The 89%: Where Anarchism Shuns Unionists, the Ultraleft Allies with the Ultraright



Recently anarchist collectives in the Occupy movement in Oakland and the Pacific Northwest have put forward a new slogan, "We are the 89%."  

This is a subtle way of divorcing organized labor from the popular movement, since it is based on an explicit claim that the struggles of organized labor are not merely no longer central, but that the interests of organized labor should no longer be a focus of activist support.

I have personally seen use of this slogan to divide people in Occupy Portland and Occupy Eugene.  I have read detailed accounts of similar divisions in Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle.  And I am convinced that we must challenge both the theory and practice from which this arises as vigorously as possible

One of the most striking explanations of the theory which underlies this anarchist attack on organized labor can be seen in a blog posted by the Oakland Commune.

Other elaborations of this basic idea have appeared elsewhere, but it is significant that the Oakland Commune has been prominent in promoting and rationalizing Black Bloc direct action tactics which have alienated organized labor and working people in general.

The origins of this new turn can be found in conflicts between the leadership and activists of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Occupy activists surrounding demonstrations aimed at closing Pacific coast ports.  Lenin's observation that "Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working class movement"# seems particularly apt here since the new anarchist attack on organized labor arises from their conflict with the more limited, economist objectives of the ILWU leadership.  

The anarchists appear to have seen organized labor as tinder ready to blaze into revolutionary struggle with the slightest spark, and their expectations were seriously disappointed.  Again, Lenin is pertinent.  One of Lenin's most fundamental insights into revolutionary organizing was the realization that

The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.#

It is a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Proudhonist-Bakuninist# tradition in the United States that these anarchists do not simply agree with Lenin that a vanguard party is needed for the vital task of educating organized workers to a more general class consciousness, but see the failure of organized labor to immediately form up behind the Black Bloc as an indication that organized labor should be demonized and dismissed in favor of a mix of the unemployed, the underemployed, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless who form the new revolutionary hope.

The Oakland Commune dresses this reactionary assessment of organized labor in a supposedly new discovery about the nature of capital production and circulation.  The discovery is little more than taking notice of a fundamental characteristic of commodity production under imperialism: transportation centers take on crucial importance for the export of commodities from the neocolonial periphery to the core.  Globalisation has exported many production jobs from the American core to the Third World periphery as part of the export of capital which Lenin predicted in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.  

However, the Oakland Commune seizes on this characteristic of imperialism to claim that in America the working class has been supplanted by a new "proletarian class" - the unemployed, the underemployed, petty bourgeois students, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless. Let us examine their arguments:

This is why the general strike on Nov. 2 appeared as it did, not as the voluntary withdrawal of labor from large factories and the like (where so few of us work), but rather as masses of people who work in unorganized workplaces, who are unemployed or underemployed or precarious in one way or another, converging on the chokepoints of capital flow. Where workers in large workplaces -the ports, for instance- did withdraw their labor, this occurred after the fact of an intervention by an extrinsic proletariat....

We find it helpful here to distinguish between the working class and the proletariat. Though many of us are both members of the working class and proletarians, these terms do not necessarily mean the same thing.  The working class is defined by work, by the fact that it works. It is defined by the wage, on the one hand, and its capacity to produce value on the other.   But the proletariat is defined by propertylessness....

Worker's struggles these days tend to have few objects besides the preservation of jobs or the preservation of union contracts... The power of the Occupy movement so far - despite the weakness of its discourse - is that it points in the direction of a proletarian struggle in which, instead of vainly petitioning the assorted rulers of the world, people begin to directly take the things they need to survive. Rather than an attempt to readjust the balance between the 99% and the 1%, such a struggle might be about people directly providing for themselves at a time when capital and the state can no longer provide for them.

What the Oakland Commune has done is taken the way an artifact of cyclical crises in capitalism has been exacerbated by the shift from manufacturing to service sector jobs occasioned by globalization and used it to turn class analysis on it head.  

