The Role of the Unions Part 2: Will Barnes to IDN


In suggesting your remarks entirely miss the import of the events in Wisconsin, I suppose I should simply state your left communism is not Luxemburgist enough and leave it at that.

But as the crisis of capital has increasingly devolved into a crisis of the proletariat, your voice has become increasingly strident, shrill and ideological (i.e., the analysis you deploy throws a veil of mystifications over real movement and a historically novel development). Before I am accused of engaging in ad hominum abuse, I shall state that this is not a question of personality but one of the categories of an analysis that is incapable of grasping the developments in question. All this requires an elaboration and a critique, and, Mac Intosh, I shall provide it.

The problem of your analysis and its central categories… formal domination, real domination, decadence, Gesamtarbeiter… is that they have not arisen from real movement (merely taken over largely from indications in Marx), and, exacerbating this problem, that you have attempted to deduce the events in Madison, their immanently unfolding structure and organization and their outcome from that analysis built up on the basis of those categories, a purely formalist undertaking in which historical contents are generated by the analysis. More specifically, Mac In tosh, you find what was there at the end, fully developed and complete… a reformist working class rally that affirmed the Democratic party and a legalistic pursuit of workers’ aims strictly on the terrain of capital… was present at the beginning, tacitly and undeveloped. The whole course of the unfolding events in Wisconsin was merely an elaboration of this orientation that was exclusively present from the get-go, so that you can simply declaim its reformist essence. But what you have actually done is to read back into the struggle at its origins what you found at the end. Your retrospective projection asserts the whole course of the movement was teleologically governed by that reformism. This is obfuscatory.

So let’s go back to those events, though not with Goldner and his account (which is unnecessarily burdened as Gifford and I have just recently pointed out at a couple sites, one of which at least is accessible to you). As we recounted (something which was indicated to Goldner over two weeks ago and which he has chosen to ignore), the events in Wisconsin unfolded in three phases (and here I shall simply repeat our earlier account), a rolling wave of strikes that shut down schools throughout the state of Wisconsin ending on Friday, 18 February, and the massive demonstrative upsurge centered in Madison that accompanied the strikes ending Monday, 21 February; the following week through Sunday, 27 February in which pressure in the capital was kept up by Madisonians, largely non-proletarian (municipal workers, teachers and university teaching assistants had nearly all returned to work); and the following days until the passage of Walker’s legislation that were characterized by a vigil maintained by a hardcore of a couple thousand (continually dwindling) who thought they might “bring down” Walker by sheer force of will, i.e., by their unrelentingly presence, and which culminated in the rally on 12 March that affirmed the subordination of the largest layer of public sector workers in Wisconsin to the union bureaucrats and the Democratic party.

It was, however, the first, purely proletarian phase of the movement which is significant, and which is of interest to every revolutionary to the extent she’s a genuine revolutionary, a phase which unfortunately your categorial framework and the manner in which it is deployed does not permit you to grasp as such. In response to Walker’s programmatic assault on worker organizations, on Wednesday, 16 February, teachers and students in Madison and some of the outlaying towns inaugurated a wildcat, closing down these schools and rallying at the capitol grounds; on Thursday, 17 February, teachers from Milwaukee and more towns around Madison joined so that now the two largest school districts in the state were shut down; on Friday, 18 February, still more schools now reaching toward the center of the state (north of that point where I-90/1-94 split) wildcatted and headed for Madison. By then, 3/8, a full 37% of the schools in the state were shut down, and other school districts in the state (in and around Fond du Lac and Green Bay for example), while managing to keep their doors open, reported absences between 25% and 40% of personnel and students. On each day, teachers and students were joined by growing numbers of city and county municipal workers from Madison and the surrounding area, and teacher assistants at UW-Madison (who had initiated the whole movement with the first day of the capitol occupation on Tuesday, 15 February). The numbers were astounding, and they grew each day. On Wednesday, 20-25,000, on Thursday (the first time I was there), 30,000; Friday, 40,000. Then, as the weekend rolled around, and the more cautious workers joined in the size of the movement skyrocketed, 70,000 on Saturday and a 100,000 on Sunday.

