On the Union Debate: Will Critically Responds to the Union Debates

Will offers a serious response challenging the political framework of the debate regarding unions. Will’s piece argues that earlier discussions ignore how we are still trapped by the legacy of 1968 and do not explain the relationship that unions have with the state, coupled with ignoring larger philosophical issues concerning communism. These points have validity. Earlier arguments do not deal with such issues. That has to be done. What we have argued is that unions should be defended against capitalist attacks, and a classwide offensive should be pushed for.     

are we trapped in 1917 or 1968?  if so, what do we do about it?

are we trapped in 1917 or 1968? if so, what do we do about This basic position, one of general principle does not deal with specificities of situations, nor larger questions of how to create a marxism for the present. Such union documents did not answer the difficult challenges revolutionaries face in total terms, or engage in the question of communist philosophy, the question of 1968 and the role of the state. This is necessary to form a fully developed revolutionary model.  But simply arguing that this has not been done does not help us get there. 

Will argues that, “[the] lesson learned from Marx was that not only was he not transfixed on one moment or time but was able to see the developments of capitalism into the future. Lenin was able to do this as well and was able to strategically act on those developments in a way Marx could not.” Yes, this is true. It represents the revolutionary historical agency of marxism. To develop revolutionary marxism today includes theoretical engagement that challenges the limits of marxist theory, as well as taking political positions in the public sphere as an essential practical principle in order to give working class organizing a political direction against the state and capital. 

The union question challenges the merits of both the “on the ground practice,” as well as the theoretical and philosophical system grounding for the marxism that created such a position. Or in the other words the question of unions is controversial as it begins to challenge the larger system of politics used to employ its analysis. 

Communist philosophy matures when it engages political events; where class and political conflicts take place. These events make public positions necessary by self-identified revolutionaries. To be a revolutionary, one needs to be able to put forward clear public political positions in order to form revolutionary poles of attraction. Once a set of positions and principles have been established, then an organizational form, shaped around the agreement of its political content can attract and form militants that continue to organize deeper into the working class. Many of the philosophers mentioned, have only engaged in interpretation without defining a mode of struggle against the historically specific mode of control, and or character of its structure.

Our revolutionary marxism will be able to change the world by being clear of what political principles are unconditional to generate real political agreement amongst a broad body of left-wing militants, which will form the material force behind a serious mode of struggle. The process of advancing this project develops marxist theory, through the application of an analysis that can help guide a path of struggle. This hopefully partially answers Will’s final question, “What is the communist basis for these discussions?”

We’d like to hear other’s positions on Will’s serious questions, so please feel free to join in the discussion.

We need a moving theory that projects into the future.

As I have been reflecting on the debates over the trade union question, broader questions/ problems also seem to be connected. Below are some brief notes on what those other questions are.

1. The class faces a profound crisis and so does marxism. That warrants deeper investigations. The mainstream currents of 20th century communism have been a bloodbath (against peasants and workers), filled with playing not the vanguard role in fighting for communism, but actually developing capitalism.  We are not immune to either of these problems.  These stand as shocking counterpoints to probably all the expectations communists had in the beginning of the 20th century.

2. The Hegelian rupture: Hegel and Marxism were tied together for much of the 19th and 20th century. But 1968 stands as a potentially game changing event where Hegel is challenged on multiple fronts: Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Le Febevre, and potentially many others created a new paradigm which has to be taken into account. I used to take fairly uncritically works by David Harvey, Perry Anderson, Aijaz Ahmed, and Alex Callinicos which attacked the development of post-modernism and post-structuralism. I believe I could have been widely off the mark.  Very unclear, but I believe to be crucial.

More importantly a return to philosophy is paramount. No discussion of that sort has occurred on AS. Philosophy is intricately tied to methodology. No discussion of method can occur without philosophy.

3. A new generation of militants ranging from the Johnson-Forest Tendency, to Walter Rodney-Frantz Fanon, to the Situationists tried to tackle the problems of 1968.  That was the last highpoint achieved.  Their strengths and weakness have to be rooted back into the cycles of struggle and the development of capital.