Marx identified the role of the reserve army of labor in the first volume of Capital:

The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation.... The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour- army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check. Relative surplus population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works. It confines the field of action of this law within the limits absolutely convenient to the activity of exploitation and to the domination of capital.#

This reserve army of labor - those members of the working class held in reserve by unemployment and underemployment - grows and diminishes with the course of a capitalist crisis.  In the current recession it is considerably increased, but it has also been increased by dislocations brought on by the effects of imperialism on the core American economy. None of this changes the class character of the unemployed and underemployed: they remain wage-laborers, but wage-laborers uncalled to labor by the particular circumstances of capital.  They are no new proletarian class to be combined with lumpenproletarians and petty bourgeois students.  They have interests which are coherently part of the interests of the working class as a whole and one of the major responsibilities of a vanguard party is to create unity between the employed, the unemployed, and the under employed on the basis of those underlying class interests.  Trade unionists may not instinctively see the unemployed and the underemployed as immediate allies in struggle, but it is the responsibility of party organizing precisely to educate employed workers and workers in the reserve army of labor into what Marx terms the class-in-and-for-itself.

Rather than face up to that responsibility to build genuine class consciousness, the Oaklsand Commune rolls out anarchist platitudes:

  • "...initiative here has come from a motley band of people who work in non-unionized workplaces, or (for good reason) hate their unions, or work part-time or have no jobs at all."


  • "...that the insertion of state-sanctioned forms of mediation and arbitration into the class struggle, the domestication of the class struggle by a vast legal apparatus, is the chief mechanism by which unions have been made into the helpmeet of capital, their monopoly over labor power an ideal partner for capital's monopoly over the means of production."


  • "The coming intensification of struggles both inside and outside the workplace will find no success in attempting to revitalize the moribund unions. Workers will need to participate in the same kinds of direct actions - occupations, blockades, sabotage - that have proven the highlights of the Occupy movement in the Bay Area."

The initiative comes from people who hate their unions.  Unions are the helpmeet of capital.  Unions are moribund.  Workers need to abandon their unions and do direct action like the Occupy movement.  These attitudes threaten to destroy any possibility of alliance between the Occupy movement and organized labor.

But there is something more dangerous still afoot here.  One of the principal campaigns of the American ultraright has been to bust unions where they exist and prevent them from organizing.  It is the single most important objective of the ultraright.  

By trivializing the struggles of organized labor, by demonizing organized labor as the enemy of progressive elements in Occupy, by telling activists that union struggles are lost already and that they need to do something else the ultraleft anarchist presence in the Occupy movement has become an open collaborator with the ultraright.

This has to be rejected in the strongest possible terms.

A decisive defeat of the ultra right is not going to be led by anarchists, lumpenproletarians and the homeless, much less will socialism come to America in a revolution of anarchists, lumpenproletarians, and the homeless.

Socialism can only be won and built by the working class - all of the working class: organized labor, unorganized labor, the unemployed and underemployed reserve army of labor.  If the Occupy movement is to have a significant role in this struggle, it has to build tight alliances with all the working class.

It is important to emphasize that the anarchists about which we are talking here aren't the idealistic young people in the Occupy movement who call themselves "anarchists" because they think it means to be opposed to capitalism.

Many of these young opponents of capitalism have come to appreciate and encourage unity of action with organized labor and other contingents of the working class.

From among these strata, valuable new members have joined the Communist Party.

The problematic anarchists are the dedicated ultraleftist adherents of Proudhonist and Bakuninist tendencies in American anarchism who embrace a theory of revolution which wants to make the lumpenproletariat and the homeless the new revolutionary class.  

They are the same people who embrace Black Bloc tactics and put other Occupy activists in danger with irresponsible direct action tactics.  It is these elements that the Occupy movement must call out and repudiate.  

Working class unity in the 99% -- that should be our rallying cry.  With that kind of focus victory becomes attainable.



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  • I am a Marxist and have been a South Florida Occupier from the very beginning. I got to know our local anarchists and must say that their concerns about the American Unions' potential as an anti-capitalist force is not unjustified.

    Union leadership sees their interests in working within the system, not replacing it. They continue to put their hopes mostly with the Democratic Party, despite its record of betrayal of labor. They care little for the interests of the working class in general, just their membership. In the US, like in Japan, the management has been successful in co-opting the Unions, as opposed to Europe. We should not forget that the Teamsters Union endorsed Ronald Reagan and their Chilean counterparts supported General Pinochet.

    The last decades clearly demonstrated that Unions attempts to influence the Democratic party, and, though it, the political system, have failed. You do not need to be an anarchist to see that the Union cause is lost: just look at Wisconsin.

