The Prestige of the Working Class

Stewart Sinclair stewsinc at
Tue May 8 09:15:57 MDT 2001

Dear Gary,

Having worked in large and medium sized factories from 1964 to 1989 as an
industrial mechanic(10 years or so of that as an active revolutionary) I am
more than a little aware of the conditions and attitudes among the workers
that drive you to despair.  In one large factory (1500 - 4000 workers at
different times) I was an active revolutionary and used to engage any
worker that made the mistake of asking me a question in extended political
discussion not just on union issues although that was always uppermost but
on any issue under the sun.  I used to tell them what was what whether they
wanted to hear it or not.  I've wondered recently if I were able to go back
to that time and place if I would find that the workers who engaged me the
most, on the average, had the most boring jobs.

In any case none of the conservatism, caution, and down right pig
headedness that I encountered surprised me very much.  I was at times a
little taken aback by the capacity of some of the union activists to "edit
the tape" in order not to get into a conflict with the union leadership but
even that I had seen in other circumstances and was not completely taken
off guard.  Mostly in those circumstances I and the two comrades that I
worked with in that plant would take it under advisement and be a little
more cautious in our hopes and projections.

Some of the leaflets we put out on plant and union issues did have a big
impact but even then there was a tendency on the part of many of the more
militant members to attribute our material to the leadership when then they
liked it - merely assuming that we were "finally" supporting the leadership.

On the whole there was a range of beliefs and attitudes that many had
acquired in childhood that could not be shaken no matter what evidence we
produced or how logically we argued the case.  The basic issue was
trust.  We were introducing ideas that they simply didn't trust and since
they - at the beginning of the process - didn't know us that well, they
didn't trust us.  On top of that in the mid 60's we were communists -
openly so - and the cold war mentality was still prevalent in Canada.  I
should point out that the union was quite strong and had two wild cat
strikes in 1967.  On partial walk out to defend the collective agreement
against an arbitrary violation by the company and a full scale wildcat a
bit later to defend a group of workers fired as a result of the first
one.  One of the comrades that I worked with at the time was on the
bargaining committee and was formally fired right across the bargaining
table for leading the tool room out to joint the "walk about".  That's what
it got called.  There were two strikes like that - one before contract
termination in 1965 and this one.  It ended up with a thousand or so
workers trapping about the plant yelling "out scab out" making sure they
got everybody before they went out the gate.  The International Union based
in Detroit, I suspect, would have gladly dumped workers on the firing line
but it's very difficult to scab an aircraft plant and trying to enforce the
full discipline at that time might have resulted in a little civil war with
possible damage to some very sensitive and expensive parts and
equipment.  The company and the International eventually got control of the
place somewhat to their satisfaction but it was a long messy process that
took another contract strike and a set up and firing of the bargaining
committee.  At that point  management had to take everyone back who had
been fired or suspended and be satisfied with just putting it on the
record. Even today I believe that that local is in better shape that many
others in the same union.

Having been on the "inside" for most of my years (including many years when
I was not a "party person" and had no particular ax to grind), it is my
experience that most of the stuff the far left produces and puts out to
industrial workers is born of ignorance of the specific conditions of the
work place and written in a language that makes the material nearly
incomprehensible if not down right foolish.

Most of the more intelligent workers who are involved in the union also
have a real fear of being "setup" - of provocateurs and if they don't know
you the automatic response is to stay away at least until they know who you

It was for good reason that Lenin spent much of his early activity in the
Social Democratic movement interviewing workers about their working
life.  He struggled to get workers including non Social Democrats to give
him an extremely detailed account of their daily lives.  He logically
reasoned that he could not write for workers sensibly if he didn't have
this kind of familiarity.  He also understood from this experience that, by
enlarge, the conditions of the lives and upbringing of the workers would
prevent them from developing a revolutionary leadership internally.  This
required that the best of the intelligencia would have to won to the
revolutionary project and welded to the ongoing economic, and occasionally
political, workers struggle in a special political formation.   This
attempt produced the RSDLP (B).   Of course I know what happened in the
civil war and it's aftermath.  I would consider myself a revisionist when
it comes to the Leninist theory of party structure would probably be
accused of being an anarchist by many members of the traditional Leninist
left, but that's not what I want to talk about just now.
The important thing to remember here is that the workers can't produce
their own political analyses (nor can many academics I find) and they don't
give their trust to anybody they don't know(as has been pointed out by
others the consequences are often pretty severe).  In order to gain a
hearing at all you have to talk a language that is sensible to them and
above all BE THERE.  Be on their door step so to speak every week or every
other week for a couple of years.  Any letters you get from them publish
them (with in broad limits of course).   If they interact verbally with
you, reduce it to writing and publish it (always with proper precaution for
their security of course).  Get to know the particular people your working
with and their particular conditions.   It's a process that takes years and
you have to settle in for the long haul.  It is my experience and the
experience of the few comrades who stayed with it in the plants and got to
know what they were talking about, that radicals with integrity and
intelligence do get a hearing eventually, even when there are only
individuals remaining and nearly all the left organizations are off having
faction fights or squabbling with each other and all too often publishing
newspapers that have nothing to do with specific work places over
time.   Usually these papers are cut down radical renditions of the
bourgeois press with occasional opportunistic focus on a prominent strike
for one or two issues.  It also seems like many of them can't write an
article without a boring recitation of the "socialism is the only answer
catechism" at the end of it.

