About antonjohannsen

All I want to do is live communism and spread anarchy.

Why Communism?

Communism doesn’t aim to negate democracy but fulfill its promises of universal human emancipation. 

French revolution - Women's_March_on_Versailles01

Why communism?

I told a friend of my cousin that I was a communist. The response was a reflexive chuckle and an incredulous “Really? Why?” I think this sums up ‘communism’ for most people in the U.S. To American conservatives communism is the ideology of the state. The state infringes upon the rights of the individual, most importantly the right to private property, on behalf of some collectivity. While American liberals will often justify state coercion as in the best interest of the nation, most American conservatives doubt the usefulness of state intervention or existence at all.

Most people look at communism as a discredited worldview, an archaic and random quirk. It’s an internet meme or utopian thinking. It’s not like it has any relevance today. But contrary to what American conservatives and liberals think, communists stand in opposition to the capitalist state. We don’t want to “make the state bigger”. And communists are indeed opposed to private property (this is distinct from personal property – your home, your toothbrush, your clothes). But what I’d like to emphasize to my American audience is this; Communists are the inheritors of the fight for republican democracy.

Republicanism vs Liberalism

Communists don’t believe in permanent rulers. This is also the guiding principle behind republicanism. Democracy is the idea that republican government requires not just legal equality in the abstract,  but social independence. America is a Federal Republic, with key government positions being democratically elected. But America’s is a compromised form of government, whose essential guiding political philosophy is liberalism, as opposed to democratic republicanism. Communists argue that capitalism has betrayed and undermined republican democracy, and that social independence for the working class requires the abolition of classes.

Liberalism emphasizes the liberty of the individual with respect to society and government. It’s an interesting paradox that liberal philosophy came about at a point in human history where society was becoming more and more interdependent. Liberal theorists stressed that political and social independence of citizens was foundational to the establishment of a functioning republic. But as the republican experiment in the U.S. was developing, the urban working classes and poor farmers were fighting losing battles to maintain access to what liberal theorists argued granted that independence; property! So, the poor began pressing for democratic rights. Liberals were content to limit voting rights by property ownership, but the emerging working class pressed on for suffrage. This is one illustration of the divergence between liberalism and democracy. Look around today; American Conservatives and Liberals (both philosophically liberal) completely ignore the question of social independence. What changed in America (And all over the world) was that private property was consolidated in the hands of a small class. Again, I’m not talking about your PS4 or your shirts. Private property is property used in a business enterprise; where you hire workers and sell the product for profit.

The connection between America’s compromised republicanism and it’s infatuation with philosophical liberalism is the lack of social independence for most of the population. What do I mean by social independence? For much of human history, there was no such thing as functional individual independence. Before the rise of states and forms of tradeable property (in humans or resources), human beings lived in communities where no individual was likely to survive “on their own.” This hasn’t changed, but there is today an illusion of independence. This argument can be reduced to property ownership being a condition of social independence, as a result of it allowing the individual control over the production of his or her necessities; food, shelter, clothes, and so on. Hence the initial restrictions on voting rights in the U.S. to those with certain amounts of private property. The idea was that independent property holders had a material stake and the capability to participate in self-government. Slaves and laborers were not considered capable, because they were dependent on their masters for their subsistence, and liable to be manipulated as a result of their vulnerable position.

In 18th and 19th century Europe and U.S., changing social relations and technology were driving political change. By social relations, we mean the long term relationships between people in a society. For example, before the 1600’s, almost all of Europe was organized around feudal social relations. The average person was a serf – they did agricultural work on land that belonged to a lord (think landlord). The lord took what was grown for himself, and allowed the serfs to grow some of their own food. But the serfs were forced to remain on the land. They were not allowed to move where they wanted, and if the lord sold the land, the person buying the land would also get the serfs. These social relations were, in a word, exploitative. From the liberal perspective, serfs (And slaves in the U.S. south) were dependent. The serfs were exploited by the lords; they were forced to produce more than they needed, kept ignorant and disorganized, in order to keep the lords wealthy and powerful. There’s more to feudalism than this relation, but the serf-lord relationship is perhaps the core social relation defining feudalism.

Feudalism eventually evolved into capitalism. As you might expect, serfs didn’t generally like to work for free. Their fights for freedom often took the form of the struggle for private property in the form of land; the main way they could be socially independent and take care of themselves and their families. Once serfs broke free of the landlords’ restrictions on movements, they also gained the right to own their own land, or pay the lord a fee – rent – for using the lord’s land and selling or keeping the product. Enterprising manufacturers and freed serfs in England, began to realize that they could amass fortunes by paying workers to work on land that they rented, with the tools and raw materials they purchased. These were some of the first capitalist businesses. These farmers, would rent land, purchase raw materials and tools, and hire workers.

The Nature of Dependence in Capitalism

As this accumulation of property in the hands of a small class took place, the connection of social independence to private property was quietly left behind. It is still factually true that anybody without social independence is at the mercy of his or her ‘benefactors’ (read: exploiters). But the political discourse of today assumes the vantage point of the socially independent, the wealthy, the property owners.

Who could be said to be independent in our contemporary society? The free property owner is the starting point for both contemporary economic theory and much of our political discourse. But the idea of social independence as the basis of political participation ultimately collapsed behind the broader and more vague agenda of individual liberty. Any imposition on my personal freedom is a violation of my liberty as an American citizen.  This is philosophical liberalism distilled. Core among these individual liberties is the right to private property.

In contrast to the liberal conception of freedom as the lack of constraint on the individual, republican conceptions of freedom often stress that individual freedoms derive from collective interdependence. Historically, this took the form of the small group of enfranchised citizens in republican societies being obligated to ‘act with virtue’ in an effort to guide the community to it’s best outcome through collective decision making. The small group of enfranchised were often (as in Rome) granted rights on the condition of property ownership and status of citizen.

What’s interesting for us is the point that republican liberty does not see the individual constrained by the alien society, but created by it. Certainly, we can understand the freedom generated from the division of labor in society. Because people work to produce food, clothes, houses and so on, others are free to pursue history, science and writing. The less work it takes to produce a fixed amount of food, the freer we are to pursue other interests. But I should stress here that the individual is constrained; by what is necessary to sustain humanity in it’s current (or any future, improved) social arrangements. That is, we do have mutual obligations, if we wish to have individual freedoms. These aren’t abstract moral obligations, but concrete, material facts about how we produce what we want or need and how we distribute it.

Put more concretely; did slaves need their masters? Not to produce their own food, or clothes or tools or anything else. They were already doing the work. The idea of the independent property holder is a myth through and through; the master, just like the boss, needs you, you don’t need him!

The most important aspect of the capitalist economy and the most important thing to a capitalist is profit. It’s not because the individual capitalists or business owners are themselves particularly greedy, but a result of the social relations. Managers are mandated by law to pursue the bottom line. While feudalism had lords and serfs, capitalism has workers and capitalists. Capitalists exploit workers just as much as lords exploited serfs. The emerging capitalist farmers used new technologies in order to increase productivity. This allowed them to reduce the price of what they were selling, and beat their competition. This process spread outside of farming and into manufacturing and services over the 19th and 20th century. Trade preceded the emergence of capitalist production relations, but it has come do define our “free market” society.

How do businesses exploit their workers? By exploitation, we don’t mean work without pay; workers are able to get paid a living wage and still be exploited. As with feudalism, exploitation is when you’re forced to work or produce more than you need to. Anyone who’s worked a day in their life can see that what they produce in a day is far more than make in wages for a week or sometimes a month of work. Capitalists chalk this increase of output to the ‘productivity of capital’ – the machines and tools. But machines cannot produce on their own; they simply make the one who works more productive. And what of the people who made the machines to start with? The workers are the ones that produce! Tools and machinery can’t do a hell of a lot without human beings to use them.

Profit is what the business has after it’s costs. The formula for profit is commonly understood; Revenue (the money they get from selling your product) minus Costs (wages for workers, cost of raw materials, tools, rent, etc.) equals profit. But all of the output produced was produced by workers. Why do capitalists get any of it? The answer is private property. The right to private property is in reality the right of the few to exploit the many. The few with enough private property (in the form of money) to start a business where they can live off of the profit they exploit from the many workers they employ.

Most people think private property is ok, because there is a chance that they could one day strike it rich. Frankly, this is the logic of a gambling addict. Forbes estimates that 8 out of 10 startup businesses fail. The Small Business Administration, a government body that collects data on small businesses, puts the estimate at 50% of small businesses failing after 5 years. According to Forbes, citing government data, around 75% of all businesses don’t have employees and their average revenue (before costs) is $44,000. Most ‘entrepreneurial’’ get rich-quick schemes are ways for employers to circumvent labor regulations and exploit their workers more effectively – think of Uber and the new “gig economy”. The self employed ‘independent contractor’ is just another worker, except divided and alone, making the boss’s bargaining position much stronger, and allowing them to drive wages down.

Capitalism is a social system based on these classes. The numerous working class works, and the capitalist class exploits. This isn’t to deny that capitalism has been fantastically progressive in many ways; whether technologically or in terms of social organization. But it is still a system of exploitation. Higher wages for workers mean higher costs for capitalists, which they will resist. Those higher costs will cut into their profit. So there is an irreconcilable difference between workers and capitalists. Why do the workers put up with it?

The main reason is that workers have no choice but to put up with it. If they don’t work, they don’t get the money they need for rent and groceries. The other reason is that they’re often kept ignorant of exploitation. American Conservatives and Liberals both support the right of private property, and point to Silicon Valley Tech gurus and rags-to-riches personalities as their representative big winners. But not everyone can win this lotto. By definition very few ever will.  This irreconcilable differences between capitalists and workers manifests in class struggle.

Because the communist movement has failed so immensely in the past century, workers aren’t regularly confronted with our arguments. It’s on us to fix that. It’s worth pointing out though, that workers do fight back in individualistic ways. They quit their job, they punch their shitty boss, they slack off at work.

Many workers form unions – organizations of workers in workplaces or industries which fight for better pay and working conditions. Unions are the first step to workers gaining social and political independence because they push back against capitalists at the exact place where the exploitation takes place. But it’s not enough. If workers want to get rid of capitalism then they have to unite politically and fight it out with the slugging committee of the capitalist class; the state.

From Democratic-Republicanism to Communism

This brings us back to the principles of democracy and republicanism – or equality and self-government. At work the boss is a dictator. It’s often humiliating. If a worker wants time off or needs anything like a raise, they have to go hat in hand as an inferior. The worker who day in and day out slices the steaks, or loads and unloads the trucks; the worker who through their labor creates the revenue of the whole society, is subject to the dictates of business; and what’s good for business is profit. What’s lacking in the workplace is partly what’s lacking in our society – the full realization of self-government and equality.

These principles inform how we organize the working class to fight for emancipation. Workers don’t have time to fuss with recalcitrant and secretive political cliques. They require a democratic, self-governed unions and political parties. That means recallable officers and organizational transparency. Decision making in a democratic way requires transparency and ease of access to the decision making process. But there is a more fundamental point about political unity for the working class.

Workers need a program. Think of a program as a guide or plan of action. The political program is a way to keep workers on the same page about what we’re fighting for, and also a way to evaluate our elected leaders and keep them accountable. How many times have American workers supported a Democratic party or union reform candidate only to be burned when they don’t make good on campaign promises? The Democratic party doesn’t have a program. The “platform” that it sometimes uses is also not functional because the members of the Democratic party have no means to hold their representatives accountable.

What would this plan look like? Well, we’d have to continually re-evaluate aspects of the program, but its core elements would remain the same. In the past, communists/socialists had divided the party program into two sections; the maximum program is the long term; basically communism. The minimum program consists of economic and political demands which are more immediate.

The minimum program might be thought in terms of democratic rights. That is, universal rights necessary for democracy (equal participation in the political process) to be realized. For example, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to assemble are all democratic rights. Sometimes these are called civil rights or civil liberties as well. In the past, communists, especially of the Stalinist and Maoist varieties, have been ambivalent about democratic rights. This was a terrific mistake. Democratic rights are not the end of the fight for communism, but it’s beginning. Any communist party should defend democratic rights from capitalists and their state. For example, we could extend democracy in the United States, by fighting against felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, legal and illegal political corruption, limits to freedom of speech and assembly, the host of violations of democratic rights associated with the so-called war on drugs; unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, and long jail times without convictions. There are plenty of other examples of problems which can be better understood as violations of basic democratic rights. Not only can these fights be most effectively won by understanding the class struggle nature of the fight, but by winning them we gain power for the working class. If we fought for drug legalization and an income adjusted bail, we’d get the police officer’s boot off of the neck of much of the American working class.

Fights for democratic rights lay the foundation for working class political and social independence. The whole class must become independent of the capitalists class. Through unions, we can fight to impose our vision of the future in the workplace, and through the formation of democratic-republican – communist – party, we can build our vision for a new form of society.

The American state is unresponsive to the needs of the working class. It’s designed to be bought off by the rich. Both parties are essentially fundraising machines for candidates, courted by factions of the capitalist class. Workers need their own political party – a communist party – to fight for the the political conditions which would bring that class to power. It is fundamental for us that the working class cannot rule through bureaucracy or a military clique. This is why we argue for republican democracy. In power, the working class can work to solve the problems of production and distribution on the basis of need, not profit. This would be a revolution, and it would have to be an international revolution for it to last.

