A revolution is too important to leave to chance; we need to plan ours
Here is blog post of a conversation I had with a member of the Libcom.org collective. I need to emphasize that Libcom is a collective twitter account but that this conversation only took place with an individual libcom collective member.
It was a very interesting conversation for me that forced me to go well beyond where I was in my thinking on the subject of making a proletarian revolution and actually articulate how this might happen in an organic fashion. In particular, and for the first time, I articulate the idea that we cannot leave revolution to emerging spontaneously as so many communists accept. We have to plan the revolution even down to the details of setting a date certain for it.
We began the discussion by reading this pamphlet, Fighting for ourselves – anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle, published by the Solidarity Federation. The point was to read it and critique in a subsequent discussion.
Libcomorg: Done my end. Don’t agree with all of it but good historical summary and jumping off point for discussion.
Damn_Jehu: The historical part is less interesting to me than part 5, where they discuss how they see this idea of a revolutionary union emerging. What was your reaction to that?
Libcomorg: I have a lot of time for Glaberman on unions, and for me their view is compatible with that. Until this I was extremely […] skeptical. What was yours? Don’t really see the point of ‘political’ groups in their terms outside writing publishing only which they don’t really cover anyway. Also in terms of current praxis it’s worth looking at Brighton Hospitality SolFed, can dig links if necessary.
Damn_Jehu: My reaction was that they were doing nothing new with their ideas. Basically it is the old Left idea that you do a lot of little actions; these little actions come together to form bigger action, and finally — in a way never specified — you arrive at a revolutionary union. I think this is the standard model of how you build a revolution, but I think it is full of holes. I get the feeling that they think so as well, but they have no alternative. [In particular] I think this idea needs to be challenged:
“Revolutions break out, they cannot be planned, they cannot be predicted, they cannot be organised.”
I am pretty sure this idea has to be overthrown, but I am not completely sure by what.
Libcomorg: I think the holes are quite explicit too, but an organisational model that can bridge the holes is the point of the pamphlet.
Damn_Jehu: Yes. Definitely. I think they are aware and trying to fill those holes. A revolution is too important to leave to chance. Know what I mean? The idea a revolution cannot be planned is the general consensus among radicals that needs to be tested theoretically and in practice. Humor me for a minute: suppose we could plan a revolution, what would be the practical problems we would encounter? Is there anything else they could do except resort to repression? Economic or political weapons? The capitalists and the state would try to stop it. They would mobilize troops and lock people up.
[However,] for one thing, we are talking about free laborers, a voluntary agreement to sell ones labor power. You can’t very well force a worker to sell her labor power at the point of a gun. The condition for sale of labor power is competition. So planning for a revolution necessarily involves figuring out how to end competition. Planning a revolution is made more difficult by their approach, which envisions bringing together disparate local struggles. Struggles that have no common aim have to find a common aim, purpose and language.
Libcomorg: I dunno there’s a long history of people trying to ‘call a general strike’ and/or assuming it was imminent. [This call always run into fundamental problems:] Food, electric, water, Internet. Not sure I’d agree, for me it’s commodity form determining access to necessities. That has to break down fast. Well you can prepare for unpredictable events, that’s the point of the pamphlet in my opinion. What could people [real life]do in between and during those that’s applicable? The solidarity network per SeaSol seems closest [real life] example.
Damn_Jehu: Good point. I am not sure but it seems to me that this should be our starting point. So does that rule out both approaches? Let me think on that. I am concerned about this idea [that revolutions are unplanned] because usually this means a war. There has never been a peacetime revolution. If you look at all the big proletarian revolutions, they were typically triggered by wars going all the way back to 1848. And usually on the side that lost the war, although not always. One capitalist country topples the ruling class of the other.
Libcomorg: Past decade has plenty of examples of large scale mobilisations; France cpe 2006, 2010 UK students, Ferguson/Baltimore, 2016 Prison strike. Hungary ’56, France ’68, Italy ’69, Portugal ’74, UK ’78/9, Poland ’80 and etc. broke that model [of revolutions following on the aftermath of a war], not less significant than ’45-48 wave. And Spain ’36 was the start of a war not the end of it. Should also look at Kenya ’40s/’50s, South Africa ’70s in this list as well lots of class content there. Which is one reason a lot of groups in thread that kicked this off are migrant support groups and/or migrant workers.
Damn_Jehu: Another good point.
Libcomorg: It’s property rights/access that get enforced by state violence [which are the obstacle to an strike type action]. Three strikes, prison, ICE, evictions (incl. from occupied factories). Since that group and other racialised minorities [are] easiest to sack/evict/incarcerate/gatekeep even if potential is there for everyone. No one puts a gun to your head to make you work, because they do it if you take a single carton of milk without paying for it.
Damn_Jehu: Yes. But the vulnerability of capital is how things are produced, not how they are distributed.
Libcomorg: They don’t need to run a business they just need to stop people from eating/drinking for a few days.
Damn_Jehu: You’re focused on our vulnerabilities not theirs. Focus on what kills them.
Libcomorg: The vulnerability of revolutions to failure is in the distribution IMO, especially in developed countries. What kills them is complete withdrawal of labour but the challenge is not the withdrawal but preventing the return to work.
Damn_Jehu: How so? Can you expand on this? Am I over thinking this?
Libcomorg: [The majority] of workers [are] between 7-90 days lost wages from bankruptcy. In a generalised crisis supermarkets [shelves are] empty within 2 days-ish. The failure of both small and mass strikes is the moment of return to work, even if boss has changed in the meantime.
Damn_Jehu: I contend that a revolution is just [like] a big strike and strikes can and usually are planned.
