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What Happened to the Workers’ Movement, and How Can It Be Rebuilt?


Writing for the website of the journal Salvage, sociologist and labor activist David Camfield discusses the historical developments that led to the decline of working-class political power, which peaked in the early and mid-twentieth century but seems almost nonexistent today. Camfield also explores what’s needed to reconstruct this power, beginning with the realization that we live in a different world than our socialist forebearers, so we cannot simplistically “apply” methods from their own time to ours. In other words, suggests Camfield, if the workers’ movement is to be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt on a different foundation. Read an excerpt from his piece below, or the full text here.

As the Italian marxists quoted at the outset put it, ours is “the slow time of reconstruction, reconstruction of ideas and material power of social subjects.” The extent of working-class decomposition imposes this pace on efforts to foster workers’ self-organization and solidarity. This temporality is terrifyingly out of synch with the speeds at which the climate change crisis is worsening and political events are happening (Brexit, Trump’s win, the growth of right-wing populist and fascist forces…). Although bold political initiatives and surprising wins are possible (the obvious lesson of, for example, the ascent of Corbyn-led Labour as well as the Sanders campaign and the emergence of a new left in the US, and, on a smaller scale, of the $15 and Fairness campaign in the Canadian province of Ontario), the advance of class-struggle politics is constrained by the political condition of the social forces on which these politics depend — not union officials or even union and community activists but the layers of the working class open to taking collective action against employers, landlords, corporate polluters, governments, and other state authorities when it seems that fighting back makes sense.

Recognizing this powerful constraint should direct our attention to the “need to start where the working class is, rather than where [we] might like it to be,” as Sheila Cohen puts it. A good first move is to try to listen and watch attentively, using theoretical tools but trying to avoid imposing preconceptions. Most of us can contribute in at least some small way to fostering elementary forms of resistance where we work or live, and in these increasingly unpredictable times (who foresaw Corbynism, the influx of thousands of radicalizing people into the Democratic Socialists of America, or the hopeful “#MeToo moment”?) there are sometimes opportunities to do more. We can support and learn from promising instances of working-class self-activity wherever they happen, from neighbourhood anti-austerity campaigns to strikes to initiatives for change within unions to anti-racist protests. We can acknowledge and try to overcome the unhelpful tendency of radicals on the margins to huddle together rather than engage with people who are taking action but haven’t yet drawn the conclusions we have. Intellectuals working in academic institutions can, in addition to organizing where we are, develop relationships with, to quote Cohen, our “‘organic’ counterparts — as facilitators, researchers and educators in the cause of developing actually existing class organisation and resistance.”

Image via Salvage.


The danger with this approach is that you will end up with Economism, the trend fought into the ground by Lenin which, rather than advocating socialist revolution, preached for intellectuals to control politics and workers to stick to “economic” or trade union struggles.
Similarly, pinning great radical hopes on Bernie Sanders (who stands for class-dividing import controls, like most US trade unions) or the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn is a fool’s game. These movements are like the populist ‘left’ movement Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece.
These “anti-austerity” movements are flash-in-the-pan social-democratic frauds. Hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and left-wingers and radical students get involved. These movements can even win elections and get into government, as Syriza did in Greece. But they go nowhere, and achieve NOTHING in terms of working class progress, EXCEPT by exposing how useless all such class-compromising reformist politics are.
World capitalism and the US Empire are in deep, deep crisis and need renewed destructive trade war and real shooting war to totter on to the next boom-slump-war devastating crisis. Hence the savage destruction wrought on the Middle East by crazed US firepower and drone-striking. Hence the constant threats of nuclear first strikes against Washington-termed “rogue states”, such as North Korea. This is the essence of modern, decaying monopoly-capitalism. (See Lenin’s “Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism”.)
Unless the politics are about taking POWER by communist party-led socialist revolution - Leninism - they are just great deceptions of the working people.
But while the ideology of communist revolution should be sweeping vigorously across the planet right now, it has taken a hammering instead from decades of irrational Cold War propaganda, the Soviet leadership’s dunderheaded Stalinist revisionism, the Trotskyist ‘left’s middle-class anti-Sovietism and finally the USSR’s and other workers states’ liquidation by Gorbachev.
So there is a massive role to be played by those advanced workers and intellectuals who want to get the historic record straight and battle for Leninism to once again take the head of the international workers movement.
Analysing world events correctly and putting out that understanding for open polemical struggle is the only way to go (see Once a critical mass of workers start rebuilding Leninist communist parties in the USA, France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Brazil etc - the game will be close to up for the super-exploiting, warmongering capitalist ruling class.
Only by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat in country after country in the world will all the alienated turmoil on the planet be civilized out of existence.
“Fighting racism” now, alone, will never end racism, since all such mystical garbage springs out of capitalist society decay and confusion. And when warmongering, decaying brutal monopoly capitalism had a Democrat black man in the White House there was still no closure of the Git-bay torture camp, just more drone-striking of Pakistan and Afghanistan than ever before and more attempted (but seen through) buttering up of the dismayed and impoverished across America.
The fraudulent “war on terror” under Bush and Obama simply paved the way for the renewed miserably-defeatist-Mussolini style bombast of Trump.
But if things get more fascistic, so they get more brittle, more breakable.
Building Leninist cadres for socialist revolutionary party-building is what is needed, not more empty teaching of workers how to organise in protests and trade unions, which they can quite happily do themselves and do better than intellectual types posturing about.
What workers cannot do on their own is battle through all the relentless fake ‘left’ politics and class-collaborating nonsense of treacherous social-democracy, anti-Soviet Trotskyism, museum-Stalinist revisionism and the leaderless confusion of anarchism.
So there is a job; the question is: do you want to do it?


