Political organization of the working class: A strategy for the coming crisis
This is a slightly edited version of a document prepared for the May 11-12 Workers World Party national strategy meeting in Newark, N.J. Holmes is WWP’s first secretary.
Chances are that some time before the 2020 elections, the next global capitalist economic crisis will arrive. The crisis has been coming for a long time, and managers of the capitalist system no longer have the means to stop or delay it. That crisis will be more severe than anything we’ve experienced, and it will change everything.
The chances of a wider imperialist war, along with the prospect of all kinds of wild political gyrations both in the U.S. and around the world will increase exponentially. The class struggle will intensify in ways that we can only imagine.
Material basis for challenges facing the working-class movement
The challenges facing the working class, both the small percentage of organized workers and the much larger unorganized working class, should not be a surprise or a mystery to revolutionaries who have a real understanding of Marxism. Some believe that the reason that organized labor has lost ground is because it’s not militant enough. Of course that’s true, but it is a variable within a larger problem.
The latest phase of capitalist development, including the impact of new technology on the productive forces, a more globalized organization and the even greater role of finance capital over productive capital, has objectively strengthened the hand of capital over labor.
Economic developments have rendered the working class more atomized and unable to defend its interests — that is, at least until labor transforms itself in a revolutionary direction, enabling it to turn weaknesses into strengths. The expansion of precarious or gig work and the contraction of union-wage jobs, especially in manufacturing, has made it far more difficult to organize workers through traditional unionization and collective bargaining toward the end of getting an incrementally larger portion of the wealth that workers create.
Marx’s solution? Organize politically
Marx predicted the crisis that the working class is in today, and he showed the way out of the crisis. In the orientation documents that Marx prepared for the first workers’ international convened in 1864, he warned that in due time the labor movement must evolve beyond merely attending to the immediate economic demands of workers in the workplace into a movement that encompasses the entire working class.
Marx advised that the labor movement must not remain static and narrowly focused on industry and geography, but become international in scope and organization, and that labor must become not just a supporter, but a leader in all the issues facing the working class. Most importantly, Marx declared that as soon as it was able to do so, the labor movement must lead the struggle to end capitalism and not merely fight capitalism over workers’ demands. In essence, Marx foresaw that the only way forward for labor was to become a revolutionary political movement.
A central tenet of Marxism that even many who consider themselves Marxists tend to forget in the course of the day-to-day struggle is that while we fight for reforms, we must be able to see past them. Ultimately, there is only so much that the capitalist class can concede to the working class and still hold on to their system.
The concessions that workers force capitalism to make in the course of the class struggle are not permanent and are bound to be reversed so long as the capitalist system remains in power. This contradiction is truer as capitalism sinks into a deeper crisis.
Our opposition to the notion that capitalism can be reformed is because that notion is false. If capitalism could be reformed, then there would be no need for the class struggle or socialist revolution. Actually, the fundamental reason why capitalism is so unpopular right now, and the ruling class is so fearful of the working class rising up to make revolution, is precisely because after a very, very long time, the masses are realizing that capitalism can’t be reformed in such a way that everyone’s needs can be met. All this speaks to the urgent need to open up a new phase in the organization of workers. That phase is the organization of workers on the basis of political consciousness.
From class consciousness to revolutionary consciousness
There are several overlapping levels of organizing on the basis of political consciousness. The most basic level of political consciousness — but a nonetheless critical form of consciousness, especially now — is the understanding that most of us are workers. From that understanding, consciousness advances to the realization that we are part of a class that is not bound by geography or circumstances — and that it is essential that we support and defend our class. Such understanding reflects a more advanced form of class consciousness. A higher form of political consciousness is anti-capitalist, socialist and revolutionary consciousness.
Political consciousness, from a basic to a more advanced level, is on the rise. This rise in political consciousness is a factor in the upsurge of the workers’ struggle globally, the universal unpopularity of capitalism and the growing popularity of socialism, especially in the U.S. It is why today, the super-rich are scared to death of the prospect of class struggle and revolution. The need now is for this political consciousness to be nurtured, organized and focused in a way that helps the growing class struggle and the further development of revolutionary consciousness.
If the mass growth of political consciousness can be turned into concrete solidarity with the workers’ struggle, then it becomes one of the factors that can reverse the advantage that capital has over labor, due to the vast changes in capitalist development. There are recent positive and negative examples of how transforming political consciousness into solidarity affects the outcome of a struggle.
