Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Worker "Occupation," or, The Modern Sit-Down Strike?

The following was written (slightly altered here) in response to Joseph Slater's important post at PrawfsBlawg on the "occupation" of a Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago. Professor Slater introduces his post by noting that "Some labor historians have a tendency to romanticize and exaggerate the importance of certain forms of worker 'militancy.'" I used this statement as a jumping-off point for my comment:

In light of the comparative neglect of labor history and historical struggles of working people in canonical general American history textbooks (an exception: The American Social History Project's two volume work, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's History, 3rd ed., 2007), one can easily forgive the "tendency ['of some labor historians'] to romanticize and exaggerate the importance of certain forms of worker 'militancy.'" No doubt such romanticization has its roots in theories that valorize the historical role of workers in social and economic transformation and revolution, as in the more crude but otherwise disparate Marxist and anarchist theories. Yet what truth remains in the Leninist notion of a "vanguard party" or an anarchist appreciation of spontaneous worker rebellion or revolt, might be gleaned from the following observation by the former East German dissident and Green Party founder/political theorist, Rudolf Bahro:

"Right from the beginning, the socialist parties had a double face, and by no means just in Russia: both parties of the proletariat and parties for the proletariat. Their founders and their pre-revolutionary leaders were understandably, with few exceptions, intellectuals from the intermediate strata. It was not the working class who gave itself them as its leadership, but they who gave themselves to the working class. And workers, if they were to take a place among them, had to become intellectuals themselves [Hence the ethical and political logic of the Sartrian 'Plea for Intellectuals' and the theoretical rationale for the Gramscian notion of 'organic intellectuals.' Likewise, as Bahro notes, we can better appreciate why Lenin (in his essay, 'Better Fewer, but Better'), 'instead of appealing to the working class as a whole,...appealed to the most enlightened elements in Russia, meaning the most advanced (most cultivated, most intellectualized) workers and to the minority of intellectuals and specialists inspired by the revolution.'].... [....] The workers--individual exceptions apart--were never Marxist in the strict sense. Marxism is a theory based on the existence of the working class, but it is not the theory of the working class."

Put differently, "[I]n no known historical case did the first creative impulse in ideas and organization proceed from the masses; the trade unions do not anticipate any new civilization. The political workers' movement was itself founded by declassed bourgeois intellectuals, which in no way means that the most active proletarian elements did not soon come to play a role of their own in the socialist parties and tend themselves to become intellectuals." (Rudolf Bahro, The Alternative in Eastern Europe, 1978)

We have, therefore, at least one compelling reason why it is indeed foolhardy to "romanticize and exaggerate the importance of certain forms of worker 'militancy,'" and why workers qua workers cannot be depended upon to articulate the premises and conditions of what the late Rudolf Bahro called "general emancipation" (Please see the above book by him for a definition and explanation of the necessity for a cultural revolution based on such emancipation: in effect, it amounts to renewed appreciation of the Marxist ideal of self-realization, defined, in Jon Elster's words, as 'the full and free actualisation and externalisation of the powers and abilities of the individual' that lies at the heart of the Marxist conception of the good life.). Insofar as contemporary labor is bound to information- or knowledge-production and the boundaries between mental and manual labor are broken down or overcome, the aforementioned generalization must be qualified with the recognition that at least some workers are, at the same time, structurally positioned to be (or have the opportunity to become) intellectuals (i.e., when not simply technicians of knowledge).

As Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers noted some years ago, "There is a characteristic economic rationality to the actions of workers encouraged by capitalism. In the face of material uncertainties arising from continual dependence on the labor market under conditions of the private control of investment, it makes sense for workers to struggle to increase their wages." In the instant case, of course, it's the workers in a defensive fight for their due wages (so to speak). All the same, we should loudly applaud this particular instance of "worker militancy" without hesitation inasmuch as it serves to remind us of the truth of several propositions from Cohen and Rogers' On Democracy (1983):

"As a result of their control of investment, the satisfaction of the interests of capitalists is a necessary condition for the satisfaction of all other interests in the system."

"[T]he welfare of workers remains structurally secondary to the welfare of capitalists, and the well-being of workers depends directly on the decisions of capitalists."

"The interests of capitalists appear as general interests of the society as a whole, the interests of everyone else appear as merely particular, or 'special.'"

Toward Economic Democracy!

Update: Because Professor Slater links to the New York Times story, I thought it only fair that I tilt things toward the other coast with today's article on the sit-in from my "hometown" paper, the Los Angeles Times, the owner of which, the Tribune Co., has filed for bankruptcy protection.

And on a related front, the next (13th!) bibliography in our Directed Reading series will be a "very select" list on "Marx & Marxism."

Further Update: On the settlement of the sit-down strike, see Professor Slater's latest post at PrawfsBlawg. He notes there that he inadvertently deleted his previous post on the occupation that I linked to above and is no longer active.


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