Rethinking Anarchism

Archaeology of the Workers Movement
December 10, 2009, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been slowly reading up on the history of the workers movement. I’m going chronologically, digging from the past to the present. I feel a bit like an archaeologist, unearthing the bones of terrifying beasts that roamed the earth during high points of workers struggle- the mixed locals of the Knights of Labor, the flying pickets of 1934, the Soviet, Soldiers and Workers Councils, the Commune, the Red Army of the Ruhrgebiet, the list goes on. All that is left of these proletarian monsters is their fossilized remains, crystallized in the amber of history books and buried in the tar of arcane dissertations. But are these creatures extinct? Or do their distant descendants continue to walk the earth, evolved, and perhaps transformed or even tamed by additional decades of struggle?

In reading about the forms of organization created by workers in moments of upheaval, I can’t help but notice certain organizational features that keep recurring, like a return of the repressed, whenever the proletarian movement is at its most dynamic.

What are these features that arise again and again in the class struggle, these weapons that the working class reaches for instinctively in its combat with the class enemy? First, from the Mixed Locals on down through the IWW and on to the Soviets and the alternative unions of the 1930s, we see that revolutionary workers tend to build organizations open to everyone in the class, unrestricted by trade, craft, nationality, and in their better moments inclusive of all genders. Revolutionary workers tend to favor direct action, establishing new standards of rationality based on their own class viewpoint, rejecting the property rights of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary workers’ organizations are based on direct democracy, rather than representative democracy. Those who do are those who decide.

Taken together, these three elements are formidable weapons in the hands of the organized army of production. The bourgeoisie never hesitates to disarm the proletariat of these potent weapons as soon as the opportunity for a counterattack arises, seeking to co-opt the movement by demanding to negotiate with representatives, establishing compromises and agreements with certain sections of the class to break up class solidarity, and seeking to channel workers’ activity into bureaucratic, legalistic channels.

It is the task of class conscious workers in our own period to re-arm the proletariat with ideas for struggle and rebuild the army of production through a patient, careful work of organization. As we organize, we should draw upon the best traditions of the past, building direct-democratic, direct-action, class-wide organizations to carry on the revolutionary struggle against the capitalist class.

Maybe then, wild beasts of workers struggle will once again roam the earth.


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.

The Battle of the Sandwiches: What does the bosses’ offensive look like?
December 6, 2009, 8:32 am
Filed under: Analysis, Random Shit | Tags: , , , ,

If you read stuff about the 1970s and 80s, there is a lot of talk about the “bosses’ offensive,” an aggressive attack on workers movements by capital.

A friend of mine from Italy told me that in 1977, the bosses and pro-boss workers (we call these people ‘scissorbills,’ because their words cut you) staged a march of several thousand people in opposition to the continued wildcat strikes, sabotage, and occasional kneecapping, kidnapping, or assassination of bosses in the plants of northern Italy. This action was sufficient to change the climate and turn the cultural tide against the workers’ insurgency.

In my own workplace, we have seen an ebb and flow of class struggle on a micro-level. Initially, when the union went public, the boss was so afraid of us that he would sneak in and out the back door of the store without us knowing. We actually had a hard time planning actions because we could never find the boss to make demands.

The company replaced our boss with a new, more authoritarian manager. She set about breaking the union. Many of our fellow workers quit of their own volition before the union-busting really started, so we were already weak when the boss went on the offensive against us.

How did our new boss attack us? The same way we attacked our boss. She picked a winnable issue- something that we cared about but that we would be unable to defend. An issue that would isolate us from our coworkers, where we would not have “common sense” or the moral high ground behind us. In this case, it was the day-old sandwiches. We used to keep the sandwiches we didn’t sell at the end of the night for the workers who would come in the next day to have for lunch. Since we’re all so damn poor, this small gesture of solidarity meant a lot- it saved us money, and sometimes meant we got to eat when we would otherwise miss a meal.

The boss took away our sandwiches and put a note in the back room instructing us that we were no longer allowed to keep the sandwiches.

We were outraged. She was taking food out of our mouths. Immediately, two workers confronted the boss and demanded we be able to keep the sandwiches, explaining how important it was to us, how we didn’t make enough money to buy lunch every day, and how upset all the other workers would be.

The boss had prepared an answer in advance. She said it was against health code to keep the sandwiches, and that her boss would not allow it. We went back and forth a bunch of times to no avail.