    Lenin said: Marxism is not a dogma but a call for action.In Russia, China, Cuba, and Nepal, capitalism was checked by revolutions of peasants, not workers. While I do not share the Oakland Commune's extreme anti -unionism, in current historical circumstances, American union halls are not the best place to recruit for anti-capitalist resistance, as will be obvious to anyone who ever visited such an institution. The way forward is to build a broad coalition of the working people, without expecting much of a union support for such a coalition.

    Posted by dmitry marin, 04/05/2012 8:16pm (7 years ago)

  • Comrade, I believe you have misrepresented Lenin's thought on the matter. The passage you quoted is part of a longer quotation where he criticizes trade union consciousness. The role of the "Party" is actually, and lenin is explicit, to intervene on the spontaneous trade-union consciousness(which is not true consciousness at all but fundamentally ideological) and guide them to revolutionary consciousnesses which is not spontaneous but artifical(as the spontaneous consciousness of any class is always ideological, true consciousness is always artifical i.e. a product of labour ). Naturally the working class left to their own devices will dwell in this ideological substitute for consciousness. Sure Lenin is adamant that this trade-union organization is a necessarily precondition for revolutionary activity but that is only where the story begins! Without a party to revolutionize them, trade-unions are absolutely reactionary. At least in Lenin's political theory. The Anarchist are reacting to the history of the american institutional unions. By shying away from revolutionary politics they have become reactionary. While i wouldn't follow them to the conclusion that they are obsolete now i also won't defend them as some bastion of political activity. At least not in their present condition.

    Posted by M. Wajdi, 03/19/2012 12:01pm (7 years ago)

  • Correction: make that "renunciation of the world working class".

    Posted by Greg Rose, 03/11/2012 1:48pm (7 years ago)

  • We need to be as tolerant as possible in that we are all in the process of trying to understand our times through our understanding of socialism. Not everyone is on the same boat but I believe we all want to head in the same general direction. Great article!

    Posted by Mike Greer, 03/10/2012 4:20am (7 years ago)

  • Mamos,

    I think that you position is more nuanced than that of the Oakland Commune and, while I still disagree with some of both the theoretical positions and the practical consequences for organizing which you draw from them, your position in clearly more grounded in the Marxist perspective than that of the Oakland Commune.

    What I find particularly objectionable in the Oakland Commune's position is (1) the Bakuninist renunciation of the world class as the revolutionary class, (2) the failure to recognize that the unemployed and underemployed are still members of the working class in the form of the reserve army of labor, (3) and the Proudhonist-Bakuninist elevation of the lumpenproletariat and petty bourgeois students to a revolutionary class which replaces the working class (and particularly organized labor) as the focus of revolutionary struggle.

    I also find the extreme spontaneity argument which seems to underlie both their position and yours neither Leninist nor Luxemburgist. Luxemburg predicated her discussion of the mass strike on the existence of a highly organized party, organizing and propagandizing for class consciousness within the working class, and a dialectical relationship between economic and political struggles which made trade union participation essential. The key passage from <i>The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions</i>, ch. 4, ( is:

    "Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength, and at the same time leads the indefatigable economic sappers of the proletariat at all times, now here and now there, to isolated sharp conflicts, out of which public conflicts on a large scale unexpectedly explode.

    "In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike. If the sophisticated theory proposes to make a clever logical dissection of the mass strike for the purpose of getting at the “purely political mass strike,” it will by this dissection, as with any other, not perceive the phenomenon in its living essence, but will kill it altogether."

    In solidarity,

    Greg Rose

    Posted by Greg Rose, 03/08/2012 8:53pm (7 years ago)

  • They need to take a look at 'Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder'.

    Posted by Jacob P., 03/06/2012 9:08pm (7 years ago)

  • Crib-sheet...basic questions arising out of many quarters of Occupy

    1. There's been much heated discussion in the Occupy movement, largely in response to the obvious, nationally coordinated [probably by Homeland Security] police evictions. Much of this discussion has been focused upon the role, merits, and other aspects of nonviolence as worldview and as tactic. This discussion has been largely fueled by the presence of anarchists who are all over the political map....and small but viral bands of nihilists, e.g. the Black Bloc, Class Warfare, well meaning but dead wrong...probably led by the police of all levels. A couple of articles below to focus on pacifism and its role and place in the crisis of bourgeois ideology [Caudwell], on the nature of anarchism. and the Marxist approach to this political force [Lenin]. Finally, a decent presentation on how these problems operate on the ground in a real, life-and-death situation {Mao].