Forging a synthetic analysis of the 20th century cannot be trapped in Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg or any single moment or thinker. That will be the death of communism. We need a moving theory that projects into the future.

What are the antagonistic and complementary threads which connects Marx to Negri today and everyone in between.

4. The Archimedean Point: every cycle of revolution has created a version of communism.  Paradoxically they have contributed and limited the development of communism. The major currents of course are Trotskyism, Maoism, Stalinism, council communism. Many smaller players also exist like Che, Fidel, or Nyerere.

Each current out of the revolutionary movement became transfixed in time and place on that event.  It gives them a certain permanence to see the world, but also no longer allows them to see the changes as sharply as they should. For example the world forever is a measurement of the Russian Revolution for Trotskyism.  China 1949 and 1968 for Maoism.

The lesson learned from Marx was that not only was he not transfixed on one moment or time but was able to see the developments of capitalism into the future. Lenin was able to do this as well and was able to strategically act on those developments in a way Marx could not.

We do not need a communism for 2013, but for 2020.  There is no current which has transcended the limits of 1968 theoretically, let alone organizationally.  That is the state of communism today. Capital is planning for 2050 and we are planning for 1917 or 1968.  At this moment capital is more revolutionary then any communist current I know of.

For Trotskyism or Maoism history is only cyclical.  The task is to repeat their Archimedean moments and have a few policy corrections. For our current of communism, history is still a work in progress.  The displacements cannot be fixed through policy, but on fundamentally new terms.

5. The discussions so far have not taken as their beginning the three volumes of Capital.  What unions mean for workers today in light of those works.

Nor has the discussions taken much account of the state’s relationship to unions and capital today.

A moving theory of these questions are needed and no such account has taken place.  There is no movement of the problem. Instead fixed moments are presented as eternal solutions.

Random quotes in “biblical fashion” are replacing serious investigation. Marx said a,b, or c does not necessarily explain the world today.

6. There have been no theories of the state or unions offered. On what basis is this discussion happening?  The danger of these discussions are that descriptions can end up replacing theoretical and historical rigor.  Ultimately that will lead to empiricism and at that point revolutionary theory/ movement will cease to exist if it does not already.

7. Lastly individual experiences of workers while crucial, cannot stand alone as the complete verdict of a problem.  What is the difference between radical sociology and revolutionary methodology.  Our generation cannot tell the difference.

8. Marx emerged out of critiquing the dominant strains of socialism, political economy, philosophy, and struggle of his time. One of our tasks is no different then his on all counts.

9. What are the key struggles of our time? Have sent revolutionaries to such struggles to learn from? Have they written analysis of such events from our organizations/ milieus?  Have we developed critiques/ synthesis of the leading thinkers of our time from Paul Krugman to Alain Badiou. Have we critiqued the major strategies of liberation since the Soviet Union fell: Zapatismo, Chavismo, autonomism, Black Blockism etc? These are just some concrete examples, but there are plenty more.

10 . What is the communist basis for these discussions?


6 responses to “On the Union Debate: Will Critically Responds to the Union Debates

  1. The main problem is how to explain why the working class retreated when it did in the latter half of the 20th century? JFT offers no explanation, in fact, they would prefer that such a thing does not exist. The post-structuralists are worse; they ask: is there even a revolutionary subjective? To which in the era of the Arab Spring has been already answered. Post-structuralists only look at the defeat of movements in order to reconfirm what they already portended to know.

    The real problem for communist praxis is being unable or unwilling to engage with the class at the level they are on.

  2. JD,

    What do you mean when you say “post-structuralist”? Do you have particular texts in mind? Is this Foucault? Or his liberal heirs in the academy? (American academic Foucaultians remind me of the bumper sticker “Jesus, save me from your followers!”)

    I ask because your remark that we must “engage with the class at the level they are on” assumes that we even understand subjectivity in the present moment, as well as the role of institutions (including trade unions) in fostering and foreclosing the possibilities for subjectivity. Do you understand subjectivity as transhistorical? Or is it possible that the consciousness of humans are determined by their material conditions? And therefore shouldn’t we interrogate the particularities of a given material base in order to understand present subjectivities? I fail to see how analysis that pursues this line of inquiry is contrary to revolutionary aims.

