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Archive for October, 2018

‘Marx’s writing more relevant today than ever’:INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG STREECK-JIPSON JOHN AND JITHEESH P.M.

Posted by admin On October - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on ‘Marx’s writing more relevant today than ever’:INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG STREECK-JIPSON JOHN AND JITHEESH P.M.

Interview with Wolfgang Streeck, German political economist.
THE German political economist Wolfgang Streeck is one of the world’s leading critics of neoliberal capitalism. He received international attention for his essay “How will capitalism end?” written in 2014 for the New Left Review. The much-discussed essay was later republished in book form. Meticulously analysing the present trajectory of capitalism, Streeck argued that “the marriage between democracy and capitalism, ill-suited partners brought together in the shadow of World War Two, is coming to an end. The regulatory institutions that once restrained the financial sector’s excesses have collapsed and after the final victory of capitalism at the end of the Cold War there is no political agency capable of rolling back the liberalisation of the markets. Ours has become a world defined by declining growth, oligarchic rule, a shrinking public sphere, institutional corruption and international anarchy, and no cure to these ills is at hand.”

Streeck cautioned the world that what was to be expected, on the basis of capitalism’s recent historical record, was a long and painful period of cumulative decay: of intensifying frictions, of fragility and uncertainty, and of a steady succession of “normal accidents”, not necessarily but quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.

Streeck had earlier believed that a centralist social-democratic position was a solution to the capital-labour antagonism. This would have been a solution within the capitalist system itself, but neoliberal capitalism again brought about that basic antagonism between capital and labour. Streeck has since emerged as one of the leading critics of the system. Adopting the slogan of delinking, he says that “it is essential that control is returned to local political communities as much as at all possible. That means ending the dictatorship of international organisations like the World Bank or multinational corporations over local economic development. Only then there can be democracy, i.e., participation in collective decision-making by the broad majority of working people, and only then we will see the experiments, social and economic, that can grow into an alternative to capitalism.” Streeck’s notable books include Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, Social Institutions and Economic Performance and Re-Forming Capitalism.

In this interview, Streeck talks about how capitalism will end, capitalism and future of humanity, the growth of resistance movements, the limitations of social democracy, the relevance of Marxism, the message of Brexit, capitalism and popular reactions, challenges and prospects before the European Left, the refugee crisis, globalisation and delinking, neoliberalism and the state, and the growth of worldwide inequality. Excerpts:

In “How will capitalism end?”, your 2014 article for “New Left Review”, you gave a theoretical farewell to capitalism. You identified five disorders to the system, namely, declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of public sphere, corruption and international anarchy that would bring about the end of capitalism. Are you saying that such an end is impending or immediate before us?

I am not saying that. I am saying that those five trends will continue as there is nothing to be seen that can stop them. I am also saying that there is no new society waiting in the wings of history, which will only have to be instituted by the forces of capitalist opposition. Instead, I am expecting a long period of high uncertainty and disorder—an interregnum in which the old order has died while a new order cannot yet be born. Very strange things can happen in such a time, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out in a famous passage of his The Prison Notebooks.

You argue that capitalism will continue to regress and atrophy until at some point it might end. You also add that we do not need to confront capitalism but let its “natural” end come about. Will capitalism end in such a peaceful manner or will it endanger humanity? People such as John Bellamy Foster speak of either socialism or exterminism as the choice before humanity.

The interregnum will be an extremely dangerous period. It is not that we don’t need to confront capitalism. I said we don’t have the collective capacity to do away with it. I wish we did. But capitalism is now a global regime while anti-capitalist politics is inevitably local. That makes it possible to throw sand into the wheels of capitalist development but, I am afraid, not to end it.

You have written that every effort to confront or combat capitalism resulted in the strengthening of capitalism in one way or another. What about the growing resistance and struggles in different parts of the world against capitalist economic policies? What about human will and agency?

It is true that the opposition to capitalism enabled it to survive, at least in the core countries where counter movements temporarily reconciled the working class with capitalism and provided for sufficient aggregate demand, enabling capitalism to grow and remain profitable. We have to build opposition to the capitalist system—but it will, for the time being, be possible only at the local level. We must encourage all sorts of local experimentation with non-capitalist forms of human life and political economy.

You earlier believed that a centralist liberal or social-democratic position is a solution to the capital-labour antagonism. In a sense, it is a belief that we have a solution within the capitalist system itself. But neoliberal capitalism again brought about that basic antagonism between capital and labour. And you emerged as one of the leading critiques of the system. What is wrong with the liberal or social-democratic political position?

Social democracy was an answer to the dynamics of capitalism as long as capitalism was contained in national political economies, or could be fought as though it was. This is now over. The past three or four decades have shown that free trade and the deregulation of markets, as adopted by the centre-Left parties of the West, tear our societies apart and immobilise the government as an agent of economic redistribution. Today the working class is effectively international without being able to become organised at this level, and capital is so internationalised that it can no longer be forced into national class compromises.

Relevance of Marxism
Your thesis predicts the end of capitalism. This is in conformation with the hypothesis and analysis of that great 19th-century thinker of your country, Karl Marx. The course of contemporary developments and critical studies prove Marx right to a great extent. How relevant is Marx today?

Marx’s writing is more relevant today than it ever was. One must read him right, though. Marx expected to see capitalism end during his lifetime. For this reason, he did not spend much time on what might delay the end and what the world might be like in between. We must do that thinking instead of him, with the tools he provided and as we need to, update them. Marx draws our attention to the fact that capitalism is a historical phenomenon, that is, one that has a beginning, and following from this, an end. He expected that end to come about as a result of what he called the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But now we are 150 years after Capital Vol. I appeared, and that tendency has not yet done its work.

The European Union (E.U.) has been projected as a zone of democracy, integration, cooperation and transnationalism. But Brexit was a big blow to these claims. There are stories of the possibilities of similar exits. What does the exit of the U.K. symbolise? What is the post-Brexit picture of the E.U.?

To begin with your last question, nobody knows this at this point. The crisis of European integration has the same reasons as the increasing authoritarianism in large political units such as China, India, Russia and the United States: large political entities are difficult to keep together or to build in the first place, due to increasing inequality between classes and regions which, in turn, are produced by global markets penetrating national political economies and making them ungovernable (especially as long as they are democracies). See also the segregationist, or secessionist, tendencies in countries such as Britain and Spain, which have the same cause. People lose confidence in large superstates and demand more local self-determination, either through decentralisation within large states or through breaking away from them. Merging extant states into newly created superstates, which is what European integration is aiming at, runs counter to what people today want.

A Bloomberg analysis of decades of election results across 22 European countries reveals that support for populist radical-Right parties is higher than it has been at any time over the past 30 years. What kind of social dynamics in the neoliberal era results in such a support for these neofascist forces? What would be the effect for Europe which experienced the horrors of “the night of the long knives”?

Not all “populist” movements are rightist; some come from the Left. Moreover, only on the margins of European political systems do we at this time see truly fascist movements—by which I mean parties led by one charismatic would-be dictator commanding a paramilitary private army-plus-police. We have not, till date, seen a return of the nightmares of the interwar years. What we are seeing is a deep loss of legitimacy on the part of the established political party system and an attempt by very different social forces to benefit from this loss and build up support for right-wing or left-wing alternatives to neoliberal politics as usual.

