Communization: Poor and Blank

Communization theory has parallels with Maoism and therefore some of the same theoretical flaws, argues Anton Johannsen. 


Riding the wave of revolutionary will.


Communization theory is caught in a kind of trap, unwittingly pitting the concepts of the forces and relations of production against one another.  Endnotes argue that they ultimately emphasize the need to move immediately to communist relations of production as the condition for ensuring the revolution is not rolled back. One way they confuse the forces of production is by reducing its role to that of ‘proletarianization of humanity’ through economic development. This is a task they see as largely finished, at least in developed nations. This is an illusion which results from communizers’ emphasis on the immediate overthrow of the capitalist relations of production and the just-so narrative of the Second International being uniformly uncritical of the need for ‘universal proletarianization’. This undergirds their rejection of program politics and as such requires a retreat into spontaneity and a rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Endnotes present this opposition between forces and relations as that between form and content; as councilist self-management as ‘form’ and the Italian left’s total rejection of capitalist society and formal indifference as extreme focus on content.

There is an abstract proposition of a contradiction between the ‘liberation of work’ and its abolition. Certainly this is brought up by many ultraleftists and post-anarchists like Bob Black who ‘boldly’ reject work. But it’s unclear how this escapes – ever – the Bohemian heritage it “nervously looks back on”, from Surrealism, through the Beatniks (close to the IWW, one might add, through the vehicle of the Dill Pickle Club and The College of the Complexes, as well as other alt-art spaces in the 20s and after). It’s clearly not a program for revolution, though that’s another category dumped by the communisation milieu. Endnotes argues that the spontaneous rejection of work is a new trend in the workers movement. However, this is likely just a result of the *prior* weakening of the defensive organizations of the class – the unions and communist parties – and the economic outmaneuvering through international competition and capital flight. Indeed, the Beatnik movement exists as a result of the decades of organizing done by the IWW and other left parties. The College of the Complexes in Chicago was infrastructurally dependent on a handful of wobblies, not to mention the IWW being pioneers of the ‘abolition of work’ slogan. But why let economics and history interfere with ‘creating a situation’?

Perhaps most damningly, this distinction was never made by the socialists of the Russian Revolution or Second International. While Endnotes points out the problem of relegating the maximum program, i.e. communism, to the status of a Sunday sermon was a problem in the Second International, it was a problem of the right-wing. Lenin and Kautsky critiqued this argument, the latter up to around 1908/9. Further, it was understood in general that the abolition of work was contingent on a general development of the means and technique of production; that it wasn’t simply a matter of choice, or will, but a matter of time, education, social reorganization and so on.

But as presented by Endnotes’,  communizers reject the necessity of a transition period on the basis that it is a mirage which serves to ‘bring the working class to power’ which is itself another form of capitalism. The logic here is that people only become ‘workers’ under capitalist social relations, and even if they’re in power, they must still be in capitalist social relations to be ‘workers’. This, as with the above, is predicated on a grave misreading and oversimplification of the Russian Revolution, which sees it as one of the primary failures of the ‘old workers movement’ expressing the ‘liberation of work’ as opposed to its abolition.  

The subsequent historical confusion has been to counterpose the ‘true forms of the dictatorship’ (councils) to the emerging Bolshevik bureaucracy on the one hand (Dutch-German), or to hold up the ‘true content of communism’ to keep it from being tainted by the horrors of the USSR, on the other (Italian Left). But where did this bureaucracy and ‘degeneration’ of the Bolshevik party come from? The Endnotes line echoes the liberal bourgeois historian’s line through the 20th century; something in Lenin and the Bolsheviks ideology was errant. For liberals or some anarchists, the whole idea of ‘state led revolution’ is a mirage. For Endnotes, this line is implied in their rejection of ‘bringing the workers to power’ as another way to keep capitalism alive, since it’s only under capitalism that people become ‘workers’.