    As for the remark about revolutionary subjectivity, supposedly dismissed by “post-structuralists, I’m curious about the textual basis for this claim. The en vogue critique of Foucault on the left for the past few years revolves around his writing on the Iranian Revolution, and comes from what I consider to be an academically dishonest hit-piece by Kevin Anderson and Janet Afari (which indicts all of critical theory, with Adorno and Marcuse denounced alongside Foucault as agents of reaction). Foucault’s writing from Iran is famously problematic due to its blindness toward the reactionary nature of Khomenism, but the one thing it is not short on is a romantic engagement with the concept of revolutionary subjectivity, especially as it arises in the moment of struggle, interfacing with new technologies, and particular to individual historical and political contexts. In this way I would compare it with Fanon’s Algeria Unveiled, with of course Fanon’s work being the superior. However, this work, consistent with Foucault’s projects throughout the 70s and early 80s, represent a direct engagement with the possibility of a new subjectivity particular to individual contexts of political domination, and most Foucault-friendly ultra-leftists would grumble at the degree to which this question took over his later thought.

    Finally, how do you square the imperative to engage the class at the level they’re on with the prevalent racism, sexism, homophobia xenophobia, and so forth which one encounters in vast swatches of the American working class?

    The present moment is an aporetic moment in which questions vastly outnumber answers. The questions surrounding subjectivity and power, including a critical interrogation of institutions (like trade unions, public education, the non-profit sector, and so forth) is an essential component of developing a critical approach to praxis that does not simply return to the forms of days past for lack of a better option. Will correctly points out that a theory of the state is lacking, and I’d add to that a theory of power is lacking, which has allowed trade unions to be posed heroically against the state.

    This is the line of inquiry which comprises “post-structuralism” (a term Foucault rejected; “what are my works if not commentaries on Marx”… or more pretentiously “I am Michel Foucault.”) and we dismiss it brusquely to our own practical and critical detriment.

    I’ll let someone else handle JFT but I think they’ve been treated with equal injustice.


    • JFrey,

      Glad to see you weigh in, I will attempt to address your critiques:

      By “post-structuralist” I mean those who equated who either 1) emerged out of Stalinist-Structuralism from French CP; 2) who were unable to understand the retreat of the class within a Marxist framework and sought to abandon the project in toto. I’m interested in engaging with those revolutionaries made mistakes but also victories. It seems to me that Michel Foucault was not interested in working class organizing. Or was he?

      As for revolutionary subjectivity. My claim is a simple one: I am arguing that we must look at the concrete, materialist realities of the class in order to start a sense of politics.

      Sexism, racism…those are what gets bound up in revolutionary transformation. They cannot be entirely extirpated by the actions of organizers, but in the process of upheaval. JFT upon leaving the Socialist Workers Party, failed to understand that these reactionary social attitudes or behaviors were not antithetical to the launching of a strike, no matter how militant. It may have changed some workers, but not all. Their conflation between revolutionary activity and militancy is a major weakness of their school of thought.



