What is Class Struggle Anarchism?
PART 1: Why the Working Class
Reasons for a working class perspective. What is wrong with a nonclass perspective. Rooting class struggle anarchism in an analysis of capitalism, a strategic orienation, and a moral perspective. [
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What is Class Struggle Anarchism?
PART 1: Why the Working Class
Recently an activist friend, who has been influenced by Michael Albert’s Parecon program, wrote to me. He asked, “Why should we call ourselves class struggle anarchists instead of feminist-antiracist-green-class struggle anarchists?” In other words, why single out the struggle of the working class? At least his approach includes class conflict as one of the aspects of social struggle. There are many, liberals and radicals, who completely reject class struggle. Many denounce unions (from the right). Hardt and Negri have been influential in replacing the working class theoretically with a concept of the “multitude.”
Among anarchists, a great many reject any major role for class struggle by workers. This is true of those who say they reject civilization and industry altogether. Although otherwise disagreeing with such primitivists, it was also true of Murray Bookchin. In his “Listen Marxist!” essay, for example (in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 1986, Montreal: Black Rose Books), he denounced “The Myth of the Proletariat.” “The working class [has been] neutralized as ‘the agent of revolutionary change’....The class struggle [has been] co-opted into capitalism.” (p. 202) He denied the revolutionary potential of workers, instead focusing on “youth,” the “people,” or “citizens,” who would change society for solely moral reasons.
Rejection of the working class is the real position of almost all Marxist-Leninists (including Communist Parties, Maoists, and orthodox Trotskyists). The Marxist-Leninists pay lip service to Marx’s belief in the centrality of working class struggle. Actually they believe that there can be “socialist“ revolutions without the working class (as in Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, and Cuba). And that there can be “socialist” (“post-capitalist” or whatever) societies without working class participation, and, in fact, with the workers being brutally oppressed (as in the Soviet Union, China, etc.). In nonrevolutionary conditions, these views lead them toward class collaboration (reformism). Since socialism does not require rousing the workers, in their view, their parties might as well form alliances with capitalists.
Why then do we revolutionary anarchists call ourselves class struggle anarchists? My friend offered a partial explanation: It is not controversial on the left to call ourselves feminists or antiracists. Even liberals do. Some sort of ecological thinking or environmentalism is accepted by almost everyone but the far right. But a belief in a class-against-class perspective is held by only a minority. To be sure, there are many people who are for unions. Right now John Edwards is running for U.S. president on a program of supporting unions and fighting poverty. Yet his program is the opposite of class struggle. It is to get the workers to support his capitalist party.
Similarly, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (and far from the worst of union officials), makes coalitions with business. He has written, “Employees and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create them.” This is not the same as, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working class themselves” (the first clause of the Rules of the First International, written by Marx and loved by revolutionary anarchists). By calling ourselves class struggle anarchists, we make a point about who we are for....and who we are against.
Class struggle anarchism continues the tradtions of communist anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, and overlaps with libertarian (autonomist) Marxism, such as council communism. In his overview of current British anarchism, Benjamin Franks writes, “The organizations identified under the heading of ‘class struggle anarchism’ include those that identify themselves as such, as well as those from autonomist marxist and situationist-inspired traditions.” (Rebel Alliances, 2006, Edinburgh: AK Press & Dark Star, p. 12) I do not claim to speak for all such organizations, nor am I an official spokesperson for my own federation. Yet I think my views are consistent with the mainstream of class struggle anarchism. I am not going to review all aspects of class struggle anarchism (such as our goal of decentralized, self-managed, socialism). Instead, I will focus on the importance of a working class, class-against-class, approach.
Class Struggle is Central to Capitalism
Let us look at the “economic” system of capitalism--without yet considering how it relates to other systems of oppression, such as race or gender (these will be discussed in Part 2). I make no claim that individual workers are better, nobler, or nicer than individual capitalists, or farmers, or college presidents. Individually, workers can be just as mean as anyone else. The issue is the potential social role of the working class.
Workers, as a collectivity, have a special relation to the means of production. The means of production (and distribution, and social services) are owned by a minority, the capitalist class, who are driven to accumulate capital. We workers, lacking land or machines, must sell ourselves to the capitalists, or rather, must sell our ability to work for a time (the commodity labor power). We work until we have produced enough commodities to equal the value of our wages (or salaries). Then we continue to work, to produce more commodities, creating extra--surplus--value, which is the basis of the bosses’ profits. That is, we are exploited. We are exploited, not only as individuals, but as a collectivity, a whole cooperating mass of people, who are required to work together at the workplace and in society as a whole in order to keep the system going.
Looking at tables of employment, Michael Zweig defines 62 percent of the U.S. labor force as working class (in The Working Class Majority, 2000, Ithica, NY: ILR/Cornell Univ. Press). The U.S. Department of Labor, he also notes, classifies 82 percent of private sector, nonfarm, employees as nonsupervisory employees. “That is why I say, we live in a country with a working class majority.” (p. 30) The workers include blue collar and white collar workers, workers “by hand and brain” (and pink collar workers, as much of women’s work is called).
The working class, as a CLASS, is broader than immediately employed wage workers. It includes unemployed workers and retired workers. Besides employed women, it includes women homemakers married to male workers, and their children. It is a whole class, counterposed to another class.
