We want to thank the comrades of the CWO for their detailed review and use the opportunity to clarify our thoughts on the relation between day-to-day struggles, class consciousness and revolutionary rupture – and our role within this process. Their review can be found here:
It wasn’t surprising that after we got a bashing from our syndicalist comrades from ‘Organizing.Work’ for being ‘bad organizers’ due to our political trajectory, we now get a lecture from our left-communist comrades that we’re rubbish in giving political leadership due to our syndicalist outlook! You can’t win! If you haven’t seen our response to ‘Organizing.Work’ you might want to read it as complementary to this response. In a way, this debate is as old as the revolutionary workers’ movement, but we will try and go beyond re-enacting the debate between Durruti or Malatesta and the syndicalists or the KAPD and the AAUD. You can find our response to ‘Organizing.Work’ here:
In our response to the CWO, we start with the basics, which is their understanding of the relationship between work, struggle and class consciousness. We will locate their understanding in the historical roots of their political tendency. We will then examine whether their portrayal of our efforts inside and outside of the union structure is primarily meant to confirm their own preconceived ideas, or whether they are courageous enough to follow us into the contradictory nature of everyday working class lives. We will try to clarify our own understanding of day-to-day struggle and political organisation. We continue with the question of revolutionary rupture and the accusation of the CWO that in our ‘syndicalist manner’ we ignore the necessity of dismantling the capitalist state. We finally reflect on the question of whether we ‘failed’, or what ‘failure’ means for communists who want to organise within the class.
- Day-to-day struggle and consciousness
As we will see later on, the CWO makes a sharp distinction between ‘everyday struggle’ and political consciousness. Without wanting to go too deep into history, we can locate this in their Leninist origins. Lenin’s understanding of political organisation was a product of its time. He saw the necessity of forming a tightly knit, clandestine organisation to survive the surveillance of the Czarist police state. This meant that the ‘political organisation’ tended to be relatively sealed off from day-to-day struggles of the class. ‘Workers develop trade union consciousness, political consciousness comes from without’. The necessity of a sealed off political organisation fused with his rather mechanistic view of ‘materialist philosophy’, which failed to grasp the ‘practical’ interrelationship between the material world and our representation and reflection on it.
Again, a sharp distinction between ‘the real world’ and ‘consciousness’. The Leninist ‘survival mode’ was exacerbated by the experience of the Italian communist left, which had to survive the political onslaught of both Stalinism and fascism. Their main antidote during these times was a retreat into theoretical programmatism. Bordiga was very involved in trade union struggles during the 1910s and 1920s, while maintaining the necessity of political leadership by a communist organisation. He rejected a united front with bourgeois political parties, but spoke in favour of a ‘trade union united front’. “The party must participate in every action to which the proletariat is driven by its economic condition”.
Only during the leaden years of the 1930s and 1940s did the left-communist position introduce an ideological washer between ‘economic’ and ‘political struggle’. The CWO carries this baggage. It prevents them from seriously engaging with, for example, the rediscovery of Marx and the analysis of the political nature of the production process in the 1950s and 1960s by groups such as the Johnson-Forest tendency in the US or Quaderni Rossi in Italy. We see ourselves in historical proximity to the (left) communist tendencies that broke with the nationalism and reformism of the Second International and who emphasised the need for an independent political organisation of the working class outside of electoralism and trade union institutions – and we see that these tendencies are products of their time.
We excuse ourselves for this perhaps boring historical interlude, but it might help to explain why the CWO gets trapped in tautologies when it comes to ‘struggle’ and ‘consciousness’. Below are some quotes from the review of our book. We learn that “workers fight when they are ready”, but that they need class consciousness to do so, because to try to support organising struggles, e.g. through a rank-and-file union is “substitutionism for class consciousness”. The CWO has a miracle to solve, namely the question of where the necessary consciousness comes from. Their answer to this is that “some workers, who are more class conscious than others take the lead”. Perhaps realising that this is not the most intelligent way to get out of the tautological trap, they have to revert to the old Leninist conception of ‘spontaneous struggle’ which lacks political direction and ‘political leadership’.
