“We do not come before the world and proclaim: Here is the truth! Down on your knees! We merely tell the world why it struggles, and consciousness is something the world must acquire even if it does not want to”.
Marx, Letter to Ruge, 1843
In 1958, Facing Reality was an important book, uncannily anticipatory of the historical period which would unfold over the following 15 years. Its main assertions are still being debated. Even though I myself have serious doubts about them, the following is written to provoke further debate. What I find most interesting in Facing Realityis not so much the answers it offers as the questions it asks. Those questions revolve around the role of the revolutionary Marxist party today.
James (“Johnson”) and Lee left the Socialist Workers Party ca. 1947, along with Raya Dunayevsyaka (“Forest”). James was deported from the U.S. to Britain in 1953, but the Forest-Johnson tendency worked in Detroit until the James-Raya split ca. 1957. The Johnsonite current was maintained thereafter in Detroit by Marty Glaberman (who died a few months ago), and still influences in varying degrees groupings such as the Youngstown Impact circle and the journal Race Traitor. Chaulieu, better known as Castoriadis and to a lesser extent as Cardan, was of course a founder of Socialism or Barbarism (1948-1965).
Many aspects of this book are clearly out of date. One canreadily understand how, in 1958, revolutionaries could draw such inspiration from the Hungarian Revolution (which was indeed inspiring), but almost 45 years later one must ask what has happened since (including in Hungary!).The book was written at the height of the Cold War, i.e. in the bipolar world which disappeared long ago. It is written in the shadow of “bureaucracy”, a term interchangeable for James et al. with state capitalism, at a time when “progressive” statism, in its welfare, Stalinist and Third Worldist forms, seemed omnipresent and permanent, a situation swept away over the past 25 years by the rise of neo-liberalism. The book never relates state capitalism , or, in fact, any of the other phenomena discussed, to the Marxian law of value. It is a pure product of the era which seemed to pose everything as a struggle between “bureaucracy” and “democracy”, “order-givers and order-takers”. The book focuses almost exclusively (with the exception of Hungary) on workers’ struggles and power on the shop floor, and is therefore (rightly) open to the charge of workerism, an excessive point-of-production focus, with elements that seem at times almost syndicalist. The examples offered of shop-floor power in the U.S., France and Britain were similarly swept away, or at the very least greatly modified (to put it mildly), by the post-1970’s capitalist counter-offensive.
These are, in my view, some of the book’s flaws. What are its strengths or at least some of the questions which, 45 years on, have not been settled by historical experience?
James et al. argue that the Bolshevik vanguard party was appropriate to the conditions of Russia from 1903 to 1923, presumably from the Bolshevik-Menshevik split to the end of Lenin’s political life. But, they argue further, after the 1930’s triumph of the one-party state in its welfare-statist, Stalinist and fascist forms, the transfer of this model to the new situation, in Russia and in the West, was an anachronism. Stalinism, in their view, was symptomatic of the ferocity with which the state had to suppress what the authors call the already-existing “new society”, and from this they conclude that no vanguard party is any longer necessary for revolution. They see the Hungarian Revolution as confirmation of this. For them, the Hungarian workers overthrew the Stalinist state with no vanguard party in sight, and similarly fought very creatively against overwhelming odds against the subsequent Soviet invasion.
Leaving aside the accuracy of this account (and there is no doubt much truth to it), James et al. do arrive at the intriguing idea that the ferocity of state control in the post-1933 period 1) expresses the “immediacy” of revolution in our epoch, i.e. the high level of general development present in today’s working class which capital must suppress and 2) is the collective experience that prepares a revolution beyond vanguardism. The authors (in contrast to many others of the libertarian current) are quite right to say there was nothing “spontaneous” about Hungary, but that it was prepared during years of discussions among workers in response to their experience of Stalinist “planning”.
Another (in my view) unique aspect of the book, again in contrast to so much libertarian theory, is its affirmation of the idea of leadership, simultaneous with its rejection of reducing leadership to some formal vanguard grouping. Most libertarian anti-vanguard formulations always immediately reduce any “leaders” to “bureaucrats”. What James et al. reject is the FORMAL relationship of self-appointed vanguards to the historical experience of the class, much of which the latter are incapable of recognizing. In their view (and here I fully agree with them) the leaders of different struggles are not pre-selected by formal association in a vanguard organization, but from among those with the particular talents and skills of leaders, adequate (or not) to the tasks of the real movement. A great strength of this text, in my opinion, is that it avoids both the conventional libertarian rejection of “leaders” as a swear word, and at the same time the formal understanding of leadership stemming from the conventional, incarnationist-body of Christ concept of the Trotskyist milieu (from which the authors all emerged).
Those of us shaped by “1968” have lived through such a long and bleak historical period since then (without precedent, in length, in the history of the movement since 1848) that the book’s description of the problems of vanguardism acquires a ring of truth it would not have had, to many, in the 1968-1973 period, which seemed to be an historical “recovery” of the vanguard concept, with the proliferation of sects claiming the mantle of Bolshevism (“proletarian Jesuits”, as James et al. call them).
