Theses on Workers’ Democracy and the Role of Socialist Militants

The following theses are offered as a starting point for discussion on all questions of how socialist militants should orient in the given period. Our previous models, in particular the model of the “Leninist” sect, have run aground. Whether this is due to a fatal flaw in the model, or simply to a change in material conditions that have made a once-viable model no longer so, it is clear that we need to rethink our approach as socialists to basic questions of democracy and workers’ power from the foundations up. It is also likely that comrades who prefer “communist” or “anarchist” (at least: class-struggle anarchist) terminology will find something that resonates here, and I invite those comrades to engage in this discussion.

1. Workers’ democracy is first and foremost a question of the measure of collective control over the shop floor, the degree to which it exists or does not, the extent to which workers have fought the boss in order to gain some small measure of control. That is the foundation of workers’ democracy.

2. Beyond the basic struggle on the shop floor, the establishment of a union by workers on the shop floor is itself a further concretization of workers’ democracy; however, if the balance of forces is actually in the bosses’ favor, even a union can become its opposite, namely a mechanism for control of workers by the bosses, and a mechanism for regulating—or interfering with—workers’ control of the shop floor.

3. Consequently, union elections—really, the parliamentary expression of workers’ democracy, the form whose value is entirely dependent on the actual content of workers’ democracy—are simply the expression of the actual state of workers’ democracy or lack thereof. We hope that union leaders comply with democratic parliamentary norms; to the extent that they don’t, it’s an indication of the actual lack of substantive workers’ democracy, i.e. control of the shop floor.

4. It follows from this that the primary responsibility of socialist militants is precisely to advance the struggle for shop floor democracy—not, as many think, to put themselves into the parliamentary framework of trade unionism, particularly when that framework is lacking in substantive democracy. It is the primary duty of militants to figure out how to advance their coworkers that next step in the battle to control the shop floor; this is the basis of all other trade union work.

5. It is also on this basis that socialist militants must begin the struggle to build caucuses. The aim of the union caucus should not be to take union office; it should rather be to promote a discussion amongst shop floor militants about the next steps in the battle for control of their own shop floor, and to provide the basis for coordination of that struggle. To that extent, it should begin to think like a real proletarian political party; that is, to develop a vision for a socialist transformation of society, starting with the shop floor. In so far as union leaders enter the equation, the watchword of the caucus should be: with the union leaders when they help with this struggle, against them when they act to undermine it.

6. This also implies that a caucus should only consider running for union leadership when doing so will clearly advance the struggle against a retrograde leadership that is objectively (or worse—subjectively!) aiding the boss and undermining workers’ control of the shop floor. A union electoral campaign should then be used precisely to organize workers to put greater pressure on their sell-out leadership, to agitate for direct action, etc.

7. If elected, a caucus must be extremely careful—the leadership of the caucus should actually be separate from the elected leadership of the union, so as to be able to properly criticize (and if necessary, ostracize) those elected leaders if they indeed betray the mission of the caucus, i.e. if they betray their workers and the fight for control of the shop floor. Elected leaders must be held accountable to and by the organized membership. i.e. the caucus. They must also be disciplined by the caucus/organized membership if they betray; and, they must be ready to undergo intense personal attacks by the boss and the state in order to uphold the mission of the caucus/organized members, i.e. the fight for greater control of the shop floor.

8. This raises the question of electoralism. In the history of the workers movement, there was a development of mass worker movements into political parties which started to contest the bourgeoisie not just on the shop floor but also in the realm of bourgeois politics. Any group of socialist militants who are not geared toward the struggle for power are doomed to irrelevance. But then these parties also saw the ascendancy of a reformist, electorally-focused wing, and eventually a split between that (right) wing and a left wing focused on direct action and direct class struggle. That latter wing developed into the communist movement, culminating in the Bolshevik leadership of the Russian Revolution. We need to understand this development, not as a question of a development of people who “betrayed Marxism” but as the development of a layer who expressed the actual power of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat in particular realms. Think of the German SPD: there were the career politicians, whose politics expressed the dominance of the bourgeoisie in the realm of parliamentary politics; and then there were the career union bureaucrats, whose politics expressed the dominance of the bourgeoisie on the shop floor. To the extent that those layers of the party veered left, that was an expression precisely of the relative strength and advance of the workers in the basic class struggle over control of the shop floor. I think it likely that this dynamic was precisely why Rosa Luxemburg did not break from the SPD in the years leading up to the First World War: to do so would have been to abandon the workers to a bourgeois leadership with the structure of the workers’ party.

