Harmanizing the Workers of the World:
Questioning a 'classical and simple' understanding of the working class in the face of a complex global justice and solidarity movement
By Peter Waterman (email@example.com www.antenna.nl.~waterman/)
17th December 2003
Chris Harman, a leading figure within the Socialist (Trotskyist) Workers' Party in the UK, has produced a fresh analysis of the world's working class (Harman 2002). This is intended to argue the 'classical' and 'simple' Marxist vision that
The growth of capitalism was necessarily accompanied by the growth of the class it exploited, the working class, and this would be at the centre of the revolt against the system. (Harman 2002:3)
Harman feels it necessary to reassert this truth in the face of challenges not only from the right but also 'from some of the best known spokespeople of the anti-capitalist movement'. The latter, he tells us, are not only asserting that the working class has lost such agency (primacy?) as it once had, but that emancipatory capacity is represented by some new category, or by an alliance of disparate categories/identities. He criticises here, amongst others, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Susan George, James Petras, Naomi Klein, Andre Gorz.
Harman sets out on a long and challenging march through the statistics in order to demonstrate that announcements of the death of the proletariat have been much exaggerated, and that the world's working class is bigger, absolutely and relatively, than ever. After considering one or two major labour movements, he concludes that it is therefore an error to see
movements of disparate social groups as 'social subjects', capable of bringing about a transformation of society. They are not. Because their base is not centred in collective organization rooted in production, they cannot challenge the control over that production which is central to ruling class power. (40).
He ends by urging the necessity for the new movement to 'find ways to connect with the great mass of ordinary workers', who would then, presumably, lead the disparate anti-capitalist movement in a clearly socialist direction.
I have considerable respect for the less metaphysical of the original accounts criticized (and feel challenged by the more metaphysical one). But I am not going to discuss them here. I am more concerned with the nature of Chris Harman's counter-argument, which puzzles me in several ways.
Firstly, he is here mounting a polemic against authors who, or works which, are certainly related to the new anti-capitalist movement but which are not centrally addressed to the labour movement inter/nationally.
There are numerous other writers around, mostly veteran socialists and/or labour specialists, several of the Trotskyist tradition, who are so specialised, who do focus on the labour movement, who raise similar challenges to a 'classical simple' Marxism, but whom Harman does not address (Aguiton 2001, Gallin 2001, Hyman 2002, Munck 2002, Panitch and Leys 2001, Waterman/Wills 2001).
It is a danger of polemic that it identifies and shoots at targets that are either easy or peripheral. Harman, for example, addresses himself to Gorz's earlier Farewell to the Proletariat, rather than Gorz 1999, which re-addresses itself to the union movement. (In so far as I am here polemicizing with Harman, my argument runs, of course, the same danger).
Secondly, his account deals primarily with workers in their existence as a 'proletariat' (or as related to such), rather than as a 'working class'. This means in their existence for capital rather than their existence for themselves (even less for the emancipation of humankind). The assumption that one can read off working-class consciousness, desire and capacity from structural position is a 'classical simple' reading of Marxism, but represents a political-economic-determinist rather than a movement-focused, historical and dialectical reading. As one recent critic of socialist - and feminist - determinism puts it of the Chinese women workers in her study, they
are not mere passive receptacles for patriarchal and capitalist ideologies. They engage in a contested process of actively defining their identities and constituting their interests as political and cultural subjects. They are shaped but not determined by the bourgeois and patriarchal 'others'. (Lee 1998:162)
Indeed, Lee even argues that her workers are agents in creating the workplace structures and processes within which they exist or struggle!
Chris Harman mentions working-class (actually trade-union) behaviour only in passing. And then to reveal, at least to readers, its contradictory nature (South Korea, 1990s, positive? Bombay textiles, 1980s, negative?). His assertion of working-class primacy remains a theoretical assertion (past), an inevitability (future), and a strategic necessity for the new movement (present). Given the problematic past and present of his proletariat/working class, and given that future necessity or inevitability needs, for conviction, to be based on present evidence and/or argued immanence, rather than theoretical reassertion, we are left only with the strategic necessity.
Such a necessity is, however, recognised by many of the writers I have mentioned, as probably by most of those against whom he is arguing! But they recognize this without necessarily needing either his classical premises or his irrefutable (because futurological) conclusions. Moreover, they deal with the necessary articulation of workers and others at greater length, depth and extent than does Harman. Indeed, such a necessity could be said to already have at least implicit expression within a major declaration of the new movement itself (Call of Social Movements 2002).
Thirdly - and curiously given the nature of the GJ&SM - Chris Harman has nothing to say about the working class (or working classes) as privileged subjects of internationalism or, in more relevant contemporary phrase, global solidarity. Indeed, his title misses the customarily concluding Marxist imperative, 'Unite!'. This lacuna is addressed by many of the writers I mention, many of whom deal both with the indications of a revived labour internationalism and with the contradictory role of traditional labour (sometimes socialist) organizations in relation to such (e.g. Waterman 2002). However, as anyone who receives BBC World TV can see, it is the new movement that is the vanguard of contemporary internationalism. Which may be why Harman avoids addressing the matter. In reality, of course, it is such new, 'non-proletarian', 'diverse', 'identity' movements that have been bringing internationalism back into the union movement!