In reality, the Bolsheviks came to power in a country where most of the population were self-sufficient peasant producers. The Bolshevik party had almost no influence among the peasants in any positive fashion. They had very little means to regularly communicate their ideas with the peasantry, let alone a robust peasant membership which would propose and support effective Bolshevik policy in the countryside.

The alternative was war communism. Peasants have a material interest in capitalism, or at least in the liberal concept of private property which allows for petty proprietorship. They want their own land as the only rational, down-to-earth basis for the exploitation and maintenence of their families and other communal institutions. It’s a straightforwardly material interest. Because they had access to land, and had long hated the Tsarist imposition of taxes and requisitions, any Bolshevik policy to tax the countryside and use grain exports to raise money for capital goods was resisted as it undercut the livelihood of the peasantry. This was a real bind. During the civil war the Bolsheviks resorted to requisitioning grain via a military apparatus, which transformed the nature of their party and rule.

The reason for my taking this explanatory detour is to show that the subordination of the lofty socialist aims of the Russian revolution to the more practical need of economic development was not simply ideological; it was material as well. Perhaps fundamentally material.

Was there a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the Russian Revolution? It’s arguable. The proletariat rose up in historically groundbreaking ways and went extremely far in places toward establishing its dictatorship; but, as betrayed by Lenin’s formulation for the ‘people’s revolution’ it was at its best a ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’. The hope of successfully subduing the peasant aspect of this, or the working class leading the peasantry, was wholly based on being able to offer them a buy-in to socialism, something an isolated and impoverished Russia could never do.

In any case, communization looks at the calamity of the Russian Revolution, and subsequent struggles and reacts by rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat and posing in it’s place:

a conception of revolution as the immediate destruction of capitalist relations of production, or “communisation”.

As we shall see, the understanding of communization differed between different groups, but it essentially meant the application of communist measures within the revolution — as the condition of its survival and its principal weapon against capital. Any “period of transition” was seen as inherently counter-revolutionary, not just in so far as it entailed an alternative power structure which would resist “withering away” (c.f. anarchist critiques of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”), nor simply because it always seemed to leave unchallenged fundamental aspects of the relations of production, but because the very basis of workers’ power on which such a transition was to be erected was now seen to be fundamentally alien to the struggles themselves.”

The key here is the concept of the ‘immediate destruction of capitalist relations of production’ as the alternative to the ‘alien’ nature of power in the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is rejected along with the ‘old workers movement’ as a ploy by confused, cynical, or unreconstructed left-nationalists, pursuing economic development. Enter Mao’s version of the theory of permanent revolution:

“In the Maoist view, the process of modern economic development begins with the seizure of state power, is followed by the transformation of social relationships and the latter in turn opens the way for the development of the productive forces.”


“What is affirmed is that changes in the ‘superstructure’ – in social relationships, political forms, and ideological consciousness – must be accomplished as quickly as possible, ‘one after another,’ if the goals of the revolution are to be achieved.”

Sound familiar? Noteworthy here is that China was more backward than Russia. It was less developed and more dominated by the peasantry. Where in Russia, socialist aims were subordinated to the necessity of national economic development, in China economic development had been the call from day one. Wherein Russia the struggle was between competing ideas about developing the forces of production (with Stalin’s war on the peasantry winning out), in China the question, at least posed by Mao, was how to change social relations of production in order to continue and accelerate the development of the level of technology. What’s more, it was manifestly a compromise with capitalism, in spite of Mao’s pretensions to the contrary, best summarized in the theory of the Bloc of Four Classes.

The Great Leap forward sought to industrialize the country, in a bid to overtake Britain’s industrial capacity, relying primarily on the given level of technology and the revolutionary consciousness of the peasants, and their disastrous reorganization into ‘communes’:

“[The Great Leap] conveyed the expectation of a qualitative transformation of social relationships, as well as the expectation of a ‘leap’ in economic development. In the Maoist mentality, the pursuit of communist social and ideological goals was inextricably intertwined with the goal of rapidly developing the material forces of production – and the former was seen as the precondition for the proper development of the latter.”