9. Our current union leaders are so deeply committed to the Democratic Party, i.e. to the bourgeoisie, that an electoral challenge is unthinkable. Perhaps if we had a labor or social-democratic party, that would be yet another battlefield for proletarian militants in the class struggle. (It’s questionable that this would be the case at all, now, forty years into neoliberalism; but it’s really only a hypothetical point anyway). But it is clear that the Democratic Party is the terrain of the capitalist class, full stop. What’s worse for us is that there is no proletarian political terrain in this country. Even if/when our leaders were to break from the Democrats (as they did in Rhode Island in 2010 to endorse The Missing Linc!), this is not likely to be a real step forward without a prior, direct, demonstrable link to an advance in rank-and-file shop floor struggle.

10. More than the simple and inevitable support of the labor movement for the Democrats, the structure of lesser-evilism is itself simply the acceptance of the bourgeois electoral system—and its complete separation from the actual class struggle—as the “normal” situation in capitalist society. As a comrade put it in a comment on social media: “Lesser evilism is not only when you vote for Democrats, it is also when you accept the concessions being pushed by your friends because you are embarrassed or do not want to threaten the alliance. Hell, better to vote for Democrats and then organize against them, than not vote for your friends but enable their policies. Although neither one is a very good option, of course.”

11. A real electoral break from the Democrats—meaning, from the bourgeoisie—would have to be premised on workers’ democracy, on at least some measure of control over the shop floor. This would have to be concretized in the form of a caucus, as discussed above: a political party of workers in the workplace and on the shop floor, a party with a broader vision for a transformation of relations of production. The caucus, the working-class party with a vision, seen or built more broadly, i.e. across workplaces and economic sectors, would provide the basis for an electoral challenge to the bourgeoisie within its own system.

12. Once elected, like Bolsheviks in the Duma, the point would be to expose the bankruptcy of the bourgeois political class and to create a scandal, a crisis, to provoke the bourgeoisie into a battle which either they cannot win, or which they can only win at the risk of exposing their class interests to an ever wider layer of workers, etc.

13. A useful and lasting electoral challenge to the bourgeoisie can only be based on workers’ strength on the shop floor. It cannot be a challenge sponsored by a sect—because the sect is not connected to the class in any substantive way, does not base itself on the power of the class, but merely on the beauty of its own ideas. It can only be a paper tiger.

14. From what has been laid out above, only general directions can be indicated at this point. Given the lack of socialist and proletarian militants in the working class, the lack of unionization among the vast majority of workers in the United States, and the lack of any real control of working conditions on the shop floor by workers themselves; given the low level of political engagement of the class, the domination of political life by big money, and the unswervingly pro-capitalist tenor of all political discourse; in short, given the complete and utter political and economic subjugation of the working class to the bourgeoisie, we can conclude only that we have a tremendous labor in front of us. There are no short cuts to class power—and class power must be the primary focus of socialist militants at this moment, when the class has reached a historic low level of organization and power. It’s not easy being red.

Brian Chidester

3 thoughts on “Theses on Workers’ Democracy and the Role of Socialist Militants

  1. I’m glad to see this discussion posted and I am especially happy to see such a piece directed generally toward friends, allies, and comrades of various political tendencies in the labor movement. I believe I agree with much of what has been stated here, at least in regards to how revolutionary militants and/or organizers should orient themselves in the currently existing AFL-CIO unions. Specifically as members of those unions.

