Communism and the national question

Communists must move beyond the same old phrase mongering and critically look at the national question. 


US imperialism must be defeated through global communist revolution for national oppression to be abolished.

The national question is one of the most controversial debates within the field of marxism. Whether one agrees with the Austro-Marxists, Kautsky and Lenin, or Bukharin and Luxemburg, it is undeniably a complex question. One could say that we need a better framework for understanding the national question in an era of decolonization of global US imperialism. In this piece I’ll attempt to sketch out an outline as to how to best approach the spectre of nationalism.

The national question refers to a series of arguments, all which generally seek to address the question: What is the best way to end the inequalities between nations? As Communists, we ultimately aim for the abolition of the nation-state in favor of a worldwide community of humanity, where the social conflicts that create national oppression have been eradicated. This is a vision that pretty much all actual communists accept. Yet the aspect of “how we get there” has often meant either making concessions to nationalism (like the Marxist-Leninists) or essentially ignoring the problem of national oppression completely as if communist revolution will make the political reality of national oppression take care of itself (various left communists).

The position I am arguing for is not going to base itself on the principle of “self-determination for nations”. While sometimes self-determination is appropriate to take up as a slogan, it entails that nations as such have an inherent right to a vague notion of self-determination. What defines a nation is a product of collectivities that are cross-class in nature, as national identities are socially constructed in a way that calls for a unity that transcends class conflict. In other words nations are bourgeois projects, and saying that they have an inherent right to self-determination (which can be defined in a way making it open to abuse) is not feasible to uphold as a principle if one wishes to do away with the bourgeois order.

This is not an argument that the revolutions of national liberation were not historically progressive and that the world wouldn’t be better without colonialism. Colonial oppression itself made proletarian organization very difficult with its attacks on democratic rights and enforced economic backwardness. While it is true that the national liberation revolutions were not proletarian movements that led to socialism of any kind, they did establish important democratic rights for many nationalities. However what resulted however was not an equality of nations, but what some have called “neo-colonialism”. I prefer to call it simple what it is, which is capitalist imperialism, based on the hegemonic military power of the USA and its allies in the world which allows it to regulate the rules of global capital to their benefit.

As long as the world is organized in a hierarchy of competing nation states where some are more powerful than others and able to dictate their interests upon weaker states through sanctions, trade deals, proxy wars, etc. there will be an inequality of nations. While many national liberation revolutionaries were aware of the problems of the the national bourgeoisie, they sought the Stalinist plan of “socialism in one country” as an answer to this problem. By existing as autarkies in the capitalist system nations could opt out and produce a system where the state “served the people”. Yet the promise of autarky can hardly live up to realities of the global imperialist system, especially after the collapse of the soviet bloc. Hence attempts at socialism in one country as a form of national liberation have been returning to market systems and cooperating with US imperialism (Cuba, China, Vietnam).

Therefore one cannot separate the problem of abolishing capitalism from the problem of abolishing the world system of nation-states. This entails going beyond the form of the nation state, which is not accomplished by national-liberation revolutions or socialism-in-one-country. We aim for the worldwide cooperative commonwealth, where all of the world’s people are able to fully flourish as individuals to the maximum capacity. This means ending the “war of all against all” that results from the competition for resources between humans, hence a central world government that can make economic and political decisions at the world level. We want a system where as much of humanity as possible is united in a common process of planning its social reproduction. Therefore it makes sense to prefer larger, centralized bodies as opposed to secession and balkanization. Continental, and then World, republics that unite as many nationalities as possible should be our aim. And of course we should build Communist Parties that prefigure this vision.

The “right to self-determination” essentially is promising something communists don’t actually want to ultimately deliver on, because our aim is not national independence but internationalist cooperation. Yet what if a national grouping, with a historic legacy of oppression from a state undergoing revolution, aims to secede from a broader socialist republic? Can they simply be invaded and annexed by the workers state?

My initial answer to this is no, as it would simply be a form of “red imperialism” where communists are complicit in furthering a historical legacy of national oppression. While some secessionist movements are clearly reactionary and should be ruthlessly crushed (like if white nationalists tried to form their own state in the Pacific Northwest) we have to deal with each movement according to its specific historical and immediate circumstances. For example, if revolution happened in the USA and Puerto Rico chose to secede, would invading the population be ok? As Communists we believe in basic republican equality – that no one group has an intrinsic right to rule over another group. Because of this we aim to destroy the world hierarchy of imperialist states and end all forms of national oppression, an action like annexing Puerto Rico would go against these basic principles. One does not need to believe in the “right to self-determination” as a principle to agree with this but simply the principle of national equality between peoples.

Yet if we do believe (like all marxists should) that class contradiction in the end will be more decisive than national antagonisms then it would expected that workers in a state seceding from a workers republic will eventually revolt against the national bourgeoisie. As Communists our job would be to aid these workers and agitate for international communism, essentially pursuing a “foreign policy” of promoting international revolution in the workers movement, arguing for class independence from the bourgeois nationalists and pushing for world-wide cooperation through communism as a solution to the problems of class society. This could go as far as arming and sending in international brigades to help workers overthrow a corrupt government, which would not be some equivalent to imperialist interventionism but an express of class solidarity beyond national borders.

