Rethinking Anarchism

For a New Workerism: Glaberman, Weir, and Lynd
December 7, 2009, 8:24 am
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , ,

A review of “Punching Out” by Marty Glaberman, “Singlejack Solidarity” by Stan Weir, and “Wobblies and Zapatistas” by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic.

“Politics is millions.” So says Comrade Lenin. And for once, I agree with Lenin. Politics begins not with hundreds, not with thousands of people but with millions. Trotsky continues, in his history of the Russian revolution, that revolutions occur when the broad masses, those whose day-to-day lives normally serve only as the backdrop for the “historic” actions of the actors of the ruling classes finally step into the light, upstaging the bourgeoisie and becoming the protagonists of the drama of the class struggle.

But are the lives of the ‘broad masses’ any less important during non-revolutionary periods when the working class remains taken for granted, in the shadows? Of course not. Because it is during these times of apparent calm that conditions ripen for the next upheaval, perhaps in fact for the final struggle.

Of course, the revolution has not happened yet. We still live under the rule of the capitalist class, and history, written by the victors, leaves untold the story of the working class in its periods of subjugation. Thus, the narrative of class struggle is, as the Haymarket Martyrs said, “a subterranean fire” bursting only occasionally onto the pages of capitalist history during open confrontations between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, but otherwise remaining underground- feared but unseen.

To the casual observer, these episodic confrontations- the uprisings of 1848, 1871, 1886, 1905, 1917, 1934… and so forth, seem spasmodic and perhaps unconnected. It is only through an intimate and first-hand knowledge of the life of our class and the counterinsurgency operation capital has put into effect to keep us down that we can understand the “inner connection” between these events and base our actions as revolutionaries not only on a dogmatic commitment to equality and justice, but an understanding of the forces that move millions.

It is for this reason that the writings of Marty Glaberman, Stan Weir, and to an extent, Staughton Lynd are so important.

Glabermand and Weir are what Gramsci would call “organic intellectuals.” They were rank-and-file workers who participated in wildcat strikes, as well as much more mundane aspects of working class life. They became politicized through these experiences and wrote about them in “Punching Out” and “Singlejack Solidarity.” Both of these books are a treasure trove of stories of everyday resistance, and also loss, in the auto factories, steel mills, and dockyards of mid Twentieth century capitalism.

Glaberman and Weir drew astonishing conclusions from their participation in struggle at a rank-and-file level in their workplaces. Entering the workplace either during or slightly after World War II, they saw the gains made by mass working class direct action in the 1930s be co-opted into the bureaucratic structures of the CIO and other business unions. They developed a sharp critique of the no-strike clause, mandatory grievance procedures, and other embryonic forms of contemporary business unionism. While they were witness to this tragedy of co-optation and disorganization of the working class, they also watched a new wave of revolt wash over the factories in the form of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and other revolutionary union movements. For Glaberman and Weir, these new formations were merely new manifestations of the creativity and unending resistance they saw in their class comrades everywhere around them every day on the job.

In his book of interviews with widely-respected Balkan Anarchist Andrej Grubacic, Staughton Lynd pays homage to the tradition of working class autonomy and struggle the Glaberman and Weir were part of. But Lynd, as a lawyer and a Quaker, participated in the movement from a different vantage point. He has many inspiring things to say, but it is clear that his admirable commitment to the workers struggle is not based on the fact that his life in the existing society is intolerable, but rather on an abstract moral value system which finds capitalism unnacceptable. He “accompanies” the workers, but he is not in the class in the same sense as Glaberman and Weir. With Staughton Lynd, the tradition of Workerism breaks. Perhaps in this rupture we can see a manifestation and a cause of the isolation of America radicalism from the US working class.

I would argue that it is only through participation in working class life, in solidarity with those who toil alongside us whatever their social or political views may be, that we will be able to participate meaningfully as self-described revolutionaries in a revolutionary movement. If we do not stand alongside our sisters and brothers in the class, then we will either stand in front of them as Leninists, impeding their path, or behind them, useless in the struggle.

We need to look to the example of Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir to understand how to participate respectfully alongside other rank-and-filers of our class in the fight against the bosses and the bureaucrats. Their example is not perfect. They were both men, and hence, their perspective is limited to the fight against capital by waged workers in male-dominated workplaces. They were both white, so they don’t have a full understanding of the role of racism in capitalist society. But there are a many lessons we can draw from their experience, a tradition of rank-and-file participation, which can contribute to the development of a new Workerism, a theory of social struggle based in confidence in the ability of regular working people to re-make the world.