The idea of nationality is a tool of the capitalists. Initially, it allowed them to counterpose a ‘public’ to the exploitative landlord whom they sought to replace. It also allowed them to craft an identity that could endear the worker to their exploiter, at the expense of the workers uniting with each other. This happened at the same time that the parties of the capitalist class dropped the ideas about independence and shifted to different ideas about national unity and their own, moralistic form of nationalist obligation.  This same idea of a ‘public’ as distinct from classes, is used by capitalists to scapegoat unions, foreign workers, and so on. Why fight the wars of the rich?

Part of fighting for international republican democracy is fighting for equality for oppressed groups in the working class. Historically, oppressed ethnicities and nationalities need support where the capitalist state takes special aim.The rights we fight for are universal. The reality is not. Similarly, sexual oppression and the gendered division of labor, alongside their political concomitants, have to be eviscerated; we fight for concrete, explicit demands. (Full and free healthcare, covering abortions and birth control, collectivization of housework and so on). Liberal ‘identity politics’ is useless for the working class because it offers no way to end the root of oppression and exploitation; dependence. Hillary Clinton’s political campaign showed that it is a tool for one section of the capitalist class to unite against workers as a whole, using race-baiting and liberal forms of segregationist politics (in addition to outright corruption) to frustrate working class interests in the Democratic Party.

Communists fight for the emancipation of the working class. Our first step then is to build the political independence of the working class. Capitalism has made our society interdependent on a global level, but the capitalists have kept workers divided and dependent on their employers, whether directly at work or through employer-run political parties. The most pressing need then is to unite the divided working class. It is only through organization and unity that the working class can become independent. Working class independence is the basis for fulfilling America’s dead promise of democratic republicanism not simply for our nation, but as part of an international movement founded on the principles of self-government and universal equality – or in a word, communism.


Fight to Bring Socialism to The Labor Movement

Anton Johannsen argues that we need an independent marxist party in order to revitalize the labor movement, not the other way around. 


William ‘Big Bill’ Haywood was an experienced union organizer and leader, as well as prominent member of the Socialist Party of America.

Jacobin recently published an issue completely devoted to exploring the history and future of socialist political organization in the United States. In a follow up article on January 28th, Editor Bhaskar Sunkara almost argues for working class political independence – for a working class political party separate from the Democrats. However, he stops short and supports a confused and muddled ‘fusion’ strategy set out by Seth Ackerman in the above mentioned issue.

Sunkara’s support for running socialists as Democrats cites Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a Party.” Ackerman looks at the attempt to form a U.S. Labor Party in the 1990’s and argues it’s reasons for failure were two: 1) the weakening of the labor movement overall, and 2) the failure to attract the support of major national unions. The reason that unions didn’t want to support a labor candidate is because they didn’t want to run Labor Party candidates against Democrats, and subsequently lose to Republicans. Ackerman also argues that the ruling class in the United States restricts ballot access of third parties to the point of making it too difficult to run third party candidates, but does offer that some alternatives of form might show a way forward. Primarily though, Ackerman’s argument is that we need a semi-independent socialist party formation which can either run socialist candidates as Democrats, or run against Democrats entirely when a completely undefined “critical mass” is reached. This is also reflected in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) strategy documents which obviate programmatic politics for pursuing election campaigns as means to win “reforms.”

In their response to Ackerman, Labor Party founding participants Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed Jr. fall into this same ‘critical mass’ trap that effectively inverts the question at hand. They do indicate that part of the problem of forming a viable socialist party might be the labor leadership, but appeal to the need for a ‘revitalized labor movement’ as the solution to this problem. Just about every socialist wants a revitalized labor movement, and has wanted one for the past sixty years. This line of thinking moves in circles; the labor leadership has wandered astray, and as a result, the unions are flagging. Revitalized unions could set the labor movement back on course, but how can we revitalize unions that are failing?

The reality is that the labor bureaucracy in the United States has relied, since before World War II, on a “transactional politics” both within their own unions and regarding the Democratic Party. Dudzic and Reed are correct on this score. However, this “transactional politics” is based on a self-serving and liberal political outlook: that bureaucratic collective bargaining equals industrial democracy and that union leaders are “labor statesmen” representing the interests of workers in the state. It is this political outlook, or better yet, program, which has set the labor movement on a disastrous course.

Reed, Dudzic, and Ackerman agree that a revitalization of the labor movement is a necessary precondition to the formation of a mass socialist party. I would like to argue that this is wrong. The party must come first in order to revitalize the labor movement. Sam Gindin has basically called for the necessity of forming a socialist party to revitalize flagging unions, but fails to articulate what kind of party. Marxists must unite in a political party around a minimum/maximum program. The minimum program must be aimed at revitalizing the labor movement (thereby expanding our base) as well as fighting for the kinds of democratic rights that bring the working class political and social power.

Restrictive Ballot Access?

Ackerman spends a considerable amount of time discussing the challenges of ballot access in the United States. Most of the restrictive legislation on ballot access he cites is from the 1920-1940’s. For example, a law from Florida in the 1930’s required candidates of a party to get 30% of the vote for two consecutive elections in order to get ballot access. Current Florida Statute 99.096 states:

“Minor political party candidates; names on ballot.—Each person seeking to qualify for election as a candidate of a minor political party shall file his or her qualifying papers with, and pay the qualifying fee and, if one has been levied, the party assessment, or qualify by the petition process pursuant to s. 99.095, with the officer and at the times and under the circumstances provided in s. 99.061.”

The cost, according to the Florida Department of State, for a state legislative candidate to get ballot access is $1,781.82. Is that enough of an excuse to not run our own candidates? To not put forward the idea of the politically independent working class? Ackerman cites the recent sabotage efforts of Arizona Republicans against the Libertarian party. Where before they needed 134 signatures to appear on their party’s primary ballot they now need 3,023. Make no mistake, these are brazen attempts by the ruling parties to protect their own dominance and are categorically anti-democratic. However, is 3,000 signatures really an insurmountable hurdle for aspiring mass political parties? Does this justify running our candidates under the same party banner as those who would engage in the same types of sabotage?

The Union Bureaucracy Problem

Ackerman argues that most third parties end up either embroiled in ballot access lawsuits or forced to acquire thousands of petitions as opposed to educating about their party or organizing constituents. These are all problems of tactic in response to what we ought to take as given; the ruling parties will try and sabotage our efforts. Fighting against this is the meat and potatoes of socialist electoral struggle.

In the 1990s, in spite of ballot access challenges, left political activists and union leaders attempted to form a Labor Party in the U.S. It failed. Ackerman cites some of those involved and concludes that it failed because not enough unions supported it. The reason not enough unions supported it?

“…the problem arose from the oldest dilemma of America’s two-party system: running candidates against Democrats risked electing anti-labor Republicans. For unions whose members had a lot to lose, that risk was considered too high.”

Ackerman fails to discuss why the unions don’t want to lose to the Republicans; business unions rely on Democrats for their power more than their own membership. He simply accepts that the failure of the Labor Party effort stems from union membership reliance on the Democratic party. The Labor Party attempt basically took unions as given – dominated by liberal bureaucrats routinely bargaining away strengths for palliatives.

The liberal tradition of union politics sees collective bargaining as the emancipation of the working class. It is assuredly not. Liberals see the workers’ freedom of association and democratic rights to combine as the consummation of Industrial Democracy; workers, free of restrictive court injunctions, government repression and hired guns, became free to join unions and have a voice in the workplace. Industrial Democracy was conquered thanks to the NLRA, and the last vestiges of feudal work relations were rooted out; law came to govern the workplace, so long as workers labored under a contract, as opposed to the unmitigated tyranny of the boss.

Collective bargaining became the favored terrain of the liberal bureaucrat. Over the past 80 or so years, socialists have been critiquing this trend. The main form of this critique has been that collective bargaining as such is inherently reformist and bureaucratic. Unions monopolize the skills of dealing with management in the hands of a professional staff and grievance procedures prioritize a smooth working day over workers rights, militancy, or organization. The standard line is that workers must get active and reclaim their own unions. This is partly true but it misses a crucial set of obstacles.

Most leftists treat bureaucracy as purely a problem of position. Even the most dedicated socialist and democrat becomes authoritarian by virtue of their position in an organization. This is false. Bureaucratic treachery is not merely a function of social position. The social position of the labor bureaucracy encourages a particular ideological outlook on the basis of waging day-to-day struggles for partial gains. In the old social democratic movement, this took the form of ‘Bernsteinism’. Eduard Bernstein was a socialist theorist who argued we could reform our way to socialism bit by bit. He famously said “the movement is everything; the goal is nothing.” Many credit the triumph of his ideas for the betrayal of the socialist parties during World War I.

But in order for the labor bureaucracy to take control they have to articulate and organize support for a set of political positions. This political outlook of the labor bureaucracy is as crucial to their success as their more concrete sources of power. The logical conclusion here is that there must be an organized force which both argues and organizes for democratic unions where the bureaucrats are thoroughly subordinated to the the membership.

Of course, as Daniel Gaido has pointed out, what actually drove the knife into the back of the Second International was the conservative labor bureaucracy. Kautsky, having defeated the ideological manifestation of labor-bureaucrat reformism within the Social Democratic Party of Germany, could not contend with it’s basis in society. As the German labor bureaucracy began courting American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers, committing itself to support for German colonialism, and in general professing an anti-revolutionary politics, the Center and Left of the SPD were outmaneuvered. The unions controlled vastly more money and members than the party on it’s own steam.

This parallels greatly the attempt by Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and other leftists to reform the Democratic Party in the 1960-1970’s. They were ultimately betrayed by the conservative union bureaucracy which could not stomach forgoing their personal positions, their strategy of back-room deals and negotiation politics via labor statesmen, and their commitment to supporting the narrow ‘interests’ of their members best exemplified by their support for the war in Vietnam.

Solutions on Offer

Many leftists and marxists agree on the diagnosis; The labor bureaucracy in the United States has long been wedded to a strategy that restricts membership activity, direct action, and quick solution of problems by workers themselves in favor of byzantine grievance procedures that emphasize uninterruption of the production process, staff heavy organizing drives rooted in media pressure and sub contracted PR games and in general giving up the basis of union power; the strike.

For some the solution is ‘social movement unionism.’ The SEIU’s “Fight For 15$” was executed in this vein. But it was not an organizing drive; it was a Democratic Party campaign plot and it failed. As they pull their organizers out of middle-sized cities across the U.S. South, workers will be left without contracts or institutions of self-defense on the job. The basis of power in these unions isn’t a well educated, organized and active membership ready to strike, but a relationship with the democratic party and the levers of the labor-regulation apparatus. Former I.W.W. member Erik Forman has advanced a similar critique; the bureaucrats result from the reality of the capitalist division of labor in society. But Forman proposes a sort of silver-bullet solution; we need more salts.

The I.W.W.’s problems with growth show why this isn’t a solution. The I.W.W. has member activists in droves. The solidarity-union organizing model of salt-led campaigns doesn’t work because it is molecular in a one-sided sense. The aim is to get supporters to salt into a few shops and build committees, and just continue to build that up in a linear fashion. While this is a necessary part of any union organizing campaign, it is hamstrung by a set of misconceptions.

The first is a belief in linear growth. While we need to apply the tactic of salts, we need to fit it into a broader strategy of growth that begins day one with our target in mind. We cannot simply continue to add salts to an existing campaign, we need to have a strategy in place to secure workers in their gains and coordinate across large groups. I.W.W. campaigns have been very small because they’ve relied on organizer-salts with free time rather than paying people to do the work. This is tied to the problem of bureaucracy and the division of labor in our society; workers need to work to eat. They may go above and beyond and volunteer, but that will always be severely limited.

The second and third problems are linked. The I.W.W. wants a union based on militant direct action and membership involvement, which is a fine goal. But the dominant critique of business unions in the I.W.W. is simplistically anti-bureaucratic; they link paying people for work and contract unionism as the source of bureaucracy. Their solution is to simply lop off the bureaucratic limb and be done with it, by eliminating virtually all paid staff and refusing to sign contracts.

This way of thinking is somewhat reactionary-utopian; it wants to wind back the clock of history to a point when the workplace wasn’t directly in the legal realm and remained the almost-feudal fiefdom of the employer. In reality the salt-organizers all get fired and everybody goes home with no lasting union, in large part because of a principled refusal to sign contracts. Whether a union signs a contract or not, it’s always engaged in some form of collective bargaining with employers. Workers enter into contracts everyday with their employers whether they have a union or not. Rather than try and bring back the wild west syndicalism of the the 1910’s, we need to ask ourselves; what workplace rights will put power into the hands of union members at work?

Social movement unionism doesn’t fare much better. As Sam Gindin has pointed out, ‘social movement’ unionism fails because it is incoherent and divided;

“Yet there are few (if any) mass social movements in North America, and their resource base pales in comparison to that which unions enjoy. Though movements raise the banner of participatory democracy, their institutional weaknesses often result in less-than-democratic internal procedures.

Where they focus on particular identities or single issues, their political outlook is often just as narrow (sometimes even narrower) than those of unions. Their anticapitalist élan often entails radical protest tactics, but they rarely consider what it would actually take to confront the capitalist state and overcome the inertial power, resiliency, and resoluteness of the capitalist class.”

