The organizers of this blog as regular readers, are aware, have been involved in the movement in California (the March 4th movement) that arose in response to the attacks on education. Two post March 4th documents analyzing the events have been published that we respond to below. The first was from Advance the Struggle (AS) and the other by Socialist Organizer (SO) in response to it. Links to these are below.
We would like to thank the Comrades of both groups for their contributions. And for the tone of these which is relatively non-left sectarian. It is good if we can discuss in a calm manner.
The main issues in the two documents are tactics, the consciousness of the working class and the youth and how should activist groups and socialist groups relate to these. Both pieces have important weaknesses. They are both very non political and they also, and as importantly, do not discuss perspectives, that is the process of events and where the movement to defend public education and make the rich pay fits into these events. Both tend to focus on tactical issues. This is a serious mistake.
AS, to a greater extent, but SO also, speak about the consciousness of the working class and the role of left forces in helping this develop. The AS speaks again and again of pedagogy. As far as we understand they mean by this the need for left groups to give emphasis to teaching the working class. The consciousness of the working class does not develop in this way, that is, by being taught by left groups; left groups teaching the working class is a flawed concept.
The consciousness of the working class in the main develops through the experience of big events. The movement to defend education in California can be described as such an event. It is relatively small as yet, hopefully to get bigger, but a movement from below all the same and driven into action by the attacks of the capitalists on public education. It is through such events that the potential for the working class to draw conclusions is greatest, that is, it is through events like these that working class consciousness develops. What is the role of the left and activist groups in this?
Our role is to integrate with this movement from below, seek out the most combative and thinking layers, conduct a dialogue with these forces from which we will learn and they will learn and help organize these most thoughtful and combative layers into a cohesive fighting force. And not only that but help these forces organize in such a way as to strengthen their bond with the broader layers of the working class. There are examples where left groups won workers to their views but in the process gave these workers an analysis, a method, a language which cut these workers off from the broader layers of the working class. We have to carry out our work of explanation in a way that is related to the real world and the day-to-day events that are going on around us. How do we help class-consciousness increase? We do not do this through pedagogy. We do this through helping workers understand the class forces behind the events they experience and observe every day.
The movement up to and around March 4th was noticed by the capitalist class not only in California but throughout the entire country. Its energy and scope concerned them. The first task for the activist and left groups was to explain this to the movement. That is, to help the working class become more class conscious by helping it see the reaction of the capitalist or ruling class. But was this done? We do not think so. LMV took this approach and our resources are very small. At one meeting of the various left and activist forces we explained this analysis but when the report of this meeting was written and circulated this entire analysis was omitted. This was a mistake.
Our duty is to try to explain the class forces at play in a concrete way. The capitalist class watched carefully the events leading up to March 4th, from the student/labor unity at UCB in September, the hugely successful October conference, the militant protest at the Regents meeting in LA, and the formation of numerous strike committees, assemblies and other bodies that made March 4th a national and international event. The countless university occupations around the world did not go unnoticed and neither did the fact the labor bureaucracy did not control this new movement.
This concern the capitalist class had about the potential for the movement forced them to step up their offensive, and through the Obama regime they sent a message. Their message was that the movement was going to get nothing. It fired all the teachers and staff in Central Falls Rhode Island, this was similar to the PATCO warning under Reagan when in 1980 he fired 11,000 air traffic controllers and banned them for life from working in the industry. The lack of response from the heads of the AFL-CIO gave the green light to the employers who increased their offensive throughout the 1980’s.
The capitalist class by this stepped up offensive in response to March 4th was saying to the movement, this is what you will get. Along with Central Falls it increased talk about closing 29 of 61 high schools in Kansas and stepped up other attacks on education. They also stepped up their propaganda offensive. For days all you could see on TV news programs was the present Democratic Party secretary of education Duncan sitting side by side with Bennett the former Republican secretary of education and both agreeing how the attack on education must go on. The capitalist class was responding to March 4th by stepping up its offensive. Their media offensive also included sowing division between students and workers and an editorial in the Wall Street Journal following March 4th blamed the attacks on education on the high cost of greedy public sector workers.