But the immediate centralization of millions of peasants coupled with utopian leaps into cottage heavy and light industry, lead to severe complications and exacerbated famine conditions that came the following years.

This core component of classical Marxism, that capitalism is what develops the means of production as a precondition for socialism, is jettisoned here, and partly also by communization. The fundamental Marxian theory is that a given level of technological and social development corresponds with a particular mode of production. There is of course pliability between the forces and relations of production in a given epoch, and in any national context a close analysis of the level of technology and the nature of production and distribution would have to be made. But what’s important is a recognition that they condition and shape each other, and drastic measures in one field without action and awareness in the other guarantees disaster.

The irony here is that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the method by which humanity can overcome the conflict between relations and forces of production. It is this key which the communizers reject at their peril.

On it’s own goal with the issue, Endnotes’ write:

In publishing such “historical” texts we have no wish to encourage an interest in history per se, nor to revive an interest in the history of revolutions or of the workers’ movement. We hope that in considering the content of the struggles of the last century we will help to undermine the illusion that this is somehow “our” past, something to be protected or preserved. Marx’s dictum reminds us of the need to shed the dead weight of tradition. We would go so far as to say that with the exception of the recognition of the historical break that separates us from them, that we have nothing to learn from the failures of past revolutions — no need to replay them to discover their “errors” or distil their “truths” — for it would in any case be impossible to repeat them. In drawing the balance of this history, in taking it to be over, we are drawing a line that foregrounds the struggles of our own time.”

Endnotes points out communization’s ecstasy in line with this thinking, at the collapse of the ‘old workers’ movement’:

“Yet for many the crisis of the institutions of the workers’ movement in the 1970s showed that this purely capitalist function was itself coming into crisis, and workers would be able to shed the burden of this history. For Mouvement Communiste, Négation, Intervention Communiste, and others the breakdown of the old workers’ movement was something to be celebrated, not because the corrupt leadership of the workers’ organisations would no longer be able to restrain the autonomy of the masses, but because such a shift represented a transcendence of the historical function of the workers’ movement, a transcendence that would mark the reemergence of the communist movement, the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.”

This praise for the ‘spontaneous action’ of the working class free of ‘old workers’ movement ideology’ is actually close to Mao’s slogan ‘Poor and Blank’:

“Apart from their other characteristics, China’s 600 million people have two remarkable peculiarities; they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.”

This is crystallized in the ‘communism as the real movement’ sloganeering which inverts the purpose of the phrase in the original passage:

“Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers – the utterly precarious position of labour – power on a mass scale cut off from capital or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily deprived of work itself as a secure source of life – presupposes the world market through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence. World-historical existence of individuals means existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.
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.”

This ‘real movement’ is only possible at a given level of development of the productive forces and world intercourse. It’s the real movement of the world-historical proletariat, conscious of it’s purpose and aims. And what form does this take? Marx was not too far off from discovery; in 1852 in a much cited letter to Joseph Weydemeyer:

“… And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic activity of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production (historische Entwicklungsphasen der Production), (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat,[1] (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

But if we’re not to simply bow to Marx’s authority, we can quickly run through the logic.
First, classes are bound up with the level of production. The technical means of organization by which humanity reproduces itself physically, correspond with social forms of organization – the antique, feudal/absolutist, and bourgeois states correspond with the slave, feudal, and capitalist modes of production. This is typically uncontroversial, so I’ll not go into the argument.

Second, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here is murky territory. Just what is this dictatorship? For Marx and Engels it was inseparable from an extreme form of democracy for the working classes, that simultaneously excluded the bourgeoisie from power. Reflecting on the 1848 revolutions, and the older bourgeois revolutions, it’s clear that each mode of production, and especially each revolution, is characterized by a ‘party-state’ form of rule – where a class dominates the state power and excludes competing classes from power. The French revolution’s systematic reign of terror against the nobility on behalf of the bourgeoisie (and partly the artisanal proletariat) and perhaps the semi-dictatorship of the (bourgeois) Republicans in a civil war against the remaining slave-aristocracy in the U.S. south provide classic examples.

