproductive and unnecessary fissures. We are writing on a collective website having this debate, aimed primarily at intermediate level militants within mass work. That’s not informal. There’s a process, strategy, targets, collective coordination, etc. You can deny that’s a political organization, but I think that’s a semantic distinction. The only thing missing is a name.

    So if in our practice we find concrete limitations within our mass work that forces us to take up a different element of struggle as a new collectivity external to that work, I think there’s a lessons there. Otherwise shouldn’t we abolish the blog, stop talking, and just try to build these ideas (anarchist communist workplace ideas) within the Industrial Worker, branches, etc? If not, why not?

    I like the bit about political organization changing who we talk to. That strikes me as potentially correct (though not inevitable, just contingently true), and I wonder what it means. I imagine this is connected to people looking to political organization after fighting for years, and seeing stagnation in mass work & looking to something beyond fighting for bread and butter without a larger strategy. Still if the move is to talk merely to a section of a left from talking to the popular classes, this is an error.

    I do think actually existing organization has positive examples, it’s just limited in the US. Obviously I think my own group has gone further than we would have had we only committed ourselves to mass work without having a framework for political development. In latin america, many such organizations have positive examples of being catalysts for mass work & revolutionary thinking. I also support political organizations that exist around thinking, some of the ultraleft journals have positive examples and should be seen as valid.

    Increasingly I think we need to see the limitations of reformist struggles, and to concentrate on the transformative potential within those struggles, rather than the continuation or maintenance of structures and struggles that will be unable to sustain real participation and gains outside of extraordinary circumstances. Our role as revolutionaries is to facilitate that process, and whatever organization looks like it should enable us to do that work in a strategic way and not merely riding the waves of struggles without building real conscious revolutionaries.

  19. Thanks Scott. I’m frantically prepping for a work trip out of town, will get back to you on the substance as soon as I can.
    take care,

  20. Let me add one more thing to the mix 🙂 I think it’s actually an empirical question we’re dealing with. There’s no principles involved in the sense that our common goal is how we develop the highest level of consciousness in the most amount of people involved in struggle. It’s an empirical question whether that can be done without political organizations or without mass organization. From that perspective I look mostly to history. The CNT, the FORA, and other syndicalist organizations did an amazing job of that. Many political organizations did as well, and indeed the CNT found the need for a political organization to combat reformist populism inside it’s ranks at a time (FAI).

    The IWW is in a unique place coming from a low position of struggle, and building up through struggles. That drive for numbers, for legitimacy, territory/shops, causes a dynamic within these organizations of putting revolutionary practice into tension with pragmatist concessions for the sake of numbers. We all have seen the aftermath of this: hollow shops with contracts but no members, shops with members who aren’t realistically in the union, member who have no idea about the politics of the union.

    If the position is to become like the CNT, fine. That’s a move, and one we can debate it. Or if the position is that we need little p political organization (not a Political Organization) to do political work inside those organizations (like this blog?) that’s another move. It could be people think we have to start just being overt in the IWW about positions against elections, NGOs, etc., without taking formal positions through educationals, study sessions, etc. Another could be to have political organization that pushes primarily to engage in struggle & does political education and work in those fights, prioritized over trying to stake out territory or win structures. These are various strategies I think that need to be looked at to see how we maximize radicalization.

  21. hey y’all!

    i think spaces like this are important, as are discussions with other anarchists and so on about our work.

    that said, i don’ t think there needs to be big splits with doing the type of work you are talking about scott via the iww, though i think there are ways of doing that work without being dogmatically anarcho-syndacalist. the iww is explicit about its revolutionary industrial union politics and for me this is sufficient.

    i agree with the question though of whether it is best for that type of work to be done as part of the iww–specifically building radical rank and file tendencies within business unions–or if that work should be done as a separate organization.

    either way, it seems to me that liberatarian leftists who are or want to orient towards unions and don’t want to be organizing new workers in the iww need to seriously get together and start making this happen on the national level immediately. i believe this was the goal of the class struggle anarchist conference process(?), though perhaps with less focus on orientation. that said, to me this is so essential and though i haven’t been to those conferences i would love to do what i can to help push it to happening.

    my feeling is that this type of political work across unions can and should be done within the iww, not with the goal of decertification (or at least only in very specific case) but of building fighting unions engaged in other union struggles and to have a network of militants to be able to respond to coming austerity explosions like we saw in wisconsin–and give those a non-cadre based group they can join–and to continue to build the iww and the idea of the iww across the union movement.

    all for now and curious for people’s thoughts.


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