Gindin argues correctly that we need a united socialist party to effectively pursue our aims in the labor movement, but defines both this party and these union reform aims somewhat vaguely.

Marxists understand that the basis for working class politics is the political independence of the working class. The working class can build its political power only on the firm basis of its political and social independence. Bureaucrat led unions ingratiate their employees to their employers, refuse to organize the unorganized, and link up with political parties that unite workers and capitalists. Workers become dependent on unions that pit their members against each other and support individual employers over unity among workers in the labor movement.

This is because the labor bureaucrats and their narrow vision have beaten back the socialists, who remain divided and working at cross purposes. This makes working with subsections of the petit-bourgeoisie seem inviting; perhaps we can work with some democrats. Perhaps we’ll have to compromise with some union bureaucrats in order to get our numbers up, attain an audience, or even just fight off attacks. What appear to be pragmatic compromises for the sake of growth are in reality compromises with building independent class power.

Party Problems

Ackerman argues that the Labor Party’s position to maintain an independent ballot line was a mistake. Dudzic agrees that the party “coalesced” too soon- that there wasn’t a “critical mass” present to ensure a victory over Republicans and Democrats. However, Ackerman’s blueprint, once he gets to it, has problems. He writes:

“[A socialist party] project probably wouldn’t have been feasible in the past, due to campaign-finance laws. For most of the last four decades, the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA), along with similar laws in many states, would have left any such organization with little alternative but to fundraise through a political action committee (PAC). That PAC would have been limited to giving a maximum of $5,000 (the current threshold) to each of its candidates per election, and barred from taking money from unions or collecting donations larger than $5,000 from individuals. That kind of fundraising could never support a national organization.

…All of these restrictions would be waived if, like the DNC or RNC, the group registered as a “party committee.” But there’s a catch: a group can only register as a party committee if it runs the ballot-access gauntlet at the state level (a requirement from which Democrats and Republicans are exempt), then wins a ballot line and runs its candidates on it. (Here we find one of the many reasons scholars have described the FECA as a “major-party protection act.”)”

As already stated, Ackerman thinks that ballot access for an aspiring mass party is too restrictive. His preferred option is the “Carey Model,” which has been vindicated in a post-citizens united court case. The idea here is to incorporate as a social welfare organization which does not have limits on spending in exchange for explicit support for political candidates and political education. However, these candidates still need ballot access and will ultimately face state repression if they succeed. Ackerman mentions in passing a key point – this organization would require self-imposed financial disclosures.

This model has some merit. It does clean up some of the funding restrictions, but the strategic problems remain – the old social democratic parties were eventually compromised by the labor bureaucracy’s monopolization on finances. We have to break the union bureaucracy’s control over their organizations and restrict their donations in such a way as to limit their de facto control of the party; party decisions need to be made democratically through party channels and party money needs to come from members, not large outside donations. We can’t wait for the labor movement to reform itself, we have to start the work of forming a party now.

We don’t just want working class political independence in the abstract. Marxists argue that the end goal of working class politics is putting the working class in political control of society. Thus, the party we need is a Marxist one, which recognizes that the fight for socialism requires bringing the working class to political power. This is reflected by the minimum/maximum idea of a program advanced by Engels and Marx and adopted at Erfurt. The minimum program outlines mostly economic and democratic reforms that taken together amount to the conquest of political power by the working class through extreme democracy while the maximum program is communism. Founding a Marxist party right now is crucial for us to have any coherent and revitalizing project in the labor movement. The demands of the minimum program must include democratic ones with respect to political power in society, especially with respect to the uneven realization of basic rights among gender and racial minorities. However, we also need to press for economic demands that guide our fight in the unions for building workers’ power at work.

With regard to the fear of splitting the liberals when we run our own candidates, what Marx argued in his 1850 Address to the Communist League is as true today as ever:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

It is to Jacobin and the DSA’s merit that they have a publication with such wide readership willing to discuss these pressing issues. It is also to their very severe deficit that they continue to waver on the need for an independent socialist party with a clear program. Perhaps at this point some DSA members could propose a Draft Program, to at least begin charting the discussion of uniting the Marxist left. I suspect there would be much to debate about the draft program, but it would put us on the path toward unification as opposed to wandering in the swamp of movementism dominated by the Democratic party and the current union bureaucracy.

We can see that on the one hand, socialists interested in building a political party chalk up their own limitations to a decaying labor movement; and argue for a vague and ill-defined revitalization. On the other hand, contemporary syndicalists and anti-party socialists argue for a similarly rudderless revitalization effort, though based on a mirage of linear growth and dedicated volunteer hyper activism. Often these positions intermingle, but rarely do they take the form of a systematic or programmatic approach to the U.S. labor movement. What’s needed is for socialists to agree on a program for organized labor in the United States, and pursue a united policy to implement it. That includes a strategy for labor movement revitalization on the basis of socialist principles.

Further Reading

Nelson Lichtenstein: Labor’s War At Home – Details the rise of the Labor Bureaucracy during WWII
Christopher Tomlins: The State and the Unions – Details the legal history of Unions in the U.S. in the 20th century.
Marty Glaberman: Wartime Strikes – Writings of a marxist worker-organizer on strikes during WWII and the post-war strike wave.
Stan Weir: Singlejack Solidarity – Similar to the above, marxist worker who recounts among other things, 1930’s strikes and the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
Melvyn Dubofsky: The State and Labor in Modern America – Argues that unions and workers benefited greatly at different points in history by having sympathetic figures in government positions.
Daniel Gaido: Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy: Karl Kautsky on Samuel Gompers and the German Free Trade Unions

Anton Johannsen: On Paid Staff and Policy in the I.W.W. and The I.W.W. and Paid Staff
Mike ‘Pudd’nhead’: Wages So Low, You’ll Freak – Details the I.W.W. experience at Jimmy Johns

Seth Ackerman: A Blueprint for a New Party 
Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed jr.: No Easy Solutions: A reply to Seth Ackerman
Bhaskar Sunkara: Our Alternative
Erik Forman: Let’s Get to Work
Sam Gindin: Beyond Social Movement Unionism
Paul Heideman: It’s Their Party 

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”  

Revolutionary Strategy and the Politics of the Democratic Socialists of America


Jacobin recently put out a book, The ABCs of Socialism, which seeks to answer several questions commonly asked by people new to the idea of socialism. Thirteen authors each take on one such question, from “Will socialists take my Kenny Loggins record?” to “Why do socialists talk so much about workers?” I’ve actually been asked this second question by a friend who was curious about what socialists believe, so I was pleased to see it addressed. Each chapter in ABCs ends with a one-sentence summary of its answer.

Let me preface what follows by saying that I recognize the merit of the text. Notwithstanding the ridiculous physical appearance of the book–seriously, it’s shaped like the drink menu at TGI Friday’s–the content provides a decent introduction to some socialist political ideas. Of course, with brevity of introduction comes compromise on thoroughness. The book contains several ambiguities and insufficiencies.  The most striking such problem has to do with whether “the rich deserve to keep most of their money,” which was authored by the sociologist Michael A. McCarthy.

McCarthy situates the entire discussion in the realm of tax politics. He states that

“the socialist justification for taxes is grounded in a view – not often captured in opinion polls – about how capitalist wealth is actually created. To explore it, we first need to understand what taxes are and what non-socialists think about them”

McCarthy argues that three basic things under-gird the “socialist” understanding of taxation. First, everything produced in capitalist society, the total social product which is the target for appropriative taxation by the state, is socially created in part by rules and regulations the enforcement of which is already underwritten by taxation. The most direct form of this are police and courts, which enforce private property rights.

Second, “[t]he class inequality that results from making this social product is relational”. By this, McCarthy does not simply mean that workers are exploited, but instead that capitalists accumulate wealth only by depriving workers of it, and that most of the total social product goes over to the capitalists. “The condition for this relationship is, once again, political and maintained through tax revenue”.

Third, “redistribution through taxation is a means of extending individual freedom – not curtailing it”. McCarthy might be trying to avoid using old Marxist rhetoric about exploitation; the word doesn’t crop up once. But why?

Exploitation, Marxists believe, is at the heart of capitalism. The wealth that is “socially produced” is produced by the working class.  It might seem pedantic to mention this, but McCarthy combines his argument about wealth being “socially produced” with the claim that “[t]axation provides a partial remedy to that essential, structural inequality of capitalist society”.


Tax policy can function in some respects as a counterweight to capitalist abuses, for capitalist corruption and subversion of democracy is exercised by the veto power of money.  And it is doubtless true that tax policy can serve to extend certain forms of individual freedom: providing workers with tax-funded health-care, unemployment insurance, retirement income, food assistance and more is a means to relieve the individual worker from spending all their time at work, taking care of kids and loved ones, being sick and tired. But there are a few problems here.

Why are tax-funded “redistributive” measures consistently under attack from the right? Why can’t the left or even liberals stop these attacks? Why are tax-funded social programs like single-payer healthcare political non-starters in the U.S.? What would a socialist strategy to change tax policy and spending on social welfare look like in the U.S.?

It is important to point out that Jacobin is essentially an organ for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). That group’s Strategy Document for 2016 provides scant clarification of these questions. For the most part, the document does not reckon with the historical failures of Marxist movements across the 20th century, nor even the recent failures of SYRIZA, the Bolivarian movement in South America, etc. It is this reticence, and the resultant vagueness of strategy and historical naivete, that undermines the coherence of the ABC’s of Socialism. And it serves the specific purpose of evading a full commitment to Marxist politics: it allows the DSA to reject the dictatorship of the proletariat and remain open to elements of coalition with the petit bourgeoisie, with a view to taking office at all costs rather than patiently building toward taking power. The latter objective is addressed directly in Revolutionary Strategy by Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Countering the argument that the left needs to win office at all costs, Macnair contends that socialists/communists ought to pursue a strategy which has bringing the working class to power as its ultimate aim. These two strategies are incompatible.

Take taxes as an example. Changing U.S. tax-revenue policy at the federal level requires influence within and control of both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. This raises immediately the problem of political struggle. The pattern adopted by SYRIZA, Podemos, and others, has been to exploit capitalist crises to form left-of-center coalitions to get office at any cost. This way they can potentially influence tax and spending policies and maybe fetch slightly better outcomes for the working class. But these have proven to be dead ends, because their strategy conflates getting office and forming a government in the bourgeois state with the working class seizing social power. Any reforms settled on at the level of the nation state, toward the end of national development, are largely reversible, given the international dictatorship of the capitalist class. Theirs is an approach to governance that is not based on the strategic assumption that workers must ultimately overthrow the constitutional order, but also generalize revolutionary conditions internationally. Instead, it leaves the veto power of the bourgeoisie essentially undisturbed, most often by limiting the terrain of struggle to the nation-state. Why so much of the left continues to pursue such strategies is a central question of Macnair’s book.


Macnair states his thesis this way:

“To summarise the argument very much in outline, in the first place I argue that there are solid grounds to maintain the fundamentals of Marx and Engels’ political strategy: of the self-organisation of the working class; for independent political action, not just in trade unions and/or cooperatives; independent both of the capitalist parties and of the capitalist states; on both national and international scales. As between the strategic lines offered in the Second International, I argue that the ‘strategy of patience’ of the Kautskyan centre was and is preferable to either the strategy of cross-class ‘left’ coalition government favoured by the right, or the ‘mass strike strategy’ favoured by the left. What was wrong with the Kautskyans, and led in the end to them being subsumed in the right, was their nationalism and their refusal to fight for an alternative to the capitalist state form.”

It is the coalition politics of the right wing of Social Democracy that more or less characterizes most socialist politics today. This political orientation does not come in for criticism in The ABC’s of Socialism or in the strategic and programmatic documents of the DSA. As he mentions above, though he is supportive of the Kautskyan strategy of patient building of workers’ political forces, Macnair rejects Kautsky’s simplistic attitude toward the capitalist state. It is this simplistic attitude toward the capitalist state that is implied in both the DSA’s strategy documents and parts of ABC’s.

Similarly, though he agrees that the left was correct to split from the Second International, he argues that splits are not an altogether useful tactic, and that they do not by themselves “purify” parties or movements. The series of splits that took place within the left after World War I, tied to the Russian Revolution, form the contours of leftist politics the world over through the rest of the 20th century. We must acknowledge and confront this.

Strategy and the Russian Revolution 


The Russian Revolution is the historical event upon which all students of socialism must cut their teeth. It is the subject of ferocious debate and acrimonious fallout.

The fundamental tragedy of the Russian Revolution was that it was a conscious gamble on the part of the Bolsheviks. In a bid on power for the working class, the Bolsheviks, in alliance with some Mensheviks, Left-SRs and Anarchists, overthrew the provisional government of Russia in late 1917 and worked to establish social rule through Soviets (neighborhood and city councils, run by workers). The tragedy arose out of the fact that the working class made up a very small portion of the population. Most of Russia was populated by peasants – poor farmers, often with restricted access to land as private property. The decades before the revolution saw some peasants gradually gaining more access to land, and more rights, but most remained poor and indentured. They were functionally, structurally independent economic units, however, inasmuch as they provided their own necessities through control of their labor process. They grew their food for their own consumption and for exchange (mostly grains). They did purchase some consumer goods, but did not use much modern technology. Some of their productive methods were arguably centuries old. Their central aim, as a class, was to acquire as much land as possible in order to support themselves and their families. They wanted private property.