What is important to understand was that, first, the struggle was defensive, a fight to preserve the mass organizations of public sector workers, and this is what gave it its purely proletarian character… Mac Intosh, in major defensive struggles workers do not find their motivations in the texts of Gorter, Rühle or Perrone, but most often, and in this case emphatically, in lived and felt necessity of protecting the institutional basis of whatever they have managed to squeeze out of the bosses; second, that simultaneously the situation was explosive, it could have passed over to the offensive, and no one but the workers present controlled these events, least of all the union bureaucrats who had refused to sanction any of the wildcatting, who by Sunday were insisting the teachers in particular had to return to work, and who from Thursday on were doing everything they could, as yet unsuccessfully, to canalize the movement in legal channels that would contain events within the order of capital; so that, third, the whole situation that weekend was posed on a razor’s edge and could have gone in an entirely different direction. Possibilities in the situation were more than merely latent, and, unquestionably there was no reformist teleology that governed these developments and assured the outcome that did in fact come to pass. One of the possibilities was a general strike to shut down the public sector in the state of Wisconsin. Because the idea had begun to circulate late in the weekend, on the evening of 20 February it was mooted by the union tops a gathering of their high council, of course only to be immediately discarded…

Now Madison in February 2011 was not the western and southwestern provinces of the Tsarist empire, Poland, the Ukraine and European Russia, and the Caucasus in a series of events that stretched from June and July 1903 in Odessa and Baku to the late winter and spring 1905 in Petersburg. But tell me, Mac Intosh, in an era of casualization, undersized capital-intensive productive units fully competitive with residue big factories of the Fordist era, vastly smaller and non-unionized workforces, an era in which the few remaining mass organizations of the proletariat are under a sustained attacked justified in the name of capitalist austerity, what does a mass strike look like? …

Right on the heels of the teacher-student wildcat, a general strike was one of those possibilities. Had the strike been called at the rally on Sunday, beginning the following Tuesday (22 February), starting from the schools in Madison and Milwaukee, and from the state and municipal offices in Madison and the surrounding communities, it is my considered opinion it would have effectively shut down the public sector in the state, curtailing all capitalist activity, within a couple or three days. Had that strike been called local strike committees would have formed immediately… There was enormous excitement and, viewing the Middle East (i.e., Egypt), here at this moment there was also a visceral sense of expansive possibilities. All this would have found expression in those strike committees, and a good deal of it would have gone way beyond reformism. Working class awareness would have tended to maximize itself, and worker action would have, potentially and nascently, tended toward formation of a council. Then there’s the whole unexplored question of how such events would have reverberated elsewhere…

But who would have called a general strike? Who would have argued a revolutionary perspective and stated clearly, expressly, what was maximally possible in all these developments? To pose this question is to grasp the real limits of the movement.

These limits, though are not just a certain affinity of the largest layer of public sector workers in Wisconsin for the Democratic party, nor just a question of the debilitating effects of contract legalism on the awareness of the same workers. This is precisely what is sloughed off in these situations, counterfactually just described. So, to the contrary, the greatest limitation is the absence going back 77 years now of a revolutionary and communist current within the working class, its various layers and sectors, in the United States. Do we play a role in this limitation, in particular in its continuation?

I’ll state this differently. There is only one revolutionary that I know… and though he is persona non grata here, I shall mention him anyway… who effectively intervened in an explosive proletarian development from the outside. It was Lenin, and not at the Finland Station in April 1917, but in November 1905, when, upon return to Petersburg after years of self-imposed exile spent largely in München, he successfully argued that in light of the achievements of the Petersburg Soviet (its resolution appropriating for itself the rights of the Tsarist censor, permitting the revolutionary press to appear legally for the first time in Russian history; its call for a political general strike against martial law in Kronstadt, in Poland and in a number of provinces, that enthusiastically greeted by workers, compelled the autocracy to withdraw the martial law decree; and its efforts to enforce an eight-hour day as a fait accompli without legal sanction) that the Petersburg committee (RSDLP(b)) should drop its ludicrous, absurd demand that the Soviet restrict itself to the role of an insurrectionary organ and subordinate itself politically to direction issuing from the party (i.e., the Bolshevik faction). It was this singular event in the life of the party… in which Lenin abandoned the Iskra program and organizational implications of the 1902 analysis (What is to be Done?) which secured for the Bolsheviks all later achievements within the Russian workers’ movement.