The singularity and exceptional interest of this text–at least for me– is four-fold: 1) the use, in very accessible and not condescending language, of James et al.’s reading of Hegel for revolutionary purposes, 2) the idea that the “one-party state” which triumphed globally ca. 1933 (fascism- Stalinism- New Deal) obviates the Bolshevik model of the party for present and future purposes, 3) the forecast that automation was posing “every” question for the working class in a way unknown to earlier generations of Marxists. ( 4) will be dealt with momentarily.) Twenty-five years before the concepts of “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” became fashionable, James et al. wrote: “What is coming to an end is the stage of mass production by assembly line workers”. My own term for this new phase has been the “Grundrisse phase of capitalism”, the phase in which scientific labor (resulting in, among other things, automation) is directly appropriated by capital as a significant source of value. (Once again, “value” is striking in James et al.’s text by its total absence.)
Taken by themselves, these first three strands, however innovative at the time, are not absolutely unique to James et al. What IS (as far as I know) unique, and what constitutes “Johnsonism” today, is the assertion that 4) the “new society” is omnipresent in the daily relations of the working class, and that socialism consists in nothing more or less than pushing aside all aspects of the official society that hold them back, up to the formation of a Republic of Workers Councils.
This view of the “new society” being born and deepening itself every day focuses on what is possibly the unique “Johnsonite” idea of the irrelevance of explicit, stated consciousness of workers (or of any other group) at a given moment, when grasped in relationship to what the workers (and others) DO, even when (or particularly when) what they “do” contradicts what they “say”. Paradigmatic for this formulation is Marty Glaberman’s experience of the 1943 Detroit auto wildcats against the no-strike pledge, carried out by workers who were often Roosevelt (and sometimes even Wilkie) supporters, and who just before had even voted for the no-strike pledge at a UAW convention. James et al., in their book, give many further examples of this relationship between explicit consciousness and class activity. I will return to this central thesis after presenting the other main points of the book.
Taken together, these four strands do seem to point to a serious if not complete break with the practice of the classical workers’ movement, a movement culminated in the worldwide upsurge of 1917-1927 (i.e. from the revolutionary upheaval at the end of World War I to the massacre of the Chinese working class in Canton and Shanghai), the moment at which most of the “cutting questions” (the nature of Social Democracy, of Stalinism, of unions, of national self-determination, of the united front) around which vanguards and sects today still define themselves, acquired their definitive form.
If one wished to characterize the theoretical advance of the historical “moment” of the return of revolution in the West in the 1960’s, of the great advance in the understanding of Marx made possible on one hand by the struggles of that period and by the unprecedented diffusion of the “early” (1840’s) Marx, of the Grundrisse, of the Unpublished Sixth Chapter of Capital, and (more recently) of Marx’s study of the Russian peasant commune and of primitive societies, one would be hard-pressed to summarize the advance more succinctly than in the term “SELF-REFLEXIVITY”. It is impossible to underestimate the break this constitutes with the theory and practice of the classical workers’ movement: one need only think of the poverty of Lenin’s first attempt at philosophy Materialism and Empirio-Criticism(1908). One great merit of the work of James et al. is their emphasis on the fact that we understand the past in new ways from the struggles of the present, i.e. that we can “see” with fresh eyes the importance of the Levellers in England , the Enrages in France and of American slaves in the U.S. civil war BECAUSE of events such as the Hungarian Revolution, not to mention the upsurges of the sixties.
The 1960’s revolt against “bureaucracy” (i.e. “applied rationalism”. so to speak) was the immediate social backdrop to the recovery of “self-reflexivity” in Marx’s outlook (as for example (!) his definition of capital as “value valorizing itself”).
What does “self-reflexivity” mean? (This is my term; James et al. use the term “self-movement”). It is the key to the break with the past; it refers to the specific self-development of human beings and above all of social classes in struggle as arising from subjects “acting on themselves”. (This comes straight from Hegel’s “an-und-fuer sich” consciousness and Marx’s “class for itself” (the revolutionary class), contrasted with the class-in-itself, the dispersed proletariat in its day-to-day existence as variable capital.) One could thus summarize the fundamental historical break theorized by James et al.quite simply:
|“rationalism” (acting on objects, Western thought from Descartes to the early Lenin)||=||vanguardism, elites organizing others|
|self-activity (subjects acting on themselves, the “algebra of revolution” from Hegel to Marx)||=||Republic of Workers’ Councils, self-organization of the class|
It is no accident that every vanguardist grouping still in existence in the world today (primarily Trotskyists) displays total indifference, when not outright philistine contempt, toward the 1950’s and 1960’s “recovery” of Hegel, the 1840’s Marx, the Grundrisse, the “Unpublished Sixth Chapter” of vol. 1, etc, and continues this indifferentist attitude even toward Lenin’s late discovery of Hegel (1914: “No Marxist since Marx has understood Capital”, presumably including Lenin himself up to that point) and his post-1914 (Philosophical Notebooks) repudiation of the sophomoric, reductionist, boiler-plate world view of the 1908 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. For these groups, such considerations are “mere theory”, at best an afterthought useful for placating a few intellectual contacts who, in Lenin’s formulation, “must be kept on a very short leash”. The vanguardists are indifferentists on the question of philosophy (while of course generally adhering to the most unashamed unspoken reductionism), as they are of James et al.’s assertion that “philosophy must become proletarian”, because they are stuck in the old world view, sooner or later,of “acting on objects”, just like the rationalist tradition from the 16th to the 19th century, in the framework of bourgeois thought and science, and continued by the classical workers’ movement from Lassalle to the pre-1914 Lenin.
