Our ideas and our practice of workplace organizing have undergone a good deal of changing since we originally laid out some assumptions and directions in the Call to Organize (1970). On some points the change has occurred through a continuing consensus. For example, we have abandoned our original stress on cross-plant workers organizations as unworkable and unnecessary, and although this change has never been formally recognized, it is generally understood and accepted. However, there are many much more important questions where we now recognize that our initial positions were inadequate, misleading, and even wrong, and where we have not developed adequate and accurate alternatives. More specifically, these questions concern the assessment of trade unions and the strategic conception of independent workers organizations that are both mass and revolutionary. On these questions we haven't drifted in one common direction, leaving only the minor task of stating formally where we are and how we have gotten there. Instead, we are spreading out all over the political landscape and developing numbers of divergent and possibly incompatible tendencies.
A review of some of the basic points in our production work perspective helps to clarify both its strengths and some of the sources of its weaknesses. We began from an emphasis on the strategic significance of divisions within the working class, pre-eminently the division between white and non-white workers. On the one hand this division was presented as an obstacle to the development of revolutionary class consciousness and organization which had to be directly confronted on a programmatic level by communists . . . at the expense of the relative advantages of white male workers. On the other hand, the special oppression which was the source of these divisions also provided grievances and issues for mass movements and struggles which could add — and had added — tremendous strength and new political dimensions to the class struggle in the workplace.
Our perspective stressed the need for mass organizations able to provide a struggle framework for the direct actions of workers against capitalists on their immediate needs and grievances. It opposed spending energy on parliamentary maneuvering within the existing trade unions with the argument that there was no connection between such work and the development of an organizational framework for class struggle that some seventy years of work by radicals within trade unions had uncovered.
Our perspective projected a conception of the revolutionary role of communist organization which avoided the twin pitfalls of being the "best" reformists, or of injecting consciousness from outside by "educating" the workers about state, revolution, dictatorship, etc.
In opposition to all variations of these half-truths, we argued that communists must discover and develop into a base for continuing struggle the elements of workers' collective experience which foreshadow socialism, and that this required a direct challenge to the dominance of bourgeois ideology, culture, and organization, within the working class. The role of communists was not only to help workers comprehend the systematic nature of their oppression and exploitation, but also to clarify to them their collective potential to build a new society without oppression and exploitation.
These positions were developed in a political context that has changed dramatically since that time. Now, all left groups at least talk about the importance of workplace organizing and some are even more guilty than we are of seeing it as the end-all and beall of revolutionary organizing. In the late sixties, however, all kinds of new left notions about the docility and complacency of the working class still had currency. Even more widespread were the ideas that working class people could best be "organized" outside of the workplace . . . in the streets, or the schools, or the community, or the army. With all the mistakes and exaggeration on that side of the debate, our mistaken romanticization of the amount and the character of the spontaneous struggle within the workplace is certainly understandable.
Furthermore, at that time the inner-union reform perspective which we were attacking was pretty much the property of the Communist Party. This C.P. variant was so vulnerable and easy to defeat (in left circles) that it put little strain on us to examine our own assumptions rigorously. Flabby arguments work against an unworthy opponent, and we were misled into thinking that disproving the line of the C.P. was equivalent to demonstrating the validity of our own position. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Finally, though, the members of STO had some individual experience in production work, and some general knowledge of the experience of other organizations — the C.P. and the POC — and we had no collective experience of our own. Without such a base of collective experience, any attempt to be more precise about the conditions, problems and potentials of workplace organizing would probably have degenerated into exercises in academic futility. Now, however, we both can and must elaborate our perspective with a great deal more precision and comprehensiveness.
The point of this background review is to avoid the danger of overlooking the basic points on which we were, and, I think, are still, correct, and on which the great majority of the left is mistaken. This can easily happen in the sort of thorough-going re-examination of a line which is in order for our production perspective, if the context in which it was developed is forgotten.
The guts of our workplace organizing perspective is the analysis of trade unions contained in the Call to Organize, Mass Organization at the Workplace, and Reflections on Organizing. On the descriptive level, these documents accurately depict current U.S. trade union reality, in particular the weaknesses and limitations of attempts at union reform. It is true that U.S. unions are so integrated into the capitalist production process and political structure that their ability to defend the immediate interests of their members has been seriously compromised. In many instances the union structure and officialdom appears as a more implacable and more effective enemy of the organization and struggle of workers than does capital.
But such a description does not explain what caused the current state of the trade unions in the U.S. It does not really deal with the question of whether the process of degeneration was a necessary one or not, and whether and how it can be reversed.
The question which we must ask is this: to what extent are the unions a cause of the present backwardness of working class consciousness and organization, and to what extent are they an effect — or, more accurately, an index — of this backwardness?
The production papers imply a set of answers to this question, but these implications of answers are vague and misleading at best. At worst, they are just wrong.
The production papers picture unions as an immediate barrier to class struggle, as a straitjacket on the workers' tendency towards collective activity and organization. Then, it is asserted that this role played by the unions has led to such an alienation among the workers that organizations which are independent of, and more or less hostile to, trade unions should be able to gain a mass following quite easily. These premises provide the foundation for the argument for the necessity of mass organizations independent of the trade unions, as well as for the assessment that such organizations will be viable.
The problems with such a position lie in a combination of an overestimation of the current role of trade unions in this country with an underestimation of the role that changed conditions would enable them to play. From the beginning of our work, we have had practical evidence that we were wrong in the assessment that the unions would be an important initial obstacle to organizing workers along our perspective. On the contrary, the reality of low levels of struggle, of primitive forms of struggle, and of a sporadic and episodic character to struggle, have been much more striking than has the ability of trade unions to suppress struggle. Frankly, there isn't all that much to suppress. Generally our major problem has been to isolate and attack the factors which inhibit the workers from initiating sustained collective struggle, and the union is seldom an important one of these factors. This is evident because these problems tend to be the greatest in situations where the union is either non-existent (Motorola, B. & H., etc.) or where the union is little more than an adjunct of management and most workers scarcely realize that it exists until after they initiate a struggle (S.W., Western Electric). In steel and auto, where the union plays a much more important role in the worker's life, there is substantially more shop floor activity.
It is once struggles begin that the union is able to play a significant role in diverting and containing them. In this way they provide a barrier against sustained collective activity, and, generally speaking, the "better" the union, the more significant the barrier. Nevertheless, to repeat, this has not been much of a consideration in terms of the major problems we have faced of initiating struggle. Beyond this, there are obvious circumstances which make it possible for the unions to absorb and dissipate struggles. So long as the class struggle is manifested mainly in isolated and sporadic activities which are a break in the routine of the job for the workers who participate, and so long as reformism, individualism and, pre-eminently, white supremacy, dominate working class consciousness without effective challenge, the unions will be capable of continuing the class struggle. It is not at all selfevident that unions would — or could — play the same role if these negative factors were changed in the course of class struggle. Finally, it is an analytic mistake of the first order to regard the union structures and policies as a major cause of the social conditions which allow them to suppress class struggle. They are a support, but they are not the cause.
I want to argue for a different and, I think, more accurate conception of trade unions. The following four points summarize my position on the issues pertinent to this discussion:
1. Trade unions are a historically necessary instrument of the working class to gain better terms in the sale of its labor power . . . that is, to enable groups of workers to enter the capitalist market with some bargaining power. The viability of individual unions depends on two factors. They must be able to win some concessions from capital to maintain credibility with their membership. They must be able to enforce their agreements with capital on their membership or management will have no reason to recognize their legality. Both of these functions must be fulfilled. If a union fails to perform either one for any substantial time, it will lose its ability to fulfill the other and will eventually lose its solvency. The inability to handle this dual function was at the roots of the problems of such diverse union formations as the IWW and the AFL in the late 20s and early 30s.
2. Trade unions vary tremendously between different capitalist states, and to a lesser degree, between different sections and industries in a given country. There are two general political conditions which explain most of this variation. Where the ruling class has seen the necessity and the utility of granting industrial legality to trade unions, the pressure towards collaboration is maximized irrespective (pretty much) of the political coloration of the union leadership. In most Western European countries, the incorporation of the trade unions within the political and economic structure — even when their leadership is nominally communist — is the political policy of the decisive sections of capital. In the U.S. only peripheral sections of capital have not accommodated themselves to the existence of trade unions, but in those areas which have not (the South, agriculture, etc.), trade union struggles tend to go well beyond the routine of collective bargaining in basic industry.
The role of the trade unions also varies in accordance with the sharpness of contradictions and the resulting level of mass activity and consciousness within a given country. More flexibility and responsiveness is apparent in situations where there is a definite revolutionary potential in the situation (consider Quebec). When this is not the case, the unions tend to withdraw into their bureaucratic structure and to smother any insurgent potential with all sorts of barriers to mass participation and mass pressure.