Along with the right, a populist Left is also increasingly gaining influence in several European countries. In the U.K. election, Jeremy Corbyn attracted significant political support for his strong stand against neoliberalism, austerity measures and so on. We saw it earlier in countries such as Greece. What does this signify? Is it a resurgence of the Left? What are the challenges and prospects before the European Left?

Be careful here. The Greek Left was thoroughly defeated by the united European governments, including the “socialist” government of France and the “social-democratic” government of Italy, not to mention Germany. Now the Greek governing party, Syriza, is playing the game of Brussels and Berlin.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn can make it to Downing Street remains to be seen; I very much hope so, and I hope that he will be able to accomplish more than Francois Hollande, who also was a great hope of the Left when he was elected. In any case, building a new European Left will require new parties, or older parties thoroughly revolutionised from below, that function very differently from the past. Above all, these parties must rebuild their connections to their national working classes; listen better to their problems instead of those of the new middle class. This includes more and better management of trade and a regulation of immigration that is compatible with the interests of workers, in particular those with low wages and a need for a functioning welfare state.

Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’
The migration of hapless human beings from the war-ravaged West Asia and African countries, or what is called “the refugee crisis” of Europe in the past three-four years, has gained significant global media attention. According to reports, as many as one million people have migrated to different countries of Europe. How does this inflow affect the European political landscape? Could you also comment about the return of Islamophobia, neo-fascism, racism and so on?

Over the years, it has grown to much more than 1 million. (Germany alone took in 1 million refugees in 2015.) What we are talking about here is unregulated immigration. Whatever else it does, it creates a huge low-wage labour supply in rich countries, with very little social and legal protection for employment in the restaurant industry, at Amazon distribution centres, as delivery men and women and so on. It also results in conflicts over housing, schools and education, even religious holidays and so on. The picture is mixed.

In rare instances, German bullies attack refugee centres; at the same time, there is a broad movement among Germans to help immigrants find their way into language training, schooling, social welfare benefits and the like. Among the very large number of Turkish immigrants in Germany, for example, roughly half live a quiet and productive life, while others are still largely outside of German society; yet others support enthusiastically the Turkish dictator [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and demand that he be allowed to hold election rallies in Germany for German Turks or Turkish Germans. The political climate is heating up while the E.U. and its member states are working hard to bring immigration under control. European countries need immigration for demographic reasons but open borders are politically and economically unsustainable, and they are especially problematic for low-income people.

You have analysed and explained how neoliberal capitalism brings misery to the bulk of the population. Marxist thinkers such as Samir Amin and Prabhat Patnaik suggest a delinking from globalisation of countries, especially in the South. What do you think of it?

To me it is essential that control is returned to local political communities as much as possible. That means ending the dictatorship of international organisations like the World Bank or of multinational corporations over local economic development. Only then can there be democracy, that is, participation in collective decision-making by the broad majority of working people, and only then will we see the experiments, social and economic, that can grow into an alternative to capitalism.

Building cooperatives, of producers and consumers, financed by local development banks is one way; another would be investing in basic education and essential health care services, independent of the sales efforts of large multinational firms; yet another would be protecting local subsistence agriculture from the export pressures of the E.U. and agribusiness. People must first stand on their own feet in order to get on the march into a better future.

In contemporary debates, there is an argument that in the period of neoliberal globalisation, the state “withdraws” from welfare measures. You have coined the term “debt-state” to describe the economic character of the state in the neoliberal age. Could you elaborate? How does the state function under neoliberalism in terms of economic activities?

On the one hand, the state is supposed to let competitive markets run their course. For this, it must open the national economies to the world market and withdraw from intervention in the national economy. It must also, as much as possible, open up the national political economy to privatisation to allow for a maximum of “private initiative”. But this does not mean that the state must be weak. On the contrary, it is expected to protect the “free play of market forces” from popular resistance, sometimes with a considerable use of force. So a “free economy” needs a strong state, one that keeps the market immune to democratic-electoral pressures from below. Neoliberal democracy is possible after democracy has been severed from the economy. This is what I call the “consolidation state”.

Thomas Pikketty, in his book “Capital in the 21st Century”, has shown how income and wealth inequality grows substantially across different countries in the world. He also proposes serious measures to curb this growing inequality. Universal or progressive wealth tax is his main suggestion. What is the significance of Piketty’s findings? Do you think that the proposal of universal wealth tax could be worked out under neoliberal capitalism?

Piketty’s great merit is that he has demonstrated the extent of the capitalist tendency toward high and rising inequality by collecting an almost unbelievable richness of empirical data, deeper back in history and on more countries than anyone else, all pointing in the same direction. On the rest, no, I see no chance at all for universal wealth tax, for technical as well as political reasons.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications including Monthly Review, The Indian Express and The Wire.

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Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On October - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Karl Kautsky: From Pope to Renegade-Doug Enaa Greene



Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, 1910
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with author’s permission — At the height of the Second International, Karl Kautsky was recognized by socialists and anti-socialists alike as “The Pope of Marxism” for his popularization and systematization of Marxist ideas. The great figures of the day looked to him for guidance, whether Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, V. I. Lenin, or Eugene Debs. Since Kautsky was such an authoritative voice on Marxism, his subsequent betrayal was so deep that later communists could be forgiven for mistaking his first name as “Renegade” (as Lenin bitterly called him). Although Kautsky fell into obscurity following the Russian Revolution, in the last few years there has been a revival of interest in his politics in both academia (notably by the scholar Lars Lih) and on the political left. This raises questions about the meaning of Kautsky’s orthodox Marxism and about what, if anything, a renewed revolutionary left should adopt from it as our own?

Kautsky’s Orthodoxy
Karl Kautsky was originally born in Prague in 1854 and joined the socialist movement while a student there in the mid-1870s. However, it was only after moving to Germany and joining the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that he began his rise to prominence. In 1883, Kautsky was made editor of Die Neue Zeit, the SPD’s main theoretical journal, for which he wrote on many theoretical, historical, and political topics. By 1891, Kautsky’s reputation had grown so much among socialists that he was chosen to co-write the SPD’s Erfurt Programme and a popular commentary on it known as The Class Struggle.

The Erfurt Programme and subsequent works by Kautsky systematized the SPD’s understanding of Marxist orthodoxy. According to Kautsky, the contradictions of capitalism would eventually cause the system to break down. Capitalism brought with it the accumulation, centralization, and concentration of capital, the growth of the working class, and sharper divisions between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Ultimately, the relations of production would cease to foster the development of the productive forces, and this would signal the onset of the socialist revolution.

