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Murray Bookchin’s Legacy: A Syndicalist Critique

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas And Action, January 14, 2021

January 14th is the 100th anniversary of Murray Bookchin’s birth. Perhaps it is worth looking at his contribution to radical politics.

Bookchin had been involved in the communist youth movement in the 1930s. He eventually abandoned official Marxist organizations for a turn to libertarian socialism. A central feature of Bookchin’s politics from the Sixties to the end of his life was his opposition to the worker struggle orientation that was central to syndicalism and many anarchists — as well as Marxists — in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

After World War 2, the general strikes and pitched street battles of workers in the Thirties were a fading memory. The post-war years saw a consolidation of a conservative bureaucracy in the unions. The American working class by the 1960s no longer had the large “militant minority” of radical workers that had been a feature of American workplaces from the early 1900s through World War 2. This led certain radicals to seek out a new “agent” of revolutionary change. Bookchin was an example of this way of thinking:

“Contrary to Marx’s expectations, the industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class….Present-day culture [and]…modes of production…have remade the proletarian into a largely petty bourgeois stratum….The proletarian …will be completely replaced by automated and even miniaturized means of production….Class categories are now intermingled with hierarchical categories based on race, gender, sexual preference, and certainly national or regional differences.”

This quote is from Bookchin’s last book, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. This shows a certain lack of understanding of how syndicalists — and other socialists — view the working class. The basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its position as both the majority of the population and its objectively oppressed and exploited situation. Workers do not have their own means to obtain a livelihood. Thus we are forced to seek jobs from employers, to obtain the wages we need to live. And this arrangement forces workers to submit to autocratic managerial regimes where workers are denied control over the decisions that directly affect them day to day in the labor process and the running of the workplaces. Employers own the products of our labor and use this to suck down profits — an inherently exploitative situation.

The Poisoning of Flint: Capitalism and Environmental Sabotage

By Mike Kolhoff - Ideas and Action, February 18, 2016

Cruel disregard of human life have been part of the capitalist package from the very beginning. To the ruling class our lives are important only to the degree that we produce profit they can exploit. In its latest neo-liberal incarnation, capitalism seems to have embraced its murderous impulses on a grand scale. The frustrations of extracting profits from an exhausted planet and its people have compelled the “job creators” to commit ever more shocking crimes. The poisoning of Flint stands as grim testimony to the complete contempt such people feel for the rest of us. To them, we are not quite human.

The tragedy initially received regional media attention 2014, shortly after the Republican-imposed Emergency Financial Manager switched Flint’s water supply from the Detroit supply system to a local system using the nearby Flint River. EPA and state reports indicating the poisonous content of the Flint River, a river thoroughly polluted by General Motors and others [i], were willfully ignored.

The excuse given at the time was that it was a money-saving measure in a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Recent revelations have shown that even this poor excuse was an outright lie. [ii].  The question then is why did the Republican-appointed Emergency Manager make a decision that was so obviously sure to poison thousands of people?

One allegation is that it was a move to direct money away from Detroit, which at the time was in bankruptcy and being vigorously looted by every sort of shady speculator, including the selling of huge amounts of city real estate at what amounted to garage sale prices. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department made efforts to keep Flint from switching to the filthy water of the Flint River. They even offered their water at a reduced rate, one which negated any savings the City of Flint would make by switching. Flint would have actually SAVED money by staying with Detroit Water and Sewage. This was at a time when the Emergency Manager in Detroit was ordering that their own residents face water cut-offs if they couldn’t pay their bills.[iii]But the rightwing program of ethnic cleansing called for the complete destruction of Detroit, so the people of Flint were poisoned instead.

The cause of the mass-poisoning of the residents of Flint can also be laid at the feet of that innovation in capitalist extraction that has emerged in the last 25 years: Disaster Capitalism. It had nothing to do with saving 15 cents on the dollar, and it wasn’t mainly about diverting income from Detroit, it was about putting MILLIONS of dollars in public funds into the hands of private, rightwing capitalists. These are the people who financed the political campaigns that put the current gang of liars and murderers in power, and they were just looking for their payback – At least $12 million dollars worth of payback in fact. That’s what it was estimated it would cost to switch back to the Detroit water supply in October of 2015.[iv]

Who took that money? Contractors, the biggest an engineering firm from Texas ($4 million), with the help of the rightwing politicians who greased the way for them; many of whom can be seen in this photo of the all-white group surrounding the governor as he approves the aid package for Flint. [v]

Snyder has tried to blame the Flint City Council for the poisoning, but the facts tell a different story. In 2013 the Council voted to help build a new pipeline that would allow them to terminate their contract with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, but the decision to stop taking Detroit water and start using the Flint River was made much later and by the Emergency Manager, at a time when the Council had no say in city decision-making.