The communizers see in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ the literal dictatorship of workers as workers, and then extend this to the continued existence of capitalism:

“Workers’ power was just the other side of the power of capital, the power of reproducing workers as workers; henceforth the only available revolutionary perspective would be the abolition of this reciprocal relation.”

To this we have an answer in the Paris Commune and I quote at length:

“The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic,” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supercede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.”

The state power, that is the governing initiative of society, was placed in the hands of the working class via extreme republican democracy. And it is this general organization of the proletariat which is capable of taking hold of the means of production, when acting globally, in order to begin the historical era of human self-governance through the working out of the reorganization of the production process on that scale.

Certainly some of the relations of production will be transformed as a condition for the dictatorship of the proletariat. In bringing itself to power, the proletariat abolishes some of the conditions of its proletarian status. But it cannot abolish capitalism in one stroke. Universal housing, food, and healthcare, and a reduction of the working week seem like fundamental changes which will allow the working class to increase its participation in politics and engagement in solving the problems of continuous socialist reorganization and development of the means of production and a global standardization of living conditions.

Instead, communization proposes that we dutifully scribble down the spontaneous rebellions of the ‘poor and blank’ as they riot and refuse their way out of the conundrums posed by an increasingly complex and interdependent system of production, charting the auguries of the fateful day when communization becomes immanent, without organization, without transition, without power. And do what? Entreat the masses to commit suicide by voluntarily retreating to the countryside in a rejection of the logistics and transportation infrastructure we have established? This varies from Mao or Pol Pot in policy in a typically anarchist way; our retreat will be voluntary, not the at-gun-point, party driven, authoritarian ploy of Pol Pot! Communization has no answer aside from this illusory ‘move to communist relations immediately’ echoing Mao’s Great Leap Forward disaster. It’s worse, because where Mao had the benefit of bureaucrats and a measure of respect for productive forces to hem in against his illusions, the communizers have nothing but a Jim Jones fantasy of spontaneous mass ‘rejection’ of capitalism. What happens when we block the supply chains? In a week or two, the hospitals shut down, the sick die, the water becomes undrinkable.

Surely, this is hyperbole you say. Is it? What is the unplanned, unprogrammatic rejection of bourgeois life for the elderly? What is it for the disabled? Or even the mass of employed working class? Chaos, anarchy, etc. The simple rejection of capitalist society is not enough. Poor and blank indeed.  

Works Cited: Endnotes “Bring Out Your Dead”
Maurice Meisner’s “Mao’s China and After”
Marx “The Civil War in France”
Marx’s Letter to Weydemeyer, 1852
Marx and Engels “The German Ideology”  


Armed self-defense: the socialist way of fighting the far-right

In a period where nationalism and racism are intensifying, workers and the oppressed can learn from the tactics of Civil Rights hero Robert F. Williams.


The current era seems to be one where an impending pogrom is waiting to explode in a rise of racial violence in the name of defending a white supremacist order. Clickbait site Cracked recently put out an article arguing that a literal civil war is impending.Trump and his mass rallies implicitly pander to white identitarianism, while the “alt-right” subculture grows in the media spotlight despite how little on the ground impact it has. And of course there are right-wing militias, which are nothing new but have been on the rise over the years. The paranoid side of me does want to agree that we’re heading straight to civil war and are doomed for good. Yet one must keep to a sober analysis no matter how intense a topic may be.

Rather than a Second American Civil War, as the far-right Florida lawyer and failed libertarian senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus calls for, we are far more likely to see a form of “Jim Crow 2.0,” a regression in a sense to pre-civil right movement racial attitudes and a generalized atmosphere of anti-black violence. While directly racist laws may not be taken up, law enforcement in general and court systems could become even more corrupt than they already are and essentially turn a blind eye to or even endorse lynchings and rapes of black Americans. Jim Crow, while based in legal inequalities, was also upheld by a whole culture of violence that went unchecked by bourgeois legal institutions. Paramilitary groups like the KKK enforced their “invisible empire” of racial subjugation while local politicians proudly celebrated the racist legacy of the Confederacy.

