Repost: “Public Works for New Orleans,” a Critique of Workers’ Democracy Network (2007)

This was written during a transitional period in my political development, when I had broken for the most part with forms of social democratic and orthodox Marxist politics, though not exhaustively, facilitated almost entirely by the writing of C.L.R. James.  Of course this came with a host of problems, most noticeably an abstentionism from mass organizing.  However, and most importantly, this was before I had done any real foundational study of Marx and the Marxist tradition, had any key organizing experiences, and confronted my own sectarianism.  Consequently, there are lots of problems with this essay.

Most noticeably, the form of the critique is sectarian.  Furthermore and most regretfully, I was sectarian toward the whole public housing struggle that had reached its zenith in 2007-08 as New Orleans was then destroying the last vacant public housing units standing.  If I can remember, my thinking was that 1) the demolitions were inevitable 2) the public housing was decrepit and working people deserve better 3) that the struggle to defend it had no mass character.  On all three counts I was wrong and should not have missed the opportunity to take part in and learn from that struggle.

In terms of content, the piece has a “spontaneist” tone–no doubt due to the Jamesian influence–that had an uncritical attitude toward autonomous mass organization.  Autonomy remains imperative but all forms have their limits, and not one of them are inherently revolutionary.   Finally, there is no clear role given for militants in terms of how they relate to mass struggles and the relationship between the minimum and maximum tasks, between defending housing and revolution.

The main reason I’m choosing to repost this is for the essential value of labor and the need to ground logical categories in their historical development, however poorly this may have been articulated.  The fundamentals of this specifically I choose to maintain.


Sept. 11, 2007

Appearing recently on August 30th at the St. Jude Community Center located on Rampart St., were authors Jeanette Gabriel and Adolph Reed in a lecture titled, “Public Works Now!” There the two speakers laid out their platform regarding the question of the reconstruction of the city of New Orleans.

Their presentation revolved around the development of a massive public works program which they contend is the only means to effectively rebuild the city and which could serve as a type of transitional program to building workers power. The avenue by which we attain such a program is, according to Gabriel and Reed, through a mass movement analogous to that of the 1930s.

There are a number of pitfalls associated with this view, however. [] There can be no parallel drawn or reconciliation between workers power and state power and that the only road to a better, more harmonious, more democratic society is not through the hollow demand for a more benevolent State, but through expanding upon workers self-activity and direct democracy.

It would be utopian, as Marx infamously proclaimed, to “write recipes for the cookshops of the future.” The only useful way to conceive of a new society is by speculating about the direction that the labor movement has been heading for the last 218 years beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, but in consideration of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

When we say labor movement, however, we mean something entirely more universal than Gabriel’s and most Leftists’ very finite category of unionized workers who now represent less than a marginal nine percent of all workers in the United States. Our view is that the labor movement is an all-embracing content which assumes many forms historically and which we can now see in general outline in the movement of immigrant workers, not just in the U.S., but the world over.

As parenthetical to this point, undocumented immigration, whether it is Mexicans and other Latin Americans entering the United States, Algerians pouring into France, or Moroccans settling in Spain, indicates that a new concrete stage has been attained in the labor movement and that the invisible lines of nation-states which yield freely to capital confine the worker and deny him free movement. Labor’s response has been to destroy such demarcations as well as all antiquated notions of nationality.

We believe that while it is the instinctive and historical task of working people to create a participatory and wholly democratic society and that the question of achieving such a society is not one of consciousness (or lack thereof) nor of party leadership, we do not oppose the idea that there are a number of temporary and transitional paths that can be undertaken which might hasten and accelerate a revolutionary transfer of class power. We assert that from the outset, the question of control should be foremost to the question of distribution.

Gabriel, who was the first to speak, began with a discussion of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) established in 1935 and which was the result, like other concessions of the New Deal, of an aggressive mass movement of workers and unemployed. She attempted to paint the WPA in bright colors by highlighting the fact that it provided jobs and income to unemployed Americans across the country and that for the first time in U.S. history we had a limited form of full employment.

After thoroughly discussing the history of the WPA, Gabriel spoke about her transitional program, discussed further in a pamphlet distributed by the Workers Democracy Network titled, “Public Works to Rebuild New Orleans”. Instead of New Orleans’ reconstruction efforts left to non-profit and religious charitable organizations, federal money for full employment in the Gulf Coast region is a more sufficient path to rebuilding. The displaced New Orleanians would be given preference for getting those jobs, but they would be open to all its residents, documented and undocumented.

