Marxism and trade unionism

What is the “social strike”?MatthewWed, 08/03/2017 - 11:02

Recent strikes by “gig economy” workers (e.g. Deliveroo) are profoundly significant. They explode the myth, peddled by some on both left and right, that so-called precarious workers can’t organise, and that the proliferation of those types of work is in the process of rendering labour organising historically redundant.

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Further debate on the "social strike" and workplace organisation

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2016 - 2:15 Author: Daniel Randall

Cautiously Pessimistic's[1] thoughtful reply to my critique of Plan C's "social strike perspective" is very welcome. Many of its themes were telegraphed in an exchanged of comments between me and Cautiously on the AWL website, under my original article (click the link above and scroll to the bottom). I'll try to focus here on issues I haven't already responded to.


Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 14/09/2016 - 19:17

As I'm sure you can imagine, there's a much much longer response coming at some point, but I just wanted to check this point:

"...arguing that a worker, or group of workers, organising their workplace from scratch would be “working outside the currently existing unions” whether or not they organised through IWGB or Unite. In fact, they wouldn't be “working outside the currently existing unions” in either case, as both Unite and IWGB provide a level of existing infrastructure, resources (both human and otherwise), and accumulated experience and knowledge of struggle. But to pose the matter starkly, if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way"

Should "unionised workplace" be "un-unionised" or "non-unionised" here? I don't want to have a cheap dig if it's not justified, but given that a lot of this conversation has consisted of me saying something along the lines of "you're mostly focused on workplaces where union organisation already exists and don't have that much to say about the places where it doesn't", and you saying "nah, that's not true, we totally care about unorganised workers" (paraphrasing wildly here, obviously), then for me to say "I'm not that convinced that the resources of larger unions make that much of a difference in places where they don't already have a membership base", and for you to respond with "but if we change this conversation to be about workplaces where the GMB do already have members then things look different" feels like a bit of a weak counter-argument. But if that bit is a typo and you actually meant to say "if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your un-unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way" then that's quite a different point - just wanted to check which one I should be responding to. More to follow.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 15/09/2016 - 11:22

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

Yes, it was a typo, which I've now corrected. Thanks for picking it up and apologies for the confusion.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Mon, 19/09/2016 - 22:24

OK, I've finished off my reply to this. This does feel like one of those conversations where every point made raises a lot of other counter-points, so I've tried to keep some kind of balance between skimming over too much and making this even more unreadably long and rambling.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 22/09/2016 - 19:52

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

Finally, someone prepared to bring the legacy of the strike of rickshaw couriers at Ye Olde Telegraph-Powered Food Delivery service in 1899 in from the cold. I salute you, comrade.

Seriously though, good article. I will reply, eventually. I think the exchange is worth continuing, tangent-generating and rambling though it is.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 21/09/2016 - 19:51

By the way, if you have the time, this recent piece from the AWW, while very long, is also quite interesting about some of the themes that have come up in this discussion (and has a lot of proper stats in it).

A sample:

"In terms of more serious attempts to understand the revolutionary subjectivity and limitations of the uprisings, what is left is an unproductive separation of analysis: some people emphasise the increasing numbers of proletarians expelled from the immediate production process (surplus population, unemployed) and others focus on the productive collective power of workers in the emerging global supply chains (global working class debate). Some discovered the ‘era of riots’ [8], while others proclaimed the ‘global strike wave’ [9]. Both sides are able to provide ample sociological proof for their position – figures about slum dwellers or the global integration of production.

We can ask ourselves why this separation of political focus has emerged. While it has something to do with the social position, regional location, and political preferences of those who analyse, the main material reason will be the real separation within working class existence: how workers experience impoverishment and productive power is structured and diversified regionally, sectorially, in terms of gender etc. In that sense most theoretical analysis and their one-sided focus only mirrors reality, without questioning it...