For Kautsky, it was the mission of social democracy to educate the workers that their salvation could not be found in capitalism, but only in socialism. To accomplish this task, social democracy had to be the leadership not only of the workers, “but of all laboring and exploited classes, or, in other words, of the great majority of the population. We have already seen that the industrial proletariat tends to become the only working-class.”[1] It was the great mission of social democracy to merge Marxist theory with the working class movement in order to lead it to final victory: “Socialism as a doctrine certainly has its roots in modern economic relationships just like the class struggle of the proletariat, and just like the latter, it emerges out of the struggle against the poverty and misery of the masses that capitalism creates. But they arise simultaneously, not one out of the other, and on different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.” [2] Without the merger of the working class movement and revolutionary social democracy, Kautsky thought, the proletariat would merely struggle for day-to-day reforms, and socialism would remain a futile discussion among intellectuals.

It was Kautsky’s Marxist orthodoxy with its belief that socialism was inevitable that shaped a generation of socialists from the United States to the Russian Empire.

The Revisionist Heresy
Kautsky’s Marxism did not go unchallenged within the SPD. In 1896-1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote a series of articles that argued the time had come to revise Marxist theory, which amounted to renouncing socialist revolution as a goal and a call for the SPD to focus all their efforts on seeking social reform, and abandon the prospects of a social revolution.

Bernstein’s revisionist challenge threatened the entire edifice of Kautsky’s orthodoxy and the SPD’s raison d’être. Kautsky’s response restated his basic positions on class polarization, the difference between reforms and revolution, and the need for the conquest of power. This largely satisfied the SPD party leadership, who twice voted against Bernstein’s revisionism in 1899 and 1901.

However, strains were beginning to show at the seams of Kautsky’s Marxism. His orthodoxy could explain the past and predict a glorious socialist future, but it was of little use in present struggles. Kautsky tended toward fatalism and passivity in the here and now. He simply advocated that the SPD slowly accumulate its forces through a “strategy of attrition” by strengthening its apparatus and winning votes until they achieved a parliamentary majority. In practice, this was little different than what the revisionists argued. Despite what Kautsky may have believed, socialism as a goal receded into the horizon. At one point, he even stated: “[the SPD is] a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[3]

The practical triumph of revisionism in the SPD was something that Kautsky was unwilling to confront since he perceived it largely as a theoretical issue and not an organizational one. For Kautsky and other orthodox Marxists, the unity of the SPD was something that needed to be maintained at all costs. The SPD’s powerful apparatus, millions of votes, and the support of the trade unions was a sign of the coming socialist future. In fact, he believed that the unity of the SPD was identical to the unity of the working class. It did not even matter to Kautsky that all members of the party did not share a common Marxist worldview: “One can be a good comrade without believing in the materialist conception of history, but one is in no sense a good comrade if one does not submit to the congresses of the party.”[4] All theoretical differences could be solved within the party, no matter how serious they were.

However, this dream of party unity and Kautsky’s historical schema would not survive a practical challenge of war and revolution.

The Bolshevik Challenge
In 1905, revolution erupted in Russia, and Kautsky offered strategic advice on the way forward. Kautsky angered the more moderate Mensheviks (who shared his orthodoxy) by advocating that the workers lead the revolution as opposed to subordinating themselves to the bourgeoisie. Kautsky declared: “The age of bourgeois revolutions, i.e. of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over in Russia… As soon as the proletariat appears as an independent class with independent revolutionary aims, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class…”[5] It is no wonder that both Lenin and Trotsky saw Kautsky’s positions as endorsements of their own.

That Kautsky could be claimed by Trotsky and Lenin showcased the ambiguity of his own position. For one, Kautsky did not advocate permanent revolution as Trotsky did (the democratic revolution growing over to a socialist one). As Kautsky said, “It therefore seems unthinkable that the present revolution in Russia is already leading to the introduction of a socialist mode of production, even if it should bring social democracy to power temporarily.”[6] While Lenin and Trotsky believed that Czarism would not be toppled without an armed struggle (leading them to hail the December insurrection in Moscow), Kautsky argued instead: “the revolution must take place through methods of peace, not of war.”[7]

Still, Kautsky had placed himself on the left in those debates and hoped that the Russian Revolution would revitalize the SPD. The party bureaucracy remained immobile and continued on its conservative course. Kautsky buried whatever misgivings he had and accepted this state of affairs. After all, the SPD was playing the role that Kautsky had assigned to it. Once again as a champion of party unity, he refused to advocate any other course. To that end, when Rosa Luxemburg argued for the SPD to employ mass strikes to win meaningful reforms, Kautsky condemned her “rebel’s impatience” of trying to reach socialism by forcing the march of history and ignoring objective limitations..[8] Rather, Kautsky felt confident in waiting for socialism since he believed that history was on the party’s side.

The Test of War
Kautsky’s entire system was shattered with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The SPD ignored its solemn internationalist and anti-war commitments in order to support the Kaiser’s war effort. As he said in retrospect: “It is amazing that none of us who were there had the idea of raising the question: What to do if war breaks out? What attitude should the Socialist parties take in this war?”[9] Kautsky could offer no revolutionary path for the SPD to follow in the bloody maelstrom. Instead, Kautsky offered “left” rationalizations for the SPD’s pro-war position, which led them to publicly oppose strikes against the war and even collaborate to arrest revolutionary union leaders who organized them. Thus, Kautsky was politically impotent at a critical hour. By contrast, internationalists such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called for revolutionary action against the war.

While Lenin had denounced Kautsky’s opportunism in the face of war, it was only following the Bolshevik Revolution that Kautsky became a “renegade.” In Terrorism and Communism, Kautsky condemned the Bolshevik Revolution on no uncertain terms for creating a minority Jacobin-style dictatorship that violated bourgeois democratic norms. Even though the Soviet Republic was fighting for its life against counter-revolutionaries, both Lenin and Trotsky took the time to respond to the slanders of their former mentor. Lenin denounced Kautsky for emptying Marxism of its revolutionary content and transforming it into something acceptable for liberals.

Trotsky said that by “abandoning the idea of a revolutionary dictatorship, Kautsky transforms the question of the conquest of power by the proletariat into a question of the conquest of a majority of votes by the Social Democratic Party in one of the electoral campaigns of the future…. This fetishism of the parliamentary majority represents a brutal repudiation, not only of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but of Marxism and of the revolution altogether.”[10] The Marxist Pope had at last become the Renegade who betrayed everything he claimed to believe in.

The Verdict
While Kautsky proclaimed his Marxist orthodoxy until his death in 1938, he remained a marginal figure in political life, ignored by both social democrats and communists. His orthodoxy had at last ripped apart at the seams. Kautsky could offer no viable response to the rise of fascism, beyond viewing it as an aberration from the inevitable march of history. This would be cold comfort to the SPD members languishing in Nazi jails. His last years were spent writing theoretically impoverished works on Marxism and vitriolic anti-communist tracts.

In his obituary for Karl Kautsky, Trotsky generously noted: “We remember Kautsky as our former teacher to whom we once owed a good deal, but who separated himself from the proletarian revolution and from whom, consequently, we had to separate ourselves.”[11] The younger Kautsky made invaluable and necessary contributions by spreading Marxist ideas, but ultimately his theoretical and organizational weaknesses proved to be his undoing. At decisive moments, when the situation called upon Kautsky to act, he failed the test. In the final instance, Kautsky’s Marxism could offer no practical revolutionary path forward to great convulsions, just assurances in the steady march of progress. Kautsky’s final legacy was in providing a “left” cover for imperialist war and an anti-communist “socialism” made safe for bourgeois liberalism.