The crux of the problem is this: the Bolsheviks could not rule in the name of the peasants and the workers at the same time. The same economic policies which benefited the workers hurt the peasants. Cheap food for workers requires paying low prices for grain. Low prices to for grain means low income for peasants. Additionally, technological development in agricultural production required a lot of capital investment in machinery.  It also necessitated breaking up the land holdings of small agricultural proprietors and reducing them to the status of propertyless ‘agricultural workers’). By the end of the Russian Civil War (in which Western-supported aristocratic and reactionary forces fought to regain power) the Bolsheviks found themselves in a bind.
Their gamble had been that the Revolution of 1917 would inspire revolution in the rest of Europe, and that with technologically advanced countries like Germany on board, developing agriculture and industry in Russia would be a lot less difficult. Instead, Russia came out of the civil war facing international isolation, famine, a recalcitrant peasantry, and hyperinflation. Already in 1918, in preparation for the Civil War, they destroyed many of the democratic elements within their own party organization. That process continued through the war and after.

Put simply, the Bolshevik party had to subordinate socialist revolution to economic development. Bolshevik power was a based on an unholy alliance between the working class and petty proprietors in the form of peasants. While the Bolsheviks had argued that a working class party requires democracy, toleration of factions, mass membership, and debate, the party had to commit itself to balancing the class interests of workers against peasants; city against countryside. This straddling of conflicting class interests spurred the development of an alien bureaucracy ‘above society’ seeking to regulate production in accordance with some development plan.Stalin’s simplistic but murderous solution, unparalleled in human history, would eventually win out.

And it is in this period where most of the left, aware or not, locates the origin of their politics. It might seem enough to reject the model of the Russian Revolution altogether, as MacNair appears to do:

“We can no longer treat the strategy of Bolshevism, as it was laid out in the documents of the early Comintern, as presumptively true; nor can we treat the several arguments made against the Bolsheviks’ course of action by Kautsky, Martov, and Luxemburg (among others) as presumptively false. I stress presumptively.”

Macnair doesn’t reject the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state however. Macnair is concerned with the institutional forms of working class rule and how they contrast with those requisite for bourgeois rule.

The war years vastly transformed the Bolshevik party, which was then subsequently held up as the model for revolutionaries the world over by the Comintern as the alternate form of authority in a revolutionary upheaval. Macnair argues that there were three core elements to the strategy proposed by the Comintern: Revolutionary defeatism, the 1914 split as a tactic to purify the workers movement, and the Bonapartist ‘Vanguard Party’ as the alternative authority to the capitalist state.

Defeatism and Splits

First, Macnair argues that defeatism was the correct line in WWI. But defeatism is not a purity test, or simply a moral imperative. Specifically, Lenin argued for defeatism in the context of conflict of imperialist nations, not for defeatism within, say, the anti-colonial movement. Most importantly Lenin pushed to adopt the specific strategy of agitation and organization in the military for trade union and political rights, as a means to disrupt the ordinary function of military discipline and instill practical resistance.

Nor does Lenin defend a defencist policy vis-a-vis colonies involved in anti-colonial struggle in a blanket sense. What is stressed here is practical unity between the working class in each country, not ‘critical support’ for bourgeois governments (or in the case of some leftists, political Islam in reprehensible but anti-colonial forms, or anti-Western ‘secular’ dictatorships). We ought to work against our own governments’ abilities to carry out imperialist wars; we should instead promote international working class unity, on both sides.

Macnair rejects the split as a ‘purifying’ gesture. Lenin and others argue that the 1914 split was necessary because:

A) the rightists and center were scabs.
B) the rightists were sections of capitalists, or were allied with them, and were issuing ultimatums to the working class, attempting to exercise a veto power over them by using the instruments of the capitalist media and state.
C) Some workers (‘aristocracy of labor’) had interests in common with imperialist capitalists because they were receiving a bigger slice of the pie, in the form of higher wages.
D) The split is a strategic means to purify the movement, and set it on a revolutionary instead of reformist course. It creates a ‘party of a new type’.

MacNair agrees with points A and B. However he is critical of the ‘imperialist aristocracy of labor’. Colonial countries have labor bureaucracies and opportunists as much as imperialist countries. Not only this, but imperialism is not simply one hegemon versus the world, but a hierarchy of states with different particular advantages over each other. Finally, skilled workers have served as both revolutionary and reactionary in any given epoch. Macnair writes:

“Working class support for one’s own capitalist nation-state is produced by dynamics inherent in the capitalist nation-state system and world market and there is no grouping within the working class which is presumptively free of it.”

Ironically, splitting contributes to more challenges for the working class, which requires wide agreement and action to achieve it’s ends. The split between communists and social democrats cannot be healed. Yet united political action of the working class is objectively necessary to win even modest reforms in capitalism. Thus, the split, rather than automatically purifying the workers’ movement, immediately poses the problem of unity.

Working class unity in a party or trade union is a conscious unity not an ‘organic unity’ like family or clan. It is a unity in diversity, an agreement ‘to unite for partial common ends, while recognizing diverse individual opinions and wills.’ Workers organizations require full-timers, because capitalists do not give workers enough time off to manage large organizations. The question then, is how to run the party organization.

Party of a New Type and United Front


The “party of the new type”, mythologizes the Bolshevik party and projects it’s recent (1918-1921) militarization and Bonapartist centralization back onto the past:

“On the other hand, it (Comintern policy)  is also a theorisation of what the Bolsheviks had done to their party in 1918-21, both in militarising it and in setting it up as a minority dictatorship, a state authority against the working class. In this aspect the “new party concept” or, as it came to be called after Lenin’s death, “Leninism”, was a theory of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, and one which was to animate endless bureaucratic sects.”

This “party of a new type” emphasized three organizational points, which undermined the ability of the membership to subordinate the bureaucracy. It was not a mass party, but a “vanguard party”, it was an activist party, and it was to be strictly centralized, banning factions, reducing greatly the autonomy of locals by giving the central committee of the party veto power over local decisions.

“Democratic Centralism” as this set of organizational policies came to be known, effectively eliminated any internal democracy within the organization. Further, it contributed to an obsession over theoretical over programmatic unity and the general repressive nature of left politics that has become a stereotype.

MacNair outlines two basic ways in which the ‘parties of a new type’ which came to dominate the left, approached the question of ‘united action’:

1. Refusal of unity for limited common interests on the basis of insufficient agreement on other questions
2. United action or diplomacy by means of over-generalized agreement or self-censorship

‘Unity’ often equals shutting up about those with which they unite. The basis for unity then is a suppression of criticism. Support is not ‘critical’ at all, and the movement is not able to choose between clear and diverging opinions.

Alternatively, there is an obsession with ‘militant action, moderate demands’ as a means to outperform the reformists and thus inspire/recruit workers to whichever left sect. ‘The workers break with the reformists in action not ideas!’ say these leftists, as they refuse to form formal political organizations. These ideas are visible in morphed form in the neo-Trotskyist syndicalism of Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir, and have found some purchase in the contemporary IWW.

The problem, argues MacNair, is that once workers ‘become politicized’, they look for a party:

“The underlying problem is that it is a variant of the sub-Bakuninist mass strike strategy discussed in chapter two. Once the masses, or even quite small layers of newly radicalising militants, actually begin to enter the political stage, they demand of the left not ‘good fighters’ on the particular struggle, but an alternative political authority. At once, this poses the question of a party in (at least) the Kautskyan sense. This requires addressing the full range of questions affecting the society as a whole.”

Fundamentally, the united front policy of the Comintern was meant to address the unity of the class around particular demands. If the 1914 split between coalitionist right and communists advocating for the international independence of the working class will not be healed, then the united front is necessary. Not in the form of ‘shutting up’ and toeing the line, and not, either, of dissolving our activity into being the militant wing only of the coalitionist right, but by developing our own political organization, and uniting around specific demands and fights, where necessary, with workers in coalitionist organizations. Ultimately, we will have to attempt to unite in a communist party, but not on the basis of confused united front strategies.

Both variants often find small leftist sects, piloting front groups into “coalitions to end x”. This is the ultimate “united front” strategy of the left today, and it’s logical conclusion is the SYRIZA government in Greece; a coalition to end the right-hand-of-capital’s monopoly on power for a few years.

Role of the Party in Revolution

Finally, on the point of social authority at the moment of revolution, Macnair puts forward a theory of the “party-state”. What is meant here is a rejection of the left communist and anarchist “all power to the soviets” on the one hand, and of Kautskyan seizure of the bourgeois state on the other.

Drawing on the history of various revolutions since the 17th century, MacNair points out that revolutionary class rule is exercised through the vehicle of parties, which exclude the parties of other classes from power at the point of seizure of power. Think of the domination of the Republicans of the legislature during the Civil War. The southern democrats were ‘excluded’ on the basis of the federal government refusing to expand slavery, the bedrock of the class rule of the Southern aristocrat, the marginalization of the Democratic party, and of course the prosecution of a war which entailed the wholesale destruction of their property. The Democrats’ re-integration into political life was notably contingent on oaths of loyalty.

But doesn’t party-rule imply totalitarianism, violence, genocide and all the rest of the bad stuff we hear about in high school history class? No, argues MacNair.

Put simply, party-rule does not equal bureaucratic dictatorship. That is derived from the the militarization of the Bolshevik party upon need for discipline in the civil war, the ban on factions to suppress splits in the party, and ultimately the desperate need to balance the class forces of the peasantry and the working class. Instead of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ the Bolsheviks had organized a bureaucratic, militaristic political rule necessary for economic development.

On this basis, Macnair argues for a core minimum program. Taking cue from Marx and Engels’ critique of the Gotha Program, their influence on the program of the Parti Ouvrier, and the SPD’s Erfurt Program, the minimum program describes the basis upon which workers would take power (not merely take office). In his own words:

“This understanding enables us to formulate a core political minimum platform for the participation of communists in a government. The key is to replace the illusory idea of ‘All power to the soviets’ and the empty one of ‘All power to the Communist Party’ (Comintern) with the original Marxist idea of the undiluted democratic republic, or ‘extreme democracy’, as the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The capitalist class would be excluded from rule, whether voluntarily or forcefully, by the ascendence of “undiluted democratic republicanism”. Here the ‘extreme democrats’, the workers, will necessarily exclude capitalists through the abrogation of their “rights” in the form of the rule of law, unaccountable judicial review, the executive, and the upper houses of the legislatures and so on.

What is in this minimum program? Some key points:

– Universal military training and service, with democratic and trade union rights in the military, including election and recallability of officers.
– Election and recallability of all public officials, who are to be put on a worker’s wage.
– Abolition of secrecy laws and copyright.
– Abolition of judicial review of the decisions of elected bodies.
– Abolition of constitutional guarantees of the rights of private property and freedom of trade.

Communists fight for this minimum program day-to-day in order to increase the functional organizing ability of the proletariat and expose the corruption of the capitalist political order. Some have accused Macnair of using the term ‘republican-democracy’ far too idiosyncratically. Let’s see:

“The only form through which the working class can take political power and lay collective hands on the means of production is the democratic republic. This does not mean ‘rule of law’ parliamentary constitutionalism, to which it is, in fact, opposed.”

For Macnair it means defending the democratic rights accomplished in ‘rule of law’ constitutional regimes, like freedom of speech and assembly, and extending democratic and republican rights; the right of recall applied to all public officials (republican) and the generalized principle of self-government (democracy). The task then is to fight for an opposition and not government office at all costs. This opposition must ‘commit itself unambiguously to self-emancipation of the working class through extreme democracy…’ and organize for majority support of both minimum and maximum program. There are no ‘insurrectionary’ or coalitionist short cuts. The minimum program is the basis for bringing the working class into power, and beginning to build communism (the maximum program).

In the final  chapters Macnair touches on the necessity of internationalism as a starting point and as the true horizon of working class rule, both of which are important but I will hold off on here.

Strategy Today


In sum, Macanair’s is a strategy of patience where the working class develops mass, democratic organizations in the process of struggle against capital, and in opposition to the constitutional order. These alternative institutions demonstrate the ability of the working class to govern society, as well as serve as the means to fight for legal-constitutional reforms which increase the scope and ability of the working class to organize and eventually seize power. These reforms reflect the form necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

When this occurs, it will be through the vehicle of a mass, democratic-republican party of workers which tolerates factions within itself, delimited only by the exclusion of capitalist forces.

In contrast, DSA’s Strategic Document is less clear:

“Rather, our strategy… …. consists of fighting on a number of interconnected fronts in the short-term, leveraging gains made in these struggles into more structural, offensively-oriented changes in the medium-term and ultimately employing the strength of a mass socialist party or coalition of leftist and progressive parties to win political power and begin the process of socialist transformation.”

The DSA boast of being the largest socialist organization in the United States. They have given support to Sanders’ candidacy in the Democratic Primaries as a means for generating support for ‘socialism’. Cornel West, a notable member involved in this effort, has been tapped by the Democratic party to help draft the near useless party platform, which appears to be Sanders’ main political activity after losing the nomination.
They also aim in the ‘medium to long term’ to run progressive candidates in the Democratic Party, and eventually form a socialist ‘coalition’. But this is vague. An electoral strategy in the U.S., as in any country, needs to be subordinated to the aim of bringing the working class to power.

