A New Workerism: Capitalist Crisis, Proletarianization, and the Future of the Left

Recomposition is subtitled “notes for a new workerism.” We take the phrase “new workerism” from this piece written by Alex Erikson before we started Recomp. This piece was originally circulated at the US Social Forum. We’re glad to put it up here. Alex advocates an emphasis on workplace organizing and an orientation toward some historical experiences that he believes contain resources for us in the present, including the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and various groups who have practiced what they called industrial concentration.

A New Workerism: Capitalist Crisis, Proletarianization, and the Future of the Left
by Alex Erikson

I. The Crisis

In fall of 2008, capitalism underwent its worst market crash since 1929, leading to the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Nearly two years and over $11 trillion in bailout funds later, financial capitalism has stabilized. But while the worst of the crisis for our capitalist masters seems to have passed, it is clear that the crash of 2008 was only the beginning of the worst for the North American working class. Since the onset of the crisis, over 1 million homes have been foreclosed, 8.7 million workers have been thrown out of work, leading to a real unemployment rate hovering around 20% which translates into at least 30 million people in the US without jobs, with many more without sufficient employment. While corporations have seized on the recession to demand bailouts from the federal government, they have used the crisis as a pretext to slash benefits, freeze wages, and reduce staffing. In the last two years, despite the decline in consumer spending, productivity increased by over 7% in the last quarter of 2009 due to management’s ability to intensify exploitation of workers who are held hostage by the threat of layoff.

US elites seized on the economic crisis as a pretext to impose a “Shock Doctrine” acceleration of trends that began in the 1970s with the rise of capitalist globalization. Since the late 1970s, multinational corporations have battered the North American working class with union-busting, outsourcing of jobs, deindustrialization and automation, stagnant wages, and cuts to social services. The result of these trends is the fundamental remaking of the global capitalist production system, resulting in the destruction of working class communities in much of the United States and the disappearance of what once was the US middle class. The economic crisis has now given the green light to corporate elites to launch an even more aggressive offensive against workers.

Many on the radical left hoped that the economic crisis would lead to a deep delegitimatization of capitalism and the rise of a new workers movement. The wave of attacks that bosses have launched against the class has indeed sparked resistance. In December 2008, workers at the Chicago-based Republic Window and Door factory occupied their plant, preventing management from shutting it down and demanding benefits they were entitled to as they were to be layed off. In Spring 2010, students and workers across the state of California launched occupations, protests, and strikes against draconian fee increases and cutbacks directed at the education sector. These high-profile examples of organized resistance are in many ways only the tip of the iceberg. For every publicized mass action, there are countless small acts of resistance and rebellion that workers engage in every day. Retailers report a 10-20% increase in shoplifting as under- and unemployed workers seek to stretch their dollars by stealing back the commodities that we as a class produce.

There has been resistance, certainly. And yet, given the magnitude of the current attack on our class, the working class response in the US appears somewhat muted, especially in comparison to the wave of occupations and bossknappings in France, the fiery workers rebellion against austerity in Greece, or the militant confrontations between workers and the army at the Ssangyong auto plant in South Korea. The comparison with workers struggle in the US during the early years of the Great Depression is even more stark- nowhere do we truly see the emergence of an autonomous direct action workers movement in the US as existed in the early 1930s.

Indeed, nearly the opposite has occurred. Even as workers face attacks that are unprecedented in our lifetime, the headlines have been grabbed not by the working class but by an alliance of cross-class right-wing forces known as the “Tea Party Movement,” who seek to scapegoat immigrants, unions, and poor for the decline of US power and immiseration of the US middle and working classes.

The radical left is watching the headlines, waiting and hoping for the working class upsurge. We have a lot at stake- not just as radicals who hope for revolutionary social transformation, but as workers who are watching our own lives get more difficult. We have been impacted directly by the economic crisis, much as other workers have. But while the impact of the crisis has revealed the significant overlap between the radical left and the broader working class, the working class and radical responses to capitalist attack have also illuminated an enormous gap between self-identified radicals and our working class coworkers and neighbors. Even with workers losing their jobs, losing their homes, and losing faith in the system as a whole, radical activists have yet to play a major role in sparking resistance. While some organizations on the radical left have supported unions and other organizations that are fighting back, by and large activists have been on sidelines of struggle as radical supporters, not on the front lines as rebel workers. Even while workers begin to fight back on their own and in the existing mass organizations, radicals are absent from the workplace and working class neighborhoods- precisely those places where workers are facing the most serious attacks.

From insurrectionary anarchists, to social democrats, to Green Party activists, to Marxist-Leninist cadre, the radical left has so far largely failed to connect its own praxis with the rising militancy of the broader working class. Our inability to participate effectively in the radicalization of the class has revealed a fundamental alienation of our movements from the reality of most working people. We need to understand and correct the roots of this deficiency if we hope to be more than a consumer market for Ché t-shirts and AK Press publications.

The problem is not that radicals are not working class. Most radicals do work for a living, although the average radical does tend to have access to more “privilege” than the average worker in the US. Nevertheless, most of us are workers. The main problem is that our radicalism is typically not expressed through our relationships and activity with our coworkers and neighbors. For most of us on the radical left, organizing is something we do in the time left over after work. We do not organize with others facing the same conditions in the workplace or community that we do, we tend to ‘organize’ within an existing ‘radical community’ made up of people who already share many of our assumptions about society. For most of those who do orient themselves to the working class, organizing is a job they do for a paycheck from a union or nonprofit, not an activity that their coworkers and neighbors can join in on in order to build a proletarian revolutionary movement. For the membership base of staff-driven unions and nonprofits, radicalism is something that comes from above, not from the power of working people planning and taking action together.

From countercultural projects to professionally-run unions and nonprofits, the radical left either abandons the project of working class emancipation entirely, or substitutes itself for working class people by taking on the roles of either paid staff or voluntarist insurrectionary. If we are to build a revolutionary working class movement, we need a new praxis based on the activity of the workers themselves, a way of participating in struggles with our coworkers and neighbors as equals in the fight against the boss, the landlord, the cop, and the bureaucrat.