(There is also what is usually called the “middle class.” This is typically regarded as including better-off workers--white collar and skilled workers--independent professionals, small businesspeople, and the lower levels of management. These middle layers are not really an independent class. Mostly they are part of the two main classes, capitalist and working class, and they usually orient toward one or the other.)
Traditionally, anarchism, like all varieties of socialism, opposed class exploitation, the alienated work which goes with it, and the poverty it creates. Anarchists and Marxists alike aimed at a classless society. Who would create such a society? Morally it is in the interest of all humanity. But surely those who are immediately exploited have a special interest in ending their exploitation. Their experience makes it easier for them to take a moral view. It is wrong to elevate “the people” or “citizens” over the workers in their direct need to end exploitation. This view would mean that those who are not immediately exploited by capitalism have as much reason to fight against exploitation as those who are forced into alienated labor. It regards the capitalist, the police officer, and the manager as just as likely to oppose capitalist exploitation as those who are “under the lash” as they work. This opinion is convenient for those who want to deny the need for a revolution.
In her brilliant defense of a working class perspective, The Retreat from Class (1998, London: Verso), Ellen Meiksens Wood criticizes various “post-Marxists” (but could just as well be criticizing Bookchin): “The implication [of their nonclass views--WP] is that the workers are no more affected by capitalist exploitation than are any other human beings who are not themselves the direct objects of exploitation. This also implies that capitalists derive no fundamental advantage from the exploitation of workers, that the workers derive no fundamental disadvantage from their exploitation by capital, that workers would derive no fundamental advantage from ceasing to be exploited, that the condition of being exploited does not entail an ‘interest’ in the cessation of class exploitation, that the relations between capital and labor have no fundamental consequences for the whole structure of social and political power, and that the conflicting interests between capital and labor are all in the eye of the beholder....This makes nonsense out of...the whole history of working class struggles against capital.” (p. 61)
It is not inevitable that the workers will become revolutionary (although Marx and Engels can be read as implying this). Better-off workers can be bought-off. Worse-off workers can be demoralized and beaten down. Bookchin argued that the hierarchical nature of the capitalist workplace teaches the workers to accept subordination. Be this as it may, those who are oppressed will resist. It is in the interest of the workers to resist their exploitation. In fact, there is dissatisfaction and constant (if low-level) struggle going on in every workplace. This conflict has resulted in revolutionary consciousness for at least a minority. Since the workers (unlike, say, peasants) do not have land or machines of our own, we tend to be collectivist and cooperative in our organizing and our programs. And, having our hands on the means of production, transportation, distribution, communication, and service, our class has an enormous (potential) power, which could shake all of society. Again, these are tendencies and potentialities, not inevitabilities.
The Negative Stereotype of the Working Class
It should not be surprising that most of the left -- anarchist and nonanarchist -- should have antiworking class views. The left is dominated by people from the middle class. Some, such as college students, may be more easily radicalized than most workers, because students do not have the immediate responsibilities of earning a living or supporting a family. But their relative privileges make them more likely to have class prejudices against workers. They may have unconscious elitist assumptions about their “right” to rule. Liberals look to bettering society by rising within the existing centers of power. The more radical are attracted to visions of bureaucratic class rule, with nationalization and centralized planning, as existed under the state capitalism of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Castro’s Cuba. Others imagine that they can create a better world by only living in bohemian personal freedom (which is not bad in itself but is not an alternative to building popular movements).
Middle class enemies of the working class argue that U.S. workers are ignorant, racist, sexist, superpatriotic, religiously superstitious, anti-immigrant, and politically passive. This is the negative stereotype. Like most stereotypes, it contains both truth and falsehood. It ignores the fact that the working class includes most People of Color, immigrants, women, etc. It leaves out that workers are generally for universal health care and for other social services, against the Iraqi war, suspicious of big business and politicians, pro-union, antifascist, and pro-democracy. To the extent that the negative stereotype is true, it is true of all classes. Workers are not more politically ignorant, racist, etc. than U.S. middle or upper classes.
What is certainly true is that workers (in the U.S. and everywhere else) are not revolutionary anarchists. But this is another way of saying that the population of the U.S. and elsewhere, regardless of class, is not for anarchist revolution. While some parts of the population may be more radical than others, overall we are very, very, far from a pre-revolutionary period in which most people want a big social change.
Unfortunately, there is all too much truth to the negative stereotype of the working class. It is not enough that the workers are no worse than the middle or upper classes. The working class needs to be better than the other classes if we are to create a self-managed society. How will the working class transcend its weaknesses? Only by fighting. In the course of struggle -- from shop floor and community issues to revolution -- our class learns and improves. Through struggle we educate ourselves. We become capable of a true democracy. There is no other way.
Right now, the minority which is in favor of anarchist revolution should be thinking about long-term strategy: who has an interest in ending capitalist exploitation? who has the potential power to stop all society and change the system? who has a history of fighting against capitalist exploitation? The answers to these strategic questions will lead us to a working class perspective.
PART 2 will discuss the relationship between a working class orientation and other oppressions, including those of gender, race, nationality, and issues such as war and ecological destruction.
written for www.Anarkismo.net