The next day, I packaged up the sandwiches and put them in a stapled-shut bag, labeling it for a coworker who worked the next morning. He got the sandwiches and shared them with others on his shift. This was a direct action, directly contradicting the boss’ wishes.

I got called in the back room the next day. I was informed that if I did this again, I would be written up. Two writeups and I would be fired.

What could we do? We could do another march on the boss. A strike? A picket? A phone-in? We couldn’t figure out how to escalate. Our coworkers were not comfortable openly disobeying the boss, especially with the legitimacy of “health code” behind her.

Our boss won. We lost the sandwiches. We did not have the organization we needed to defend ourselves.

This was the first defensive battle of a long retreat. Once you lose once, the effect can be devastating. People lose confidence in their ability to win and your organization crumbles. The boss gets increasingly brazen in their attacks.

But their brazenness generates agitation. You might have to bide your time, but eventually, the time will be ripe for a counterattack. It’s important to understand this dynamic in order to be able to beat back the bosses’ offensive, but also to be able to take the occasional loss in stride, pick our battles, and stay on the offensive more effectively.

The Production of Gender
December 5, 2009, 8:01 am
Filed under: Analysis, Random Shit | Tags: , , , , ,

For most of my life, I’ve felt that men and women were different. Women like to do certain things and men like to do certain things. I felt like this had something to do with the special character of men and women. It seemed to be true because in fact, most of the men and women I know conform to these basic stereotypes. Growing up, I was told that it was OK to break with these stereotypes because, frankly, it wasn’t a big deal and it doesn’t hurt anyone if some men love other other men and act feminine, or some women love other women and/or act masculine. But the categories remained intact, despite the acceptability of some deviations.

It seemed like there was a natural way for the majority of both sexes of act.

I started working at a multinational clothing retailer recently. I only work a few days, mostly nights. Actually, I’ve probably been fired because I haven’t been scheduled to work in the last two weeks because I called in sick too much because I work too much because none of my jobs pay enough so I work too many hours.


Most of the time at this job all I do is fold clothes. Somethings I work in the early morning unpacking new shipments of clothes and putting them on the sales floor.

I mostly work on womens’ floor, because womens’ clothing sells much more than mens’. There is more work to do because women buy way more clothes than men do. Maybe they’ve got something to sell, too.

One day I focused the lights on both floors. The boss told me to focus the lights on certain things in order of priority  1) Visuals (this means mannequins that are set up by the “visual team”- a labor aristocracy of workers who set up mannequins while the mass workers fold clothes) 2) Marketing- there are giant blow-up photos of women and men wearing the clothes we are selling. The womens’ floor has pictures of all women. The mens floor has pictures of all men. 3) Product- piles of shirts and jeans. This was the order of priority for what the corporation wanted customers to notice.

The company I work for launched a marketing campaign to market womens clothes to women and mens clothes to men. They bought ads on TV and on Facebook.

People came streaming into the store to buy the products. Men bought the mens clothes. Women bought the womens clothes.

Would anyone know what was right for women and men if the corporations didn’t tell us? I doubt it.

Corporate America controls the media. The media produces the common sense of our society- our idea of what is right and what is wrong. In our own time, the means of production also includes the means of producing culture. The corporati0ns produce our sense of self-hood through control of culture. They tell us what is right for women and men. Without the perpetuation of the gender binary by corporate america, people would likely find expressions of their sexuality much more comfortable than those given to us by the bosses.

Which makes me wonder- why are they so invested in producing men and women?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that until workers control the means of production, the bosses will control our most basic emotions about what it means to be a man, a woman, and to be human.

Obsolete Lenin
October 14, 2009, 1:35 pm
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I have four jobs- two in the fast food industry, one in a large multinational clothing retailer, and another as a substitute teacher. On my way to work today, I was thinking about the different flavors of alienation I have to look forward to. First, I will have to “manage” classrooms of children for eight hours. I have to follow a lesson plan set out by another teacher and approved by the state. But despite the drawbacks, teaching will be the easiestand best-paying job I will do all week. I will get several breaks, including a full paid hour for lunch. I can use the computer while at work. In fact, I’m writing this while on the clock right now.

After my day of substitute teaching, I’ll head to a fast food restaurant for a second full shift. At the restaurant, I’ll work on an assembly line, closely monitored and supervised by management, unable to answer my phone and confined to a ten-sq. foot area for eight hours. I will be physically and emotionally exhausted by the time I get home at the end of the day.