Perhaps, with such a theory in hand those of us who have come to our convictions primarily through books and ideas will be able to participate meaningfully in the  real movement, the struggle against the bosses that millions of our class comrades engage in every single day.


Review: “Soldiers in Revolt” by David Cortright
July 16, 2009, 6:35 am
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Soldiers-revoltWhen the Industrial Workers of the World was founded in 1905, there was almost no public sector. These were the days before Keynesianism. Lenin hadn’t written about imperialism yet. There were no Bolsheviks, the authoritarian left was but a vicious glimmer in an intellectual’s eye. The Second International had not yet collapsed. In this political climate, the workers movement swelled, launching continual offensives against the bosses.

This is supposed to be a review of a book about GI resistance during the Vietnam War, right?

Dammit, I’m getting there, OK? Many people on the left believe that while the Wobblies and maybe the CIO were well and good in their day, these days revolutionary opposition must come from outside the system. They look to indigenous peoples, to “deep ecology” and nature. They look to the Third World proletariat. When they look at those in the emloy of the state, the public sector and the repressive apparatus, they see a monolith. When they look at capitalism, they see corporate logos.

Where they merely see “the enemy,” we see people and a site of struggle. We see an opportunity for subversion at the system’s most critical points.

David Cortright’s “Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War” demonstrates once and for all that society is not a monolith, that there are contradictions within the system that can lead to the development of revolutionary consciousness in the system’s very core. There are cracks in the edifice. In a careful study, Cortright traces the evolution of GI resistance to the Vietnam War from early, “vote with your feet” tactics like desertion, to the development of politically sophisticated GI organizations and soldiers unions. Often under the influence of radicals who entered the armed forces to organize, the US military was rocked by rebellions, combat refusals, and mutinies. This organized resistance was underscored by widespread unorganized resistance and massive drug abuse and disaffection in the ranks.

The breadth and depth of GI resistance led to a breakdown of the armed forces in Vietnam, leading to the defeat of the US invasion. The US defeat wouldn’t have happened without the courageous sacrifices of the NLF and Viet Cong in their defensive war, but without the refusal of troops to serve in Vietnam, it’s likely that the US would have continued to bomb the country until there was literally nothing left. The unreliability of US armed forces was critical to the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam.

Cortright also explains how this defeat led to the development of a more high-tech, less personnel-heavy force, and the development of the US military strategy of proxy warfare and bombing lasting from the end of the Vietnam War to present. Already in 1970, the Pentagon was developing plans for unmanned aerial drones.

Finally, Cortright closes the book by examining the re-emergence of GI resistance during the Iraq War. While most of the anti-war movement has focused on intensive protest mobilizations targeting politicians, few organizers (save have considered the potential of organizing within the military. Even fewer (perhaps none) have considered joining the military in order to organize. History tells us that by ignoring this arena of struggle we miss a great historical opportunity. The state is not a monolith. Let’s plant seeds in the cracks in the edifice, and bring the whole fucking thing down.

Mini-Review: “Revolution in the Air” by Max Elbaum

51ea1HqYCCL I’ve been living in the same rental house for about a year now. It was built around 1900. It’s pretty run down, and kind of quirky. There are always little surprises– the toilet overflows, the stove stops working, you find something wierd behind radiator, or you finally get keys to the attic… there’s always some reminder that you’re not the first to live in the house, and that you really don’t know the place that well.

Reading Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Tunr to Lenin, Mao, and Che” was kind of like finding a room in your rental house that you didn’t know about. People lived here before, in some of the same ways we do, but in different ways too.

Elbaum’s book is about the rise of the “New Communist Movement.” As the 1960s drew to a close, young radicals took inspiration from the uprisings of 1968 and the surge of anti-imperialist organizing in the Third World, deciding to create a new Marxist-Leninist vanguard organization from the ashes of Students for a Democratic Society. SDS collapsed in 1969, splitting into one faction, which later became the Weather Underground organization, and a second faction called “Revolutionary Youth Movement II.” Elbaum’s work focuses on the fate of RYM II.

