Thursday, November 4, 2010

Class consciousness

Noel Ignatiev, A New Notion:

The task of revolutionaries is not to organize the workers but to organize themselves -- to discover those patterns of activity and forms of organization that have sprung up out of the struggle and that embody the new society, and to help them grow stronger, more confident, and more conscious of their direction.

In his excellent discussion, Nate has a specific conception of "organizing" which is common to all Wobs. I believe the spirit of it is captured above.

Of course, if somebody starts with the idea that "organizing" means presuming some authority to tell others what to do, then arriving at the conclusion that "men shouldn't organize women" is very appropriate! I imagine many people unfamiliar with the mission of the Industrial Workers of the World could reasonably take this view.

For me, organizers are people who are able to plug the daily concerns of the people they know into a bigger picture, helping to bring clarity to their choices. Many of us feel overwhelmed with obligations, particularly at work, but don't know what to do. IWW organizers bring with them a sympathetic perspective -- you shouldn't feel overwhelmed, or under compensated, at work -- and a commitment to support worker preferences that are tied to shared goals.


Anonymous said...

hey there,

I disagree here. I think people who know how to organize should tell others what to do. Of course, this involves listening and many people have valuable ideas and so on, but still, some of the time someone has to tell others what to do. In my experience it's just true that some people have more experience and skills and know better than others how to build organization, build relationships, and fight bosses. This telling others what to do isn't giving commands, though, it's providing leadership and direction and a vision when one is lacking, and in order to that it requires building trust and relationships.
In my view, leadership and direction and a vision (one that points toward collective action) is lacking much of the time on the job.

About Ignatiev's quote, in order for "patterns of activity and forms of organization" to spring up "out of the struggle" there have to be struggles. It's a common myth that there are always struggles everywhere but that's just false. There's always tension everywhere and the possibility of struggle, but that's different from actually existing struggles that are really happening. Organizing is about making struggles happen. I don't find Ignatiev helpful for that, as much as I like some of the history he's written.

take care,

JRB said...

That is very good. Thank you, Nate.

I think the differences here are mostly semantical. "Telling other people what to do" isn't the language I would use to describe a process of persuasive argumentation that makes for effective organizing. Insofar as any argument is persuasive, I don't think it so much tells people something they don't already know, as it reconstitutes what they do know into something that makes greater sense, and points them toward new conclusions.

I recognize that, as a shorthand, someone can use this language to imply this kind of process. But that is itself a strategic choice, the predictable consequences of which, in my view, invite an avoidable misunderstanding.

I think we can agree that to exercise authority in any situation requires justification -- namely, the consent of the people it affects. This justification has to be explicit between parties, not assumed by one for the betterment of both.

On the question of tension vs. struggle, this also seems semantical. Personally, I see class conflict everywhere, and how people react -- whether by antidepressants or workplace organizing -- is an expression of their struggle as part of their class. I understand that people prefer to attach the term "struggle" only to those struggles they endorse; to the "class struggle" as they have envisioned it; but I have found the idea that class struggle happens in spite of our own preconceptions of what it must be to grant greater scope for those in very different situations to discover from one another what it can be.

In the end, people end up using what they feel works best for them. In a context in which for many Americans this amounts to watching loads of TV and self-medicating one way or another, I think workplace organizing can be a very tough sell, and models which we inherit from 100 years ago, and which have lost ground ever since, probably need to be reconstituted around working class concerns as they exist today in a much more deferential and open-minded way. That fact that large parts of the working class don't even identify themselves as "workers," and in fact flee from the fact, would suggest that we don't necessarily engage them effectively by only insisting that they are.

Let me finish by saying part of this post is in response to what you have said, and another part comes up only because it has been on my mind.

Anonymous said...

hey there,

yeah, I wouldn't say "the organizer is going to tell you what to do" and so on, but I do think that's what happens or should happen sometimes. Some of this is about the sort of legitimacy and consent to authority, as you mentioned. To my mind, though, I don't think this is mainly about what people already know. This is about what some people know and others don't, and the ones who don't know important stuff need to learn it and it's the responsibilities of the ones who do know that stuff to do the teaching. I say this because in my opinion at least in our sort of circles people with skills and abilities are as likely to hang back and (unintentionally) withhold needed skills and ideas as they are to put them forward. I think sometimes this happens in ways that result in men getting more mentorship and training.

About the expanded notion of struggle, I see where you're coming from but I don't like the terms here. I've had loved ones wrestle with addiction in ways that is a problem for their employers. The way you use the term, that's a part of class struggle. I get it, but I think that's a mistake. Those are self-destructive coping mechanisms, ones that may pose a problem for capitalism but not ones that contain seeds of a new society, making them things capitalism can adjust to. There's a connection here between these two threads of conversation. You said "people end up using what they feel works best for them." I agree, but I think people are often wrong, or they make decisions that work well for them as individuals but are not good for the class (since individual workers don't have identical interests with all other workers or with the class as a whole).

take care,

JRB said...


Yes, I certainly take your points. Thank you for taking the time to relate them.

On the first issue, I think we are talking about two points in a sequence: I am talking about making the case for organization (e.g. referencing what workers "already" know); you are talking about what happens once workers are on board (i.e. providing direction and support).

On struggle, I guess I was getting at the idea that classes struggle is happening anyway, and our job is to constitute it in a way that furthers our goals. Maybe that is not a helpful way of assigning terms; the general concept I want to promote is that we should be looking to workers for strategies that arise naturally out of their circumstances, as well as whatever preconceived ideas we bring to the situation as "organizers."