  3. I actually agree really strongly with your reading of the situation here. There are at least two huge problems: first, that we haven’t yet come up with a strong understanding of what happened since 1968 in the US (all the changes that get grouped under the term ‘neoliberalism,’ or ‘postfordism’) and second, that a whole slew of changes have happened in theory that seem to have decisive but annoyingly vague practical implications for revolutionary practice.
    And there’s a third problem. In 1968, the new left was able to set up a rupture by distancing itself from the existing communist parties, which were blatantly becoming a component of the system. Even in places like the US which didn’t have a strong communist party, the criticism of the Cold War and of consumer society played that role. But in some ways the political fortunes of the new left were attached to what they were critiquing: once the Cold War ended and the expectations of middle-class progress collapsed, the new left critique lost a lot of its edge. And in response, a lot of people regressed politically to save what they had and became less relevant. Today it seems to me there’s kind of a survival mentality on the left where we have to keep reiterating the importance of this, that, or the other revolutionary tradition from the past. Which isn’t bad in itself–those traditions are important–but often we ignore their real consequences for the present. This is as true for the new left as it is for the Russian Revolution.
    As far as the theoretical questions you asked, I think it’s very difficult because the relevance of people like Deleuze and Foucault for revolutionary politics hasn’t really been established yet. They had their own concerns and their own polemics that came out of a unique context. Also, the influence of Hegelian Marxism was something that changed a lot of the course of the 1960’s: initially it was seen as an alternative to the heavy-handed emphasis on ‘science’ in the Third International, especially since the translations of Marx’s more Hegelian work, like the Grundrisse, didn’t become widely available until after WWII. People started to see that Marxism wasn’t just a theory of how the working class was destined to take power or a critique of exploitation, but a critique of the nature of contemporary society. That was the condition for the new left, not an innovation in the nature of revolutionary theory done in the second-third international mold.
    Addressing this in the United States has always been especially difficult because we have and have always had exceptionally high social inequality, because race is built into the foundation of the country in an exceptionally deep way, and because the history of the Left in the US has always been lacking in coherence and continuity–we’ve never had a successful social democratic, much less Communist, party. This means the way society as a whole is imagined by most people has not been very heavily influenced by the Left, while ‘old left’ critiques that stay at the level of exploitation and historical inevitability have always maintained a kind of illusory coherence–they’ve never been properly discredited here.
    But if we look at the actuality of race in a place like NYC, this is somewhere where I think Foucault’s insights are helpful. Foucault stressed that power wasn’t something one wielded or acquired. It was something that permeated society and defined it. Also, power is ‘productive.’ That is, it’s not a negative force outside of society that represses it. It’s something which shapes society. Think of the changes NYC underwent between mayor Lindsay and mayor Koch-who was hardly the master of the neoliberal social changes he was creating. Foucault at the end of his life devoted a lot of time to the question of what neoliberalism was. It’s clearest in a book (a transcription of his lectures) called ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’ from 1980, almost immediately before he died. It’s a hard book to summarize, but Foucault kind of says that modern liberalism has been hollowed out and has a very empty concept of freedom: the freedom to be free of the state, which was supposed to be manifest in a certain entrepeneurial attitude on the part of the individual that came from people like Hayek. At the same time, that freedom is based on forms of state management that seek to control populations through ‘innoculation’ with fear. So that urban fear and desire for security is really the strict correlative of the desire to be oneself, to realize one’s own potential-a desire we don’t necessarily recognize as liberal. The new left critique of social dissatisfaction also doesn’t work anymore.
    You mentioned the difficulty in distinguishing between a radical sociology and a revolutionary methodology. If by this you mean that we’re having trouble locating a point from which society as a whole can be critiqued, I think Foucault’s analysis helps explain why that might be the case. In short, neoliberalism undermines not just things like social solidarity and personal security but also the philosophical and political distinctions between freedom and bondage that are supposed to be at the basis of a radical critique and which explain what we ‘really want.’ That’s why people ‘seem to buy into neoliberalism.’ I think part of the task of a revolutionary movement would have to be to find new ways to think about those categories. On the whole, I think this a task which has been better answered by anarchism in recent years, even if it has not always been practically very effective (or very good at analyzing existing society), and that is part of its success with people who in the 1960’s would have responded to the ‘artistic critique’ of things like alienation and commodification.
    That’s also part of the pointlessness of sectarianism. In general, there’s a tendency for each grouping to believe it has the answers (and each grouping is usually very good at calling the faults of the others) when what actually exists are a lot of valid partial critiques held by people who cannot get along in practice. Clearly, nobody occupies the position of a vanguard right now or can even plausibly claim to do so, and that situation will definitely continue until it’s broadly recognized that a.) the terrain has shifted completely and b.) the ruptures that did occur in the past were not a result of somebody or rather having the correct analysis. Whether it’s possible or desirable for such a vanguard to exist is still another question.

  4. Way to abstract wow come on tone it down a little!

  5. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 02/23/13

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