from workers’ self-inquiry to communist re-composition

In the following some general thoughts and a concrete proposal for The Commune’s 12th December aggregate meeting, relating to the article on ‘communist re-composition’ in the current issue. The main point is:

The crisis of workers’ representation is an expression of an accelerated re-structuring within the process of exploitation. New political initiatives have to be developed in relation to these changes and to the already existent embryonic forms of proletarian day-to-day organisation within social cooperation/production. The process of analysing these changes is a common effort of ‘communists/workers’ and in itself a process of organisation: detailed interviews, collective conversations, assemblies and publications. The current task of a class-related revolutionary left would be to re-organise itself in a process of workers’ inquiry: what are the concrete attacks of re-structuring? What (new) forms of conflicts are emerging on the shop-floor, in the estates? What are the lines of possible generalisation based on daily experience and direct power, but going beyond professional or sectorial boundaries?

I will develop this main point in three steps.

1) An introduction to the question of crisis of the revolutionary left and the related need for workers’ inquiry

2) Preliminary thesis about current crisis-driven restructuring and emerging forms of conflict

3) A concrete proposal for a London workers self-inquiry

1) Introduction

The usual answers to the question of how to overcome the crisis of the communist movement usually restrict themselves to ‘organisational’ or ‘programmatic’ solutions: either party building or networking; back to the roots of the program or open pluralistic debates; more or less activism. A similar perspective is applied to the ‘crisis of the labour movement’: more democratic and inclusive unions, better political leadership, more ‘flexible organising’ and so on.

An open debate and an organisational structure are preconditions for getting out of the lefty deadlock – and in that sense ‘The Commune’ are creating them.

However, we – including the group ‘wildcat’ in Germany I am engaged with – run the danger that the enormous efforts in organizing meetings and publications in order to bring together ‘class – related lefties’ then leave too little time to get involved in analytical/organisational work within working-class reality. As a collective we just about manage to turn up at strikes, we manage to write critical articles about them, but for an analysis which would go deeper than a critical rank-and-file union perspective there is little time and energy left. This leaves us in a catch22: we often apply a ‘formal’ critique on current workers’ struggles instead of being able to propose new organisational forms out of actual conditions.

After the crisis impact of 2008 we saw a mild upsurge in workers’ struggles – see also the article in the current Commune issue. So far the revolutionary left did not get beyond a rather reflex-type of reaction when facing the limitations of these struggles (Visteon, Tower Hamlets, Royal Mail, …). We basically limited ourselves to mainly criticizing the union bureaucracy: they did not engage in extending the struggle etc.. This view is shared, from Trotskyite Parties to Anarcho-Syndicalists, but is rather limited.

We had little to say about the internal weaknesses of these struggles. It is their ‘material/organisational limitations’ which can explain the power of the union apparatus to ‘betray’ or ‘appease’ – not the other way around. We have little insights into the actual conditions of proletarian self-organisation: the immediate and social organisation of production and the changing composition of the workforce.

It is a jump into cold water to turn the focus from traditional lefty politics to the ‘unpolitical sphere’ of social production. As an historical example I want to refer to the concept of ‘class composition’ and workers inquiry’ developed in response to the crisis of the communist left after 1956 and the emergence of a new generation of workers in the early 1960s: a double crisis of workers’ representation in the sense that the old forms – the communist parties and unions – had either discredited themselves or lost touch with contemporary class reality. I don’t want to extend this here, instead I suggest the following article as more general historical reference:

I also expand on this idea of what workers’ inquiry is in section three.

2) Current Re-Structuring and Conflicts

The political fundament of a wider workers’ inquiry would be a more detailed description of the current phase – and a recapitulation and political interpretation of the struggles which happened since autumn 2008. The following is quite blunt, but might give an idea of what would have to be done collectively.


The crisis-regime is driving forward a general re-organisation of social production on various levels. After the blow of the crisis, state subsidies were used to finance a period of piecemeal job cuts, short-time work and ‘re-organisation’. Obviously there will be further attacks on wages, attempts to increase working-time on individual bases and further job cuts, particularly in London we could expect further job cuts in services for professional class and in the financial sector. The more difficult question is how the crisis attack impacts on the actual work organization and work-force composition – the battlegrounds to come. The question of ‘future relation of forces’ is raised when it comes to material re-structuring.