These two points are rather obvious, but we have not always drawn the necessary conclusion from them. That is, there is no inherent tendency towards class collaboration either in the structure of unions or in the necessities of their relationship with capital that is strong enough to significantly counter-balance these, and other, considerations of the relationship of class forces. If it happens that a specific trade union is too rigid to respond to changing political conditions, as, for example, the AFL of the early 30s was too rigid, then new trade union forms will emerge — sometimes as a result of extensive conflict — which are eventually incorporated within the overall trade union institution. Neither the elasticity, nor the efficacy of any given trade union structure, and more importantly, of trade unionism in general, can be predicted independently of a concrete treatment of the political forces and levels of consciousness. Unfortunately, we tended to characterize unions and unionism in isolation from this political context, treating characteristics which could well be accidental and temporary as necessary and defining features of unionism.
3. Trade union reform is not a viable focus of revolutionary work. If the conditions which make it possible for class collaborationist unions and union leaders to exist are changed — first among which are the general lack of collective struggle and the general hegemony of bourgeois consciousness — then union reform will be a byproduct of this change. However, the process will not work in reverse. Changes in union leadership, structure, and policy have no inherent strategic significance . . . what appear to be reforms and reformers will turn into new obstacles and new misleaders. More important, a political program aimed at union reform is almost always a diversion from work aimed directly at changing the terms and conditions of the class struggle.
4. No matter how responsive, progressive, militant, and even revolutionary, trade unions are too limited a mass form in which to accomplish the political work at the point of production essential in the development of a revolutionary working class. Struggles may begin within the trade union framework, but, for their full potential to be realized, a framework must exist in which workers can begin to develop an understanding of themselves, not just as underpaid and overworked wage earners, but as a potential ruling class . . . as producers without whom there is no production.
(The balance of this section of the paper will be concerned with the first two of these four points. Points three and four have been argued for in a number of other documents and I think those arguments are adequate. Therefore, the second major section of this paper — independent organization — will not attempt to justify them at length but, instead, will deal with how they should be implemented, given a changed conception of trade unions and of the relationship between independent organizations and trade unions.)
These four points rely heavily on the early Gramscian conceptions of trade unions, workers councils, and the party. Gramsci's conception of the development of trade unions is relevant here.
Objectively, the trade union is the form that labour as a commodity necessarily assumes in a capitalist regime when it organizes to dominate the market . . . to establish an advantageous balance between the working class and the power of capital. The development of trade union organization is characterized by two facts: 1. the union embraces an ever larger number of workers; 2. the union concentrates and generalizes its scope so that the power and discipline of the movement are focused in a central office. This office detaches itself from the masses it regiments, removing itself from the fickle eddy of moods and currents that are typical of the great tumultuous masses. The union thus acquires the ability to sign agreements and take on responsibilities, obliging the entrepreneur to accept a certain legality in his relations with the workers. This legality is conditional on the trust the entrepreneur has in the solvency of the union, and in its ability to ensure that the working masses respect their contractual obligations. The emergence of industrial legality is a great victory for the working class, but it is not the ultimate and definitive victory. Industrial legality has improved the working class's material living conditions, but it is no more than a compromise — a compromise which had to be made and which must be supported until the balance of forces favours the working class. (Gramsci, Soviets In Italy, STO pamphlet, pp. 14-15.)
This is a very different conception of trade unions than the one presented in our production papers. Specifically note the description of industrial legality as a compromise which "had to be made" and which "must be supported until the balance of forces favors the working class." Our attitude towards industrial legality (which we treated in terms of its U.S. form, contract unionism) was always ambiguous. While we implied that it once had been a positive gain for the working class, our approach to current questions stressed only its negative aspects — the acceptance of capitalist control of the production process totally obscured the fact of a minimum floor under wages and conditions. More important, when we cross over from the estimate of trade unions to our projections concerning mass independent workers organizations, we abandon any conception of the historic necessity of this compromise, or of the necessity for revolutionaries to support it "until the balance of forces favors the working class." The assumption is that there would be necessity for an independent organization to bind itself to a certain "legality" in its dealings with capital . . . not even if the independent organization succeeded in supplanting a union. But this could only be the case if the balance of forces had swung permanently and decisively towards the working class — which is clearly not the case. This lapse in logic is the reason why our assertions that independent organizations would not "sign contracts," enter into "pension plans, etc." have such an arbitrary and Utopian character. It is mysticism, not Marxism, to assert that through the simple substitution of a "good" organizational form for a "bad" one, political problems which are rooted in the current consciousness and behavior of the working class can be resolved. Of course, our position did not argue this baldly, but, clearly, it was the tendency.
Gramsci mentions that in Italy it was common for trade union officials to regard industrial legality as a "permanent state of affairs," not as a temporary compromise, and to defend it . . . "from the same viewpoint as the proprietor . . . seeing only chaos and wilfullness in everything which emerges from the working masses." This conservative character is evident in this country in a particularly corrupted form, but it is a reality in every capitalist state where the struggle for industrial legality is no longer really in doubt, and the memory of that struggle fades in the working class. This conservatism has deeper roots than the inherent logic of the labor sale compromise which unions must enforce and administer. Basically it rests in the proletarianization of the petty bourgeoisie and the rural population, and the consequent erosion of the mass political base for private property which had existed among these strata.
As a consequence of these changes, it is hardly conceivable that the mass pro-capitalist mobilization against the major labor struggles of the late 19th and early 20th century — or even the Flint Alliance of the Sit-Down Strike period — could be developed under present conditions in the industrialized sections of the country. This makes the ruling class much more dependent on its hegemony over the working class, or, in other words, on developing political support for capital out of working class false consciousness.
The growing necessity for this support is easy to see. At the same time, as more and more social strata come into conflict with monopoly capital, the growing concentration of capital is robbing all plausibility from any ideas of the possibility of rising into the ruling class. As the Manifesto pointed out, but as took a long time to become obvious in this country, the important process under capitalism is not for workers to "make it" out of the working class, but for rural people, small proprietors, and professionals to be forced to sell their labor power in order to survive. The dilemma for the ruling class is how to maintain popular allegiance to a set of property relations in which the overwhelming majority of the people have no conceivable vested interest.
This dilemma is particularly acute with respect to the working class which, for a variety of reasons in this country, is not too beguiled by any of the options available within the capitalist parliamentary framework. So ways are needed to convince workers that their interests are being represented, that they will get what they merit through the system. It is here where the basic political role of the trade unions is determined.
In all developed capitalist countries, the unions function to channel every rebellious tendency into legalistic and quasi-parliamentary arenas where the power and hegemony of capital is most difficult to isolate and attack and where the workers have the most difficulty gaining a sense of their own collective potential. In this country an even more important, though related, function of unions is to freeze the divisions within the working class which obstruct any real steps towards class unity by institutionalizing the privileges of white male workers through job category definitions and the seniority system, if not outright exclusionism.
Though our position has always recognized the co-opting role played by trade unions and the roots of this role in the necessities of capitalist rule under current conditions, we have failed to clarify some distinctions in the way this role is acted out. The general function of trade unions is not the suppression of class struggle, it is the containment of it within the framework of capital. The conservative role of unions is not typically manifested through their becoming an immediate barrier to the initiation of struggle, but through their mediation of the struggle to prevent it from developing in revolutionary directions. To repeat, this role is played by unions with relatively "good" leadership as well as by those with overtly class collaborationist and gangster leadership. In other countries, a similar role is played by unions with leadership which proclaims itself to be Marxist and revolutionary.
The production papers imply that unions are basically just a police arm of the employer that is given some legitimacy by workers' illusions. This is an example of a conclusion drawn from the current practices and characteristics of U.S. unions (circa 1969-1970) which assumes that these practices and characteristics are necessary and defining ones. My argument, which I will develop in the course of this paper, is that we have mistaken temporary and accidental features of the current U.S. unions for essential features of trade unions in general.
Certainly no union which its members will tolerate is too "backwards" for the ruling class. However, when the patience of the rank and file of a given union wears thin, the union structure will find itself faced not only with pressure from its membership, but also with pressure towards reform from decisive sections of the ruling class which are concerned that an important political tool not lose its usefulness. An immediate example of this was the .recent election in the UMW. After the victory of Miller and the reform slate, it was widely reported in the press that the larger mine owners were happy with the defeat of Boyle. Miller, they calculated, would be sufficiently responsive to his membership and militant in pursuing their demands so as to be able to prevent the widespread wildcats and abandonment of the grievance procedure. And Miller, of course, announced that this was just his intention. (He has not been all that successful.)
In short, the role of unions does become increasingly conservative and pro-capitalist, but not in such a blatant way that workers will flock to any plausible alternative.
This leads into the question of the flexibility of the union structure in this country. When we base our arguments, as I think that we do, on an estimate of trade unions which confuses accidental and quite possibly temporary features with basic and defining characteristics, we are bound to have a distorted view on this issue. Our production papers imply that the U.S. trade unions cannot absorb a major insurgency because they are so corrupt that they cannot and will not even handle the routine defense of their members' interests.