Systematic violence through the rape and murder of countless ordinary blacks was the order of the day in Jim Crow times, and even legal landmarks like Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t abolish this culture of regularized violence. To truly end Jim Crow, a Civil Rights movement that mobilized millions of blacks was necessary. Black resistance to Jim Crow began the day Jim Crow instated, but the ability to resist was greatly limited by the severity of repression from white reactionaries. These reactionaries were embedded in the local and state governments in the South. Local governments with reactionary local politicians promoted an ideology of decentralization to fortify their power in communities against progresses made in federal government, selling a whole mythos of the Confederacy as fighting in the name of self-determination and freedom rather than slavery. And to further reinforce the Jim Crow regime, a culture of patriarchal dominance expressed in fears of race mixing became the norm of the day.

Liberals, holding to a belief that American democracy is a story of moving towards perfection through trial and error, would never imagine that racism in the US could regress to Jim Crow levels. They assume that our democratic system has evolved enough to prevent this from happening. Sure, some liberals think Trump is throwing the USA into full fascism, but the general liberal narrative of history is one of linear progress. The claims that Trump is a full fledged brownshirt are not without motivation towards fear-mongering. Yet a more dynamic understanding of history admits the regressions are possible and that there is no natural tendency for society to evolve towards universal ideals. Rather, liberal capitalism produces its own underbelly of reaction, and a return to the day where racial pogroms like the Red Summer of 1919 can occur isn’t out of the question. This is not to be alarmist, but to accept the possibility and reject liberal narratives that “society has evolved past that”.

If US society does move into a state of generalized racial violence and pogroms, this “Jim Crow 2.0” will differ in key ways. One, it would no longer be a geographic phenomenon confined the south; the entire country of the USA would be a battleground that white identitarians would contest for. The Confederate flag is flown in the North, not just the South, and many white supremacists look to the Northwest US as the location of their future ethno-state (see Northwest Imperative). It would also be a racial order that dehumanizes blacks, latinos, and Muslims as outsiders to the “white race”.

The election of Trump is not a cause but merely a symptom of the general trend towards nationalism and therefore racism in the USA (and beyond). But the rise of Trump has created a sense of panic in the left, with voluntaristic calls for direct action with no organizational basis being made so that “Trump is stopped before he’s inaugurated”. One may then say we are being glib about the problems being posed to non-whites, when rather our position on how to fight racist violence is merely the same as it was before: armed self-defense. If people really want to fight against the racial violence of modern capitalism, getting a gun and being trained is a good first step. Communist Gun Clubs, where we could learn basic skills of using weapons and armed self-defense, could become a basis for future workers militias that will fight all forms of reactionaries, whether scabs, cops, religious fundamentalists or blackshirts. But beyond this we recognize the need for racially oppressed groups to form self-defense organizations to defend their lives and democratic rights. The historical figure of Robert F. Williams was a classic example of this tactic being put into action.

Robert F. Williams would become the leader of the Mabel, NC chapter of the NAACP and organized a black militia to fight against the Klan, much to the dislike of moderates in the Civil Rights movement. Williams was a WWII veteran and shared the skills he accumulated with his fellows to fight back against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils. This was shown to have quite a high level of efficacy; by simply being armed black militias were able to scare Klansmen out of action. More working class in composition than other NAACP chapters, Williams’ chapter became controversial within the Civil Rights Movement. He butted heads with MLK himself, with Williams accusing Martin Luther King’s’ strategy of Civil Disobedience to be simply leading to the deaths of fighters for black rights.

