The Backward Workers

This article by Noel Ignatiev appeared in the US magazine Urgent Tasks #11, Spring 1981.

In a medium-sized metalworking plant in the Midwest, it is time for the annual election of union stewards. In one department, the man who has been the steward for many terms and who now faces for the first time in recent memory an opposition candidate not selected by himself campaigns by telling the workers he represents, "Listen, you know we've got things pretty good over here. They let us eat in the department, they let us take breaks and wash up early, and so forth. If we elect some hothead who starts filing grievances, all that will go out the window."

He is returned to office in a close vote.

In another department a militant, reputed to be a "radical," who has served several terms as a steward, is defeated by one vote in his bid for re-election. Several of the workers - some who voted for him and some who voted against him - give the same reason for their decision: "the company doesn't like him."

Do the above examples demonstrate passivity and backwardness, as most of the left would contend? Let's look at a case where the workers chose the opposite course.

In the blast furnace division of one of the country's largest steel mills, the workers oust the committeeman who has held the post for decades and elect a young black man who has campaigned on a promise of militant struggle. The new committeeman, who is a socialist and, what is more, an honest man, takes office and begins to carry out his program. - no more swapping grievances, no more hand-shake agreements, etc. Almost at once conditions in the division go to hell, as the company retaliates by abolishing early quit time, sleeping on the midnight turn and other little arrangements the workers have managed to establish over the years. Within six months the workers are grumbling that the deterioration in working conditions is the committeeman's fault, and he is complaining bitterly of their "backwardness" and "lack of appreciation." In the next election he is turned out and a conservative is put in his place.

The three examples cited above illustrate the point that workers always have good reasons for doing what they do. This statement, which seems so obvious on first hearing, stands directly opposed to the view, widespread on the Left in one variation or another, that the problem of the workers' movement is one of leadership.

In none of the three cases cited above, which are representative of the kinds of choices ordinarily offered to workers, can it be demonstrated that the workers made the wrong decision. I wish to go further than this simple observation of fact, to the general thesis that when a significant body of workers or members of an oppressed group is offered a choice between several possibilities which they perceive as realistic, they always make the right choice.

Although, I have attempted to formulate my thesis as carefully as possible, it is absolutely certain to be misinterpreted, so I shall try to clarify what I mean and what I do not mean. I do not mean that a group of workers in a struggle cannot make a mistake in picking the date of a strike, charging a police line, etc.; such an assertion trivializes my argument. Nor do I mean that, apart from tactical slips, workers always act in a manner designed to advance their class interests; if that were the case, capitalism would no longer exist.

The Communist Manifesto says that, under capitalism, the worker is "compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." Compelled to face - it is this total attachment to reality, which is the main psychological characteristic of the exploited class, that I am exploring in my thesis.

By their actions people shape the future. Workers as a class, unlike revolutionary intellectuals (and the latter not as much as they would like to believe), do not choose between various futures based solely on what is desirable. A weighty factor in their calculations is what they consider possible.

Consider the American slaves before the Civil War. An observer travelling the US South in 1858 looking for signs of imminent rebellion would not have found them. The slaves, except for the exceptional individuals who escaped, seemed if not content at least resigned to their situation and strove to make it as tolerable as they could. Even when the Civil War broke out they did not immediately respond; as DuBois points out, they waited and watched. Yet in 1863 they launched a general strike which broke the back of the Confederacy, bridging to an end the system of slavery.

What was the new element that transformed the Afro-American bonded population from slaves whom their masters felt safe in leaving in the care of the elderly and unarmed women while they went off to fight into militant combatants whose disregard for life itself astonished all observers at the battles of Port Hudson, Fort Wagner, Nashville and Petersburg? It was not the exhortations of the abolitionists, since these had always been present and the slaves were always aware of them. Nor could it be the vanguard actions of a few bold individuals; upwards of three hundred documented rebellions and plots, the last major one before John Brown having taken place in 1831, had failed to spark a general uprising. The new element could only be the real war, which prevented the slaveholders from bringing the full weight of their repressive apparatus to bear on the slaves. It was the perception of this new reality by the slaves that carried their resistance to a new stage. The time they spent waiting and watching to make sure the war would not be quickly terminated through negotiations was as essential to the slaves' self-realization as were the previous years spent in mastering a new language, developing a community, gaining a knowledge of the terrain and experimenting with various forms of resistance, including strikes, sabotage, flight and armed revolt. It should be understood that I am not denying the value of exhortation and bold action by vanguard groups; I am attempting to examine the context in which these ingredients have an effect.

It is evident that the slaves' perception of the futility of a general uprising before the Civil War and the usefulness of one after the War began was accurate. Is it always the case that the oppressed perceive with such scientific precision the possibilities of such a situation?