To increase class-consciousness the activist and left groups in the March 4th movement should have taken these basic developments out far and wide and explained them in class terms. That is that Central Falls, Kansas, etc., and the teaming up of the Democrat Duncan and Republican Bennett was the answer of the capitalist class to March 4th. That the capitalist class was giving its answer to March 4th, and the message was “your movement will get nothing.” And that this was a conscious organized response of the capitalist class. This general political conclusion should have been drawn throughout the movement by meetings with speakers explaining this and by the use of the Internet. This would have had a big affect on increasing class-consciousness. We should remember that class consciousness is not just the working class being conscious of itself as a class but also being conscious that there is another class, the capitalist class, that runs the country and is conscious of its objectives and that controls the political process and the state apparatus and the mass media.
The activist and left groups should then have tried to convince the movement to give a defiant organized political answer to the Obama regime and the class it represents. This should have taken the form of immediately building for the new statewide event. But to turn this new statewide event into an unyielding defiant answer to the capitalist class that was throwing down the gauntlet. This state-wide event should first of all have restated the program of March 4th and proclaimed that the movement still stood for this program; that the movement was not intimidated. At the same time efforts to involve all workers but especially public sector workers in California as the capitalist class through their Wall Street were running article after article telling the students that education was being cut back because public sector workers had too high wages and too good benefits. Divide and rule tactics.
The movement should have explained this and moved to strengthen the student and worker movement. At the same time the state wide event could have reached out and tried to bring speakers and representatives from Central Falls, Kansas, Michigan, New York, and all 30 plus states and internationally where action took place on March 4th and turned this state wide conference into the first step to building a nation wide movement to defend public education and make the rich pay. This would have begun to line up the classes in struggle in the minds of the most thinking workers and youth. This would have increased class-consciousness among hundreds of thousands not a few hundreds that we might have got to a few meetings.
While building for this follow up event the movement should have gone out to the high schools, the colleges the workplaces and explained the build up and mobilization for the statewide event in these class struggle terms. In other words ask the youth and workers to look at the events, to consider them in class terms and to help build the statewide mobilization to throw back the new stepped up phase of the capitalist offensive. Explain if they got away with crushing the defend education movement they would step up their offensive against the working class as a whole. This is the kind of approach we have to have when it comes to helping increase class-consciousness. Class-consciousness develops through events, the response to events and the interaction of the activist and left groups with these events, that is to the extent these groups have any influence. We do not think that the development of consciousness is an entirely spontaneous process. But that the activist and left movement must be part of the working class and youth movement. That it must relate and explain day to day events in class terms, integrate with the most combative and thoughtful sections of the working class and help these sections in turn integrate further with the broader layers of the working class and help the class as a whole increase its consciousness on the basis of day to events and move forward.
Within this process there will of course be many left and activist groups seeking to build their own forces. This is inevitable. No attempt should be made to suppress this. LMV is one of these. However a few things should be said. Most left groups including the group from which LMV was expelled have acted and act in a left sectarian way. We are now committed to learning our lessons from this past and stand against left sectarianism whether it is in our own history or way of working or in others. Left sectarianism is putting the interests of the left group above that of the movement. For example trying to corner the work in some area and keep other groups out, trying to keep new activists from meeting activists in other areas, there are many examples. Another is having as a priority criticizing other left groups rather than trying to build a united front of struggle within which different ideas can be discussed and developed in a comradely way. This left sectarianism is very damaging to the movement and wherever it exists it must be openly identified and opposed.
