The Situationists were a theatre troupe who put on a one-act play in Paris, France in May-June 1968 and never managed another performance.
(Pause for "rim shot" drum sound effect.)
Seriously folks, the Situationists were only one small group in the upheavals of Paris 1968. They are often credited with inspiring the many clever slogans and graffiti painted on walls during the turmoil, though Castoriadis and Sartre were far more influential than Debord and Vaneigem. "All power to the imagination;" "Life without dead times;" "The society that abolishes all adventure makes the abolition of society the only remaining adventure;" "It is forbidden to forbid;" "The more I make revolution the more I want to make love, the more I make love the more I want to make revolution,;" "I am a Marxist of the Groucho variety;" "Never work;" and "I take my dreams for reality because I believe in the reality of my dreams" expressed the spontaneous upswell of a post-scarcity socialist movement, one in which the fulfillment of human desires was seen as important, if not more so, than the meeting of human needs.
One of my favorite slogans from Paris 1968 is "Be realistic, demand the impossible." It tangentially expresses the point I was trying to make last column. In order to get anything, we must demand everything. In order to gain even the most innocuously moderate reforms, we need to threaten social unrest that borders on social revolution. This can be viewed as a meta-strategy, one that operates in the background of other, more mundane strategies. In order to make ourselves a credible social threat then, we need to be sufficiently organized to make society ungovernable at the base.
Traditionally, trade unions and political parties have been seen as the centers of social power in the working class movement, not merely as the twin focus around which workers coalesced, but also as proletarian institutions theoretically capable of emancipating the working class and running society "after the revolution." Last column I detailed my criticisms of unions, and I've consistently maintained that the problem with political parties is that, if they are effective at all, they substitute for the working class in power. Socialist parties and syndicalist unions can certainly run society, but they can neither emancipate the working class nor realize socialism. That's a task for the working class, and only for the working class to accomplish as a class, through its self-activity and self-organization.
There are two problems with this formulation. First, the proletariat's actual organs of self-government—councils, committees, communes, etc.,—have emerged historically only at moments of social revolution. They rarely exist prior to a revolutionary situation, and if the revolution fails, they are invariably, brutally crushed. These instruments of working class rule do not have long histories of experimental practice before they take over, In a sense, this is the problem with socialism as a whole. Whereas the nascant bourgeoisie created a nearly complete capitalist economy in embryo within feudalism's social structure, this is not possible except in the most rudimentary sense for the working class building socialism within capitalism. Economic cooperatives, mutual aid societies, socialist printing houses and schools; even if we throw in unions and labor parties, these proto-socialist institutions cannot compare to the extensive commercial leagues, trading networks and free cities that the capitalist class "in the making" established in the heart of feudal Europe. The bourgeoisie is infinitely more class conscious than the feudal ruling class it overthrew. As the current ruling class, the bourgeoisie is also well aware that an organized proletariat is its enemy, capable of challenging it and overthrowing it. Unwilling to let the working class attain any kind of an advantage, the capitalist class subverts the class organization and smashes the social power of the working class at every opportunity.
I'll return to this subject later in the column.
The second problem should be obvious. Trade unions and political parties are still with us and are not likely to go away. Indeed, at this time there seems to be an effort to revitalize both in the US labor movement. Sweeney has pledged to revive the arthritic AFL-CIO, and AFL-CIO based trade unionists have established a Labor Party that, so far, is something between a pressure group and an electoral party. The question thus becomes; what's the relationship of folks who want a radical, in the streets social movement to these dubious but historically working class institutions. The stance of embracing unions and parties, and of working within them to achieve socialism is not an option in my book. While I can categorically reject any involvement with party politics, my position on unions is a bit less harsh however. Folks I know insist that the only true revolutionary position is to work entirely outside and totally against unions. I too think that union organizing is a dead end, but I also think that we need to take advantage of the social consequences to authentic rank-and-file organizing and activism.
Let me explain.
Genuine rank-and-file union organizing and activism, much like union wildcat actions, while entirely misdirected and deluded, still manage to generate some interesting social consequences. Wildcat slowdowns, sickouts and strikes; militant picket lines, marches and demonstrations; confronting scabs, company security and the police; obstructing shipments and deliveries, occupying workplaces and blocking traffic; physical attacks on corporate property, management and ownership; militant rank-and-file action has frequently if unconsciously gone beyond "trade union consciousness" in its day-to-day struggles. I think it's important to take advantage of these moments while retaining a severe, up-front critique of unionism. That means direct, autonomous participation "in the streets" when that is possible, It also means using the ripple effect of such activities in society at large to initiate other, more radical actions.
