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.


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.

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.