There is one relevant group left out of this discussion (at least explicitly): technocrats. It’s not possible to look to past movements for solutions, political or social, at this stage in economic and technological human development without factoring in that elite group of tech entrepreneurs – and radical group of hackers – who are controlling the markets and the global work force, while governments often fail to keep up.


Whatever hackers think they are doing in their smelly bedrooms and basements, with the whole of last week’s pizza delivery boxes on the floor by their bed, they are NOT controlling or big-time disrupting the international monopoly-capitalist system.
Last week’s serious stock market turmoil came in response to Wall Street fears that the class war in the USA is not going well enough (wages are creeping up) and that the dollar weakness (from massive credit creation under QE) could lead to a jolting rise in interest rates.
But, especially since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, the capitalist system has been living on ultra-cheap money, and is utterly shaken at the thought of that ending. But constant ultra-cheap credit for all companies - including tech companies - is unsustainable. The world is full of commodities of every sort - but it cannot all be sold AT A PROFIT (see Marx’s Capital Vol 3).
The conspiracy theory that the world is totally manipulated by tech entrepreneurs or right-wing/radical hackers or the CIA or Mossad or anyone else is just the plot of a bad James Bond film.
It is not that these forces are not at work - they are - it is just that they do NOT dominate all world events.
Instead of such theories, which lead to despair and defeatism, see how Washington’s grip on the world is failing; see how US imperialism’s warmongering is educating more and more of the world’s masses to rebel (lyingly called “terrorism” or “jihadism” if it’s from the Middle East or Africa and “drug terrorism” if it’s from Latin America); and see how all the imperialist gangsters from Germany and Britain to Russia, Italy and France are falling out with each other (hence Brexit) and how their country’s living standards are falling apart too.
Of course, fascist and near-fascist movements are being whipped up all over the place - another signal that the working class and all progressive people should start rebuilding serious Leninist parties.
The history of “democracy” and social-democratic movements in “standing up to fascism” is a bad joke. The colonial racist-imperialist Churchill “against fascism” (?!?) - a really sick joke! Churchill was only out to get as many Bolsheviks killed as possible by Nazi Germany, so that degenerate British imperialism had a chance (with help from the USA) to clean up afterwards.
Fascism is what bourgeois democracy does when it feels threatened, and it spews out automatically from capitalist slump conditions.
Today’s British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is being feted by the “left” as if his reformism would or could actually “ease back austerity”, meaning reverse full-scale capitalist slump and the warmongering that goes with it.
This is a complete deception of the masses.
The Trots and others going into Labour now to “push it left” are just spreading lethal delusions and effectively propping up hated and despised boss-class parliamentary democracy. They claim to be “revolutionaries” but never talk about revolution as a perspective, and most of the time try to block any talk of revolution.
Similarly, the capitalist media are giving vast coverage to those in the feminist and #MeToo movements with anti-men views (notwithstanding real criminally exploitative behaviour by male and female bosses) and playing up some totally irrational philosophies as “no evidence or proper trial is needed if a man is alleged to have assaulted a woman or child”.
Any revived socialist revolutionary movement is going to have to take on such questions - because OBJECTIVE understanding, not subjective impressionism and media hype, is the only correct way to understand the world and universe we live in (see
Plus, of course, the media are desperate to talk about something, ANYTHING other than the crisis of capitalism - or anything else that could encourage the revival of the international workers movement.
So they fill their pages and airtime with talk about what women were “forced to wear” at the Presidents’ Ball, what Oprah Winfrey says (a pro-Iraq-war-monger), and play around with how public figures (other than Harvey Weinstein) can be hounded into the ground with no evidence. For its part in this farrago, the fake “left” and “political correctness” are blocking the necessary discussion by imposing “safe spaces” and “no platforming” that can readily be turned by PC tripwires to attacking Leninist interventions.
Progressive people should get into scientific Leninism and avoid their brains getting swept up into big super-reformist capitalist media-hyped diversions.