Despite the dismal state of the radical left, the current trend toward the immiseration of the US working class presents an opportunity for radicals to participate in building a new revolutionary workers movement. However, radicals will only be able to participate constructively in building a movement if they are able to remedy their own alienation from the US working class through patient, honest, and long-term organizing work at the rank-and-file level, abandoning paid staff positions in the the nonprofit, trade union, and academic hierarchies in favor of direct engagement with workers as equals.

We do not have to start completely from scratch. Looking back through history, we can both understand how the radical left became so irrelevant to the working class, as well as how we can rectify this today. In this essay, I am going to trace the historical roots of the gap between radicals and workers, explore the implications of alienation from the working class for social movements, look at prior attempts to overcome this alienation, and discuss the potential for a new Workerist praxis overcoming the twin deviations of clumsy class reductionism and radical elitism.

II. The Proletarian Left

In the early twentieth century, the Left as we know it did not exist. In the 1910s, the workers movement consisted of social-democratic reformist political parties with a working class and professional class base, and the American Federation of Labor made up of a skilled trade labor aristocracy of white US-born men, and of mass organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), made up largely of immigrant workers. There were few grant-funded organizations and, before 1917, no Leninists. In North America, radicalism was the radicalism of the IWW: mass working class direct action. And indeed, this form of radicalism was a true threat to the capitalist order.

In 1919, as the bloody fog of World War I cleared, over 2 million workers across North America went on strike. Radical workers in and out of the unions led the charge, building organizations in the heat of struggle to serve their purposes. The reformist unions of the AFL hurried to catch up with the workers and bring them to heel. In Europe, revolutionary workers organizations attempted insurrections across Germany. Coal miners in the IWW-inspired General Workers Union of Germany formed a Red Army, complete with tanks and artillery, to do battle with the capitalist state. Across the capitalist world, workers were on the move, building autonomous mass revolutionary organizations and launching a frontal assault against the capitalist class.

In response to this wave of working class militancy, capital launched the Red Scare in the US, imprisoning, deporting, and murdering hundreds of organizers. By the mid-1920s, the Industrial Workers of the World- previously the largest and most radical union in the North American labor movement- had been decimated by the imprisonment of hundreds of organizers under ‘criminal syndicalism’ laws, deportations, and lynchings. Other radical mass organizations across the world met similar fates.

The repression of the workers movement was accompanied by an ideological offensive. Bosses promised obedient workers that if they just knuckled down and did their jobs, they would have a Model T in the garage and a chicken in the pot. Capital successfully isolated working class radicals from their base in the class through a combination of violent repression of organizers and co-optation of workers desires. But while the organizations and the movement were destroyed, revolutionaries lived on, carrying their knowledge and experience with them. Veterans of the IWW, Socialist Party, and other radical working class organizations would go on to play a role in nearly every major social struggle of the 1930s. The labor peace of the roaring 20s proved to be only a temporary truce in the class war.

III. Labors Turning Point

In 1929, the boom of the 1920s came to an abrupt end. The market crash of October 1929 opened an era of profound crisis for capital, and opportunity for a renewed workers movement. The radicals of the early Depression did not view the working class from the position of isolated intellectual outsiders. They were members of working class communities that were under attack. As the Depression deepened, veterans of the early IWW and other struggles were sources of knowledge and confidence for their coworkers and neighbors who were in search of a solution. As sheriffs sought to foreclose on homes in working class neighborhoods, workers organized Unemployed Councils to fight evictions. As the bosses imposed cutbacks in the workplace, workers launched wildcat strikes without having union representation.

By 1934, working class resistance crystallized into massive and organized rebellion. In Minneapolis, truckers shut down the city with flying pickets and defeated the police and deputized sons of the bourgeoisie in street battles. The strike was settled and workers returned to work only after FDR’s federal government pressured the employers to recognize the union in order to prevent continued escalation of class conflict. In Toledo, Ohio, a strike at the Electric Auto-Lite company turned into a class war between 6,000 strikers and community supporters and 1300 Ohio National Guardsmen. In September, 400,000 textile workers from the Northeast to the Deep South went out on strike, outpacing union staff organizers by launching motorized flying pickets to spread the strike. In San Francisco, dockworkers shut down the waterfront demanding improved working conditions. The ensuing repression touched off a general strike throughout the city.

None of these struggles was “spontaneous,” each came out of a specific historical context. In each of these struggles, a militant core of workers who had been seasoned by the organizing of the 1910s provided a valuable leadership of ideas. In Minneapolis, the truckers’ strike was led by former IWW members Ray, Miles, and Grant Dunne, Carl Skoglund, and Farrell Dobbs, all of whom who had been active since the late 1910s in attempting to organize workers in the coal yards, warehouses, and trucks into a labor union. By 1934, they were members of the Trotskyist Communist League of America. The Toledo Auto-Lite strike was led by the American Workers Party, a Marxist group. The West Coast Waterfront Strike was led by former IWW members and Communists who had worked carefully to build nuclei of militant workers in ports along the west coast for years prior to the strike. In the textile industry, workers drew on the experience of decades of struggle dating back to the 1912 Bread and Roses strike of textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the 1913 Silk Strike in Paterson, New Jersey, both led by IWW radicals. The struggles of the early 1930s were possible because the radical organizations of the 1910s and earlier had been firmly rooted in the working class. Even after they were crushed, the knowledge and experience workers had gained in their struggles remained as a hidden reserve of strength to beat back future attacks on the class.

