An Argument with a Dead Marxist-Humanist

An Argument with a Dead Marxist-Humanist

Michael Hough

“Since development appears as a unity of quantitative (continuous) and qualitative (leap-like) changes, in practice and in cognition it is necessary to take both these stages of development into account. To ignore any one of them means to distort the process of development, to lapse into metaphysics” Afanesayev

Correspondence is an infinitely useful platform for both the dissemination and elaboration of theory and practice. It’s often kinetic, unedited and inadvertently exposes elements which can be dulled in a crafted article, pamphlet or book. Letters are political documents in and of themselves. It would be counterproductive to subject political correspondence to the same standards as finished texts, or to base criticism of a writer’s polished works on the basis of poorly articulated, hastily drafted or otherwise inadequate or incomplete thoughts in their correspondence. But exposed in the platform of letters, seeping out from the condensed, hurried, informal nature of the medium itself is the basic method and thought process of the writer, their own fundamental orientation and perspective in their own words. It’s in that spirit that this supplement will use a 1975 letter from the founder of the small Marxist-Humanist tendency, Raya Dunayevskaya, to the labor editor of News & Letters as a foil to elaborate Class, Bureaucracy and the Union-Form. Her letter has been republished under the title Practicing Proletarian Reason: On Seniority and Labor’s Emancipation.

The greater depth and extent of working-class organization is how the proletariat becomes the gravedigger of capitalism; this is accomplished through the unity of the expressions of proletarian class consciousness, of action preceding consciousness (trade unionism) and consciousness preceding action (communism), of the spontaneous class struggle and the proletarian vanguard. The letter, through which Dunayevskaya elaborates the terms of the process to formulate concrete political positions that she follows, exposes a perspective of labor’s class struggles which denies the accumulation of dead class struggles, tangible depositories of lived experience and historic memory in permanent labor organizations (quantitative changes) and isolates only the spontaneous class struggle, and in particular, makes a fetish of mass action, acute and revolutionary struggles (qualitative changes). Her letter will be quoted and differentiated by her initials before each passage (RD).

RD: “Permit me to say a few historic-philosophic things on the question of seniority precisely at the time we have no definitive position on the question because. . . not only must all aspects be considered as a totality, but also there is then greater objectivity than at a point when one ‘must’ take a position.

Marx, from the start of being a revolutionary, declared ‘the proletariat is revolutionary, or nothing’. He said so not only because he was so set on spontaneity and what he called ‘the self-organization of the proletariat’, but because, again from the very beginning, he considered the proletariat not only as revolutionary force, but as Reason”

Dunayevskaya is able to correctly formulate that specific political positions must be derived from the real-existing class struggle and the Marxist method. But this formulation is immediately disregarded by capturing, isolating and quarantining only the qualitative changes of working-class development and elevating spontaneity into the complete expression of labor’s class struggles. The working-class accumulates its lived experience of the class struggle; it accumulates its dead class struggles in mock complement to the accumulation of dead labor by the capitalists, which becomes a social and physical fact weighing on future, living class struggles. Marx’s characterization that, “… unconsciously to themselves, the trades unions were forming centers of organization of the working-class,” elaborates this result of the spontaneous class struggle: spontaneity, the processes of labor’s class struggles, produces and reproduces, generates and regenerates organizational forms which become actors and subjects of future class struggles. Dunayevskaya’s perspective inadvertently aligns with that of the trade union bureaucracy whose ideology is that of spontaneity. The trade union bureaucracy is host to the form of proletarian class consciousness emanating from the immediate guerilla war between personified wage labor-capital at the point of production in which there is no future but the perennial struggle against capital’s encroachments under the capitalist social relation. George Titler, a former United Mine Workers of America official, demonstrates in his memoirs what Lenin called trade union consciousness:

“Harlan County was organized–but labor’s agony will never end”

The ideology of the trade union bureaucracy is the ideology of spontaneity, the proletarian class consciousness of the trade union bureaucracy is that of action preceding consciousness and derived from the spontaneous class struggle which leads where it leads rather than recognized as the means by which alienation and exploitation (labor’s agony) may be eradicated by the working-class through its own conscious action (communism). Dunayevskaya, like many other socialists, proposes an incomplete perspective of the class struggle which is in fact a mirror image of that held by those they view as the enemies of the emancipation of labor. The ‘bureaucrats’ and ‘anti-bureaucrats’ are functionally identical.

