Content, Processes and Forms of Labor’s Class Struggles
On The Final Chapter of the International Communist Current Pamphlet ‘Unions Against the Working-Class’
An audio version of this article is available on SoundCloud
“The coming together of working people for a common interest, be their original intention ever so narrow, is the first step which broadens the mind, increases their opportunities and leads them from the descending path of individual competition. Their selfishness becomes altruistic and moreover, they possess the power of enforcing better conditions or resisting further impositions” – Henry White, “The Course of Reform”, The American Federationist (1894)
“The immediate object of trades’ unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediences for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labor. This activity of the trades’ unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts.” – Karl Marx, “The Trades’ Unions: Their Past, Present and Future” (1866)
In the article, “On The Trade Unions: A Reply to Mhou,” MH makes the suggestion that:
“The ICC pamphlet on the trade unions includes a whole section on the intervention of revolutionaries that could act as the starting point for a perhaps more fruitful discussion”
This text is an attempt to follow through on this suggestion, and will examine the final chapter of the International Communist Current (ICC) pamphlet ‘Unions Against the Working-Class’ titled “The Content and Form of Workers’ Struggles under Decadent Capitalism” which contains the aforementioned section.
A portion of this critique concerns terminology, which may seem to be unfair to the reader given the complicated history of the text in question. The final endnote to “The Content and Form of Workers’ Struggles under Decadent Capitalism,” explains the complicated lineage of the text. Writes and re-writes, translations and new translations, publication and re-publication. The current English version is “a translation of a further revised and developed text produced by the International Communist Current in French in pamphlet form.” Such a lineage makes it difficult to formulate a thorough critique (in English) without assuming that what is presented is what they mean to say.
A number of issues are raised with the pamphlet and the specified chapter:
The Class Content of Revolutionary vs Non-Revolutionary Struggles
In discussion of the theory of capitalist decadence as it relates to the trade union question, I pointed out that the conception of decadence creates two separate class struggles, each with a separate essence; or, two parallel class struggles, each with different class content: a daily (bourgeois) and revolutionary (proletarian) struggle. This analysis was disregarded as inaccurate and superficial. However, this chapter affirms my original perspective. The ICC writes:
“real workers’ struggles immediately tend to put into question the very existence of the exploitative system (i.e. their tendency to become revolutionary)” [paragraph 2]
“There is no longer any possibility of conciliation between capital and labour. Their fundamental antagonism is, under decadent capitalism, pushed to its final limits. That is why any real working class struggle must inevitably and immediately pose itself as a political and revolutionary struggle.” [paragraph 4]
“But whatever the exact circumstances, and however intense the struggle may or may not be, working class resistance in this epoch can no longer assert itself without immediately taking a revolutionary direction.” [paragraph 5]
“Since the possibility of obtaining reforms under capitalism became utopian, only that which is revolutionary is part of the working class, only that which tends towards the revolution can have a truly proletarian character.” [paragraph 5]
There is an implicit creation of two parallel class struggles in this pamphlet, present throughout the chapter in question, evident in these sections. By affirming there is such a thing as “real workers’ struggles” (as seen above, there are alternative monikers for the phenomena in question), there must then be other manifestations of labor’s class struggles which are not “real workers’ struggles” or which are not proletarian in class content—meaning that the class content of these other struggles, in the context of the wage labor-capital relation, must derive their class content from the bourgeoisie.
In effect it is positing that the working-class is only struggling on the proletarian class terrain when it is revolutionary. This conception abandons the working-class to the capitalists when they are not “immediately taking a revolutionary direction” or “tending towards the revolution,” which is to suggest that all struggles which are not revolutionary are bourgeois, and that the revolutionary struggle has a basis independent of the daily (non-revolutionary) experience of the class struggle.
What is the method for determining the class content of manifestations of labor’s class struggles in the conditions of contemporary capitalism?
“The problem of the forms of organisation of working class struggle is neither independent nor separate from the problem of its content. There is a close inter-relation between the revolutionary content workers’ struggles immediately tend to take on in the epoch of capitalist decadence, and the forms of organisation the class arrives at.” [paragraph 10]
Here we see the method for determining which struggles are bourgeois in class content, and which are proletarian in class content: the forms of organization present or developing from a given episode of labor’s class struggles. Such a method has no need to examine the facts springing from the real movement to determine the origin, balance of forces, prior experience and overall trajectory of a given struggle; the presence or absence of particular forms of organization is sufficient to make this determination. Specifically, the presence of the trade unions or permanent labor organization in general is the stated device for applying this method. Such a method is a rejection of what is for what should be; a sacrifice of what is for what should be, which effectively abdicates communists from the class struggle and the class. This is apparent in the reactions to the Wisconsin uprising in 2011 among communist organizations that adhere to a version of the theory of capitalist decadence.