This main contradiction of capital appears both as an internal character of production (separated cooperation) and its result (relative impoverishment). The championing of either ‘surplus population’ or ‘workers’ productive power’ separate these two dynamics instead of analysing how, in reality, the experiences of ‘impoverishment’ and ‘collective productivity’ coincide or are segregated within the global working class. The separation also leads to a different understanding of revolution and consequently of one’s own role. If we focus merely on the first aspect of the contradiction – the creation of an impoverished surplus population – we will mainly perceive the social process as a kind of automatic tendency: capital accumulates itself and churns out a growing numbers of discontented unemployed. While this results in a quite deterministic view on social developments on one side – which we can just observe and which has little to do with the agency of the exploited – it also results in a pretty superficial and mechanical view of revolution as insurrection and rupture: at some point there are just too many poor people to be controlled. Instead we should analyse how the experience of cooperation and collective productivity and struggle of workers relates to the experience of impoverishment."

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On the "social strike": a response to Plan C

Submitted by AWL on 26 August, 2016 - 9:57 Author: Daniel Randall

For a response to this article by the anarchist blogger "Cautiously Pessimistic", click here.

For a further response from Daniel Randall, click here.

Plan C comrades have told us they also plan a collective response, which we will link to once it is published.


Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Sun, 28/08/2016 - 15:49

So, this is an interesting article, and I intend to write a fuller reply in a few days when I get the time.
A few quick points (note, I'm not a Plan C member, though I have some time for their ideas, but nothing I say should be taken as representing their opinions):

You say "An article on NovaraMedia by Plan C's Callum Cant frames them as "social strikes" – a “new kind of strike action”... [I]n the case of the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes, it appears one can just slap the label "social strike" on anything that isn't an "official" strike by an established union, involving a ballot mandate, formal notification to the employer, and so on, and say it's not only a “social strike” but a “new kind of strike action”."

The only thing is, is there any sign Callum, or indeed anyone else, actually uses the term social strike to describe the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes? I can't spot it anywhere. If the argument is just that "some of Plan C throw the social strike label around quite enthusiastically, and Callum wrote an excitable article about the UberEats strike, therefore he must think that it's a social strike", that's some pretty sloppy reasoning.

More broadly, on the new/old strike debate, it seems a bit pedantic - if I looked out of my window and saw a wooly mammoth, I might well think something like "blimey, that's new", because it would be entirely unfamiliar to me, even though they existed millions of years ago. Likewise, if some workers carry out a strike in a way that's significantly different to the way that the vast majority of industrial disputes have been conducted during our lifetimes in this country, and someone writes an article pointing out that it's significantly different to the way that the vast majority of industrial disputes have been conducted during our lifetimes in this country, it seems a bit nitpicky to say "your hastily-written buzzfeed listicle which existed mainly to advertise the then-upcoming strike action failed to consider what conditions were like way before any of us were born when it was making the broadly correct point that this strike is significantly different to the way that the vast majority of industrial disputes have been conducted during our lifetimes in this country."

More seriously, your main argument seems to point in some quite minoritarian and substitutionist directions: the working class is folded into the minority of workers who're employed in workplaces with a recognised TUC union. If Al's interview lacks any sense that one can be both a striker engaged in the public sector pay dispute and a Plan C-type engaged in trying to socialise the strike, this piece seems to lack any perspective for what workers in the private sector are supposed to do, other than sit on our hands and wait for the "actually existing labour movement" to rescue us. This is especially perverse given that your piece starts off by talking about the action of the Deliveroo and UberEats couriers, workers who have actually done what you tell us should be impossible by going around, not through, the TUC unions, so that, at least in those workplaces, they are precisely building a new, better, labour movement from scratch.

I could say much more, but I'll stop for now to try and get my thoughts into a slightly clearer order. Also, some recommended reading on the social strike debate:
if you've not seen them already, the AWW's comments on the social strike idea are well worth reading.