The evidence does not support this assumption. Though the AFL in the early thirties was as bankrupt as the current unions, the upsurge of the thirties was contained within the general trade union framework without any great strain. However, since the CIO organizing was largely concentrated within an unorganized sector of the working class, perhaps it is not the most relevant parallel to our situation. So let's consider two others:
The British shop stewards movement has existed for decades as a more or less autonomous section of the English trade union structure. Stewards Councils have almost total jurisdiction over issues of working conditions, piece rates, etc. and are based soundly on the concept of direct action which they employ regularly. Their relationship with the official unions is often minimal and characterized by a good deal of hostility (see ENV pamphlet for an example of this relationship). In fact, the shop stewards movement in the most advanced plants has many features similar to what we project for our independent workers organizations, though they are certainly not a model for what we hope to achieve.
Nevertheless, the British unions have been able to tolerate the stewards organization, and, over time, have developed an informal division of responsibilities and powers. Now, with the level of class struggle in Britain having increased dramatically during the past months, the programs and demands of the stewards groups are more and more being adopted by the trade unions. More important, so are their tactics of mass political strikes and slowdowns.
Before considering the implications of the British situation, let me introduce another example. During the "hot autumn" of 1969 in Italy, the institutions of mass assemblies developed as alternatives to the unions in the large Fiat and Alfa Romeo auto plants. These assemblies were in the tradition of the Italian factory councils of fifty years before and had a definite revolutionary cast. At the height of the struggle, the assemblies almost totally supplanted the unions as the locus of workers' organization and activity. What has occurred subsequently is instructive. Both the unions and the factory management have taken steps to incorporate the assemblies, not in their initial mass uncontrollable form, but as "responsible" delegated assemblies with elected leadership. Now, the delegate assembly is recognized by the management and incorporated within the union's bargaining structure where its mass participatory character, not to mention its revolutionary potential, is under constant assault.
More examples are not really necessary. Without substantial evidence to the contrary, we must assume that the U.S. trade union structure, when and if it is put to a test similar to the ones undergone in Great Britain and Italy, will prove to be similarly elastic. Furthermore, the defined and influential reformist strategy for socialism which is provided by the C.P.s in France and Italy is a factor acting against union flexibility, not in favor of it, since the unions are expected to confine themselves to a definite limited role within the anti-monopoly front. The political amorphousness and immaturity of the U.S. unions will increase their susceptibility to pressure from major insurgencies even though it increases their resistance to minor demands for internal reforms.
These examples demonstrate that we must argue very carefully for any notion that mass independent organizations can be a viable general alternative to the established trade unions for any substantial period of time. This the production papers do not do. I want to make it clear that my intention is to place our stress on building mass independent organizations at the workplace on a sounder footing, and not to argue for a different priority. Nothing that has been said supports an inner-union reform perspective. Just the opposite. While changes in popular consciousness, in the relative strength of class forces, and consequently, in the level of class struggle, can force major changes in the trade unions — including personal transformations of the sort undergone by John L. Lewis — no amount of pressuring and maneuvering within the union to replace one set of officials and policies with a different set can force such a change. The factors integrating the unions within capitalist hegemony far outweigh any counterpressures which can be developed within the trade union framework alone. (The next section will go into more detail concerning the essential limitations of inner-union work.)
In conclusion, if we ask ourselves the cause of the current backwardness of activity and consciousness among U.S. workers (perhaps some in the organization will dispute this backwardness), it should be obvious that a number of factors going far beyond and, indeed, determining the role of the trade unions must be taken into account. Among these are the relative "good times" since the beginning of World War II (since this was originally written the good times have gotten quite dubious), the mass acceptance of bourgeois hegemony on the crucial issue of workers' collective potential, new production patterns and the disorienting impact of new technology, and changes in the composition of the workforce. The most important of these factors, of course, has always been and still remains the acceptance of white supremacy on the part of the overwhelming majority of white workers. Though it is always a danger to consider cause and effect in abstraction from their reciprocal mutually determining inter-relationship, I still think that it is correct to say that these factors I have enumerated above have a lot more to do with the state of the unions than the state of the unions has to do with them. Unfortunately, we have given the opposite impression by the way we have formulated our perspective on workplace organizing.
Before discussing the issue of independent organization, I want to deal with a part of the trade union question that goes beyond debates over trade unions as institutions — trade union consciousness.
Lenin argued that the material conditions of workers lead them to combine to struggle against the capitalists for better conditions in the sale of their labor power. The ideological reflection of this process is trade union consciousness. Trade union consciousness is embodied in the formation of trade unions, but beyond this, it is expressed in all kinds of actions and attitudes which never take on an organized, much less an institutionalized, character. Trade union consciousness is that level of awareness of workers in which they realize that they are oppressed and exploited in common with some, but not all, other workers, but do not realize their collective membership in a class with the capacity to make a revolution. It is the ideological underpinning for militant reformism . . . for fighting for the interests of workers within the framework of capitalism.
Since What Is To Be Done was written, this concept of trade union consciousness has played an important, but not always a helpful, role in Marxist theory. Many people on the left have a lot of trouble understanding our workplace organizing perspective because we do not make it clear that we disagree fundamentally with all those hopeful Leninists who think that all one must know about the way the working class thinks and acts is whether it should be labeled "trade union consciousness" or "revolutionary class consciousness." Jf we were to accept this way of looking at the working class, then we would be clearly bound to say that the U.S. working class has trade union consciousness (often treated as a form of mental illness which can be cured with a dose of M.L. agitprop). Aha, our critics would say, your talk of independent workers organizations which are both "mass" and "revolutionary" is so much nonsense. If mass organizations are developed, they cannot be revolutionary, since the masses of workers have trade - union consciousness. Indeed, such mass organizations could be nothing other than trade unions themselves, subject to the same objective inherent limitations as existing unions. On the other hand, if revolutionary .groups are formed, they cannot be mass organizations, but must be party formations since mass consciousness is trade unionist . . . etc. Finally, such critics reduce our position to an argument to use dual unionist tactics to develop a more militant trade union movement, and counter this with the aphorism from Left Wing Communism and all of the silly old chestnuts from W. Z. Foster.
The weaknesses and one-sidedness of our production papers contribute to this doctrinaire foolishness among their antagonists, some of these issues will come up later, but here I want to clarify where we disagree with this approach to the problem of consciousness that masquerades as Leninism.
Lenin's polemic was directed against a political tendency in Russia which argued that the working class would arrive at socialist consciousness, and at socialism, as the logical development of its experience of direct struggle with capital over the terms and conditions of work. He argued that the highest understanding which could develop from this direct experience fell qualitatively short of what was necessary to make a revolution. To go beyond this point, the intervention of disciplined communists organized into a party was essential. However, in arguing that the workers' "spontaneous" struggles would not develop into a struggle for power through their internal momentum, Lenin was certainly not denying that these struggles exhibited the revolutionary aspects and potentials of the working class. On the contrary, his basic fear was that the organizational and theoretical backwardness of the revolutionaries would prevent them from building on these features of the class struggle.
At the present time, no serious Marxist doubts that the organized intervention of communists is needed to prevent the class struggle from being contained within the framework of capitalist property relations. It is the political content of this intervention which is in dispute. Our production papers are a part of our strategic approach to this different issue.
When we ask the question, "What is the consciousness of the U.S. working class?" not only is it a very different problem from the one facing Lenin in Russia in 1902, it is a very complex and contradictory problem with no simple and unitary "correct" answer. Consciousness is not just ideology, most particularly the consciousness of an oppressed and disorganized social group. Working class consciousness is not coherent and consistent, but fragmentary and internally confused and contradictory. It is not so much articulated as it is implied in attitudes and patterns of behavior.
Trade union consciousness is an aspect of the general consciousness of the workers, not its totality. For example, there is widespread acceptance within the working class of elements of capitalist ideology which could not be called trade union consciousness without making the concept so broad it becomes meaningless . . . consider white and male supremacy or bourgeois individualism, or various interest group conceptions which cut across class lines. Clearly these are not only distinct from trade union consciousness, they are often more backwards than it is.
More important, in all of the production papers we have made it clear that at moments of sharp struggle (trade unionist struggle, if you will), elements of organization and consciousness emerge which foreshadow the potential of workers to rule. These elements may even, for a time, be the defining features of a struggle. The task for revolutionaries is to help develop these aspects of working class experience and consciousness — for that is what they are — as the base for and alternative to the bourgeois aspects of working class experience and consciousness which always grow stronger as the struggle subsides.
Thus in our conception, working class consciousness is not trade unionist or revolutionary. It is both and therefore neither. We focus on the contradictory and dynamic internal essence of working class consciousness because it is where our political problems and potentials are clarified. It is certainly important that we remedy any weaknesses of our public position on workplace organizing that create misunderstanding of this approach.
