Class Power at the Gallow’s End
The class war must be waged by both classes, otherwise it is merely one class slaughtering a collection of individuals, hardly much of a war at all. This is the case on a daily basis where the capitalist class regularly sacrifices the lives of the unorganized, scattered, atomized workers on the altar of surplus-value. If individuals within the working-class begin to struggle against capital they are faced with the imperative need to connect with other individuals within the class. A single worker at a factory cannot meaningfully unionize, a union cannot prevent a factory from closing, a regional occupation cannot prevent the State from guillotining it. The entire class must be engaged in the struggle in as united a fashion as possible. If vanguards are formed within the class, this is equivalent to struggling in an isolated fashion. The Bolsheviks, and Lenin in particular, understood that isolation would lead to the wholesale slaughter of the revolutionaries audacious enough to seize power. Granted that the Bolsheviks attempted to overcome their isolation at any cost, including that of the world revolution, and by any means, including associating with foreign bourgeois elements, it cannot be denied that the Bolsheviks were right, any struggle against capital that does not embrace the entirety of the class is doomed from the start. Of course, no struggle can exit the gate already embracing the entire class, but if it fails to evolve in such a way as to embrace the entire class, it will end in isolation and defeat. Enter our anti-Bolsheviks, hell bent on isolating themselves from the working-class by building a vanguard within the class among industries which they think are ‘essential.’ Insurgent Notes recently hosted reviews of Angry Worker’s of the World new book Class Power on Zero-hours and a response from the AWW. My information comes from there and there alone, I would be glad to be corrected by the comrades at AWW if they feel the following critique is off-base. AWW suggests
“If you want to rebuild a communist working class organisation you have to:
- find organisational forms that bridge the gap between “marginalised/lumpenised” proletarians and industrial workers in strategically significant locations in your area;
- build collectives for self-organisation and analysis within the essential industries and amongst engineering workers in order to be able to
- intervene at the most advanced points of struggles where the material divisions between marginal, manual, intellectual workers are questioned. Part of this intervention is to
- prepare a pretty pragmatic plan for a takeover and violent defence of the means of production.“
AWW has one thing right, if this plan is followed a violent defense of the means of production is going to be necessary as all of the non-industrial, non-engineering, non-strategically significant, workers are going to sit by and watch as the military is called in to retake the conquered grounds. Of course, we are not the first to make this critique and AWW has a ready answer.
John Garvey says
“It seems that aww discount the significance of state violence when it is faced with a revolutionary takeover.”
To which AWW respond
“The cwo comrades raised a similar concern. We guess we underplay the issue in reaction to the various insurrectionist tendencies that surround us. We stress that a working class revolution won’t smash the state militarily, but through the state’s dependence on social labour. A working class revolution would have to split the state-employed workers engaging in social labour from the repressive arm of the state; replace the productive “administrating” functions of the state by establishing new structures of decision-making; split the army along class lines, organise an armed defence of the means of production and put the remaining state armed forces into an economic and social chokehold. That’s all pretty vague, but a qualitatively different perspective than “civil war” or military insurrection.”
‘Pretty vague’ is one way to put it, another would be ‘hopelessly naive’, but perhaps ‘wildly suicidal’ would be best. The entire nation of Germany was in an economic and social chokehold in 1918, the army was ‘split’ along class lines, and what this ‘split’ really meant was that the elements of the army unlikely to execute the unruly workers were disarmed and removed from the scene of action while the reliable elements were armed and concentrated, given their own authority, and called in to massacre the isolated workers. AWW may not believe that a working-class revolution will smash the state militarily, but we find truth in the roar of the cannons of the Aurora aimed at the Winter Palace, and we find the truth in the preemptive military inventions against emerging revolutions, Greece 1967, Chile 1973. Civil war isn’t an abstract category. It’s a policy of the ruling classes. The bourgeoisie, for their part, will show no hesitation in militarily crushing any attempt at a ‘general’ strike, which, for the AWW is not even a general strike but merely a withholding of the social labor that AWW deems to be essential. A real general strike, developed by organizing throughout the entire class as we encounter it in our daily lives, can shut down railways to prevent troop movements, but will be insufficient to deal with the local armed presence. Independent armed bodies of workers are necessary for this task. Further, it isn’t enough to simply ‘defend’ a position while waiting for the enemy to concentrate their forces to crush your position, the enemy must be actively annihilated. If this perspective of ‘civil war’ seems familiar that’s because it worked, and no amount of ideological evasion can change this fact written in fire and blood.