When they write, “the proletariat never abandons its defense of its economic interests,” [paragraph 8] it acutely raises the question of what the defense of workers’ economic interests looks like when the overwhelming majority of actual instances of this defense do not meet the ICC’s criteria of being a “truly proletarian struggle.” If effective defense of workers’ economic interests can only take place through revolutionary struggle, that is through “real workers’ struggle” we’re again confronted with the question of the class content of those of labor’s class struggles which are not revolutionary.
Epochal Shift or Transitory Moment
The essence of wildcat strikes is an important cornerstone for the conceptions outlined in this pamphlet. First, it is stated that wildcat strikes are “strikes against the unions,” and at that historic moment, have “multiplied everywhere.” Are wildcat strikes anti-union struggles? Regardless of the ostensibly radical talk and actions which animated many of the most noteworthy wildcats, such actions were in practice supplements to official trade union activity. Such conflict is one potential means by which living class struggles relate to dead class struggles; how new developments in the class struggle relate to the historic memory and tangible representation of past developments in the class struggle embodied in labor organizations. Instead of ‘anti-union struggles’, wildcat strikes merely affirm and reaffirm the very processes of trade unionism.
Second, it is implied that these ‘anti-union struggles’ represent a new development in labor’s class struggles. But the wildcat strike waves of the 1960s-70s were transitory phenomena, representing only a moment in labor’s class struggles at the end of the post-war economic boom, rather than initiating a whole new period. The decline and eventual disappearance of the wildcat strike wave is a fact which can’t be ignored. When this pamphlet was originally drafted and published in 1969 and eventually re-written and re-published in 1974, such observations can be better understood as a telescoping-tunnel vision product of the times, of that historic (but brief and transitory) moment.
Workers in the building trades in the US during that time, who were referenced earlier in this same pamphlet, provide an excellent example of the supplementary role of unofficial actions to official actions. There is no universal character common to every manifestation of wildcat strikes.
Starting with the return of crises at the end of the 1960’s, there has been a profound crisis of capitalism, which has manifested as a variety of individual crises but all related to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.
The ICC writes that, “It isn’t a question of capital constantly trying to recoup what the workers have torn from it, but of the workers constantly trying to resist any intensification of exploitation,” and yet, the 40-year drive by capital to recoup exactly the concessions that had earlier been wrested from it by labor cannot be ignored. At the level of specific firms, regional or national industries, trades and sectors, or the working-class as a whole, it is exactly the struggle to defend past material gains that has animated labor’s class struggles since the end of the wildcat strike waves.
In the case of the Ravenswood, West Virginia aluminum workers and their counterparts at the other Century Aluminum smelters in Kentucky, one can follow the path of capital to reconquer what it had earlier been compelled to concede. This is the basic template for labor’s class struggles, at least in the capitalist metropoles of Western Europe, North America and Japan, for the last 40 years.
The Leap into Illegality
There is a curious statement in the pamphlet, found in the last line of this paragraph:
“The workers’ resistance under decadent capitalism can no longer escape the following two alternatives. Given the system’s drive for self-preservation, either the working class must accept the containment of its struggles within a purely economic terrain, thereby condemning its struggles to a total impasse since capitalism can no longer grant any meaningful economic reforms, or the working class must assert itself resolutely as a power in its own right. If the workers accept the first alternative, such an impasse produces within their midst the best conditions in which the bourgeoisie can unleash its chief weaponry against working class resistance. These weapons include economism, narrow localism, illusions in self-management, etc. These mystifications always lead to defeat and demoralisation. But if the proletariat takes up the second alternative, it is immediately forced to go beyond the purely economic framework of its struggle and display its political nature by developing class solidarity and confronting the very basis of bourgeois legality, starting with the state’s representatives within the factory: the unions.” [paragraph 3]
Confronting the very basis of bourgeois legality is a permanent feature of labor’s class struggles and has been from the origin of capitalism. It is happening somewhere right now (many somewheres in fact). Clearly, labor’s class struggles are inherently confrontations with bourgeois legality, which is encapsulated in the right to private property. Beyond the intangible social confrontations over immediate demands and resistance, there is the physical struggle that often accompanies these confrontations. Elsewhere I made the argument that the tendency toward organized force is the companion to the processes and forms of labor’s class struggles; and every episode of class violence by any greater or lesser segment of the proletariat is a physical confrontation with the very basis of bourgeois legality—the Rights of Man.