“Snyder said that Detroit, after being informed of the Flint council vote, sent a “letter of termination” of water service. Detroit sent a letter giving Flint one year on its existing contract, but that didn’t mean Flint couldn’t get water from Detroit after that date. In fact, there was a flurry of negotiations between Detroit and Flint to sign a new contract that would carry Flint through until it could connect to the under-construction pipeline.”[vi]

The Flint water crisis is an illustration of the essential criminality of capitalism, with “disaster capitalism” taking the next step into open criminality. Those involved conspired to create a disaster, then reaped huge profits from its implementation, and are now reaping even greater profits from fixing the mess they made.

The greed-based, anti-human social and economic system we live in caused the poisoning of the people of Flint. This does not in any way absolve the individual politicians and capitalists who facilitated the disaster (they should all hang), but only places them in perspective. The system didn’t fail in Flint; it failed to protect the people of Flint, but that’s not what it was designed for. The system functioned exactly as it was supposed to: the ruling class was able to stuff it’s pockets with money, the politicians were able to pay-off their debts to them, and things are comfortably rolling on to the next election cycle.[vii]

What is Class Oppression? Who is the Working Class?

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, November 15, 2015

Occupy Wall Street highlighted class inequality in the USA through its talk about the concentration of income and wealth in the hands of “the 1 percent.” This does put a bullseye on the ruling class in our society. But much of the talk about class in recent times has focused on income inequality. The idea is that “the 1 percent” are at the top because they have the highest incomes. But this fails to get to the heart of the matter. The existence of different income levels doesn’t explain why there are classes at all. After all, what explains why there are such huge differences in income?

When American union leaders talk about a worker struggle as a “defense of middle class jobs”, you’d think they must lead an organization of lawyers and doctors. Again, this is about income. In the past, unions in some industries were able to use their leverage to secure wage gains that would enable some workers to “lead a middle class lifestyle.”

That way of looking at things is a product of the years of the so-called “class truce” after World War 2. By the ‘40s workers had gained major concessions from the capitalist elite in North America and Western Europe.

These concessions didn’t happen because of the election of liberals and “collective bargaining” by “responsible union leaders.” In the period between World War 1 and the 1940s the entire capitalist order was under assault around the world. There were revolutions in numerous countries, widespread factory seizures by workers, general strikes. Throughout Latin American there were large revolutionary syndicalist labor movements. Repressive dictatorships were imposed in many countries to crush radical working class movements.

The capitalist elite were forced to make concessions in the ‘40s because of a threat to the very existence of their system. From that period until the early ’70s real wages in the USA continued to rise for many workers.  This happened for two reasons:

(1) The employers could provide increasing wages because investment in technology increased output per worker hour, and:

(2) Workers engaged in strikes which enabled them to capture a rising share of the revenue created by their labor.

They were helped in doing this by institutional changes won in the ‘30s-40s era — such as wide-spread collective bargaining and a legal baseline of minimum wages. Many at the time thought this was some sort of permanent change in the system.

In fact that era of relative peace in the class war proved to be a brief period in the history of capitalism in North America and Western Europe. Since the ’70s the ruling class has been on the war path to uproot the gains of the ’30s-’40s era, suppress unionism, and keep wages low. In the so-called “neo-liberal” era, the bosses’ system has returned to its more  basic “laws of motion.”

Talk of some workers being part of “the middle class” because they have somewhat higher  wages than poorer people obscures the reality of class oppression and drives a rhetorical wedge between better paid and lower paid workers.