Perhaps, as they indicate in their document, they feel it is too soon to lay out a true program. But they give hints toward what taking power would look like:

“Success across this spectrum of (short-term) struggles should lead to a period when we can talk seriously about the transition to democratic socialism through reforms that fundamentally undermine the power of the capitalist system (often referred to as “non-reformist reforms”), such as the nationalization of strategic industries (banking, auto, etc.) and the creation of worker-controlled investment funds (created by taxing corporate profits) that will buy out capitalist stakes in firms and set up worker-owned and -operated firms on a large scale.”

In their document Towards Freedom this coalition politics is explicit. Socialists must unite with petit-bourgeois professionals in demands for more “democratic consumption.” Side by side with this strategic aim, is the argument that Socialists, thanks to election rules in the U.S., are forced to work within the left of the Democratic Party, or remain irrelevant.

What are we to make of this? Combined with the expressed need to form coalitions above, the emphasis on putting tax policy in the hands of socialists as well as peaceful nationalisation schemes, we get a picture of the kind of politics that Macnair argues against, the coalitional politics of SYRIZA and others. Here, the task is to figure out how to get into office, and institute reforms, whether palliatives, or “non-reformist reforms” like nationalization.

But, nationalization is a reformist-reform. That is, it is transitory in the context of global capitalism. Look at Venezuela right now, or Greece’s struggles to deal with its international financial yoke. Coalition parties, even if socialist coalitions, coming to power in one country, cannot stop what Macnair calls the ‘ratchet to the right.’ Whatever the policies of Chavez, or Rouseff, Venezuela and Brazil now find themselves in the throes of the typical struggles of the international capitalist class to protect investment and profitability. Left-wing administrations are often followed by rightist ones which carry their politics even further away from the left.

Nationalization of industry is essential to the minimum program as outlined by Macnair, and in the old Erfurt Program and Communist Manifesto. But it is only one bullet point on a list of crucial changes that bring the working class into power. That is, it is one thing that helps free the working class from the drudgery of work, in order to pursue the governing of society.

DSA’s thinking here and in the ABC’s gets it backwards; we must organize a party, take office, and change tax policy, in order to bring the working class to power thereby avoiding revolutionary upheaval, and sidestepping completely the dictatorship of the proletariat. Contra DSA, Macnair’s proposals put the working class in the driver’s seat, and begin to deal with the particulars of the institutional forms of working class rule requisite for seizing power. This “dictatorship of the proletariat” accomplished, tax policy would be largely superceded.

What gets policy to change is fear on the part of the capitalist class from the organized power of the working class, not teaming up with factions of business or the petit-bourgeoisie, appealing to their decency, respect for international law, or reliance on oil or other key exports.  

While The ABC’s serves as a useful introduction to socialist ideas, it is limited by Jacobin and the DSA’s unclear political strategy. The text would benefit from answers being linked to a general political program, beyond the coalition politics that currently plague the left. This is reflected in the line in DSA’s strategy document, as well as in the ABC’s. Hate or love Macnair, he sets his focus on the core problems which confronted the workers movement in the 20th century. His argument that the left has to set its organizing horizon beyond the nation-state, and its political strategy beyond office, and root it in the aim of bringing the working class to power is convincing. Revolutionary Strategy certainly merits serious engagement from U.S. communists, socialists, and anarchists.

Texts Cited:
Revolutionary Strategy by Mike Macnair
ABC’s of Socialism by Jacobin
Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution
Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice (This was authored in part by Jason Schulman, who’s also written a review of Macnair that a comrade pointed out to me shortly before publication: Current Relevancy of an Old Debate, though this doesn’t appear to have had a significant influence on the DSA’s political strategy)
A Brief History of the American Left


A Reply to BAMF’s Eradication “Strategy”

Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault/Predators

BAMF has published a “strategy” to eradicate sexual predators from the left. This strategy consists of forming an anonymous and unimpeachable committee of “listkeepers” to track sexual predators and rape apologists, and to organize supporters in a series of escalating direct actions against their participation in the activist scene. While recognizing the need to turn predators out of left organizations, BAMF’s strategy fails to effectively deal with the question of sexual predation, and dangerously proposes to put survivors and left groups at the mercy of a secret clique.

The key issue is who should have the power to determine how to deal with sexual predators in the Left. BAMF writes:

The State shall not determine for the Left who is a sexual predator, which groups harbor rapists, or who is a rape apologist. Listkeepers shall determine that based on a solid combination of experience, knowledge, documentation, and sound judgment. No applications will be accepted to join the Listkeepers. Membership will be determined by express invitation only.”

Modern capitalist states are still dependent on patriarchal family structures to reproduce their labor force, and the state is therefore deeply invested in upholding said anachronistic structures. BAMF rightly distrusts the state’s intent or even capacity to deal with the problem of sexual predators. However, in place of the state they prop up an explicitly self-nominated, anonymous-to-the-public group of people to secretly decide not only who are sexual predators and rape apologists but what sexual harassment and rape apology consists of.  Communist groups, and more importantly survivors, must submit themselves to the obscured whims of the secretive “list-keepers” or face disruption and ostracization.

What are the benefits of the secret committee of list-keepers? To protect survivors, BAMF argues. But how? The most important element to protecting survivors is limiting the ability of the accused to contact or further harass the victim. This is often addressed by charges processes and safe space policies, though constrained by lack of resources. Like a charges process, the strategy only deals with sexual predation after it has occurred. All that the central committee of list-keepers offers is anonymity, contingent on the “solemn vow” of the anonymous list-keepers. In other words, the same trust we’d expect in a charges process, yet now without any form of accountability.

Unaccountability and a lack of transparency in the context of generalized sexist social relations is a recipe for abusive disaster. Groups that foster this sort of behavior, like FRSO with which BAMF is very familiar, use secrecy to hide their crimes. Comintern-inspired Leftist Organizations often depend on secrecy to hide the actions of the leadership and activists from the rest of the membership. Secrecy is a weapon wielded by bureaucracies, private or public. It robs the membership of their agency and denies that they are capable of making this or that decision themselves. Unless extremely repressive conditions make it necessary, secrecy should have no place in the Left.

Unlike an elected committee, the strategy does not serve to spread the skills necessary for dealing with these situations or generalize the knowledge and experiences that may result in the active prevention of sexual predation.  A complaints committee elected by the general membership, and subject to its veto and recall would include the whole group in the general process if not in every particular case. The result is that the entire group learns from the horrors of sexual predation; many members would have the skills necessary for dealing with sexual predators, which at least increases the chance that predators will be dealt with. “The strategy” offers none of these benefits.

Instead BAMF seeks to forcefully compartmentalize the membership by levels of participation, depriving the general membership from experiences which would have helped the group deal with sexual predation and may even have resulted in its prevention. Instead, communist and left groups must bear fully the costs of dangerously “eradicating” sexual predators with force. This is an invitation for violent retribution and legal costs for any organization involved.

Not only does “the strategy” advocate bureaucratic control over victims, and depriving the Left of processes that would generalize experience dealing with sexual predators, but they threaten individuals and groups who do not comply with their strategy with public denouncement as rape apologists:

“We will hold self­proclaimed Leftist organizations and individuals to the highest standard.****** All Communist groups, formations, parties, and organizations must commit to Level 4 or face ruthless, relentless denunciation as enemies of the working class until they begin actively aiding the implementation of the Strategy of their own impetus, with their own resources, effective immediately.”

Thus by implementing their strategy, BAMF argues that they ought to have veto power over the political activities of any organizations on the left, as well as the desires of survivors. This threatens not only to affect those groups misguided enough to subject themselves to a shadowy, self-selected inquisition, but the whole left should this strategy gain much traction. Most importantly, it subjects survivors’ needs in organizational life to the whims of an unelected and unaccountable central committee, running the risk in the long run of being captured by the kinds of predators and abusers it aims to eradicate.

There is no real advantage in the strategy. Instead there are only a slew of potential problems related to the lack of information and accountability. Sexual assault has to be handled in left organizations, and we wouldn’t presume to have all the answers. Some critical problems for left groups include enforcing expulsions or terms of immediate relief and ensuring the process is speedy, both of which require considerable resources. However we should keep in mind core principles of accountability, democracy, and transparency, if we’re to find methods which work.

BAMF’s Original Piece

On Staff and Policy in the IWW


Bill Haywood and various staff at IWW GHQ in the 1910’s


Thinking About Policy and Staff in the IWW

In this essay I argue that the organizing policy pursued by the IWW for the past decade or so has been ineffective in large part because it’s informed by assumptions which are incorrect. The central assumption being that the IWW ought to avoid using paid staff at all costs. This viewpoint concedes that a division of labor is useful, but only by volunteer worker organizers who cannot be tempted to corruption by virtue of not drawing a salary. Certainly this assumption is itself informed by others, which I hope to address below. Most of these assumptions are not often made explicit, but are definitely current among the left today, and in the works of authors revered by many in the IWW.

In much the same way, the IWW’s organizing policy is itself not entirely explicit. Many of the formulations of principle are found across blogs and Libcom forums, as well as occasionally in the Industrial Worker. A central premise which supports my conclusion in the affirmative for paid staff is that contrary to the claims of many on the left the working class does not ‘self-organize’ or not in the sense that they often seem to imply. By this I mean that a division of labor, including full-time staff, are necessary to form any working class organization that is to be both more than ephemeral, and large, regardless of its political commitments. Obviously these political commitments matter, and that is why I take up the concept of policy as the means for the membership to direct and keep accountable staff and officers. Of course, I do not have all the answers, and I hope to invite discussion with this essay.

A Past Campaign

In the early 00’s, Wobblies helped try and organize bike couriers in Chicago. Their initial strategy was to organize a central, Industrial Organizing Committee, which would be made up of members of “shop committees” at each employer. The IOC employed an Organizer at two points in the campaign. The first, Pete, was an experienced organizer, who for about 2 and 1/2 months helped propel the campaign forward, alongside worker committees. The second organizer, Andrea stepped in after organizing had dropped off altogether and, having little organizing experience, employed a series of misguided schemes to ‘get workers involved’ (everything from yoga to zines). She had a familiarly difficult time of it. However, she was the first person to be interested in organizing the Bike Couriers, into the Windy City Bicycle Messenger Association, which lasted several months before it was dissolved. Shortly after, members met with the IWW, who began assisting them with organizing. Prior to the arrival of the the first organizer, Pete, two members of the Chicago GMB worked alongside workers, energized after a first mass meeting, to map the industry and gather contacts. Matt and Colin had begun working with the WCBMA before its dissolution, and Andrea met Pete on a trip in Portland. The idea was that upon his arrival in Chicago, Pete “would focus his energies on teaching workers how to organize, handle grievances, and strategize about the union effort.” Indeed, he did just that.

One of the organizers, Colin, wrote up a post-mortem of the campaign. But his analysis is consistently viewed through the lens of ‘activism’ current now and in the early 00’s. For example, FW Colin states,

“With Pete in town, we were able to capitalize on this information (contacts) and to organize several shop committees. However, these committees were not capable of functioning without an outside IWW organizer present. Despite this limitation,the shop committees began to build the union slowly by winning small grievances at individual workplaces.”

A bit later, after detailing the successes of grievance handlings in the campaign with the organizer’s presence, Colin notes

“During Pete’s time in Chicago, we held two organizer trainings, a program started by the IWW in 2000 to give everyday workers on the job the tools and skills (and confidence as well) to organize their workplaces…..The trainings provided messengers with the basic information they needed to organize but did not seem to provide them with confidence to be independent organizers.”

The Shop-floor committee is the first place a worker really interacts with the union.The IWW has had for at least the past 10 years an “Organizer Training 101.” This 2-day training introduces people to the IWW and trains them to form the shop committee. Colin continues,

“I speculate that MK, Pete, and I served as a crutch and that with us to rely on the messengers did not need to develop their own leadership. Pete left Chicago in June 2004, and his absence was immediately felt. MK and I lacked his experience at group facilitation, and the organizing began to falter.” (emphasis my own)

On one level, this poses a question of leadership in general, and on a more concrete level it is a question of the role of the organizer.

On leadership, the left generally is stuck in a rut of ‘authenticity’. Here, a given leader is chastised as not being a part of working class, either sociologically (‘They make six figures!’) or more to the point, by the leader’s support for bourgeois aims.The question is irrelevant. It is factually true that workers can and will make up their own minds to follow this or that course. Our job then is to convincingly address the issues concerning workers and present clear paths forward. Workers may get tricked into letting someone into power over them, but they cannot trick the workers into taking power for themselves. We cannot deal with the inevitable corruption of some leaders by eliminating all leaders if that means the sacrifice of success.

In the IWW this question comes up partially in attitudes to the ‘third-partying’ tactic employed by the boss. While it is true that the union ‘is the membership’ it is also true that the union employs staff. What ought to be emphasized is that the staff of the union serve the members and that the independent nature – i.e. ‘third party’ – of the union is to the benefit of the worker. Independence from the boss is the precondition for organization against the boss.