But let us continue with the four-fold singularities of James et al: the implications of the consolidation of the “one party state” in the first third of the 20th century. “Today, one billion people are living under a totalitarian state that a few decades ago existed only in the scribblings of a few madmen”. In the view of the authors, the great majority of Marxists formed by the vanguard view were, by the 1950’s, in state or proto-state apparatuses, ranging from the British Labour Party to the UAW (which James elsewhere once characterized as a one-party state in the wings).
It is a real act of historical imagination today to recall the “mood” in the classical workers’ movement (1840-1945) when the great texts recovered in the 1950’s and 1960’s were known at best to a few specialists, when unabashed Enlightenment materialism slightly warmed over into “dialectical materialism” was the daily fare of socialist intellectuals and militants alike. A similar act of imagination is required to recall the (pre-1914) situation when Anglo-French liberal democratic capitalism still exercised real attraction for reformers and pre-Marxist would-be revolutionaries living under monarchies, empires, autarchies, despotisms, landed oligarchies, and military pronuncamientos, not to mention outright colonial and semi-colonial domination by Britain and France. In most of the world middle-class people aspiring to serious change still looked to London and Paris for models, and read Voltaire, Diderot, Bentham, Comte, Saint-Simon, Mill, Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Shaw and the Webbs for inspiration and guidance. One should never forget how much a figure such as Edward Bernstein, who still figured as an “orthodox Marxist” prior to the revisionist debate of 1898, admired English institutions and culture; extrapolating from that fact, one can grasp to what extent mainstream German Social Democracy, the lynchpin of the classical workers’ movement, was a substitute for an absent middle-class liberalism in German society. One should never forget that in countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as late as 1900, mass workers’ movements were still caught up in major battles with the state and the Catholic church for secular education, that is for a bourgeois Enlightenment project, and still had to expel (and in some cases, did not expel) Freemasons–the ultimate top-down rationalist reformers–from their ranks.
From 1848 and particularly from 1871 and the Paris Commune onward, popularized “Marxism” of a sort was of course undermining and going beyond Anglo-French Enlightenment thought and culture. But what was this “Marxism”? It was mediated to the world largely by the Lassallean SPD, whose distinguishing characteristic was precisely the separate “elite body of professional organizers”, (a notion quite foreign to Marx himself), organizing the working class as rationalist thought organizes objects, and not accidentally propagating the original boiler-plate reductionist “Marxism” that prompted Marx to exclaim “I am not a Marxist!” This current culminated in the Bolshevik Party, whose adherence to this approach (despite the little-known “late Lenin”) was carried far into the 20th century by Stalinism, Maoism and Trotskyism.
In other words, the “Marxism” that spread from Germany to Russia to the rest of the world after 1917 was largely a warmed-over version of Enlightenment rationalist thought, in which the whole conceptual revolution of “self-organization” underlying the work of Hegel and Marx was totally obscured, lost and even (in Stalinism) calumnied. This “Marxism” only began to be seriously undermined by the events and ferment of the 1950’s and 1960’s, yet more than 30 years later the vanguardists have still not awakened to the implications of the conceptual revolution undermining the epistemology which (however dimly they may be aware of it), pervades their approach to the working class.
What James et al. have done, in other words, in contrast to almost any other text I am aware of, is provide a social explanation, both in terms of the mutation of the state and of the productive forces, for the “epistemological break” constituted by the recovery of “self-reflexive” “self-movement” through Hegel and the previously buried texts of Marx.
What is ultimately at stake in these shifts is the question of communication. Is it to be unilateral: here is the truth, (which “we” the Marxists “embody”), down on your knees? Or is it to be two-way, between the Marxist organization and the working class, i.e. what James et al. call the task of the former to “recognize and record”, as in Lenin’s 1905 recognition of the soviets? If James et al. are right, and there is in fact no longer any difference between theory and practice, it must be the latter, putting the Marxist organization seemingly on a “level playing field” with the working class as a whole.
What changed after the high point of influence of the Anglo-French liberal model, i.e. beginning ca. 1870 but above all after 1914, was, by 1933, everywhere, what James et al. call the “one-party state”, Stalinist, fascist, or welfare-statist. This is the planning state (however little it actually “planned”), and the significance of this new state was that it drove home to tens of millions of working people the ultimate social meaning of the old rationalism, of the administration of people as objects, the administration of people instead of the adminstration of things. The worldwide dominance of this state after the 1930’s was a vast “generalization”, but one also showing the limits, of the old world view, with which almost all “Marxism” was still on a continuum.
Thus, James et al. argue, to take as a viable model a working-class vanguard developed under an autocratic state where a kind of politics still in the orbit of the old rationalism could nonetheless be new and liberating, and to transpose it to the rest of the world, where all of rationalism’s possibilities have long since been extended far beyond anything known in Tsarist Russia, and have decayed for all to see, is truly to be an anachronism.
Thus for the second of the four innovative strands of James et al.
The third is the question of automation. Perhaps nowhere does the dated quality of Facing Reality, its lack of attention to the Marxist theory of value, come through as in this aspect of the book. The discussion assumes automation’s relentless extension, in the framework of the welfare/one-party state, into the indefinite future, an assumption the authors shared with any number of other 1950’s/1960’s treatments of the subject, from the “Triple Revolution” theorists to Murray Bookchin’s “post-scarcity anarchism”. James et al. seem to completely forget (as did virtually everyone else at the time) that without living labor capital does not exist, and that when capital is threatened by expelling too much living labor from the production process, it must re-employ workers in labor-intensive activities to continue its “vampire” relationship to living labor.