[1] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1910), 210.

[2] Quoted in Alan Shandro, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony (Boston: Brill, 2014), 342.

[3] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.

[4] Quoted in Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (New York: Verso Books, 1979), 127.

[5] Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Boston: Brill, 2009), 605.

[6] Ibid. 607.

[7] Ibid. 179.

[8] Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983), 185.

[9] Quoted in Enzo Traverso, Fire And Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 (New York: Verso, 2016), 38.

[10] Leon Trotsky, “Terrorism and Communism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch02.htm

[11] Leon Trotsky, “Karl Kautsky,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/11/kautsky.htm
Fair Use Notice
This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?- Tom Bramble

Posted by admin On October - 24 - 2018 Comments Off on Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?- Tom Bramble


Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?-
Tom Bramble

Trade unions in Australia are facing the biggest crisis in their existence
. Membership coverage – the ratio of unionists to workers – has fallen for more than three decades and now stands at just one in seven, down from one in two in the early 1980s.[1] From being one of the world leaders in union coverage outside Scandinavia, Australian unions have experienced the most rapid decline of any Western country. Industrial relations lawyer Josh Bornstein is right to argue that “The tipping point passed long ago. Australian trade unions are fighting for their survival”.[2]

Areas that were once at the forefront of unionism have faded almost to nothing. Outside a few pockets, there are large swathes of manufacturing with no more than a token presence of union members – less than one in ten workers in the machinery and equipment industry are now unionists. The result is that membership of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) has collapsed from more than 200,000 members in 1995 to 80,000 in 2016. Tens of thousands more are expected to go within five years, with the union predicting just 40,000 dues-paying members by 2020.[3] The Pilbara iron ore industry, once a union stronghold, has seen unionism virtually disappear. In coal mining, another former union bastion, coverage has fallen by more than half, and the same is true in the utilities (electricity, gas and water) and construction: outside big projects, mainly in the central business districts, unionism in the construction industry has been purged. Finance and insurance, never a militant area but one with relatively high union coverage, has seen coverage drop dramatically, likewise communications.

Particularly worrying is that union coverage is both very low and dropping even more rapidly among younger workers. Union coverage is therefore likely to keep declining without dramatic change as those workers with some experience of union activism retire, giving way to a new generation without any knowledge of union struggle on the job – the 21-year-old who took part in the last big strike push of 1981 is now in their late 50s. The vital socialisation processes that have in the past inculcated new entrants to the workforce with union traditions are breaking down. The culture of unionism, once an important feature of working class life in Australia, has substantially broken down.

Little wonder that ACTU secretary Ged Kearney told a crisis meeting of union leaders in 2016 of her fear that unions could be reduced to “some quaint anachronism barracking from the sidelines” and “a national non-entity”.[4] For the right, of course, this prospect is welcome, with The Australian’s industrial relations writer Troy Bramston asserting that “the union movement is in terminal decline” as workers are “deserting unions in droves”.[5]

The dramatic weakening in union membership has contributed to the working class being pushed backwards. Real wages have fallen in recent years and the labour share of national income has sunk to its lowest since 1964. As numerous cases have now demonstrated, workers are being robbed of basic wage and superannuation entitlements, and penalty rates are rarely paid across hospitality and areas of retail dominated by small business and franchises.

As unions decline, so too does coverage of collective agreements. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of private sector employees covered by collective agreements fell from 2 million to 1.5 million, and in the public sector from 700,000 to 570,000, even while the workforce steadily grew.[6] For the most part, those no longer covered by collective agreements are now reliant on awards where wages are much lower.[7] The falling coverage of collective agreements, combined with meagre increases in the minimum wage applied to awards by the Fair Work Commission, has contributed to the rapid decline in the minimum wage relative to median wages over the past decade.

With weak or absent unions, the ability of management to boss workers around at the workplace has significantly increased. What employers and politicians call “restrictive practices”, which limit management’s assumed prerogative to direct workers on the job as to how work is done, what breaks are taken, what safety provisions are observed, how workers can be sacked or disciplined, what employment contracts workers are under (direct employment; labour hire; independent contractor) have all been whittled away. The absence of union intervention on the job also significantly increases the exposure of workers to unsafe work practices. More broadly, the decline of trade unions has removed an obstacle to successive governments stripping away social security entitlements that benefit the working class.

The decline of unionism also has important political and ideological effects. When unions fight, they overcome the atomisation of workers as individual voters and give the working class a collective voice and a platform to fight. They play an important role in shaping Australian politics, most obviously during the last term of the Howard government when the ACTU launched its Your Rights at Work campaign against WorkChoices. Or, more recently, in the marriage equality postal survey, where the unions, particularly in Victoria, established themselves as a significant force driving the “yes” vote, deploying many hundreds of volunteers across the cities. The unions possess roots in communities, in particular in blue collar workplaces, usually well out of the reach of small LGBTI campaign groups.

Finally, the absence of unions from so many industries dilutes a basic sense of working class identity and encourages individualism, with all of the toxic effects that go with that – crawling to the boss, doing down your workmates and so on. Fracturing solidarity at the workplace also opens the door in society more widely – in the parliamentary, media and educational spheres for example – for the ideas of the far right to grow.

The crisis of Australian trade unionism therefore has many damaging effects. The purpose of this article is to explain the roots of this crisis and to point to the potential for recovery. I start with a critical review of the strategies pursued by unions themselves over the past three decades, in particular their Accord with the Hawke and Keating governments. I then move on to some discussion of how unions can be revitalised, pointing in particular to the revival of class struggle and the growth of a larger radical left oriented to the working class movement.

The role of the Accord

The central argument of this article is that the decline of Australian unionism is in large part the responsibility of the trade unions themselves. And if it is decisions taken by the union movement itself that are to blame, so this requires a fight within the union movement to turn things around.

The adoption of the ALP-ACTU Accord in 1983 and its maintenance in various forms through to the defeat of the Keating government in 1996 must be understood as the single most important factor explaining the onset of sustained union decline.[8] The Accord entrenched class collaboration with the bosses, pushed aside strikes in favour of arbitration and appeals to the ALP, accelerated the destruction of independent shop floor union organisation and centralised power in the hands of the growing union bureaucracy. The Accord of course is long dead, but its legacy lives on in the strategies pursued by unions to this day.

This is not an uncontroversial argument. Peetz, for example, argues that the Accord delayed deunionisation in Australia because it held at bay hostile government attacks and prevented the Hawke and Keating governments from pursuing the kind of neoliberal agenda then being popularised by the Thatcher and Reagan governments.[9] It is worth spending a little time, therefore, to explain the role of the Accord in steering the union movement towards its current predicament.

The Accord was an agreement between the ALP and ACTU leaders by which the latter agreed to abandon industrial campaigns for higher wages and better working conditions in return for the “maintenance of real wages over time” through the mechanism of six-monthly indexation of award wages by the Arbitration Commission (the forerunner of the Fair Work Commission). The Accord also involved a commitment by the ALP leadership to an expansionary fiscal policy that would cut unemployment, an increased “social wage” (Medicare, social security payments, pensions), and the inclusion of trade union leaders in tripartite committees that would give them a voice in economic and industry policy.

