A debate with the “New Unionist”
” What follows is a debate on the role of the ideological organizatirt with the “New Unionist” group — a De Leonist group in Minneapolis.
I’d like to make a comment on one aspect of your program. Like De Leon, it seems that you accept the anarcho-syndicalist idea that the sort of class-conscious industrial organization that workers need in order to have a more effective instrument in the class fight against the bosses would also be the proper organ for collective workers’ self-management of the economy when
capitalism is superceded. This idea is certainly much more plausible than the “State Socialist” program, where control of the whole economy would be transferred to a State machine. A nice bureaucratic monstrosity that’d create!
Even if the State were run by a so-called “workers’ party,” that’s no guarantee the working class as a whole would really be in control. The idea that a working class of hundreds of millions could express its will through a party leadership is pretty absurd. Any political party would be even less subject to control by the workers than the present bureaucratic unions — and we know how much control rank-and-ﬁlers have in these present-day union out-fits! But at least the rank-and-file can vote out officials, vote down contracts, go on an occasional wildcat strike or other job action — and this is more control than the working class would have over any political party.
Because the revolutionary unions would involve the direct participation and immediate control of the masses of people, that’s why we think they’re best fitted as organs of worker power over social and industrial af-fairs. Right?
But in that case I don’t understand why you say that a society of workers’ management is to be ushered in through the agency (in some sense) of a political party, gain-ing a victory at the polls. If you think a political party can really represent the immediate will and true interests of the whole working class, why not have it run the the economy, top-down, through the State? lf you ad-mit that seeking State power is not legitimate for that purpose, why admit it is legitimate for any purpose? If the revolutionary unions are sufficient for running the whole economy, why aren’t they sufficient for creating it?
To be sure, l’m not saying that there is no role at all for ideological organizations within the working class —groups that can perform a useful and necessary work in eontributing to workers ideas and perspective on the social situation and the tasks facing the working class, and so on. But why should such a group contest for State power (in elections or otherwise)? In short, you seem to accept the anarcho-syndicalist objec-tive (direct administration of the economy by the revolutionary unions, united on a class-wide basis) but yet you reject the anarcho-syndicalist means (collective direct ae-tion of the working class).
— Richard Laubach
“New Unionist” response
The key question that Brother Laubach ’s letter poses is, “If the revolutionary unions are sufficient for running the whole economy, why aren’t they sufﬁcient for creating it?” To answer this ques-tion, another question must ﬁrst be considered: How will the revolu-tionary unions be created?
We of course agree that it will be the new industrial organization, not a political party, that will involve the active participation of all the workers and will allow their direct control over economic and social affairs. As De Leon demonstrated, both the structure of political organization (geographical representalion) and its purpose (the administratrion of class-divided society in the interests of the economically dominant class) dis-qualify it as the means of governing an industrial commonwealth.
But before this industrial organization exists in reality, it exists as an idea, an idea that will have had to be understood and accepted by the workers before the revolutionary union can come into being. Today, the idea is understood and accepted by only a tiny minority of workers, while the great mass remains unenlightened. Since the union by deﬁnition has to be a mass organization, the minority cannot organize itself as the union (not-withstanding the contemporary
I WW‘s pretension as such). But the minority can and must organize to spread the idea of [revolutionary unionism].
This educational work has to be done within the existing social con-text of political government, where groups advocating a particular view-point on the problems facing society organize as political parties, or as pressure groups within the parties, and conduct political propaganda to win the support of the people at the polls. Once elected, the parties implement their programs through the powers of State which they control.
But Laubach asks why we should participate in the election competition if the State cannot be used to emplement our program.
The answer is two-fold. First, because elections provide a central arena for the political debate necessary to counter-act the ideological inﬂuence the ruling class maintains over the workers. If the assumptions and programs of the capitalist parties go unchallenged on the political ﬁeld, it is reasonable to assume that the workers will continue to analyze their economic problems in the terms deﬁned by those parties.
The bourgeois assumption is that the workers well-being is dependent on the well-being, that is, the profitability, of his employer.
As long as this assumption is generally accepted, the workers will conclude that foreign competition, environmental regulations, even unions, etc. are all threats to jobs.
And Reagan gets elected. The effect of this political thinking on the pro-spects for organizing revolutionary unionism is apparent.
By presenting [our] program in the public forum of politics, the party creates interest in [revolu-
tionary unionism] on a far wider scale than its currently isolated adherents in industry are able to do.
Also especially important in a country like the United States, where the conviction is deeply held — and rightly so — that social movements have both the right and the duty to present their programs for a vote of the people, participation in the electoral process lends legitimacy to the revolutionary movement. This legal status as a recognized political movement inhibits the kind of employer- and press-inspired scare campaign that was used against the anarcho-syndicalist [sic] I WW in its early years, and which facilitated the later campaign of government repression that effectively killed it as a union.
Second, in addition to the advantages gained from competing in elections for public ofﬁce, the winning of those elections will provide the movement with a strategic weapon to defend the union in its development stage and to clear the way for its assumption of government power by progressively disarming and dismantling the State authorities from within. _
The anarcho-syndicalzst alternative to political action for destroying the State is the general strike. While the disruption and social breakdown such a strike would engender would surely bring down the government, they would at the same time prohibit the union from assuming power. By walking away from the source of their‘ power, the workplaces, the workers would be unable to immediately begin their reorganization of economic and social life, which would be vital at the time traditional authority collapsed.
Instead of a workers‘ industrial government coming to the fore, the result would most likely be a coup d ’etat by the military or a rightist party, which will have remained intact and inﬂuential if not previously isolated and neutralized by the workers’ political action.
Votes alone can never achieve a revolution. Behind the vote must be a force capable of backing up the ex-pressed will of the people should the old mlers refuse to abide by the popular decision, a likely eventuality given historical experience. But in order to develop the economic force— industrial unionism — capable of crushing any attempted counter-revolution, the social consciousness of the workers must first be raised and clarified. This makes the political education and campaigning of the revolutionary party indispensible for the ultimate success of the industrial movement. — Jeff Miller
Dear New Unionist:
As you point out, only a minority today advocate a class struggle approach to unionism and the goal of workers’ self-emancipation and workers’ self-management of the economy. Organizations that exist to put forward revolutionary ideas can’t be organized as unions because unions have to be open to all workers in the struggle against the bosses.
While we hope that the labor movement will become revolutionary in the future, the future revolutionary unions can’t be cooked up in advance by a small group of radicals getting together and saying “Okay everyone, we’ve just set up the revolutionary union, come join our outﬁt.” The
IWW made this mistake because they were unwilling to admit the legitimacy of the distinction between the ideologically-deﬁned organization of a revolutionary minority and the mass union organization.
While you’re right to make this distinction, this is no argument