“In looking at things we must look at their real nature, taking their form only as a guide to lead us inside. Once inside we must grasp their real nature and cast aside the form that guided us there.”
Mao Zedong, “Letter to Comrade Lin Piao.” January 1930
As communists in today’s labor movement, we come across a number of conditions that have not interacted with revolutionary organization. It is on us to observe these conditions, understand what we are grasping and what can be done with them. Some of these unharnessed conditions represent obstacles to the project of party building; others, when properly understood and handled, will qualitatively advance the working class struggle.
We are engaged in a process of reuniting Marxism with the working class. This process has been a necessity for over seventy years, ever since the persecution and repression of the Communist Party marked an end to a genuinely revolutionary current within our class. Since then, the socialist movement and the workers movement have marched in parallel, never fully fusing. Every day that we continue on our path in the trade unions we explore new terrain, and find potential building blocks for the nascent proletarian movement in this country.
One thing we must understand: the working class is not lying dormant, waiting to be awoken by a self-anointed leadership. It is in motion, working in innumerable ways against the exploitation it faces and the alienation it endures.
In some cases, these responses to the capitalist class are organized (work stoppages, unionization, strikes, etc). The vast majority of responses, however – those that encompass the “daily shop floor struggle” – are the unorganized acts of individuals or the efforts of small groups. The experience of capitalist social relations ensures that the working class, regardless of its own self-awareness, is in a constant state of struggle against the employers.
Our task as communists is to recognize these struggles, to coordinate them, and to organize these workers, of their own accord, into a coherent political organization capable of taking these struggles to the heights of capitalist society.
Where Does the Political Struggle Start?
Operating within a framework not of their own making, workers in the labor movement – even the most advanced militants among them – will tend toward business unionism. Trade unionism becomes boiled down to the improvement of wages, benefits and working conditions. It is just another expression of economism. For the employers, this is absolutely acceptable. What more could they ask for than worker organizations that do not question which class holds power? The employers established the labor laws by which workers are bound, and they established them with this specific limitation in mind. And so, this conscious act by the ruling class was reproduced into the dominant ideology of the labor movement – business unionism.
This tendency can be overcome, but only through an organized communist political formation. Without this countervailing force, business unionism – under the pressure of the capitalist system’s constraints – will be the undisputed standard of the labor movement.
This does not mean that communists have to ignore economic struggles. Communists should fight for improvements to wages, benefits and working conditions, and should militantly defend all union contracts that maintain these protections. In terms of advancing the class struggle, serious battles can be won on this terrain, particularly during strike activity. Even in the day-to-day struggle, the militant enforcement of a strong contract on these terms can do a great deal toward developing class consciousness. All of these battles, however, fit within the confines of the system of labor control. And these confines, within the contradiction between capital and labor, function permanently in the favor of capital.
Economic demands should be viewed as immediate objectives within a long-view political struggle for revolutionary transformation. Demands over bread-and-butter issues as the sole focus of the present would be insufficient. We must place special emphasis in our day-to-day struggles on the political question, on the question of power. We must do what we can, every day, to shift the balance of power in the workplace away from the employers and toward the workers. The effort to awaken proletarian power cannot be put off into an undetermined future. To do so is to condemn our historic project, and to effectively spend our lives as the unwitting perpetuators of capitalist hegemony.
Socialism does not magically appear out of the sky one day; there is continuity between our present and our hoped-for future. Where, then, are we to look for the spark of revolution that will motivate our fellow workers and change the balance of power? How does the working class transcend its social immediacy and become a revolutionary proletariat?
We have to start with our workplace, and the dynamics of power that exist in every interaction between the worker and the employer. When we examine the day-to-day conflict between the worker and the employer – seemingly mundane disputes that encompass much of the discipline cases that take place – we see that the essence of these clashes is the struggle against alienation, itself a product of the contradiction between capital and labor.
The capitalist workplace is where the primary contradictions of capitalist society stand in sharpest contrast. The employer seeks the submission of the worker. Their goal is for the worker to be a compliant generator of surplus value, a cog in a machine. The worker, on the other hand, seeks nothing less than to be a human being. Their goal is the right to live life, to hold their head high, to look their fellow human beings in the eye and to find their mutual flourishing.