RD: “Thus in the 1844 Silesian weavers’ strike—as against Lassalle and all other socialists, communists, Left Hegelians, and whatnot that were opposing Prussia, but who called for themselves, the intellectuals, to be elected to parliament and speak ‘for’ workers and thus both avoid their ‘anarchy’ and rioting and breaking up machines and other ‘backward’ features—Marx insisted that they, those poor, supposedly backward masses, were in advance of the great 1789-1793 French Revolution

He said so because 1 ‘the reason of these poor Germans were in inverse ratio to poor Germany’. In a word, whereas ‘poor Germany’, though they had reached the height of philosophy with Hegel, were only talking dialectics, change, transcendence, the ‘poor German masses’ were acting, doing it. 2 it may not be good to break up machines—and workers will surely learn otherwise once they see the machinery helping them produce instead of throwing them out of work—but in action, that is in fact, machines do ‘represent’ the bourgeoisie and all ‘truth is concrete’. 3 and moreover, they are nowhere backward as compared to the intellectuals. For… they found the deeds to the machines and made a bonfire of these”

Marx’s piece on the Silesian weavers’ insurrection from Vorwärts! #64, August 10, 1844 recognized the episode as the birth cry of the German working-class, its emergence as an independent social force, based on his evaluation of history–the lived and accumulated experience, the quantitative changes—in the development of the English working-class. Machine-breaking had been the critical phenomenon in this birth cry of the working-class as an independent social force and the creation of a labor movement. Almost 60 years later, Lenin traced the origin of the Russian labor movement in the brief outline history within What Is To Be Done? as starting with the first manifestations of machine-breaking by Russian workers in the 1870’s. Conceiving and validating theory within and through the class struggle is the essence of the Marxist method. The real-existing class struggle presents the terms and conditions by which the proletariat poses its own emancipation and with it the forced extinction of alienation and exploitation, property and value for all of humanity—at the same time that it also poses the life and existence of the working-class as simply a facet of capitalism and capitalist society and nothing more. In the year after his work on the Silesian weavers’ insurrection, Marx would elaborate on this in The German Ideology:

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from premises now in existence”

And a year after that Engels further elaborated on this in his evaluation of Karl Heinzen:

“Herr Heinzen imagines communism is a certain doctrine which proceeds from a definite theoretical principle as its core and draws further conclusions from that. Herr Heinzen is very much mistaken. Communism is not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from facts. The communists do not base themselves on this or that philosophy as their point of departure but on the whole course of previous history and specifically its actual results in the civilized countries at the present time”

This is where Dunayevskaya is missing the other half of the real-existing class struggle which she has already discarded. The product, the end result, of the spontaneous class struggle for the working-class is organization. Just as the process of capital accumulation produces the class of wage laborers, the class of wage laborers produces forms of organization from the processes of their class struggles against capital. These are the facts upon which socialists base themselves. The encroachments of capital compel a practice of spontaneous resistance and contingent demands, compel a substance of concerted and mass actions as manifestations (strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, insurrections), and compel a structure made of a distilled and selected minority labor’s co-participants in its practice of resistance/demands and substance of concerted/mass actions to coagulate and congeal through the acts of articulation and definition, consolidation and defense of material gains. The exigencies of labor’s class struggles–to police and enforce material gains extracted from the class struggle, to defend working and living conditions–produces a representation of the class struggle in the content of trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation; a representation which only exists as a product of an alienated, estranged social class. Articulation and definition of material gains creates the tendency to consolidate and defend these now-defined gains; an embalming process turning living class struggles into dead class struggles, a representation of labor’s class struggles and a new social and physical fact in the life of the class to which it is compelled to orient itself in the future. The spontaneous class struggle does not present as the entirety of labor’s class struggles—unless organization is regarded as something which emanates from and serves another class’ interests.