From the Post Office to the Leeds Bin Men, in the centre of conflicts is (hidden) the ‘communist’ core of the current crisis: ‘communist’ in the sense that it is not about a lack of means, e.g. to pay higher wages, but about a higher productivity leading to negative results for workers. By re-structuring, e.g. by introducing new technology and new division of labour capital tries to enforce higher productivity, thereby aggravating work pressure and in consequence the pressure of unemployment on general working conditions: this ranges from new division of labour in hospitals and schools (assistant teachers), to new routes and introduction of ‘central collection rubbish bins’ for refuse workers, to new check-out systems at Tesco’s, to increased work-tasks for air-hostesses to new sorting machines in the postal distribution system. This central daily battlefield is the material basis for workers’ collectivity/anti-power and the debate about social alternatives. In many cases the threat of wage cuts is set-up as a shadow-fight to enforce a compromise in terms of ‘modernisation’ and re-structuring – and deliberately or not, the unions are part of this: co-management and monetarisation of the productivity regime.

Around this ‘epicentre’ – there are current conflicts about re-adjusting contractual work-relations and the labour market after the end of neo-liberalism and cheap money. Capital has to disguise the increased social cooperation by creating artificial or formal boundaries: creation of new professional hierarchies, different forms of employment contracts etc. In the last three decades this happened through privatization, temp work, outsourcing, self-employment – but this required cheap credits for smaller private enterprises or the self-employed. The current crisis has shaken up these neo-liberal forms of employment, loan-backed temp contracts and micro-financed outsourcing are now running dry. In the coming months there will be a lot of legal re-shuffling of employment relations, e.g. Hackney Homes announced that they would take back on a lot of sub-contracted work. Within this process there is a chance to re-discover our social cooperation and to question formally created hierarchical divisions.

The necessary pressure for the restructuring of the work organisation mentioned above is created by general state manoeuvrings of the increased labour reserve army. The hierarchical re-structuring of the labour-market has following aim: lowering the reproduction costs for a high structural unemployment and ‘dynamizing’ unemployment to keep pressure on low wage segment of the work-force. We have seen some of the future frontline: welfare bill and new migration regime. Interestingly enough the employment of non-UK workers in the UK since the crash in autumn 2008 has increased in relation to ‘UK workers’ employment. A major challenge will be to over-come the traditional dichotomy of the labour movement: separate organisational forms for unemployed and employed workers.

In this sense we should try to not only ask about the ‘victimising’ effect of the crisis re-structuring (the jobs and wages cut), but rather focus on the impact on work organisation and composition of the workforce as the future battleground of altered collectivity. We have to trace actual material tendencies of ‘homogenisation’: is the daily work experience and experience of re-structuring similar enough in order to communicate directly, are there intrinsic dynamics which allow workers to relate to each other without major mediation by representative institutions.


The material changes within exploitation have lead to a crisis of workers’ representation in the traditional union sense. We can say that this is a chance for the future. The main question will be how the daily experience of crisis pressure, the obvious absurdity of increased pressure on productivity and falling real incomes, the new work-organisation, mobility and work-force composition will change the form of conflicts and their solutions on a daily level. Rather than focusing merely on the ‘stage show’ of political class plus unions finishing off the open struggles we should dig deeper: and see where conflicts in their more embryonic stage develop on shop-floor level; how they are mediated by various agents (not only the unions, but by ‘quality management’, promotion, community hierarchy etc.); or can how they can be developed and extended without losing touch with their daily roots of anger.

We have to be able to discover the ‘common threads’ within the arising struggles. This cannot be done on the superficial level of ‘public sector conflicts’ or ‘struggles against job losses’. To make some examples: During 2007/2008 various strikes took place in Berlin – from nurseries, to hospitals, to railways. The unions mainly focused the struggle on ‘attack on wages’. Only in direct contact and open debate it turned out that the main problem was the enormous flexibilisation of working-time rather than the collective wage agreement: more and more weekend shifts, unclear shift-starts, more night-shifts etc. This was a common point of conflict which included call centre workers, car workers, train drivers etc. and had effects right into reproductive sphere and friendship life. Currently we see a similar phenomena when looking at the bin dispute in Leeds or the strike at Royal Mail. In Leeds the union focus was on the ‘outrageous wage cut’ as a consequence of the Single Status directive, when actually the main aim of the council was likely to be the introduction of new productivity schemes and new round systems – now the union agreed to ‘modernisation’ after ‘having won’ a compromise at the wage front. At Royal Mail workers reported that strike days were used to change existing work patterns: may be the ‘radical slogan’ of an ‘indefinite strike’ would have played in the hands of the management at that point of time, while collective underground refusal and parallel organisational efforts to close the gaps between permanents and temps/private delivery would have been more fruitful. In both conflicts we can see that the narrow union focus on permanent workers (not even trying to include demands for the temp workers or workers of other private companies) would have probably had a disastrous effect on any longer industrial dispute.

I assume that the situation at the Hackney Waste Depot where I work is similar to that in Leeds (there was a very similar conflict about the Single Status attack some years ago). At the depot rather than solely Single Status issues, some of the deeper lines of conflict are; the combination of below-minimum wage of agency work, high-tech sweeping trucks and 80-hours working times of their drivers, productivity bonus and ‘council control teams’, day-contracts and 16-hours shifts for mainly African and Polish stand-by workers, and attempts of the management to make people ‘stay on the job till end of shift’.