Williams would get international attention through his involvement in the 1958 Kissing Case, where two black children below the age of ten were sentenced for sexual molestation because a white girl kissed them. The Monroe NAACP would take on this case in the courts and in the streets, organizing protests and even getting the international press involved. While the supposed criminals were pardoned because of popular pressure, Klan members sought to take the law into their own hands, burning crosses in front of their houses. Williams was able to organize self-defense militias to prevent violent reprisal, something the state could not be counted on doing.

Not easily pegged down as a political thinker by labels, Williams would form his own ideology from elements of black nationalism, marxism, and radical republicanism. He thought the idea of a separate black nation-state was a fool’s errand but also thought marxism made the mistake of putting class before race. Unimpressed with the rigid Marxism of the CPUSA, Williams did make a lasting friendship with the Trotskyist SWP who covered his activities in detail in their newspaper, The Militant.

Williams would eventually flee the USA, a “refugee of racial tyranny” in his own words (the entire story is well articulated by Williams in this interview). Falsely accused of kidnapping for attempting to protect a white couple from an angry mob, he went to Cuba who accepted him for political asylum. From Cuba he would broadcast a radio show for blacks in the south and publish a paper The Crusader but found that the Cuban government was limiting his work and was not as committed to anti-racism in deed as they were in word. He came to similar conclusions about Maoist China, where he also stayed in his years of political asylum. By 1975 Williams had returned to America to reunite with his wife who had returned in 1969, and was pardoned of his crimes in court. He spent the rest of his life mostly writing an unpublished autobiography.

Williams represented the tactical power of armed self-defense as a tool against reactionaries of all stripes. He was not the inventor of this tactic, which was rooted in traditions from the very beginning of the black freedom movement that sprung out of emancipation. Black militias were formed to fight against white reaction from the very beginning of Reconstruction, and in some cases unity with poor whites was achieved. As nationalism becomes more and more of a force in politics such militias may become necessary. As believers in the disbandment of the police and the military, we should support any such efforts that bring us closer to the formation of the people’s militia that will replace them.

This strategy, of forming defense militias and temporarily uniting with other working class forces for temporary battles is an application of the tactic of the united front from below. This is to be counterposed to the policy of bourgeois anti-fascism, the “people’s front”, where a coalition of liberals, leftists, and everyone else dedicated to constitutionalism form an alternative government to the rightists. Today’s equivalent to the advocates of the people’s front are leftists who believe we must unite with the democratic party to defeat Trump. Others believe in spontaneous revolt now, making empty calls for general strikes or insurrection. In contradiction to both approaches the question of “how to fight reaction” must be understood through the greater task of building working class political institutions with lasting power in the long term. The people’s front may have defeated fascism with the help of the Allies in WWII, but by then fascist regimes had extinguished the strong workers movements where they took power. We cannot let ourselves have faith in either liberal saviors or spontaneous revolt.

Building a movement purely on the basis of anti-fascism or opposition to the far-right or X elected demagogue is a strategic dead end. Rather we need to build a powerful class movement that will be forthright in defending itself and others from the far-right. The need for minorities to defend themselves has increased, and we point to the example of Robert F. Williams as an example of this in action. By becoming a threat to the capitalist order and defending the gains of the workers movement and democratic rights through force if necessary, we fight the far-right in a way that doesn’t assert loyalty to the liberal order.


For further reading on Williams, check out his own book Negros With Guns and Timothy Tyson’s biography Radio Free Dixie.