The Accord was at its inception a brainchild of the left of the trade union movement, most notably the leadership of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU) and the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). Key figures had been or were in one of the communist parties (e.g. Laurie Carmichael, Tom McDonald, John Halfpenny). The fact that it was a project identified with the left wing and more militant unions was central to its success. For any incomes policy to succeed in circumstances where two big strike waves (1969-74 and 1980-82) were still a very recent memory in the minds of working class militants, its architects had to rein in the militants with the capacity to wreck it through strikes, and the members of the AMWU and BWIU were at the top of that list.

Before going on, it is worth considering why the left wing trade union leaders were prepared to take on this responsibility. Answering this question also underpins my explanation for the developments in the years after the Accord. Trade union leaders occupy a contradictory role in the labour movement.[10] They are under pressure from the bosses with whom they negotiate and who value “partners” who can deliver “reasonable” outcomes that do not jeopardise their profits and who can ensure that any deal struck will stick with the rank and file membership. Outside the workplace or enterprise, union leaders are also subjected to pressure to be “reasonable” from the courts, government ministers and the media who insist that business must make profits. The pressure ratchets up as capitalism ages and becomes more crisis-prone: there is less space for concessions by the employers.

The union leaders are also, however, under pressure from the rank and file members who join unions and go on strike in order to improve their wages, working conditions and treatment by supervisors, to defend their jobs and, sometimes, to make political demands on governments. Union leaders who fail to demonstrate any capacity to lead such fights may be shunned by members and replaced by more militant contenders for the leadership, or their unions may simply lose out to others that do demonstrate these fighting qualities. At times, the union leaders themselves, in order to buttress their bargaining power with recalcitrant employers, may try to galvanise rank and file workers for industrial action.

The job of union leaders is to manage these conflicting pressures which are rooted in their social position as a buffer between labour and capital. They are, as one author put it, the “managers of discontent”.[11]

But the union leaders do not merely compare the contrasting force of the pressure from above (the employers, state, media) and below (the members) and act in concordance with the stronger of the two. Ultimately, the full-time union official is a creation of capitalism; their role depends on the continued existence of wage labour. Under communism, where the sale of labour power has ended, there will be no union officials. Unlike the working class, therefore, they have no interest as a social layer in fighting to overthrow the capitalist system. Indeed, union leaders have repeatedly proven themselves to be the last line of defence for the capitalist order when all else has failed. Even short of revolution, which hardly impinges on their consciousness on a daily basis, an active, militant, rank and file membership means more work for them, puts them under more pressure, forces them to stand up more to the boss and, if they fail to do so, makes it much more likely they will be thrown out of office at the next union election. For a quiet life, they want as much as possible a union membership that is passive for the most part but which can occasionally be revved up for action when the bosses or a government minister has to be convinced of the need for some concession. Hence the appeal of arbitration for union leaders, in that it provides a perfect mechanism for directing class conflict away from the hurly-burly of strikes and lockouts and towards the serenity of the court room. In the former, they are subjected to the indignity of workers poking them in the chest wanting answers; in the latter, they reign supreme as the embodiment of the union’s collective will. Hence the appeal also of Labor governments as an avenue to pursue workers’ demands: quiet lobbying by union delegations in ministerial offices is less irksome and onerous than the hard work involved in an industrial fight.

Further, the union leaders enjoy various material benefits that go with their role. For those who used to work on the tools, taking a job in a union office is a definite social and economic advance, in terms of pay and conditions of work – apart from anything else, they are unlikely to suffer any serious injury at work. Their rates of remuneration, taking into account salary, superannuation, a union car and phone, travel allowances and the rest of it, are commonly double those of the average member, sometimes triple. And none of these are affected by any deals they strike. If they sign off on a deal to cut jobs or hold down pay, they do not face the dole queue or cuts to their living standards.[12] If they agree to reduce staffing or speed up work, they do not have to work any harder themselves. They are not workers but functionaries of the union. And if they rise through the ranks, they become figures of note, interviewed by the media, treated with respect by government officials and politicians. More rewards wait for those who do not make waves: the prospect of a position in parliament, appointment to the arbitration commission, the offer of an HR position at a big company, or a well-paid job in the public service. Very few full-time officials happily return to the workplace from such a position. If social being determines consciousness, as Marx famously argued, the pressures on trade union leaders towards conformism with the capitalist system are obvious. All these factors come together to cohere the union officialdom into a bureaucracy, a conservative social layer in the labour movement.

Two small qualifications can be made. First, the pressures towards conformism are usually felt more acutely by those higher in the union apparatus for the simple reason that they are more removed from rank and file pressure, and because they come under more pressure from the bosses, as their actions can have more impact on the profitability of particular companies or the fortunes of the “national economy”. Nonetheless, the difference between the national or branch secretary and the local organiser is not as marked as it once was: the fact that the latter are today mostly appointed rather than elected has lessened the pressure from members on this layer too. And there are plenty of organisers only too keen on an easy life for themselves and with an eye to a position in HR.

Second, the social role of the trade union leader does not mean that divisions between left and right in their ranks are irrelevant, as any comparison between the leadership of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) will demonstrate. But nor is it determinative of their role in the last instance. The behaviour of all union officials, no matter how left their rhetoric, is shaped by their social function. And the history of Australian unionism is that it has been the left officials, with their greater credibility among the militants, who have the greatest capacity to save the capitalists’ skins. So it was with the Accord and the Hawke Labor government.

The left wing union leaders promoted the Accord on the basis that it was a step towards a planned economy and thus towards socialism. For those with a more limited ambition, it offered unions the ability to embrace a wider social agenda. By agreeing to wage indexation and “no further claims” (that is, a no strike commitment), the unions would, supposedly, be able to sit down with the government to discuss implementing reforms to boost the welfare state. Accord supporters argued that this would benefit the whole working class, not just those in the more militant unions who could push for higher wages by going on strike.[13]

Regardless of the claims made for the Accord, it was a strategy that in practice drove the working class and union movement backwards. The obvious problem was that by agreeing to make no further claims for wage increases outside indexation, the union leaders allowed real wages to fall as full indexation was breached from the outset. By the end of the decade, median earnings had fallen by 7.1 percent, adjusted for inflation (Figure 1 – see Appendix). Not even Malcolm Fraser or, subsequently, John Howard, cut real wages like the Accord. And, far from helping to close the gender wage gap, female workers experienced an even larger wage cut (7.4 percent between 1983 and 1989) than men (6.8 percent). By holding back on strikes, waged workers went backwards across the board. The contrast with one group of predominantly female workers, the Victorian nurses, who went on strike in defiance of the Accord, is conspicuous. The nurses went out for seven weeks in 1986 after months of being given the run-around by the state Labor government. Even though they faced opposition and white-anting of their campaign by both the ACTU and Victorian Trades Hall and outright hostility from the minister for health, they prevailed in their fight for increased wages and a better career structure.[14]

The Hawke government did throw the unions one bone in its early years – Medicare – but even this was used as a justification not to fully index wages in the year of its introduction. The other “win” promoted by the Accord’s supporters, the introduction of industry superannuation, was likewise used as a justification not to fully index wages – and, at the same time, gifted governments then and since with a rationale not to boost the age pension.

