A workerist response to Mid Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists on the union question and the ultra left

This short article is a response to an essay written by the Mid Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists. I found the essay thought provoking and agreed with parts. Certainly an essay outlining a Trotskyist rank and file strategy in as open and honest a way as it does is very welcome, and I would recommend elements of it as a useful critique of anti-union dogmatism. The purpose of this article, is to discuss the parts I found interesting and respond to the parts I found lacking.

I thought it would be useful to begin this article with a quick statement about my own politics. If I had to describe my politics I’d say that while I don’t find labels very useful, I am influenced most by workerism, a Marxist current that developed out of the Italian socialist and communist parties after the Second World War and most well known for organising a series of large-scale factory struggles independent of the trade unions in the late 1960s, with many of the militants later playing a role in the formation of the Italian base or rank and file unions in the mid-1980s. My principal political activity is through the Self-management notes website which seeks to develop workers’ inquiry into capitalist management science in order to deconstruct and explain it to the militant worker or trade union representative.

Mid Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists wrote:
Ultra left politics are pre-figurative: rather than taking the class they see before them, they assume the class has in some ways already identified their obstacles and is therefore ready to explore the untapped dimensions of their own self-activity. In other words, it isn’t that workers have low-class consciousness, but that everything around them has failed and is no longer worth fighting to preserve and improve. They exist as barriers, not potential organs of class power.

This I think is an important point; there is a tendency to view the situation through a lens inherited from the crisis period of social democracy through to the rise of neo-liberalism. In this situation it was very much so that working class institutions had become ensnared by the state and used to trap and defuse militancy. Today this ensnarement still exists but is coupled with a series of neo-liberal reforms that have successfully destroyed the basis of the class militancy. To put it in Mario Tronti’s terms; we now have populism because there is no people. The task of militant workers today isn’t solely to find ways around the obstacles to a working class movement, but to also raise class consciousness and enter a constructive phase of movement building.

Mid Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists wrote:
Let’s flesh out the union question a bit further and how it relates to organizing along the lines of consciousness-raising. For the real concern here is how the ultra left generally ignore consciousness-raising and replace it with the so-called correct form. For the ultra left, backing unions under attack by the boss and the state or even partaking in struggles to challenge union bureaucrats on their own turf (the union) is basically off-limits. Their reasoning is that the union apparatus itself is degenerate to the point where it solely works hand in glove with management. Workers must struggle to create an alternative organization. They equate unions are part of what makes capital function, but what exactly does this mean? If one were to draw out this logic, couldn’t one conclude that unions are basically in the same category as a bank—they’re to be smashed during the revolution? What would that mean for the militant worker agitating in a union, or the worker who is becoming class-conscious through union work?

This is on the whole a good paragraph.

To answer one of the questions, yes, the trade unions will have to be smashed during the revolution. A key feature of the German revolution of 1918-19 was that the most radical communist elements were antagonistic to the trade unions’ goals of winning gains from capitalism, actively replacing them with class unions or räte that had as their sole goal the destruction of capitalist social relations. This was an expression of the working class at its highest level of political development; the most important thing about this was that they were not a tiny group of Marxist scholars, but represented a genuine mass movement of factory workers seeking to coordinate strikes and occupations with a stated goal of abolishing capitalism. This is always something to aspire to, whatever your political tendency and represents a crucial stage in the revolutionary process. The problem is that it is a very advanced stage, one that left behind political remnants that fail to adequately recognise that this stage occurred after nearly a hundred years of political education of the working classes within the trade unions, supplemented by the practical education of the strike weapon, as the essay correctly notes when it refers to the worker becoming class-conscious through union work. These political remnants represent a significant influence on today’s ‘ultra left’, and carry what was a strategic political necessity in an historic period – abolition of the trade unions – into a dogmatism.