One final comment. If reading Lenin becomes a substitute for thinking, as has been known to happen, it is possible to get all worked up over passages in What Is To Be Done which define trade unions so broadly that any anti-capitalist workers organization that is not a party (Leninist) is a trade union. We do not find this definition helpful. This is hardly anti-Leninist heresy, since Lenin, himself, abandoned it after the 1905 Revolution produced distinct forms of working class organization that were mass — the Soviets. Gramsci, of course, goes into great detail to examine the distinctions and the relationships between these two different forms of mass working class organizations.
For as long as we have existed, the central feature of our production perspective has been the attempt to develop mass organizations at the workplace — organizations independent of the union structure, although they may choose periodically to work within it; organizations which we have characterized as both mass and revolutionary. I believe that this conclusion about the basic direction of our work is correct. Unfortunately, it is a correct conclusion that rests on an inadequate and erroneous basis of argument. And it is the argument and the analysis, not the conclusion, which is decisive in dealing with the political issues and dilemmas involved in putting this general approach into concrete practice. I think that we have discovered that this general conclusion neither provides nor even implies adequate and realistic criteria by which to gauge our work.
In the previous section, two points were made about work within the trade union framework: inner- union reform via the formation of caucuses is not a viable political program; the trade union is too limited an arena for the work necessary to develop a revolutionary working class. Though the production papers made both of these points, they were jumbled together as if they were merely different ways of making the same point.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming weight of the argument focuses on the first point, a point which is fairly easily supported by a factual description of the existing unions (but only at the price of the methodological errors involved in this form of argument), and a summary of attempts to reform them. The second point, which is the most important of the two by far, receives very skimpy treatment.
To put these two points in another context, the priority on independent organization can be justified both tactically and strategically. The former argument emphasizes that even if one's aims are just union reform, the reform of the present unions would require a base of independent power. Participation in unions — if more is meant by participation than merely paying dues and voting occasionally — is so minimal and tentative, so corrupted by careerism and cynicism, that any ideas of centering work here should be rejected as entailing isolation from the masses of workers. In fact, Lenin's famous injunction against such self-imposed isolation of revolutionaries applies more to those who advocate work within the existing unions than it does to us. Even the old dual unionists had a more defensible position than their present-day critics in this regard. If their attempt to create "pure" revolutionary unions was Utopian, how should we regard those who urge that work be centered within corrupt and reactionary organizations which are just as "pure" in their isolation from the masses of workers?
The type of tactical argument just made is the substance of the production papers. The problem is not so much that these arguments are wrong, but that they are sadly inadequate . . . for two different reasons. First, as I have said repeatedly, they rest too heavily on characteristics of the present U.S. unions, implying that this necessarily was the trade union reality which we would have to deal with. On the contrary, it is much more likely the changing political situation will result in trade unions periodically developing a mass representative character. In fact, such "periods" will also be those in which our approach gains the most support, and one indirect result of any successes which we will enjoy will be to increase the objective pressures towards trade union reform. Second, and far more important, this type of tactical argument clarified only the most general guidelines concerning the nature and role of the mass independent organizations and their relationships to specific union formations.
So long as our approach is mainly based on these tactical arguments, it is quite possible to fit what we call "independent organizations" into a number of different frameworks. They can be seen as the nuclei of revolutionary dual unions, with the IWW and the TUUL providing two relevant antecedents in this country. However, they can also be seen as the groundwork for a mass, but non-revolutionary, dual unionism such as occurred in the CIO period in this country and at many times in other capitalist countries. Then, independent organizations can be seen, not as union forms at all, but as Soviets, with the models of the early factory councils or the recent mass assemblies in Italy. Perhaps the Shop Stewards movement in Great Britain, which is quite different from all of these alternatives, might be our mode. Finally, of course, we need not limit ourselves to these alternatives, or any combination of them.
At this stage of our work, the best remedy for such lack of precision is to put our stress on independent organization in clear theoretical and strategic terms . . . and the fundamental argument for our approach, in my opinion, is a strategic argument that doesn't depend on any specific features of U.S. unions, including their potential — or lack of potential — to be "reformed." The essential argument on this point is clearly stated in the Gramsci pamphlet Soviets In Italy:
The proletarian dictatorship can only be embodied in a type of organization that is specific to the activity of producers, not wage-earners, the slaves of capital. The Factory Council is the nuclear cell of this organization. For all branches of labor are represented in the Council in proportion to the contribution each craft and each branch of labor makes to the manufacture of the object the factory produces; it is a class institution and a social institution. Its raison d'etre is in labor, in industrial production, i.e., in a permanent fact, and no longer in wages, in class divisions, i.e., in a transitory fact — and precisely the one that we wish to supercede. (page 11)
In the famous passage in the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx states that the period of social revolution begins when the relations of production become a fetter on the further development of the forces of production. In this context, the distinction which Gramsci draws between the role of workers as "wage-earners" and their role as "producers" becomes a critical one. The working class is the most important capitalist force of production, a force which is both developed and thwarted in its development by capitalist property relationships. However, workers also are one side of the defining production relationship of capitalism — the relationship between wage labor and capital. The wage labor-capital relationship is not only the main framework in which the class struggle is "spontaneously" pursued, it is also the main framework confining that struggle within capitalist property relations. This confinement will continue until the objective development of the working class as a force of production is manifested subjectively in a revolutionary consciousness of its potential to totally re-order society . . . it will continue until trade unionist struggle is superceded by genuine class struggle between workers and capitalists as representatives and embodiments of mutually exclusive modes of production. Trade union organization, and trade unionist struggle, is not an adequate base for the development of this mass consciousness, just as certainly as it is not the necessary and sufficient condition for the articulation of a revolutionary proletarian worldview. This does not mean that trade union struggle cannot create a basic understanding of collectivity of interest. It can do this, and, although this understanding is typically limited to the common interests of only a section of the class, it can and has developed into a general appreciation of the exploitation of wage labor. However, such an understanding is not revolutionary class consciousness until it includes a realization of workers' collective potential to organize production independently of the capitalists — the understanding that "in the factory you either have everything or you have nothing," a proposition whose truth is only evident when the wage worker-capitalist frame of reference is transcended.
There is a prevalent assumption among left groups in the U.S. that these necessary ingredients of revolutionary consciousness will be developed through the agitational and propagandistic intervention of the party within trade unionist struggles. Thus they instruct communists to "never forget the final goal" in their involvement in mass reform struggles. While there must be no denial or denigration of the importance of clear socialist agitation and propaganda, there must also be an understanding of the fundamental limits of such activity. The most that the party can hope to "teach" the working class through such efforts is the desirability of socialism as an abstract and ideal goal. This is not sufficient to bring socialism from the realm of Utopias to a goal which masses see as workable and attainable. Only through struggles which foreshadow the possibility of socialism can workers gain the assurance that it is a tangible goal within their reach. Clearly the "experience" of being the object of communist agitation and propaganda is not this sort of a mass learning experience. The point is that there must be a base of social practice within which a revolutionary party can lay bare those working class characteristics which Gramsci calls "producer," separated from those characteristics which flow from workers' role as "wage earner."
It is inconceivable that the process of separating the autonomous aspects of mass struggle from the aspects in which class rule is accepted implicitly or explicitly can occur without specific organizational frameworks designed to facilitate it. Independent organizations can be part of such a framework, trade unions cannot. This is the fundamental justification for our stress on building independent organizations, as well as for our emphasis on the inherent limitations of trade union work. It provides the approach in which we see communists able to develop a counterhegemonic working class culture of struggle based on the liberating potential of the elimination of both capital and wage labor.
This indicates why we place such importance on the development of independent workers organizations, what we mean by terming them "revolutionary," and why we argue that the goal must be to develop them into mass popular organizations, not cadre formations. However, there is a whole range of questions and problems which remain. I want to single out three of these for more detailed treatment. First, what reason is there to believe that such an approach is viable? Second, what is the relationship between mass independent organizations and unions? Third, what is the role of the communists within the mass independent organizations?
From this point forward I will substitute the word "council" for the awkward phrase "mass revolutionary independent organization." This substitution might easily be misunderstood, so some initial clarification is in order. It is not our intention to set out to build little Soviets. As the context will make clear, the real organizational formations to which we relate will not have any such "pure" character, but will be composites of different tendencies and different conceptions, operating under varying sets of objective limitations. We use the term "council" to clarify what we see as the responsibilities and the potentialities of communist work within such independent formations. It is selfevident that independent organizations, if they are to have any mass character, must, under present conditions, be heavily influenced by the reservoir of essentially trade unionist militance which currently finds little outlet within the union framework. Further, there is nothing inherently revolutionary (or even nontrade unionist) in the mere fact of organizational independence from the existing trade unions. What there is is a revolutionary potential for communist work which does not exist for inner-union work.
The general line of attack on our position by much of the rest of the left holds that since the working class has only reached trade union consciousness, it isn't possible to develop organizations which in any real sense are both mass and revolutionary. Either they will not be mass organizations, or they will not be revolutionary organizations. In fact, as the criticism goes, real mass revolutionary organizations will only be possible in a revolutionary situation . . . which the present situation clearly is not. Consequently, our independent mass organizations can be nothing beyond a tactic to revitalize the trade union movement from outside of the trade union structures, and it is logical to accuse us of tactical fetishism for our "dogmatic" exclusion of other tactics — specifically, inner-union caucuses — aimed at the same goal of union reform and revitalization.