“We rather think that it will be an imposition by the productive working class and “insurgent proletariat” to enforce a radical reduction and equalisation of working time against the rest and perhaps even quantitative majority of society—“against,” meaning that a lot of people might remain passive and some even opposed to these measures. From then on, decisions might rather emerge from the new social relationships as “associated producers” rather than from “citizens” or a mass of individuals.”
The over-emphasis by AWW on the productive, essential, and strategically important, is a formula for isolation brought to a head in this description of a vanguard forcing liberation upon a passive, or even actively resisting working-class. “A theoretical error is always at the root of an error of political tactics” so sayeth Bordiga, and the theoretical error at the root of this erroneous political strategy is a fundamental failure to comprehend that what is ‘essential’ to capitalism is not a specific industry, or even set of industries, as if capitalism was merely concerned with its own physical composition. No, what is essential to capitalism is the relation of capitalist class to working class, the relationship which is characterized by the expansion of capital, whether that expansion be facilitated by the sale of bread, iPods, luxury cars, Tomahawk missiles, or university educations is irrelevant. The fact that bread may be ‘essential’ to those who need to eat it is irrelevant to the expansion of capital. All that matters is that surplus-value can be realized in the sale of a commodity, no matter what the commodity is used for. That we must repeat this ABC of Marxism in an age where we not only have free access to Volume 1 of Capital, but all three volumes, the Manuscripts of the 1860’s, and more shows how dearly we are lacking in fundamentals. Let us not forget that capitalism itself often turns from a mode of production into a mode of destruction, wantonly laying waste to all of the ‘essential’ industries that AWW would have threaten a strike in order to secure power.
“We ourselves think that we have to “get rooted,” meaning, develop contacts to workers in many workplaces and areas where we live, prove ourselves as people who “know how to struggle” and, at the same time, connect this practical knowledge to an idea of how to create a better society.“
For our part, we think the only people who need to ‘get rooted’ are those who are transplants. Which is precisely what the AWW effort at concentrating (read as: isolating) themselves in a specific geographic area and set of industries amounts to. The rest of us tend to find friends in our workplaces and ‘prove’ ourselves to them in our daily activity, and I don’t mean prove that we ‘know how to struggle.’ Not everyone has the capacity or aptitude for ‘struggle’ in a limited sense (given AWW’s limited interpretation of what section of the class is necessary for struggle, we also expect them to have a limited sense of the word ‘struggle’), and there’s nothing wrong with being unable to speak confidently to crowds of workers, to write popular fliers, or any other particular activity. The class is a veritable wellspring of talent which will rise to meet the immediate practical tasks so long as it is thoroughly and widely inculcated with a class program of generalized resistance to capitalism. Instead, what we must ‘prove’ to our co-workers is that we are unwilling to sacrifice any part of our class, that we are willing to, in the ways and means available to us, struggle for the class as a whole.
Don Hammerquist says
“The problem that we discovered, and I think the Angry Workers did as well, is that these events are fleeting while the yoke of capitalist hierarchy is omnipresent. The issue becomes how can the momentary energy be generalized—maximized and extended; and when it inevitably subsides, how can the militants it has produced survive in an organized form that can impact an increasingly wider range of situations.”
To which AWW replies
Again a big one. We raise some questions at the end of the book: we were quite “informal” with all of the politicised workers and new comrades we met. We’re wary of ‘group identities.’ We informed everyone about what we were doing, e.g., writing a new issue of the newspaper, distributing leaflets, preparing a theoretical reading group, travelling to international meetings of the movement, etc. We invited people to take part in all this, but didn’t present it as the activity of “an organisation.” We didn’t ask people to join. Perhaps that was too lax and we should have insisted more that people participate in all activities that constitute “an organisation.” At the same time we are not voluntaristic: people’s lives are hard; they are pressed for time. An organisation, even when the actual struggle has subsided, has to provide some kind of “use value” for people. Either the get-togethers have to be enjoyable or “being in the organisation” contributes to making the material burden of life less heavy.”