And these thoughts from an Australian comrade are also highly recommended (including the discussion in the comments below)

A response from some wobblies

And finally, being a bit cheeky and plugging my own writing on the subject:

I wouldn't start from here

On SATs, strategy and the social strike

More notes on the social strike

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 29/08/2016 - 19:59

Thanks for your response. I haven't read through the links you provided so this will just be a response to the points you raise here, rather than anything in those articles.

Firstly, on the question of whether Callum does in fact view the Deliveroo strikes as "social strikes", I'd draw your attention to the recent addition to the article, as follows:

"Callum has since made it clear he does not regard the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes as "social strikes", and believes that my article misrepresents him. My apparent confusion arose from the fact that, in his Novara piece, the line describing the strikes as "new kinds of strike action" was hyperlinked to the interview about social strikes; I therefore assumed that this is partially what he meant when he referred to their "novelty". As my reference to his Novara article was merely a jumping off point for a wider discussion of the "social strike" concept, responding primarily to his interview with Al, I do not believe that this renders the rest of the article invalid."

Hope that clears things up, at my end at least.

You say that it's okay to call something "new" even if what you actually mean is "it hasn't been seen for a long time". I don't agree. Two absolutely elementary duties of any socialist organisation worth its salt are 1) to strive for clarity, and 2) to attempt to be "the memory of the class", bringing before our fellow workers experiences that the movement has had in the past, and attempting to draw out any lessons for our current period. That's what we're trying to do by banging on about New Unionism.

Saying that something is a new development when it manifestly isn't might be forgivable on a journalistic level but if you're trying to raise the level of consciousness and understanding of the class around you (presumably this is also a goal Plan C sets for itself), then you have to be clear.

I find the accusation that, for me (or perhaps AWL more widely) "the working class is folded into the minority of workers who're employed in workplaces with a recognised TUC union" rather hoary, and not supported either by what I actually wrote in the article nor our wider writing or practise. We have written reams and reams of stuff about strategies for organising the unorganised, and been involved in plenty of campaigns around this (including, often, working with non-TUC affiliated unions). We were the first group on the UK left, to my knowledge, to promote the campaigns of Unite New Zealand in the fast food industry as a model (some of whose strategies are now beginning to be taken up by BFAWU), and we have a long record of engagement with migrant workers' struggles, etc. Given all of this it seems especially ludicrous to accuse me of arguing that workers in unorganised workplaces should "sit on [their] hands and wait for the 'actually existing labour movement' to rescue us".

If your view is that the Deliveroo and UberEATS strikes will result in the construction of a "new, better, labour movement from scratch", you are inverting the error you accuse me of. Is the IWGB/UVW going to "rescue" the six or seven million workers who are currently members of "traditional" trade unions? How? Will it replace them? Will members of a GMB branch in, say, Rotherham, read about the UberEATS strike on the Internet, realise how much better the IWGB is than the GMB, and leave their GMB branch to found a branch of the IWGB?

Would that be desirable, even if it were less fantastical? I don't believe it would. To do so would mean abandoning a terrain of struggle.

There will certainly be mass strikes, of the 2011 type, again, perhaps soon. "Build the IWGB" is not a strategy for developing an alternative, grassroots leadership and political direction for those strikes (or for "socialising" them, if you think that term has strategic value). Without an insurgent, independently-organised rank-and-file with a clear industrial and political strategy, we won't be able to do much more than "sit on our hands" and wait to be marched up and down by the bureaucracy.