Fourthly, it seems to me, Chris Harman's presentation of his adversaries is arsy-versy ('upsidedown' in a less-colloquial English). Harman sees his authors as either intending to, or having the effect of, demobilizing the working class - and of thus providing an excuse for union immobility:
The stereotypes...provide trade union officialdom with excuses for avoiding struggle on the grounds that it cannot work. What begins as a mistaken assessment of the possibility of struggle becomes a real obstacle to unleashing such struggle. (33).
Now, it is of course the shortcomings or even the absence of 'classical simple Marxist' behaviour amongst the working class that has stimulated these thinkers/activists to seek a materialist explanation for such (i.e. one not limited to 'false consciousness' or 'union bureaucracy', but extending to specificities of structure, history, space, place and actually-existing identity). Such research can, furthermore, hardly be considered to have had a demobilizing effect on the trade unions. These have proven quite likely to be demobilized, or capable of demobilizing themselves, before the arguments ever came into existence.
The new research - in so far as it has been made accessible to labour activists - serves, on the contrary, as either a provocation or stimulus to union recognition of the necessity for reaching out to the increasingly typical 'a-typical' worker, to workers abroad, to women (whether 'working' or not), to rural labour, to indigenous peoples, to sexual minorities, and to the multitude of such to be found in and around the GJ&SM!
The unions have been doing this - or will have to do this - anyway! They have nowhere to go but up and out (if they are not to remain down and out). Which is why they appear to be present, in increasing numbers, not only at the demonstrations that Chris mentions but also at the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre. The demobilizing effect is more likely to be a consequence of Harman's analysis which re-assures radical labour activists that the working-class is the privileged revolutionary (and internationalist?) subject and will eventually and inevitably reveal itself as such.
What the new research and theory attempts to do, in most cases, is to generalize and strategize from the actually-existing working class(es), to give recognizable and effective shape and stimulus to what might otherwise be pragmatic, inchoate and momentary initiatives and experiences of workers and their organizations - here, there or somewhere else. The value or not of such new theory/strategy would then be not its subordination to Harman's classical theory and deduced future but to heighted, broadened and deepened worker consciousness and action. Preferably here, there and now.
Fifthly - and despite the presumed vanguard role of the working class - Harman's address is not to this class to win the leadership of the GJ&SM, but to this diverse and cross-class movement to win the working class! Here realism (combined with the SWP's heavy investment in the new movement in the UK, for which see SchNEWS 2001) wins out over historical theory and future aspiration.
There is, it is true, classical Marxist licence for this. Marx argues that human emancipation (which he, for good historical reasons, called Communism) is not a theory or ideology, not a present or future state of affairs, but 'the real movement which abolishes the present state of things' (Arthur 1970: 56-7).
This 'movementist' reading of Marx may be unfamiliar to Chris Harman. I am therefore wondering whether it is not only realism or engagement but institutional self-interest that motivates his article. Another Trotskyist tendency, the Fourth International associated with the figure of Ernest Mandel, has thrown itself into the new movement - with such energy as to not only gain leading positions within it but to virtually merge itself into it (Aguiton 2001 again)! Confronted by the new, complex and inchoate movement, traditional Marxists have, it appears, to decide whether to Defend the Faith at all costs or Join the Real Movement with all its risks.
I am not, of course, trying here to assert some correct, essential and eternal Marx against Harman's 'classical and simple' one. We are required by Marx himself to approach him historically and critically (do I have to quote here chapter and verse?). We are now living in a post-classical, post-simple, phase of capitalism and proletarianisation. And this requires a complex understanding of the inter-relation: between different kinds of work/er (van der Pijl 2001) and labour-for-capital; between labour and other struggles; between class and democratic movements; between interest and identity; and between localism, nationalism, regionalism and internationalism. At least if we are concerned with recognizing, confronting and surpassing the multiple forms of alienation with which a capitalism marked by globalization, informatization, consumerism, services and finance increasingly confronts us.
In such a situation, it seems to me, a theory which homogenizes (Harman-izes?) the working class, according 'it' an essence that over-rides 150 years of industrial revolutions and capitalist transformation, is likely to be of less heuristic value than one which assumes repeated destructuring, differentiation, division and distance, amongst working classes. And which then addresses itself to the question of how such can be surpassed.
[Peter Waterman (London 1936) has most recently been editing collections on (labour and) the new global justice movement. He guest-edited the pilot issue of a bilingual electronic magazine, TransnationalAlternativ@s for the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam. He is currently co-editing, with Jai Sen, Arturo Escobar and Anita Anand, a collection on the future of the World Social Forum, scheduled for publication in New Delhi, before the Fourth WSF, Mumbai, January 2004.]
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