“There are many contradictions in the AWW’s approach to organising workers, one of the chief of which is that they want to try to urge workers to take militant action before they are ready for it. The only way to do this is to resort to the union organising model and this not only pre-empts class-consciousness but ends up stifling it.”
“But these three “material foundations” for a “class union” bespeak a kind of substitutionism for class-consciousness.”
“Workers ready for a fight don’t need a union to organise it for them. And the most class-conscious workers will give a lead to less class-conscious workers but this will only happen in the right conditions.”
“It shows that where the AWW are in a position to give a political lead to the working class by agitating for an extension to the strike and moving the struggle beyond the limits of the occupation, they prefer to prevaricate and wait for the workers to achieve that perspective spontaneously. This kind of workerism, as well as failing to provide political leadership, can also lead to workers’ confusion.”
To be fair to the comrades, they see the main problem in the union or legal framework of day-to-day struggles. Any form of collective action that takes place within this framework is automatically limited to it. According to the CWO, comrades have to wait until workers are ready to take wildcat action and can only relate to them, meaning, give them ‘leadership’ in that moment. We agree with the comrades that the trade unions, due to their sectorial, hierarchical and legal nature, limit class struggle. We also agree that revolutionaries should intervene in struggle and contribute with their experience and historical lessons. So why did we bother to get engaged in workplace activity even if there are no apparent struggles, including the rank-and-file union structure?
- Union struggle
We did so because we think that political consciousness is more of a continuum, developing as collective practice and reflection. Necessity forces workers to think together and act. As soon as a group of workers come together and discuss what to do as workers under their specific conditions, the political process starts. By analysing the way the work process is organised, within and beyond the company boundary, and the legal framework, including the trade union structure, workers develop political consciousness. The problem is that this does not happen as a neatly distinguished process before the action happens. Without workers being together and acting, this process does not proceed. This process is not linear, workers face difficulties and contradictions, which either make them question their path or lead to defeat. A strike might start within the confines of the trade union and surpass it. Most of the ‘wildcat strikes’ that the CWO refer to didn’t have ‘pure’ origins. To expect workers to only take action when they are strong enough to stage an illegal strike is voluntaristic – something the CWO comrades accuse us of.
In their review, the CWO comrade cherry picked only those of our documented experiences which confirm their view that any action taken within the legal framework is doomed from the start and that trying to organise collective actions at a time when ‘nothing is happening’ is voluntaristic. This is fine, but it means that no one learns anything. It also means that by avoiding looking into the more contradictory nature of struggles, the CWO hardly ever produces an interesting or insightful article about current struggles. This might sound mean, but the interesting articles tend to be about ‘the inter-imperialist constellation of China’s new silk road project’ and similar ‘bird’s view’ topics. The example of the Bakkavor wage campaign exemplifies what we mean – by the way this central chapter of the book was largely ignored in the review.
We speak of four factories of the company, located in close vicinity, with around 4,000 workers. The union is dominated by a group of corrupt reps, women workers earn just above the minimum after 20 years on the assembly lines. The union agreed to percentage increases which increase the pay difference between ‘unskilled’ (women) and ‘skilled’ workers. As a group we denounce this divisive practice and propose various meetings and actions, related to actual experiences and issues. We propose ‘self-organisation’, but only very few workers get in touch and at work our influence is limited to our departments. We doubt that the CWO comrades would bother working on assembly lines for the minimum wage for two years and distribute factory newsletters, but according to their political line this is where they would have stopped. Workers are not ready, they lack class consciousness. We decided to be voluntaristic instead when we saw that the regional GMB organiser changed and he seemed more open for rank-and-file organisation, e.g. by proposing new union rep elections. One of us became a union rep. This allowed meetings of women workers to be organised and promoted inside the factories, in order to discuss the current situation, together with Asian women strikers from the 1970s. We also called for meetings of all cleaning workers in the four factories to discuss their issues. These were not mass meetings, but such meetings had never happened before. During the meetings we encouraged workers to analyse their workplace in order to be able to take informal actions, e.g. work to rule. We then defeated the corrupted union rep clique and proposed a wage dispute with the demand of £1 more for all, disregarding their ‘qualification’. Workers voted against management’s puny wage offer three times, despite the fact that the main union reps told them to vote in favour. Voluntaristically, one comrade with support of the political group, opened the door for a strike, even though it would have been a ‘legal strike’. At the same time we continued with our independent factory newsletter. Our main line was that workers should tell the union what to do (call for department meetings, call for work-to-rule) and that we had to organise these ourselves in case the union was not up for it. We also continued distributing WorkersWildWest with articles of a more programmatic nature. During the strike campaign, further meetings took place (cricket, family picnic, gate meetings) where we encouraged workers to discuss the situation. A wildcat action of 50 workers in favour of the demand can be taken as evidence that some workers were discussing collective steps. Would the union leadership have pulled the plug? Perhaps, but not necessarily so. The GMB at Ealing hospital led a strike for a similar demand three years earlier. To conclude: we opened the door for a legal collective action, but workers were not confident and organised enough to see it through. A failure? Perhaps. At the same time workers were actually discussing things: what will management do? will they shift production to other sites? will the agency workers take up overtime and scab? why are some union reps for and some against the strike? For us this is the life-blood of working class political action. It happened in a contradictory fashion – and we would have tried to prepare workers for a confrontation with the union – but it happened.