The victories in the strikes of 1934 marked a turning point for labor, reversing more than a decade of decline and defeat of working class organization in industry. In the 1920s, unions had virtually disappeared from the new ‘mass industries’ of auto, rubber, and steel. As the working class expressed a new willingness to engage in struggle, labor bureaucrats saw an opportunity to expand the dues-paying ranks of organized labor. A faction of bureaucrats split from the American Federation of Labor, forming the Committee on Industrial Organization (CIO). Putting hundreds of highly-motivated and experienced Communist organizers on their payroll, they set up ambitious organizing campaigns in the new non-union mass industries. At the same time, other radicals engaged in “industrial concentration,” seeking jobs in industry in order to spread radical ideas amongst the rank and file and hopefully spark workers rebellion.

IV. Hunters and Dogs

In 1937, the new United Auto Workers union launched an ambitious organizing drive at General Motors. Communist CIO organizers worked closely with militant rank-and-file unionists, many of whom were involved in various radical political organizations, in the factories of the Midwest to develop a plan to win. Disregarding capitalist legalities, hundreds of rank-and-file workers occupied a number of plants crucial to the auto production process in Flint, Michigan and Cleveland, Ohio. This tactic, called the “sit-down strike,” had been invented by the IWW in the 1910s. The strikers’ main demand was simple: union recognition.

GM company executives attempted to dislodge the courageous sit-down strikers with attacks by the National Guard, police, and vigilantes on the plants. Against the advice of Communist CIO organizers, the strikers refused to leave the factories, and instead beat back the attacks with the plant’s fire hoses and a lethal avalanche of hinges, screw, bolts, and other metal hardware. The forces of capital were defeated in what became known as the “Battle of Bull’s Run.”

The UAW won union recognition. Immediately, CIO President John L. Lewis used the threat of the disorder and disruption that workers had unleashed in the auto strikes to pressure steel industry executives into union recognition as well.

The success of the CIO’s organizing drives in the new mass industries would not have been possible without the incredible courage and dedication of a radical rank-and-file backed to a degree by dedicated Communist organizers on staff. Many labor officials and politicians had questioned CIO leader John L. Lewis’ decision to employ hundreds of Communist organizers in the organizing drives in auto and steel. The bureaucrats wondered about the danger of giving free reign to dangerous radicals to foment class war in America’s factories. A member-run union in basic industry would indeed be a serious impediment to capitalist initiative. Lewis responded to his critics, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” Although the CIO leadership had used radicals and militant workers to build the unions, control of the organization rested firmly in the hands of an entrenched bureaucracy from the outset. In a relatively short period of time, it became clear that this bureaucracy had different interests than both the Communists and the rank-and-file.

Even as working class radicalism grew to levels unseen since the heyday of the IWW, capital was already maneuvering to integrate this latest challenge into its system of exploitation. Terrified of the spectre of an organized and radical working class, capital saw in the CIO a dependable bargaining partner that would be willing to cut a deal for labor peace in return for increases in wages and benefits over the heads and behind the backs of militant rank-and-filers.

While the CIO bureaucracy had initially viewed the Communists with suspicion and was prepared for a struggle with the CPUSA for control of the CIO, events on the world stage soon made this struggle virtually unnecessary. By the end of the 1930s Communists had begun to support a policy of labor peace for reasons of their own. As World War II neared, the Communist Party USA adopted a new orientation based on the foreign policy needs of the USSR. In order to bolster the allies in the war against the Axis powers, the CPUSA vociferously opposed any strike action or work stoppage in the United States. When push came to shove, the CPUSA was fundamentally more accountable to Moscow’s Comintern than to its own rank-and-file organizers and their coworkers in plants across the United States. This about face alienated rank-and-file workers who were groaning under the pressures of war production. The era of Communist industrial concentration had closed. Communist radicals and careerist labor bureaucrats united against Fascism abroad, and against the threat of an autonomous workers movement at home.

Despite appeals from FDR and a host of celebrities to labor peace during the war, and despite the no-strike pledge signed by the CIO, and despite the opposition of the Communist Party USA to strike action, workers engaged in more wildcat strikes and work stoppages during World War II than at any time prior to the war. When the war ended and any rationale for a truce in the class war was removed, workers went nuts with the largest strike wave ever. In 1937 there were 4,740 strikes involving 1,861,000 workers for over 28 million days, by 1945 there were 4,750 strikes involving 3,470,000 workers for 38 million days, and in 1946 there were 4,985 strikes involving 4,600,000 workers for 116 million days.

Rather than welcome the continued rise of working class militancy, the CIO union officials revealed in the 1940s that the function of their organization had undergone deep changes since it was established by the militant and courageous direct action of thousands of workers. In exchange for labor’s no-strike pledge, employers had initiated a “dues checkoff” system, which would require employers to collect union dues from workers and give them to the union, rather than putting the burden of dues collection on the union and its members. Since strikes and other forms of direct action were banned, labor officials worked with management to administer mandatory grievance procedures, a bureaucratic process that individual workers could use to file complaints against management without stopping production. Taken together, these reforms fundamentally altered the role of the union within capitalism, defining a new period of labor-capital relations. The unions, once a vehicle of working class militancy, had been turned against their members and now served to suppress the initiative of the rank and file, ensuring the smooth flow of capitalist production.

In a 1965 essay titled “Be His Payment High or Low,” Marty Glaberman, a Detroit autoworker and member of the far-left Johnson-Forest tendency, sums up the transformation of role of the unions, “American workers today have seen the great industrial unions of the thirties become the one-party states of today. They have seen the seniority that was won to protect them against discriminatory firing and promotion become the means to keep the young and the Negroes out and to keep the semi-skilled from working their way up to the skilled trades. They have seen the union dues check-off change from a means of organizing all the workers in a plant to a means of removing the union from dependence on the workers. They have seen full-time status for union steward or committeeman change from freeing the union representative from the pressures of management to freeing him from the pressures of the workers. They have seen the union contract and grievance procedure change from the instruments which recorded the gains of the workers to the instruments under which workers were disciplined. They have, in short, seen the unions turned into their opposite, from representatives of the workers to an independent power that imposes its discipline over the workers in the period of state capitalism. The result has been that the workers have rejected the unions as the means of any further social advance and have gone their own way.”

