A Critique of a Critique
Since the crisis of 2008, there have been attempts to reorganize the socialist movement by a new generation that is taking up the lessons and work of earlier generations. The Red Party, one such group coming from these efforts, correctly identified one of the most pernicious political positions that has significant currency in the present environment as a “cancerous trend”: anti-trade unionism.
This observation by the Red Party was produced in the context of a critique of the points of unity of Workers’ Offensive (former Communist League of Miami). Workers’ Offensive’s points of unity includes a terse, boilerplate anti-union plank:
“Labor unions, regardless of their internal structure, are not workers’ organizations but organs of the capitalist state that smother and contain the resistance of the working class against the exploitative system through the negotiation and enforcement of contracts with capital. In the heat of the class struggle, the workers must destroy the unions and form their own mass and unitary organizations to direct and carry out their struggle against capitalism.” (Point 5 of Workers’ Offensive’s points of unity)
This political position is relatively common in the orbit of left communism, and was the subject of a lengthy point-by-point critique in Anti-Capital #3.
But in their critique of this political position, the Red Party merely closes the door while leaving all of the windows open. If the radical-sounding absolutism of Workers’ Offensive on the trade unions is evidence of a, “cancerous trend,” what the Red Party offers up is more like an ominous-looking mole.
“[Workers’ Offensive] rejects working with labor unions regardless of their “internal structure” and claims that union’s smother class struggle.
While this is partially true for business unions, there remains a long tradition of radical unionism in the United States with the IWW and other organizations like it. These organizations may not be strong at this point in time but working within said organizations has yielded some results.
For example, the Fight for 15 movement has organized fast food workers, a particularly hard part of the proletariat to organize in the past due to the temporary nature of service work in the industry. [Workers’ Offensive] would probably dismiss Fight for 15 and other labor movements like it as reformist but this is a rather simplistic view of class struggle.”
For a century and a half, revolutionaries have rarely approached the trade union question with anything but the baggage of their radical idealism. In the same breath that the Red Party promotes the Industrial Workers of the World as a viable alternative to so-called “business unions,” they uphold an example of a top-down movement, born and perpetuated by the highest levels of these same so-called “business unions.”
Does the Fight for 15 movement’s origins and structural links to the highest levels of the Service Employees International Union, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO make it something other than a genuine and legitimate struggle by the working-class? Of course not. But, really, that’s the whole point here.
The charge of reformism as it relates to labor’s class struggles and trade unionism in-particular is old, and has been wrong for over 100 years. Higher wages, shorter hours, improved working conditions and other class demands are not examples of “reformism,” they are the motor force of labor’s class struggles by which everything (including the movement toward communism) becomes possible.
In delicious irony, the charge that trade unionism and labor’s class struggles are, “reformist,” is levelled by those who uphold, promote and demonstrate Bernstein’s revisionist catechism in their thought and actions: the movement is everything, the end goal is nothing. It is more important to them that the working-class is democratic in its conduct and in its organizations; that it displays the qualities of politicization and otherwise resembles what the socialist movement wants it to be. It’s in and through its class struggles that the working-class displays all of its contradictions and what it really is.
I’ve written elsewhere that “business unionism” is a hoax. It’s a phrase without precise definition. It reminds me of Supreme Court justice Stewart who said he could not define obscenity, but he knows it when he sees it. Everyone who uses the term “business unionism” can point to what they think it is, but cannot define it with any precision. It’s essentially a moral category that rejects what is for what should be; substituting the real class struggle as it is for an ideological-idealist vision of what it should be.
“[Workers’ Offensive] would probably dismiss Fight for 15 and other labor movements like it as reformist but this is a rather simplistic view of class struggle. Yes, such movements struggle for reform within the capitalist system. There’s a need, however, to engage with these movements because they are means of organizing the working class and defending its interests in the short term. Even Proudhon, the original revolutionary gnostic, acknowledges that engaging in what he calls “political and economic movements” will at least achieve short-term benefits for those who are supported by capitalism: “In a word, the workers should cross their arms and stop wasting time in political and economic movements. These movements can never produce anything more than short-term results.”
Now the reasoning between the two is somewhat different, however still ultimately similar in the final result. Both deny the ability of the proletariat to defend its short-term interest by participating in the political and economic struggle, leaving the proletariat wholly at the mercy of capitalist class to be exploited while waiting for the Gnostic revolutionaries to decide when class struggle is pure enough for them to join in.”
The Red Party is absolutely correct to reject the conception of the class struggle contained in Workers’ Offensive’s points of unity as simplistic, but, unfortunately, the same is true of their own. Of course, it should be applauded that the Red Party accepts the need for practical engagement by revolutionaries in the class struggle. In the current environment, that alone is a significant step forward.
The issue now, as always, is the intransigent demand for class unity and the practical actions to make this demand a reality. It is not and never has been about opposing a “radical” or “revolutionary” unionism to a “reformist” unionism. It is not and never has been a matter of “providing revolutionary leadership” either. Regardless of whether a labor organization is led by reactionaries or revolutionaries, regardless of whether a labor organization is ultra-democratic or stiflingly bureaucratic in its structure, its basic essence remains unchanged.
In just one example, the recent high-profile victory of undocumented custodial workers in the Twin Cities is living proof of the bankruptcy of both the anti-union absolutism of Workers’ Offensive and the theory of “business unionism” held by the Red Party. Such examples as that in the Twin Cities must be where we validate our theory and where we define our practice.