Indigenous Resistance Deserves Workers’ Solidarity

I originally wrote this piece for publication in the next issue of the Industrial Worker, the official magazine of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union with a storied history in the North American workers’ movements), and I’m very grateful to hear that it’s been accepted. I’m very grateful to the friends, comrades, and colleagues that gave me feedback on this, as it was written in a huff after the AFL-CIO announced their support of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Given how intensely #NoDAPL is escalating, I felt it worth publishing now, with slight edits.
September 15th’s announcement that the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) supports the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) hardly came as a surprise to me, but it definitely didn’t lift my spirits about the present state of organized labor in the US. At a time when solidarity and support is needed for one of the most vibrant and powerful indigenous liberation movements of the decade, the federation asked itself “Which side are you on?”, and spoke its answer plainly: with business and its owners.
Any organization committed to an egalitarian society (or the general survival of the human species, for that matter) would condemn the pipeline company’s attacks on the water protectors. Any genuine and strong workers’ organization should call on the construction workers to withhold their labor, offer legal support to those that do, and provide what resources it could offer to supporting resistance to scabs and jail support for the water protectors.
But the AFL-CIO is not a genuine workers’ organization, nor has it ever committed itself to egalitarianism. It has a long history of excluding workers from its unions (people of color, women, communists, unskilled laborers, and immigrants), only removing these barriers when the culture surrounding and internal to it faced sufficient challenge from workers and the courts. In recent times the federation supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, another environmental catastrophe that would cut through not only swathes of indigenous land, but provide very few long-term jobs for construction workers.
The organization’s behavior seems to be driven by a political orientation to securing better day to day working conditions for its already existing union members, without regard for a broader, long-term, and liberatory social vision. “Social blindness” (IWW member Helen Keller’s phrase) to the devastation of both environment and persons is the only way AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka can conceivably justify backing the construction of a pipeline. Opposition to the construction of a climate bomb being built over the graves of the indigenous water protectors’ ancestors is characterized as “hold[ing] union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay”.
When the federation does release documents detailing a strategy or a vision, they read like Democratic Party talking points. The AFL-CIO has attached itself to and merged with the center of the Democratic Party, becoming an appendage of an ever rightward-shifting parliamentary politics, hoping that electoral action in the form of legislation (eliminating Taft-Hartley, securing anti-discrimination protections for joining a union) will somehow stop or alleviate unions’ declining membership and create a labor rebirth. Or they believe that politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will fight neoliberal cuts to public services and attacks on union rights, when their “opposition” mainly consists of an alternative public relations strategy for pursuing the policies that best serve business owners. This is more than a failed strategy for workers: it’s a reactionary one that abandons the workplace as a site of struggle and appeals to a more benevolent-sounding wing of the capitalist state.
In fact, the AFL-CIO is acting on the right wing of Obama: thanks to the pressure placed on the federal government to react to the indigenous coalition’s direct actions, the Obama administration has halted all construction on federal land (pending a review of environmental impacts), invited native leaders to formal talks to have a voice in modifying existing laws, and called on the pipeline company to pause construction. Federation President Richard Trumka is calling on the federal government to reverse that decision, and “allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”
In other words, the labor establishment wants to reject the state’s management strategy for public dissent, and instead opt for a more naked form of exploitation of dispossessed people and their environment. This is not “pushing politicians” to adopt policies more beneficial to workers – it’s abandoning any meaningful commitment to the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and doing the work of business owners for them. As my friend Nick Walter helpfully commented, “This is because at the end of the day the mainstream unions really do believe that the source of wealth is business and commerce rather than the labour of working people.”
The North American working class, particularly the embattled indigenous resistance in North Dakota, deserves better than the bureaucratic and conservative AFL-CIO. It deserves a labor movement inclusive of all workers and exclusive of capitalists and their state’s security forces, one led by the workers themselves and willing to fight for day-to-day changes on the job and to build long-term revolutionary changes in society at large. It deserves a class unionism across all ethnic, racial, gendered, and national lines, ultimately seeking to abolish class society itself.
The IWW joins with prominent labor organizations (National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Communication Workers of America, Amalgamated Transit Union, United Electrical Workers, ILWU Local 19, Oregon Public Employees Union/SEIU Local 503, California Faculty Association, Labor Coalition for Community Action, and National Writers Association/UAW Local 1891) in supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to oppose the pipeline. As rank and file workers, we must reject any business, government, union, or labor federation that calls for collusion with the interests of business and action against dispossessed indigenous people.