To promote co-operation, Communists must recognize the democratic rights of oppressed nationalities and fight for them, for example the right to participate in civil society in your own language. We must prove that communism is not only economically superior, but also politically, that people will not lose their rights and culture if they are a part of the workers republic. While obviously this shouldn’t mean conceding any basic rights seen as universal, the historic oppression of national groups needs to be addressed in a way that doesn’t reproduce great-nation chauvinism like the Stalinist USSR.

Ultimately it will be through a process of cultural exchange that is unprecedented in history that a new world culture that whithers away nations will be developed by worldwide social revolution. Cultural exchange where all are equals in a human community that wouldn’t be tainted by xenophobia would would see a world where national distinctions become more and more irrelevant, a world without borders where humans do not own land but are ensured to have access to housing and basic needs. Communism can provide this; nationalism cannot except perhaps in undesirable forms of “barracks socialism” which have their own class distinctions. A world party, where communists of all nationalities coordinate the revolution, will act as a preparation for the kind of international cooperation needed for communism.

My aim here is not to find a one size fits all solution to the national question, but rather to provide an alternative way of thinking about national rights that does not rely on the notion of “right to self-determination” which is often simply means “the right for the bourgeois to rule”. Communists must push for class independence from nationalists of all kinds, first and foremost those of their own nation. As Karl Liebknecht said, “the main enemy is at home”. It is important to promote the notion that the workers movement in all parts of the world must pursue class independence from the national bourgeoisie and not get caught in promoting anti-imperialist fronts with various military dictators and bonapartists. Yet as revolutionaries in the USA, the main hegemon of imperialism, our primary aim is to promote the defeat and removal of US forces in all cases of intervention. We must uncompromisingly take this position, especially in an era where imperialist agendas are presented under a “humanitarian guise”. The historical track record shows US imperialism is not progressive in any way but rather contributes to the scale and deadliness of global conflicts. So even if the idea of “exporting democracy” were morally justifiable, it would fail regardless. Democracy today (the real kind that puts power in the hands of the proletariat as opposed to the liberal-constitutionalism of the US gov) can only come through the organization of the proletariat regardless of nationality.

Hopefully I have brought clarity to some of the issues at stake in the national question rather than just indulging in the same old phraseology common among marxists. The 20th Century showed the difficulties that nationalism of many varieties posed to the communist movement and the role they played in its failure. So addressing nationalism is no small task. My hope here is to spark some debate and polemic with comrades on the topic that can help us move into a more programmatic approach from the typical leftist phrase mongering and displays of moral righteousness.

Interview with the International Communist Party on the SICobas movement

Below is an interview done in collaboration with Croation Communist Iskra with members of the International Communist Party who are based in Italy and involved in the SICobas, a militant union that fights for class struggle principles rather than the corporatist arrangements that dominate unions in Italy. We publish this not only to spread awareness of this militant class movement, but to potentially provide insight into the task of building a classist labor movement in the USA and beyond. 



The party did not form the SICobas: the SICobas arose entirely independently of the party and there are no ties binding the two organizations. The party is not now, nor has it been in the past, in the SICobas executive.

How did the SI Cobas come to be formed?

The formation of the SICobas is described in the article “A Report on Rank and File Movements in Italy” published in The Communist Party No.1

What are some of the more recent struggles they have been involved in?

A survey of the SI Cobas’s recent struggles  is included in the article ‘No “Christmas truce” for the struggles of the SI Cobas.: Against police and Confederates’, which is in The Communist Party, No.3 

You are a territorial union instead of a “company” one. What does it mean inpractice? How are the SI Cobas different from the mainstream Italian unions, which are integrated into the State? What differentiates them from the other rank and file “base” unions?

The reasons why trade union organization on a territorial basis is to be preferred is explained in a leaflet, ‘For territorial reorganization of the working class’, which also appears in the first issue of The Communist Party.

What methods do you use in your struggles? Are you using “direct action” or are you also using lawyers and other legal means?

This and other fundamental questions are covered in the speech made by one of our comrades at the First SI Cobas conference, which can  be found in The Communist Party, No.2.  

Do you cooperate with other organizations in your struggles? I saw you had joint general strike with USI-AIT.

The SI Cobas doesn’t offer preferential status or collaborate on a permanent basis with any particular trade union. Indeed, during a strike, it has show that it is prepared to unite the forces at its disposal with those mobilized  by other trade unions, supporting the principal of unity of action. This has happened in conjunction with other rank and file trade unions, as was the case during the last general strike on March 18 last year, when it organized alongside the CUB and the USI-AIT. But also with regards to mobilizations organized by the CGIL, the biggest of the Italian regime unions: on 14 November 2014 a thousand SI COBAS logistics workers joined the  march organized by the FIOM, the CGIL metal-workers’ federation and the main trade union in the category. A month later, on 12 December, it saw to it that the general strike in the category within which the majority of its members are concentrated – logistics – coincided with the general strike of all categories proclaimed by the CGIL.