Sweeney's efforts to date have been largely top-down, with a disturbing emphasis upon college students and academics. This has not encouraged a bottom-up, rank-and-file union response, though there are signs that this is beginning to occur despite Sweeney. If union activism does increase, there will be multiplied opportunities for extra-union organizing as an immediate spin-off. I will term this wider arena of action revolutionary struggle as opposed to union struggle, and I propose a molecular strategy of labor organizing instead of unionism. This molecular organizing strategy is based in part upon collectives, and networks of collectives. A collective is two, three, up to a dozen people in a workplace willing to do things together. I don't really care if this structure is called a collective or a cell or an affinity group or even a gang. The important point to emphasize here is that this is a group of friends willing to back each other up and take common action. The basis for their action, in turn, is foremost the alienation and rage that daily life under capitalism as a worker produces, and then only incidentally some abstract political theory.
This action can range from motivating others in the workplace to support job actions such as slowdowns, sickouts, social strikes, etc. to taking direct action such as sabotage, destruction of property, attacks on management, etc. Much of this activity, of necessity, will be clandestine, but such informal groups can surface under the right conditions and make their deeds public. Collectives can formally associate in networks around common theory and practice, but I anticipate that such networks will arise much more casually, perhaps around popular underground publications. Processed World generated just such a loose network among individual temp workers a while back, and its place was taken by Temp Slave, another excellent zine. Theory is not crucial to collectives taking action, and you might say that collectives represent radical practice working toward radical theory.
The compliment to the collective in the revolutionary struggle is the revolutionary organization. It differs superficially very little from the collective in that it too is a group of two, three, up to a dozen people, also hopefully friends. It is not necessarily positioned in a workplace however, and its major emphasis is theory and analysis. Representing the movement from radical theory to radical practice in the revolutionary struggle, revolutionary organizations are not important just because of this convenient fit. They bring up crucial issues and questions that confront the revolutionary struggle while keeping the struggle as a whole directed toward socialism. They can act as the hub for networks of collectives. Not only can they impart a theoretical awareness to collectives, they might under the right circumstances do the same for some of those rank-and-file union struggles that unconsciously transcend "trade union consciousness."
It has been argued that any type of revolutionary organization is necessarily substitutionist. The molecular organizing strategy ameliorates this potential problem in at least two important ways. First, like collectives, revolutionary organizations will be highly decentralized, minimizing any vanguard/leadership pretensions they might possess. As with collectives, revolutionary organizations can coalesce into networks, yet even a network of revolutionary organizations is a far cry from an electoral social democratic or Leninist vanguard party. Second, both collectives and revolutionary organizations are within the same revolutionary struggle. Neither stands outside the struggle striving to bring a special level of consciousness to that struggle. Subsuming revolutionary organizations to the revolutionary struggle is another safeguard against substitutionism.
The interaction of collectives and revolutionary organizations is intended to realize a communist class consciousness within the revolutionary struggle. With any luck, structures intermediate and mediating between collectives and revolutionary organizations will arise. Finally, the entirely proletarian composition of the collectives should effectively counterpoint the potentially non-proletarian membership of the revolutionary organizations. Ideally, this dialectic will serve as a force advancing the revolutionary struggle. That is, if the capitalist class doesn't subvert the class organization and smash the social power of the working class once again. Given the above discussion, this problem has expanded into two related topics; defending proletarian organizing and social power prior to a revolutionary situation, and maintaining working class self-government during and after a social revolution. I'll discuss the first in relation to the analogy of pest control. Specifically, cockroaches vs. ants.
Cockroaches are durable pests because each cockroach is an individualistic, virtually indestructible terrorist. They're not "social insects," meaning they don't nest in large hierarchical colonies or actively work together to survive. If you're infested with them, you have to wipe out every last blessed one of them because, if even a single cockroach survives and that one cockroach happens to be a gravid female, you'll have the same problem a month or two later. In contrast, due to the hierarchical organization of ant colonies (winged fertile queens, sometimes royal workers and guards, regular infertile wingless female workers, sometimes specialized worker soldiers, and winged drone males) it is only necessary to wipe out the queens and the royal nursery in order to destroy the whole colony. Yet ants are highly cooperative, with scout ants laying down trails that other worker ants follow to food sources, bringing the food back to their queen and her eggs. Certain ants can form vast, devastating traveling columns or armies that kill and strip anything living in their path. There's no such thing as "army cockroaches."
