Author Don Hamerquist

Class Power on Zero Hours: A Brief Comment

It’s been almost half a century since I spent a decade working in a handful of large Chicago factories with a few dozen Sojourner Truth Organization (sto) comrades. Although I would be hard pressed to point to any tangible beneficial outcome for working class revolutionary autonomous organization—or, for that matter, for any substantially less exalted objective—that developed out of the effort, I don’t regret the experience and suspect that the ambiguities and the opened but unanswered questions that linger from our experiences are not that different from those raised by the Angry Workers political project in West London.

When the sto workplace organizing concentration began in late 1969 there were hundreds of Chicago factories with 500–1,000 workers—and quite a few with tens of thousands of workers. A good number of these workplaces had a substantial history of challenges to some elements of the capitalist control and ordering of production. In combination with the omnipresent issues of white supremacy this history provided a significant general potential for insurgent activity. These efforts towards workers’ control over the production process within the workplace were based largely in informal work groups and separate organizations of Black workers and were almost always distinct from the various forms of trade union activity that were also a factor. Our perspective was that this base of activity and organization, immensely enriched by an influx of new workers radicalized by experiences of war and anti-war…and riot, were the ingredients for mass autonomous proletarian movements and organizations that might realistically provide a base from which to challenge capitalist power in the foreseeable future. Our goal was to be a part of the process and to help it develop to the best of our ability in one important industrial area of the country—but we assumed, of course, that we were working in alignment with the forces of history.

Ten years later, when we took a pause that proved to be a very long pause, there were very few factories left in the Chicago area (now they are essentially all gone) and the layer of class militants had been severely diluted by the changing circumstances of life inside and outside the factory. The charismatic events we had hoped for, the plant occupations and political strikes that we had felt were built into the situation, didn’t happen—despite many occasions when we thought they might…or at least that they should. In any case, we effectively ended our workplace concentration before fully realizing the extent to which capitalism and its work process had moved under our feet. Our triumphalist naiveté merged with the narrowness of our perspective to prevent us from gaining a better understanding of the ways our efforts might have developed more useful strategic approaches to the changed and changing circumstances in the class struggle. I hope that the “Angry Workers” do a better job than we did.

I haven’t read the individual workplace reports in this book, although it is on my task list, so my comments will be brief and decidedly provisional. They will focus on some questions I have that are probably most relevant to the concluding sections of the book that concern “Revolutionary Strategy.”

First a bit of a confession: while sto and Angry Workers both approached workplace concentration intending to locate and support autonomous class organization, I had personally misspent an earlier decade, sometimes implementing and sometimes challenging a very different approach to developing a working class base and a proletarianized cadre—the us Communist Party’s variant of the classic Third International policy of industrial concentration and “factory cells.” That experience raised the most corrupt and opportunist notions of “developing a base in the class” and “embracing proletarian culture and lifestyle”: On the one hand, it entailed conciliating the politics of racial and sexual privilege to facilitate the development and maintenance of a working class “base.” On the other hand it entailed adopting a pseudo-culture of conservative bigotry and anti-intellectualism that was allegedly more authentically “working class.” This experience left me with a solid antipathy to most talk about revolutionaries building a base in the working class and sto adopted a consciously different approach (with some unfortunate deviations that I’ll leave alone for now).

The sto project was organized to recognize the elements of insurgency in workplace situations and to intervene to help them develop. We were attempting to recognize and record what was actually happening in these large factory settings—partly in the flawed terms of Marx’s well known letter to Ruge, but more generally following the approaches that had been developed by the clr James/Raya Dunayevskay Facing Reality grouping that was persuasively laid out in Marty Glaberman’s “Punching Out” pamphlet.

We would not have expressed it in the same words, but we had a parallel analysis to that spelled out in Chapter 13 of Zero Hours—“Class Power and Uneven Development.” The workplace provided the locus of a range of contradictions that impacted workers collectively and individually. Much of this tended to integrate the class into a subordinate role in capitalist production, but there were elements and occasions—similar to what the Zero Hours authors term as “strikes” (p. 238); moments in which their revolutionary possibilities and capabilities become apparent to the workers themselves. This then provides the groundwork for autonomous organization and the development of a class alternative. The problem that we discovered, and I think the Angry Workers did as well, is that these events are fleeting while the yoke of capitalist hierarchy is omnipresent. The issue becomes how can the momentary energy be generalized—maximized and extended; and when it inevitably subsides, how can the militants it has produced survive in an organized form that can impact an increasingly wider range of situations. We found no way of restating the contradictions of proletarian life that clarifies an answer to the problem and we discovered that our largely accidental presence in specific scenes didn’t magically resolve the problems.

Perhaps it is not the same in the United Kingdom, but here in this country there tends to be an opposition between “base-building in the class” and “intervening” in the most significant conflicts. It’s frequently an unproductive discussion because there is no elaboration of the connection between them—involving the development of an organized working class cadre of militants that can provide a political center for such interventions. Traditional communist groups have conflated this goal with recruiting sociologically working class cadre to their own structures—the problems with that are evident enough. However, if this is mistaken, how are the “autonomous” formations that can take on the task developed? I can see that the Angry Workers aren’t satisfied with their answer to this problem just as I’m not satisfied with any alternative one.

I’m embarrassed that I have to claim age and infirmity for my failure to approach this question with a clear comprehension of the granular detail of the political work that I expect is provided in the body of the book. However, I am old and infirm.