Libcomorg: I disagree that most strikes are planned. Workers are organised* beforehand but the moment of walking out is usually not set in advance. Both in terms of mass strikes, student and blm uprisings, but also the smaller wildcats, something happens to set them off. Most strikes with a date set get called off before that date due to negotiations. And the biggest strikes those that bring in other (unplanned) firms or refuse to go back to work at the planned time.
Damn_Jehu: I expected you to challenge the idea that a revolution is a strike, but, surprisingly, you challenge the idea that strikes are planned? I don’t know what to make of this. You are interesting to say the least. In any case, a strike doesn’t of itself require control of the company, or in this case, control of the state and it can be planned. So, I don’t buy the idea a revolution is necessarily an unplanned event to which we are forced to react. We can plan our revolution and even announce the date for it (more or less) in advance.
Libcomorg: Put it differently, there are a lot of unplanned events to which we currently are unable to react effectively.
Damn_Jehu: Yeah, that is why we cannot afford to wait for a spontaneous event but should be the ones that drive events.
Libcomorg: How is this not ‘call a general strike’ like the three or four in the US already this year? It’s not waiting, it’s building/having capacity/networks to respond to something like [what happened when the Bow Truss workers walked off the job to protest not being paid.] The flying pickets of other coffee chains, supply chain disruption etc which a previously organised group in Chicago could help with. Eviction, deportation resistance, strike funds etc for those on strike. This is absent almost everywhere.
Damn_Jehu: Because we are not calling a general strike. I said a revolution is just like a strike. I didn’t say it was a strike. A strike is a negotiating tactic. We are not negotiating.
Libcomorg: You still need people to 1. Walk out; 2. Stay out.
Damn_Jehu: Yes. We need both of these to happen. But a revolution differs from a strike in two ways, one of which I already mentioned: a strike is a negotiating tactics, but a revolution doesn’t seek negotiations. A revolution also differs in that it does not seeks temporary changes, but aims to impose permanent material changes on the other class. We want to take production under our control, with all the implications this has not just for production but for distribution as well. We can approach this in a way that takes into account your concern for the problem of distribution that people can’t be on strike forever.
We don’t aim, as in a strike, for total cessation of labor, total withdrawal, but simply a reduction in the amount of labor we provide. Based on the best economic analysis of the mode of production available (Marx), the amount of labor we provide to the capitalist is determines the profits of the capitalists. By reducing the amount of labor we provide, we can reduce or even entirely eliminate capitalist profits.
In theory at least, our labor power is under our control and we do not need either the agreement of the capitalists or the state to enforce such a rule. We can impose it unilaterally on the capitalists and the state; and there is nothing they can do about it. So, we are not negotiating a new arrangement with the capitalist and this action doesn’t constitute a strike as that term is usually defined. Nor is our limitation temporary: it amounts to a permanent withdrawal of our labor beyond a certain number of hours.
There is no question here of the workers lacking sufficient means to carry on their action, precisely because a properly calculated reduction of their labor time should only affect the profits of the capitalist as long as it does not extend so far as to reduce the production of wage goods. By reducing their hours of labor unilaterally the workers can slash the profits of capital, without in any way reducing their own wages. The withdrawal of our labor can be calculated so that not only do we not starve, but capital is denied the profits it requires to function.
I think the dissatisfaction expressed in the pamphlet with the idea that scattered struggles can coalesce into a single global movement is best addressed by a single global movement that can positively affect all of the scattered local struggles.
I should add at this point, that the surplus labor time of the working class is not just the premise of capitalist profits, it is also the premise of all state expenditures. This, I think is extremely powerful weapon since, by reducing our own labor time we can deny the capitalist of their profits, the state of its revenue and force both of them to fight among themselves over which party must suffer the losses. If the political prospects of the working class are improved by anything, it has to be the scenario where the state is fighting the capitalists over the scraps of surplus labor time still left on the table.
Is this scenario unworkable? People put a lot of thought into how the working class can seize the state power (Marxists) or seize the factories (anarchists), but no one ever thinks about what we can do simply by taking control of our own labor power.
Libcomorg: There’s [also the problem of] scabs, lockouts and wage theft/cuts to deal with still. Also this can’t easily be uniform. Care work vs call centres [have different requirements in how they operate].
Damn_Jehu: I think you are absolutely right on this. If reducing our hours of labor had no impact on scabbing, wage cuts, lockouts and the employment of labor in certain sectors that require 24 hour continuous coverage, it has to fail. My contention would be, following Marx, that, first, reducing hours of labor has to increase the costs of labor in the short term, and thus make it too costly for employment of scabs to be effective.
Second, that a reduction of hours of labor will force the capitalists to hire additional workers in any case, not just as scabs, but to increase the mass of surplus value. Essentially, the new workers hired to fill in for lost hours of production do not become scabs, but reflect increased employment. Third, the reducing hours of labor, since it will force the capitalists to hire more workers, this need for additional employment will be reflected, in the short run, not by a fall in wages — wage cuts — but an actual increase in wages. Fourth, that lockouts will occur in some situations because for some capitalists, who are no longer competitive within the limits of a shorter working day, will go out of business. These lockouts will not actually be lockouts (although they will be spun as such) but bankruptcies. Finally, in those sectors requiring continuous care coverage, this sort of employment can only be addressed by hiring additional workers. Thus, for those sectors that face bankruptcies (e.g., fast food), there will be other sectors that requires even more capital and employment (e.g., healthcare).
In other words, we should see capital shifted to those sectors more in tune with the actual needs of the working class. It is important that we let the working class know these changes in employment of labor and capital will be the consequences of their actions, so they are not caught by surprise and lose hope. They should understand that by taking control of the own labor power, they will be making far-reaching changes in how the economy works, what it produces and for whom it produces. A mode of production centered on profit does not work the way a mode of production centered on the working class works.