REVIEW OF "REFLECTIONS ON ORGANIZING"
by Paul Thompson of Big Flame, U.K.
This article is worth commenting on in depth for a number of reasons. Sojourner Truth are an American group intervening in factory situations in Chicago. The growth in Europe of revolutionary interventionist organisations with a working class orientation, but outside traditional Leninist and Trotskyist currents, is a factor related to the explosion of working class autonomy, especially in France and Italy in recent years. Such groups as Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio have provided a rich source for us in terms of ideas and practice. But equally important are the groups with similar political orientation working in countries yet to have such explosions like West Germany, USA and Britain. These groups are in a sense trying to create through their intervention some of the pre-conditions for the development of class autonomy.
There can be no mechanical parallels drawn between the experience of Sojourner Truth and Big Flame on the evidence of this document alone. But there are similarities, and the lessons they draw in many cases seem like ours. A critical evaluation of their document may help us to write our own "Reflections on Organising."
The first section of the document deals with the relevance of various types of individual action against capital, such as sabotage. The author seems to feel that the tendency towards the glorification of such acts is strong in some sections of the U.S. left. The document goes to great pains to point out that there can be
no mechanical transfer of such individual forms of resistance to oppression into a base for coherent struggle.
It's pointed out that such tendencies lead to uncritical worship of spontaneity and "leadership models" based on individual militancy.
This seems quite straightforward to us, but then there develops a one-sided and partial view of individual action, and over-counterposes it to collective struggle. For instance, sabotage against the final product is criticised because it hurts the class as consumer and is a numerically insignificant part of commodity production as a whole. But surely this misses the point. Individual action against the product whether finished or in completion can be an expression of collective discontent, and is related dialectically to collective action. There is often a conscious combination of collective struggle or even collective "sabotage" with independent/individual actions that reinforce to collective level and are understood in that way by other workers. The degree to which individual actions are actually related to a collective process is dependent on the consciousness of the participants.
In this sphere the document is again one-sided, not taking into account the complexity of the issues involved. It is put forward that individual resistance to management is nearly always based purely on the particular needs of that worker "one worker's particular area of competence and responsibility." This seems to say that the average worker doesn't even partially generalise his or her grievance or experience, but challenges the management only when their job situation is threatened. But in our experience, the best shops learn precisely how to utilise individual grievances to generalise the struggle against management. And individual workers are well aware that if they fight or even conceive of their fight as a singular one, they are on a loser. The degree to which a general consciousness of collective responsibility will vary from shop to shop as the process of organisation and struggle is dependent on the history of the shop, and the number of more advanced workers. But in general, individual and collective action shouldn't be so polarised. Some individual actions do "show the possibility of collective action," not only manifesting the fact of oppression, which the document seems reluctant to believe.
This section deals with many different points, the common theme being on the methods of intervention, how to operate inside the plant, etc. Like Big Flame, Sojourner Truth insist on the necessity of NOT accepting the natural and accepted contours and patterns of the work situation. Most groups, reflecting their Leninist models of class and class consciousness, have a priori methods of intervention, accepting in advance limits on their type of intervention and on the type of struggles and limitations of consciousness that can be achieved. They aptly describe the typical way of working:
Learn the job and the grievances, single out the natural leaders and most advanced workers, make friends, but keep low on the job for some time until some people will listen to what you have to say. Then try to get the most advanced workers together, perhaps in a discussion group, so more general issues can be raised. Maybe at this time it will be possible to begin pushing a definite programme, circulating leaflets, etc. Usually this advice is put within the framework of a union caucus perspective, but this isn't essential. Then there are variations according to the left wing group involved. In the Communist Party the emphasis will be put on learning the contract, attending union meetings, getting on committees, etc. Other groups will stress developing cadres through communist education as a precondition for mass work or involving the advanced workers in the "movement."
Also like Big Flame, Sojourner Truth seem to reject the distinction between political (led by the party, against the state, offensive) and economic (defensive, the sphere of the Trade Unions, for the betterment of wages and conditions). If the proletariat is to develop political and organisational autonomy (that is, a sense of its separation from the needs and development of capital, and a sense of its historical task in overthrowing capital) then it has to reject the contours of the existence that capital gives it. As Marx said, it cannot free itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. This doesn't mean just "during the revolution" but continually in the struggle against capital in all its forms, in production and out.
That means that those who see the struggle within production as economic by nature (the proletariat left to itself in Lenin's terms) naturally fit their political strategies around the ground capital gives us to fight. On a political level this means the whole "right to work" orientation at the present time, which is precisely within the ideological framework the ruling class is able to deal with and recuperate, making it impossible to raise revolutionary ideas and programmes.