Nevertheless, the authors are correct in saying that automation, unlike any previous technological innovation, posed for the first time in the history of capitalism, not the creation of vast numbers of new jobs but the permanent elimination of vast numbers of jobs, and thus the question of the fate of the growing mass of permanently unemployed. This, however, has worked itself out since 1958, through high-tech, nanotechnology, outsourcing, kanben, de-industrialization, “service sector” MacJobs, Third World industrialization and globalization, in a way that would be almost unrecognizable to James et al., writing at a time when it seemed self-evident to focus on shop-floor struggles in the U.S., Britain and France (however inspired by Hungary). No reader today will have any difficulty recognizing the pertinence of these lines from 1958:
“Now, with automation, capitalism is robbing the majority of the population of the only role they have been permitted.
When millions of young people have no idea whether they will ever have a job and lie in bed half the day because they don’t know what to do with themselves, that is a system committing suicide.” (p. 26)
To tie these four strands together, we see that the old epistemology from the classical workers’ movement, badly compromised with rationalism, was realized in the planning state which came into existence to manage “masses of workers on the assembly line”, and that automation, which implies (for a socialist society) the emancipation of the working class (and humanity) from such repetitive drudgery, also undermines the need for vanguards by posing the possibility of “a different kind of activity” beyond the capitalist antagonism of work and leisure, one already present in the “new society” of everyday relations in the working class. The latter is the meaning of Marx’s idea that only with communism does “prehistory” come to an end and actual human history begin.
These four strands–1) the centrality of self-activity or self-movement from Hegel to Marx (and influencing “the late Lenin”); 2) the “realization” of the rationalist world view in the “one-party” (planning) state after 1933, 3) the entirely new situation opened up by the end of the assembly line through automation and 4) the “new society” which must be freed from its containment by “official society”, and which the Marxist organization must “recognize and record”–are, in my view, the truly radical (especially for the time) underpinnings of Facing Reality. It is all the more remarkable when one realizes how much of the subsequent 15 years Facing Reality anticipated in 1958, as in (to cite only one particularly cogent example):
“The French workers will move, and when they do, they will leave the French Communist Party hanging in the air.” (p. 156)
Obviously I am extrapolating the themes that hit me between the eyes, and neglecting the very rich discussion of the total bankruptcy of “official society” since World War I, as in:
“any elite must of necessity consciously falsify the information it gives to the mass…Official society does not know and has no means of knowing or even of understanding the actual facts of its own existence.” (p. 96)
the brief, brilliant asides on the fate on art in this period, containing in one line a devastating critique (before the letter) of the “post-modern” assault on the “canon”:
“so it is that at this stage of our society art is either the contemporary abortions which rasp the nerves and stimulate without satisfying; or it is a retreat to the accepted classics because they are being used as a bomb shelter, whereas they were originally explosives” (p. 85)
(one wishes to find one PoMo capable of acknowledging that the “dead white male” classics were once explosives).
Similarly anticipated in this book is the nearly world-wide wildcat movement up to 1973 (on which the authors were drawing from direct experience in mid-1950’s Britain, France and America); the resulting 1960’s surge of interest in councilism, workers’ councils and workers’ control; the worldwide impact of Hegel, the 1844 Manuscripts the Grundrisse, the (then) Unpublished Sixth Chapter of vol. l; all the new histories of the classical workers’ movement focusing on factory committees, workers’ councils and soviets in Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain; the rediscovery of the council communists Pannekoek, Gorter and the KAPD; the histories of the bourgeois revolutions which “rediscover” such currents as the Levellers (and Diggers, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men) and Enrages; the Situationists’ critique of art; the international debate on Lenin, “party and class” in the 1968-1975 period; some of the new “history from below” shifting the focus away from leaders, organizations and ideologies; the explosive development of the black movement in the U.S., perhaps culminating in the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, more or less exactly along the lines set down by James et al. ten years earlier. One can in the long run also judge a book by the “research program” (meant here in the broadest sense of the term) it inspires, or at least anticipates. By this criterion, Facing Reality must be recognized as being way ahead of its time.
But of course if we are interested in Facing Reality45 years after it was written, it can only be for what the book might illuminate for our present and future, for the main real question (for non-antiquarians) of what is to be done. It is here that James et al., whatever one might think of the merits of the book sketched above, enter the most controversial terrain of the new conception of the Marxist organization in the new epoch of self-organization, the “one-party” state, automation and the superannuation of vanguardism by the emergence of the “new society” in everyday life.
Writing in 1958, the authors refer to 30 years of futility of the small Marxist organization (looking back to the 1928 definitive triumph of Stalinism in Russia) (at least by the Trotskyist timetable). We, in 2002, can say, effectively, 75 years (which is in no way to denigrate the explosion of the 1960’s and early 1970’s which gave many of us the “eyes” with which to read James et al. with interest today).
Who can honestly say there is not a great deal of truth in their description of the life of the sect, of “small organizations dressing up as big ones” as the authors put it? Everyone who lived as a militant through the late 60’s and early 70’s must recognize how the small vanguard groups were mainly tossed about like corks on a wave by the major upheavals of the time, and could by no stretch of the imagination be said to have “led” them. This is particularly true when we consider the wildcat movement in industry, in most major capitalist countries, from the mid-1950’s to 1973.