The net result of these structural changes was the emergence of a class of professional labor bureaucrats whose main role was to work with the corporations to ensure the smooth flow of production. The integration of the CIO into the smooth functioning of industrial capitalism was complete.

Sadly, many radicals in the unions did not organize resistance to bureaucratization, and instead sought their own niches of power and privilege off the shopfloor as full-time committeemen and union staffers. Often, socialist organizations attempt to take over the executive positions in unions in a left-wing variant of palace politics. Workers find this at best irrelevant, and at worse off-putting.

In 1948, Paul Romano, working at an auto parts factory on the East coast wrote in a pamphlet published by CLR James’ organization Facing Reality, “workers view radical parties this way: members of radical organizations through various means acquire positions of union leadership. There they agitate, etc. The conception is that it all comes from above. As a result, a gulf arises between the professional radical workers and the rank and file.”

Caught up in bureaucratic bargaining and Communist Party politics, the radical left had become alienated from the working class. The final blow came in 1948, when the CIO moved to expel communists from its membership and re-join the AFL. As the 1950s dawned, the left found itself disoriented by revelations of Stalin’s transgressions in the USSR, marginalized or co-opted by the AFL-CIO, battered by McCarthyist witchhunts, and isolated from the reality of working class struggle on the shopfloor. These were dark days. But even as the Left entered a period of disorientation and decline, the class war continued, unseen by intellectuals, on shopfloors across the United States.

V. Punching Out

In the period during and after World War II, mutations in the relationship between labor and capital introduced a new dynamic to the workers struggle. Workers began experimenting with various forms of direct action struggle in opposition to both the company and the union, which was intent on enforcing the “no strike clause” of the contract.

The unions in auto negotiated agreements over wages and benefits, but left vital concerns such as the speed of the assembly line, treatment of workers by foremen, racial discrimination in the plant, environmental impact of production, and health and safety concerns off the negotiating table. The union contract left all of these vital issues for the bosses to decide as “management prerogatives.” With the union unwilling to negotiate over these critical issues, the rank and file organized direct actions in violation of the no-strike clause to obtain redress. Workers were forced to fight their union, as well as the company to win their demands in these critical areas.

At times, workers were able to build permanent organizations outside of and independent from the union structures to press their demands. The most famous of these is Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Less well known than the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the LRBW was created by black autoworkers in 1969, uniting a number of “Revolutionary Union Movements” based in factories across Detroit. The League launched wildcat strikes at a number of auto factories around the specific grievances of black workers. They presented demands to the UAW for and end to racism within the union as well as fighting racism in the factories. The LRBW also built and maintained strong connections with community organizations, and sought to expand the class struggle outside the factory.

The LRBW won many of its demands for the equality of black workers in the factories and in the unions. However, the League ultimately disbanded under the pressure of retaliatory firings of members, internal tensions between organizers, and uncertainty over the direction of the organization. The League was the most prominent and visible example of autonomous and lasting workers organization in the 1960s and 70s. Most worker militancy took place deep within the factories, unseen by the self-described radical left of the day. Taking the façade of labor peace projected by the corporations and the unions for reality, most radicals saw more potential for organizing outside the factories.

VI. The Civil Rights Movement and the New Left

With seeming industrial peace reigning in industry in the 1950s and 60s, most young radicals turned their efforts to social movements based outside the workplace. In the 1950s, poor, working class, and middle class blacks, as well as a very small number of white allies, built a powerful movement for Civil Rights challenging institutionalized white supremacy in the South. By the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had won important victories through a combination of community organizing, workplace organizing, mass civil disobedience, legal advocacy, and political organizing. However, the white supremacist establishment sought to delay progress at every step. At the same time, it became clear to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders that true racial equality would necessarily have to confront the structural inequality of class in American capitalism.

When nonviolent civil disobedience did not bring about a change in the high unemployment rates, lack of access to decent affordable housing, and police brutality that poor and working class blacks were frequently subject to, working class black communities erupted in rebellion. In 1965, the Watts community of Los Angeles rose up, burning over 1000 buildings and causing over $40 million in damage to mostly white-owned businesses in the area. It took the National Guard and police six days to reconquer the Watts neighborhood. In 1967, the devastation of the Watts insurrection was dwarfed by rebellion in Detroit that destroyed over 2000 buildings. In contrast to the Watts rebellion, the Detroit rebellion was multiracial. Police were chagrined to find that most of the rooftop snipers they caught shooting at police and soldiers were working class whites from Appalachia.

As the decade drew on, the black liberation struggle inspired a myriad of additional social movements against war, ecological devastation, patriarchy, and homophobia. Despite the clear connection between class exploitation and the black struggle against racism, many of the movements initiated by those who had been politicized by the Civil Rights movement were dismissive of the potential and power of the working class, instead seeing student radicals and nationalist revolutionaries in the Third World as the central protagonists of the struggle.

This turn against the working class found its expression in a variety of different ideologies in different movements. In the anti-war movement, adherents of “Third World Marxism” claimed that the primary contradiction was now between the industrialized capitalist countries and the colonized nations of global south. This school of thought claimed that first world welfare state policies and the gains of workers in the unions had united industrial workers with their employers in imperial pillage of the Third World. This point of view was reinforced by the theories of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist theoreticians who had been exiled by the Nazis in the 1930s. In America, they felt that rather than escaping totalitarianism, they had found a society more thoroughly subsumed by capital than the Fascist state they had fled. The Frankfurt School theorists were pessimistic about the potential of workers to challenge capitalism. In a classic of the New Left called “One Dimensional Man,” philosopher Herbert Marcuse argues that capitalist society has developed a way to manage workers struggles, and can now only be challenged effectively on the level of morality. Similarly, in the new ecology movement, hippies dismissed workers as hopelessly co-opted by consumer culture and uninterested in understanding or fighting the environmental devastation wrought by capitalist production. The feminist movement underwent splits along class lines, with working class women, particularly women of color, alleging that the middle class white women who had the most visibility in the movement were oriented primarily toward achieving individual career opportunities, ignoring the class oppression that poor and working class women experienced under capitalism. In all of these movements there was a struggle between a petit-bourgeois, or middle class single-issue outlook and analysis, and a radical analysis that acknowledged the basic structural inequality caused by capitalism, and focused on working class efforts to end oppression and injustice while building power to take over the economic basis of society. As a result of this tension, by the end of the 1960s, increasing numbers of organizers had arrived at a class struggle viewpoint.