I say this, not because I am particularly fond of Lenin or theoretically attached to Bolshevism but, because it is the only instance I know of in which a revolutionary effectively intervened in an explosive proletarian development from the outside. Mac Intosh, I am, to understate the matter, highly dubious that it gets done with pronouncements emanating from a faculty office in Queens or a study in the New Jersey suburbs as the case may be. The problem, though, is not yours alone, but a shortcoming on left communism going back to Nazi ascendancy in early 1933, to the destruction of mass organizations of the German proletariat and the “liquidation,” i.e., the murder or shipment off to concentration camps, of its most militant layers: Prior to this moment, the “lefts” never faced this situation that developed the other side of this “event,” and thereafter left communists have never developed a practice fully adequate to a non-revolutionary period, so these lefts either lay back and patiently await the next revolutionary wave… no doubt, the “pro-revolutionary” version of Heideggerian Gelassenheit as she confronts her existential anguish, endures the world and waits for being to turn, and depth psychologically a contemplative attitude that is behaviorally indistinguishable from that of contemporary religious bigots, those evangelical Christians who expectantly await the “final days”… or if they cannot accept the passivity they reach out to those who are not even part of their theoretical universe (e.g., to Trotskyists).

You see, Mac Intosh, a revolutionary theory draws its life from its confrontations with the class, not as an object for capital, but in so far as it, or any of its layers, tends toward class action. So that, for example, in Wisconsin we can see one of our failings coming back to haunt us, precisely because there were no revolutionaries embedded among public sector workers there all the possibilities that emerged in the immediate wake of the strike wave were lost, squandered and, by default, a reformist orientation triumphed. If, moreover, revolutionaries are not organic to the class, if revolutionary theory fails to engage the class insofar as it tends toward class activity, it not only stagnates, its ideologizes itself, so, again for example, you deploy the notion of the Gesamtarbeiter, in your hands a vacuous abstraction that is utilized to beat about the heads of those Wisconsin workers you would have hopelessly mired in reformism … after several postings and articles wherein I’ve elaborated a sense of this concept that relates it to workers engaged in struggle, after confronting IP here in North America in private correspondence challenging its, and your, purely positive and empirical use of this term, where have you ever offered anything other than a more or less literal translation, “collective worker”?… So you counterpose in your hands this gross abstraction, the Gesamtarbeiter, to the Wisconsin workers, precisely those who, in offering in the first proletarian phase of those events the possibility of challenge to capital, constituted themselves as an active layer, a moment in a worldwide productively connected struggle by living, breathing waged human beings against capitalist efforts to reduce us to a mechanical assemblage, labor power as its exists for capital within the collective work processes of capitalism, i.e., to subordinate us to in our fight against the movement and logic of capital.

So the “pro-revolutionary milieu” (a term which has the purely passive connotation of cheerleading) arrives at an impasse of which it is not even cognizant: Incapable of effective intervention, “pro-revolutionaries” instead engage in commentaries, like Goldner’s, which effect nothing, transform no given conditions and in this sense too are contemplative, precisely because they are addressed to other “pro- revolutionaries” so-called who are tenuously linked to the class in only the remotest sense, but not to those workers who are actually moving. The events pass the “pro-revolutionaries” by, and they, completely blind to what has transpired, proclaim it was all “an intra-capitalist struggle… between competing factions of the capitalist class.”

Poor, sorry excuse for a revolutionary theorization

Will Barnes March 21, 2011

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