I agree that, in certain situations, "minority union"-type projects can play an important role and might be the most effective strategy. But if one's aspiration is not merely for the sparking of small pockets of struggle here and there, but the revolutionisation of the entire labour movement, one can hardly ignore the 99.9% of it currently comprised by TUC-affiliated unions. If you want to transform it (and I mean genuinely transform, and probably organisationally recompose in some way; I'm not talking about an SP-style strategy, which dresses up leftists capturing bureaucratic positions as rank-and-fileism), it has to be gone through, not around.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Tue, 30/08/2016 - 22:34

In reply to by AWL

So, still working on a full response (I'm sure everyone's awaiting it with bated breath), but in the meantime:
Yeah, fair play on that first correction (for my part, I'll put my hands up and admit to not noticing the hyperlink in the Novara article, which definitely makes your assumption a lot more reasonable).
The point about how we define and use the word "new" still seems kind of abstract to me. Maybe if you can show what the actual specific lessons from New Unionism are that we can only learn from that period and will miss if we overemphasise novelty then I'll be more convinced. But still, in defence of that specific Novara article I think it is worth saying that (I'm pretty sure) on the afternoon of Thursday 25th it was announced that the strike was happening on Friday 26th, which meant people pretty much had a few hours to spread the word about it - under those circumstances I think it would've been fine to slap something up on Novara saying "this strike is happening tomorrow, here's where you need to go to support the workers, you can use your own brain to work out why it's important", but I can see why that might not have quite fitted their editorial guidelines. Still, I think under the circumstances it was always going to be a rush job.

On the unionised/non-unionised workers stuff: OK, let's agree to back up a moment and agree that you don't think we should ignore unorganised workers, and I don't think we should ignore unionised workers. But still, there's a definite difference of focus or priority here. You keep on throwing about the figure of there being six or seven million union members, and I agree, that's a big number, it's impressive, those people are important. But. It's harder to get figures for the proportion of non-union members, but based on the 2014 stats, I'd put it at about 19.2 million workers. That's a bigger number, so I can't help feeling they should be more of a focus. How are the existing unions going to rescue those 19.2 million people?
We could flip your example around: if members of your hypothetical GMB branch in Rotherham go out on an official GMB-organised strike and win, does that leave the workers at an unorganised call centre in Bolton any closer to having a recognised union presence in their workplace? We could go back and forth like this all day, but I don't know what's to be gained by it.

And considering how keen you are on precise terminology, are you using mass strikes in Luxemburg's sense there? They were undeniably very big strikes, and I'll admit it's been a long time since I read her on the subject, but I'm pretty sure the dynamic she described wasn't about people being led out for one day then going back to work while the union leaders negotiated a defeat.

But this is a side issue: the main point here is that the big public sector pensions disputes, as big as they are, were a sectoral dispute. For those of you who were or are employed in the public sector, sure, organising as a rank-and-file current in those disputes is a viable strategy. But for the great majority of workers who're employed in the private sector, it's not. Either we find some way of socialising/spreading those disputes out to the rest of us, or we're left as passive supporters at best, muttering about gold-plated pensions at worst.

The point here, at the risk of driving it into the ground, is that for the Deliveroo and UberEats workers, the choice of going "minority union" or working through the established TUC union with recognition deals with the food delivery companies was not an issue. That's not an aberration on their part, those are the conditions that most workers start off facing. The logic of your position seems to be to focus on the areas where most strikes happen, whereas to me - and this is especially so given the case seeing that you yourself mention that "[s]trike levels in 2015 were the lowest since records began" - it seems much more important to focus on the places where strikes aren't currently happening, all the places where class conflict is happening every day but lacks the collective strength to develop into any real challenge.

To flip your closing point, I agree that, in certain situations, TUC unions can play an important role and might be the most effective strategy. But if one's aspiration is not merely for the sparking of small pockets of struggle here and there (and mostly in the public sector), but the revolutionisation of the entire working class, one can hardly ignore the 75% of it currently outside of the TUC-affiliated unions.

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 31/08/2016 - 21:06

I'll put it bluntly: organising the organised is as important as organising the unorganised.

Take the Grangemouth dispute; a massive private sector workplace in a hugely strategic industry with incredibly high levels of union density (organised by the biggest union in the country). Unite got completely turned over. That needs fixing. "Build the IWGB" does not solve the problem.