Reed’s presentation was a bit disjointed and much less succinct. He spent more time discussing the bankruptcy of official society, a reality that most of us acknowledge, with stories and anecdotes. Reed told of cities in decay, of the opportunism of the Democratic Party which is his basis for our need of a Labor party, and at one point he attempted to deliver a blow to neoliberalism and privatization by arguing that the federal government is larger than it has ever been, although he has no qualms with “a strong, central authority.”

Gabriel and Reed both concluded that only a mass movement can wrest concessions for full employment from the federal government. But underscoring the primacy of a mass movement we agree only in form.

The establishment of the WPA in the 1930s and the Welfare State in general was effective, indeed, for two reasons. One, it bolstered the employing class by preventing a general economic collapse due to the crisis of overproduction and market shortage, and two, it divided a workers movement by absorbing a section offered a healthier portion of the spoils of U.S. empire.

During this period, working people enjoyed a raised level of subsistence which was, as Gabriel rightly emphasized, the result of an economic revolt en masse. The question of control, however, and the relations between the workers and the State remained as labor’s leaders were given a seat at the ruling bureaucracy’s table. It should be to none’s surprise that the black revolutionary movements of the 1960s were subsequently opposed by this same leadership from Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, to A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

This phenomenon arose not because the labor leadership sold out, but because of an objective movement, a unity of opposites within the labor movement itself that led to its bureaucratizationi through the creation of a labor aristocracy. It was occurring not merely within the United States, but had long been in motion in Europe beginning with the capitulation of the Second International in 1914.

Like Europe, the lack of a concerted effort to combat white supremacy and nationalism on behalf of the Communist and Socialist leadership, the interests of a white, male labor aristocracy became separate and distinct from those of Black, female, immigrant, and unskilled labor, by far the majority of America’s labor. Additionally, the various Socialists and Communists elected to represent the interests of the working class as a whole succumbed to the group and identity interests of white labor as well as to the employers.

During the lecture’s post-discussion, a few members of the audience representing the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) pushed the issue of revolutionary change and tied the growth of the labor movement in the 1930s to “good Communist Party leadership”. This coincided with their position that the Soviet Union existed in the interests of workers.

When pressed by others in the audience, numbering around 30, to speak to the issue of revolutionary change, the point was made by Reed that building “a strong central authority” is not antagonistic to a revolutionary transformation of society and they felt that a public works program creates more favorable conditions for such transformation.

Gabriel, who has worked with various radical groups, once told an audience of Anarchists that, “Anarchists don’t build levees.” This is true, yet neither does the State. Her view of government workers as synonymous with the State is the equivalent of her view that labor is synonymous with the Union. But despite our arbitrary classifications, workers, not Anarchists, corporations, nor the State, are the basis for the production and distribution of all goods, services, and infrastructure.

She then went into a diatribe against the weaknesses of self-help while giving a nod to the Common Ground Collective and acknowledging that self-help was useful in terms of mere survival.

We, like Gabriel, believe that self-help is not enough and “creating a parallel social infrastructure”ii is impossible. “Self-help” is what [one can] would crudely label as “self-activity”, activity which is organic and independent of official organization and traditional predetermined patterns of organizing. We argue that self-activity must eventually translate into self-governance and in envisioning larger, far-reaching change, one must do so in light of people’s instinctive drive not simply to survive, but to revolutionize society from the bottom up as they have since the Russian Revolution of 1917.

If the people of New Orleans affected by Katrina were able to form autonomous search and rescue teams, ad hoc security groups to protect women and children from attacks, impromptu medical clinics, seize and distribute food, water, and suppliesiii to each other, they are just as capable of doing so on a national scale and not stopping short of seizing appropriating the State’s resources. While we see the above forms of self-activity as valid, they must be pushed to taking control of the existing institutions instead of attempting to form new rudimentary ones which will necessarily be limited.

In seeing the limitations of self-activity, however, Gabriel puts forth that it is the organizing power of the federal government that can better provide for the needs of the population. We say that the wealth and resources of the State are indispensable, but only if working people collectively manage and distribute this wealth.