Permanent Open Struggle or Permanent Labor Organization
“the working class forges the weapons of its revolutionary struggle through its daily resistance to capitalist exploitation. It is this which both allows the class and forces it to unify as a class and thus it is in the heat of this struggle that the proletariat arrives at a consciousness of the necessity for, and the possibility of, communist revolution.” [paragraph 8]
“Faced with the inevitable short-term failure of its defensive struggles under decadent capitalism, the class must conclude that it isn’t that these struggles are useless, but that the only way of making them useful to the proletarian cause is to understand them and consciously transform them into moments of learning and preparation for struggles which are more generalised, more organised, and more conscious of the inevitability of the proletariat’s final confrontation with the system of exploitation.” [paragraph 9]
“But the unions functioned not only as forms of organisation used by the class when it was engaged in struggle. As permanent organisations the workers also used them in periods of calm. Together with the mass party, they constituted a real permanent means of regrouping the class. After the unions ceased to be proletarian organisations, the class was then faced with the problem of knowing if and how it could organise itself on a class basis, given a let-up in the struggle. What generally happens when the struggle dies down is that the strike committees disappear along with the general assemblies. The workers tend to go back to being a mass of individuals, atomised and defeated, more or less accepting the claims of the unions to represent them. Such a return to passivity may take a long time or it may happen very quickly, but in either case if there is no new outbreak of open struggle it is inevitable. In an attempt to prevent such a relapse, it often happens that in the downturn of the struggle the most combative workers try to remain organised in order to create a permanent organisation that will allow the class to regroup after the struggle has finished. The absence of struggle systematically condemns such attempts.” [paragraph 13]
The vision of the class struggle presented in this paragraph is essentially that of anarcho-syndicalism. It is a vision that is simply a more sophisticated version of what the Industrial Workers of the World have been promoting since 1905, and a repeat of the infinite escalation theory of Eugene Debs that was tested in practice in the disastrous failure of the Pullman strike. When looking at the workers’ councils, the pamphlet says:
“These organs of centralisation and unification created by the class are the means through which it can forge, in the heat of the struggle, the material and theoretical forces necessary for its attack against the state. But the very form of the soviets or councils gives them one particular characteristic. Because they are assemblies of delegates elected by quasi-permanent general assemblies, their existence is entirely dependent on the existence of generalised class struggle. If the class is not struggling in all the factories, if there are no general assemblies of workers in all the places they are fighting, the councils cannot exist. The workers’ councils can only become permanent when the generalised open struggle of the class becomes permanent; in other words during the revolutionary process itself.” [paragraph 11]
First, there is a castration of the workers’ party, since the pamphlet states that “the material and theoretical forces necessary” for the proletariat’s attack against the capitalist state can be forged in the struggle of soviets. The spontaneous class struggle (of which the soviets are a product) can indirectly pose the question of state power, but can’t seal the deal. Second, there is the import of the anarcho-syndicalist vision of the preceding segments into the conception of the soviets by associating the existence of permanent labor organization (in this case, the councils) with “open struggle.” Like the Wobblies, who oppose the inevitable tendency toward structuralization inherent to all of labor’s class struggles regardless of their scale (depth and extent), the pamphlet ignores the historic impossibility of permanent mobilization of any greater or lesser segment of the working-class and the very history of the council-form in the lived experience of proletarian revolution. There is a tendency to associate this structuralization with changing the class content of the organs involved: so it was with the trade unions, so it is with the workers’ councils.
When the pamphlet states that, “the proletariat has only 2 weapons: consciousness and unity,” [paragraph 19] and that, “The proletariat’s forms of organisation are necessarily moulded by the need to carry out these two tasks. But here problems arise: these two tasks are two aspects of the same general task, two contributions to the same fight. But they nevertheless have contradictory characteristics. In order for the class to be united there must be an organisation to which every worker can belong irrespective of his political ideas, simply because he is a worker,” [paragraph 20] the revolutionary movement is reduced to a question of the forms of organization, but not of the process of organization. Organization is the weapon of the proletariat—not a particular form of organization, but the process of organization, the act of organization. The communist function in the class struggle is then to turn the defense of immediate needs and interests (trade union necessity) into the affirmation of the historic needs and interests of the whole class (class struggle necessity) through the practical unity and growing over of the spontaneous and structuralized expressions and manifestations of labor’s class struggles.