The spectacle of the European Jews going off peacefully to the gas chambers and organizing the delivery of their own quotas for the death camps has amazed all. What was the alternative? As a people they held no position in industry, agriculture or territory that could have provided them with a base of power. They had no tradition in the use of arms and no access to arms had they known how to use them. Because of their place as petty traders they were despised by the masses of people in the places where they resided. It is possible that had they attempted mass violent resistance (or mass suicide as Gandhi recommended) the result would have been their extermination to the last soul. As it was, they paid a heavy price, but the Jews as a people survived (1)

Men do not fight back out of desperation. (Nor do women: most cases of mothers' reckless courage in defence of their children can be shown to have a rational basis.) There never comes a time when people have no choice but to resist oppression. As Bernard Shaw puts it:

" Man will suffer himself to be degraded until his vileness becomes so loathsome to his oppressors that they themselves are forced to reform it."

Nor are people so constructed as to permit total consciousness of their oppression to exist alongside total despair at ending it. The combination leads to extinction, as happened to numerous native American peoples for whom life unfree was unthinkable.

For civilized peoples, that is, those who have come to treasure existence for its own sake and have lost all sense of the value of life, there is a connection between what is possible and what is tolerable. To survive, they invent mechanisms for blocking the reality from their consciousness. There are always consolations, if not in this world, then in the next. One can easily imagine galley slaves on a Roman ship comforting themselves with the knowledge that fresh air was one of their job benefits! (2)

When a relatively rapid deterioration of conditions cracks the effectiveness of the denial mechanism at a time when no way out has yet become apparent, there follows the appearance, on a mass scale, symptoms of mental illness. Such is the case in the US today. (3)

Now what does all of this have to do with politics? Just this: it is an attempt to explain why the most common approach of the Left to workers doesn't work and can't work. Of all the dogma that pervades the Left, the most pervasive is the dogma of the backwardness of the working class.

The underlying assumption of most Left strategies is that workers move from reform to revolution. This assumption is present regardless of the differences over what is the best reform issue, how much propaganda for revolution should be mixed in with the reform struggle, etc. The starting point is always the reform movement, the struggle for partial aims, through which workers will come to realize the need for revolutionary change. The task becomes enlisting workers in the reform movement.

Do those who operate in the way described above ever question their basic assumptions? Do they really believe that US workers are unable to see that there are demands which are unmet and that these demands are, at least in part, winnable through collective action? The problem is not that US workers don't know these things; if they appear not to know them, it is because they choose not to know them.

US workers are uneasy about the totality of their lives and their relations with their kind. They know, whether or not they ever put it in these terms, that their fundamental condition is not addressed in a programme for better cost-of-living allowance, bidding procedures and dental coverage. Such things whether or lost, will not transform the reality of their lives (4) Why should ordinary workers leave the privacy of their homes and their diversions and take the emotional risk of participating in struggle in which they have to trust other people and which is liable to raise hopes that will be disappointed - for some trivial demand that will leave them more or less as they have? Realistic people will not follow such a course, and the workers are, above all, realistic.

In a passage immediately following the one I quoted above (from Man and Superman) Don Juan, who is undoubtedly speaking for Shaw, goes on to speak of "the most surprising part of the whole business that you can make any of these cowards brave by simply putting an idea into his head." The character observes that "men never really overcome fear until they imagine they are fighting to further a universal purpose - fighting for an idea, as they call it."

And he sums up his argument thus: "this creature Man, who in his own selfish affairs is a coward to the backbone, will fight for an idea like a hero. He may be abject as a citizen; but he is dangerous as a fanatic. He can only be enslaved whilst he is spiritually weak enough to listen to reason. I tell you gentlemen, if you can show a man a piece of what he now calls God's work to do, and what he will later call by many new names, you can make him entirely reckless of the consequences to himself personally."

Think of the greatest mass movement in our times. Does anyone really think that, when Black sit-in strikers sat at a lunch counter while lit cigarettes were ground out in the back of their necks, they were doing it for a cup of coffee. Or that the southern Black masses faced electric cattle prods, high pressure water hoses and the rest in order to gain the right to vote, as if they did not know how little that right brought to their cousins in Watts, Harlem and Chicago's South Side?

When Black people marched down the dusty roads singing "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round," it was a new world they sought. Their determination and willingness to sacrifice derived from the realization that the particular issue which engaged them at the moment, through the struggle itself, was an expression of their efforts to give birth to this new world. (Indeed, it was the genius of Martin Luther King, and the secret of his place in the hearts of Black people, that he was able, in spite of his political weaknesses, to give voice to the mass vision, dream if you will, of a new world.)