VII. The Turn to the Working Class

As all of the new movements continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s, it became clear to many organizers that true social justice could only be achieved by altering the production system that our society rests on, that is to say, by abolishing capitalism.

This turn within the movement manifested itself most clearly in a schism in Students for a Democratic Society, the largest leftist student organization of the era and primary engine of the US anti-war movement. At the 1969 SDS national convention, tensions in the organization led to a dramatic split between two factions- “Revolutionary Youth Movement I” and “Revolutionary Youth Movement II.” RYM I developed into the Weatherman Organization, an organization of at most 500 people, which carried out a campaign of bombings across the US in support of movements for black liberation and third world anticolonialism. RYM II, influenced from the outset by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party, in turn became part of what is now know as the New Communist Movement.

The New Communist Movement broke with the “Old Left” of the Communist Party USA and various Trotskyist organizations that failed to oppose US imperialism or support the struggle for black liberation. The New Communists accused the CPUSA of “revisionism,” and sought to return to Leninist revolutionary zeal. Over the course of the 1970s, members of the New Communist Movement formed literally hundreds of Marxist-Leninist readings groups and dozens of embryonic vanguard parties with a total of around 10,000 members. With roots in the student movement, members of these new parties realized that their first task was to root themselves in the working class and build the workers struggle.

By the hundreds, radicals began “proletarianizing” their organizations. In “Revolution in the Air: Sixities Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che” movement participant Max Elbaum tells the story of the turn to the working class. Looking back to the “industrial concentration” of the Communist Party in the 1930s, radicals left college campuses, eschewed professional-class jobs, and sought employment in the factories of US industry.

Anarchists participated in the turn to the working class as well. Splitting from the synthesist, cross-class, lifestylist tendencies of the North American Anarchist Communist Federation (ACF), class struggle Anarchist organizations like the Syndicalist Alliance in Milwaukee, Libertarian Workers Group in New York, as well as members of the resurgent Industrial Workers of the World labor union, and others began building nuclei on shopfloors across the United States.

While different groups of radicals operated in different ways and had different experiences, there were challenges common to all the groups. Some radicals were surprised to find that workers were neither the idealized revolutionary subject of Marxist lore, ready to seize the means of production and topple the capitalist state to overcome their alienation, nor were they co-opted consumerist drones, waiting to be shaken from their acquiescent stupor by the revolutionary vanguard. Radicals who succeeded in actually integrating themselves into the life of their workplaces found that the workplace was in fact already somehow organized by the workers, often in opposition to both the boss and the union. There were already traditions of resistance that the radicals could learn from, participate in, and perhaps build on.

In some cases, radicals found that their coworkers were not at all put off by the unconventional social values of the New Left. Veterans of the drive of the Revolutionary Union (later to become the Revolutionary Communist Party) to industrialize in the coal industry, found that workers were not alienated from the counterculture of the times. While the radicals sought to “blend in” by aping some kind of 1930s-style proletarian image, even going so far as to get married and reproduce conventional gender roles, they found that their coworkers were in fact more radical than they were in their rejection of conformity to capitalist cultural ideals.

On the other hand, radicals also came into contact with extremely reactionary layers of the working class. Progressive Labor Party activist Yonni Chapman recalls selling copies of PL’s newspaper at a Ford factory near Atlanta in 1971. A worker approached him and asked for a copy of the paper, only to hold it up and light it on fire while several other workers attacked Chapman. He later found out that the workers were members of the Klan.

Despite these challenges, many radical workers groups were able to contribute to serious working class struggles in the factories, unions, and communities they were active in. In “The Turn to the Working Class,” a dissertation on the 1970s wave of industrial concentration, researcher Kieran Walsh Taylor tells the story of a number of groups that achieved some successes in their organizing. In Atlanta, the October League (a Marxist-Leninist group) led a seven-week strike by the predominantly African-American workers at the Mead Packaging Corporation. In the San Francisco Bay Area, working class feminists build the Women’s Alliance to gain Equality (WAGE), which organized women workers into new unions and fought for the recognition of womens’ particular grievances as legitimate within the labor movement. In Seattle, Filipino activists Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes organized at the rank and file level in Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), throwing out a corrupt and bureaucratic union leadership while building solidarity with the workers movement in the Phillipines challenging the Marcos dictatorship. In 1981, Viernes and Domingo were murdered by hired thugs in an effort to stop their organizing against the corruption of Local 37 and efforts to build international solidarity against Marcos.

While violent repression played a role in stymieing the workers movement in the 1970s and 80s, there were other trends that were more devastating. In 1974-75 the US entered into a recession. By the mid-1970s, the tides of working class rebellion began to ebb, the threat of unemployment dampening the militancy exhibited by the US working class.

With the recession, the seeming imminence of revolution faded away over the horizon, leaving many radicals who had committed to industrial concentration discouraged and dispirited. As the decade continued, the ranks of the New Communist Movement dwindled. Many of the radicals who had obtained employment in factories around the US were laid off in the recession, eliminating their ability to organize on the shopfloor. For some, the pressure from family and friends to return to a middle class lifestyle were too great to resist. Other radicals developed health problems from industrial employment and had to seek work in other fields. Many of those who remained in industry took staff and officer positions in the unions, effectively becoming agents of reform within the labor bureaucracy, rather than revolutionaries dedicated to smashing capitalism in a workers revolution. The wave of factory closures that occurred at the end of the 1970s had even more devastating results, eliminating many of the industrial jobs that radicals had taken in order to build a working class base, and shattering the working class communities that had waged the struggles of the early 1970s

By the end of the 1970s, the turn to the working class had run its course. Of the few radicals who remained in the labor movement, most had taken up positions in the bureaucracy and were again isolated from the daily struggles of the working class. As the 1980s dawned, the Left was once again dominated by professionals and academics isolated from the realities of day to day struggle in working class life.