“The Death of the Union-Form”
In a rhetorical flourish, the pamphlet states that:
“Confronted with the death of the union form of struggle the working class through its own experience has resolved in practice the question of the form of organisation it must use in order to take its open struggle on to victory.” [paragraph 13]
Regardless of the political position held by the ICC– that the trade unions are no longer organs of labor but organs of capital– to proclaim the “death of the union-form of struggle for the working-class” is objectively unreasonable. The union-form continues to be produced/reproduced—generated/regenerated throughout every day that capital continues to exist.
“In the nineteenth century, the workers’ unions could be permanent and class-wide organs because of the function they had to fulfil: the systematic struggle for reforms could and had to be permanently undertaken. Workers could effectively regroup around this struggle and create a living centre for the development of class consciousness, reinforced as it was by concrete results. But when this struggle became impossible and ineffective, when working class resistance could only express itself in and through open struggle, there no longer remained a focus capable of allowing a general regroupment of the class outside of open struggle. The masses could not organise themselves for long around an activity that had no immediate results” [paragraph 24]
In one very small example, factory workers at the Lipton Tea plant in Virginia in 2016 demonstrate how the union-form continues to be produced/reproduced—generated/regenerated, and exemplifies that there are indeed immediate results to permanent labor organization. Theorizing the end of contingent victories for labor in its struggles against capital over immediate needs and interests does not liquidate the real contingent victories that continue to manifest in labor’s class struggles. All material gains extracted by labor from capital are inherently precarious, including those won on the political terrain (legal length of the working day, overtime guarantees, the franchise, trade union rights, etc.). This is as true today as it was in the 19th century.
In an interesting turn, the pamphlet writes that:
“Attempts to form organisations functioning as both unitary and permanent organs of the class are immediately caught in a vice. On one side such organisations are incapable of being real class-wide organs; on the other they are doomed to fail as political organisations unless they abandon any pretensions to being class-wide. They are either condemned to dissolve or are kept going by undertaking the only activity able to provide them with the illusion of continued life – that of becoming unions” [paragraph 26]
This affirms the conceptions of Class, Bureaucracy and the Union-Form insofar that the processes of labor’s class struggles allows but one consistent form of unitary permanent labor organization under the conditions of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie: the trade unions. Other forms of labor organization, the organs of control/power which are only possible in the most acute manifestations of the spontaneous class struggle (factory committees, factory occupations, workers’ councils, defense guards, armed workers), cannot outlive the situational circumstances of their birth unless the acute spontaneous class struggle becomes proletarian revolution and then the dictatorship of the proletariat (where such forms of labor organization can become permanent). The disagreement here is not that the union-form is superior to that of the committees and councils; the disagreement is on the existence of a unitary-singular class struggle for the working-class or parallel class struggles based upon opposing class contents and by extension the class content of the trade unions. But by making a fetish of the organs of workers’ control and workers’ power and those acute manifestations of the spontaneous class struggle, through the theory that the trade unions and trade unionism have become organs of capital and the political position that real workers’ struggles are anti-union struggles, the communist fraction of the class is relegated to patiently waiting for the End Times of capital because there is no basis for communist intervention in labor’s class struggles that do not produce such forms through the conceptions in this pamphlet.
The Intervention of Revolutionaries
The subject of communist intervention is approached on the basis of the theory of the decadence of capitalism, the political position that the trade unions have been transformed from organs of labor to organs of capital and an interpretation of episodes of the acute spontaneous class struggle which were occurring contemporaneously when this pamphlet was drafted, published, translated, re-published, re-written, re-translated and re-published between 1969 and 1974.
The reader is warned that, “those who are today at the head of the trade union processions and who are so concerned with the maintenance of order will be the same ones tomorrow, who will take up arms against the workers,” and so the ICC crafted the practical application of this theory, political position and interpretation of the workers’ experience of the class struggle, culminating in the statement that, “the denunciation of the trade unions is one of the main tasks of the intervention of revolutionaries” [paragraph 28].
