Global Labor: Socialist Register 2001

Against the Current, No. 95, November/December 2001

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Socialist Register 2001:
Working Classes, Global Realities
edited by Leo Panitch & Colin Keys
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001) 392pp., $24 paperback.

FOR ALL INTENTS and purposes, I discovered the Socialist Register during the early `90s. When I say “discovered” I, of course, do not mean that I was the first to come across it. Rather, having heard of it for years, I actually read it.

The early `90s were a very confused time. The crisis of socialism was in full bloom for all to see. The collapse of the USSR and its bloc; the road toward capitalism by the Communist Party of China; the blatant shifts to the right by social democratic parties made it virtually impossible to ignore the gravity of the situation facing the left.

In a search for new and more sophisticated answers I decided that I would annually read the Socialist Register. What I found were thought provoking, insightful essays on contemporary issues from the perspective of Marxism.

There was an international flavor to each anthology with a good cross section of Marxist opinion from different parts of the world. There was also a diversity of political opinion. That is, while the authors were (and assumably still are Marxists), there were differing views and approaches that were evident when reading the collections.

All of these comments are relevant to Socialist Register 2001. In fact, this is probably my favorite volume so far. While the subtitle “Working Classes, Global Realities” aptly summarizes the thrust, contained within this volume are twenty articles that represent several interesting and relevant themes: the changing nature of work; women, work and class struggle; the land question; anti-imperialism; and the question of organization.

Restructuring, Strategy and Feminism

It is difficult to review an anthology of twenty separate articles. For that reason, I will focus the balance of this essay on why I believe these themes are of such importance. Taken together or separately, they raise some of the central strategic questions facing the left as we attempt to rebuild (absent from the list is the matter of `race’/ ethnicity which has lost none of its importance in this new century).

The last essay of the anthology is written by one of the editors, Leo Panitch, entitled “Reflections on Strategy for Labour.” In some respects this title summarizes the importance of these themes.

Ursula Huws (“The Making of a Cybertariat? Virtual Work in a Real World”), Andrew Ross (“No-Collar Labour in America’s `New Economy’”), Barbara Harriss-White & Nandini Gooptu (“Mapping India’s World of Unorganized Labour”), Steve Jeffreys (“Western European Trade Unionism at 2000”), Huw Beynon & Jose Ramalho (“Democracy and Organization of Class Struggle in Brazil”), Rohini Hensman (“Organizing Against the Odds: Women in India’s Informal Sector”), Peter Kwong (“The Politics of Labour Migration: Chinese Workers in New York”), Brigitte Young (“The `Mistress’ and the `Maid’ in the Globalized Economy”), Sam Gindin (“Turning Points and Starting Points: Brenner, Left Turbulence and Class Politics”), and Panitch all address in different ways the question of the reorganization or changing nature of work as capitalism restructures.

This restructuring has posed grave problems for all organizers, and certainly for the left. Huws’ article poses serious questions about how the new information economy, and the types of jobs which it is producing, affects consciousness. She explores whether the de facto balkanization of the workforce inhibits the ability to develop class consciousness and, further, whether it restricts the ability to develop trade or craft consciousness.

Huws, Harriss-White & Gooptu, Hensman, Young, and Rosemary Warskett (“Feminism’s Challenge to Unions in the North: Possibilities and Contradictions”) examine women, work and class struggle. The issues contained in these articles go beyond common references to the growing feminization of the workforce. The articles speak to the continued structural oppression of women, and steps that need to be taken to address it.

Additionally, the Hensman article raises the question of organizing women workers outside of the framework of traditional trade unionism. Hensman looks at the situation in India with the growth of the informal sector, noting that only 8% of Indian workers belong to the formal sector, and grapples with the steps needed to reach the other 350 million workers.

The examples she gives are important particularly insofar as they seek to address more than the workplace existence of the woman worker.

Struggle on the Land

Henry Bernstein (“’The Peasantry’ in Global Capitalism: Who, Where and Why?”), Beynon & Ramalho, Justin Paulson (“Peasant Struggles and International Solidarity: the case of Chiapas”) and Judith Adler Hellman (“Virtual Chiapas: A reply to Paulson”) all deal with the land question, a matter that U.S. Leftists all but ignore.

For too many of us, there is no land question, or, in our better moments, we fall into an economic deterministic bastardization of Marx, seeing farmers as a dying group which history will simply sweep away. Contained in these articles, however, is a different look at the land question.

In the case of Chiapas, for instance, it is not only a matter of land in the abstract, but also issues of autonomy for indigenous people. It is also connecting the land question to the larger question of political power.

In a different context there is the matter of Brazil and the growing landless workers movement. Led by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), this work has captured the imagination of masses of people not only in Brazil, but also in other parts of Latin America. The character of this movement is what makes it especially interesting, as summed up in the following:

“The families of small farmers who own their land wanted the same chance for their children. The rural unemployed wanted land to plant crops. In the sprawling slums of Sao Paulo demands for work began to be transformed into calls for a plot of land where children could be brought up in safety, away from drugs and violence.” (232)

In other words, this is not a typical peasant/farmers movement. The issue of land has become a matter directly relevant to the broad working class, a matter that the MST through its political leadership insists on keeping in the fore.