VIII. Beyond the End of History

Despite the alienation of the Left from the working class, workers did continue to struggle mightily. The 1980s were a time of crisis, but also a time of great potential for the class. As Leftists pissed and moaned about Postmodernism from the comfort of the ivory tower, workers challenged the union bureaucracy and mounted a forceful defense against brutal corporate attacks on labor. In Austin, Minnesota in 1984-85, over 400 workers at the Hormel meatpacking plant went on strike against the wishes of the UFCW International union. They mobilized support from the rank and file of unions across the world, shutting down their plant with mass picketing, leading the governor to deploy the National Guard and impose martial law in the hamlet of Austin, MN. In Jay, Maine in 1987, workers at International Paper sabotaged the means of production in their paper mill, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars million in damage, before walking out on strike against cutbacks and layoffs. Everywhere the class was under attack, and everywhere workers fought back as best they could, coming into conflict with union bureaucrats as they did so.

Into the 1990s, class struggle continued, even after capitalists declared the “end of history” when the Soviet Union began dissolving in 1989. From 1992-95, workers at the Staley agricultural processing plant, auto workers at Caterpillar, and rubber workers at Bridgestone/Firestone turned Decatur, Illinois into a “War Zone” with simultaneous strikes and in-plant actions occurring at all three companies. Unfortunately, these were defensive, losing battles. Corporate globalization and outsourcing had changed the rules of the game. Automation and outsourcing meant that even if workers in unions in the mass industries were able to win gains, these would translate into benefits for a shrinking section of the working class. While workers were fighting losing battles in the vanishing industrial base of the United States, capital was building a brave new world of union-free low-wage service industry jobs. As good jobs disappeared, rising instability in working class communities combined with draconian new drug laws led to a quintupling of the rate of incarceration in the US from 1971 to present, putting 1 in 100 Americans behind bars. Capital uses the massive US prison population as a source of hyperexploited labor. We can speak now of a “prison-industrial complex” that plays an ever-greater role in the capitalist economy. The concurrent decline of unionized industrial jobs, criminalization of large sections of the US working class- primarily African Americans and immigrants, as well as the rise of a massive non-union service industry left the workers movement disoriented, disorganized, and weak.

The radical left in the 1990s was largely oriented to cross-class movements around particular issues. Anarchists and other radicals were active in struggles against a rising grassroots far-right, anti-war and anti-imperialist campaigns, and the continuation of many of the new social movements that came to prominence in the late 1960s. Other radicals expressed their politics through academic work, isolating themselves from class struggle in the ivory tower. With the disappearance of the New Communist Movement and the ebb of the wave of industrial concentration of the 1970s, there were few voices in the movements to argue for a class struggle viewpoint and approach to organizing. Anticapitalism was no longer an assumed tenet of social movement radicalism. Informed by “postmodern” academic theory, many activists replaced the critique of the structural inequality of capitalist exploitation with a vague ‘anti-oppression’ analysis that focused more on contradictions between strata in the working class than on the contradiction between workers and capital. Some even went so far as to claim that class struggle had ended.

However, developments on the international scene as well as a learning process within the movements rapidly put anticapitalism back on the agenda. Following the lead of workers organizations based in the Third World, activists successfully formed a coalition to shut down the November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in opposition to the rise of corporate globalization. The successful shutdown, dubbed “The Battle in Seattle,” symbolized the rise of a new movement of movements against neoliberal capitalism. From 1999 to the early 2000s, a broad coalition of social movement organizations and labor unions coalesced in protests against the institutions that were planning the next wave of capitalist development: the WTO, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, G7 and G8, and others.

The movement of movements had momentum. Thousands of people became politicized through actions and debates incited by the anti-globalization mobilizations. However, the composition of the loose coalition that the movement was made up of revealed shortcomings of the US left that would become even more evident as the movement died down in the post-9/11 era. In the Third World, the anti-globalization movement was initiated and run by mass organizations of workers and peasants. In the North, the movement was made up of individual activists or small collectives and groups of radicals, often unconnected to working class struggles in their own communities. Lacking a base in local struggles, North American activists often expressed their politics through “summit-hopping,” flying to massive protests across the world, and not doing anything to confront the ravages of capitalism in their own workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. There was some labor movement support for the anti-globalization movement in the First World, but this support usually rested on relationships between radical activists and a few progressive bureaucrats, rather than on a politicized and empowered rank-and-file in the unions. Through their own disorganization and timidity, unions in the North in the anti-globalization movement were unwilling to use their most powerful weapon- their members’ ability to disrupt production. Instead they participated in largely symbolic marches and protests just like the activists. While the movements in the South developed enough strength to force major governmental reforms and put bosses on the defensive, the movements in the North were rarely successful in much more than shifting policy debates and PR strategies amongst elites.

The bankruptcy of the US left became has become even more clear in the wake of the economic crisis and unprecedented attacks on the US working class. With conditions ripe for a new movement against capitalism, radicals have been unable to launch any coordinated campaign around the issues impacting working people. We have been unable to translate an unprecedented level of popular hatred of the corporate and financial elites into a movement to challenge capitalist power.