In our view the latter policy is the right practical policy, and it is classist, because by uniting the workers it means strikes acquire greater force and that is the initial condition needed for them to break free from the control of the regime unions. Thus uniting with the mobilizations of these unions doesn’t in fact strengthen them.

This policy has been rejected by the other rank and file unions, which have always boycotted strikes when called by the regime unions, and organized their own ones in competition with them, on different dates, thus weakening the workers’ mobilization.

In our eyes this practical policy adopted by the SI Cobas is one of the positive elements which distinguishes it form other rank and file trade unions, as we have explained on various occasions, for example during our speech at the first congress of the SI Cobas.

A big debate amongst proponents of class struggle unionism here in the USA is on the use of paid staff. Do the SI Cobas use paid staff and if so for what functions?

It is not a matter of principle at stake here: large trade unions will always need a certain number of full-time organizers. The prevalence of a conservative, self-serving trade-union bureaucracy  isn’t therefore the cause of the conciliatory policies pursued by the union and of its betrayal, but the effect: the bulk of its members and organizers have not proved strong enough either to prevent the leaders from betraying or to get rid of them and replace them with leaders they can have faith in.

What does the organizational structure of the SI Cobas look like? How are decisions made?

The SI Cobas is a young trade union which wants to equip itself wit a more robust organizational structure. It is composed of committees [cordinamenti] and provincial and national executives. In the case of enterprises which are spread out over several sites across the country there are also Company National Committees. These organs are not always that effective

The Provincial Comittees are made up of delegates from the various forms in the province. The Committee elects a smaller group as its Executive. The provincial Committee is supposed to meet at least once a month and the Executive once a week.

As far as  know there are a lot of immigrant workers in your union. What is the union’s  position on the”European refugee crisis” and do you act somehow to help people arriving in Italy?

It is necessary to come up with a class, rather than a vaguely humanitarian, solution to the problem: the immigrants are workers and are doubly oppressed, as proletarians and as foreigners.

On 16 September the SI Cobas organization a national demonstration in solidarity with the the immigrants and refugees. We distributed this leaflet.


While in the USA the situation of the unions is radically different, are there any lessons to be learned from the experiences of the SI Cobas for militants in the United States who want to build class struggle unions and connect this with the struggle for a Communist programme? Are there any developments in the class struggle here that have caught your attention?

Communists do not pretend that the various forms within which the class struggle finds expression should conform to a fixed pattern.  The history of class trade unionism has shown that the types of organization that most lend themselves to leading the working class against the bosses’ State are the ones to be preferred, thus those open to all workers, independently of their ideas, political beliefs, party membership and religious faith. For the same reason are to be prefigured industrial trade unions as compared to those of a particular trade; those of a category as compared to those a particular firm; and national as opposed to local ones. The vast majority of the base unions in Italy apply, or attempt to apply, these organizational models.

On the history of the American workers’ movement we are publishing a long study in our English review Communist Left. the 5th installment of which will appear in the forthcoming issue. The general conclusion of this study confirms what the American working class has often lacked in its history is not trade unions, and examples of great mobilizations and bravery, but a communist party which is, 1) firmly founded on the uncorrupted doctrine of revolutionary Marxism, 2) which is committed to tactics which are intransigently anti-opportunist, and which, 3) lives according to a corresponding type of internal organization which is centralised, fraternal and anti-personalistic.


In the USA many who identify with the Communist Left take a hard-line anti-union stance and argue that all unions inevitably become integrated into the state. The ICP, regarding the SI COBAs, takes a different stance. How did you did come to this political conclusion?

It is true that we have witnessed, since the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive submission of the trade unions to bourgeois ideology, to the nation and to the capitalist states, to the point that they participated in disciplining proletarians in two world wars and the defense of national capital in both peacetime and war. But this process, even if it has now become irreversible for many of the large existing trade unions, which have become virtually institutionalized as organs of the bourgeoisie, does not detract from the imperative necessity of workers’ defense against the growing pressure from the ruling class; this will lead to the rebirth of new trade unions freed from bourgeois conditioning. And in fact, we are seeing this rebirth. Whether they succeed in maintaining their independence will depend on the relative forces between the classes and the ability of capitalism to continue to hand out a few corrupting crumbs – something which today seems ever more unlikely.

What kind of political work does the ICP do within the SI COBAs? How does the organization work to politicize workers within the union?

This is the authentic Marxist position on the trade unions, summarized to the extreme:

The economic struggle is a necessary defensive and spontaneous response of those who sell their labor power: given the balance of forces between capitalists, who monopolize the means of production, and the destitute proletarians, if the latter stopped defending the level of wages and of working hours they would soon be reduced to conditions lower than those necessary for their own physical subsistence.