Organisationally this means union structures of politics, the problem being seen in terms of the leadership of the unions and in the need to democratise the form. But as the document says, it is not a question of the leadership or democratisation of the unions but the actual role that unions play under capitalism, as mediators of the class struggle, which is not something which is temporary or dependent on the politics of specific people or groups but is
deeply rooted in their (i.e., the unions') historically developed structures and functions.
They say that in the U.S. they must be supplanted by mass revolutionary organisations that
reject the bounds and limits placed on the class struggle by capitalist legality . . . that sets its goals and determines its tactics according to what the workers think is necessary, not what capitalism says is possible.
There is a danger here in terms of mass organisation. It is wrong to pose the need for mass organisations that are in fact only revolutionary trade unions. The form of the mass organisations that reflect developing autonomy of the class can not be a fixed thing. Already in Italy and France they have taken different forms according to the specificity of the situation. We are talking neither about revolutionary alternative unions nor workers' councils nor Soviets in situations of dual power, but differing organisational forms that will express the need of the class to control and determine its own struggles against the control and power of capital.
As it is impossible to talk of such mass organisations at the moment in Britain, the small groups that we have active in the factories must in some way prefigure the future development. Sojourner Truth are clear, as we are, that these groups cannot be based on the obsolete model of cells of "professional revolutionists" defined according to their ideological separation from other similar groups. They say:
A grouping whose individual members all regard themselves as revolutionaries is not necessarily a revolutionary group . . . not so much because the individuals may be mistaken or hypocritical about their own politics but because the test of whether a group of workers is revolutionary or not is whether it is able to find a programmatic link between the immediate needs of workers and the struggle for socialism. . . . Members of any sort of cadre group must be constantly tested, not by seeing if they can re-state the "correct position" on all major questions, but by seeing if they develop a revolutionary practice and provide leadership for the mass of workers.
To develop such perspectives such groups need to break down the false distinctions between economic and political struggle, agitation and propaganda, minimum and maximum programmes, etc. We must seek to act as reference points for the struggle, drawing out and developing its revolutionary potential, providing organisational means of bringing together militants, who are genuine initiators of the struggles and who seek to push them in an autonomous direction. Big Flame has only begun this process, which is still in a very experimental stage for us, with its idea of base groups which link together internal and external militants and try to create a unity between the differing layers of workers that can be potentially involved on the basis of specific factory strategies, rather than trying to create unity on the basis of agreement on the already-given world view of the political group. This strategy precludes the potential constant re-creation of the politics of these units, which for us are autonomous parts of the group as a whole. Our task at the moment is to develop this programmatic link between the immediate demands of the workers and the struggle for socialism, a programme of self-abolition of the class that sees the need for the class to struggle against itself its conditions of existence, for us at the moment primarily expressed in the struggle against work, that is, its domination, ideology, conditions, etc. The traditional groups' strategies are based around and subordinated to the concept of work within the factories. Outside of production, in the claimants' unions, the women's movement, the community struggles, etc., they are simply incapable of ideologically grasping the developments taking place. The need is for concrete strategy for the "right to live" which links up the various sectors of the movement.
The document is at its most useful when dealing with the importance of the various strata in the factory, attacking the mistakes of the traditional groups' orientation to union oppositions, etc. but also "leftist mistakes" of a priori identification of younger (and in the U.S. case, Black) workers as the ones with the most revolutionary potential in terms of getting together an initial group of people. They say that younger workers are more open to some aspects of revolutionary ideas and struggle. Some already have been influenced by radical ideas outside of production, in the area of youth culture, etc. Also, they are more combative inside in most cases; they have fewer responsibilities and are more willing to take action. But they are not necessarily open to specific forms of organisation and action. That is (and this has been Big Flame's experience to some extent), most fail to see the need for revolutionary organisation at best, but more seriously fail to see the need for their own involvement in struggles, except within their own existing patterns of combativity. They are also often sceptical of the possibility of mass participation of other workers, characterising them sometimes as "sheep." It may be that our approach to young workers is wrong, and even where we try to reach and organise with them. But the problems described by Sojourner Truth remain if, as we do, they want to organise in the factories.
They then deal with the union opposition (in the case of Britain, it is more likely to be the opposition within the shop stewards) saying that it is wrong to discount this strata. Many of these workers have rich experience of the struggle, and often their political understanding is high, and in that sense they can be reference points for other workers. But this is also their weakness, as the document says:
A lot of militant talk has got to be discounted as rhetoric and a lot of their activity has got to be examined for various opportunistic and careerist motives.
