An old question: is there a vital “workerism,” self-guided and instinctively radical, apart from socialist, communist or other leftwing political groups and can it make great reforms, even hold power in a workplace or city or national state? The question goes properly back, in socialist history, to the years before the First World War, when vast movements of unskilled, underpaid workers in North America and various parts of Europe defied socialist calls for moderation and control, that is, by leftwing party leadership. Through the immensely complicated history of the Left in the same places and across the world, most of the same questions recur. The wretched (proletarians) of the earth, frequently fresh from the countryside, struggle urgently, with great courage, for improvements, and are finally thrown back. Socialist and Communist movements seek to encompass the energy but most often fail and in failing (or worse: betraying the struggles) bring defeat and discredit upon themselves.
The question is now, almost certainly, more vital than it has been for five or six generations, in many places across the world. Socialist, Labor and Communist parties most often directed, often organized labor institutions, and presented their demands politically, with the USA and its generally anti-socialist, pro-empire labor leadership the stunning exception. And then these Left parties weakened into electoral machines, lost popular support, looked hard for non-working class constituencies (ecological, gender-egalitarian, and so on), and weakened still further into pro-austerity shadows of their conservative opponents. If labor is to regain a standing, it must evidently operate on its own, to some large degree, and build popular support on a fresh basis.
Nothing here is so simple, of course. Anarcho-syndicalist movements themselves, in their heyday, often (as in France) represented the most highly-skilled workers, able almost to dictate their own industrial terms while abandoning the unskilled workers to poverty and misery. “Workerism” in a more general way has often fallen under the hand of demagogues with ethnic or racial motivations, or for that matter or—notably in Europe of 1914—eagerly led members into an all-destructive war. Despite all this, struggles for workers’ power from below have been vital and continue to be vital to any hope for real democracy, real change.
The strength of these two fascinating volumes—they are conceptually connected and Azzellini was co-editor of an earlier volume with Immanuel Ness–is precisely their specificity, case by case, rather than in any sweeping political or economic conclusions. New Forms of Worker Organization is unique in its emphasis upon labor activity outside existing unions as well as outside Leftwing party influences, something obviously vital in the US (where the Left has been so weak in many ways) but elsewhere as well, because the political Left has broken down and, indeed, rarely represented the lowest rungs of the employed (and unemployed) except in rhetoric and sometimes in street demonstrations. An Alternative Labour History is conceptually broader, more interpretive and above all more historical. Each volume has its value.
Who are the writers? It’s a good question for New Forms in particular, because even the most sympathetic academic or political activist sees these stories from the outside, unlikely to have joined them for a lifetime. (There is a rich literature from Old Left and New from those who spent a few years or decades “on the job,” mostly industrial labor). These are more likely to be academics, sort of urban anthropologists in an official or unofficial sense, trying hard to understand the dynamics of a situation, often a highly unstable situation, from the outside. The academics of Labour History are mostly activists, at least for part of their lives, as well. Authors in both volumes are convincing—within limits—because they seek to look carefully. To my eye, they are less attentive to culture, ethnicity, race and gender than they could be, no doubt because the stories easily grow so complex that key points of analysis can be lost. It’s not an entirely satisfying limitation, but should not stop us from appreciating what the authors have accomplished.
Editor Azzellini makes the valuable point that during recent decades, questions of workers’ control arose sharply in Latin America, amidst the imposition of neoliberal solutions to the social and economic councils. The fading Communist parties, often limited in their support by regional, ethnic or other considerations, had given way to guerilla movements and with those crushed, the urgent need for something new had become obvious. But what was it? Even within Latin America—essays cover Uruguay, Mexico, Chile and Brazil—the historical conditions are so different, few generalizations apply well. Perhaps the most important is that here and there, unions become part of government, and suffer the consequences as well as benefitting from patronage: they must disciple an organized workforce or lose their benefits, too often including personal benefits to the leadership.
Essayist Elise Danielle Thorburn seeks to draw out several key themes including the importance of the “workers’ assembly” within the city, region, or country, all of these within the global marketplace. As in Canada, where she works, an assembly can become a sort of generic organizing center for the unionized and non-unionized alike, carry on discussion among different sections of left activists, and seek to develop strategies among those divided by such important emerging distinctions as recent immigrants and long-term residents. Limited but also empowered by the ad hoc institutional approach, such workers’ centers arise at crucial moments….and unfortunately, tend to fade away until the next such moment arrives. This is far from the sturdiness of the labor and socialist institutions with their offices and functionaries, but arguably appropriate for our time.
New Forms of Worker Organization makes rather bolder claims, at a conceptual risk. A great deal of ground is very usefully covered here, as in Steven Manicastri’s essay on the workerist organizations and orientations in the restless years of the Italian labor movement, 1960s-70s. The failure of socialist revolution or something like it seems, however, to be a mere lack of will, or perhaps the power of bureaucratic habits, likewise the sharp decline in the political Left as autonomous from the changing nature of Italian industry and workforce. The vision of the “Cobras,” workerist entities within various unions, is inspirational but their appeal is far from universal, a detail that calls into question how far the desired movement can go without a rebirth of a political Left.
It’s a question that continues to hang fire in this volume especially. The failure of existing labor institutions is demonstrated again and again, and likewise stirring moments of solidarity. Actions that can be described as new versions of syndicalism, like the actual IWW in the US (at Jimmy John’s sandwich shops) and among office cleaners in the UK, offer inspiration. But even in the lapse of time from the writing of essays for the volume until the writing of this review, many of the then-promising efforts have faded away, mainly due to the overpowering strength of capital. Today’s fast-food actions in the US have found their publicity and support squarely in the labor mainstream, an SEIU that has been attacked from parts of the Left as hopelessly bureaucratic, proof of the sclerosis in the remnants of organized labor.
Labor’s crisis is undeniable, the decline of the existing social democratic and labor parties a large saga of our times, and the experiments in workers’ centers and workers’ control inherently valuable. The trouble is, hard-and-fast conclusions remain dubious. Still, readers will come away from these volumes learning much, and being inspired more than a little.