We went into detail, not in order to blow our own trumpet, but to exemplify political differences amongst comrades. The CWO doesn’t see much need to analyse the different potentials for collective action between the previous situation (old union rep circle, top-down wage agreements) and the efforts to create workers’ meetings as part of a legal wage campaign – as it all happens under the umbrella of ‘the union’. The CWO’s approach is not helping workers to learn lessons from day-to-day struggles. We can also see this when looking at the way they analyse the contradictory nature of the rank-and-file unions, such as SI Cobas. In our book we try to explain why SI Cobas was able to organise dozens of offensive strikes with migrant logistics workers and how the union form at the same time runs into dead-ends. The CWO is not able to ignore the successes of SI Cobas, but instead of looking deeper into the contradictions of rank-and-file unions, something which might have practical value and consequences, they chose to retreat into the political moral high ground. A quote from the review:
“An internationalist communist intervention must, necessarily, try to do what SiCobas, and other movements like it, do not and cannot do because of their nature as trade unions, that is movements which operate entirely within the system. This means we have to link immediate demands directly with the perspective of class struggle against capitalism. In short, it must be said that the dispute […] is an immediate struggle that must be supported by the whole class, beyond the boundaries of sector or this or that trade union acronym — up to this point some of the speeches we heard would agree — but since the cause of workers’ exploitation is capitalism itself, and since the crisis of capital — the crisis, a great theme totally absent from any of the interventions we witnessed — is a structural crisis, then it is necessary, while fighting for the immediate demand, to emphasise that we cannot stop there at any struggle. Never.”
This is correct, but it also useless. Of course unions are not political organisations. But does that exempt us from analysing concretely how each and every union struggle is led? We also think that workers can make use of ‘legal vehicles’ for their strikes. Organising ‘legal strikes’ is not a question of lack of consciousness, but a question of power. In this sense we see the use of a ‘class union’ – but unlike CWO claims, to build a ‘class union’ is not our primary focus or aim:
“To embed themselves in the workplace and “fight the bosses” using what they would term a “class union” as a “vehicle” for organising the workers. We will go on to examine what they mean by “class unionism.””
“The solidarity network will assist in building the “class union”.”
As described above, for us the main aim is that workers analyse all means of class war that are at their disposal critically. This analysis doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens as part of day-to-day contradictory processes. We, as a political collective, want to contribute to this debate practically and theoretically. This includes first of all that workers become aware of how they can use the production process as their main weapon. It also means analysing the legal framework and the balance of power. In some specific situations, it seemed right to us to propose the IWW as a vehicle to mobilise for a wage dispute – one vehicle amongst other things that workers can do informally to put pressure on the boss.
“It is this need to act within the bourgeoisie’s legal framework that constrains and delimits organising. It is inevitable that you will be trapped in this legal framework as you attempt to negotiate the minimum wage (an arbitrary sum determined by the bourgeoisie) on behalf of workers.”