Because it soon became evident that this was not a matter of an individual dispute between single capitalist and working class citizens, but a clash between the opposing interests of two classes within society, from the very beginning trade union type organizations arose with the aim of defending more or less vast groups of workers.

These working class associations arose spontaneously, not through the will and intervention of a political party. The process by which the Marxist communist party, possessor of the doctrine and program of the working class, and the trade unions were born and developed was of no short duration, and though it happened side by side, it was not simultaneous as regards time and place. Over the course of the years there have often been situations in which the trade union movement and working class combativeness extended itself greatly on the level of economic demands, but there was minimal response to the communist party’s directives within the class.

To anticipate revolutionary or communist trade unions, as trade unions composed only of revolutionaries or communists, is to ignore the real historical revolutionary process. In the course of the transition from capitalist society to communism, that’s to say in the period when the dictatorship is exercised by the party, the wage-earning class abolishes itself. Where there are trade unions there is no communism, and vice-versa. The trade union emerges as and remains a product of bourgeois commercial society and remains subsumed within it, with many of its defects.

It is only when directed by the communist party that the trade union, functioning as a transmission belt between the party and the class in general, becomes a powerful and indispensable instrument for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois power; and, after the seizure of power by the party of the proletariat, for the reorganization of production and the distribution of goods.

How the communist party relates to the trade union movement has been definitively outlined by Marxism:
    Marx1871, London Conference of First International: “… Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes; That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists The Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united”.
    In What is To Be Done (1901), Lenin wrote that Social-Democratic consciousness could only be brought to the workers from without. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.”.
    The Communist Left1957, The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism: Syndicalists “are actually far removed from Marxist determinism, and the interaction which occurs between the economic and political spheres is a dead letter to them. Since they are individualist and voluntarist, they see revolution as an act of force which can only take place after an impossible act of consciousness. As Lenin demonstrated in What is To Be Done? they turn Marxism on its head. They treat consciousness and will as though they came from the inner-self, from the ‘person’, and thus, in one deft movement, they sweep away bourgeois State, class divisions, and class psychology. Since they are unable to understand the inevitable alternative – capitalist dictatorship or communist dictatorship – they evade the dilemma in the only way that is historically possible: by re-establishing the former”.

Therefore the specific and principle task of the party within the union is not to politicize workers. The communist party does not work to make the trade union a watered-down version of itself, nor, in the revolutionary process, does the party dissolve itself and blend in with the trade union.

The communist party, from outside, with the support of the communist fraction within the trade unions, which is composed of the minority of communists among the militants and members of the union, comes to conquer its leadership. The working class, as an army, is already organized in the trade unions: the party sets out to lead this army; first in its defensive economic  struggle, and then, when the historical situation allows it, in its political and offensive struggle.

The guidelines for practical behavior that the party advocates inside the trade union, on how best to defend itself in a particular situation, entail no contradiction with the party’s task of reorganizing the forces of the proletarian class towards the general and vaster end of the struggle for communism.

Propagandizing the party’s general positions, the diffusion of its press, manifestos, invitations to public conferences, takes place, as in every other environment, but not at the same time s its trade union organizational work.

Only in this sense is “connecting class struggle unions with the struggle for a communist program” conceivable.

Some party comrades are militating within SICobas (as in other rank-and-file trade unions) and observing discipline to it: they bring their energy to bear as members and as communist sympathizers. Being known and respected, and  openly declaring their allegiance to the international communist party, they regularly make the party’s point of view known within the trade union with respect to the struggle under way, denouncing any possible strategic errors and indicating the best way to obtain the hoped-for results. They perform the organizational and propaganda work of the trade union: being present on picket lines, distributing the union’s flyers, building links, and editing and distributing press releases.


Thoughts on Organizing Today

Anton Johannsen weighs in on what working class organization will have to accomplish and what it may look like in 21st century capitalism. 

The geographical and compositional shifts in corporate governance and accumulation have shifted the terrain under workers’ feet. Capital is concentrated in “multinational” corporations, while sites of accumulation are spread across the globe. In the U.S., more workers are engaged in the provision of services than ever before. A rough look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics for Tampa-St.Pete-Clearwater indicates that in the top 10 specific types of employment by number of people employed, 262,264 out of 281,074 workers are employed in non-production “service” work. Now this is a very rough estimate, but gets at the fact that most of this work is not in the field of “production” which is characteristically regarded as manufacturing and shipping. Most of this work is in the field of services, production having been so thoroughly automated and made redundant of labor, or where it is unable to do so, been shipped off to places where wages are kept low. We could also ask, what percentage of these workers in fast food, retail, hospital work etc., are employed by national or multinational corporations?