But since that wildcat, shop-floor movement is what is best theorized by the book, we might also ask, as we might ask about the example of Hungary: WHAT WENT WRONG? What happened to all this wonderful self-activity? It is there, I think, that the weaknesses of the book start to come more clearly into focus. For James et al. (as in much of James’ other work, above all Notes on Dialectics (1948) the working class is portrayed as a tiger straining on a leash, barely contained by official society, the latter led by “working-class parties”, and unions and union officials (including American shop stewards) enforcing the contract.
At the risk of highest heresy, I might contrast Facing Realityto formulations in a text seemingly at the other end of the spectrum (to be published shortly in English translation) on the question of “party and class”, by the Italian Bordigist current, and most notably the Bordigist critique of Gramsci. It is not necessary to linger over the Bordigists’ assertion that nothing of interest happens in the working class without the party. The nub of their critique of Gramsci, above all on the question of workers’ councils in a capitalist framework, is that any oppositional force that becomes a “power”, outside of the context of revolution, quickly becomes part of official society.
James et al. are of course not arguing for such reformism either. They cite the example of the Hungarian workers’ councils, or the earlier Russian factory councils of 1917 (before the Bolsheviks pushed them aside in favor of the unions). Neither James et al. nor the Bordigists are advocates of any “gradualist” conquest of power by the working class; both currents see the revolution as happening “whole”, against all aspects of official society up to that point. This, however, is where they radically part ways.
The Bordigists draw their force from a wholesale critique of “immediatism”, going back to Marx’s polemic against Proudhon in the Poverty of Philosophy (1847). They see “immediatism” (by which they mean–without always saying it explicitly–any working-class action not led by the vanguard party) in various currents that have arisen since Marx, from the “left” and from the “right”, which express the situation of the working class IN THE INDIVIDUAL FACTORY, or even at the point of production as a whole, what Marx (in vol. 1) called the “sphere of immediate production”. They see this as a common thread uniting Proudhonian and Bakuninist anarchism (with the latter’s historic appeal to craft workers desiring to control their own production process), Bernsteinian reformism (which did evolve into the German works’ councils or Betriebsraete, officially recognized first in the Weimar Republic and then more thoroughly after World War II), anarcho-syndicalism, revolutionary syndicalism and syndicalism of the Sorelian direct- action variety ca. 1900, 1920’s German-Dutch councilism, and finally in the Socialism or Barbarism group in the post-1945 period (of which one of the authors ofFacing Reality, Chaulieu/Castordiadis, was a major theoretician).None other than Lenin observed, in the pre-1914 syndicalist revolt and strike wave of British workers against the Labour Party and its unions, that reformism breeds syndicalism, and that the two are interdependent rejections of Marxism, and specifically (by syndicalism’s refusal of politics) of direct political confrontation with the capitalist state.
The Bordigists see this “immediatist” workplace-centered view of the working class (which, in either its reformist or apparently radical guises, attacks Marxism–by which the Bordigists also mean, of course, the “party”–from the “right” or from the “left”), as a replication, within the workers’ movement, of the essence of capitalism itself, the alienation of different groups of workers in the very capitalist category of the FIRM and the individual sector. “The hell of capitalism,”, as the Bordigists put it, “is the enterprise, not the fact that the enterprise has a boss”.This means (following Marx’s vol. 1 presentation of capital largely from the viewpoint of the individual enterprise, i.e. the “immediate sphere of production”) that it is the “heteronomy” of society flowing from its dispersion into a myriad of competing enterprises which is one major aspect of capitalist alienation to be overcome. The ultimate drift of this “immediatism” is toward a conception of a “republic of producers” (as it was specifically advocated by many currents of anarchism, syndicalism, etc.) controlling the immediate workplace. The Bordigists (rightly in my opinion) see this flawed conception as a mystification of the existing working class at the point of production in the daily life of capitalism as being “already revolutionary” or almost revolutionary. Such a view denies the radical BREAK by which the point-of-production workers, along with the unemployed and others excluded from production, become the CLASS-FOR-ITSELF, the “class with radical chains”, breaking with their status as “producers” in this or that firm and posing themselves in society as a whole as the practical, universal embodiment of “Man”, (the only concrete meaning such a word can have) as “all-sided in their production as in their consumption” as Marx put it in the Grundrisse. The working class becomes revolutionary by shedding its fragmented status as a class-in-itself, i.e. a class-for-capital, as it exists in the single factory or in the sum total of all factories, as mere “negation”, thereby breaking up the alienated, capital-conditioned division of labor and posing itself as a total alternative power, a class-for-humanity. Or, to paraphrase Hegel,what initially loomed large in everyday consciousness has now receded to a single trace.
I contend that most of the examples of the “new society” given in Facing Realityare “stuck” in “immediatist” situations, even if the authors’ vision (e.g. Hungary) of the new society’s ultimate triumph is indeed based on a “break” and a totally alternative self-organization of the working class as the dominant force in society. (The latter is indeed the meaning of their view that “philosophy must become proletarian”.) They agree with the Bordigists in rejecting any power that becomes part of official society, but the two currents disagree drastically about the role of the Marxist organization in bringing about this break.
The authors of Facing Reality would of course immediately point to the Hungarian Republic of Workers’ Councils as the practical refutation of any charge of “immediatism”, as the latter precisely went beyond the individual factory or all factories taken together to rule society as a whole, at least for 13 days. No one, and I least of all, would deny the power of this experience, or of 1905 and 1917 in Russia, some of the insurrections (Germany, Italy) immediately after World War I, of elements in Spain in 1936-37, or finally of May 1968 in France. All these experiences are refutations of the tired, early Leninist assertion in What Is To Be Done? that by itself (i.e. without the party) the working class cannot go beyond trade-unionist consciousness, which is still the belief of most vanguard groups today. James et al. point out that
“if the organization was the SUBJECT of history,the proletariat was the OBJECT. In this conception of organization, in philophical terms, was the Universal. This conception of the organization is inherent in the extreme views that Lenin expounded in What Is To Be Done? He repudiated them later, but not with the force and thoroughness which were needed to prevent them from doing infinite mischief.” (pp. 93-94).