The Left of today consists primarily of a mix of professionals in the non-profit industrial complex, ivory tower academics, and a scattering of countercultural projects that intentionally disengage from the broader society we live in. As in the mid-1960s, the Left is isolated and alienated from the working class, unaware of the readiness of workers to fight back, and dismissive of the revolutionary potential of regular working people. When radicals do start fights with bosses or other elites, they rarely do any amount of groundwork to build support for the fight amongst those who are not already part of the isolated radical scene. Even the professionally-run NGOs and business unions are more inclined to use stage-managed actions involving supporters from the local activist left than empower workers to fight their own battles.

If we want to present a real threat to the capitalist order, we need to reorient our praxis to activating the power of the working class.

IX. Proletarianization

The Left is changing. As grant funding and university budgets have dried up, radicals and professional organizers have been forced to do the thing they hate most- find a regular job just like every other working class person in this country. While the radicals of the 1970s undertook a voluntary ‘proletarianization,’ forgoing the benefits of professional jobs they could have gotten with their college degrees, today’s left has been proletarianized involuntarily by capital. Forced into low-wage service industry work and crushed by student debt, there is less and less that sets the average radical apart from their coworkers as the US is structurally adjusted and the middle class is destroyed. This trend is unlikely to change any time soon. The separation between the working class and radicals is breaking down. Now more than ever, most radicals are workers and a growing number of workers are radicals. The time is ripe for the development of a new praxis based on participation in the class struggle as radicals.

X. A New Workerism

In workplaces and neighborhoods across the US, a growing number of workers are beginning to form basic organizations of struggle against their bosses, landlords, and other class enemies. In most cases, radicals are not leading this process. Sometimes, they are asked by their coworkers to come to a meeting or help plan an action that the ‘non-radical’ workers in a shop have already initiated. In other instances, radicals with experience outside the workplace are realizing that there are opportunities for direct fights against bosses, the front-line agents of capitalist rule, in their workplaces. This dual process of rising militancy is slowly re-centering the radical left on the class struggle.

As we participate in the growing struggle, we carry our own ideas and experiences as activists with us. It is worth reflecting critically on the activist baggage we carry and the role we play in the struggle as self-identified radicals. We can learn from the experiences of radicals who turned to the working class in the1930s and 1970s, hopefully avoiding their mistakes

Looking back, it seems that biggest successes of movements in those eras came when the line between radicals from outside the shop, and militant workers inside the shop were blurred. This happened when radicals put the concrete needs and demands of their coworkers before their own politics, focusing on taking action together with their coworkers rather than on building abstract political consciousness through propaganda. This insight is consistent with the experience of Marty Glaberman and other radicals who participated in class struggle at the shopfloor level in the 1960s. Often workers who espouse conservative, or even racist ideas, will be the first to down their tools and unite with their coworkers over a common grievance, violating the no-strike clause. Consciousness can be built most effectively by reflecting on moments like these, rather than by through propaganda around explicitly radical or revolutionary theories.

We can learn from the bureaucratization of the 1930s that we should reject participation in the bureaucracy above the shopfloor. We need to avoid acting as volunteer footsoldiers for the business union or NGO bureaucracies, as these organizations are not controlled by the workers and have an interest in managing struggle rather than preparing the working class to take over production. We must build organizations that are permanently autonomous from and hostile to the capitalist authorities. Our task is not primarily to bargain for contracts but to build struggles and consciousness through direct action fights. For radicals, becoming professional organizers is a serious temptation, as staff positions in unions and nonprofits typically pay much better than rank-and-file jobs. We must resist this temptation if we are to build a movement that is truly autonomous.

Also, while we acknowledge that the workplace is the center of capitalist power and ultimate source of working class misery, it is important to avoid reducing class struggle to the workplace. Not everyone has a job or can organize at work for various reasons. The class struggle is not just about issues workers face on the job. The workers struggle has been most successful when it has reflected the concerns of not just waged workers in the workplace, but the entire working class community. As radicals, we should look for ways to expand working class solidarity not just between workplaces, but also outside of them into the neighborhoods, schools, prisons, and every other area of society. Organizing against landlords, police, fascists, and other class enemies is a vital to expanding and deepening the class struggle.

Similarly, radicals must avoid reducing the class struggle to the concerns of one strata of workers, or of assuming that all oppressions are acted out by bosses against workers, and not also by workers against each other. Like the New Communists, we need to reject the Old Left’s fetishization of white, male, industrial workers. The working class also includes those who do no get a wage- homemakers, students and youth, the retired, the unemployed, prisoners, and those in the informal sectors of the economy. Within the working class, struggles must be waged against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and nationalism, and any ideology that seeks to pit one group of workers against another. As class struggle militants we must develop an ‘intersectional’ analysis of oppression which recognizes the multiple oppressions experienced by workers and respects the decisions of particular strata of workers to organize autonomously against their oppressors. At the same time, we do not have the option of excluding every single worker who engages in oppressive behaviors from the struggle against capitalism. We need to meet people where they are at, and work with them respectfully to address their problem behaviors in the context of the struggle.

These are practical lessons we can draw from the history of radical industrial concentration/proletarianization in the United States. To get a sense of what a movement that puts these ideas into practice might look like, we can look for positive examples to emulate in other parts of the world where the radical left is much more developed. In Uruguay, for the last 50 years Anarchists in the Federación Anarquista Uruguaya have developed a praxis of building autonomous social movements that they call “Especifismo.” According to the article “Especifismo: The Anarchist Praxis of Building Popular Movements and Revolutionary Organization in South America,” the main tenets of this praxis are:

“1. The need for specifically anarchist organization built around a unity of ideas and praxis.

2. The use of the specifically anarchist organization to theorize and develop strategic political and organizing work.

3. Active involvement in and building of autonomous and popular social movements, which is described as the process of ‘social insertion.’”