Imperialism and Solidarity

Beverly J. Silver & Giovanni Arrighi (“Workers North and South”); Patrick Bond, Darlene Miller & Greg Ruiters (“The Southern African Working Class: Production, Reproduction and Politics”); Beynon & Ramalho; Gerard Greenfield (“Organizing, Protest and Working Class Self-Activity: Reflections on East Asia”); and Gindin help to reposition the necessary discussion of imperialism.

As many commentators have pointed out, discussions about globalization have often obscured the basic question of imperialism. The authors here reassert the importance of understanding imperialism, but they go further.

Several of the pieces, particularly Silver & Arrighi, as well as Greenfield, jump right into the debate over the question of international working class solidarity. Silver & Arrighi take aim at the notion that the `race to the bottom,’ which neo-liberal globalization has brought forth, eliminates the North/South contradiction.

Put another way, there is a tendency among many leftists and progressives to ignore the continued existence of national questions and national oppression on a global scale.

The irony of our current situation is that the material conditions for international working class solidarity — proletarian internationalism — are greater now than probably at any point in history. At the same time, imperialism, through its current manifestation in what we call globalization, has not oppressed everyone equally. The global South is still at a decided disadvantage.

This situation raises important strategic questions for the left. One, addressed by several of the authors, concerns the appropriateness of `social clauses’ in trade agreements (or in the World Trade Organization) as methods of addressing efforts by global capital to whipsaw the world’s working classes.

Some global Southern governments as well as various global Southern mass movements see social clauses as global Northern protectionism. Yet, if this is the case, how can workers in the global North both protect themselves against the ravages of the multinational corporations while at the same time expressing concrete solidarity with the global South?

These are issues that are flagged and must be further debated. The articles here help to advance that debate and are more than thought-provoking.

Questions of working-class organization (reform and revolutionary) emerge in all the articles, including those which I have not previously referenced (David Mandel, “’Why is there no revolt?’ The Russian Working Class and Labour Movement” [a look at the implications of the depoliticization of the Russian working class and the efforts to build new fighting organization]; Haideh Moghissi & Saeed Rahnema, “The Working Class and the Islamic State in Iran” [an examination of the dynamics of the Islamic State and the efforts to transform working class resistance into a class politics]; Eric Mann, “’A race struggle, a class struggle, a women’s struggle all at once’: Organizing on the Buses of L.A.” [a thought provoking piece on efforts to build working-class organization, consciousness and movement outside of the traditional route of trade unionism]).

I would call attention to two of the articles (not to dismiss the others): Greenfield and Panitch. On the question of working-class organization, Greenfield’s article is particularly striking because he takes seriously this question of the self-activity/organization of the working class.

One example Greenfield chooses to focus upon is from Indonesia where non-workers, apparently in an attempt to be supportive of the workers’ movement, instead usurped a workers’ struggle. This is not to suggest that working class struggles are pure and that non-working class activists contaminate them. Rather, as Greenfield offers:

“What this also suggests is that there is an important role for student and NGO activists in workers’ struggles, but that this role should be carefully defined.” (246)

I found this particularly striking because of the emergence of a phenomenon that I call NGO-itis. This is the view that NGOs [non-governmental organizations], usually made up of activists working full time for that NGO, can either substitute themselves for the working class (and other oppressed) and/or substitute themselves for a working-class political party.

This ideological phenomenon has arisen as a critique of socialist practice and the failures of socialist experiments in the 20th century. In this regard it is important and genuine socialists should consider the critique. At the same time, it concludes with the suggestion of a practice that almost reminds one of the film “The Magnificent Seven,” where outsiders are brought in to fight a battle FOR a town of farmers rather than SUPPORTING the farmers’ fight.

This is not a critique of the value of NGOs by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, as Greenfield points out, the left must take to heart the notion that the emancipation of the working class must be an activity led by the working class.

Strategic Observations

Panitch concludes the volume with a series of observations about strategy. Very appropriately tying together the various strands within SR, he makes note of several important considerations. Particularly critical are discussions of the importance of organization; strategy which goes outside of the capitalist box; and the need for profound internationalism.

Without slighting Panitch’s other points I make note of these because they are precisely the ones that leftists in the labor movement confront on an almost daily basis. The question of organization, particularly an organization that represents the political left, is critical.

If we are to stand in opposition to those who would attempt to substitute themselves for the oppressed, then we on the Left must advance a project to build an anti-capitalist organization of the oppressed.

Second, our strategies, including when we are successful in achieving power, whether in trade unions or elected political office, must seek to transcend the box in which capitalism puts us. Panitch notes French socialist Andre Gorz’s call, in the mid 1960s, for non-reformist reforms (or structural reforms) that speak to what the oppressed need, rather than what they can achieve.

Many of us on the Left have either been so sickened by ultra “leftism” (and dogmatic sloganeering), or seduced by the demands that we become pragmatic in order to gain influence, that we seek solutions where there are none.

On the necessity for profound internationalism, Panitch reminds us that internationalism is not something that is simply a moral code but is something that needs to be practiced. In that sense the notion of “thinking globally and acting locally” is cute, but wrong. We leftists must be thinking AND acting both globally and locally.

As the material conditions linking the oppressed become clearer and clearer, and as the necessity to courageously oppose imperialism in its different manifestations confronts us, proletarian internationalism becomes not another good idea, but a concrete necessity.

Socialist Register 2001 s an excellent collection of materials that could serve for a study group, a class, or for one’s private reading. After completing my reading there were only five words which came to mind, borrowing of course from the good Chairman: “never forget the class struggle.”

from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)