The second question is that of the relationship between paid organizers and leadership in organizing drives. It seems reasonable to me that the first leg of the Courier campaign illustrates a healthy relationship. Workers made up the decision making bodies, and Pete and other non-worker members of the I.W.W. provided the necessary advisory roles to support workers in training, confidence, and labor. Once Pete left, and one of the IWW volunteers got a job as a courier to help form a shop committee at one of the bigger shops, the other shop committees and the jointly formed IOC (made up of one worker from each shop committee) dissolved. Colin writes,

“Toward the end of the summer, MK took a job with Arrow as a bike messenger. He began to focus his energy more and more on building a shop committee at Arrow and less on his work with the IOC. This shift in energy ultimately spelled the end for the IOC. We spent much of the autumn and winter trying to get members of the IOC to focus on building shop committees but were unable to establish functioning committee at any shop other than Arrow. I spent months working with workers from two mid-sized companies, but in both cases, neither committee developed to the point where it was able to take on a worker’s grievance and win.”

It seems clear that with the reduction of the pool of labor outside the shop reduced by ⅔, the drive was of course bound to change in nature. What followed, was that one volunteer organizer ‘salted in’ and the paid organizer left. It’s not entirely clear what specific duties they could have continued to play outside the shop committees. Why doesn’t Colin draw the conclusion that it resulted from a decline in outside support, and instead locates it in ‘worker confidence’?

Our Current Orthodoxy

Perhaps it is because the predominant sentiment in the IWW is anti-contractualist union activism. That means we don’t aim for the long ‘peace’ secured by contracts, legitimated by the NLRB. We could of course, within the confines of the current constitution, pursue contracts in our organizing. We are prohibited from signing contracts with no-strike clauses. This seems a fine provision, amounting to the outlawing of workers bargaining away their strength. That said, anti-contractualism in general does not change in any meaningful way the work that we’re required to do to remain effective. Contract or not, unions still have to provide their memberships with services. Here, I mean trainings, administration, calling people, house-visits, research, editing news media, designing agitational materials and much more. However, the prevailing orthodoxy takes anti-contractualism to mean a total rejection of the union providing almost any services. This orthodoxy amounts to IWW practice being “Join our union, and do everything yourself!”

Many have pointed out how workers are willing to go some distance, especially against their immediate material interests, in order to support their values. The union has certainly used this fact to it’s advantage over the years. But the reality is that workers just don’t have the time. Even if they think capitalism is wrong or awful, people must resign themselves to keeping their heads down and weathering the storm. The amount of effort involved is too much for one person to figure out alone. Put simply, there is a relationship between moral feeling, and ability to spend time fighting back. As the time necessary to win goes up, the ability to seriously fight back just disappears; even if people wanted to, the simple fact is they have to eat first.

Here we get into messy territory on the left. On the one side, we have the DIY attitude of many anarchists and ultra-leftists. This suggests that decision making (ALL decision making!) must be in the hands of everyone involved at all times. This is somewhat of a caricature. In reality, it is mostly the phenomenon of seeing formal structures doing the work that substantive democratic movements would otherwise take care of. For example: We must decentralize the powers of the I.W.W. GEB because then it will allow locals to make their own decisions and flourish. It will keep officers accountable (rather, it will get rid of officers!) and will forestall any ‘incipient bureaucracy.’ This logic is very similar to that of classical political economy. Here, a ‘civil society’ of independent private property owning producers, would work out their exchanges and grievances with each-other efficiently, if not for the interference of the heavy hand of the state. This also has considerable purchase among ideologists of neoliberalism writ large. States (the main form of social authority) ought to only pursue those efforts which lower the costs of transaction and communication or disappear altogether,save for enforcing the property rights of the idlers!

On the other side we often find some variant of Comintern inspired ideology, which clings tightly to forms of ‘democratic centralism’ that in reality are essentially bureaucratic centralism. That is, a small clique of bureaucrats, continually elected to the same or similar positions, rules on most issues, and dissent from their line is cause for expulsion. Ultimately, purity of political line becomes the goal, with organizational ‘purging’ or splitting, the main form of activity. While these organizations have some semblance of policy and program, they suffer from a combination of bad politics and bad organizational imperatives.

A Better Way?

But what does this have to do with organizing a union in fast food? Or the IWW? Well, the suggestion is that both strategies are ultimately wrong. If the union is going to have campaigns that go beyond DIY shop-level resistance efforts, it’s going to need the consistent help of staff in administration and organizing. While this is embraced to a fault by the bureaucratic sects, it is rejected by the ultras. We saw how in the case of the couriers, when the organizer left, it became difficult to sustain the campaign. What’s needed then is a staff and administration – in a word, a bureaucracy – but one which is subordinate to the will of the membership.   

Here we get into the troubles that the union has had in the recent past. While being successful at building shop committees and maintaining them for a short amount of time, the volunteer salts often suffer burnout. Further, we lack a more concrete medium/long term vision for a union with stable membership in one area. Contemporary efforts regarding unionization in the mainstream labor movement are completely geared toward contractualism. It secures dues income for the union, and secures some benefits for workers. It’s cutting a deal. If we’re going to refuse this route, then we need to think seriously about what it is that we offer. And it can’t just be a “value-system.” If that’s the case, how are we better than a church?

Part of going beyond the shop committees, and using resources outside them effectively, is having a model of how to build the union as a local social/political force in the city or area where the organizing is taking place. This is necessarily outside the ongoing workplace activity. This requires social events, educational events, canvassing and a number of other activities involving the union in order to cement it as a social force.

The old IWW did this in numerous ways. Until 1913 when Big Bill Haywood was formally expelled, the Socialist Party’s left-wing and IWW members often shared resources, published complimentary literature, and directly helped in organizing strikes. This even continued in some areas after Haywood left the Socialist Party.

The IWW also had its own robust publishing department, with paid editors for various newspapers and journals in several languages. Agitation, Education, Organization were constant processes. IWW organizers, paid and volunteer, would leaflet working class districts, soap-box, pamphlet shift changes, hold meetings, etc. This Agitation on the outside helped workers on the inside carry on Education about what was possible if workers stood up on the job.

But this was all possible because workers had previously stepped up and chipped in their money to hire staff to coordinate an organization. The IWW could speak authoritatively on questions of wages and safety, and also social and political questions; the role of the working class in society, why the bosses can’t be trusted at work or in the government.

One way that this has been thought about is in terms of “legitimacy.” As in, traditional US unions get their ‘legitimacy’ from the state securing and enforcing their contracts to some degree. This, plus their well organized nature. (We may disagree with their politics, and a lot of their strategy, and even some aspects of how they’re organized, but they have resources, and they sometimes use them effectively). John O’reilly writes:

The legitimacy of the union springs from struggling together, from the relationships that grow from struggle, and from showing that the union and our vision is just as viable a thing to believe in as the boss and their vision. If we can show workers that our organizing can make their lives better, or at least give them powerful emotional experiences associated with trying to make their lives better, it is reasonable for them to believe other things that we say, like that we are fighting for the whole pie. ”

While the question is interesting, it seems to miss the point. Legitimacy, something we do need in order to organize effectively, will ultimately only come from organizing effectively. But we can be clearer about what that means. As noted above, if workers are not going to be forced to pay dues to to us, but do it voluntarily, then they really have to benefit from what we’re selling.

But, if we’re not selling health-insurance, a grievance arbitration procedure that is ultimately useless, and an admonition to vote for Sanders, then what are we selling? The things which immediately come to my mind are:  Effective offensive and defensive organizational support.

Working class organization means having a clear and reliable source to go to with your problems at work. It means that they will be dealt with in a reasonably consistent and effective fashion, and it means that the worker aggrieved will have a role to play in addressing a grievance. Concretely this means having the infrastructural, administrative, and organizational abilities to turn out hundreds of workers in support of a local grievance. This itself would require an initial level of organization, as well as a degree of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of the participants. It also would require local bookkeeping, administration, reports filing and public relations work. This would likely would require the local or regional establishment of shop committees across an industry, campaigning by the same to win some public demands, and then their spread outside of that framework. What the worker would get in exchange for their dues is membership in an organization that has some material benefits for them (increased wages, job protection, actual grievance handling, better schedules, etc.) but that also offers an alternative political institution to the ones that dominate American politics (membership in an organization where the members set policy, vote, hold office, draft proposals, defend each other etc.). The second feature is no less important, as it is the last resort method of defense we will have to make use of in our efforts. That is, reliable, effective legal support, and other forms of defense where powerful organization is not yet possible.

Up to this point, the organizing work that the IWW has done has relied almost *entirely* upon small committees made up of volunteer salts. I do not for one minute doubt the dedication of these members, but I do suspect that we might chart a better course.
Let’s think about organizing at 6 grocery locations with 100 employees each, in the context of the prevailing orthodoxy. That would mean at least 1-2 initial Salts per store. Finding and orchestrating the hiring of 12 wobblies into a chain of grocery stores would itself take work to do. Once inside, these salts have to talk to coworkers, set up and do 1-on-1’s, socially map the workplace, physically map the workplace, do research about suppliers and the workers involved there, identify grievances, and begin thinking about recruitment from the shop-floor onto the shop committee. Further, they would have to identify production choke-points in their own stores, devise consistent and useful tactics for settling grievances, train newcomers in the practice, research the business’ growth strategy to identify tactical moves to pinch growth as a means to get concessions (as one example), engage in graphic design and PR, administer and manage funds, etc. That is, under our current model, we expect 12 people, working full time hours for little pay, to take on these tasks.

Alternatively, a union which places rank-and-file committees as it’s core, could delimit the activity they must engage in, and provide them with resources for building on their struggles. While those shop committee’s begin to recruit, the staff of the union could help lay the basis for local growth. They can train and coordinate door-to-door campaigns with volunteers to get the word out about the union when the time comes. They can host the trainings needed for the emerging shop committees (OT-101) on how to use direct action to solve grievances and build the ‘underground unionism’ phase of the campaign. They can work with other parts of the IWW to do industrial research (research staff) to help flesh out possible tactics and strategies for engaging with an employer, especially going public. They can handle educational and advertising initiatives to help newly forming locals (graphic design, pr, educational staff). They can help with the maintenance of web interfaces which allow members to debate and publish writings and arguments in a transparent fashion (web admin and publishing staff).

Instead of volunteer committees of workers handling every aspect of an organizing campaign we could augment the efforts of those workers with a division of labor using employed staff. Workers on the shop-floor would still settle grievances, and would still set organizational policy but they’d be assisted by staff that would utilize discrete skills to implement aspects of policy.

No Policy in the Union? Come Off It

A big concern for paid staff in the IWW is accountability. But what do we mean by accountability? Accountable to who? And in what manner? In contrast to the traditional activist mode of accountability, where ‘organic leaders’ are championed alongside a hodgepodge of democratic mechanisms (recallability), I’d argue that policy is the core of an effective accountability process. Mechanisms (recallability) are necessary in order to execute the rescinding of support for elected officials and staff which deviate from policy.

As it stands now, the IWW has a fractured, franchised organizational policy. One off campaigns devised by upstart members and branches, are meant to demonstrate success and seriousness before requesting resources from the Organizing Department. The Organizing Department acts as a networking tool for people who happen to be organizing on similar turf. That is, if the Tampa GMB and the Atlanta GMB happened to both be involved in organizing at a regionally prominent grocery chain, the ODB would, ideally, forward contact info.

This policy, in line with aforementioned tendencies toward neoliberal thought, presupposes (correctly) a general atmosphere of labor unrest in the capitalist U.S., but responds (incorrectly) with a policy of ‘limited authority’. The unrest merely needs to be ‘unleashed’ by the removal of stubborn ideology, a task best suited to ‘worker organizers’ on the ground. This will lead linearly to growth of resistance and fight back, when the pendulum of ‘high struggle’ finally swings back in a favorable direction.
This viewpoint often treats problems of approach, what might be termed ‘qualitative’ problems, as problems of quantity. Workers simply need the ‘tools’ of resistance (in the form of the OT-101) to unlock their potential to fight back. If we increased the OT-101, with the use of volunteer trainers, we’d lead to organizational growth and an increase of working class fightback etc. But if the issue, as stated above, is not simply putting the right frame of mind in the hands of workers, but of pursuing tactical and strategic ends, then a quantitative increase in the OT-101 is besides the point. It would certainly help us to some degree, but would not grapple with the failures of past campaigns.

What’s more, it would not grapple at all with the above mentioned need for a technical division of labor within the organization. Volunteer work, and member activity is necessary but not sufficient. Instead of a passive policy, of keeping tabs on local organizing carried out by ‘self-starters’ the union ought to pursue an active policy of identifying key industries and targets for growth, that put the union in a better position than today.It is the job of the members to develop a general organizing policy, and the job of national officers to direct staff to help implement policy alongside the membership.

I don’t mean to attack the OT-101, it’s to a large degree responsible for my membership in the organization and what success the IWW has had in the last decade or so. But it is limited.

By way of conclusion, I’d suggest that the following principles could guide the development of paid staff within the IWW.

1) Paid Staff are conceptually different from paid officers.
2) Staff serve the membership. As such, they are subject to the will of the membership. 
3) Staff work on projects as directed by membership, or where organizing more generally, directed by policy developed by membership, in consultation with officers.
4) Policy should be a central feature of the IWW, as oppose to simply resolutions and constitutional amendments; policy sets tasks to be undertaken, and directs specific bodies to undertake them in given timelines.