Even more damaging than the wage cuts, however, was the harm the Accord did to the union movement. First, the unions became identified as organisations that fought not for improved living standards but for “national competitiveness”, and that meant profits came first. This was evident in their role promoting “industry restructuring” and “workplace reform” which involved thousands of redundancies across manufacturing industry.

The Accord destroyed those militant traditions that had survived the Fraser years and the 1982 recession. Some unions chose not to buckle under to the restrictions of the Accord – for example, the Food Preservers Union, the Furnishing Trades, the Builders Labourers and the Airline Pilots – but they were targeted for retribution by the ACTU which acted as the Hawke government’s industrial police force. Activists recall being at a BLF picket in Sydney during their battle against deregistration when BWIU officials relied on police to usher their members through the picket lines.[15] Not only did this break down traditions of honouring pickets – a question of basic solidarity – but it also meant their members had to walk up many flights of stairs because lifts operated by the BLF could not operate. So a condition established in previous disputes, that BWIU members could not be required to walk up numerous flights, was lost. Former union militants who had led strikes for big wage increases in earlier years were sucked into industry restructuring committees that drew them away from their fellow workers and turned them into apologists for the employers and the Labor government. Those who still wanted to strike for higher wages were reined in by their union officials.

At the end of the 1980s, centralised wage indexation gave way to the introduction of certified agreements allowing variations of award conditions, the two-tier wages system and award restructuring. The focus of the Accord now switched from straight wage cuts to destroying working conditions and union control on the job.

In 1991, the ACTU and Labor government joined forces to introduce enterprise bargaining, which had originally been promoted by the Business Council of Australia as a way of undermining the award system. Enterprise bargaining has proven to be a disaster for the union movement and working class. Its fundamental fault is that it is premised on undermining working class solidarity. The new principles adopted by the Industrial Relations Commission banned any return to the industry-wide campaigns of the type used in the 1960s and 1970s, which had lifted wages across the board. Henceforth every group of workers had to eke out the best result that they could. By splitting up the workforce into those able to push up wages through enterprise agreements and those who found it more difficult to do so, predominantly those working in small enterprises, enterprise bargaining led the unions to abandon the latter to the mercy of the Commission and its panel of economists responsible for determining the annual adjustment to the minimum wage. With a widening gap opening up between the two industrial instruments, agreements and awards, employers were given an incentive, growing larger over the years, to force workers off the former and back down to the latter, increasingly threadbare, award standard.

In 1993, the Keating government’s Industrial Relations Reform Act (IRRA) took the process of undermining the award system further. A new stream of non-union “enterprise flexibility agreements” was established. Although the ACTU disapproved, it refused to fight it. By now the union peak council had the enterprise bargaining bit between its teeth. The Accord Mk VII of 1993 stated:

The Accord partners support an approach which places the primary responsibility for industrial relations at the workplace level with a framework of minimum standards provided by awards of industrial tribunals. Such an approach is fostering workplace reform and building a new productive culture. The ACTU accepts and encourages the increased proliferation of enterprise bargaining.[16]

Much more damaging even than these changes was the string of anti-strike measures included in the IRRA.[17] Prior to the Act, there had never been a legal right to strike. The absence of a legal right to strike did not, however, inhibit Australian workers from striking: in the 1970s Australia had one of the highest strike rates in the Western world. Employers had the option to take unions to court for damages in tort for loss resulting from strikes, but very few did. In 1985 in a high profile case at Dollar Sweets in Melbourne, the owner, backed by conservative organisations and up and coming Liberal party lawyer Peter Costello, successfully used the court to pursue the union for damages. This was still, however, an exception.

The case of Dollar Sweets alerted the International Labour Organisation to the fact that Australian unions did not enjoy protection from tort actions and resulted in ILO censure of the government for failing to make provision for legally protected strikes. The Reform Act introduced a right for workers to take “protected action”, including strikes, for the first time. However, the Act surrounded this right with so many limitations and exceptions that in practice, workers were in a worse position than before.

It is worth spelling out the ways the Reform Act did this since it set up the basic framework unions have to battle with to this day. First, strikes or indeed any industrial action that took place outside a narrow window of negotiations called the “bargaining period” were unprotected. From the moment of signing an agreement until its expiry and the opening of negotiations for a new agreement, the union signatories were prevented from striking, no matter what the provocation from employers. Even once negotiations had been initiated for a new agreement, no industrial action could take place unless the unions had first attempted to negotiate a new agreement to the satisfaction of the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). Strikes in pursuit of an industry-wide campaign were disallowed: industrial action was only protected if it was in pursuit of single enterprise agreements. And no industrial action was to take place unless the employer had first been given 72 hours’ notice.

The bargaining period during which action could be protected could be terminated by the IRC if it determined that the union was not bargaining in good faith or if the dispute “threatened to endanger the life, the personal safety or health, or the welfare, of the population or of part of it” or “to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it”. Such an action to terminate the bargaining period could come about either on the Commission’s own initiative or on that of the employer or the Minister. Heavy fines, both for the individuals and the unions involved, were stipulated for those breaching the new Act, for example by striking outside the bargaining period in response to victimisation of a union delegate.

The significance of the Act was that for the first time since the penal powers had been rendered unenforceable by the general strike against the jailing of Tramways Union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969, the industrial courts were given the wherewithal to target unions for going on strike. Unlike the penal powers and unlike common law action against the unions, these powers were endorsed by all of the unions as part of their commitment to the new bargaining regime. The ACTU declared:

The Australian trade union movement has been at the forefront of workplace reform. We support the Industrial Relations Reform Act as being both well measured and socially responsible. [18]

Prior to the early 1990s employers had been hesitant to take on powerful unions for fear of the industrial backlash. Now, they were much more prepared to go on the offensive. With union coverage having fallen from 48 percent of the workforce in 1982 to 40 percent in 1990, with union combativity seriously undermined by years of industrial passivity, and with the old networks of union militants more or less gone, the employers seized their opportunity. In the iron ore industry and the coal mining industry, two former union strongholds, Rio Tinto and BHP set about trying to destroy the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Miners Federation, succeeding in the former and scoring some big wins in the latter.

The Kennett government took the fight to the union movement in Victoria on its election in 1992, abolishing state awards and replacing them with individual contracts. Here was an opportunity for the unions to fight back. The early signs were propitious: the Victorian Trades Hall Council called a one-day strike in November 1992 which brought out 150,000 onto the streets of Melbourne. But the momentum was squandered. Trades Hall declared a Christmas truce and by the time of the next day of action, in March 1993, the energy that had propelled people onto the streets had dissipated.

By 1996, when the Coalition under John Howard returned to federal office, union coverage was down to 31 percent, 17 points lower than when the Accord was signed. This catastrophic drop in union coverage, it is worth emphasising, took place under federal Labor governments.