    Christopher Caudwell: Pacifism and Violence [1935]

    Lenin: Marxism and Anarchism [1901]

    Mao Zedong: On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party

    2. Lenin wrote in many places that the above- mentioned anarchism and nihilism, as well as ultraleft and terrorist thought and action...were largely payback for the rightward drift of our movement, especially within its working class leadership. Lenin and other comrades called it Revisionism, and below is one of Lenin's articles that describes this problem well.

    Lenin: Marxism and Revisionism [1908]

    3. Revisionism and the struggle against it can only take place in a specific context: the struggle, on the ground, to ascertain at every turn the relationship between reform and the struggle for revolution...a process, not an either/or relation...more at both, and then some.
    It helps immensely to understand the role of the state...a topic that Lenin assures us is a hard act to follow, as...below... he tries to give us some guidelines, for constant reference rather than as a settled question.

    Lenin: The State [1919]

    I entitled this reading-for-discussion guide a crib-sheet. But in reality, it's not for a test to come. It's for one already underway, on the streets across the world.

    Posted by gary hicks, 03/06/2012 3:12am (7 years ago)

  • Here is another take on these debates, from Black Orchid Collective. We are a group of revolutionaries active in Occupy Seattle who draw heavily from the Marxist tradition:

    We'd love to hear your thoughts, and your readers'.

    I agree with you that we should not expect union struggles to erupt into revolution; struggles around immediate workplace issues, wages, etc. can still be valid since they build solidarity and class consciousness, which then can transform into revolutionary consciousness. We need to break down the dominance of the capitalist system in our hearts and minds, and this takes time - there is not an impending insurrection just waiting to burst out at any moment. There may be ruptures, and we should expand these as far as possible, but there is also the potential for cooptation and limited struggles, and we need a long-term strategy.

    I don't think we can simply lift that strategy from what Lenin did in 1905 and apply it today, which I feel that you and our critics in the ISO seem to be doing.

    I disagree with Lenin that workers can only come to revolutionary consciousness in the party - I believe Lenin repudiated that view later in his life as well. Luxemburg's Mass Strike illustrates how revolutionary consciousness can emerge out of insurrectionary class struggles.

    However, I agree with you that spontaneous working class struggles often fall short of revolutionary politics, and that's why organizations of revolutionaries should intervene to advance these struggles beyond their limits.

    However, I don't think that the spontaneous working class struggles of our time will necessarily give birth to a round of unionization efforts, trade union consciousness, or economistic demands. That is ONE possibility, and if it happens we should support it while we also intervene to encourage our fellow workers to help us advance beyond the limits of these struggles toward revolution.

    However, I do think the system does not affirm our identities as workers as much as it did in the past - Bay of Rage is right about this. Will workers at Wall Mart or Starbucks get excited about the possibility of workers councils running their jobs? Or do they want to liberate themselves from these jobs? What role should unemployed people play in the struggle? We can't keep writing them out simply because they're not workers in the classical sense.

    Given this situation, the spontaneous upsurges of class struggle that emerge may take forms besides union struggles and strikes. I think what has happened in Occupy is an example of that, and so are the port shutdowns. When these struggles come into conflict with unions we should try to build two-way solidarity between them and rank and file union members, which we tried to do when we organized in solidarity with the ILWU in Longview. It was the actions of the bureaucratic faction of the ILWU local 19 leadership that stifled this solidarity at multiple levels. Folks at our end did NOT write off labor struggle or even union struggle as a result - instead we turned around and continued to do labor solidarity work, building solidarity with the farmworkers in E. Washington and immigrant custodians at the University of Washington.

    We should challenge limited, or non-revolutionary consciousness among both the 89% and the 11%, and encourage folks to get each others' backs in the struggle against the bosses. But this requires taking seriously struggles of the 89% and not dismissing them because they don't take the trade union form Lenin wrote about.

    Posted by Mamos, 03/05/2012 1:02am (7 years ago)

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