The failure of the production papers to deal directly with the political consciousness of the working class did leave the impression that if only the trade unions could be supplanted by independent workers organizations, the backwardness of the workers would evaporate and they would conduct themselves as a potential ruling class. Our critics realize that the process is not going to be this simple. But this weakness in our arguments does not support the position they advocate. In fact, such criticisms rely on factually mistaken estimates of working class reality and nondialectical methodology. As was said in an earlier section, any accurate estimate of working class consciousness must center on its varied and contradictory aspects. Broad generalizations about what working class consciousness is — or what it is not — obscure these different elements and their relationships with each other.
(This would seem elementary for any Marxist position, but we have "Marxist" estimates of the working class which are blind to all existing elements of revolutionary potential; and we have other "Marxist" positions which cannot see that such elements are both linked with and subordinated to, capitalist ideology and capitalist culture. The pseudo-problems created by such one-sided analyses lead to grotesque conceptions of the role of communists. Either the "teaching" function of the party is grossly exaggerated, or the role of party is reduced to nothing.)
Nevertheless, we should deal directly with the charge that our approach is inherently unworkable . . . that mass revolutionary workers organizations will only exist in a revolutionary situation. I want to deal with the issue of viability in two parts. The first is the general argument for it, and the second sets certain limits on this viability.
As soon as it is seen that the development of the working class as a material of production entails elements of consciousness and behavior which foreshadow socialism long before the masses of workers become self-consciously revolutionary, the objection to the viability of our perspective is refuted in principle. The dialectical axiom of uneven development implies that the political development of the working class will not be a uniform process. Instead, the process will involve events like a Flint sitdown strike, the "hot autumn" in Italy, the French 1968 strike, or, closer to home, the Farah strike. These situations develop capacities and potentials among their immediate participants, moving them far ahead of the rest of the class. Such areas of sharp struggle do have a positive effect on the class as a whole, of course, an effect that takes the form of an increased combativity and openness to revolutionary ideas. However, it isn't possible to draw the same revolutionary lessons for workers generally that can be drawn for the workers who are immediate participants in the struggle, because it is the reality of active participation — not just support — that allows these lessons to take root.
Long before anything approaching a revolutionary situation exists in this country as a whole, revolutionary lessons can be learned by masses of workers involved in specific struggle situations. In fact, this process is integral to the creation of the subjective preconditions for the revolutionary situation — a situation in which the "masses are unwilling to continue in the old way." Such conditions will never develop until a substantial portion of the working class knows that a "new way" is possible. The party's role largely consists of its responsibility to synthesize such subjective conditions for revolution by welding the working class potentials which are manifested in sporadic struggles within the framework of capitalism into a mass movement for, and of, socialism.
It would be possible to write at length about tactical considerations involved in this approach. However, the issue here is only whether our perspective is theoretically and strategically consistent and viable, and this is easily indicated with an example. There are many we could choose from, but the Seattle General Strike of 1919 provides an exceptionally instructive example.
According to the testimony of participants in the Seattle struggle, the Seattle workers shared a general sentiment that the workers should run the society. The strike, then, provided them with a period of a week in which they could, and did, run "their" society. This situation in Seattle was not paralleled anywhere in the rest of the country. There may have been some communities with a comparable degree of working class consciousness, but nowhere, besides Seattle, was there such an immediate potential to embody this consciousness in social practice. (The same point might be made about the Sit-Down strikers in Flint some two decades later.) Now, were the conscious revolutionaries in Seattle, and there were numbers of them, to tie the development of mass revolutionary organizations in Seattle to the existence or non-existence of a general revolutionary situation in the country as a whole, they would be in a terrible dilemma. No general assessment of the U.S. in 1919 could support the conclusion that socialist revolution was on the immediate agenda. Therefore, to make this a governing consideration would prevent the revolutionaries from working in Seattle to keep the potentials generated locally from quickly dissipating after the height of the struggle. To put it another way, it would lead to the Seattle revolutionaries behaving in the same manner as did the French C.P. in 1968.
It is clear that the responsibility of the Seattle revolutionaries was to develop the forms and tactics of struggle which would maximize the revolutionary development of the Seattle workers, and not to link this mechanically to the possibility for the seizure of state power in the country as a whole. Stated this way, probably no left group would disagree with the conclusion. However, as usual, it is not so simple. The end can only be fully achieved if the means have been developed. In Seattle, and elsewhere, it is not possible to effectively capitalize on possibilities which may rapidly achieve mass dimensions if there has been no preparation — if the conscious revolutionaries haven't somehow anticipated this development in their practical work. Part of such preparation involves the development of organizational forms which can stimulate and articulate the revolutionary features of the workers' struggles prior to a mass explosion, in this way helping to create that explosion and shaping its concrete modalities. Failure to do such preparatory work is nothing but reliance on spontaneity, no matter how "Leninist" its justification.
It is easy to exaggerate the points I have been making about the possibility and, indeed, the necessity of councils until we lose contact with the other side of working class reality. The revolutionary aspects of the working class's experience and outlook are normally subordinated to capitalist ideology and culture. But more important than this subordination is the fact that they are all tangled together with nonrevolutionary aspects — and even counter-revolutionary aspects — of working class behavior and consciousness. This is particularly evident in the common connection between the militance of white workers and their commitment to the institution of white supremacy. While this particular interconnection poses the major practical problem facing the work of revolutionaries, it does not pose any great theoretical difficulties. The right course is difficult to pursue, but not so difficult to perceive. However, there are interconnections which are more subtle and complex. In specific, the revolutionary elements within working class experience in this country are very closely tied to ideas and tendencies which could be more accurately called trade union militance — ideas and tendencies which, as I have said, currently find difficulty being expressed in any real way through the existing trade unions. These considerations make it Utopian to expect that council forms can be stable organizations under present conditions. This would only be possible if it were also possible to define them by the workers' collective role in the production process. To attempt to force such a self-conception on independent organizations would be sectarian silliness.
This has two implications, one of which the production papers have considered and one which, I think, they failed to consider. As the production papers argue, in "normal" circumstances the councils will be organizational points of reference whose main role is to provide an interpretation and explanation of workers' experiences which is an alternative to trade unionism, and is a part of the process towards a counterhegemonic self-consciousness. During sharp mass struggles — circumstances which are obviously not normal at the present time — the councils may temporarily provide the form in which the class organizes and expresses itself. But even at the abnormal moments, so long as the struggles are isolated and sporadic, the council will be narrower than the active participants in the struggle, and much narrower than the total constituency of the struggle. We will have to go further along the road to revolution before councils will or can become the legitimate and organic mode of self-organization of the class even in the most developed instances.
The implication not spelled out in the production papers is that independent organizations are going to be constantly torn between the role of council and the role of trade union or alternate union. This leads into the issues involved in the relationships between unions and councils. As has been implied, it will not generally be possible or desirable for the party to build independent organizations on a clear counter-hegemonic basis. Instead, they will be composed of workers who share only one basic thing: they see the independent organization as a workable alternative to their present situation. Their immediate motives for participation may be only to build a militant union or to reform a corrupt one, or they may be much more developed, but in any case, in practice we will not be building councils (mass revolutionary independent organizations) in the strict sense, but will be building or relating to independent organizations while struggling to develop their council potential.
This raises issues which are more "practical" than those with which we have been dealing and it may be helpful to proceed in terms of a hypothetical situation which is not really so far removed from work situations we have experienced and is even closer to situations which could easily develop in our work. This will give more reality to a whole number of political issues and make it easier both to criticize what our present production papers have to offer in the way of guidance, and to present a more adequate alternative.
Whenever we begin, our initial activity is directed toward either building a group or finding an existing one to work in that is independent of the union structure and willing to fight the company. Since we want the group to be much more than a device to recruit individual workers to our political position and, eventually, a communist organization, it is always important that it be sufficiently broadly based that its character is not in our exclusive control. That is, we want a situation where our opinions and perspectives will be only a part of the factors determining the stance of the group.
Other Marxist positions do not share this perspective. They see the union as the arena of mass activity and organization. Left groupings are seen as a lever to influence the union in the direction which the communists want it to go and as a recruiting form. Such an approach is concerned with gaining or holding left groupings as power factors in their particular perspective, not with encouraging its autonomous character. There is nothing particularly reprehensible in this position, indeed it makes perfect sense in view of the general "Marxist" conception of the relationship between mass struggle and revolutionary struggle in a non-revolutionary period.