Libertarianism is a Type of Socialism, NOT Classical Liberalism

By Geoff - Ideas and Action, August 25, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Libertarianism is a socialist political philosophy which has its roots in the socialist workers’ movements of the 1800s and 1900s. It is especially associated with ideas that came out of the First International (IWA – 1864-1876), especially those of Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. It was upon these ideas, as well as some of those which came later like those of Peter Kropotkin, that the libertarian syndicalists in Spain formed the CNT union in the early 1900s, with the goal of creating a libertarian (socialist) and workers’ self-managed society. What this means is they wanted emancipation of the working class, recognizing that class struggle comes as a result of resistance to management power over workers, because business owners’ aims are profit-based. This means that managers will submit workers to rigid control in the workplace, cut corners and compensation, heap stress on them, etc., in order to maximize profit.

The inequitable distribution of wealth that comes as a result of wage labor creates an economic, political and social power imbalance, since in the market your vote is your dollar, and wage labor in the workplace is an apparatus to give a minority of people more votes in the market than the rest. Libertarians historically wanted to replace these conditions with workers’ self-management and create a socialist society where people have control over their own work and in all economic planning and decision-making, as arranged through popular associations like unions, assemblies, councils and federations. There are various concrete proposals for these types of economies from people like Cornelius Castoriadis, Peter Kropotkin, GDH Cole and others.

In the 1962 book “Capitalism & Freedom”, Milton Friedman says: “The rightful and proper label is liberalism…liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world…”. The word “libertarianism” became associated with right wing classical liberals in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to use the word for political opportunism. In “The Betrayal of the American Right”, Murray Rothbard said, “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy…‘Libertarians’…had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over…”

An easy way to understand the major differences between libertarians and classical liberals is that libertarians prioritize positive liberty whereas classical liberals prioritize negative liberty. Positive liberty means having control over the decisions that affect you (self-management) and having access to the resources to fulfill your potential. Negative liberty means merely absence of external restraint. Because the employer doesn’t put a gun to your head to take a job, you’re supposedly “free” as far as the liberal is concerned. But in reality workers face a denial of positive liberty because they are forced to work for employers to afford access to resources they need to live their lives, and have no direct control over their own work or over economic planning decisions which affect their lives.

Why revolutionary syndicalism?

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, October 31, 2012

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

1. A Strategy for Workers Liberation

Capitalism is at its heart an oppressive and exploitative economic system. The core is the class structure, in which the majority are dispossessed of the means of production of goods and services, and must submit to bureaucratic production regimes. These regimes control our labor so as to pump out wealth privately accumulated by the plutocrats at the top of the heap (and paying high salaries to the bureaucratic class of managers and high-end professionals), and backed up by the coercive force of the state. Working people are thus an oppressed class, although it is also internally quite heterogeneous and various sub-groups are oppressed in various diverse ways.

The working class can’t be free and can’t ultimately ensure well-being for itself unless it can take over the control of the process of production (which includes transportation and distribution and production of services), and the land and all the means of production, becoming masters of production, in control of our own work of and technological development. To do this means dismantling the institutional power of the bureaucratic/managerial and capitalist classes, so that we are not subordinate to any dominating class. As Ralph Chaplin put it in “Solidarity Forever”:

All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.

Workers self-management of all of social production is thus a necessary condition for working class liberation. If we don’t control production some other class will, and then we’re not free. This means there must be a mass worker movement that has the capacity and aspiration to take over the means of production, and continue social production under direct worker’s management. This takeover of production is not all there is to social emancipation but this is very basic in that the working class cannot liberate itself if it doesn’t do this.

Also, by “takeover of production” I do not mean that the existing workplaces and techniques of production are continued without change, but with workers replacing management. I also mean that the working class then sets up a system of working class control that re-organizes social production, works to change technology, works to develop worker skills to break down hierarchical divisions of labor, changes production to ensure our species survival through a change in ecological impacts, and in general works to make social production more socially beneficial. Breaking down the present class division between subordinate workers and middle management and professionals also requires major changes in the educational system and the way that learning is linked with social production.

But to achieve its liberation the working class needs to have a strategy. Part of the point to the focus on the struggle between workers and bosses is that this provides a lever for changing society. Workers have the potential to exert power here because the flow of profits to the capitalists requires our cooperation in production. Thus the ability to bring production to a halt is a potential form of power the working class has. Again, to quote Ralph Chaplin:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

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