The essence of Especifismo is the unification of revolutionary militants in a ‘political organization.’ Unlike much of the Trotskyist and Leninist left, the purpose of the political organization is not to gain control over mass organizations from above, but to provide a place for revolutionary militants to reflect on their experience in the social movements, and develop a common approach for engaging with workers in various struggles. In the movements, Especifista militants do no try to control or manage the struggle from above, but rather advocate for self-management of the struggle by those who have the most at stake in opposition to Leninist maneuvering to take control of mass organizations, and against reformist efforts to co-opt the struggle into existing capitalist political channels. Especifistas seek to advance proposals in popular movements for a strategy based on broad class solidarity and aggressive direct action against the class enemy. Radicals orienting to the working class in the USA would do well to learn from the approach developed by Especifista militants in South America in the last 50 years.

With or without a unifying theory, a new practice is taking shape on the radical left as more and more activists involve themselves in class struggles at the level of their own neighborhood or workplace. This practice of participating in struggles at the root cuts across previous ideological divides between Anarchists, Marxists, Social Democrats, and Insurrectionaries. With the possible exception of the Anarchist “Especifismo” and similar ideologies, or the Autonomist Marxist “Workerism” or “Operaismo,” there is no existing body of theory or tradition that is based on drawing lessons from this practice and developing a coherent praxis based on our reflection. As we gain more experience in class struggles, we are combining the lessons of our practice with the reflection of theory, developing a new radical praxis of engaging in the workers struggle. This is the rise of a new Workerism, a body of theory and an approach to organizing centered on direct participation in the class struggle alongside coworkers and neighbors.

As this tendency develops, we are already learning lessons that have changed our conception of ourselves in relation to the broader class. For me personally, it has become clear that what sets me apart from our coworkers is not any particular political consciousness or set of beliefs. While radicals likely have a deeper knowledge of the history of struggles than other workers, this does not mean that it is our responsibility to direct and manage the struggle as some kind of intelligent elite. The only really important difference between us and other members of the working class is our level of commitment, our willingness to fight and to lose, but to learn from failure and keep fighting. This commitment can help inspire other workers to stand up for themselves and join the fight. It can also help develop resources and organizational capacity that reduce the risk workers need to take to fight back, which opens up participation in the struggle to those who would otherwise have to keep their heads down.

The emergent Workerist praxis is not based on uncritical celebration or fetishization of everything that is working class. It is based on a recognition by radicals that workers are already struggling against the plan imposed by capital on the US working class. Beyond recognizing the existence of this class struggle, we believe in the potential of each and every worker to rebel against capitalism, and by extension, have faith in the collective ability of the working class to abolish capitalism and run society without exploitation, oppression, war, and ecological devastation. It is elitist and in fact classist to dismiss the ability of working people to change the world. We seek to realize the potential of every worker to rebel through close, respectful, collaborative work with those who live and work next to us.

The core of the emerging Workerist praxis is not a politically ideology advocating Anarchism, Socialism, Communism, or any other ism. Our praxis is based on the rock-solid foundation of belief that workers can run every aspect of our society without bosses and bureaucrats, ending systemic exploitation and oppression once and for all. We seek to prepare and prefigure the workers revolution through waging struggles against the capitalists in a manner that fights oppression within the class. The courage and confidence to fight back can only be developed in real struggle, direct confrontation with capitalist authority. Our role is not primarily to discuss the Employee Free Choice Act or other political issues of the day with our coworkers. Our role is not to dive into kamikaze solo arguments with the boss. Our role is to organize, to unite our coworkers, to help them overcome their fears, and to help break down divisions between workers based on racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. We advocate for direct action as the primary weapon of our class struggle, and work to build the broadest possible class solidarity inside and outside the workplace. In the day-to-day struggle against the capitalist class, we are building the new world in the shell of the old. The new Workerism is not a theory to be debated or argued, it is our recognition of the real workers movement that is abolishing the present state of things.

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5 Responses to “A New Workerism: Capitalist Crisis, Proletarianization, and the Future of the Left”

  1. Frank Edgewick Says:

    “The Dog or the Hunter.” That sums up my experience of organizing with business unions pretty succinctly. I’m a bit floored by the honesty of it. Thanks for posting this – I finally broke out of my tl;dr stupor after a week and tackled it – very worthwhile.

  2. Organise as a class to abolish the wage system and institute common ownership of the social product of labour. Commodity production needs replacing with production for use and need within a grassroots democracy.

  3. Scott Nappalos Says:

    Rereading this today, it strikes me as more insightful and relevant than when I first read it (and when it was written). Looking back on the history of industrial concentration amongst the left, there was much to applaud and as many mistakes. In general, we need to pursue strategies which put ourselves into positions where we can do this work lifelong as participants and protagonists in struggle, rather than supporters from the outside. The concept of praxis is crucial, and particularly that as revolutionaries we need our ideas to be rooted in our membership and activity within the class.

    Whatever this praxis looks like, it needs to aim higher and broader than the industrial concentration of the previous generations. Examples such as seattle solidarity, and recent insurrectionary moments from latin america (oaxaca 2006, argentina 2001, chile, etc) suggest the potential of fluid organization based on class-wide solidarity. In general we need to think strategically about where we are rooted, and making long term commitments in so far as we are able. This needs to take place both at the community level and within the workplace proper, but understanding that the political and social terrain is shifting, and will likely look different from simply getting a job in central industries as was done in the past.

    The last section seems particularly lucid in tracing the trajectory of a current of worker activists becoming self-conscious and organized. This is worth thinking more about, and is framed well. Sets of militants and ideas have been developing out of experiences fighting in the workplaces and communities. These experiences and people do cut across ideologies, though as the author shows draws from wide traditions often encompassing experiences across the world from libertarian marxists to anarchist communists. It is the unity we’ve been seeing in struggle that seems the most fruitful for building a conscious and organized political current, beyond paper unities.

  4. This should be made into a pamphlet and handed out to all ‘radicals’. Radicals tend to talk about organizing like it’s something you do outside of work. That’s a full 40 hours/week that they are not ‘organizing’. Great stuff.

  5. I agree Rosa, I like this piece a lot. I’d like to see Recomp do a bunch of stuff as pamphlets. Little by little, I suppose.

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