RD: “By the time Marx was involved, first in actual revolutions—1848—and in all sorts of daily activities—unions, women’s struggles, against child labor, national struggles be it in Poland or by slaves for freedom in the USA—just as class struggle was the first and remaining major contradiction, the concrete now became internationalism. The International Workingmen’s Association was established against blacklegging [scabbing], against slavery, against Tsarism in Poland especially, and against Bonapartism in France, but the overwhelming majority were English trade unionists. Yet the minute the Paris Commune burst forth—and many British trade unionists said they joined for international labor solidarity, not for proletarian revolution—he hesitated not one moment to discount their membership, placed [ahead of them the] Paris Communards who never had belonged to the IWA”

Here is the first practical consequence of turning a fetish of the spontaneous class struggle into a method. Dunayevskaya begins to chase spontaneity around the world as though she were chasing communism itself. There was a real attempt to unify the expressions of proletarian class consciousness (action–> consciousness and consciousness–> action) in relation to the quantitative (represented by the English trade unions) and qualitative (the leap represented by the Paris Commune) changes announced in the concrete development of the class struggle in that historic moment by and through socialist practice. Six months after the fall of the Commune, Marx’s letter to Bolte (11/23/1871) articulates this:

“The political movement of the working-class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working-class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organization of the working-class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point. . . out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organization, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organization”

Writing in 1866 that the trade unions, “must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working-class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction,” Marx’s theory of trade unionism was given a practical, concrete test within the International Workingmen’s Association when the Parisian proletariat took power in its hands. There was no distinction between daily and revolutionary activity, both form elements of socialist practice born in the unitary real movement of the working-class and derived from the development of the real-existing class struggle.

RD: “Not only that—and this is most applicable to our day on the question of seniority vs. affirmative action and visa versa—just as in the 1850’s after defeats of proletarian revolutions of 1848 and ‘bourgeoisification’ of the proletariat in Great Britain because it was the empire then and Marx demanded ‘going lower and deeper’, so in 1871, when trade unions said they were the masses and IWA was small, Marx concretized that ‘going deeper and lower’ as the International appealing to the masses, whom the trade unions didn’t know how to touch: unskilled workers, East side of London Jewish ghettoes, peasants newly arrived in cities, women”

Rather than simply chase spontaneity, Dunayevskaya seems to have caught it and reveals the raw materials for the spontaneous class struggle as she sees them: the immiserated and oppressed fractions of the working-class. Indeed, Marx characterized the worker as the most wretched of commodities, and in the most wretched of the wretched, we see Dunayevskaya make an implicit statement that these represent the most revolutionary fraction of the working-class–untainted by organization, those first among equals with more to lose than all other workers who only have nothing to lose. However, by the time that this letter was written (1975), in the country where it was written (United States), she had witnessed sections of the most immiserated, most oppressed fraction of the working-class undergo changes to its composition, its working and living conditions and, above all, its level of organization–at which point they cease to be counted among the most wretched of the wretched and display similar characteristics as the ‘bourgeoisified’ skilled workers of the 19th century. When Engels scorned the ‘rascals’ leading the English trade unions, those sections of the English proletariat who appeared to be ‘paid by or at least sold to the bourgeoisie’, this development was as new to labor’s class struggles as the Communards were in 1871: the construction of centers of resistance to capital as permanent trade unions, the extraction and accumulation of durable concessions and the internal contradiction hosted by the trade unions of organizing a permanent conspiracy against private property while simultaneously meeting capital’s needs to maintain the social and physical fact of their existence both in the class and in the workplace. They formed centers of organization of the working-class at the same time they became permanently subjected and vulnerable to foreign class influences, ideologies, prejudices and habits; the pressures of existing society which was at the same time trying to absorb and destroy them. Ignoring this element of the real-existing class struggle leads to endlessly chasing after a new subjectivity, finding and fetishizing what is the most immiserated, oppressed strata (at the moment). But this is rooted in the theoretical error of ignoring the quantitative changes in the development of the working-class and its class struggles; of isolating, elevating and quarantining spontaneity as a method in itself.