What causes me great despair is the unwillingness of nearly every radical I
meet to do just this.  Their willingness to go on talking to each other for
ever, without even planning a serious and long term approach to the workers
as human beings as well as the necessary soldiers of the revolution.  The
conservatism and stubbornness of the workers - that's only temporary and to
be expected when you know them well enough - is not half so depressing as
the self-imposed isolation of the far left.

Just in passing if any one wants to idealise the Russian workers they
should read some of the stories of Maxim Gorki.   The Russian workers were
often as brutal, reactionary and backward as any anywhere.  The failure of
the Tzarist feudal autocracy to integrate the best of the intelligencia and
the adherence of that intelligencia to the opposition was one of different
ingredients that changed that situation.

This attitude ("blaming" the workers) coming from Anarchists, I
understand.  They never have subscribed to the theories of unevenness and
leadership in the population that are common in the marxist-leninist
currents.  But the continuing failure of the non anarchist left to approach
the problem seriously - as defined in the Leninist tradition - fills me
with despair.  Again I believe that certain key elements in that tradition
must be revised in order to prevent bureaucratization but their
unwillingness to even approach that fence is definitely  depressing.

Stewart Sinclair
>Date: Tue, 08 May 2001 07:53:22 +1000
>From: Gary MacLennan <g.maclennan at>
>Subject: Re: The Prestige of the Working Class
>My Dear Greg,
>am grateful you took the time to reply. Please my posts are born of an
>honest despair.  I am not going to flame at you in anyway.  For instance I
>do not use the word 'authoritarian' except to describe my anarchist
>comrades where ironically it is very apt.
>Now of course I do not despise the working class. But my basic point is -
>look at them.  In the name of jesus yesterday they marched through
>Brisbane behind some of the greatest shonks to ever disgrace the streets
>of any capital city.  You seem to think that the working class are too
>shrewd to follow bad leaders.  But Greg this is simply wrong. They have
>followed them and have been following them for a good few decades.
>I will give you just to examples from my own personal biography.  It was
>1985 during the great power dispute.  The union was locked out.  I an a
>few other radical got a group of academics together to march to a power
>station in support of the workers.  A group of us sat down and blocked the
>entrance to the power station.  Around us were a large number of
>workers.  They stood watching us dumbly.  Then the police moved in and a
>trade union official called out, "That's it.  we are out of here." and the
>working class turned round and shuffled off after him.  Meanwhile the
>academics who had been protesting for workers' rights were arrested
>etc.  That whole strike was marked by worker passivity.
>Another example the recent Waterfront dispute.  There was a call made by
>the unions to block a train coming in.  Inspired by the demonstrations in
>Melbourne we old Lefties rallied once more.  The union officials were
>terrified when they saw us.  They marched us round and round that night
>like the Grand Old Duke of York's Army and every time anything remotely
>militant seemed about to happen they isolated the Left and the workers
>looked on again dumbly. The point I wish to emphasise is that most of the
>workers I spoke to agreed with the tactics of their leaders.  It is simply
>wishful nonsense to portray them as the giant being held back by their
>evil leaders.
>The point is where does the appalling leadership of the class come from? I
>say from the class and they reflect the actual political consciousness of
>the class. Dialectics would teach us that this could change.  The class
>could further degenerate or could eventually turn and fight.  I hope for
>the latter.
>But we have a problem as of now.  Carroll's solution is to call everyone
>working class and in one way he is correct but it disguises the problem I
>am referring to.  The organised working class are led by appalling people
>and the organised working class show little or no interest in doing
>anything about this.  Of course a war or a depression will challenge the
>quietism of the organised working class.
>I could go on Greg.  But let me iterate the point.  We need an honest
>appraisal of where the class is.  You give me a wish list and I hope you
>are correct, but methinks not, at least not yet...

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