Many of the new vanguardist organizations engaged in “industrial concentration.” Their cadre entered workplaces to organize wildcat strikes and build a proletarian base. They had to confront many of the questions we grapple with today. What is the role of the revolutionary organization? How do we deal with racism? Is the working class revolutionary? Are trade unions a possible vehicle for social transformation? The would-be vanguardists of the time answered these questions with (mis)quotations from Mao, Che, and Lenin. They built dozens of would-be vanguard parties, each announcing that it had the “correct” political line to lead the masses to the glorious revolution that never came…

By the end of the 1970s, most of the party-building efforts lay in ruins. The refugees of the movement mostly burned out. Some entered the middle class, others sought careers in education or as trade union bureaucrats or non-profit workers. Others went insane, which accounts for the old guy in camo gear sitting next to you on the bus muttering about revolution. In the 1980s, a few of the remaining grouplets united, forming Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and a couple other authoritarian wolves in sheep’s clothing.

For those of us on the libertarian left, Elbaum’s story can be a cautionary tale. We’re not the first to live in the creaky old house of the radical left. Let’s take some time to look around and get to know the place, find the skeletons in the closet, and make some repairs. There were others here before us. It didn’t work out for them. But this is our house now.

“We, the Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937” by Stuart Christie
March 30, 2009, 6:58 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

we-coverI just finished Stuart Christie’s (yes, the guy who tried to assassinate Franco) study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation. The book not only attempts to “set the record straight” about what the FAI was and wasn’t, it uses the story of the FAI in the Spanish Revolution to look at the critical question of power and co-optation in revolutionary movements. The story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. In 1936, the workers of the Spanish National Confederation of Labor (CNT) thwarted a fascist uprising intended to topple the liberal state. In crushing the military coup attempt, they seized control of their neighborhoods and workplaces. Armed workers patrolled the streets. The revolution was an accomplished fact.

The revolutionary leaders were overwhelmed by their own success. Cracks immediately began to emerge in their own belief in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself. Most of the “notables” of the CNT and FAI sold out the membership, agreeing to the establishment of a provisional state apparatus and the repression of the anarchist movement’s own “uncontrollables.” Before long, the Stalinists and liberals had outmaneuvered the Anarchists in the government, leading to a collapse in revolutionary morale, and eventually, a fascist victory.

According to Christie, the fate of the FAI should serve as a cautionary tale to anarchists in struggle. As it turns out, we are our own worst enemies. We are not exempt from what has been termed the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” in social groupings. A permanent leadership tends to emerge, which eventually becomes more invested in its own survival as an elite than in the success of the struggle.

This question is not merely theoretical navel-gazing. The dynamics of “oligarchization” play out every day in our organizations. How do we build a truly libertarian mass organization? Our ability to make a revolution depends on our ability to answer this question.

“Poor Workers’ Unions” by Vanessa Tait

When most people think of unions, they think of middle-aged white men, dreary, underpopulated picket lines, heavy industry, and the 1930s. In “Poor Workers’ Unions,” author Vanessa Tait shows that there is more to the labor movement than these outmoded stereotypes. Relegating the business union establishment to the fringes of her narrative, she tells a story of the continual resurgence of independent workplace organizing initiatives since the Civil Rights movement.

Over the course of seven chapters, each covering a different time period, Tait sketches the outlines of an organizational form that she calls “Poor Workers Unions.” Based in sectors of the working class that are excluded from the union establishment, or even excluded from the protections of labor law, Tait’s “Poor Workers Unions” are member-driven organizations that embrace disruptive direct action tactics. In part because they are made up of those who are excluded from the traditional AFL-CIO unions, poor workers unions often are rooted in a particular racial or ethnic segment. Workers turn this specificity into a strength, drawing on specific traditions of struggle and resistance in organizations like the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, or Black Workers for Justice, or the many “workers centers” that serve as organizing hubs for immigrant workers.

The history of Poor Workers Unions is incredibly inspiring. Again and again, workers who have been excluded from unions decide to organize. Sadly, once these new organizations grow and  stabilize, they are absorbed back into the business union establishment, losing much of their radical edge in the process.

Tait argues throughout her book for a reorientation of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to organize poor workers. I would argue instead for a reorientation of poor workers away from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. These organizations are a graveyard for organizing, and are incapable of defeating the bosses, let alone abolishing capitalism. After building their own organizations through bitter struggle, poor workers deserve more than the high dues, lack of democracy, cooptation and purple t-shirts the business unions offer.

Tait is not the first historian to study poor workers unions. German theorist Karl Heinz-Roth studied the immigrant workers movement in Germany from the late 19th century to the 1970s. He claimed that the workers movement is actually two movements- the established trade union movement and its parliamentary corrolary, the Social Democrats, and the “Other Workers Movement,” made up of workers excluded based on trade, ethnicity, race, or gender. According to Roth, the Other workers movement remains dormant most of the time, only to explode in spontaneous self-activity, throwing up democratic organizational forms in grassroots unions, wildcat strikes, riots, and even insurrections. Occasionally, the movement is able to build sustainable organizations to carry on the struggle beyond spontaneous uprisings. The historical IWW is an example.