To give another example; the railway industry (which I guess is sort of public-sector-in-exile but with private employers). Another hugely significant industry in strategic terms. We do sometimes win victories there but we're a lot weaker than we should be. We should have the bosses permanently by the throat. But we don't, partially because workers' organisation in that industry is weakened by sectionalism, and the huge democratic deficit between unions' structures and direction and their mass memberships that exists in all unions (even in a relatively more militant and, in many ways, democratic union like mine, RMT).

Again, "build the IWGB" is not a strategy for addressing any of that.

It requires revolutionaries and other radicals who work in that industry to act as educators, agitators, and organisers for revolutionary class-struggle strategies and politics, with a transformative perspective towards our existing organisations (unions) that doesn't see their current composition as sacrosanct (e.g., arguing for industrial unionist perspectives even in Aslef) nor the power of the bureaucracy as unbreakable.

"Rescue" implies a degree of passivity and victimhood which I'm sure neither of us would be comfortable with. I would never counsel any group of workers to "sit on their hands". But I do certainly believe that better-organised sections of the class, with more strength/power, have a responsibility to the rest of the class.

The aspects of the "social strike perspective" I think might be worthwhile talk about workers who have high levels of organisation and leverage using that power beyond the limits of their immediate economic relationship with their employer, in a way that empowers wider sections of the class. But, as I said in the article, that fundamentally requires subjective agency and political will on the part of the strikers themselves. I'm instinctively uncomfortable with the idea that the "socialising" process is something that's "done to" a strike, "from the outside".

I also believe that we won't make significant inroads into organising the 19.2 million without an integral role on the part of the 7 million. With the best will in the world, the IWGB, UVW, or IWW are not going to organise Amazon warehouses or Tesco's distribution network. For workers there to do that will require resourcing and infrastructural support. Where will that come from, if not the existing labour movement? The existing unions are shit, they won't provide that support, or they'll do it in a shit way? Yes, they will - unless their existing members substantially transform them. So we're back to the centrality of "organising the organised".

Part of the issue with our argument here, I suspect, is that we're talking across each other and, to some extent, ourselves. We're both talking in quite grand terms about rebuilding class power on a mass scale, recomposing the labour movement, etc. But I think we're necessarily also talking about how a small group of revolutionary workers within that movement can most effectively dispose of its necessarily limited resources; that's obviously informed by the grand strategic assessment, but "build mass class power and recompose the entire labour movement" is obviously not an answer to the question: "how should AWL/Plan C/SolFed members [I have a vague recollection from a previous exchange that you're in SolFed, but I may be misremembering or it may no longer be true] prioritise and focus their energies?"

(By the way, in terms of the "mass strike" phrase, I meant it literally - i.e., a very big strike. I wasn't referencing the Luxemburg/Kautsky debate.)

Again - I'm not telling anyone to wait. If a group of, say, Amazon workers organise a fight with their management, the exigencies of their struggle take precedence. They don't have to "take one for the team" by waiting while the rest of us get our act together.

But even if your actual perspective is "fuck the unions, let's just start again in ones and twos in unorganised workplaces and build a pure trade union movement without any flaws" (I know that's not what you're arguing, but let's take that as a kind of hyperbolised version of the "build a new labour movement from scratch" approach), then at some point you're going to encounter the existing movement, even if only as an obstacle when some established union tries to sign a sweetheart deal with the employer you're trying to organise against, and nicks your members. How to prevent or undermine that? An independent rank-and-file in that union would have to rein its officials in.

Again: organising the organised is essential.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 31/08/2016 - 23:43

In reply to by AWL

OK, so I finally finished writing up a full response to this article. Also if you ever get a chance, I really would recommend reading the Angry Workers' comments on the social strike idea - they're quite critical of it from a more classical Marxist/focused on the point of production standpoint, but their criticisms point in very different directions to yours.