RD: “None in the Second International, even when it was still revolutionary and all Marxists belonged to it, grasped that ‘lower and deeper’. The only one who organized and the unskilled and women before [there was] the Second International was Marx’s daughter Eleanor, and precisely where Marx pointed to—East London gas workers and women. It took nothing short of outright betrayal in 1914 before even Lenin ‘discovered’ ‘going lower and deeper’, though he must have read Marx dozens of times before”

Ideological narratives are omnipresent in socialist works and here we have several which almost crowd each other out from the paragraph. Dunayevskaya is certain that there were no Marxists organizing the unorganized, the unskilled and oppressed fractions of the working-class at that time. Decades before the outbreak of world war in 1914 and in the United States, significant efforts were well underway by Marxist veterans of the First International. In 1872, an International Workingmen’s Association leader from New York section 5, Adolph Strasser, formed the United Cigarmakers, a trade union which sought to organize the cigarmakers who were excluded from membership in the Cigar Makers’ International Union. At that time, the CMIU excluded women, the unskilled (those who worked with machinery) and those employed in the tenement system of manufacture rather than in traditional workshops (almost all of them immigrants). However, the CMIU did change its constitution in that same year to open membership to black cigarmakers. Working with other Marxists who were inside the CMIU through its English-speaking Local 15 (including Samuel Gompers), the CMIU was won over and at its convention of 1875, where the members and leaders of the CMIU voted to change its constitution to allow women, the unskilled and those who produced cigars in the tenements to membership, thus opening an established trade union, that had structural barriers in place prior to socialist intervention, to women, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants as well as citizens, the unskilled alongside the skilled in the trade. The United Cigarmakers and CMIU Local 15 were merged, creating CMIU Local 144, which would serve as the base for the Marxist cigarmakers to capture the whole International union and generalize the changes they had brought to the organization in New York. A few years later when this same group formed several more International unions on the basis of the restructured cigarmakers’ union and formed a new trade union center in the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, they formulated a structural mechanism to facilitate, coordinate, centralize and unify all stages and manifestations of self-organization by the whole working-class: Federal Labor Unions. All forms of labor’s self-organization were eligible to apply for an FLU charter and directly affiliate to the trade union center, from embryonic combinations of a dozen workers at a particular enterprise formed after a wage cut to long organized local assemblies just breaking from the Knights of Labor to scattered local unions of a trade or industry that as yet had no national or international trade union with which to affiliate to coordinating centers for women and minority workers to organize, educate and agitate around unique social issues affecting them specifically. Dunayevskaya ignores such episodes which run counter to the ideological narrative that such work by Marxists among the unskilled, women and oppressed minorities basically did not exist until after the collapse of the Second International.

RD: “When he did ‘discover’ this he said ‘never again with the Second International’. State and Revolution came next, but when the Russian Revolution of 1917 did succeed, what happened to the trade unions?”

They became ‘schools of communism’ (Lenin) and ‘reservoirs of state power’ (Lenin) and ‘pillars of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Lozovsky).

