Proletarian Alternative, June 29, 2015
This is in response to a question that is fortunately getting asked more often: what are some practical ideas for organizing working class struggle?
We’re far from where we need to be, and have a lot of work to do. Conditions are ripening; capitalism is in a major crisis, and everything that the capitalist class and its representatives do to try to fix it is making it worse. In this situation, an organized, combative working class could perhaps achieve significant gains. But unfortunately we aren’t yet able to take advantage of the enemy’s weakness.
During the past decades, the capitalist class has methodically assaulted the working class on all fronts. The result is that the working class has been utterly disorganized and is heavily ideologically dominated, unable today to offer an autonomous alternative. As one worker recently put it, most workers “don’t even understand they are a class [with their own interests antagonistic to capital]; they’re caught up in the politics of democrats vs. republicans.” Most of what the masses are led to believe will make a difference, is confined within the capitalist framework.
In addition, in the US especially, the working class has been severed from its history of struggle. There is a generation gap—workers today have grown up without a frame of reference, without concepts of class autonomy, class solidarity and unity, class interests, or any experience of organizing to fight for these interests. Workers have been pitted against one another to compete for jobs (instead of blaming capitalism for unemployment), and have been conditioned to passively rely on establishment unions to wage their battles in their stead (such as they do), and to reluctantly accept the inevitability of being sold out by them over and over again. This is viewed as “the way things are,” or “the best we can do,” or “it could be worse.”
So, in the US and many other places, to various degrees, we’re starting basically from scratch. Proletarian (working class) militants need to affirm and reclaim the history of working class struggle, take our place in the continuity of that struggle, and organize to fight for our class interests. We are not “activists” who engage in endless activities that lead nowhere just to feel good about “doing something” (and who are often paid to draw others into this useless cycle). In contrast, militants act from our conscience, with a goal, and a strategy to achieve that goal.
In our practice, no matter how limited or embryonic, we are always learning. We need to be constantly sharing our experiences and our analysis so we can learn from each other. What follows are a few brief thoughts based on some experiences from different areas. We seek feedback from other militants in the form of constructive critique, insights from additional experiences, creative responses to different situations, and deeper analysis.
How to start? The first step, and one that never ends, is the process of “affirmation” – going out with a message to find people who have some agreement with it.
Some things people have been doing to initially connect with people include:
- widely distributing leaflets where workers are likely to congregate (such as transportation hubs or in front of grocery stores in working class neighborhoods) to start conversations.
- interviewing workers for newsletters about their conditions and grievances, sharing ideas in that process about what should be done, and discovering whether or not they’re interested in organizing.
- asking sympathetic workers for referrals to others who might be interested.
We need to distribute our messages widely, so they can have the chance to reach workers who are already angry and looking for an alternative that offers a real way forward. We have to expect that we’ll need to distribute many leaflets in order to locate a very few individuals; we’re looking for needles in a haystack. Workers like these are out there, but usually feel isolated and defensive, and don’t always announce themselves until trust is built over time.
Even when they want struggle to occur, workers often fear they can’t stick their necks out without being fired, because no one will back them up (they aren’t wrong). Many feel overwhelmed with struggling to survive, and have little time or energy left over for political work. Yet these problems won’t disappear if we try to cope with them individually; we must organize as a social force to be able to change our conditions. This is certainly more difficult in the early stages, when we have fewer people to shoulder a lot of responsibility and work, to bring something into being that doesn’t yet exist.
As we work among the masses, we must listen to people’s concerns, experiences and thoughts, and incorporate them into our materials, making them more relevant and demonstrating our common interests. Most importantly, we must also assert the need to unite and build organizations that can cohere in a movement to advance these interests. This is the method of mass line.
Once we find people who are interested, we move to the process of consolidation–reaching agreement to work together in a way that advances our common goals. This is achieved through discussion–political rapprochement (coming together around goals and principles). We determine the level of our agreement, whether it’s at the mass level, intermediate level, or revolutionary level.
Very brief definitions:
- A mass level organization works on a specific issue (like higher wages), and is open to anyone who wants to participate. Among workers, this is the trade union or worksite level.
- An intermediate (broad) level organization works to build a mass movement in the interests of all the popular masses—all the classes dominated by capitalism. There are two types of intermediate level organizations: those comprised of workers and those comprised of the progressive petite bourgeoisie.
- A revolutionary organization works for total social transformation (ending class divisions), and its members dedicate their lives to this goal.
Intermediate level organizations have mutually necessary relationships with both revolutionary organization and mass-level organizations. For more detail about the levels and the relationships between them, as well as why the working class is the leading force of social transformation in the capitalist era, here is a video: https://youtu.be/iDg_zEEsoVU
The goal of an intermediate level workers organization is to organize a mass movement of workers and laborers to struggle against domination by capital, embodied in our class enemy: the capitalist class. Whether we start in one specific workplace or across a general area like a town or city, the direction will be toward constructing organizations in several workplaces in an area (town or city) that can coordinate together.