It seems to me that each of these types of work will give rise to different kinds of demands stemming from the particular nature of the alienation workers in each industry confront. Fast food workers are alienated at an intellectual level and a physical level. We have to produce emotion and feeling on the demand for customers. In addition, our bodies are put to work, our motions Taylorized down to the last twitch.

Teachers face a much more subtle alienation. Teachers are forced to “teach to tests” and stick to state-sanctioned curriculum. They are alienated from the students they teach, who confront them as alien objects that must be controlled and somehow brought to reproduce state-sanctioned knowledge. The alienation of teachers is primarily at an intellectual level.

Lenin claimed that socialist consciousness would have to come to the working class from outside because workers would only be able to advance to “trade union” consciousness, making “economistic” demands on their own. However, I think there is a tendency for the demands of workers to become more inherently “political” and less “economistic” as capitalism advances. How can a teacher make a demand without calling into question the legitimacy of the state’s plan?

I believe all workers should organize. However, I think it is worth noting that as workers refuse to perform the most alienating types of labor or as technology makes these jobs obsolete, most workers will face circumstances that are alienating on a more intellectual than physical level. As capitalism advances, every demand will be a demand for workers power, since every demand will be a refusal of capital’s right to manage the social factory. Similarly, as capitalism seeks to manage its crisis, the power of the state has become increasingly interwoven with the power of the bosses on the shop floor. The economic has become political, the political has become economic. Lenin is obsolete.

For Communism
September 21, 2009, 7:15 am
Filed under: Random Shit | Tags: , , , ,


A friend of mine recently told me that he has realized that the radical left doesn’t really do anything. Sure, there are journals and blogs, ink and pixels spilled over theoretical questions, punctuated by the odd mass mobilization. But what the fuck does the radical left actually do in society?

Not a whole fucking lot for people who claim to be revolutionaries.

As someone who spends almost every waking minute talking to workers or fighting my own boss, I find this very frustrating.

I think it’s time to clean house. There is no longer any room for anyone above the struggle. The world has been interpreted enough. The point is to change it.

The “movement” is not made up of those who necessarily self-identify as revolutionaries, anarchists, marxist, or what have you. It is made up of those who struggle against their own masters from their own class position. As Marx wrote, “communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established , an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

For this reason, the starting point of our politics must be concrete and direct involvement in the struggle of our class. In a truly revolutionary movement, there is no room for staff organizers, professional intellectuals, and everyone who makes a career or hobby out of someone else’s struggle. We’re all in this together.

What is the deal with peoples’ fear of mass work? You are scared of talking to strangers? And you want to smash the state? Let’s have first things first, shall we?

I’d like less talk and more action.

A Gap in the Theory: Mass Work and Anti-Oppression Work
July 31, 2009, 4:46 am
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , ,

I organize unions. It’s what I do. It’s simple and unglamorous. It usually goes something like this: I talk to a coworker, or a worker who works in another workplace. I find out they have problems at work or problems that are caused by work. We discuss these problems and think about ways to bring their coworkers together to put pressure on management to fix these problems. I try to do this in a way that builds class unity and hatred of the boss.

Some of my activist friends think that what I do does not address oppressions based on race, gender, or other forms of identity. They think that what I do is basically a way of  “escaping” from my own white male identity, as if I’m somehow “slumming,” just pretending to be a regular workaday guy for a littiel while until I go to grad school. This is pretty insulting, but there is a real theoretical question buried in the uncomprehending activist bullshit.

What is the relationship between mass organizing and anti-oppression organizing?

There is a gap in the theory here. Marty Glaberman writes about “Black Cats, White Cats, Wildcats,” telling us that in the struggle against the boss, racism often evaporates. But there’s more to it than that. What about the struggle against racism itself? Can we only fight racism when struggle against the boss erupts? Is it possible to fight the boss as the boss, and fight racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and so many other oppressions) as its own system of oppression? Is this what we need to do?

In my own experience, I have found that building mass organization is a powerful way of building solidarity across all kinds of lines of difference in the working class. But the question remains: what is the relationship between mass work and anti-oppression work?

This theoretical gap is not likely to be filled by corporate liberal “anti-oppression” trainings. Let’s get thinking. We need to find our own solutions.