Nevertheless, when set against the great rollback of the working class just about everywhere since ca. 1973, one must wonder just how effective the informal shop steward networks on the London docks (etc. etc.) were in fighting it or even in slowing it down.
Nevertheless, Facing Reality is one of a handful of works produced in the years 1956-1973 which truly can be said to have anticipated what was new in that period. The question confronting us, once again, is whether or not it has anything to say to our own.
Serious economic crisis is nowhere in this book. A few derisive asides are made to mainstream debates over inflation, the balance of payments, “living standards”, followed by (correct) assertions that the working class could solve these problems in short order, once it has set up the Republic of Workers’ Councils. One wonders what James et al. would have to say today about the unraveling of capitalism in the three core countries they discuss, about entire de-industrialized regions, about millions of people trapped in minimum-wage no-future service jobs, 10-20% fall in real wages, a 10-20% increase in the work week, “flexible hours” eliminating overtime and even a predictable work schedule, the demise of the big factory, the outsourcing of work even in core sectors such as auto which loom so large in their analysis, the dispersion of remaining industry to non-union “greenfield” sites in the Sunbelt and out of the country altogether to maquiladoras and export platforms around the world; the related breakup of big working-class concentrations in the old industrial cities and the great dispersion of populations to suburbia and exurbia; three and four minimum-wage job blue-collar families working at Wal-mart, call centers and the new casinos that have replaced industry; the return of sweatshops, child labor and bonded labor (i.e. virtual slavery); the prison construction boom and prison labor; Third World immigration and American (black and white) hostility to it; the growing working-class sympathy for protectionism; devastated “inner cities” where all the factories closed 20 years ago (South Central LA and Cincinnati being paradigmatic; wiping out whole swaths of the black working class that in many places was at the forefront of the 1960’s wildcat rebellion); the rise of far-right parties in Europe with a serious working-class base organized around the issue of immigration. All this is a far cry from the mid-1950’s era in which the core industrial unions were negotiating ever-greater wage and benefit deals in an attempt to stop the shop-floor rebellion against loss of control over the work process. And what did the authors’ wonderful “new society” do while all this was going on, except undergo it? If the American workers in fact “held all the cards” in 1958, as the authors say, they certainly threw away their hand over the next three decades. James et al. hardly imagined struggles of the kind that characterized the post-1980 period, where every concession was not enough to keep companies from shutting down Northeastern towns and cities. It is as if the capitalists had read Facing Reality as well, and had done everything in their power to break up the immediate source of the problem, the big factory and the large urban concentration of workers in factories.
But we have hardly exhausted the richness of James et al.’s formulations about contemporary working-class life and the tasks of the Marxist organization. That task is concisely summarized as:
“to recognize and record” the presence of the new society, which the authors think was already one of Lenin’s main contributions in his recognition of the importance of the soviets (a breakthrough conceived in advanced by no theoretician). The first condition, then, is to “give the working class means of expressing itself” (p. 94). While greatly inferior to official society in resources and reach, the Marxist organization has the great advantage over its enemies in its ability “to see intertwined the decadence of official society and the socialist solution” (p. 97). The “invading socialist society” (to use another Jamesian formulation from another publication) is shown to be present in the way in which workers deal with the concrete problems of production, constantly having to fight management’s interference. The authors do cite remarkable material such as the 1955 French wildcats (which were already pushing the unions aside) and the informal groups in British longshore and textile which wielded more effective power than either management or the unions. They show (in the British case) how the workers used Communists strictly for their own ends and discarded them when they sensed manipulation; the authors argue, from the great informality of the selection of leaders in real workers’ assemblies, that “the question of leadership is a false problem” (p. 93) Their discussion of the issue of the relationship between electoral politics and direct action at the workplace develops the key idea of the book: the connection between the workers’ strategy at any given moment, and the uses they may or may not make of official society’s political system. (these are of course developed with focus on the French Communist Party, the British Labour Party and the American Democrats). They argue that vanguard groups reach a low water-mark of sterility in endless “sweating” about how to relate to elections, and this flows from the problem of “small organizations dressing up as big ones”. They argue that the great masses of people today have ideas similar to those of the Marxist organization but in their own form; hence the need to “recognize and record”. What the workers need from the Marxist organization is “information” about such breakthroughs of the new society as the Russian factory councils of 1917, or the workers’ councils in Hungary and Poland in 1956. What they need, beyond that, is access to the many aspects of contemporary culture and science which, in muted form, point to the dead end of official society, and James et al. throw out the very important idea that only those who recognize the central importance of what the great masses of people do in present and future history are capable of organizing such knowledge.