“The negotiators of the price of wage labour will always emerge as the leaders. A permanent organisation such as a union will inevitably become bureaucratic.”
Unlike the CWO we don’t fetishise the ‘pacifying’ or ‘derailing’ power of the law vis-a-vis a collective process of workers in struggle – something that reminds us more of anarchism than communist analysis. We think that if workers are aware of the pitfalls, a legal strike can be part of their arsenal. We also don’t think that workers’ permanent organisations necessarily have to become bureaucratic. Again, the IWW campaign brought 70 workers of different companies into one room in order to analyse and discuss their conditions. We never emphasised that the IWW is the only vehicle, we never said the organisation itself is powerful. We always said it is up to workers’ themselves and about their power as a workforce. And here we understand the confusion about our idea of a ‘class union’: out of a clearly political decision the ‘class union’ should be an unpolitical vehicle for all workers to use as a formal weapon of (legal) association. As communists we should make sure that the ‘class union’ remains this specific legal weapon in the arsenal and is not used for this or that political purpose. We think that with this ‘political consciousness’, communists can avoid ‘class unions’ signing contracts that curb the ability of workers to struggle united in future or prevent the establishment of a bureaucracy. As communists, we should contribute to the political debate as a political organisation, not by trying to takeover the union. Within the overall picture of class struggle – in terms of all possible ways to fight and in terms of political organisation – the ‘class union’ is a minor form in a defensive phase and was never central to our efforts in west London.
- Revolutionary transition
In order to be able to pigeon-hole us as syndicalists, the CWO review has to portray our understanding of revolutionary transformation as ‘gradual’ and as avoiding a confrontation with the capitalist state. This is when the review becomes most knee-jerk.
“At the same time the process of removing the control of the law of value over our lives has to be begun though it cannot be completed until the capitalist state has been destroyed everywhere. Yet we read in chapter 13 that, “the two main strategies of the ‘radical’ left – the violent attack on the state and its armed forces, and the peaceful electoral taking over of government, which seem to be the two extreme ends of the political spectrum – are both misjudging where the power of the system lies.” We would suggest that it is the writer who has completely misjudged where the power of the system lies. Incredibly, they go on to write, “violent insurrection or electoral politics don’t help to undo the power of capital, as they don’t actually question its power to determine how we produce and therefore how we live our lives.” Obviously, a change of government will not undo the power of capital. This is the goal of the capitalist left who think state capitalism is socialism. But does the writer really think the capitalist state will stand idly by while the workers are busy in the workplace reorganising production along socialist lines?”
The review takes these quotes out of context. They refer to the assumptions of insurrectionist and some anarchist comrades who see riots and looting and the confrontation with the state forces as the main element of revolutionary struggle. We emphasise that the capturing and transformation of the means of production is at the centre of any revolution – the change of a mode of production. Of course we see that the capitalist state will try to prevent this and has to be dismantled, but we don’t think that the working class will win this battle primarily through military means – perhaps differently from the comrades of the CWO, as we will see. In the final part of our book we try to sketch out a revolutionary process, some basic steps of ‘insurrection and production’. Here we define the different class segments and their role and limitations (mass workers in the essential industries, technical or intellectual workers, marginalised parts of the class, productive workers in the state apparatus) which have to be overcome in a revolutionary process. This is something groups like the CWO never have to undertake, as they see the ‘working class’ as a mass of people who either have consciousness or not. We clearly relate to the problem of the state, in terms of necessary violence to defend the means of production and defeat the class enemy, and the necessity for a political organisation of the class:
“We know that the revolution will not happen everywhere at the same time but we also now that a regionally isolated revolution can only survive for a certain period of time, before it is either starved out, militarily beaten or degenerates. We know that under modern conditions the revolution will not spread militarily, through conquest of territory and populations. There will be violence in order to defend taken productive assets and infrastructure, but the revolution will primarily be spread by strikes and occupations. The main weapons of the revolution won’t be tanks. The main promise will be the promise to not only help topple local despots and to cut the supply of cruise missiles to military governments, but to share and transfer the means to work less and have a better life from the centres to the periphery.” (p.352)