Why is this important? What makes a worker a worker? What is class? Is it your distinct position in the reproduction of society? This has some attractiveness to it. It’s structural so it seems to explain how we all fit in together. But it is limited. Capitalism continually revolutionizes the means of production, which are not limited to the technical organization of energy and materials, but also the social organization of labor within the process of production. Technological change necessitates and is predisposed toward a change in the organization of the working process. The assembly line, the standardized shipping container, their implementation was a means to changing the organization of the production process, eliminating the amount of labor necessary to do certain tasks, inaugurating speed ups, lay-offs, and new positions at work. In other words, the changing of the production process, changes our positions in the reproduction of daily life. Well, what other quality can we find in class?

“Proletarian” classically refers to the “ones who produce offspring” in Roman society. The ones who hold no property, but their children. The ones who labor for a wage. It is this, in part, that is key. Fast food workers do a meaningless job. There will be no Starbucks after the revolution, HALLELUJAH! Does it produce value? Is it “productive” in that technical sense of producing surplus value? Or does it form part of the circulation-cost of the commodity coffee, the work of making it available to be realized? Does this matter? If what is important about workers is their condition as wage-workers, dependent on wages for survival, are they not as much a part of the commodity society, and a part of the process of accumulation, either in value-production, or value-realization? Perhaps this is a meaningless digression. But one point here is that, alongside the “surplus population” of much discussion nowadays, service workers as proletarian purely by being made available to work in exchange for necessities, is often up for grabs. They may not work in a “linchpin” industry like warehousing or shipping, manufacture of steel, or ball bearings, but they are proletarians, workers. They’re united in their lot as owners of labor-power with no recourse to living, short of sale of this labor-power.

It should be noted that both of these ways of looking at class are important. Obviously cops are paid a wage, and obviously it is a paltry one compared with capitalists. But their position is the general enforcement of property relations and the first line of response against workers in revolt, as well as mediating general social conflict. What is increasingly clear is that many a working position can be eliminated and shifted around, with the base condition of wage-earning remaining intact.

This points to a few other problems. Service jobs, with the exception maybe of offices and hospitals, are characterized by centralized capital and decentralized sites of work. This poses challenges for directly influencing a company’s income as a strategy for attack (striking). Alongside this, the company can marshal enormous resources in it’s defense politically, ideologically. It would be necessary to not only unite workers across an employer in a major city/region, but across both employers within an industry and within employers across industries. Now, the IWW has had considerable success in one-city organizing against large employers like Jimmy Johns and Starbucks; they’ve wrenched considerable concessions from them and gotten workers fired for organizing re-instated, but this has been through a combination of work stoppages and public pressure, the latter being key. Large centralized capital, especially that provides a service, generally has a big stake in the reliability, trustworthiness and honesty of those providing it. This is a leverage point communists ought to utilize, but it is simply one among many, that has to be oriented toward organizing the class our primary goal. I don’t mean to suggest that this has escaped the view of the Starbucks Union organizers, but more that the conditions which they’ve worked hard against, have been difficult to route: How do we get workers together and encourage them to fight back? How do we meaningfully secure workers against retaliation, not by over-reliance on the near-useless NLRB and lawyers, but by virtue, of our own action? This seems to point to the need to cast a wider organizational net.

An example; some production in grocery stores and fast food chains might be contracted out, but a lot of it might also be done internally. Warehousing and shipping might also be done internally. This would seem to point toward the necessity of supply-chain organizing. But even this is the same narrow view of worker organizing often historically pushed by union movements, even the I.W.W. They typically, for better or for worse, take as their jurisdictional or organizational unit, the dividing lines laid by capital. This can be a strength, where organizational unity around shared demands makes sense, and allows for the effective cultivation of identity and power. But it’s weakness is that it is not class unity. Centralized capital and decentralized workplaces seems like it points toward the need for One Big Union or, a political organization of struggle rooted firmly in the class as a class. On the one hand, workers in one grocery chain in a city might have differing demands about wages and hours than those of another chain, or even those of another department within their chain. But where they have unity is in their class position, and it is asserting unity around the needs of the class that communists must focus on. Surely, developing power in a particular chain or industry can be itself a tactic for developing communist militants and organization.

Class organizing can be seen in the AWO in the 1910’s I.W.W. and the KAPD-AAUD in Germany. Unfortunately, these organizations and a lot of their conditions are far from us, and what can be gleaned from their failures are perhaps only principles and maybe a few intriguing uses of “form.” How do conditions today, mirror conditions that those organizations attempted to deal with? It would seem that the AWO responded to conditions more similar to our own, what with a diverse array of direct employers, and a vast, turnover-heavy workforce of various types of skill and employment, and a geographical, class-oriented form of organizing, vs. “industrial organizing” favored by Haywood and the eventual CIO.

Organizing based on class and geography; neighborhood and city, region and state, nation, would help us to also be open about our politics. We aren’t just interested in a union of Starbucks workers, or fast food workers, but of workers. We limit ourselves geographically for applicability. But this too could run into similar jurisdictional problems to the lines laid by capital if we’re not vigilant in general toward the fact that the geography of work changes in response to class struggle.