Central to our differences with these perspectives is the fact that our aim is to develop independent organizations which attempt to provide a framework for the activity of the entire workforce. Of course, they will almost always begin on a much more modest scale. Even when the independent workers group is not a central factor in the life of the plant — when its role is mainly agitational and propagandistic since the bulk of the workers, though they may sympathize and empathize with it, do not see it as an alternative to the existing relationships in the plant — our stress on autonomy will create a certain set of difficulties for us. For the most part, these will concern the tactics of fighting for our positions and programs within the group without imposing them by virtue of our superior organization and other resources. The goal of such ideological struggle is to help the workers and ourselves think clearly and critically, not to strike poses or make cheap victories. Though these difficulties are not small, I think that with more time and experience we will learn how to handle them.
The most important issues come to the surface when we assume that the activity of the independent organization leads the workers in a particular workplace to see it as a real alternative. Look at the situation this way. The organization will be confronted with workers with a range of immediate needs and grievances. For the workers, these are an initial; test of the independent organization. If workers believe that it can be an instrumentality in these, the independent organization will get support. Of course, the groups and the communists within them will inevitably tend to put their best face forward, emphasizing the possibilities not the limitations. After all, our aim is to demonstrate their viability in struggle whose outcomes depend in large part on the consciousness of the workers. In such a situation, it would be absurd to predict defeat, or even to present a "balanced" picture. This would undermine the development of collective morale and could mean the difference between relative success and absolute failure.
Before workers opt for independent struggle, they will consider two types of factors. First, the independent organization, particularly if it has strong communist leadership, will certainly advance demands and forms of straggle which more closely fit with the workers' sense of oppression and anger than anything, which any present union; could conceivably offer. Second, such a program and such an emphasis on open confrontation and protracted struggle will certainly meet much, more serious management opposition than normal union activity — opposition which quite likely will be augmented by the antagonism of the already existing union apparatus and the intervention of the state.
Given the pervasiveness of collaborationism and cynicism and the law level of mass struggle in most cases, when workers consider these factors, they opt for the status quo or for work within the safer framework of an established union. Still it is possible that in some situations such an assessment could lead the mass of workers to the decision that their interests were best served by participation in and support of the independent organization!. Under current conditions this is most likely in situations where there either is no union or where the union is totally unresponsive. Clearly we have been and still are in such situations.
Let me spell out such a hypothetical situation in more detail. An independent organization with communist leadership gains mass support primarily, though not totally, because workers see it as the best available instrument to advance the terms and conditions under which they sell their labor power. One probable effect of an extended struggle with an intransigent employer would be to undermine this basis of mass support — would be to convince the workers that they had been mistaken about the potential of the independent organization. Therefore, pursuit of maximum, demands for a long time would erode the mass support and thus reduce the possibility of gaining and consolidating more minimal advances — but advances which the workers would regard as significant improvements.
Clearly, in such a situation, the independent organization and the communists would have to consider some sort of a temporary settlement — of a compromise. And in fact, that compromise would necessarily include many of those institutional characteristics of the present trade unions of which we are the most critical — and rightfully critical. Capital makes no concessions without extracting a price. It is likely that only a small minority of the workers would understand the negative side of the situation. The majority would regard winning exclusive bargaining rights, a pension plan, a seniority system, a grievance procedure, as victories, as a partial resolution of their grievances. But for our perspective, a real dilemma would arise. How can the capacity of the independent organization to crystallize the revolutionary aspects of the workers' struggles be maintained when it has been forced to become a party to a compromise with management which accepts the permanence and legitimacy of capital?
Here we must decide if this is a dilemma which can be avoided or one which must be confronted. Suppose we steered dear of this box by developing groups which did not attempt to provide a real and immediate alternative to workers, but only an ideological center around which the most advanced workers could be organized and educated. Obviously this approach would contradict our basic strategy. It is one thing if the masses of workers are not ready to accept cm alternative; it is quite another if the alternative is intended to be unacceptable to all but a few. It is one thing if workers refuse to accept our leadership on immediate issues; it is another entirely if, hoping to steer dear of becoming over-extended, we refuse to provide such leadership when it is within our capabilities.
One focus of our conception of the role of communists is to demonstrate to workers their collective capacities and potentials. On the most basic level, this is the demonstration that workers can stick together — an ability about which most workers are profoundly cynical. How would communists draw such lessons through an organizational form which abstains from the struggle and comments from the outside on its limitations? Just as important, such an abstentionist role could only be enforced on a genuinely mass organization if the communists played an absolutely destructive and manipulative role. The organization's worker membership would necessarily try to lead the struggle for immediate demands. Thus the independent group would take on a mass character under circumstances which created difficulties for its "revolutionary" character. But if we are serious about developing mass organizations which would not just be "better" representatives of the workers, but a method for them to represent themselves, such difficulties cannot be mechanically resolved by preventing the full participation of the workers in determining goals and tactics — in deciding when and how to advance, when and how to retreat, when and how to compromise.
The only other possible route for avoiding the dilemma is even more easily rejected. If the independent organization became a union with "revolutionary" leadership, all that was previously said about the objective determinants of unions would apply to it as well. Insofar as the revolutionary aspect of the organization extended beyond general rhetoric of its leadership, the reform gains that had been achieved would be jeopardized. Management is hardly likely to make or respect agreements with a union leadership which threatens to unleash struggle at any time with no defined goal short of the elimination of capital. In the absence of revolutionary consciousness throughout the class, such gains can only be maintained through the industrial legality compromise, which, as has been said, is premised on the acceptance of the legitimacy of the private ownership of capital. But if revolutionaries allow their work to be essentially contained within such a framework, there is no effective way for them to develop the counter-hegemonic social bloc necessary for a meaningful challenge to this legitimacy.
This example is applicable to a situation where for all practical purposes there is no union. However, the same dilemma will occur where there is .an active and more or less responsive union. In such a case, it will be manifested in pressures on the independent group to become a caucus with the aim of the eventual capture of the local. Of course, in such a situation there are likely to be organizational forms other than the independent organization which will attract this sort of trade union militance, and thus the alternatives will not be posed in such a stark fashion. Nevertheless, they will be there.
This dilemma is an unavoidable feature of our work. Our organizing perspective must give us the tools with which to deal with it, but the production papers do not do this. Instead, they imply two different, but equally mistaken, attitudes toward the issue. On the one hand, they imply that such problems are not likely to come up until the general political situation is drastically changed in our favor. On the other hand, they imply that it is possible for an independent organization to supplant an existing union without being subject to the limitations affecting all unions. This utopianism, for that is what it is, has its roots in the inadequacy of our strategic conception of independent organization.
This leads directly into the relationship between independent organizations and the existing unions, as well as that between independent organizations and union formations which are likely to emerge with the sharpening of class contradictions. It is in this area that our strategic confusion is responsible for the most immediate practical problems. The production papers present a major and a minor theme on these relationships. First, the independent organization should aim to eventually supplant the existing union, both as the instrument of the defense of immediate class interests, and as the struggle framework in which the development of revolutionary consciousness can take place. Second, until it is actually possible to supplant the union, work within it is permissible insofar as it helps develop the base for independent organizations.
My first observation is that these two general guidelines don't combine well at all. One aspect of the political reality within which councils must be developed is the currency of illusions about the potential of trade unionism, if it were rid of the present corruption. A major task of communists is to struggle against such notions insofar as they are illusions. In practice, this takes the form of struggling against pressures to participate within the union on trade unionist terms. It is difficult to reconcile such a struggle with any notion that work within a union can help build the base for councils. Of course, if the assumptions about the inflexibility of the trade unions made in the production papers were correct, then we could rely on the failure of all attempts to work within this framework to demonstrate the general worthlessness of the unions. However, the assumptions were mistaken. No such cooperative response of the union structure can be predicted. What is more likely is that participation inside the union, instead of exposing the limitations of such activity, will open up a range of possibilities, some illusory, but others not, for further inner-union struggle. Such possibilities will take forever to exhaust.
To put it bluntly, our perspective could only advocate struggle inside the union when the probability was that it would be unsuccessful . . . better yet, sold out. However, on any issue which workers see as a point of struggle, the outcome cannot be predicted so easily. More important, if communists attempt to maneuver workers into situations where they can "learn" the right lessons by being defeated, not only will they be sadly disappointed communists, but they will have acted in contradiction to the autonomous working class movement, which is the essential revolutionary vehicle in this country. No support for independent organizations will be built by communists attempting to minimize what has been, and can be, done through the unions; or, more specifically, by communists acting to limit what can be done in this arena.
The treatment of this point in the production papers is not integral to their basic argument. It is tacked on as a defense against some of our left critics who charge us with dual unionism and syndicalism, and breaks with the entire frame of reference of the papers. Instead of talking about how an independent organization might work within a union, the production papers shift to a discussion about the attitudes and approaches of communists and communist organizations. For communists, the advice to work within the unions is superfluous. Communists should use all chances to gain support for their politics, and it would be silly to deny that such opportunities can be found in work within unions. But it is not true that a perfectly correct approach for a communist organization is applicable to a mass independent organization of workers.