“Large sections of the working class have to be prepared for an organised response to a sponateous crisis: this will largely depend on the collaboration of workers employed in the essential industries wih the organised violence of the wider working class to takeover, defend and transform the essential industries.” (p.354)
“Within the state apparatus we find socially productive functions, for example, administration of certain social services, although much of this work is basically poverty management and therefore superfluous in a revolutionary transition. Working class struggle will have to win over the workers within the state apparatus by demonstrating that the socially useful activity can be organised in a more efficient and emancipated way once cut off from budget constrains and bureaucratic office command.” (p.357)
“Historically no revolution has been successful without a split in the army, in most cases as a result of previous war or civil war situations. The main chance for a communist revolution to split the army along class lines is therefore determined by objective conditions […] and its subjective capacity to attract working class soldiers: the organised working class movement can free us from hierarchical relationships and knows how to feed, clothe, care for everyone. Nevertheless, a revolution has to create its own material threat by weakening the military apparatus (non-cooperation, meaning stopping the suppply of essential goods and services for the army) and by armed defence of essential productive units. This includes curbing and sabotage by the middle class and lumpen elements.” (p.358)
“The essential industries and domestic units will be the main centres of decision making. We won’t speculate about whether there will be additional regional councils or neighbourhood assemblies etc. We think that the main decisions should be taken not as ‘citizens’ or ‘members of assemblies’, but as members of a new social (re-)production process. Debates and decisions concerning issues beyond the immediate reach of the essential industries […] should evolve from the new relationships created through day-to-day co-operation – not in a separate sphere of representation.” (p.358)
“An organisation of workers will also have to play a role in putting forward a ‘class perspective’ against the tendency of ‘workers’ control’ after takeover of individual companies. The workforce of bigger industries might try to use their position for their own privilege. […] In the moment of uprising a workers’ organisation should encourage the use of excess machinery/production […] for support of workers’ struggle ‘abroad’. This might mean encouraging extra labour above the locally required levels if necessary. It would mean defending this position against ‘localist’ tendencies within the working class.” (p.367)
The latter point brought us the badge of honour of being called ‘Leninists’ by some, while the CWO review tries to press us into their ‘syndicalism’ box by all means necessary:
“In fact, the whole approach of the AWW to formenting working class struggle with its emphasis on building a “solidarity network” is more like Gramsci’s gradualist perspective which focussed only on the factory and ignored the power of the capitalist state.”
“As Bordiga put it at the time, revolution is not simply a process of building up workplace democracy and proving that the working class could “responsibly and efficiently manage production”. Rather it is a conscious political movement to overthrow the existing state that has to be centralised and coordinated by an organisation with a clear revolutionary programme.”
We think the quotes from our book above refute these allegations. Without wanting to boast, we think the last chapters in our book, including the criticism of democratic socialism are probably the most elaborate – and therefore perhaps embarrassing – ‘revolutionary programme’ that currently exists in the radical milieu. We are interested in reading about a 21st century revolutionary strategy from our comrades of the CWO. In the review they limit themselves to generalisations such as:
“The priority must be, as soon as proletarian forces are powerful enough, to completely dismantle the capitalist state wherever the revolution occurs first and then concentrate efforts on extending the revolution to every other country.”
Well done! An indicator for their view on revolutionary rupture might be that they recently called Trotsky the ‘heroic founder of the Red Army’. Our problem with that is not primarily that the army was used against rebellious workers in Kronstadt. Our main problem is that the CWO seems to think that the establishment of a standing army not only was a good way to ‘smash the state’, but that it still is. In line with their general understanding of ‘consciousness’ they might actually see no problem with a ‘standing army’, as long as it is led by the right ‘political leadership’. They seem to think that ‘consciousness’ can act independently from structural material constraints – if it is only political enough. Here we differ, as we see a clear material link between having to sustain a standing army and authoritarian rule over the productive workers to supply the army – which led to the dismantling of the soviets and their social power. Here ‘the state’ was not smashed, but it reinforced itself in Russia. By trying to defend the revolution by a non-working class form of struggle – through a standing army – the ‘revolutionary state’ ended up killing it. Fatal voluntarism.