The starting point in defining a revolutionary struggle is not the content of the specific demands put forward by the participants, but their coming to awareness, often in the course of the struggle itself, that the fact of their self-activity is more important than whether or not they win or lose on the immediate issue.

In an article published in Urgent Tasks no. 9, Lee Holstein pointed out that, "Revolutionary consciousness cannot be taught - even by the most masterful of teachers. It can be encouraged, pointed out, distinguished from bourgeois consciousness, but it cannot be taught. It does not progress in a linear fashion, from one stage to another in higher and higher and higher levels of grasping Marxist theory. It rises to the surface in action which is a break with routine, and then submerges."

We are not dealing with easy questions here. The link between the struggle and the vision is not formal but organic. It is not expressed primarily in the articulation of the socialist goal (some Left groups keep permanently set in type a paragraph explaining the need for socialism, which they paste onto the end of every article they publish). Nor are we speaking of the practice of some Left groups of issuing hysterical appeals for revolutionary struggle. The link is expressed in the way the struggle itself develops as a realization of the new society.

In the article cited above, Lee Holstein argues that, "every instance of working class self-activity is a break with the trade union struggle. Every break with the trade union struggle is a break with bourgeois hegemony. The workers, in these instances, jump out of the capitalist framework, rejecting its validity and legitimacy. In these instances the working class becomes autonomous of capital and acts for itself. This is revolutionary working class self-activity."(5)

The task for revolutionaries is to seek out those instances of the break with bourgeois hegemony and clarify their implications, link them together institutionally and counterpose them to the prevailing patterns of behaviour and institutions. This task has theoretical, political and organizational aspects, and no one can claim to have achieved more than a beginning. However far the journey may take us, the first step must be the recognition that revolutionary class consciousness is not the expansion of reformist class consciousness but its negation, and that while it is true that the working class only manifests its development in the struggle for partial reforms, the deeper truth is that reforms are a by-product of revolutionary struggle.




1. To demonstrate to the world that they are not at all the "peculiar people" and that under different circumstances they are as capable of bellicose action as any other human tribe.

2. Humour is double-edged; in some circumstances it makes oppression bearable, in others unbearable. Consider the following characteristic tales:

A black man was walking on the streets of Chicago, cursing to himself. God speaks to him and asks what the matter is. "The white folks took my land and ran me out of Mississippi, comes the reply. "Do you have a gun?" asks God. "You know I do," says the black man. "Do you know how to use it?" "Yes." "Well then," says God, "I want you to take your gun and go down to Mississippi and kill that white man who is on your land and take your land back." "Will you go with me God?" asks the black man. "As far as Memphis," says God.

A poor Jew is surprised to hear God addressing him one day. God tells him he can have anything he wants just for the asking. At first the poor Jew doesn't believe it is god talking to him, but he is finally convinced. "Anything at all?" he asks skeptically. "Anything!" comes the thundering response. "Well then, please God, if it's not too much trouble, could I please have every morning a hot roll with butter?"

The remark common among U.S. proletarians, "the hours sure fly by when you're having a good time," was undoubtedly heard on the pyramids.

3 To forestall the critic who points out the evident contradiction between my referring to the workers' total attachment to reality and their elaborate mechanisms for denying reality - what the worker sees realistically is that portion of the world that touches on him and that he can do something about. For the rest, the worker's head is as likely to be filled with ignorance and nonsense as anyone else's. I have known people who believed the world was flat and who nevertheless knew to the minute how long it took to drive from Chicago to Detroit and what was the best route to take. It is a mater of what Hegel calls the first level of thought, empiricism, everyday common sense. I recall one conversation, at which I sat as a silent and pained observer, in which a Leftist was propounding to a worker his opinions on world affairs. The Leftist declared that he had "opposed" the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. The worker quickly asked him, with a wink to me, "How did you oppose it?" The Leftist responded, without the slightest embarrassment or awareness that he was being mocked, that he had spoken out against it, etc. The inability of the Left to distinguish between various levels of thought is responsible for a lot of hand wringing, for instance, over the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland. The fact is that in no country - not in Poland, the US or Iran - does the problem lie in the influence of religion over workers' actions, in the sense they decide what to do based on its counsel. If workers support or do not support the Church or any other institution , it is because it says or does not say what they want to hear. The problem lies in their perception of what is possible and necessary

4. This generalization does not apply to farm workers, hospital workers and others who do not take for granted the minimum necessary for survival

5. This writer goes further than I would, at least without clarification, when she writes that, "This type of activity - revolutionary self-activity - does not develop revolutionary class-consciousness. It is revolutionary class-consciousness" Still, she is closer to reality than those who contemplate the working class and see only its hind end.

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