We will have to find out whether the current situation – no future promises due to melt-down, new re-structuring, productive forces used against living labour – creates a ‘common experience’ of anger amongst workers and whether the social character of work, the various channels of social division of labour can be turned into channels of proletarian communication. This can only be answered by a common inquiry.

3) London Workers’ Self Inquiry: A Proposal

The following proposal is aimed at a wider revolutionary proletarian milieu. We have to engage in a more systematic process of gathering and debating information of current restructuring (job, wage cuts, ‘modernisation’ etc.) and arising conflicts in London area – this is to a large extend an empirical effort and an effort of documenting results for the wider left.

More important, we should start a collective initiative of detailed cross sector workers’ interviews/conversations/meetings from university staff to tube track maintenance to call centres to cleaners – which is the basic necessity for creating new forms of wider organising, such as proletarian publications or assemblies. Any class-related lefty group which claims to foster workers’ self-activity – disregarding their particular ideological outlook – should be interested in such an effort.

In the focus of these interviews or collective conversations:
• Current experience of crisis impact and ‘political view’ from a perspective of daily work reality
• Current material changes in work-organisation and work-force composition
• What are the current conflicts and how are they resolved, what are the material relations of power at the moment, what lines of collectivization seem possible
• What is the social dimension of the specific work (with what kind of other workers are you in work-related contact) and what potentials could arise from this
• Current (not unhistorical) form of alienation: does the ‘absurdity’ of the general crisis changes the sense of ‘sense’ in regard of ones job and wider proletarian experience in daily life (beyond the mere questions of wages and job security)

So what about the form of this ‘inquiry’? I can understand any allergic reaction towards the word ‘inquiry’, sounding sociological, ‘external’ and functional. I think this ‘inquiry’ could in itself be a process of organisation, both for the left and the workers, and a process of re-defining the relation between them. Within the left it could be the bases for a more fruitful discussion: instead of debating rather ideologically about ‘syndicalism’ or ‘party’ the people involved can debate first of all about their own ‘proletarian existence’ and experiences within the exploitation – not on a level of anecdotes or unrelated workers’ stories, but within a common process of analysis. This could dissolve some of the rather sterile/formal boundaries between the various lefty factions – forced to become down-to-earth by the concrete questions of workers’ reality.

The same should apply to the form of inquiry regarding the ‘workers’ involved – if it is necessary to distinguish. We should be frank with the aim of the inquiry: the system is in crisis, there is a crisis of representation of workers’ struggles and that is a chance; we have to find ways to self-organise on the bases of being organised within social production. This inquiry project brings together workers from various sectors in a common aim to understand our conditions and to possibly organise common answers – not based on mere ‘appeals to solidarity’ or mediated by ‘umbrella organisations’ but by common analysis and physical meetings.

The inquiry would be a process of production – interviews, discussion meetings across sectors, means of publicising results. In this process – with an increased awareness regarding the importance of daily experiences and material organisation of production – we have to find out whether there is a potential for continuing the inquiry in a different, more organised and less ‘campaign-like’ way, e.g. in form of a workers’ bulletin or assemblies. In Berlin we were able to organise a ‘workers’ assembly’ involving train drivers, call centre workers, automobile workers, teachers and janitors debating about the differences and similarities of their conditions. The assembly was nurtured by two previous strikes and the activities of two smallish ‘workerist’ groups, but we missed our chance to extend the assembly into other forms or sectors while ‘the heat was on’.

It is probably too early to lay-out a plan of what would have to be done in order to start such an inquiry. The first step is to debate it on the background of already existing practices of various groups – not as a detached proposal. Nevertheless, here some preliminary ideas of how one might get started:

• debate a more specific proposal, including some thesis about the current phase, stage of struggles and open questions
• wider invite within the ‘proletarian left’ to a day-school debating and preparing the inquiry
• setting up a group involved with gathering and summarizing information on current re-structuring, job cuts etc. in London plus more systematic grasp of current conflicts
• debate about existing proletarian contacts and strategically important areas for interview process and meetings
• debate a questionnaire or how to structure a collective conversation, what are the main political questions we have
• have a more strategic debate about what we want to find out when we go to strikes etc. and how to support tendencies of self-activity
• debate about ways to re-publish and collectivize the ‘results’ of interviews etc. for a wider circle – working towards workers’ publications and assemblies

I think your idea to invite four or five postal workers and to actually discuss in detail about the strike and – in whatever form – publish the results would make a qualitative difference to anything the left has had to say or contribute to the dispute so far. This should not be a ‘single event’ or by-product of general activity but become part of a strategic shift of focus – away from lefty self-reference and ideology to proletarian debate.

A communist refuse worker