We are not opposed to housing, to jobs, to equalization of livable wages, and to strong infrastructure. While we [] also desire the benefits and the vast resources of the federal government for the workers, the main issue for us is control of those resources, not merely their distribution. For this, Gabriel and Reed are content with the division between the State and the Individual. They reaffirmed their complacency with this division by referring to recent events in Venezuela, events that we would posit as sharpening this divide and expropriating workers autonomy.

During Reed’s presentation he spoke of the Republican’s assuming control of both Houses in 1994 and that their agenda was to take the country back to the 1920s era of U.S. employer rule. What he was essentially arguing for, however, is a return to the 1940s era of New Deal, Welfare State capitalism. But this is illogical. We cannot set the motor of history in reverse. While the Welfare State helped to rejuvenate a moribund monopoly capitalism of the 1930s, it is an inadequate political form for the content of capital today. To hold out for such a return of the Welfare State is the equivalent of Trotsky holding out for Stalin to restore private property in the Soviet Union; it just won’t happen.

In the end, Gabriel and Reed confound socialism and workers power with nationalization. Socialism, for them, is state ownership of production, full employment, universal healthcare, and superior education. Even if a new form of the Welfare State were possible to attain, without addressing the question of control, we leave it within the realm of a central authority to arbitrarily dispense with (as they did with the WPA in 1943) when it no longer serves their interests.

Although Gabriel and Reed appeared to disagree that the Soviet Union was a good thing, in reality they and the Labor Party, although different in form, share more with the RCP in terms of mere content. They both agree that the workers must have a party and be instilled with the correct ideas. But this divorce between the party and the working class is the material origin for the party’s incorporation into the existing State. Workers power is not a matter of finding the right leaders, with the right consciousness, which belong to the right party.

In October 1956, Hungarian students organized a solidarity march for an anti-Soviet revolt which took place in Poland earlier in June. When finally deciding to quell it, the Soviet government in Hungary unleashed a creative force unprecedented in world history when, without party direction, and in fact against the Party and the State, workers in Budapest and all over the country seized the offices of the Soviet administration, took control of the factories, elected popular committees, and eventually disarmed the State Security Police and present Soviet Army. Those members of the police and army sympathetic to the revolt distributed weapons and ammunition to the Hungarian workers and it was not until an invasion of Soviet tanks days later that the revolution was finally crushed.

This was a development out of the Russian experience 39 years earlier. After the failed revolution in 1905, councils of workers called “soviets” formed spontaneously in factories all over Russia. As Lenin had indicated, a new level of universality had been reached as the soviets were both economic and political bodies in one. But the revolution in 1917, while having the support of the soviets, was the undertaking of the armed wing of the Bolshevik party who stormed the Kremlin and threw out the provisional government.

The workers in Hungary acted on their own accord and without party intervention and with the entire world believing in their backwardness and submission to Soviet domination, thus confirming in practice the end the Vanguard era of revolutioniv. It is in light of this historical experience, and which is not limited to Eastern Europe, but has happened as recently as 2006 in Oaxaca, Mexico, that we should base all future political questions. History is screaming that the workers, taken with all their backwardness, their prejudices, and their divisions, have shown their capacity to be self-managing in matters of economics, politics, and all other social affairs.

Instead of pushing for the mass movement to demand merely for federal jobs and to elect working class candidates to office, we should articulate its need to manage the State’s resources through popular councils of existing government and military workers, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as commercial and industrial workers and thus obliterate the distinction between government and civil society. The committees and councils themselves can determine how to allocate resources and jobs for effective reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the country.

Being that New Orleans occupies a strategic point in the economy, a general strike by port workers and others can stave off any movement by the State to intervene in the direct democracy of the workers. Any other path, whether provisional or permanent in theory, must inevitably lead to the dissolution of workers power and to any future hope of a world self-government.

“One thing especially was proved by the [Paris] Commune [of 1871], viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’”v

i Glaberman, Martin. Mao as a Dialectician. Detroit, MI: Bewick/Ed, 1971. p. 13

ii South End Press Collective. What Lies Beneath. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007. p. 80

iii Ibid.

iv James, C.L.R., Grace Lee, and Cornelius Castoriadis. Facing Reality. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr, 2006. p. 14

v Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 1998. p. 32

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