In fact, when we talk about the independent organization working within the union, we are talking about it assuming the role of a caucus. This should be understood precisely. Work within the union might be meant to refer to certain isolated occasions — strike and contract ratification discussions and votes, picket line tactics, situations where it is possible to confront and expose reactionary leaders and policies. Independent organizations must participate in these situations, if they intend to be relevant to workers. However, these situations are mass events in which the union structure is only one factor. When .difficulties develop is when an independent organization becomes a part of the structure, becomes an opposition caucus and develops a more or less systematic plan for gaining union leadership. In the strict sense, this is what innerunion mass work for an independent organization must be.
Whenever the independent organization functions as a caucus, it will buttress the trade unionist illusions which virtually all of its members share to some extent. The pressure for the independent organization to assume this caucus role is an index of the lack of revolutionary consciousness among its membership. It is an index of the illusions that changing the union leadership would make a tremendous difference and that it would not be so difficult — that possession of the union apparatus would provide extra power not matched by new liabilities. All of these ideas are examples of the tendency shared by workers and leftists alike to look for some short-cut answers to the problems involved in developing mass revolutionary working class consciousness and organization. Though this is not an absolute argument against an independent organization becoming a caucus, it stands as a warning that such a role always entails a political price. This price is nothing but a weakening of the unique potentials of independent organizations to provide a base for the development of councils.
If we were considering the role of communists, not of mass workers' organizations, this argument would be mistaken. Communists may be working on a correct or an incorrect strategic line, but presumably they can evaluate their work in terms of this line, no matter what the nature of the work. A mass organization, however, will not have explicit agreement on political line, and the process of gaining more substantial agreement on such questions, as well as the nature of the agreement which is gained, will be greatly influenced by the arena in which the struggle is pursued.
Of course, the communists cannot unilaterally dictate the arena of struggle. In some cases, perhaps most of them, under present conditions the pressure towards becoming an inner-union caucus will be too great to be resisted without the communists playing an essentially disruptive and destructive role in the independent organization. I want to postpone consideration of that problem until a later section. Here, the important point is that the production papers are wrong in saying that work within the union is permissible for the independent organizations on a tactical basis. There are no circumstances when innerunion caucus work — as defined above — will build a base for councils. Independent organizations may assume such a role but it should be only when communists are unable to convince its mass membership of the importance that it remain an alternative to trade unionism generally. Of course, this is not to say that a part of the initial base for independent organizations will not be found in and around the union, the proportion varying from union to union.
As I have said, this point was the minor theme in the production papers' treatment of the relationship between independent organizations and trade unions. A far more important point was that the independent organizations should attempt to supplant the existing unions. This point was the political heart of the papers.
This notion underwent some changes in the course of the revision of the production papers. In the first version it was presented as the immediate goal of the work. The primary definition of the independent organization was as a hostile alternative to the union. In the later versions we tended more to predict that independent organizations would supplant unions, but only "eventually," almost simultaneously with the emergence of a general revolutionary crisis in capitalism. But to say that councils will eventually supplant the unions is no more meaningful or helpful than to say that socialism will eventually supplant capitalism. It tells us nothing about how to relate independent organizations to unions now. Our early position had the virtue of telling us something definite about how to work. But in spite of the vagueness of these versions, their overwhelming impact, accepted by both adherents and opponents, is to "supplant" unions.
From the outset, we must recognize that the notion of "supplanting the union" in any literal sense is a hindrance in dealing with the practical problems which we are facing now or will likely be facing in the near future. This is true whether or not the goal of supplanting the union is publicly proclaimed and becomes the agitational focus of the independent organization, that is, whether or not it defines itself as a dual union.
I began this section with a hypothetical example which was not all that hypothetical. It posed a situation where the independent organization, and not any existing union, either one already recognized in the plant or one willing to be brought in, appears to the workers as the vehicle most likely to advance their immediate interests. This sentiment, then, forces the independent organization to either assume the role of a militant class struggle-oriented union or to refuse to fight for the workers' immediate interests.
It is an illusion to think that the communists within the independent organization could steer it away from situations where a choice must be made between assuming mass leadership under important limitations and refusing to accept this role. The condition for independent organizations developing autonomous working class potentials is that they be genuinely representative. They cannot be held aloof from such tactical dilemmas because their constituency will demand that they make a choice. In fact, in most conceivable situations this constituency will demand they assume the role of an insurgent union.
So it will sometimes happen that an independent organization can and will supplant an existing union. But as has been pointed out earlier, this does not mean that a council has supplanted an existing union. In fact, short of a revolutionary situation, this cannot happen since the industrial legality compromise and thus unions are essential for the workers to advance and defend their position as wage workers. Until there is a revolutionary situation, workers will not move beyond this to a coherent conception of themselves as producers. This means that under present conditions, it is the pressure of trade unionist sentiment within the independent organizations that is the impetus towards supplanting the existing unions. When this pressure is successful, one of the consequences will be to provide a material and institutional base which further strengthens, at least in the short run, the general influence of trade unionism. The production papers have a totally inadequate treatment of this entire range of issues, and in fact develop a conceptual framework in which they appear insoluble, though they are far from that.
The source of this difficulty, too, is the production papers' inability to clearly distinguish between their institutional critique of the existing U.S. unions and their concept of the political categories — trade union and trade union consciousness. In no way is the former the only possible crystallization of the latter that is viable in this country. In fact, if the existing unions, or some of them at least, are considered, the probability is that they can and will be supplanted by independent organizations. But when we are dealing with unionism as a set of general organizational and ideological categories, the process of supplanting will not seem so easy and purely "organizational," and the scenario mentioned above will be seen as a change in the form of unionism, rather than its transcendence.
Though the independent organizations should consistently criticize the class collaborationist character of the existing unions, the communists within them should take care that this criticism doesn't create unreal expectations about what the independent organizations can accomplish. Exposing, isolating and replacing the union in a given situation will not necessarily transform the balance of class forces in that situation. Presumably such a development will leave the workers in better shape but it will not usually make it possible to transcend the labor sale compromise for even a short time. More specifically, it is unlikely that such an independent union will be able to move beyond the particularly rotten features of U.S. unionism. It is apparent, therefore, that centering our work within organizations which are independent of the union structure will not guarantee our ability to avoid the very pitfalls which face the inner-union caucus perspective. In our chosen arena, as well as in the union arena, it is easy to exaggerate the potentials which would be opened up by an organizational victory against the existing union.
It is wrong to see the relationship between independent organizations and unions as the attempt by the former to organizationally supplant the latter with a "revolutionary union" or some type of soviet structure. It is also wrong to see the relationship as one where the independent organization functions as an inner-union caucus with an independent base of activity and support and with revolutionary leadership. So what, then, is the correct view of the relationship? The point of beginning must be that unions do, and will continue to, provide the framework for the day-to-day struggle for better terms in the sale of labor power. Independent organizations can only fulfill this role by becoming unions. This does not mean that independent organizations cannot struggle for reform demands without becoming unions. It means that they cannot become the institutional framework in which the workers pursue these goals without becoming unions. The reform struggle has two sides: the increased combativity and openness of the workers who participate in it, and the limitations of their conceptions of what is needed, what can be won, and how to struggle. In specific instances, independent organizations can fight for better terms by building on the positive side, but if they become the framework for this struggle — responsible for retreating as well as attacking, consolidating as well as achieving — they will be bound up by the negative side.
The production papers concentrate exclusively on the antagonism between independent organizations and the unions. I want to concentrate more on the complementary side of the relationship. First a word of warning. The trade union attracts reformists, both the overt and the "revolutionary-realism, one-step-at-a-time" variety. And currently, the institution is in the hands of forces which would be complimented by being called reformist — largely in those hands. Independent organizations will naturally attract the revolutionaries, those workers who want to struggle as much for the sake of fighting as for any specific immediate grievance or demand. Thus when I speak of a complementary relationship, there is no denying that there will inevitably be great hostility, antagonism, and competition. There will be no smooth cooperative process of working together. The trade union leadership and those leftists with an inner-union line will be blind to the complementary side of the relationship. Nevertheless, we should not be.
The objective conditions, which allow independent organizations to develop and allow this activity to have some success, will stimulate the entire class into greater militance and struggle. This will constitute a pressure against the collaborationism of the existing union structures and leadership. Any successes gained by the independent organization will further increase this pressure. So, as workers engage more widely in struggle, and as radical ideas develop a larger and more appreciative audience, one consequence must be the development of struggles inside the union framework and against the current leadership. In many cases these will meet with some success.
In no sense should communists with our perspective be hostile to these developments within the trade union framework even though every success in sloughing off the most collaborationist features of the U.S. unions will make inner-union activity much more attractive to a large portion of the membership and constituency of independent organizations. Developments within the unions that make them into organizations more capable and willing to fight for the reform interests of the workers, including fighting for these demands which have been initially raised by independent organizations, are in the interests of the class and all of its organizations, even if we are deprived of an opportunity to teach cheap "revolutionary" lessons.