This doesn't come from their personalities; they haven't betrayed the struggle or anything like that. It is something that follows their function in the factory. Shop stewards in Britain developed as piecework negotiators; there is a tradition of them fighting for their sections. Most politically advanced workers become stewards, as it gives them influence and a "piece of the action." But their objective role as mediators of the struggle and appropriaters of the initiative of their sections gradually push them away from any attempt to develop involvement and base initiatives. And this is the political stewards, who are not quite as riddled with the ideology of labourism. The rest are a direct and continuous blockage to any revolutionary or even "militant" action. Nevertheless, some workers from the "oppositions" can and should be encouraged to break with the worst parts of their role. As the document says, political workers will continue for some time to seek steward-type positions. And they can be a help, if a great attempt to change the normal pattern of relationships and attitudes to the struggle is made. But if these positions are not combined with other independent forms of activity,
No basis will be laid to explain the break with the union structure that must occur relatively early in work.
This break cannot be made if, as the document suggests, the fight against the management is subordinate to the fight within the unions and their organising and involving other workers continues to be orientated towards building blocs for the union branch or within the stewards' committee.
A good analysis is also given of what they call the departmental leaders. To us the militants who take the initiatives on the sections and are most hostile to management, without necessarily being the most advanced in terms of political understanding, have a good sense of collective power and unity, but
. . . often lack a clear perspective which could take job action out of the framework of defensive reaction . . . towards an offensive strategy: . . . job action fails to take a continuing momentum that can place constant pressure on the capitalist control of the production process.
But in a sense this is the most important strata in a factory, for groups who are not simply out to recruit cadres to "ideologise" them and send them back in to influence others. They are the most important because of their understanding of the needs of the struggle, and that is political too! It is easier in most cases to widen in the struggle the political scope of this strata, than it is to break the union-orientated workers from a lifetime of accepting the passivity of those around them, with the inevitable and understandable feelings of cynicism and isolation that brings. So, in conclusion the document says that the initial group of workers should
. . . be open [though not necessarily committed B.F.] to a real critique of capitalism, aware of the importance of organisation and be able to provide leadership for struggles on the job.
The rest of this section in the document deals with some important points about everyday activity inside the factory. They criticise those who make a fetish of "putting your politics up front." Often, people unused to factory situations challenge every remark made, and make political interventions in every situation, trying to situate themselves as "sources of political wisdom." Apart from the fact that this makes you appear pretty boring, it could
. . . polarise the workers over abstract or peripheral issues in a way that inhibits direct action.
There is of course a hidden danger in this: it could be a cop-out from challenging racist or male chauvinist tendencies. But anyone who has worked in a factory knows what the document means. Challenging these tendencies and others is a long, patient process which involves understanding the positive and negative of the way your workmates think. Ideological arrogance sounds to most workers like lecturing and also misleads you into thinking ideas are changed by argument instead of by social practice.
Another pitfall is cultivating a reputation for "not taking any shit." Individual combativity on the job has to be a careful part of your overall political work, otherwise, as the document points out, "there is a danger that you make the political mistake of putting too much stress on the foreman or lower management figures."
There is some good advice given on the relationship of propaganda in leaflets, etc. to the rest of your political work. It is easy to let analysis outstrip the program or the program outstrip the actual base of support in the factory. For those groups that are trying to involve themselves in, and shape events inside, propaganda must avoid threats, and agitation must avoid pledges that can't be kept, calls to action that can't be backed up with real strength and are unrealistic. Mistakes like these we've found can only be eradicated through learning from experience: they can be costly, but there is no other way around it.
We would start to disagree with the document in its view of consciousness: they draw directly from Gramsci's more sophisticated Leninist model. But the model is still far too simplistic and leads to a distorted political practice as the over-emphasis on direct action will show. A long quote from the document on the question of consciousness illustrates the position:
The working class as it exists under capitalism has two conceptions of the world. One is essentially capitalist accepts private property as necessary, sees competitiveness, acquisitiveness and selfishness as basic characteristics of human nature; and does not challenge the notions of right, justice, freedom, etc. which serve to maintain the dominance of the capitalist class. As Gramsci says, this capitalist conception of the world is not just an intellectual fact, it is a pattern of conduct. The working class "in normal times when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but precisely subordinate and submissive . . ." acts as if capitalism would be here forever. But not all times are "normal" times. There are instances when sections of the class move as "an organic unity," as part of a potential ruling class; and in the process demonstrate in action that class's "own conception of the world, even though embryonic."