As we intervene in the movement at the moment what are the main political issues we should bring up in order to help the working class consciousness move forward? We should first of all emphasize that world capitalism is in a major crisis. That it is seeking to get out of this crisis through a major offensive against the working class. That it is this offensive that we are experiencing everyday, from the attacks on education, to the increase in unemployment, to the wars and occupations, to the closure of a child care facility, to the foreclosure of a home, to the increased racism and sexism, and attacks on undocumented workers etc. Our first task in seeking to help the working class consciousness move forward is to help it see the objective situation in which it lives. It lives in a time of a great global crisis of capitalism and a time of a major capitalist offensive against the working class. As we take part in and help organize the struggles of working people and help working people struggle for a better life we must link this work to the crisis of the system of capitalism and how capitalism cannot solve this crisis. Capitalism has forfeited the right to exist and must be replaced by a democratic socialist society democratically owned and managed and controlled by the working class of the world. If we do serious work and help working people in their day-to-day struggle then our explanation about capitalism and socialism will get an ear.
At the moment the working class as a whole, all the different layers, are increasingly angry at the conditions in which capitalism forces them to live, the fall in wages and the rise in unemployment. The problem is that given the present leadership of their organizations, the trade unions, the working class cannot see a way to fight the system and to fight for a better life. The problem is not that the working class will not fight. The problem is that the working class cannot see a way to fight given that their mass organizations the trade unions have a leadership that has capitulated to the bosses and to the capitalist offensive. And not only that, but this leadership seeks to crush any movement arising in its ranks that seeks to fight against the capitalist offensive and that threatens the relationship the union hierarchy has built with the employers that is based on labor peace. The role of the union leaders and their policies is a millstone around the neck of the working class.
There are millions of workers in trade unions in the US. They are discontented with their life and conditions in the main. But they do not have an alternative as the trade union leaders agree with the Team Concept in the work place which means making concessions on wages, conditions, jobs to help their bosses compete, and the Team Concept in the political arena which means supporting the Democrats, a capitalist party, which, along with the Republicans gives the capitalists a monopoly over politics. The capitalists have the two major parties of US political life, the working class has none. This is because of the policies of the trade union leaders.
Both documents, those of the AS and the SO have serious weaknesses in relation to the trade unions.
The refusal of the trade union leaders to fight the employers and their system (this is putting it mildly as they openly collaborate with them to ensure their interests are met) must always be pointed out. March 4th was a great event. But the reason it was not a generalized strike throughout the education system of the state and possibly even wider was because the union leaders did all they could to prevent this. The union leadership used the resources they command to hold the movement back. This holding back of the movement by the union leadership has to be pointed out. The labor leaders gave $400 million to the Democrats in the last elections but how much to the student struggles they claim to support? LMV will always point this out and in the run up to March 4th where we had resources we moved resolutions to locals calling for the union leadership to organize strike action. We got these passed in two locals and sought to get other locals to pass them. The idea was to try and spread this demand as widely as possible and with this pressure from below perhaps make it impossible for the union leaders to block the movement for March 4th. AFSCME local 444 and Carpenters local 713 passed such resolutions when LMV supporters moved them. The resolution was originally introduced in Local 444 by an LMV comrade who is retried and no longer a member.
AS supported these resolutions and called on the union leaders to lead the movement to come out on strike along with students. We recognize the comrades for this. The SO handed out Local 444’s resolution at the San Francisco Labor council but did not ask for a vote. They write: "We hoped if we could convince at least one union to call for a strike on March 4th early in the game, a dynamic could arise from below in which a growing movement of rank and file workers could push for their unions to strike as well."
But how do they expect to “convince” a Union to strike. By outflanking the leadership? Reading through the SO document it blames the membership throughout. It often uses the terminology “the unions” must do this, “the union movement must…” etc. But there are leaders and there are members, there is not one monolithic union movement; if you do not hold the leadership accountable for the defeats and setbacks we have suffered then you blame the membership and this is what SO does if you read the document. The SO document makes it clear that it is the view of the authors that it is the consciousness of the membership that is an obstacle when it states:
“But the level of mobilization and self-confidence of the working class leading up to March 4 did not get close to such a level to justify a focus on agitation amongst all unions to strike illegally. Even AFSCME Local 444 didn’t even come close to striking!”