RD: “Because there was no national trade union in Russia before 1917, three different organizations arose spontaneously: trade unions became national, but meanwhile shop committees at the point of production, and soviets were organized. Three different focal points were too much, but when Lenin started out for a ‘single’ rule, it was at all what anarchists claim, that it was either political or trade union monolithism, but rather workers must choose one. Yet at once arose both the ‘right’—Trotsky insisting that trade unions be incorporated into state ‘since it was a workers’ state already’—and the ‘left’—not only anarchists, but Bolshevik Shliapnikov saying there should be no political party, calling for a ‘workers’ congress’. That sounded great except if you looked at Kronstadt which broke out at once, not to mention world capitalism and the remaining White Guards in Russia. In any case… Lenin insisted the only way the workers’ state can be sure of remaining is if workers have the right to criticize, and if they are permitted other forms of organization, and if they are not incorporated into the state”

A presumption exists in noting that there was no official-legal-juridical labor movement in the Russian Empire comparable to that of Western Europe and North America. There is an unspoken statement that hangs over this observation: that the trade unions were unnecessary for a real proletarian revolution. Just like Lenin’s analysis of the real development of the Russian proletariat mirroring Marx’s analysis of the real development of the German proletariat, Lenin again mirrored Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune with his analysis of the Russian revolution. The real-existing class struggle posed the question to which the socialist movement must orient itself. Lozovsky’s pamphlet, which was translated and published in the United States in 1920 as The Role of the Labor Unions in the Russian Revolution ,explicitly defined the role of trade unionism in the proletarian revolution, and provides an outline of the forms of labor organization characteristic of proletarian revolution: the organs of workers’ control and workers’ power; armed defense guards, shop committees, workers’ councils. The councils were all-class organs based upon and commanding the legitimacy of the organs of workers’ power (armed workers, defense guards, fractions in the army), whereas the shop committees were specific to enterprises and served as organs of workers’ control (of private property, the means of production, the fruits of labor) at the immediate point of production. Only the councils could and did serve as the form for the organization of power by the working-class as a whole, while the trade unions and trade unionism served as the bridge between the proletarian vanguard and the rest of the class—every particular organ had a particular role and purpose. The articulation and definition of state power as material gain was the task of the workers’ party and in its consolidation and defense the proletarian vanguard was granted the same mandate of legitimacy as the class bestows upon its human architecture generated and regenerated in its class struggles with capital in the trade union structure. The republic of labor, dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ state—all names for the organization of power by the working-class—is merely another form of labor organization, and it demonstrates the same tendencies and originates in the same processes as other forms of labor organization. Trotsky was accidentally able to formulate exactly that just prior to his assassination:

“In the last analysis, a workers’ state is a trade union which has conquered power” (In Defense of Marxism, Again and Once More on the Nature of the USSR)

This line, which was contrary to his position when he was a responsible member of the Communist Party post-1917, counter to his conduct after his dismissal and expulsion from the Soviet Union and generally opposed to his entire life’s work, is truly unfortunate. For this reason it is painful to quote him, but it shows that even the man who wished to militarize labor and to turn the trade unions into formal agencies of the Soviet state found a way to correctly formulate the issue. Lenin merely maintained the Marxist method and the complete conception of the real-existing class struggle after the successful seizure of power by the proletariat in October 1917.

RD: “When we get to the American scene in the 1920’s, we find that we Bolsheviks couldn’t for the life of us see that either the damned American Federation of Labor would ever organize the unorganized, or the Blacks would be permitted in anywhere. So we organized the American Negro Labor Congress, the Trade Union Educational League, women workers in isolated places but especially garment and textiles. But after many years of struggle and failures, from below did arise the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By ‘from below’ I do not mean out of nowhere because we certainly were there too, but from within and outside at one and the same time”

Every claim in this statement is demonstrably false. Dunayevskaya is framing things as how they ‘should be’ rather than for what they are—or what they ‘should’ve been’ rather than what they were. In practice, this liquidates the facts upon which socialist practice is based.