The workplace is where, in Antonio Gramsci’s words, “the worker is nothing and wants to become everything.”
The ways that workers respond to the experience of alienation are myriad. One worker might fly off the handle with a supervisor more often than others. Another might refuse to obey an instruction from the company, even something seemingly harmless. Sometimes these actions inspire their coworkers; other times not. In a related manner, the targets for management’s ire will often fall on those workers who rebel against their alienation.
The desire of a worker to be treated as human is irreconcilable with a workplace defined by capitalist social relations. This desire – to work without being treated as a worker – is a communist reflex. It is a germination of an impulse brought about by the alienation of labor. The potentiality of communism does not emerge from outside of the working class. It is inherent within their existence, an antithetical byproduct of their exploitation. Marx was not guessing when he said that the struggle against capitalism leads to a society that operates “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” He was observing the logical end result of the struggle against alienation. History has proved Marx to be right, as all revolutionary processes have emerged from the material reality that they seek to transform.
The worker’s reaction against alienation, against the dictatorial power of the employer in the workplace, is treated as irreconcilable precisely because it is an expression of the communist reflex, a reflex that can qualitatively propel the class struggle forward when harnessed. As a steward, I have witnessed this reaction in innumerable ways. One that stands out to me is when, in the course of a supervisor disciplining a worker, the worker demanded that the supervisor look them in the eye when talking to them. The worker was doing nothing more than demanding to be treated as an equal – as a human being. Yet doing so was irreconcilable with the power relations within the context of the capitalist-controlled workplace, within the contradiction between capital and labor. The worker’s desire to be a free human being leads in no direction other than that of communism, whether they recognize it or not.
When a worker demands that a supervisor look them in the eye when they are being disciplined, they are asserting their humanity in a way that immediately challenges the correlation of power in the workplace, and in society. For example, when a worker demands a supervisor look them in the eye while they are being disciplined, and when that supervisor tries to fire that worker for “creating a hostile work environment” with their humanistic demand, they are playing their role in maintaining the dictatorship of capital.
Etienne Balibar, in his defense of revolutionary politics within the French Communist Party, wrote that the fundamental contradiction that all proletarian revolutions must seek to work through is precisely this tension, of capitalist relations and communist relations. Since capitalist relations constitute the last possible historical form of exploitation,” Balibar writes in On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, “this means that only communist social relations, in production and in the whole of social life, are really in antagonistic contradiction with capitalist relations, only they are really incompatible, irreconcilable with capitalist relations.” If the struggle for communist relations is the essence of all revolutionary processes – indeed, of all socialist states, themselves merely a period of transition between capitalism and communism – then this certainly lies, however dormant, at the initiation of that process. The political struggle of the working class cannot be effective without its vision clearly fixed on the overcoming of the central contradiction of capitalism.
At the shop floor, this struggle translates into a struggle for control of production, and therefore for workers’ control over themselves and their labor. It is fundamentally a political struggle, for the question of which class controls production is a question of which class has power and which class does not. How do we initiate this struggle for power? Like in all experiences in the class war, the struggle for summation is absolutely critical. Communist workers should discuss the nature of who has power and who does not with their coworkers, particularly in the immediate aftermath of conflicts like those mentioned above. This is only the first step, the sowing of the seed. It is the building of a class consciousness, the ideological preparation of our coworkers necessary before going into battle to win decisive gains.
The political struggle for power in the workplace is one that, by definition, will supersede the bounds of the union contract. Hemmed in by the system of labor control and hampered by decades of negligence and collaboration, most contracts in the United States explicitly preclude the possibility of workers contesting power and the shop floor and enshrine all authority in the domain of “management rights.” The exact manner in which this struggle for power is expressed – historically successful examples including Turin’s factory councils, modern examples including Venezuela’s “productive worker councils” – will be determined by the workers, and the communists among them.
Communists must grasp the essence of the day-to-day battles, and study carefully the ways in which capitalist exploitation expresses itself in the prevention of human assertion. In this opposition to alienation, and its concrete expressions in material reality, lies the path ahead for class consciousness, proletarian power and socialism.