Tait shows us that poor workers are more than capable of forming unions and fighting. It is now up to radical labor to show that workers can achieve greater goals than access to the sinking ship of reformist trade unionism.

A Good Idea: We Interrupt this Message
December 25, 2008, 5:52 am
Filed under: Books, Random Shit | Tags: , , ,

I just finished reading a book called “Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots Organizing.” It is the ONLY book I could find about this topic. It was published in 1991.

Problem? Hell yes. The fact that there is, as far as I can tell, NO more recent literature on this subject speaks volumes about the blindspots and weaknesses of North American social movements.

I went hunting around the Internet for more up-to-date resources on media activism and was happy to find that there are some folks who are thinking about this kind of thing. They call themselves “We Interrupt this Message,” and you can visit them here:

Here’s their philosophy:

Interrupt’s strategies are predicated on five beliefs:

  1. Disenfranchised peoples face significant media stereotypes and media bias. These distortions hurt marginalized communities, the advocates that work in the community interest, and public policy.
  2. The rules of media work are fundamentally different for advocates working on behalf of marginalized communities. Traditional PR strategies are not sufficient for these advocates.
  3. Public interest groups will usually face opponents with much larger PR budgets. The challenge for public interest groups is to develop innovative strategies that play on their strengths.
  4. Broad-based grassroots organizations representing disenfranchised communities must build their own media capacity. They cannot depend upon PR consultants with no stake in the community or media accountability groups with no institutional connection to them.
  5. Media capacity-building in these organizations requires more than just training. It requires ongoing technical assistance and at times collaborative campaigns to change coverage as well.

Some thoughts on “Radical Space: Building the House of the People”
November 22, 2008, 2:42 pm
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I just finished Margaret Kohn’s “Radical Space: Building the House of the People.” The book is an analysis of the role that autonomous spaces played in the Italian socialist movement before the rise of Fascism. I was partly motivated to read the book because I recently took on the responsibility of establishing long-term financial stability for a local radical community center. I didn’t get much out of the book in terms of practical hints, but it did move my thinking about the role of space in social movements in a new direction.

Kohn’s primary thesis is that rather than being socialized into revolutionary consciousness in the factory, Italian workers’ movements were rooted primarily in cooperatives, chambers of labor, and houses of the people. Most of these structures were non-partisan coalitional spaces shared by various political groups, trade unions, and popular associations. Kohn claims that the “Houses of the People” served to project political meaning onto everyday activities like drinking a glass of wine, relaxing with friends, or purchasing food. Kohn makes arguments about each type of social space in particular as well (cooperative, chamber of labor, factory, the bourgeois public sphere), but these probably aren’t necessary to go over. She also claims that learning how to run cooperatives and community centers helped build the compositional power of the working class.

On the whole I was very impressed by the book. It is surprisingly relevant and readable for an academic text. However, I thought that the argument suffered for the absence of a couple key conceptual tools for understanding capitalism. This became clear toward the end of the book when Kohn devotes a chapter to analyzing the geography of socialist municipalities in Italy in the inter-war years. As a result of her early choice to dismiss the role of the factory as a site of potential liberation, she actually overlooks the central goal of proletarian struggle: emancipation from work. Her emphasis on working class political movements instead must focus on control of local governments by social administrations. Kohn starts out with a promising dismissal of traditional notions of a linear progression of class consciousness to the formation of a working class political party, and ends up glorifying local socialist governments and downplaying the real failure of the socialist movement to seize the means of production.

That said, it is painfully clear that the closure of political space in the postmodern world has been much more than a metaphor. There are no places for people to meet, discuss, and make plans. Back on a metaphorical level, workers today are socialized almost directly by capital without the mediation of the bourgeois private sphere or the autonomous proletarian public sphere. The workplace still produces antagonism between workers and bosses, but the antagonism becomes submerged, continually collapsing back into fascist dependency. Revolution clearly will not spring out of the workplace without outside organization.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. There is no consciousness, to there is no organization, so there is no struggle, so there is no consciousness. How does one create something from almost nothing?

Perhaps here is where we can add to Kohn. Before there are spaces, there must be movements that need spaces, or at least an image of movements that might need spaces. This where we are at right now. First the prophets, then the people, then their house.