As a last side note, in order to maintain their monopoly, the CWO review quotes an exchange about a factory occupation in India in order to prove that we suck at ‘political leadership’:
“To quote Fredo Corvo from the dialogue with the AWW, “In the present situation in Manesar this implies agitation by these minority organisations for extension to other workers. I’m sorry to say that I have no indication that you are doing this now, and that you seem to wait until workers will do this ‘spontaneously’. This is a point to clarify because this doesn’t only concern Manesar or India but workers all over the world, a tiny minority is trying to follow what you are doing.” They then ask the AWW the question, “Is it possible that your efforts in creating a permanent organisation for larger numbers of workers, have made you reluctant to bring forward what you as a smaller minority see as necessary in struggle?” This is a very pertinent question. We think the AWW’s obsession with their industrial “strategy” is blinding them to the need for revolutionaries to give political leadership.”
This exchange is partly symbolic for our relationship with the CWO. While a lonely council communist in Holland can easily question tactics from the safe distance of his keyboard, some of our comrades spent two and a half years in the dusty heat of the industrial areas of Manesar and together with local comrades visited every strike they could in order to listen to workers and to tell them: go to workers of other companies; company xyz is currently on strike; set up an independent committee for the whole industrial area; don’t follow the union leaders. Most of it is documented here:
With the assumption that our main aim was the establishment of a ‘class union’ in west London, the CWO finds it easy to discard our efforts as a failure.
“The book is a fairly honest account of all this and shows how they failed to achieve their objectives.”
“They now have decided to leave Greenford for reasons which are not absolutely clear but between the lines it looks like individual militants have drifted away burnt out with their efforts. What is ironic is that the book ends with a call to build a grass roots organisation urging others to follow precisely the strategy which the book documents as having failed.”
First of all we think it is encouraging that our efforts can be read as failures, as this means that we indeed documented our experiences self-critically. The question is of course what the assumed goal was, which we supposedly failed or didn’t fail to achieve. When two of us moved to west London six years ago we wanted to ‘get rooted’ as communists in a specific industrial area. This meant first of all to understand the conditions, primarily the problems that our class faces to turn our individual weakness into collective power. We think that the book helps us all to understand these material challenges.
Of course it’s not all about documenting, but about engaging other working class people in collective processes: what are our conditions locally and globally? what can we do where we are and what can we learn from workers elsewhere? what is ‘systemic’ about our conditions, how did the system develop and how can it be overcome? Finally we think that given the often ‘spontaneous’ development of class struggles, ‘getting rooted’ means primarily ‘getting prepared’: creating contacts in workplaces and working class communities in the area and becoming known as people who fight with and for the class.
As a process that started with two people, we think that we achieved quite a lot. In our workplaces, we were trusted as ‘uncorruptable militants’ who workers would go to for support and advice and whose opinion on ‘political matters’ they valued. That’s not a mean feat for communists in workplaces of over 1,000 people. As a collective, we built contacts in dozens of large local workplaces – if something will start brewing, we will get to know about it. The solidarity network involved 30 – 40 working class people in its orbit, who somehow learnt that direct action and solidarity pays. We involved some of our workmates and people from the solidarity network in reading groups, discussions, international meetings – people who were not organised politically before. Finally, as a local communist group we created contacts with dozens of revolutionaries around the globe – not primarily because of our theoretical contributions, but because of our effort to develop a new working class strategy and to be honest and open about our experiences. Whether each of our ‘organising efforts’ was a failure or success, as a small collective we managed to create a new focus for the debate about working class political organisation. As a result of our efforts comrades in Croydon, east London, north London, Heathrow, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Derry started to engage in a process of setting up local collectives.
In terms of individuals dropping out: a few of our comrades had to go back to their countries of origin (Poland Spain, Slovenia), two of us have to move within the UK due to family reasons, some comrades intend to keep the solidarity network in Greenford running, some comrades started similar initiatives elsewhere. Burn-outs tended to happen when young comrades thought that they could organise a wildcat strike within a few weeks of getting a job. Class struggle is a series of failures till we win. Better luck next time.
For comrades who want to get involved: www.letsgetrooted.wordpress.com
For comrades who want to read other reviews of our book or want to get hold of a copy: www.classpower.net