RD: “Presently, both Blacks and women find they have very little chance of getting in, not only because of labor bureaucracy, but, most tragically, the rank and file likewise do not recognize any value in “affirmative action.” Believe me, no one in the movement is unaware of how long it took to get seniority, nor its absolute indispensability as against the boss who can otherwise fight at will. At the same time we cannot use just the past and old arguments since the opponents this time are not bosses but “lower and deeper layers.” We also know the bosses would nevertheless use that against workers, even as they use the Equal Rights Amendment against working women who fought hard to win the rights. But here, too, we always defend the gains and demand proletarian women be consulted for working out any ERA on the basis of men too gaining the rights, not on basis of giving up rights. With seniority, instead of at once running to a “conclusion” and line, let’s keep all avenues open, maintain dialogue with those excluded, or more precisely [last] hired, first fired”

This concrete conclusion is then drawn from exactly half of the real-existing class struggle and passes through ideological narratives rather than historic experience. From the lessons of past struggles, even when foreign class ideologies and prejudices are soaked into the fabric of the working-class it has found ways to assert its class perspective through its lived experience. What it took to change the old Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers from a trade union with a racist, whites-only membership policy into one which, on its own without socialist intervention or revolutionary struggle, removed the racial barrier to membership were the practical consequences of refusing to do so. Before the amalgamation of several small metalworkers’ trade unions in 1876, a major lock-out occurred at the end of 1874 involving the Sons of Vulcan, the iron puddlers’ union, in Pittsburgh. While few of the union men scabbed, the iron manufacturers imported skilled black iron puddlers from Richmond, Virginia to replace the locked-out union members. Immediately blacklegging was associated with black skin, and a vicious, racist smear campaign by the union was implemented. Because the Sons of Vulcan also did not admit puddlers’ helpers or other trades in the iron mills, they were obliged to strike or endure lockouts alone. These policies resulted in isolating the union’s members and allowed their employers to roll back past gains and significantly diminish the strength of the organization. A year later the Sons of Vulcan became the kernel of the effort to amalgamate the metalworkers’ trades into one grand organization, which became the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in 1876. Beginning in 1877, some of its members began agitating for removing racial requirements for membership and promoted organizing black metalworkers into the union. Over the next 3 years they continued to agitate and finally won in 1881, when the union constitution was amended to grant black metalworkers full membership rights and privileges. Racial exclusion and craft isolation were defeated on the basis of solidarity as a material necessity rather than a nice idea. Racist metalworkers were beaten into shape by their advanced co-workers and by the tangible consequences of their actions, which conspired to compel them to change, whether they wanted to or not. Such episodes are glossed over, ignored and treated as though they didn’t happen in the ideological narratives so common to the socialist movement.

In the case of the seniority, Dunayevskaya’s refusal to state unequivocally that it is a material gain, a durable concession extracted from past struggles and maintained and defended over time is to abandon the real-existing class struggle for what ‘should be’ rather than what is, which is the basis of ideological narratives—both their creation and perpetuation. It changes the basis of communism from facts to nice ideas. Despite the complete outline of her theoretical process to formulate political positions, the detours through ideological narratives aka historical lessons as she sees them, there is no specific position expressed in the end: merely a desire to refrain from taking a position. Despite raising the specter of the CIO, Dunayevskaya refuses to look to CIO tactics, particularly from the early 1940’s: using all available machinery (concerted actions to grievance procedures, community campaigns to arbitration hearings) to expand workers’ rights and refusing to allow employers to turn such machinery won by labor against itself. In the case of seniority, what could have been a call to unify unconditional defense of seniority rights with zero tolerance for discriminatory practices as an act of Reciprocal Solidarity – speaking to the experiences, needs and interests of all workers and the practical, tangible necessity of defending both seniority rights and vulnerable workers targeted for discriminatory treatment by employers–was instead a political hesitation. Dunayevskaya’s method is thus not useful in crafting a legitimate socialist practice, and unfortunately, hers is a method that is shared by many tendencies within and on the fringes of the socialist movement beyond the small orbit of Marxist-Humanism.