There’s no specific formula to tell us how to proceed—each place is different and it depends on the initiative, creativity and political unity of the people involved. But one common necessity is to first find two or three people who agree on the need to organize, and to form a committee with them to do so.
The process of determining our level of political unity should not be rushed; it may require several meetings. If a basic level of unity cannot be reached, then we go our separate ways. But if we do have enough unity, then once this small group has established a common goal and direction, we can branch out. Together, we can figure out how to build struggle in a workplace, town or neighborhood, step by step.
Activities should correspond with whatever level of unity and strength that has been achieved at the time. We have a principle of Advance/Defend/Retreat — we don’t attack when we don’t have the strength to defend what we initiate, or the capacity to retreat without damaging ourselves. So we need to start small and build our strength.
Examples of initial activities can be on the job or off-site, including:
- collectively producing and distributing information (such as workplace newsletters).
- brief work stoppages.
- everyone wearing a button or sticker about a specific demand.
- hosting a cultural or educational event with a working class theme (i.e.: a May Day program, or screening films on the history of workers’ struggles).
The specific activity isn’t as important as the fact that in the process of struggle, we are building unity, collective capacity, and gaining experience. There is no short cut to that.
We should always expect retaliation when we initiate struggle. Therefore we should only take on what we can handle, and anticipate and plan for potential scenarios, so we can be as ready as possible to handle whatever happens. We should figure out ways to turn every attack by the enemy into a political advance for us. For example, if someone is fired for organizing, then we could organize even more to build support, both in the workplace and in the wider community.
It can help a lot to organize community supporters (including students). They can put pressure on a company through phone/email/social media campaigns, join pickets, distribute flyers in front of a workplace to protect the anonymity of worker organizers, and raise funds (for legal battles, strikes and to assist workers fired for organizing).
Our organizations and our common practice should be based on principles that are in the interests of the working class. These include:
1) Class antagonism. There is no reconciliation possible between the workers and the capitalists (company/owners/bosses/management). Workers are not “exchanging labor for a fair wage” but are being robbed by their class enemy. Exploitation is inherent in the relationship. Even if we win concessions, we must never be satisfied.
2) Collectivity. There is no way to win this struggle as individuals. Working class unity is crucial.
3) Combativeness. There is no way to win by cooperating with the enemy, being subsumed by them, or avoiding confrontation with them, but it must be through struggle–whatever level of struggle corresponds to the capacity we have at a given time.
4) Internal democracy. Once we have established an organization with a basic orientation, it must function internally with democratic practices. Each member should be encouraged to participate fully and openly state their views. We don’t want bureaucratic structures or foot soldiers, but for every individual to increase their capacity for the strength of the collective.
5) Class autonomy. We must make sure that our struggles are in our class interests, and not inadvertently serve the interests of other classes. The working class must lead, self-manage and control its own struggle, and not be led by capitalist proxies (establishment unions that collaborate with management, NGOs, politicians, legalistic means). Even if we use those entities in specific situations as we build our capacity, like bringing in unions or lawyers, they must be under the control of autonomous workers organizations.
6) Internationalism. The capitalists are an international class, and so are workers. We have more in common with one another as workers across borders than we do with the capitalists in our home countries. National borders were arbitrarily set up by capitalists in the first place—they cross them at will, while limiting our freedom to do so. We need to build solidarity with workers globally to strengthen our common struggle. “Workers of the world: Unite!” is not just a slogan, but is a guide to action.
7) The fundamental contradiction. Capitalism is defined by the struggle between capital and labor. It’s important to focus on pushing forward the antagonistic contradiction toward the victory of the working class and the defeat of capital. Allying with one section of capital against another is a losing strategy. Also, when we address the various tendencies, effects and conditions of capitalism (social, ecological and other problems), we do so in the context and process of class struggle.
Because classes are social forces and not categories of individuals, some proletarian militants may originate in other classes among the dominated masses (i.e.: the petit bourgeoisie, or “middle class”). When this is the case, there is the danger of the petit bourgeoisie taking leadership over working class struggle and diverting it to political dead ends (reformism). Thus constant effort is required to combat bureaucratic tendencies and strengthen collective leadership in the hands of workers, and to combat petit bourgeois ideology such as populism and opportunism. Allies of the working class can only transform into proletarian militants in the unceasing process of struggle.
Due to the level of domination we all face (in all fields: political, ideological and economic), constructing intermediate level working class organizations may be difficult and slow. It will have ups and downs. Successes will require time, determination, persistent work, and steady nerves. For the first stage, it’s best not to have specific expectations of how things will go, but just try to get out and meet people and get to know a place. Our presence should be consistent; some people who don’t respond at first may do so later after thinking about it, and we should be easily to find when they look for us.
With the interested people we meet, we can figure out what to do next. By taking one initial step together, we will find the next step forward.