Anyway, to respond to your specific points here - I don't think there's much to be gained from another round of "it's important to organise in places where the TUC unions don't already have a strong presence" "yes, but it's important to have a strategy for those sectors where the TUC unions exist" "yes, but it's important to organise in places where the TUC unions don't already have a strong presence", etc.

There is also an interesting parallel here between how you're uncomfortable with the idea of non-strikers intervening in other people's disputes from the outside, whereas I have the exact same instinctive discomfort with the idea that building organisation among unorganised workers has to be led by workers in the existing unions, rather than being primarily the act of workers in those unorganised industries themselves. (As an aside: are you equally uncomfortable with the way that AUEW members in Birmingham took it upon themselves to "socialise" the Saltley Gates dispute, even though they were definitely "outside" the coal industry?)

I think the really crucial point you make is when you point out that we're talking about how a small group of revolutionary workers within that movement can most effectively dispose of its necessarily limited resources. You raise the idea of "fuck the unions, let's just start again in ones and twos in unorganised workplaces" as a kind of joke, but I'd say that the revolutionary workers we're talking about are inevitably going to be starting off in ones or twos in unorganised workplaces in many cases, and it doesn't matter whether your attitude is "fuck the unions" or "I love the unions, I think the unions are great", those people are still going to be faced with trying to organise in places where there's not the protection of an existing union structure.

I don't think there's any getting around this - like it or not, we don't have a revolutionary HR department that can assign people to one place or another, and we can hardly ask a supermarket cashier or bar worker who develops an interest in anti-capitalist ideas to quit their job and retrain as a bus driver overnight, any more than we can blame people for failing to live up to their radical potential if they go for an interview with the council, don't get it and then have to settle for a horrible small employer's call centre instead. Given that this is the case, given that for the foreseeable future not all revolutionary workers are going to be working in the industries we view as being most strategic, even if that was desirable (not to mention the existence of benefits claimants, pensioners, students, fulltime caregivers and so on), I think any conversation about "what can the scattered forces of revolutionary workers do?" needs to include something along the lines of "how do we respond to disputes in industries we're not involved in?" I think the social strike idea has value as a way of posing that question, and beginning to suggest some answers; equally, I think a critique of the social strike that boils down to "hey, you're talking like you don't work in that sector, don't you realise it would be better if you did work in that sector?" doesn't help to resolve things much.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 01/09/2016 - 01:59

You're boxing with shadows if you think I'm arguing that it's not possible or desirable to engage with, or "intervene in", a strike or struggle in which one is not directly involved.

As I said in the original article:

“... when workers from a workplace in which we have no comrades go on strike, Workers' Liberty necessarily relates to the strike 'from the outside', seeking to support it and help amplify it, and, if we can, to engage the workers in discussions about the strategy and direction of the strike. But we are still relating to it from within the broad labour movement (we can build solidarity with the strike within our own workplaces and unions), and we don't extrapolate from our external position that 'mass collective action at the point of production' might in some way be old hat because we happened not to be directly involved in it at that moment.”

And I think I can say without too much ego that AWL played a fairly key role in sparking the Vestas struggle, in which (a section of) an entirely un-unionised private-sector workforce was persuaded to conduct a sit-down strike by a week's worth of factory-gate agitation by a bunch of Trots and a couple of others.

When we first found out that the factory was closing, we didn't go, "oh, we'd better see if we can get a Unite branch to pass a policy about this", a few comrades just got on a ferry and went to talk to the workers. And when it looked like a struggle might be sparked, we didn't say, "hang on, sit on your hands until a TUC union shows up". So I don't think it's fair to accuse us either of precluding the possibility of action outside the channels of the "official" movement, nor of the possibility of engaging with or even catalysing struggles "from the outside" (although again, I'd stress that while "outside" a given workplace or industry, we should still be relating to it from within the broad labour movement).