This Gramscian formulation of the possibility of anticapitalist ideas developing when the parts of the class move in fusion at the height of their power, avoids the cruder Leninist model: where the proletariat is completely dependent on the party for its subjectivity, its consciousness of its real existence and historical tasks. Sojourner Truth utilise their model to place a healthy if over-stress on direct action as the most likely way of the class developing its consciousness as "fused groups." But the model is still too mechanical as a theory of class consciousness. There is still too much of the picture of the working class living its life completely dominated by bourgeois ideas (e.g., private property, selfishness, etc.) and only breaking from them and becoming open to revolutionary ideas under certain situations. For Lenin this was when the class is exposed to the opposite ideological pole to bourgeois ideology; when the "naturally limited" struggles of the class are politicised, by theory necessarily "brought from the outside" for Gramsci and Sojourner Truth, when revolutionary ideas interact with the class moving in action and organic unity.
It is impossible to go into all the aspects of a theory of consciousness in a review article, but we will try to outline the main components. We start from Marx's concept that "social being determines consciousness." Social being is what we mean when we talk about the many factors that shape the patterns and contours of working class life: cultural, work, home and community, etc. It also crucially is a dynamic concept in the sense that social being refers to living as action, as constant movement and struggle; so consciousness should never be conceived of in a static way. It seems strange to us that revolutionaries can talk of the working class living its life a life dominated for most by varying kinds of struggle against the ruling class by using bourgeois ideas to relate and integrate thought and action in living: to make their lives meaningful, as all strata must do. Such bourgeois notions of "freedom," individualism, etc., for the most part in their pure form (i.e., as the ruling class would use them), directly contradict the experience of working class life. This does not mean that the working class in rejecting them chooses a revolutionary alternative to explain the world but that bourgeois ideas are mediated through the life situation of the working class. So it becomes foolish to talk of two ideologies, bourgeois and socialist, with nothing in between.
The working class has a structural antagonism with the bourgeoisie in capitalist society. It is forced with varying levels of intensity, according to the elements at work in the historical situation, to struggle against them, not just industrially but at all levels. Thus most parts of the class exist as and have a consciousness of a class against capital a class in itself rather than a class for itself, lacking political autonomy, aware of class society and its conflicts but not aware/unconvinced of the need/possibilities of changing it.
We cannot call this consciousness of the class, in itself, bourgeois. It has contradictory aspects, some of which depending on the strata and struggles of the class will be more bourgeois; other aspects will not. We only have to look at attitudes to, say, parliamentary politics or law and order to illustrate this contra-dictoriness. There has always been a cynicism in the class about "politics" and politicians. This has been re-inforced by their ability to win substantial gains in the factories and communities through their own working class struggle, since the war. This distrust and cynicism is at one level a healthy thing; it illustrates the estrangement of the class from representative democracy. "You can't trust politicians; they're only in it for themselves"; "the working man never gets a thing from either party." These are the common sentiments of a class in itself. What is missing of course is a consciousness of the possibility of direct democracy, an understanding of what it can achieve that capitalist-type institutions are not "natural and inevitable." Or take law and order. Anyone who has lived in a working class community knows what most people think of the police or even law. People in these communities are constantly breaking the law and modes of accepted conduct, so they need their own way of understanding that process. Most at the moment don't take a revolutionary view of law, but then neither do they utilise the same views as Heath or Wilson, etc. The working class view of law and order is structured around their own experience of it. So to many, student demonstrations or the struggle in Ireland is outside that experience and understanding. Thus they may agree with or be acquiescent about the use of law and order in these situations, whilst still conceiving the police and courts as hostile.
So class consciousness is made up of mediated bourgeois ideas in some cases, in others mediated ideas of other social forces, hopefully the section of the working class and other allied strata that consciously uses a revolutionary critique of society, or possibly the petty bourgeoisie, etc. In other words, working class consciousness contains within it ideas which have been generated in common with other classes, e.g., the notions of "freedom" and "democracy" that shaped themselves in the struggle of both classes against the then-ruling class, the aristocracy/ feudal landowners, etc. These ideas are posed as universal and part of a general ideology/culture by governments and the ruling class. Their applicability to working class life, as we said before, in pure form, is doubtful so they exist in a changed sense, from the "national ideology" but no longer merely a mirror of it. So as ideologies crystallise around the struggles and institutions of major social forces, the working class from these various sources shapes its own ideas and consequent social relations. It is from this perspective that we can talk about a specific, if ever variable, working class consciousness. The interpenetration of these various levels of ideas is so complex, set in the light of the developing social relations between the classes, that to talk of even a dual consciousness as Gramsci et al. do is ridiculous.