But we find ourselves in a bind that doesn’t much make sense; how do we get workers, who are of a “practical” mind now (Yes I’d like higher wages, but I don’t want to lose my job!) interested in fighting for a moral vision that is exactly discounted by what they express now? Developing a response to this is difficult. In the general sense, organizing workers against employers is founded partly on direct gains, and partly on moralistic/ideological development. Workers don’t simply fight for better conditions, but to also for “what is right”. If “moral” makes you trigger happy, we could call this an “ideological” vision, or “level of political development.” (these are not all the same, but we’ll save the nuance for another time!). What we’re doing in our group is in some ways a response to this. We are centered around a reading group that discusses politics and history openly. There is a common saying from the Left-Trotskyist union tradition that goes along the lines of “Action precedes consciousness” which might more aptly be stated as “Action that I approve of, precedes consciousness that I approve of.” For many people, the focus is to get people on board with a particular demand, or action. It is suggested that through this activity workers will see the light and start thinking more clearly about relations of power at work. They will then be more open to radical politics. This thinking tends, in part, to reinforce ideas about “the permanent campaign” and activism. “Just get out their and organize! There will be opportunities to learn and educate in the process!” This is obviously somewhat of a caricature. Never the less, the idea lends itself to this style of thinking and can be seen played out in various Trotskyist, Anarcho-Syndicalist and other efforts at organizing. Instead, we ought to recognize that action takes place along a developing consciousness, and that while action and consciousness are often contradictory, the development of consciousness or political ideas, is itself a social undertaking. Again, this is why reading groups can be beneficial. They won’t be the draw for most workers interested in socialism generally, but they can help us develop a core group of people with varying interests and backgrounds toward organizing more sociable and educational events; classes, lectures, film screenings, workshops.

IWW campaigns in the past 20 or so years have varied in their application of communist/anarchist politics openly. This problem goes beyond this group, however, and some of the campaigns have had success at recruiting militants. Some, not so much, and in general the various campaigns have failed specifically in the field of sustaining a presence at any one workplace-geographical unit. Instead, there has been the proliferation of General Membership Branches, which are purely geographical units within the organization that act as hubs for workers in various industries, as well as hubs for the development of political expression and discourse. This is, in my view, a positive development. It indicates a response to the conditions faced workers that has some measure of sustainability and involves conscious and open efforts at political development. Through organizing of book tours, organizers/workers from other countries, summits, and Organizer Trainings, the IWW has committed itself to a lot of these tasks, generally based on the level of organization reached in particular GMBs. There is still a mix of activism, no-politics-in-the-union confusion, and general uneven development. But there are also writing projects, research projects, and inspiring attempts at experimental organizing, and uneven development is a general organizational problem, not very particular to the IWW.

As for the titular question – How Do We Organize Today? Well, in some ways we see it already happening; geographically, in groups loosely united over a general political “program” or set of guiding principles, toward better education and experiments at wrenching demands from capitalists and building power. Some things to look out for are the shifting geographical organization of work, and ways of getting workers together in a neighborhood or city, and fighting for wider demands. Do we make demands on municipalities, without engaging in electoralism? Finding that transition from workplace or landlord defensive struggle and wider struggle is key – maybe it doesn’t exist yet, but we’re living history, and it demands our thoughtful intervention.

What is our current historical era and how did we get here?

To understand our current conditions and why the working class is currently so weak we must look at the changes that capitalism went through in the 20th century. 

1083017372north1Our current historical period in the broadest sense can be described as the “neo-liberal era” of capitalism. “Neo-liberalism” is sadly an abused term, but really it is just a means of describing the period of capitalism from around 1973 to today. Rather than being a result of an ideological shift from public regulation to market extremism it is a response to structural tendencies in capitalism, particularly the re-emergence of its classic crisis tendencies. In many senses neo-liberalism is really a return to the capitalism of the pre-1945 era, back to capitalism as usual before managerial strata of the bourgeoisie aimed to stabilize rule through Keynesian policies. The dominance of finance capital and labor markets with a large reserve army of the unemployed are hardly novel developments in capitalism. Yet unlike pre-1945 capitalism, the neo-liberal cycle of bourgeois rule was consolidated after new advances in the states ability to integrate class antagonisms through public interest liberalism. In many ways it is continuation of the post-war era’s attempt to liquidate class conflict. Additionally, with the former colonial world now formally independent, imperialism primarily functions through proxy wars rather than direct conflicts between world empires.

The Neo-liberal era according to many has come to end with the financial crisis of 2008, yet what exactly defines the supposed new conjecture is unclear. Much of this was misplaced optimism over the potential of ‘new social movements’ that developed after the 2008 crisis. As far as we are concerned we still are living under a hegemonic ideology which proudly proclaims the end of class conflict and even history itself, where the collapse of the USSR and turn to market reforms by the remains of the “socialist bloc” supposedly signals that no alternative to the market exists.