I think your Saltley Gate comparison is a bit daft, to be honest, and further evidence that "the social strike" can basically be used to mean anything anyone wants. A direct call from the leadership of the NUM to other unionised workers to take direct action to maximise the impact of the miners' strike doesn't seem to me to have much in common with anything we've been discussing, given that all the workers involved were a) unionised by "traditional" unions and b) had a huge amount of what one might call "old fashioned" industrial leverage.

To be quite honest, I'm not entirely convinced that the "social strike perspective" has any explanatory, strategic, or tactical value at all, but I am interested in the idea of, say, the 84/85 miners' strike as a "social strike" - in the sense of a strike that poses in an acute way "social" questions, that is, questions of who runs society and in whose interests; but solidarity action of the Saltley Gate type seems a different matter.

Finally, on "organising where you are", so to speak: If you're a revolutionary in a totally un-unionised workplace and you want to organise it, you'd obviously have to weigh up whether it was better to do that through a TUC union or an "independent" one. As I've said, I don't rule out the latter as a potentially useful instrument, although on balance I think the circumstances in which I think that would make most sense would be relatively particular and rare.

But either way, a revolutionary left that does not have a perspective for transforming the existing labour movement (whether or not the particular employment circumstances of the existing membership of your group allow you as much direct involvement as you might wish, and whatever else it says about organising the unorganised) would seem to me pretty profoundly strategically limited.

Anyway, thanks for writing a response to the original article. I'm looking forward to reading it.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Thu, 01/09/2016 - 22:45

Thinking about it, I suppose one of the more interesting points that's come up here is what we want revolutionary organisations to look like, and how we want them to reflect the make-up of the working class.
Thinking about our fantasy football ideas of what a communist organisation "should" be like, I suppose I would want it to reflect the composition of the broader class as closely as possible, not just in terms of the obvious stuff like age, race and gender but also in terms of things like employment status. Having the kind of labour movement focus the AWL argue for would presumably mean (trying to) function as an expression of the best organised sections of the class, which I suppose is quite a different ambition.
Following on from this, perhaps it's healthier to take an "ecology of organisations" view, and accept that no single organisation is going to be able to represent the class as a whole, but a group like the AWL can act as a more-or-less sectional expression of the most organised fractions of the class, and a group like Plan C acting as an expression of those sections of the class who have more precarious and insecure employment situation?
Don't fully know where I'm going with this, but it seems like a possibly more fruitful direction to think in than just arguing about whether "social strike" is a useful phrase or not.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 12/09/2016 - 02:20

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

This is an interesting comment. I would also want my "fantasy communist organisation" to "reflect the class", in terms of gender, race, sexuality, disability, and employment status, as much as possible.

But in a period in which communist organisations are not mass parties (or whatever anarchist word you prefer if you don't like the word "party") but, essentially, what we've termed "fighting propaganda groups", our primary concern is not actually to "reflect the class" but to organise a minority of workers (necessarily, in this period, a tiny, tiny minority), not on the basis of where they work or how much industrial leverage they have, but on the basis of whether they adhere to revolutionary-socialist ideas and commit to fighting for those ideas in the wider labour movement and working class. This is essentially what anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups are doing too, no matter how much SolFed likes to pretend it's sort of also a union (sorry comrade).

The ultimate question for us (working-class revolutionaries) isn't just about how workers can organise at work and gain more industrial power, but about how to develop a mass revolutionary consciousness within the working class. In fact, communist organisations will probably always be in some sense "minority" organisations, even in a much higher pitch of struggle. I definitely agree that no one organisation, either party or union, will ever "be able to represent the class as a whole", and that even in a revolutionary upheaval there'd be a diversity of different groups and parties competing for ideological hegemony but working together on fundamental areas of agreement. The idea of the revolutionary party as a singular monolith leading the working class in a commandist fashion belongs to Stalinism.

Anyway... we're venturing off into quite different territory here.