Mid Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists wrote:
Coming into a workplace as and deciding right off the bat that the union needs to be side-lined isn’t actually considering the material circumstance in a genuine way, it’s not struggling among different members of the union and creating the leadership necessary to win, it’s only imposing a certain form of struggle as the only effective and true form.

I agree strongly with this, but the essay needs to recognise this applies equally to the traditional Trotskyist rank and filism that this essay has as its thrust. There needs to be a level of tactical flexibility for pro-worker individuals to adopt according to their industry and situation. I don't think there is any 'right' or 'correct' position to take on the unions; forms of struggle are equally valid on the micro level and historically specific on the macro level.

Where there is a chance to elect a militant leadership, or better yet, reform the union to place it under base control, it should be done. But equally if a struggle to do this is not possible, forming base committees or a new rank and file union should be sought. It is in these cases that the essay neglects to see that sometimes it is a completely necessary task to bypass the unions entirely and organise workers’ antagonism directly if the union is internally unreformable. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, as mentioned in the essay as an example of an anti-union mass struggle, recognised exactly that; their early activity was oriented toward electing black slates to the leadership of their UAW chapter, but when they realised this was a tactical impossibility, they re-oriented toward using their organisational muscle to organise workers’ antagonism directly, irrespective of the trade union.

Mid Atlantic Revolutionary Socialists wrote:
Even for the more strategy-oriented ultra left who aren’t entirely opposed to working within unions, there still is an understanding that unions are counter-revolutionary or limited. Here, we can certainly agree they are limited, but what makes them limited—or at times, counter-revolutionary—is not the form. Nor is it not the past victories of higher wages or benefits which allegedly dampen worker militancy, no. It’s the union leadership which is structurally-tied to the capitalist class. By directing the ire of the rank and file against the union bureaucrat, you force them to either take a correct position or that they are forced to step down for more militant worker leadership.

There is a problem here with the argument. The union form today is extremely limited insofar as it has to engage with industrial relations bargaining systems that have been designed by the state to maintain social peace and be weighted against the union.

This wasn't the case during the ascendancy of the trade unions, in the 19th century and the early 20th century. It is largely a legacy of social democracy that saw increasing deformations to the bargaining system occur at its crisis points and increasingly with the rise of neo-liberalism. So it is ahistorical to claim that unions are solely limited by leaderships integrated into the state; the integration runs to their very practice.

There are ways around this, for example the use of rank and file groups that can act independently of the union when it is limited by strict adherence to the industrial relations bargaining system, which is possible within the strategy the piece suggests. This is an important point that I think this piece neglects by limiting its suggestion for worker rank and file activity to solely pressuring or replacing officials, rather than seeing that rank and file groups can organise strikes and other action completely independent of the union when necessary.

And then there are also models of unionism that seek to break the mould of the bargaining framework by rejecting elements of it - this is evident in the IWW's rejection of 'no strike' clauses and the Spanish CNT's rejection of the works councils.

Today, figuring out how to enter a constructive phase of consciousness raising through movement building, as I think the essay hints at, is essential. But it absolutely must be combined with figuring out ways to ‘break’ the bargaining framework to undermine the way in which it ensures industrial peace, because it is through industrial conflict that class consciousness is formed. This is not to say it is the harshness of the struggle that makes the most politicised workers, rather it is that the struggle occurs at all and is characterised by mass participation.

Posted By

Infrared.
Jun 6 2015 21:34

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  • I don't think there is any 'right' or 'correct' position to take on the unions; forms of struggle are equally valid on the micro level and historically specific on the macro level.

    Infrared.

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Infrared.
Jun 9 2015 17:49

The original article to which this is responding:
https://libcom.org/library/unions-strategy-ultra-left

Steven.
Jun 9 2015 19:06
Infrared. wrote:
The original article to which this is responding:
https://libcom.org/library/unions-strategy-ultra-left

that has been unpublished as it is contrary to the aims of this site. You can read it here: https://marevsoc.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/unions-strategy-and-the-ultra-...