Yet, this practical application of the basis crafted by the organization functionally aligns with not only the vociferously anti-labor political right-wing, but the employers as well. This functional alignment on this subject has not been lost on revolutionaries including the ICC itself, for example in the discussion related to intervention in the Verizon workers’ strikes:
“When we denounce the unions, we can sound very much like the bourgeois right-wing attacks against them. It can be difficult for people who have not heard the unions attacked from the left before to make the distinction. In fact, we often do end up saying the same things as the right-wing (unions just take your dues money; but do nothing for you; they only advance their own interests, etc.)”
This brings to mind John L. Lewis’ quip: “Who gets the bird: the dog or the hunter?” If communists act against the trade unions, who gets the bird: revolutionaries or the capitalists?
The ICC elaborates further in the pamphlet when it writes, “communists do not defend particular demands,” [paragraph 29] and, “the denunciation of the trade unions goes hand in hand with the defence of forms of organisation suited to the proletarian struggle under decadent capitalism: general assemblies, factory committees, and workers’ councils,” [paragraph 30].
Let’s look at the recent history of the Boeing South Carolina factory complex, where the question of general assemblies, factory committees and workers’ councils was not posed in the struggle (something which I agree with from the ICC pamphlet: “the forms of organisation are a necessary condition for the development of this process, but their appearance is very much a spontaneous product of the action of the masses rather than a result of the intervention of revolutionaries” [paragraph 31]). The latest union election at the plant for representation with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) was held in February 2017, where the union was defeated by a margin of 3:1. It should be repeated that in relation to the ongoing effort to organize Boeing South Carolina, the last election petition (2015) was cancelled by the union because of guns being pulled on their organizers during home visits due to the politically constructed anti-labor frenzy:
“The union said it was forced to call off its door-to-door canvassing campaign this week after two organizers were greeted with homeowners brandishing guns as they ordered them off their property and “others reported hostile and near-violent confrontations.”
‘I hold the Boeing Co., South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and their surrogates responsible for creating an atmosphere of state-sanctioned hostility toward unions and union organizers,’ he added”
It should also be repeated that before Boeing created their Boeing South Carolina division, the plant they occupy there now was owned by one of their subcontractors– Vought Aircraft, which was organized by the IAM in 2008 (and decertified in 2009). Boeing bought the plant in 2009, right around the time that they were using the runaway shop threat against the worker fortress in Everett, Washington (over 30,000 workers at that single plant complex)–and most represented by the IAM and other smaller unions.
When the IAM organized the Vought plant in 2008, this was the situation:
“A Web site the union created specifically to drum up support from North Charleston workers showed disparities between what the IAM says Vought’s local employees earn, $15 an hour, and what IAM members make at Vought and Boeing plants in Nashville and Seattle, $22 an hour to $32 an hour, not including cost-of-living increases.”
Boeing workers in Washington state were the subject of considerable chiseling in the years leading up to the acute crisis of 2007-08 which culminated in the 2008 Boeing workers’ strike. It was in the background of these events that Boeing purchased the Vought Aircraft plant outright and began using it as an additional chisel against the unionized workers in Washington, permanently threatening to move work to the non-union plant in South Carolina. Recently, it was announced in 2016 that Boeing will cut its entire workforce by approximately 10%, through a combination of attrition (leaving positions created by retirement and turnover unfilled), buy-out packages and involuntary lay-offs.
Cheering for the defeat of the machinists’ union in South Carolina is the same as cheering for the victory of Boeing; opposing the workers’ union organizing effort is the same as supporting the status quo of lower wages, longer hours, arbitrary discipline and inferior working conditions. Such a position turns the revolutionary movement into the cat’s paw of the bourgeoisie. To say that these are not real workers’ struggles due to the presence of a trade union, or that there is nothing material to be gained through this struggle, is to deny the struggle for higher wages, shorter hours and improved working conditions—even though that struggle is most definitely real.
On the subject of communist intervention, this critique is not meant to be for the sake of criticism, but as part of a collaborative effort to elaborate an alternative basis for socialist practice in the present, under the contemporary conditions of capitalism. This alternative is not a ready-made blueprint, a formula or an ideal-on-paper recipe for communist intervention, but a contribution to the establishment of such a basis so that we may all facilitate the communist function in the class struggle and in doing so, facilitate the revolutionary movement for communism:
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