Let me tie up some conclusions about the relationship between independent organizations and unions. The preparation of the workers to rule and the defense of their immediate interests are distinct tasks despite all of the interconnections between them. It is wrong — short of a revolutionary situation — for communists to pose them against each other, and it is a syndicalist illusion to think they can both be accomplished in a single organizational structure.
The independent organizations will define themselves by direct collective action as the cutting edge of a critique of class collaborationism. This provides a framework in which communists can begin the work of supplanting trade union consciousness and other aspects of bourgeois culture with revolutionary class consciousness and culture based on the changed social reality provided by the process of supplanting parliamentary-legal forms of pressure on the union with direct collective action against the company. One outcome of this process, and of the general heightening of class conflict, will be more militant trade unions.
Under such conditions — where the unions are being revitalized and the work of the communists to develop the council character of the independent organizations is only one tendency at work within these organizations — it is not likely that independent organizations and trade unions will exist as clear dual structures. Specifically, there will be a tendency for independent organizations to become unions in situations where the existing unions are not responsive, and for an overlap in constituency, program, and perhaps even in membership, between independent organizations and inner-union caucuses in situations where the unions are more viable.
(This area contains a number of crucial questions. Because of limitations of time and space, I am only going to touch on a couple of points, and in a very general way. Some of the most important problems will not be dealt with at all, because they are not particularly relevant to the main concerns of this paper.)
Communists have a dual political responsibility in their work in all areas. First, they must expose, isolate, and defeat the main forms of capitalist ideological and cultural hegemony within the working class. In this country, this entails a frontal assault on the institution of white supremacy. Second, they must build a mass revolutionary alternative to capitalism, based on the elements of mass struggle which foreshadow and prefigure socialism. These are not separate tasks, but form one integral program of struggle.
This dual responsibility is particularly crucial in production work. Without in any way compromising a relentless attack on capitalist ideas and institutions, particularly as they are expressed and supported by workers, communists must build on the forms of struggle and organization which manifest and embody the potentials of workers as producers. Without communist intervention, if they develop at all, such council forms will certainly not be stable. This strategic priority on the development of councils entails a tactical priority on mass independent workers organizations and some general guidelines and priorities for communist work within them.
It is wrong to think that such mass organizations can only be developed under communist leadership. The role of the communists is not only to help develop such groups, but to prevent those that they have helped develop and those which have emerged more or less spontaneously from collapsing or being absorbed into the trade unions after the peak period of mass mobilization. Either of these alternatives means the loss of any revolutionary potential. This responsibility opens up two questions: given the present low level of our work, how should we see the process of developing revolutionary potentials; what should be our attitude towards the interpenetration of council and trade union which will exist in the independent organizations?
We have constantly and correctly stressed the importance of direct collective action to supplant the individualistic and legalistic machinery with which U.S. unions handle workers' grievances — if they handle them at all. This is the only way to bring home the fact that the relationship between workers and capitalists is based on power, not on some set of reciprocal rights and duties. And, of course, currently, it is also the only way to get anything done on most grievances. However, direct collective action has a more general importance. Some base of collective struggle is the necessary foundation for a mass understanding among workers that their interdependent role in production is not only a source of further dehumanization of the individual worker, but is also a potential source of collective power and thus, individual worth and dignity.
But how should we advocate direct action . . . against what sorts of obstacles? We have tended to see only the most obvious obstacles. First, the tendency to choose "safer" methods of struggle, and second, the tendency to wait to take direct action until a sufficient base of strength has been built up so that the successful outcome of a struggle can be predicted. Neither of these tendencies pose any real theoretical difficulty, however big a problem they may be in practice. Far more important, I think, is the tendency among both communists and more advanced workers to advocate direct action in a form which severely restricts its potential out of a fear of the "backwardness" of the majority of the workers.
When direct action becomes merely a "technique," that is, when the questions of what sort of direct action, when it is to be applied, and for what ends it is intended, are presented to the participants in the struggles as facts which they can only accept or reject, most of its revolutionizing potential is lost. We must remember that only in this country and a few others is direct action not a common characteristic of trade unionism. In most of the rest of the world, trade unions still rely heavily on this form of struggle, but they do it by as much as possible limiting it to a technique in order to minimize the problems which genuine mass participation would pose.
There is a real dilemma here because the "backwardness" of the workers is not a fiction but a reality. Most workers have yet to be convinced that any form of collective struggle is really possible, and the best way to begin to convince them they are mistaken is by demonstration. However, unless the demonstration involves genuine participation — unless it is actually an example of self-organization — it will not go to the heart of the backwardness, which is cynicism about, and individualistic and chauvinistic hostility to, collective self-organization.
This role could be carried to such lengths that the communists would be paralyzed and the leading role of the party liquidated. However, I think that there are some immediate practical implications that make sense. An emphasis on direct action can be an argument for restricted participation in the independent organization just as well as opposition to direct action can be. Nevertheless, the temptation to keep the independent organization closed, both organizationally and ideologically, so that it will not stray from the right path must be resisted. Otherwise it can only develop to where most workers see it as the "better" alternative, when our goal is to have them see it as their "own" alternative.
One final point about direct action. This form of struggle can and often is a mode of expression of reformist positions and illusions which fails to confront the general sources of class disunity. Reformism is not expressed solely through overt collaboration by any means. This also is made apparent by looking beyond this country or by looking at other arenas of struggle within this country. Advocacy of direct collective action doesn't take care of the communist's responsibility to confront white supremacy and male supremacy. Tactical unity on a given struggle, no matter how militant the form it takes, only provides a broader base from which to attack the roots of the disunity of the class in the relative privileges of sectors of it. In itself, it is never such an attack.
Beyond their advocacy of direct action, communists can develop the council potential within the independent organizations by making their implicit challenge to bourgeois hegemony concrete and explicit. In a sense this amounts to "supplanting" the union, in that we try to clarify a "we-they" separation between workers and capital as a fundamental fact — an antagonism extending to every aspect of social existence, while, at best, trade unionism involves a "wethey" antagonism limited to a particular plant and often included within a larger "us." But supplanting unionism in this sense has little relationship to the organizational substitution of independent organizations for unions. Rather it involves the workers transcending unionism insofar as it constitutes a limitation on their conception of what is and what can be.
Generally speaking, such counter-hegemonic activity must be done through an independent organization. It cannot take place within the union in any effective way without undermining the union's ability to defend the immediate interests of its membership. No matter who is in leadership, it is foolish for the union to challenge capitalist control over production agitationally, if it lacks the power to back it up programmatically. The only results would be increased intransigence on the part of capital and anger by the workers whose main concern was still tangible reforms, or, even worse, those sorts of "self-management" concessions which further tie the union into capitalist production. Nor does it make sense for the union to minimize the strength of the company or to ridicule its policies. All of these, however, are important forms of counter-hegemonic struggle which can be implemented through independent organizations.
A similar argument follows about raising general class issues through the union. Clearly, raising such issues is a fundamental responsibility for communists which is not at all met by resolution-passing in an organization whose capacities and concerns are dictated by the industrial legality compromise and by a necessary preoccupation with the problems of "its" workers as wage earners in a particular plant. None of these limitations hold for independent organizations. They are only restricted by the level of understanding and involvement of their membership and constituency.
From everything which I have said, it follows that mass independent organizations are not going to be pure and simple expressions of what we think is best for the workers. Even in groups which we directly initiate, we will only be one political tendency as soon as they achieve any genuine mass character. Thus we must be prepared to lose leadership and fight to regain it. There will be no gentle tranquil process towards unanimity around our position, and it would undermine our whole conception if we attempted to enforce it.
The most important issue in this internal struggle within the independent organizations will be the union question. Here, our position will be in opposition to both the spontaneous trade union sentiment of the independent organization's mass constituency and to the perspectives of other left tendencies which will inevitably be present. This means that our efforts to maintain a maximum revolutionary potential through keeping the organization independent will not be successful, and that in many cases the independent groups will either supplant or take over the trade union, or, if none exists, become a trade union.
A number of things follow. First, since there is a valid role for trade unions short of a revolutionary situation, and since the potential for revitalizing U.S. unions cannot be written off, it would be absolutely wrong for communists to regard the trade unionist sentiment within the independent organization as reactionary, with all that that would signify for the methods which we would use to oppose it. In no way should we put ourselves in a position of opposition to union reform. What we can do is try to explain why that is not our priority.
Therefore, we must avoid becoming so wedded to a particular organization that when we lose hegemony within it and the possibilities for developing it into a council become increasingly restricted, we either drift along into unionism, forgetting our strategic priorities, or become a disruptive minority. Our strategic priority cannot be tied to a particular organization. We must work so that in cases where independent organizations lose their potential, it isn't a sharp break in our activity to decide to begin the development of a new mass formation without such limitations. Finally, and possibly most relevant, we cannot be so fearful of the possibility that unionism will take over the independent organization that we don't do everything we can to see that it develops as a mass force — a programmatic alternative for the masses of workers and not merely a center for left agitation and propaganda.