This example nicely illustrates the two extremes in organization—cellular vs. pyramidal—as well as their basic advantages and problems. Cellular organization is composed of individual, autonomous units that act on their own. Cellular organizations are very hard to mobilize around a common objective, but they are extremely difficult to destroy, requiring that virtually every cell be wiped out. Pyramidal organization is based on a strict hierarchy of leadership and command. Pyramidal organizations quite easily mobilize their forces, but they are even more easily infiltrated and destroyed, needing only for the organization's head to be chopped off. The molecular organizing strategy I've sketched above is decidedly cellular so as to help avoid the problem of state repression.
This still leaves the inexperience of the proletariat's organs of self-government, not to mention their vulnerability to repression. As with the working class's lack of experience with socialism and the ease with which socialism is subverted, some 125 years of proletarian insurrection and some 80 years of existing, so-called socialist regimes have provided a wealth of historical lessons that do not readily translate into concrete solutions however. Bakunin once proposed that a secret dictatorship by a clandestine revolutionary organization be set up in order to shepherd the rebelling masses through social revolution and into socialism proper, after which the organization in question would voluntarily dissolve, its task done.
I'm afraid that this subject is complicated enough that I'll have to fall back on my standard excuse, which is to say I'll deal with it in a future column. Next issue I'll discuss something equally fundamental; a basic, concrete understanding of what we want. The abolition of wage labor should be an essential revolutionary goal for any socialist worth his or her salt. This central anti-work theme can be approached with a variety of strategies, among them what I call the strategy of pushing the production envelope. Something to look forward to...
A PS on collectives. They don't have to be tied to workplace struggles.
During the Gulf War I thought it important that people come to antiwar
demonstrations with their posse, crew, team; a tight group of friends prepared
to watch each other's backs and back each other up. Coming to street demos
with folks you trusted and could act confidently with was also important
in case protest turned spontaneously to direct action, or the police rioted,
or something else unexpected happened. The collective is a versatile form
...ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS...
MODESTLY LEFTIST LABOR JOURNALISM... I recently came across two kinda leftist labor publications; Hard Hat Construction Magazine (v4,n1; 8.5x11"; $2.50/issue, $12/sub-4 issues) and Sweat: Independent Labor Magazine of North America (n1; 4.25x11"; $2.00/issue, $15/sub-4 issues) both published by the Center for Practical Education (POB 410724, SF, CA 94141-0724). Pro-union but highly critical of the AFL-CIO leadership, somewhat sympathetic to the idea of the union based Labor Party, independent of both tired leftist thinking and genuine revolutionary spirit; these publications are nevertheless interesting for the ways they approach their working-class audiences. Hard Hat reports on the construction trades, in addition reviewing 1997 pickup trucks alongside regular construction job listings. Sweat offers a modest discussion and debate of moderately left ideas in the labor movement, giving separate Canadian, US and Mexican coverage along with columns, poetry and humor. Both provide respectable space to culture. Browse 'em if you find 'em at your newsstand. I liked Sweat's motto: "Slip it in your pocket and read it on the boss's time..."
MEXICAN "BAD GUERRILLA" UPDATE... Turning The Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Activism, Research & Education (v10, n2; $3.95/issue, $15/sub-4 issues; published by People Against Racist Terror, POB 1055, Culver City, CA 90232-1055) has reprinted analysis and translated a statement from Mexico's clandestine Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement which reveal a far more complex situation than I sketched in my Mexico series. The PROCUP-PDLP may or may not have had a hand in the formation of the EPR (now the PDPR/EPR). The two have political differences, as do a bakers' dozen of ML guerrilla groupuscles [Revolutionary Workers Movement (MRP), Southern Armed Revolutionary Commandos (CARS), Armed Forces for the Mexican Revolution (FARM), Zapatista Urban Front (FUZ), etc. etc. etc.]. Together with the less ideologically rigid EZLN (the "good guerrillas"), they've apparently prompted Mexico's Secretary of Defense to initiate low intensity warfare by the army in twelve "red zones" in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Michoacan, Pueblo, Jalisco, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and the central zone of Mexico City, the Federal District, and Queretaro. Because my deadline for this October column is the middle of August and Turning The Tide will have another issue out by the time you read this, be sure to ask for the Summer 1997 one to get these interesting documents. Things are heating up south of the border...
LONG LIVE THE CLASS WAR... That uppity British organization, the Class War Federation, has decided to disband. For their thought provoking reasons and self-analysis in "An Open Letter to the Revolutionary Movement," which is also the last issue of their excellent tabloid Class War, send a couple of $ to Class War National Secretary, POB 3241, Saltley, Birmingham B8 3DP, UK.
PERSONAL PROPAGANDA... My book, End Time, can be purchased from AK Press (POB 40682, SF, CA 94140-0682) for $10. I can be contacted at email@example.com.
Keep sending me your newsworthy items and interesting newsclippings c/o MRR.