How, in light of these formulations, do James et al. imagine the role of the Marxist organization, if it is not to act like a small political party, i.e. “recruiting and training workers for the revolution” as they would put it? Once again, such an organization would attempt to “recognize and record”, as Lenin recognized the soviets as an unprecedented practical innovation put on the scene by the working class and not by any party. (Of course, Lenin also did much more than that, about which the authors do not have much to say.) It would attempt to give expression to the tensions in the working class, as exemplified in Facing Reality’s insistence on the crucial difference between what workers say/think (i.e. voting for reformist parties) and what they do (seizing the factories, as in France after the election of the Popular Front in 1936). If this book has one paramount polemical object, it is this zeroing in on the vanguards’ preoccupation with stated political views and with the outward signs, to which their “habit of mind and way of life” accustoms them, of political awareness. If the book has one paramount argument, it is an assessment of how working people use elections, unions, bourgeois newspapers, and other forms of organization and communication as parts of a broader overall struggle to push the “new society” to the limit and remove all obstacles to its full triumph. I found most arresting the examples cited, from France in 1936 to Britain, France and the U.S. in the mid-1950’s, where workers (in James et al.’s view) waged a struggle whose different dimensions confounded the exclusive focus on explicit political consciousness as expressed in elections or party membership or what newspapers the workers read.
The role of the Marxist organization, for James et al., is not to imagine itself as the nucleus of the party which will sweep aside the Social Democrats and Stalinists as the Bolsheviks swept aside the Mensheviks (for in the authors’ view the workers do not imagine the future in terms of a new political party); it is to give workers the information (sic) they need to establish the Republic of Workers’ Councils. They insist that the workers’ writings from Hungary and Poland in 1956 constitute some of the richest material in existence of the new society in action and say it shows the poverty of the small Marxist parties that no one has translated and edited them for working-class readers.
To me, the key passage of the entire book is (p. 140):
“What is the difference today between theory and practice, between theory for the intellectuals and theory for the masses? There is none. As we have said earlier, in every department of modern intellectual and scientific life immense discoveries have been made which tear to bits the assumptions by which our society lives and point the way to a new society…
“We repeat: in all these scientific discoveries what is lacking is an integrating principle, some comprehensive UNIVERSAL which will relate them to each other and to society and open out all their possibilities. This integration will not come at any one time, nor will it be the work of one man or any group of men. But this much is certain, that it can come only from men who have grasped the role of the great masses of the people in the new society and understand that the people are today ready to initiate the vast changes in society which the Hungarian workers initiated.The Marxist organizations and the intellectuals in particular must understand that it is their task to make all this knowledge available to the people in such terms as they can understand. This is not popularization. It has been proved that the most difficult of social, political, artistic, and philosophical conceptions can be presented to the people with simplicity and without vulgarization. But to do this demands mastery of the subject and understanding of the people, of the terms of their own experiences. It is the second of these which is so hard to come by. We have indicated the road.”
In light of this, James et al.’s vision of how this kind of Marxist organization acts differently from vanguards in their conception of a newspaper “by workers, not for workers” is most instructive. One might concisely say that the vanguard’s press still expresses the “Kantian” viewpoint of “JUDGEMENT”: it exposes and condemns the crimes of official society, and it brings to bear the “categorical imperative” of “workers must do this and must do that”, culminating inevitably in the long laundry list of demands at the end of every article. “The vanguard organization substituted political theory and an internal political life for the human responses and sensitivities of its members to ordinary people. It has now become very difficult for them to go back into the stream of the community.” (p. 131).
The James et al. conception, by contrast, would seem an attempt to make the press embody the tensions of an “Hegelian” dialectic, in which different workers’ viewpoints, expressing the “stage we are in”, are thrown into play against one another, trying to capture as best as possible the tensions existing within the class and between what workers “say” and what they as a class “do”; how the workers in Britain can vote (or not vote) Labour and on the next day paralyze the docks by wildcats; how the French workers can vote for the Popular Front one day and occupy the factories the next. Most interesting of all is the discussion of how such a press would function in the U.S., where ” who fails on the Negro question is weak on all.” (p. 152). James et al. argue for a newspapers in which white and black workers would be encouraged to develop their views on the race question, and where
“if a white worker or group of white workers after reading and contributing to the paper as a whole finds that articles or letters expressing Negro aggressiveness on racial questions make the whole paper offensive to him, that means that it is he who is putting his prejudices on the race question before the interests of the class as a whole. He must be reasoned with, argued with, and if necessary fought to a finish” (p. 152).
One sees the great difference from the typical Trotskyist vanguard publication in the following formulation:
“How is he to be reasoned with, argued with, and if necessary fought to a finish?
First by making it clear that his ideas, his reasons, his fears, his prejudices also have every right in the paper. Every white worker who is in daily contact with Negroes know of their aggressiveness on the race question. It is no secret to him. Further, apart from the fundamental conflict with management, few questions occupy him so much. Whether he speaks about it or not, it is a hard knot in his consciousness, as it is in the consciousness of every American today, a growing torment which the American cannot rid himself of. A frank and free discussion in public of the various difficulties as they arise is the surest way to prepare for that closer unity which comes from common participation in great actions.” (p. 153)
But almost immediately following this very provocative proposal for a different kind of working-class newspaper, James et al. insert a throwaway line that contradicts everything else they have said, and which is never elaborated again. In the midst of this idea of airing all the tensions in the class, informed by “the recognition that the new society exists and that it carries within itself much of the sores and diseases of the old”, the authors write:
“The Marxist organization will have to fight for its own position…the Marxist organization may have to carry on what for long periods may seem a losing battle. It will have to stand firm.” (p. 154)
What is then this “own position” around which the Marxist organization “will have to stand firm”? Such a shift in focus seems to jump off the page; it is never mentioned before or after in the text. Stand firm around what? Does the Marxist organization then have something special to say that is NOT expressed by the conflicting viewpoints of workers? And if this is a newspaper “by workers, not for workers”, just who is supposed to articulate this? And does this not constitute some “theory” different from the “practice” of the masses of people at some point?