The problem was not that the membership of Local 444 or the working class in general is against striking illegally, the problem is that the decision to strike is not made in a vacuum it is not made independent of leaders. If the leadership is leading, showing its willingness to fight, using the resources at its command to draw in all our allies and campaigning around a program that meets workers’ needs, and most importantly if they make it clear they will organize mass defiance of the law, then a decision to strike is taken in a completely different set of objective conditions.
The 444 resolution at the San Francisco Labor Council was not moved to a vote because it contained the following resolves:
RESOLVED that the leadership of the California Labor Federation, the Change to Win Coalition and the international Unions so affiliated to these bodies, as well as non-affiliated Unions join the call for and participate in a statewide strike on March 4th 2010 and publicly announce such intentions; and be it finally
RESOLVED that the resources of organized Labor in California be used between now and March 4th2010 to build support among the members of its affiliated Unions, the communities in which we live and work, and among the youth for a successful and united statewide strike against the assault on working people and our families.
Moving this resolution would have brought the mover in to conflict with the bureaucracy that leads the labor movement. It would have opened up the differences in a real way and the bureaucracy would have had to defend itself. Bodies like central labor councils are overwhelmingly not rank and file elected members; they are more often appointed or hired staff.
When the SO document talks of trying to develop a dynamic for a strike this is what LMV was doing with our resolutions in 444 and 713. But not another left group tried to follow suit and develop what the SO calls a dynamic in this way. The SO did not even put the 444 resolution to a vote at the San Francisco labor council. We do not want to offend the SO comrades but we consider that this reflects an over developed respect for the false position of the trade union leaders. We would go further, in trying to justify their position in this document their overwhelming emphasis is to blame the workers for not being ready to strike rather than to blame the leaders for blocking the movement. This is a serious mistake at best; at worst it is a conscious refusal to seriously oppose the union bureaucracy.
Organized oppositions have to be built in the unions at all levels. This will not be done by refusing to point out that the union leaders capitulate to the employers and are cowed by the capitalist offensive and in the March 4th events it was they who prevented the development of a generalized strike movement. The trade union leadership is the main obstacle to successfully throwing back the capitalist offensive. Their policies of collaboration with capitalism have failed. This has to be pointed out and organized oppositions to the policies of these leaderships and these leaderships have to be built. Raising a resolution but not putting it to the vote will never do this. It is precisely by raising issues and putting them to the vote and making people take a stand that oppositions are built. The method of the SO, we are sorry to say comrades sounds a little like having our cake and eating it too. Raising a resolution but not asking anybody to say whether they support it or not. Sometimes we have to stand against the stream.
The AS talks critically about left forces that "meet people where they are at" and how this often means that they leave them there. It is important to make a connection with the working class in our work. I am afraid that in spite of all the good work that the AS does in mobilizing especially the youth, that this is an area we would ask them to consider. It is possible that the AS has an orientation mainly to the youth in the high schools precisely because their policies and language prevents them from making a connection with workers in the workplace. Of course it is correct as AS says that some left forces use the argument about the need to make a connection with the existing consciousness as an excuse not to put forward an alternative and if necessary challenge the workers existing consciousness. Such an approach is wrong. But so also is having an approach to policy, analysis, language, method that cuts the left off from the working class.
This is a small contribution to this discussion. We look forward to working with all the Comrades in the movement as it continues.
Labors Militant Voice
Advance the Struggle's "Crisis and Consciousness: Reflections and Lessons From March 4"
Socialist Organizer's "The Lessons of March 4: A Marxist Analysis"
- AFSCME Local 444 negotiations assesment 1997
- Preparing for Revolution: A discussion document
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- Project For a Working People's World
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