To understand our current moment we must look at the overall trajectory of capitalism and the class struggle over the past century. At the beginning of the 20th century capitalism had undergone a breakthrough in the development of its modern institutional forms with the managerial, financial and corporate revolutions. Imperialism was raging with an unprecedented intensity with world empires competing to expand colonization of Africa and Asia. From this tendency came World War I, both a crisis of the remaining old regime and the new capitalist one which was coming into dominance. Social-democracy and syndicalism had developed institutions capable of contesting class power, but for the most part ended up rallying behind the nation when the war began.

Out of the crisis of WWI came the most revolutionary and internationalist tendencies of the workers’ movement, as more and more workers realized that the war was a travesty that served the interests of their exploiters. Bolshevism, which would produce both Stalinism and left-communism (the latter the historical tendency we most identity with), emerges as a energizing factor for an international workers movement. In the interwar period world revolution seems to be a real item on the agenda, and capitalist ideologues as well socialists believe the end days of the system are happening before their eyes. At this point even the bourgeois economist Schumpter was able to envision the collapse of capitalism. Due to the intensity of social crisis in this period states are faced with the challenge of integrating antagonistic classes, giving rise to new developments in the bourgeois state. Fascism emerges as a reactionary mass movement, integralist nationalism using the forms of the workers movements to mobilize violent gangs of mostly demobilized soldiers, criminals and petty-bourgeois to crush communism and establish a more authoritarian form of capitalism. In the USA the New Deal emerged as a state response to crisis, not relying on squadrons of blackshirts but on democratic-republican workerism and the development of public interest group liberalism and the administrative welfare state.

The barbarism of WWII brings the United States and the USSR to the hegemonic states in the new world empire. The war sees scattered initiatives of proletarian internationalism but nothing that amounts to a real threat to the dominance of capitalism. Anti-fascist alliances of bourgeois states and workers movements and the acceptance of the labor movement by the capitalist state began a conscious project to integrate the proletariat into the nation as loyal “labor-citizens” that continued after WWII. Yet even before this much of the workers movement was preoccupied with “winning the battle for democracy” and modernizing society by crushing the remains of pre-capitalist state-forms. For example in Germany it was ultimately the SPD who finished the bourgeois revolution and consolidated democracy, while  Russian Social-Democracy kept no secrets about bourgeois revolution and winning political freedom being their initial tasks.

The post-war arrangement of capitalism saw a shift in power towards the managerial strata of the bourgeoisie, with an attempt to rationally plan capitalism on a global scale. Communist internationalism had essentially collapsed as national liberation movements cleared away most of the remains of direct colonial rule from the core to periphery. In the USA and Europe the managerial strata of the capitalist class engaged in a ‘social contract’ of sorts with labor where compliance with the state promised economic growth and wealth redistribution. While waves of wildcat strikes and militancy still existed (from those marginalized from the social contract like black and latino workers), the tendency of the working class towards being integrated into capitalism through this new public interest group liberalism was overwhelming. Both liberal technocrats and New Leftists declared that capitalism had overcome its internal crisis tendencies through the welfare states and mass consumption of the new mixed economies, with class-based revolutionary movements being a thing of the past. Some even believed the USSR and Western capitalist states were both converging towards the same type of planned bureaucratic society.

The return of economic crisis in the 1970’s proved these ideas wrong. Capitalism had failed to provide a means for infinite growth without economic chaos and the ruling class was restructured to the advantage of finance capital, its strategy of accumulation shifting towards an embrace of “creative destruction” and the anarchy of the market. By the late 1970’s a definite political project amongst the capitalist class emerged to maximize the competitiveness of markets and create a fluid global labor market. This meant a shift towards privatization rather than the ideal of the mixed economy, but not necessarily a weakening of the state.

If the post-war Keynesian era was a class compromise, the neo-liberal era would be a direct attack on the working class and their relative stability. Creating a more fluid global labor market would mean attacking the social wage and the power of collective bargaining in the core, increasing the reserve army of labor (more unemployment) and shifting investment in manufacturing towards newly proletarianized laborers in the periphery where development programs are imposed through international financial and state apparatuses. In the core manufacturing doesn’t disappear, but is largely restructured to become less labor intensive where it remains. As a result the masses of unskilled workers increasingly find themselves in service industry jobs such as a food and retail, which are far more decentralized and less concentrated than manufacturing industries. These factors, coupled with a large reserve army of labor, makes traditional union organization almost impossible.

Contrary to the fantasies of its ideologues, the “neo-liberal” arrangement didn’t roll back the power of the bureaucratic and authoritarian state. While civil servants were laid off and nationalized firms were privatized the actual repressive arm of the state took on forms more pervasive and controlling than ever. A rising surplus population of individuals excluded from waged labor can mean for many (both non-employed and those employed in low wage jobs) a reliance on often harmless black market activities and illegalism for survival. State policing and surveillance, especially in low income neighborhoods, takes on a newfound paternalism and intensity in order to control these populations and enforce capitalist relations. Due to discrimination in labor markets and the white supremacist origins of the US state much of this state violence is heavily racialized, creating a stark contradiction to the multicultural ideology of the ruling class.