If the Accord was a calamity for the working class it was, however, good for one layer within the union movement – the union bureaucracy. The Accord turned the union leaders into national political figures with easy access to senior ministers. They were appointed to numerous boards and committees to oversee industry restructuring. ACTU secretary Bill Kelty was appointed to the board of the Reserve Bank. National union leaders were in the media on a daily basis. They were sent on overseas “fact-finding” trips with politicians, public servants and employers to investigate ways to make Australian industry more competitive. There were the usual inducements of parliamentary positions – ACTU presidents Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson both ended up on the ALP front bench – while others were appointed to various government bodies and industrial tribunals.

The bureaucracy of the union movement grew more powerful in the Accord years because rank and file activism was virtually eliminated by the no-strike pledge and because the union leaders were promoted by the Hawke and Keating governments. But the decision by the union leaders to concentrate union membership into a small number of super unions through a process of mergers and amalgamations was another factor pushing power to the top. By 1993, just 11 unions encompassed two-thirds of all trade union members. The result was the creation of large organisations with hundreds of staff and substantial financial and property assets overseen by an ever more remote official apparatus. The resulting omnibus structures, with their memberships drawn from widely disparate occupations and industries, resulted in a further distancing of members from their unions: no longer did many unions appear to have any clear idea who they were for. The memberships were being stretched into ever wider elements within the working class but the campaigns that forged any sense of commonality were being broken down into ever smaller components of the membership through enterprise bargaining. The overall impact was to provide the union leaders with a bigger buffer from rank and file members, insulating them more effectively from pressure from below.

Since the Accord

Union decline and bureaucratisation went hand in hand in the Accord years. The problem for the union bureaucracy was that by the time the Howard government took office, the unions had become so hollowed-out that the incoming government felt confident to go on the offensive.[19] The attacks were immediate. The government’s first budget slashed thousands of public service jobs and cut funding for education and health.

Bill Kelty had said that if the Howard government attacked the unions, it would be met with fierce resistance. But when the challenge came, in the form of the Workplace Relations Act (WRA), the unions huffed and puffed but undertook no serious action. A combined union and community protest outside Parliament House in August 1996 got out of the control of the union leaders and what was meant to be a set-piece rally addressed by Labor leader Kim Beazley turned into an invasion of the lobby of Parliament House. The union leaders quickly disowned the protest and thereafter ensured that only token events were held to protest against the WRA, with the focus being instead on lobbying the Democrats, who held the balance of power in the Senate. The union response to the early attacks by the Howard government set the template for what was to become standard practice in the next couple of decades: to lobby parliamentarians, run public relations campaigns, and await the return of a Labor government to set things right.

Having passed its industrial laws, the Howard government now egged on the employers to step up their attacks on the unions. Chris Corrigan, CEO of Patrick Stevedores, took on the challenge over Easter 1998, sacking the company’s 1,400 wharfies and replacing them with scab labour. The union response was immediate. “Community assemblies” were set up at the entrance to Patrick’s operations around the country and quickly drew in hundreds, sometimes thousands of supporters from across the labour movement and beyond. In Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle, these assemblies prevented the movement of containers from the docks, throttling Patrick’s operations.

The waterfront dispute was a big opportunity to mount national solidarity strikes in support of the sacked wharfies that could have transformed the industrial situation and landed a serious blow on the Howard government. But the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and ACTU leaders diverted the immense solidarity into a legal challenge in the courts. The community assemblies, which repeatedly demonstrated the potential to shut down the entire waterfront, were held back from doing so, in the name of “boxing clever”. The outcome of the waterfront dispute was a legal victory; the wharfies were reinstated and the MUA was restored at Patrick, but, in a story that was told repeatedly in the late 1990s and 2000s, the resulting negotiations over a new enterprise agreement saw the unions agree to dilution of conditions, including, most disastrously, the wholesale casualisation of wharf labour.

Over the following years, the employers and Howard government drove things further and further to the right, with more successful pushes to de-unionise industries and more gradual tightening of the industrial laws. Peetz argues that these measures constituted an “institutional break” in what had been a legal and political environment supportive of high levels of union coverage.[20] In 2005, the government introduced the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) as the culmination of a big campaign to demonise the CFMEU. A critical element of the ABCC has been its ability to initiate prosecutions of unions; no longer does the government have to try to push individual employers, sometimes reluctant to go into battle against the CFMEU, into an industrial confrontation.

The unions, by and large, refused to fight. The language of “boxing clever”, being industrially “smart”, “tactical” and running “long-run community campaigns” – all rationales not to go on strike but to pursue cases in the courts or election campaigns to toss out conservative governments – came to the fore. The strike rate fell further, and so too did union coverage.

The scene was set, therefore, for the introduction of the WorkChoices laws once the Howard government won a Senate majority at the 2004 federal election. These laws represented a dramatic escalation of the anti-union offensive. The union leaders understood that not to fight WorkChoices meant their further marginalisation in industrial and political life. And so in 2005, the peak labour councils launched the Your Rights@Work campaign which included a high court challenge, lobbying senators, a massive media campaign and four days of mass rallies over 18 months. Attendance at the rallies was enormous – with 550,000 attending protests across the country in November 2005 – and demonstrated, as had the MUA dispute in 1998, the potential to mobilise mass industrial opposition to employer and government attacks. But that was not the aim of the ACTU campaign, which funnelled popular opposition into a vote Labor campaign.

The slogan “Your Rights@Work Worth Fighting For” was changed to “Your Rights@Work Worth Voting For” at the last of the big national days of action in November 2006, and the next 12 months saw hostility to WorkChoices channelled into electoral campaigning. Six thousand unionists were involved in some form of electoral activity, more than two million leaflets were distributed, 40,000 people were door-knocked in a canvassing campaign and 5,000 volunteers handed out how to vote cards at 835 polling booths in 25 marginal seats on polling day in November 2007. The Howard government was defeated and the prime minister lost his seat thanks in no small part to the union campaign. Missing from the campaign, however, was any push to restore the right to strike or union rights more generally.

Union decline in the 1990s and 2000s was not inevitable. The battle against WorkChoices, along with the protests against the Kennett government in 1992-93 and the fight on the waterfront in 1998 provided union leaders with the opportunity to seriously push back, to confirm the relevance of trade unions and to regain the initiative against the bosses and governments. But, pulling back from the kind of action needed to score a decisive victory, the unions were incapable of checking the long term decline in membership and activist structures.

It was not the case that workers simply became uninterested in trade unionism in these years, as right wing critics argue. Public attitudes to trade unions remain supportive despite the best efforts of the right to delegitimise them, most recently the Abbott government’s Trade Union Royal Commission.[21] In an Essential poll conducted in 2015, 62 percent of all voters were of the opinion that unions are “important for Australian working people today”. Only 26 percent believed that Australia would be worse off with stronger unions, 45 percent better off.[22]

In the years that followed the defeat of the Howard government, the Rudd and Gillard governments scrapped some of the more punitive provisions of the WorkChoices laws, in particular Australian Workplace Agreements (statutory individual contracts), and reinstated an improved floor of conditions for enterprise agreements (the “better off overall test”) and a weak unfair dismissal provision. The ABCC was folded into the Fair Work Commission and maximum penalties cut by two-thirds. The Fair Work Act loosened rules over what could be bargained over, including contracting out and casual employment, and Howard-era greenfields agreements, which allowed employers to unilaterally set employment conditions on new sites, were amended.