Difference between low-wage organizing campaign and education workers’ revolt
Imagine if the unions involved in organizing low-wage workers for $15 and a union would have called on the entire working class to rise up in support of these demands. There were good things about the low-wage worker organizing campaign, and concessions were won on the local level, but it never realized its potential because of the narrow orientation of most of the leadership in the organized labor movement.
Consider how turning this struggle into a truly mass militant struggle would have helped fast food workers feel more powerful. Unfortunately, the unions involved in organizing low-wage workers, for the most part, kept tight control over the campaign, limiting its militancy and its expansion to wider sections of the entire working class.
Several years ago, the AFL-CIO had managed to get over 3 million people to join something called Working America, ostensibly organized for the purpose of supporting working-class struggles.
Wouldn’t it be something if even a small percentage of those 3 million people were mobilized to join picket lines, support strikes and union drives? Instead, Working America was mobilized to support Democratic Party candidates and nothing more.
The more recent rebellion of teachers and education workers, which started a year ago in West Virginia, spread across the country and continues today, provides a positive example of the potential role of mass solidarity. The teachers and education workers used new communication technology to go around the conservative labor leaders and organize active participation of the community. Consequently, their strikes turned into mass revolts.
The strategy of Workers’ Solidarity Days: growing mass solidarity
The proposal for Workers’ Solidarity Days on a monthly basis, and the establishment of an International Workers’ Solidarity Network, is an attempt to assist in pulling more workers into active solidarity with workers’ struggles. It is an experiment in organizing workers based on political consciousness.
The purpose of Workers’ Solidarity Days and an International Workers’ Solidarity Network is neither to replace or oppose traditional labor unions. We must be in the organized labor movement and fight on a rank-and-file basis to push organized labor in a revolutionary direction.
However, especially at a time when conditions are creating the potential for revolutionary transformation, revolutionaries can influence the trade unions from the inside as well as the outside.
The extent to which Workers’ Solidarity Days will succeed is something we can’t know yet. If it is flawed or premature, we may need to change our strategy, but we cannot change our direction and that is to intervene more consistently and methodically in the working-class struggle. If Workers’ Solidarity Days are successful, that could create the basis for organizing Workers’ Assemblies, as well as become a source of recruitment into the party.
The period that we are in is bound to give rise to calls for a mass workers’ party. It is likely that the harsh lessons that many activists will learn from the outcome of their efforts to push the Democratic Party to the left in the 2020 presidential elections will become a catalyst for the formation of a mass workers’ party.
This is merely speculative at this time, but the work beginning now with the International Workers’ Solidarity Network could become part of a real mass movement for a mass workers’ party. Such a development would reflect a higher level of organizing workers on the basis of political consciousness. For now, the approach to Workers’ Solidarity Day is to take small steps, learn and adjust tactics.
The June 1 Workers’ Solidarity Day will be in solidarity with migrant workers, because the war against migrant workers is by far the biggest weapon that the capitalists are wielding in order to thwart the development of the class struggle.
What are Workers’ Solidarity Days? The answer to that question, at least for the moment, is that they are whatever conditions allow them to be. Workers’ Solidarity Days could be something as simple as organizing a few workers to support a workers’ picket line. It could be organizing others to go to a progressive event, like a Pride march, with leaflets and placards that raise a local workers’ struggle.
It could be holding a meeting, including a political meeting, to discuss the workers’ struggle. Where solidarity days can be more than this, they will be. We must also use solidarity days to show that all the struggles — the women’s struggle, the anti-racist struggle, the LGBTQ2S struggle, the struggle against war and fascism, the struggle for accessibility and the climate change struggle — are ALL workers’ struggles and that it’s important that these struggles be waged in the name of the multinational, multigender and multigenerational working class.
A global general strike this fall about climate change: What an opportunity!
Students all over the world have been walking out of classes and holding fairly militant protests to save the planet from climate change. The forces in this movement are now calling for a global general strike on Friday, Sept. 27. This could provide an extraordinary opportunity for left forces in the working-class movement.
It is interesting that forces organizing around climate change have chosen to call this global general strike in September, as the culmination of their protests this year. It reflects, at least in an incipient way, an appreciation for the potential power of the working class.
One of the weaknesses of this movement is that it seems to be indifferent to the economic and social demands of the working class, especially to those of the most oppressed. If revolutionary left forces intervene in this global general strike in a big way, perhaps through the International Workers’ Solidarity Network, that weakness could possibly be rectified.
Onward to building global working-class solidarity!