So why didn’t the working class fight back and protect itself from falling into this position? A big part of it had to do with the previous success of efforts by the capitalist class to integrate the labor movement into the state, a route that was admittedly taken begrudgingly after years of violent struggle. The “class compromise” of the post war era saw an overwhelming tendency towards workers choosing loyalty to the state over radical organizations as a means to secure reforms and a higher standard of living. A lack of even basic defensive organization independent from the state and the conservatism of the labor bureaucracy made resistance difficult. Labor bureaucrats already used to giving concessions to the state would have a difficult time mounting real defenses against privatization campaigns. State co-operation may have been the option with the most immediate benefits for workers in the post-war economy but in the long run it weakened the ability of the working class to fight for its basic interests.

This integration of the proletariat with the state didn’t come out of nowhere and didn’t occur smoothly without resistance either. Both social-democracy and Stalinism, two political phenomena that for us signify the ‘left-wing of capital” played a key role in this process. The political role of both these movements was rallying workers in the name of nation and democracy while systematically repressing genuine communist movements movements that developed within the class. Rather than acting as a force for communism the workers movement tended towards what G.M. Tamas termed “Rousseauian socialism”, socialism which aims to unite “the people” against caste society (the remains of the old regime in Europe continued after the turn of the century) as opposed to class society, which is ultimately only fully realized under capitalism. This was what the politics of social-democracy, the Popular Front, and the Chinese revolution ultimately were about – wiping away the remains of the old regime society that stood in the way of capitalist development while aiming to fully realize the ideals of democracy and civic equality.

The weakness of working class today is not simply due to repression from the state and fascists thugs. These certainly played a role, but much of the left also played a role by repressing the most radical wings of the movement and integrating the working class into their respective national states. The statist/nationalist left contributed much help in the development of the modern labor bureaucracy which once helped contain and manage waged labor. Yet as soon as these institutions become a barrier to the accumulation of capital they come under attack, a tendency that becomes fully fleshed out in the “neo-liberal” period. Largely integrated into the system and lacking independent political institutions, the working class is largely incapable of resisting the more direct phase of intensive disciplining to the domination of the market that marks the current era.

Whether the workers movement was doomed to act as a modernizing force for capitalism to overcome the residuals of the pre-capitalist world or simply made the wrong choices is a pointless question to ask. We can only look at how history played out and theorize on what objective factors may have influenced this. We should also not forget that despite the overwhelming hegemony of what we would call “the left wing of capital” various minorities within the old workers movement looked beyond the bourgeois politics of the hegemonic left and struggled against its role in integrating the proletariat into capitalism. This “communist left” consisting of figures like Amadeo Bordiga, Anton Pannekoek, Sylvia Pankhurst and Gavril Miasnikov was probably the most advanced political expression of the proletariat as a class struggling for Communist society to have existed and serves as vital inspiration for those looking to overcome capital today, though many aspects of their politics may be outdated.

The failure of the left in the 20th century to transcend capitalism has left a legacy where radical social change can only lead to the spectre of “totalitarianism”, where class society can never be overthrown but merely be replaced by another form of it where the new oppressors are only worse than the old. The collapse of the Soviet Union, market reforms in China and Vietnam or the embrace of neo-liberal policies by social-democratic parties have shown that the strategies and vision of the official left to be bankrupt. To most it is clearer than ever that the old ways didn’t work, that Stalinism and social-democracy didn’t offer liberation to the workers. Yet the common sense reaction to this is not to embrace a more radical and critical form of communist politics instead of the old guard left, but rather to reject the possibility of any real alternative to the ruling order. We can hardly blame people for this reaction either, as there is hardly any real alternative for people to choose.

The situation this has led to is very contradictory – on one end the irrationality and barbarism of capitalism is more exposed than ever, yet the formation of a working class collectivity capable of challenging the current order faces an array of obstacles. In the United States and other core economies decentralization of workplaces and de-industrialization leave the workforce largely incapable of the kind of union organization that marked the 20th century workers movement, where workplaces with high concentrations of workers were the norm. The traditional routes of electoral action, if they ever were a correct tactic, are also essentially blocked from having any efficacy as the state-apparatuses of modern capitalism are more subsumed to its laws of motion than ever before. Any party coming to power through electoral victories is bound to make compromises with the middle classes and other bourgeois parties and become managers of capitalism. Ideology also plays a role, as the naturalization of market relations due to their increased penetration of social life and the failure of 20th century socialism makes capitalism appear to be the only way for humanity to exist.

As hopeless as the situation may currently appear we must keep a clear head and avoid embracing despair. The collapse of Stalinism and social-democracy, though their remains may still haunt us, gives us a relatively clean slate to rebuild a genuine communist movement. Moving forward will require a strategy of patience and experimentation in new forms of organization. It will also mean a rejection of the legacy of the statist/nationalist left whose projects have only led back to capitalism.