So working class consciousness is in a constant state of flux. Its use of bourgeois or revolutionary poles will depend on the intensity of the structural antagonism between the classes, not the vulgar concept of consciousness reflecting the economic crisis, but from the being of the class: a comprehensive synthesis of all factors at work in society, that make the levels of crisis at its deepest. Any break in the unity of Marx's set of concepts, a break in our under- standing of the constant interpenetration of the inherent antagonisms in class society and the consciousness the classes have of them, inevitably leads to false polarisation, a situation where theory is thought of as something outside the consciousness of the class, to be brought in by the party and tested in action by the proletariat, in political terms, the formulation of programmes for others, abstract to the real needs of the class.
The working class does not develop "naturally" towards a socialist consciousness in the way we would like. The task of the revolutionary organisations is to identify the positive aspects in working class consciousness, to push them in a revolutionary direction and to fuse them in a political process from a position embedded in class struggle. The working class is not a passive object to be "politicised." Only if we realise this can we avoid the situation where the class is in a passive and dependent relationship with the party.
Even as a class in itself it is capable of developing a real critique of capitalism and taking highly combative action against it. It often surpasses the limitations even revolutionaries put on it, like the absurdly a-historical and mechanical idea that left to itself within production it can only reach trade union consciousness. France and especially Italy have shown in the past few years how wrong this idea is. In Italy large sections of the class (without reference to the old groups who said it couldn't happen without them) broke far beyond the political and organisational bounds of the unions; to demand equal pay rises for all, the abolition of the categories and grades of labour, the refusal of union or line delegates to mediate their struggle and the creation of mass assemblies instead of traditional union structures, etc. The revolutionary groups who did understand the new developments and attempted to live with and develop the new autonomy, were comparatively small (although far bigger than the old currents) and this weakness in the situation contributed to its partial decline. But the lessons of the possibilities of class action and consciousness remain.
The working class doesn't jump spontaneously to socialist consciousness; but when the antagonisms are so great that the existing levels of ideas cannot explain the social being, the lives and struggles of the class: then they will begin to break from the limitations of the class in itself and the corresponding patterns of thought and turn towards more revolutionary ways of thinking and acting. But just as the working class is not a passive component of the situation, neither are the revolutionary organisations. We have the vital role, in systematising the developments in consciousness, in giving direction to the struggles: in being inside the situations to develop the necessary strategies to overthrow the rule of capital. We are not spontaneists there is a need for revolutionary organisation to help make the revolution! The very complexity of the varying levels of consciousness, the different categories and strata in the class, the differing historical experiences give us our role.
The class is not an abstract ideal type that can magically fuse together its objective role with the necessary subjectivity. The class is only specific groups of proletarians with different developments and needs, not just industrial workers but women, youth, etc. The working class moving together in unison, the identical subject-object of history dominated by one goal is unfortunately a Utopian dream. Only the revolutionary organisations can break through and structure this complexity to break the power of capital.
This seems to have brought us a long way from the Sojourner Truth article. The previous section was not an attack on the document. They see the need for selfmanaged struggles and class autonomy and the right role for revolutionary organisation. It's just that in the document the conception is too narrow-based as it is, around direct action (because of the narrow conception of consciousness).
But what about direct action? As a means of raising consciousness in struggle, they correctly counterpose it to
strikes where the union and management co-operate in the orderly choice of operations, where picketing is just a dull and tiring public relations chore . . . where the bulk of workers just disappear until the new contract is signed.
Direct action is
struggles of the workers themselves to gain some control over the large part of their lives.
But direct action is only the structural component, i.e., the social relations of the revolutionary process we try to initiate (although social relations implies ways of thinking as well as acting). Revolutionary consciousness does not necessarily flow out of direct action, even when these "spontaneous" struggles are given conscious direction by revolutionaries in the factory. Overemphasis on the form of the struggle is dangerous; the content is the crucial component. The reason for stressing this is that traditionally Leninist groups have ignored the problem of how the struggle is organised, posing the ideological component as everything good structures were a nice luxury. In reaction to this, non-Leninist groups went overboard on the form of the struggle (drawing on an old syndicalist tradition) whilst underplaying conscious strategy and political line. In our early broadsheets such examples can be found; now the contradictions in that position for an interventionist organisation have forced us long ago to move to a more dialectical understanding of the process, something that is missing from the Sojourner Truth document.