While mechanisms for ensuring compliance with policy are vital, in the absence of policy, they function as idle tools, or worse, weapons in ideological factionalism. Constructing a system of hashing out and implementing policies through the vehicles of officers, staff, and the membership, give substance to mere ‘democratic mechanisms’.
There are further questions. I touched on these above, but what are the roles we need filled in the union? What is the role of the organizer? Publishing? Web administration? Industrial research? Education and training? We have to figure which roles, if given our preference for initial investment, will yield us the resources with which to build. We have to view hiring an organizer as a growth strategy for our organization. Will this organizer, applied to this drive, yield an increase in membership sufficient to spread our organization? This is a perfectly reasonable basis for measuring our finances and budgeting appropriately, and does not in the least approach a Faustian compromise of socialist principles – unless poor management of finances is to be raised from the level of ‘common socialist habit’ to ‘foundational socialist principle’!   

Referenced Texts-

Colin Bossen, Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism Working USA
Andrea, The Making of An Organizer: A History and Analysis of the Chicago Couriers Union

The IWW and Paid Staff

In the IWW, paid staff are often emblematic of a decayed, reactionary unionism. In this piece, Anton J., member of the Communist League and IWW, considers the question more closely.


The argument against “paid staff” usually is in reality the argument against a bureaucratic leadership and a technical division of labor. For instance:

“As use of paid officials does the exact opposite of encourage workers to organize ourselves, but instead encourages us to rely on “professionals” and “experts”, which is the exact opposite of what we need to happen for workers to start winning again.” (Paid staff is inimical to “self-activity”)…. …This advocacy of paid officials is also not only more right wing than what I’ve seen from any anarchist, including the likes of the shit ones like Liberty & Solidarity, but way more right wing than any trots or even right wing social democrats like Labour supporters.” (http://libcom.org/blog/leave-it-professionals-paid-union-organisers-23092014)

Notice that no clear distinction is made between staff and officials. Both are seen to be forces which work against the “self-activity” of the average worker. It’s important to make clear how that happens, because staff can often play a role in stopping worker initiative. But what is that role? In 2012, the IWW membership passed an amendment to it’s constitution phrased thusly:

‘D) Amend Bylaws Article VIII “Speakers and Organizers” (new language in underlined text)
Article VIII Sec. 1. No members of the IWW shall represent the organization before a body of wage earners without first having been authorized by the General Executive Board or a subordinate part of the IWW.
Sec. 2. No organizer for the IWW while on the platform for this organization shall advocate any political party platform.
Sec. 3. The IWW shall seek to avoid using paid organizing staff as much as possible.
Sec. 4. The IWW shall not hire any permanent salaried organizing staff.
Sec. 5. In the event that the IWW does make use of paid organizing staff, paid organizers shall be selected from the IWW membership.
Sec. 6. Any paid organizing positions in the IWW shall be for temporary and fixed terms tied to the campaign on which they are working.
Sec. 7. Upon completion of their term any paid organizers shall be expected to remain IWW members and to return to regular work . ‘

Why? We may turn to some member arguments for clarification:

Item D commits us to try to avoid using paid organizing staff, and to give temporary stipends to organizers when necessary. Salaried, career organizing staff would be completely prohibited. I was lucky enough to receive a stipend as an organizer in Madison during the occupation movement, an experience which changed my life and my outlook on the IWW, and gave me a ton of confidence for workplace organizing. This kind of experience should belong to as many of our members as possible, who should take their skills back with them to organizing at their own jobs, where they know the issues, the co-workers, and the industry. Plus, if we expect workers to one day run the world, that has to begin with them running their own union. Vote YES on D.

As well as this bit:

But these positions should be temporary, as to avoid emulating the model of the reformist unions, who don’t believe in as many members as possible being organizers, but would rather have a layer of functionaries employed to do this for the members. Having organizing staff tends to come up as an easy answer for encountering the difficulties with solidarity unionism. But instead of drawing from the AFL-CIO’s playbook on this matter, barring permanent paid organizing staff will necessitate that we blaze our own trail, developing a revolutionary unionism that is empowering, democratic and member driven. (GOB # 10 2012)

In one sense, both point out the benefits of paid staffing, specifically paid organizing staff. One even suggests more members should have the opportunity to work as paid staff. But their argument is for limiting staff. Here, using staff is congruent with “robbing” the workers of the necessary skills to organize.

Another point is that “workers should…organize their own jobs…” What exactly does this mean? That workers should have clear decision making ability and control of their organization? The fear of bureaucracy is a worthy apprehension. But we must not conflate staff and leadership, as if in all things, payment is tantamount to “selling out” or capitulating worker control. If anything, having organizers, accountants etc. that are highly skilled would mean they would have more to share with membership development. There is no reason we could not structure staffing in a way that requires this. But what the AFL-CIO does in regard to securing contracts and dues money, has little to do with using paid staff in organizing, media, or technical positions, and everything to do with using government backed contracts that at most, are enforced with the vague threat of a strike. In other-words, their political orientation toward the power of the state and away from the power of an organized working class, defines this phenomenon more than the use of office secretaries or paid organizers. While the CIO had to historically restrict the local authority of workers in taking direct action and solving their grievances at work (or more), it’s not at all clear that staff played the central role in this dynamic.

But what exactly are the IWW’s politics? Clearly anti-capitalism, though not explicitly communism or collectivism. A term Wobblies have often used in the past to describe their ideal society is “Cooperative Commonwealth,” which is a very 19th Century American way of saying socialism. And if we accept that the IWW is at least ideologically socialist, in a sense, we can perhaps point out that is a specific kind of socialism one rooted in workers getting organized themselves, literally, and taking action. It’s a kind of class-struggle socialism as opposed to a reformist, electoral, or perhaps social-democratic movement. It is this which I think that IWW has to offer workers. This is something no other union is willing to do, which means we ought to be encouraging, defending, and teaching the merits of working class direct action. It is not clear to me that using paid staff, though not paid officials, would contradict this. I think some common myths cloud this picture however.

Class struggle is inherent to capitalism. There is a definite antagonism between the working class – as a class – and the capitalist class. The capitalists need workers to create value, and the workers will only work if kept in a position of dependence, destitution; that is deprived of the necessary means of living. In order to eat, workers have to enrich capitalists and so they resist. But not always by organizing. Sometimes they quit, and find another job. Sometimes they punch their boss in the mouth and are fired. Sometimes they discover in a small way, their interests, at least withing their workplace, as being united, and make a joint petition with a higher-up. Even this will likely lead nowhere. This is because workers are divided technically and socially. Different unions seek to group workers together on different terms, in order to bargain with capital or destroy it.

A technical division of labor is also inherent to capitalism. People specialize in certain tasks as a means to coordinate complex working processes. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. Certainly Wobblies want a society where specialization occurs and allows for maximum leisure in conjunction with maximum satisfaction of the needs of all. But this technical division of labor can lead to social antagonisms. Often the argument goes like this: if our union leadership, skilled in law, public speaking, drafting press releases, book-keeping, organizing and so on, are not accountable, they can place their interests as bureaucrats ahead of those of the membership. They may put their own interests in salary and security ahead of the workers’ interest in bread and revolution. However, what determines the outcome in this antagonistic relationship is the same as the class antagonism: If workers have power in their own organization, they can kick out any careerists or corrupt officials.

But this is too simplistic. Organizational structure matters, but primarily in regards to political commitments. Take a look at the AFL-CIO’s webpage regarding it’s training of union organizers:

‘Union organizers help people who work secure union representation at their worksite. A union organizer informs people (mostly nonunion workers) about their rights, identifies and develops leadership skills among workers, explains the union organizing process and helps the workers campaign for union recognition. The organizer builds relationships based on what those workers do on their jobs, the problems they face at work and challenges and inspires them to get involved with their co-workers to have a say on the job by organizing a union. The ultimate goal is for workers to build power in their workplaces by winning a binding agreement with their employer that makes real improvements in their living and working conditions.‘ (http://www.aflcio.org/Get-Involved/Become-a-Union-Organizer)

In contrast, the IWW recognize this fact; that above all else workers’ power is based upon their own organization and solidarity in direct action. On that premise, the IWW seeks to increase the organization, confidence, and knowledge of the working class. On the other hand, unions like the AFL-CIO, from the beginning, approach the raw material of class struggle differently. They see that the interests of labor and capital can be harmonized, whether through bargaining, politics, or government boards.

This piece has two parts: In one, I look at the nature of class struggle in capitalism and it’s history in the U.S. I look at the examples of the CIO unions and the Mechanics Educational Society of America, both in the 1930’s and during WWII and the IWW’s heyday as examples of unions with different political commitments, that nevertheless all used paid staff. The second part of this piece puts forward some ideas about what a Paid Organizer program for the IWW might look like.

In the 1930’s, especially in 1934 there was a wave of intense, insurrectionist strike activity of workers of all sorts in the U.S.: longshoreman on the West Coast, Mineworkers and Teamsters, Auto and Rubber workers in the Midwest, Textile workers in New England and the South. These were strikes that lead to pitched battles with the police, the unions and at times the National Guard. It’s important to note here that this was before the CIO was a thing worth mentioning. John L. Lewis, the leader of the United Mineworkers of America, began the CIO initiative with other unionists fed up with the AFL’s trenchant craft-focus, in response to this strike wave. Workers were taking initiative, with or without a union, and the central tactic of the CIO was not to engender this rebellion and striking, but to come in after the fact, and broker a peace with the bosses. Lewis himself has been noted for his willingness to use Communists and other leftists (the best organizers) likely because they would push for militancy. Witnessing the immense labor unrest of 1934, Lewis, and other eventual CIO officials, seized on the opportunity to begin organizing mass production workers. In a move that would be consecrated only fully in the blaze of reaction that was WWII, the emerging CIO unions sought to represent the workers of various industries to their employers in exchange for exclusive rights to dues and bargaining. In the late 30’s during waves of sitdown strikes Lewis reported, “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs or any other kind of strike.” (Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home, Chapter 1, Brecher, Depression Decade).

The point here is that the narrative of “good unions gone bureaucratic” is mistaken. From the get-go, the bulk of the CIO leadership approached unionization as a means to secure their own position as bargaining on behalf of workers for their ‘interests’ as this or that type of industrial worker. It had nothing to do with drawing the lines of the class struggle clearly, educating workers about their interests as a class, or fighting capitalism. So much was easy to see within the emerging framework of the NLRB and eventually the No-Strike Pledge signed by virtually all unions at the start of World War II.

In the WWII period, contemporary labor relations established themselves through routine handling of skyrocketing shopfloor conflicts by the National Labor Relations Board and the War Labor Board which set up arbitration committees in each of the major industries. When this happened, the state took a more active, policy-oriented role in managing the antagonism inherent in capitalism between labor and capital. This was done for the most part through working with the “representatives” of labor in the form of CIO and AFL unions. Those unions were able to get maintenance of membership clauses as well as automatic dues-checkoff in exchange for a no strike pledge. This meant that even if the workers did not like their union, they could not quit it, as quitting it would mean quitting their job. This also meant that the CIO unions could fire workers if they kicked them out of the unions. While militancy during the WWII period rose dramatically, it was forced to express itself in tight, wildcat skirmishes for narrow demands in almost all cases. The opposition to strikes was overwhelming, both organizationally and ideologically, with CPUSA members, CIO, and AFL officials as well as bosses and the Government all working against strikers. As Glaberman notes:

‘Most of the labor leadership reacted quickly, but more moderately, to the new situation created on December 7, 1941. William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called a meeting of the AFL Executive Council for December 9 to deal with the situation. In the meantime he said, “Labor knows its duty. It will do its duty, and more. No new laws are necessary to prevent strikes. Labor will see to that. American workers will now produce as the workers of no other country have ever produced.” In a radio speech on December 8, Philip Murray, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), said that CIO members “were ready and eager to do their utmost to defend our country against the outrageous aggression of Japanese imperialism, and to secure the final defeat of the forces of Hitler.” He was, however, careful to note that “they of course expect reciprocity, and that no selfish advantage will be taken of the sacrifices they are prepared to make.”‘ (Wartime Strikes, pg 2)

While the CIO unions relied on paid staff in different capacities, we cannot isolate as their failure simply their use of paid staff. (Robert Zieger’s The CIO 1935-1955, ). Different unions within the CIO had different constitutional structures and different applications of paid staff or officials. Especially after the war and with passage of Taft-Hartley many of these unions strengthened the powers of their executives and centers to discipline any contract breaking locals seeking to act on their own, and expelled en masse the “communists” from their ranks. (Glaberman, Lichtenstein, chapter 12).

It can be seen that the CIO unions already, without considering their structure in detail, approached the labor question with an inherent conservatism. They sought to occupy the space of antagonism between capital and labor, work with government boards and harmonize the interests of both. This is a political stance, one that relied on increasing the international levels of authority over Local levels, thus ensuring the application of paid staff toward predictable ends. Further, the development of the CIO unions toward their combination with the AFL and the purging of the communists and the passage of Taft-Hartley, were not forgone conclusions but definite historical developments that were at times contested by reform movements within the organizations. It’s clear that we cannot reduce the arguments against the CIO unions to paid staff = bureaucracy = bad!