What exactly in the modern conditions of the “one-party state” has obviated the formulations of the Communist Manifesto?:
“(the communists) are that section which pushes forward all the others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”
There seems to be a flagrant contradiction at the heart of the project proposed by James et al. On one hand, they insist that the task of the Marxist organization is to “recognize and record”; it is to learn and not to teach; it is not to recruit and train; it does not publish its press so much for its own growth as to put “information” at the disposal of the working class so that workers can “decide what to do”. When the paper says what workers should do, it should be at the initiative of some group of workers asking it to do so. On the other hand, almost surreptitiously in a couple of lines, James et al. refer to the Marxist organization “fighting for its own position” and “standing firm”. So which is it? For the entire book, the authors seem to argue that the Marxist organization should be providing ink and paper for a newspaper “by workers, not for workers” (is this not a last flicker of vanguardism, for why cannot the workers themselves think of putting out such a newspaper and getting their own ink and paper?)
I do not wish to build a whole case around a couple of formulations. One might indeed appreciate the broader project of James et al. in which the task of Marxist intellectuals is to make materials available to workers so that they can decide what to do.
They even say that such a role will continue under socialism for the “intellectually inclined”. But who are these “intellectually inclined” in a society that has abolished (as the authors rightly propose) the separation between education and production?
But this is sniping. It is secondary to the much larger question I want to raise about the approach of James et al., namely what happened to the “new society” in the 45 years of history since it was plausible to write about workers at the point of production in Britain, France and the U.S. and their multi-layered “strategy” for following the lead of the Hungarian workers and establishing the Republic of Workers’ Councils?
James et al. are talking about workers voting for reformist working-class parties. What about workers voting for George Wallace and Ronald Reagan? What about workers voting for Jean- Marie LePen, Jorg Haider and half-a-dozen other contemporary far-right anti-immigrant parties in Europe? What about workers opposing immigration and calling for protectionism, i.e. workers whose attitude might be charitably summarized as “taking care of our own” and “lay off someone else”? Workers who vote for California’s Proposition 187, denying social services to illegal immigrants?
James et al. are rooted in the period when the “main enemy” seemed to be welfare-statist and Stalinist parties and trade unions trying to rein in the shop-floor rebellion, but what do their perspectives mean in the neo-liberal era in which all those forces are greatly diminished, and the “main enemy” appears to many workers as poorer sections of the working class from other countries, whether as immigrants or as overseas competitors? A significant number of American workers today believe, or could be easily convinced, that Chinese workers and peasants shipping cheap goods to the U.S. market and shutting down factories, or immigrating to the U.S. to work in sweatshops, are their enemy. They think or could be convinced to think something similar about workers and peasants driven from the Latin American countries devastated by decades of U.S. policy. What would James et al. or those who today further their conceptions have to “say” in face of such dilemmas? If no workers stepped forward to critique such chauvinism, would their Marxist organization “fight for its position”? And what would that position be? And would not having such a position violate the very premise that the task is to “recognize and record”?
James et al. nowhere say that one task of the Marxist organization is to unify the working class. That has been the perspective of Marxists since the Communist Manifesto. Every development is to be judged according to the question: does it help, or hinder, the unification of the working class? In the view of James et al. the working class is already unified in the “new society”.
In 1934 in the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, the Trotskyist forces around A.J. Muste intervened in a losing strike of auto parts suppliers, in the depths of the depression, and said: to win this strike, and stop the scabs coming into the plant, you must have a strategy to organize the unemployed. An Unemployed League helped the Auto-Lite workers fight the National Guard, and part of the settlement of the strike was the hiring of some unemployed workers. The idea that the Marxist organization would PROPOSE “broadening the struggle” to an isolated group of workers is nowhere in Facing Reality; the authors assume that the class is already basically unified. In their universe, dockers in London hear of a strike at an auto plant, write a brief note to them, and prepare to hot-cargo all cars, even those coming from companies not on strike. In fact, when Thatcher came to power, Britain witnessed a series of working-class defeats made possible in part by the inability of the “new society” to confront a new array of anti-worker legislation against secondary pickets, legislation that was of course honored by the trade unions. Where was the “new society” there? When Thatcher took on the miners, shutting down mines that were no longer profitable, and the miners were stopped from using their old tactics by Scargill and the miners’ union leadership, where was the “new society” saying that the task was not defending dying mines (however important it might be to defend miners’ jobs), but in developing new sources of energy that did not require people to spend their working lives at the bottom of a mine shaft?
James et al. say nothing about program. All of that, for them, will be obvious when the Republic of Workers’ Councils is set up. And indeed one cornerstone of contemporary ideology is the alleged “complexity” of the world, in which simple ideas of two basic classes in society do not take us very far. And it is certainly true that one major role of a Marxist organization, once such a Republic of Workers’ Councils is established, would be to make material available to workers enabling them to make decisions about all kinds of issues, complex or not.
But if workers, as James et al. say, have neither the time nor the inclination to study such issues of importance to the workers’ movement, and Marxist organizations do, why shouldn’t the Marxist organization do the same thing for programmatic issues involved in “getting from here to there” as they do for “recognizing and recording”