    I agree completely with need to rebuild the shopfloor life of the union. What is termed above as workers democracy I would term workers autonomy or power, of course we both see this concretely as the ability of workers to directly grapple with management over conditions, wages, the organization of work, treatment of employees, etc. at the ground level of any company or workplace. The creation and proliferation of shopfloor level organization is an absolutely essential task for revolutionary militants and organizers within the traditional unions. My thoughts are that these concretely would come in the form of various “grievance committees” built from the ground up, to take on fights stewards are either unwilling or unable to take on, to support stewards or representatives when they do act upon grievances, and at the very least to keep a record of the many abuses workers face that the union officials ignore, and many workers let go because of our lack of any method of dealing with it. These committees would also be a place to put on cultural and social events, building bonds of community between members to strengthen shopfloor solidarity when fights are taken on.

    My concern with calling these shopfloor groups a caucus is that it may be seen as an immediate attack on the current Executive Board, as the main focus of caucuses in the past has primarily been on capturing the official positions of the union, and not on building up the shopfloor militancy of the membership. In my own union there have been both failed and successful caucuses and all have failed to deliver, so with that memory in mind naming an initiative that is completely unlike those former campaigns a caucus may bring a disproportionate amount skepticism forward.

    Another note on this is that it may also turn off union members who are decent and friendly militants who are loyal to the current Executive Board but would otherwise be sympathetic to these groups. A current example is that recently there was an opposition candidate who was formerly part of the current Executive Board. A number of long time stewards who are more active in the union and good advocates on the shopfloor vehemently defended the current President. And what I think is a very important point for focusing on militant shopfloor organization and illustrates the author’s points above is that none of the defenses or attacks focused on the question of politics or leadership, but administrative management. Never were they referred to as leaders, but administrators and professional negotiators, boasting their ten years of “negotiating experience.” The opposition was derided for her supposed poor performance as a representative and her inexperience as a negotiator.

    I think this is a key reason why capturing these positions never qualitatively changes the power on the shopfloor, as the Executive Board is an administrative body bound within a narrow legal framework. Now that is not to say that these officials do not wield actual executive authority or that they are politically neutral, in fact quite the opposite. The legal machinery is necessarily conservative, so at best a radical Executive Board would allow the shopfloor organization to continue unabated, and at worst become a disciplining agent on behalf of company management. Hence I agree with the need for the shopfloor organization, whether broadly considered “grievance committees” or caucuses, or any other term, to always remain independent from the legal union officialdom, even when the shopfloor groups become strong enough to throw up militant sleights to complement their activities.

    I agree that these types of organizations could be a place for other more specific revolutionary groups to grow out of and work together, and also that similar organizing groups need to be active in non-union workplaces. Whether or not these groups should become complete dual organizations both within the union and non-unionized workplaces down the line as I think may be implied in the above, I’m not sure on. In some cases breakaways or new unions and organizations may be inevitable, but for now building confidence, solidarity, and power on the shopfloor is the concrete task ahead, regardless of specific political affiliations.

  2. I’ve personally seen an important aspect of the fear that union bureaucrats and community leaders have of breaking away from the Democratic Party and its ecosystem. (Chicago is a great archetype of this.) These leaders are terrified of being ostracized from the corridors in which they rub elbows with the powerbrokers. They believe that if this happens they have lost any access to the powerful, and there is nothing that they fear the most that having to carry their lot on their own. To build a political alternative, even if reformist, from scratch. Like the Catholic Church hierarchy, they are tied to the the material base, to the apparatus of their respective organizations. They would rather keep a sclerotic one, rather than losing it all in battle.
    In this way they are NO different from their counterparts in the Labour Party in Britain. There is no hole deep enough that they cannot jump into, as long as they preserve their “access” to power.
    Of course, there are moments in which some of them make a classical risk analysis calculation and engage in more confrontational and riskier actions. This less risky at such a moment. But that depends on the actual balance of forces, on the political moment. In Wisconsin, the union bureaucracy saw its apparatus under direct fire and supported the weeks of protests that were unconventional to them. Then at that point it was more important to control them than to defeat Walker. The apparatus always comes first and their own individual connections to the Democratic Party bosses. Losing that is what they fear the most.

  3. Pingback: The Union’s Election Day Dilemma | Rhode Island Red Teacher

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>