In the same period that the CIO unions were emerging, there was a movement among machinists and tool and die workers in the Midwestern Auto cities like Detroit pushing for organization. Led by Matt Smith, the Mechanic’s Educational Society of America (MESA) was a pioneering effort at uniting skilled workers and unskilled workers in the auto industry. The effort involved many communist workers, who would split after the union gained recognition and inaugurated Matt Smith as its general Secretary. Smith was a syndicalist machinist with organizing experience from the Shop Steward movement in the UK in the 1910’s and early 20’s. The union used skilled workers as a sort of wedge and vanguard, at a critical point in the production schedule, to force recognition in 1933. The MESA’s foundational strike occurred on September 21st, 1933, when machinists in plants at GM, Packard, and a number of other auto-manufacturers and tool and die shops in Flint, Detroit and Pontiac went out on strike for higher wages and recognition. Smith, assisted by labor lawyer Maurice Sugar, hoped to use the National Recovery Administration’s newly formed apparatus to bring the manufacturers to the table to bargain but they soon realized that the National Labor Board set up by the NRA was effectively useless. By October, the MESA had tried to meet with government and business representatives numerous times but business refused to show. On October 29th, after over a month on strike and awaiting negotiations, strikers formed a “riotcade” and attacked shops all over Detroit, burning tool blueprints, smashing windows and giving the police fake tips as to where they would strike next. By the next day, the riot had subsided, and by Nov. 2nd various shops began to concede to 5 cent wage increases as well as representation by the MESA. Fisher Body, Packard, and Hudson Motor conceded to representation in a town and industry where unionism had struggled to get a foothold for decades.

The 1933 foundational strike of the MESA is the most commonly cited piece of it’s history. Often regarded as a pioneering event in the Auto industry, it combined a swirl of historical forces prevalent in organizing unskilled workers at the time. Part of the MESA strategy was for the skilled tool and die makers who were essential for the unskilled mass production side of auto-manufacturing, to strike right before the new model of cars were scheduled to be released. This put extra pressure on the auto-companies as well as encouraged workers on the production side of things to join in the strike. The fact that it attempted to organize craft workers alongside production or unskilled workers was a big influence on the emergent UAW. It would be inaccurate to suggest that they spent their main focus on organizing production, but they never the less allowed for production workers full membership in the union at a lower dues rate, at first as a separate body, and latter alongside the craft workers. Not only that, but their strategy of applying skilled workers’ strike activity strategically around production schedules is one the UAW would further exploit. The ideology of the organization was great deal closer to that of the IWW, with the exception that they had no problem signing contracts. They would often publish essays or jokes and songs from Wobbly papers, and were structured in a fashion Wobblies might find interesting.

Smith was the spiritual leader of the organization, and remained it’s General Secretary throughout the rest of his life. He drew a salary that was equal to the average of the membership and aside from Secretary responsibilities he often represented the union to the public press and Congress, when they opposed the No-Strike Pledge (and struck throughout the war). Official positions were held by workers, who worked in the shops. However, it seems they were compensated for time missed at work for union business. For instance the President of the union was a machinist, voted for by the membership, who worked right alongside them in the factories. It does seem that they had paid staff that edited their paper, the MESA Educator, and they made use of paid organizers as well.
In the wartime, the MESA administration and leadership, fully supported and worked to widen, if possible, the activity of it’s rank and file. Because of this, it boasted wartime gains in income, vacation, overtime and maintenance of grievance procedures on the shopfloor, things it often chided the CIO for relinquishing. Put clearly, the MESA, even with paid staff, was able to maintain a Wobbly orientation toward workers’ power, that is, direct action solidarity, as it’s own base of existence.

Another example is our own union. We already utilize some paid staff. Perhaps the reason we don’t use more is that we don’t have the resources (and that is quite a good reason!). But we certainly should then be thinking ahead about how we get to the point where we would begin a program of paid staff, and how they would relate to the membership. But we also have had a similar organizational role connected to workers fighting their bosses. Local 8 in Philadelphia, was an IWW Local of Longshoreman in the 1910s. Organized in an industry devoid of formal skill divisions, rife with racism, and prone to high turnover, the Wobblies there were able to virtually sign up the entire longshoreman workforce. They did this with a commitment to direct-action dealings with grievances as well as a politics of class centered integrated solidarity. They utilized paid organizers and leaders like E.F. Doree and Bill Fletcher, and had to fight off the ILA(to this day an anti-worker racket). The workers on the docks went with the IWW because they didn’t want segregated unions and they captured their spirit of resistance to the bosses. Not only this, but Ben Fletcher, a black longshoreman and Wobbly organizer, had been working on the docks leading up to the strike, spreading the gospel. Local 8 maintained it’s power on the docks directly with their own organization; that is, organization of direct action. They workers had a clear understanding that the easiest way to get something from the bosses was to stop working an until they gave in. (Peter Cole, Wobblies on the Waterfront) But that requires broad support among other workers.

The IWW generally used paid delegates as well as organizers. Delegates then kept a portion of initiation fees, dues, and literature sales as a commission as this excerpt from a history of the Agriculture Workers Organization makes clear:

At the meeting held on May 20th, the A.WO. Secretary proposed to grant a commission of One Dollar to voluntary organizers and delegates for each New Member brought into the organization. After a lengthy discussion this commission basis was accepted, but the amount of the commission was reduced to 50 cents (Roughly $10-12 at today’s value). Having accepted this method of organizing, it now became possible to issue credentials to every member willing to act as delegate or voluntary organizer. (E. Workman History of the AWO).

This made sense as the goal of the roving delegate was to replace the local branch among workers who were not stationary. Check any IWW paper where finances are reported and you will see line items for staff in offices as well as for organizers and delegate commissions, for example OBU Monthly June 1919. This example shows the various industrial unions using the same waged delegate system as the AWO, which by 1919 was divided back into it’s industrial sections. Not just delegates, but office staff and organizers as well as commission on literature sold.

Notice the Section

Notice the Section “Summary Disbursements”

 Now I’m not suggesting that we give delegates commissioned pay; we have a system right now of mixed locals, with delegates “commission” going to the GMB. This makes some sense. But it’s important to remember that our history, our heyday, of heightened and principled struggle with bosses against the whole damn capitalist system, was organized and structured partly by paid staff. Bill Haywood, Ben Fletcher, and countless nameless organizers and delegates who never reached the level of administration, drew income from the union. Often it wasn’t much, but it helped the work along.

It seems, upon reflection of general labor history in the U.S., that paid organizers are no clear indication of union capitulation. The IWW in the past used paid staff, and the same is true of the MESA and the CIO unions. What makes the IWW and the MESA unique is their basing their power in the organization of the working class, as opposed to the state. The 1930’s, and especially in the emerging CIO unions, saw many an organization rushing to contain strike activity and direct action as a means of brokering a deal between workers and bosses, and capturing a membership. For them, this created some degree of possible financial security, and was intermingled with an ideology of labor-capital reconciliation and bargaining. For this, the government guaranteed their monopoly on labor, with maintenance of membership clauses, so long as they promised to control workers.
There exist a complex set of factors, including ideology, relations of production and arbitration, rather than the ubiquitous “tendencies inherent to unions under capitalism,” that drive them to be collaborative, useless, traitorous, tools of the bosses. Simply keeping out paid staff is a perhaps only effective at keeping this from happening because it keeps the union from actually getting power at all. What actually determines a union’s viability, with regard to Wobbly principles, is this: Does it spread the Wobbly message, that workers must get organized, across all dividing lines, to fight the bosses? Does it build that organization in the form of encouraging openly workers direct action? Does it encourage workers participation in their own union, in the forms of education and participation in decision making? Any union will have to recognize and sanction to some degree the direct action of workers. The goal of the IWW ought to be to help our fellow workers understand that workplace direct action is only the beginning. That we’re really after for the big picture of workers’ power, socially.

My suggestion is that the IWW can inaugurate a program of paid staff; paid organizers and other technical staff; alongside a commitment to it’s politics. How we go about building the IWW must be accountable to the membership, must be effective, and must create not simply dues-paying members, but class-conscious leaders. If we were to create a standing organizing body in the union, with a program of paid organizing, we would have to clarify what the role of the organizer was, outline the structure of payment for organizers, and define the relationship between the program and the decision making base of the union. The role of these organizers might be illustrated in this manner: Suppose you had a city with an established branch. Suppose then that you set out an organizing target. Now imagine if 1 paid organizer took the job of helping organize at that workplace. Alongside full-time Wobblies in those shops, you had part-time worker, who for the other 15-20 hours a week, was paid by the union to agitate, educate, and organize? Not just sign up workers, but really organize! Train workers in running meetings, accounting, setting up and running locals, public speaking. Organizers would help the workers organize themselves. It’s clear to anyone who has attempted to organize on a volunteer basis that it is a constant and draining battle of attrition, especially when working full-time for shit money, to organize your co-workers without critical resources including simply the time to talk. Paid organizers could host educational workshops and trainings, flyer, research, door-knock, all while full timers are working on the inside. This would certainly help us in generating support for the one thing workers need to begin fighting back; direct action solidarity.

The aim of this organizing initiative ought to be to build up not just general support for “the union” but to encourage activity by the workers to win their demands. This could, in a city without an established or large branch, take the form of a union-centered Solidarity Network/ city wide organizing committee. These paid staff could have as their first aim the amassing of a list of sympathetic potential picketers, while putting it’s service of solidarity out there. “Fired from your job? Not paid back wages? We’ll help you raise hell until you get what you need!” Unlike other Solidarity Networks, we would not be based only on volunteer work, and could therefore dedicate more effort toward internal organizing, upon discovery of shops of workers interested. We could also collect dues, allowing the organizing efforts to bring in funds. It may be noted here that as working-class solidarity and the interruption of the work process are where the power of workers lay, in either of the above situations the organizing of a type of solidarity network is paramount for growth. Organizing the interruption of work requires many supporters.

Too often in the union we expect people to do things “for themselves” that they simply cannot do. There is no conflict of interest in dividing our labor on a technical basis in order to accomplish more together than what we can alone; is this not the definition of organized? This isn’t to say that these efforts would not still use and require volunteer work, but that the burden of certain tasks would be removed. Instead rank and file workers could be doing what they know better than organizers; talking to co-workers, identifying problems in the shop, making contacts internally. Further, it’s irresponsible for us to only use volunteer work; if a job is worth doing, it takes time, and time requires that we pay the person who does it. Not an exorbitant salary, but enough to eat at a least.

But how do we evaluate the program? Our goal is not merely more dues money, though that is an important measure. Our goal is increasing power for the working class. But what does that look like? Well, how about groups of workers in a city, actively planning work-stoppages to get their demands from bosses? Our aim with our organizers would certainly be to increase membership, but membership in a democratic workers organization that shirks contracts with a boss and relies on working class solidarity as it’s strength. Unlike business unions that send an “organizer” around every few years to rile up the membership, negotiate another contract, and then leave, our organizers would be committed to giving whatever leadership develops locally the same tools, knowledge, and organizing skills our organizers themselves have, to maintain their local membership and organization. Indeed, if effective the ideal ought to be that a group of workers in a city become so organized as to have enough dues on retention for offices, printing, and paying their own staff (provided they’re warranted). Our organizers ought to organize themselves out of the job! That being said, we would evaluate the success of the paid organizers by looking at several factors. Here are some potential ones:

1) Was the effort financially sustainable? Did we generate enough new members for the cost of the effort? (Assuming a Full-Time organizer) (numbers based on the budget for GST)
– 30k wages
– 3k benefits
– Taxes 12%
– Payroll Total = $36,960
– Travel… Depends on strategy a couple thousand for visiting 5 cities in a year, more for more cities, less for less. overall cost = ~ 38 – 40,000 a year for an organizer, potentially.

Break even is then over the 12 months of organizing, would have to get ~500 new members that pay 11$/month dues for 12 months, accounting for branches taking ½ monthly dues as well as assuming initiation fees for new members going to pay for the organizer.

2) Is the new branch, local etc. stable?

3) What is the turnover rate of members?

4) Are they still organizing? Are they growing?

Perhaps we could pilot the program in a city with a major branch that could split the cost between the general union and the local branch. Perhaps we could use the volunteer work of building a solidarity network, albeit one that collects dues, as a test for a city that would like an organizer or two to come to town. That too could raise funds.

The next question would be: Who decides what organizers go where? We could perhaps elect from the membership an Organizing Board which oversees the paid organizers and evaluates possible organizing opportunities. This board would have to report to the membership it’s financial, as well as it’s evaluations of any organizing drives. The membership would then be able to evaluate the board and determine who to elect/re-elect. Further, groups of Wobblies who encounter workers in the “hot shop” scenario, could petition the Organizing Department Board to send an organizer. The Board could evaluate this case on the basis of it meeting defined criteria of possible campaign sustainability.

The basic conclusion here is that “paid staff” are not the slippery slope to bureaucracy or capitulation to capitalism they are often made out to be. Certainly there are dangers inherent to bureaucracy forming in any union, as it’s activity occupies a space in the antagonism inherent to capitalist society, one that capitalist must always work to smooth over, ignore and police. This combined with the general technical division of labor can put pressure on an organization to relinquish control to a bureaucratic leadership. But unions become acquiescent to capitalist interests within this antagonism not inevitably and not simply, but as a result of many processes, factors, and not least of all, ideological commitments. The IWW used paid staff because it made sense, and did not see it as compromising Wobbly ideals. By defining the scope and aim of paid staff within the union clearly, we can ensure it’s effective application and it’s commitment to the will of the membership and IWW principles.