We are not surprised to see the AWW respond to this question in a limited organizational sense rather than a broad class sense. The organizational answer to this question has been provided by history over a hundred years ago, bureaucracy is the answer to the impossibility of maintaining a permanently mobilized working-class and an incompleted revolution. Bureaucrats maintain the link between the movements that put them in place and the present. Joining an organization need not require the voluntaristic pitfall AWW describes here, monthly dues are sometimes enough to maintain a more active layer which is now freed from the dependence of employment to a given capitalist and at the same time answerable directly or indirectly to the working-class.
To answer the question in a broader class sense, Anti-Capital has long put forward the demand for One Big Wage as a demand to economically weld the entire working-class together. During the ‘momentary energy’ of a struggle, wage differentials must be fought against with the greatest vigor that can possibly be mustered. If the class can be placed on a terrain of economic unity, their political unity will be naturally facilitated as a consequence, and any further offensives by the capitalist class will necessarily take the character of a general character which will tend to mobilize the entire working-class (and not merely the ‘essential’ workers). The wage relation is what permanently defines the position of the worker to the capitalist. If you want a mechanism to permanently unite the workers, at least economically, remove all wage differentials.
“As you know, we would always emphasise the fact that “co-operation” of workers inside the factory, between companies, along transport and supply chains are the “organic” basis for self-organised struggle.“
This line generated something of a spit-take from me. The basis for self-organized struggle is the common exploitation by capital, not co-operation. This mistake is typical of an emphasis on technical composition rather than social relationships. Last I checked, the spontaneous soviet of 1905 was organized on a class basis rather than any concern for technical co-operation in occupations. Were this not the case, general strikes would be impossible. Of course, I imagine that AWW also have a limited notion of what a general strike is, consisting of a strike of only the essential workers.
“ The main step to question the power of capital is the discovery of our co-operation as a weapon and the starting point to produce our lives differently. Only if we create this production of our lives collectively and consciously will the product not take the alienated form of the commodity.
This concerns the core of the capitalist mode of production and the main challenge for a communist revolution. This doesn’t mean that capitalist power and the enforcement of property relations are not increasingly secured by brute violence—and that we will have ways to deal with this. But given the current talk of “civil war” and the experience of the Arab Spring and Syria in particular, we think that the global proletariat is willing to take on the repressive apparatus and to “disrespect” the commodity form by looting, but not capable yet of imagining a collective takeover of the means of production.“
The discovery of weapons to combat capitalism is contingent upon a search for weapons to combat capitalism which is itself contingent upon a generalized class struggle against capitalism. The food distribution networks that cropped up during the 2018 WV teachers’ strike were a result of a generalized opposition to capital rather than any experimentation and research on where our food comes from. With a generalized resistance to capitalism, the resources necessary to achieve our goals more or less ‘automatically’ appear. I am reminded of the mild astonishment Trotsky experienced after asking for rifles and receiving several hundred, I am also reminded of the Bolshevik’s ability to overcome a strike by the state officials, telephone operators, and even reluctance of the railways to work for the new soviet power. I’m quite certain that AWW would consider the railway workers to be an ‘essential’ and ‘strategically important’ sector back in 1917, and yet even when faced with opposition from this section of the working-class the Bolsheviks were capable of effectively seizing power for the reasons that there was an otherwise generalized resistance to capitalism, and specifically the war, and that general resistance had taken form as an embryonic new state power of the class, soviets
I also want to point out the qualitatively different act of looting versus a collective takeover of the means of production. One is a decentralized stochastic process which can be incredibly difficult to trace and remedy after it has already been committed. The other commits the participants to a static position which they must defend, and if all they do is defend their position like they’re holding down a fort then they will simply be surrounded and massacred. A collective takeover of the means of production requires an active dispersion of the capitalist state. Further, looting in no way threatens the power of the capitalist state; does not threaten the wage relation; does not embody the collective class-led opposition to the conditions of daily life. We don’t denounce looting to the police or to the press, but looting embodies no program, complements no strategy, and is basically futile– except in conditions like Hurricane Katrina, when it is necessary to sustain life.