I have actually finished a reply to your blog article, which I've uploaded here. It touches briefly on some of the issues in your latest comment. It's rather longer than I was planning on making it, so good luck wading through it. I've obviously linked to your blog, but if you'd prefer I am happy to also reproduce your article in full here on our site.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 14/09/2016 - 19:29

In reply to by AWL

I think I pretty much agree with all of this, and would just add that (1) given that we agree that we can't reasonably expect to organise workers "on the basis of where they work or how much industrial leverage they have" but are essentially just gathering up ones and twos, it makes it all the more crucial to have a perspective for what individual workers in the less-than-ideal workplaces can hope to do, and
(2) just as we won't see One Big Party it's fairly unlikely, for better or worse, that we'll see One Big Union either, which I think is a useful note of humility to bear in mind with these kind of strategy discussions - we could end up by agreeing that everyone should join Unison, or everyone should join the IWW, or whatever, but odds are that future upsurges of workers' struggle will look much more like the recent waves of cleaners' struggles in London, with the mainstream unions playing both a positive and negative role, the politico syndicalist/minority union projects playing some kind of a role, and the struggle itself giving birth to new organisations like the UVW that don't fit neatly into the mould of either the mainstream labour movement or the traditions of syndicalists trying to create revolutionary anti-capitalist unions. I'll probably come back to this point in my longer response to your longer response, just wanted to say that reality will probably be a lot messier than whatever we decide the right answer might be.

Submitted by AWL on Sun, 04/09/2016 - 17:36

But in fact isn't Plan C's base essentially postgraduates? (Apologies if I've got that wrong.) And does Plan C have more precarious workers than AWL? I think you make an interesting point that's worth thinking about nonetheless.

Sacha Ismail

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Democracy, direct action, and socialism

Submitted by Gemma_S on 24 June, 2016 - 10:53

There are decisive turning points in history that shape the future for many years ahead. The British labour movement was brought to such a turning point by the victory of the Thatcherite Tories in the 1979 general election and the events that came after it. The defeat of the labour movement then shaped the social, political, and ethical world we live in now. Was that defeat unavoidable? The revolutionary left argued then that it wasn’t: that if we mobilised our strength we could defeat Thatcher, as we had defeated her Tory predecessors in 1972-4.

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Ellen Meiskins Wood (1942-2016): a Marxist who put class centre

Submitted by Matthew on 20 January, 2016 - 11:59 Author: Andrew Coates

Ellen Meiksins Wood, who has died aged 73, was a noted intellectual figure on the international left who influenced several generations of thinkers and activists.

Born in New York as Ellen Meiksins one year after her parents, Latvian Jews active in the Bund, arrived as political refugees, Wood studied in California before establishing herself as an academic in Canada, based at York University in Toronto.

Her writings were thought-provoking and luminous.

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The old new

Submitted by AWL on 9 June, 2015 - 4:42

Unlike many who emphasise the novelty of any given period, and insist that some innovative new approach must be adopted, John Cunningham (“It is not ‘business as usual for the left”, Solidarity 366, 3 June 2015) at least has the honesty to admit that he doesn’t know what that new approach is. “I take no pleasure from the comments I make here”, John says, “as I have no alternative to offer.” Honest, but nevertheless frustrating.

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Marxism at Work: What are Trade Unions?

Submitted by Tubeworker on 18 November, 2014 - 9:25

In the day to day functioning of capitalist society, workers are exploited. On an individual basis workers are weak and cannot fight back against the bosses so we have formed trades unions – organisations where workers combine together to fight for better conditions.  

Workers have common interests – better pay, better working conditions – around which we can unite in trades unions.  The only power we have is in our numbers, we are strong together.

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1864: the First International

Submitted by AWL on 23 September, 2014 - 5:54 Author: Michael Johnson

A hundred and fifty years ago, on 28 September 1864, the working-class movement took a huge step forward with the founding of the International Working Men’s Association.

A meeting at the St Martin’s Hall in London brought together radical and socialist delegates from around Europe, to set up the organisation which would become known as “The First International”.

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