Nonetheless, the anti-union clauses, and in particular the anti-strike clauses, were for the most part simply transferred across from WorkChoices to Fair Work. So, for example, the new Act includes the requirement to apply to the Fair Work Commission for a protected ballot action order and then to conduct a secret postal ballot prior to industrial action. It also included the requirement that at least 50 percent of the union’s members in the relevant area return a valid ballot, the continued ban on pattern (industry-wide) bargaining, the banning of political strikes, the deeming of all forms of unprotected industrial action as unlawful and injunctible and the obligation on the Commission to enforce mandatory orders in the case of such action, along with mandatory restrictions on industrial action which threaten “to endanger the life, the personal safety or health, or the welfare, of the population or of part of it; or to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it”. This latter provision has proved extremely damaging to the unions. When unions at Qantas took very limited industrial action in 2011 to limit outsourcing and guarantee jobs for the maintenance crews, the Commission used this clause of Fair Work to terminate the bargaining period and impose a settlement which rejected all of the unions’ big claims. The result is that what should be a very powerful group of workers at the airports is now employed by a myriad of undercutting firms on multiple EBAs.

Other Fair Work restrictions included continuing restrictions on the right of entry for union officials and the prohibition of any closed shop or preference arrangements. Employers may be prevented from legally locking out their workforces unless the union has first initiated industrial action, but they face no other restrictions on their ability to do so, no matter how disproportionate their action might be. A provision for “award modernisation”, including four-yearly reviews of modern awards, was included in the Act, which in subsequent years has led to a stripping out or weakening of some long established provisions including, most damagingly, penalty rates.

Although welcomed by the ACTU at the time, the Fair Work laws are, as AMWU national industrial officer Don Sutherland has recently argued, “barely” better than WorkChoices and “very much in the same neoliberal ideological framework”. Fair Work is shot through with rules that reinforce employer prerogatives and undermine workers’ ability to organise collectively. Enterprise bargaining, in particular, Sutherland argues, is “rotten to the core”, based as it is on using competition between workers in different enterprises, and sometimes even the same enterprise, to break worker solidarity and encourage a race to the bottom.[23]

Union strategies today

The result of developments over the past three decades is that trade unions today face an industrial relations set-up in which the bosses, backed by the Fair Work Commission, courts and governments, have been emboldened to attack unions on every front. This involves removing the remaining institutional props that have kept the surviving unions alive, or in some cases, retaining the form of a union onsite but removing what is left of its power. Employers are aiming to eliminate what remains of the conditions won by industrial militancy and on the job organising in the union movement’s remaining redoubts. Workers in these redoubts will be able to hang on to only what they are able to fight for and no more. In many situations, this will result in the stripping out of vital conditions that have been tolerated by employers in times past.

One employer tactic is to use labour hire companies to set up enterprise agreements with one or two workers and then to outsource parts of their workforce to these labour hire operations on far inferior wages and conditions. This was what Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) planned for its maintenance workforce at its Melbourne brewery when it set up a labour hire company in 2014 and then sought to move its workers over to the new contractor two years later.

The tactic was given the blessing of the courts in 2015 when the Federal Court upheld an enterprise agreement negotiated and voted on by only three John Holland employees at the Perth Children’s Hospital project, which the company then used to set terms and conditions for much wider groups of employees who had had no say in the making of the agreement. The John Holland precedent was then used by Esso to do the same in 2016-17 with the outsourcing by contractor UGL of maintenance workers on the Bass Strait gas project to its own shelf company resulting in 30 percent wage cuts and casualisation.[24]

Another tactic has been for employers to apply to the Fair Work Commission to simply terminate expired enterprise agreements. This is a provision of the Fair Work laws, carried over from WorkChoices, but had been rarely used until 2015 when, breaking precedent, the full bench of the Fair Work Commission terminated 12 expired EBAs at Aurizon, Australia’s largest freight rail company. This allowed the employer to roll the Aurizon workforce onto a much inferior agreement. The full bench approved termination of the agreements under s226 of the Fair Work Act, on the grounds that there was no public interest not to and that the changes proposed by the company under the new agreement were not “undesirable or unnecessary, oppressive on employees or inappropriate”.

The Aurizon decision gave a green light to other employers to apply to terminate expired agreements on the basis that the existing conditions in what are sometimes called “legacy agreements” from the days of public ownership, or where unions had otherwise managed to hold the line, were now far in excess of what has become the much inferior industry standard where conditions have been given up by weak or non-existent unions through rounds of concessionary bargaining. In the 1960s, metal trades unions leveraged the good wages and conditions in the well organised workplaces to win breakthroughs in the poorly organised shops through the award system. The employers are now using this method in reverse, with the bad driving out the good. This was the explicit rationale for Glencore’s lockout of its workforce at its Oaky Creek mine in Central Queensland in June 2017 – to drag down wages and conditions to the level prevailing at the company’s other mines.

Once an existing agreement is terminated, the bosses then have a free hand to threaten workers with being forced back to award standards. Examples in 2016-17 include Griffin Coal in Collie, WA, the Loy Yang power station in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, Murdoch University in Perth, the NRG power station in Gladstone, the Nyrstar zinc smelter outside Hobart and the Streets ice-cream factory in Minto. In the case of Griffin Coal, maintenance workers lost between $24,000 and $29,000 a year when they were put back onto the award. Even where the employer only threatens but does not proceed to terminate the enterprise agreement, as at Coates Hire or Fletcher Insulation, these threats combined with lockout are a powerful factor forcing concessions in any new agreement.

Workers and unions are under siege. The slashing of penalty rates by the Fair Work Commission in July 2017 is the most drastic cut to worker entitlements since the 1930s. The Turnbull government’s reintroduction of the ABCC, together with its Building and Construction Code of Conduct, is being used to drive effective trade unionism from the construction sites. The franchise business model has encouraged employers in retail and hospitality to cheat workers of their wages and conditions.

The union response to these latest attacks has varied. In some cases, there has been dogged resistance, with workers maintaining protest lines during lockouts lasting months. For example, unions maintained a presence for six months outside CUB in 2016 after 55 ETU members were sacked for refusing to sign an inferior employment agreement. There are even flickers of resistance in regional towns, as at the Myrtleford pulp mill in country Victoria in 2017, where workers had to face not just the scabs but hostility from many in the town.

But such resistance is the exception rather than the rule; union timidity has been more obvious. At the extreme end of the spectrum is the SDA, for many years the country’s largest union, which has worked hand in glove with the bosses to undermine wages and conditions. The SDA has tens of thousands of members in the big retail and fast food chains, where it maintains a presence on the basis of sweetheart deals with the employers. All told, the sub-standard enterprise agreements the union has signed in recent years have stripped wages from 250,000 workers, saving big business more than $300 million a year.[25] The SDA has done nothing about the exploitation of migrant workers and international students ripped off by 7-Eleven franchisees, one of the country’s largest retail chains. The union was either ignorant of the conditions at 7-Eleven, or was aware of them and took no steps to challenge them. Neither reflects any credit on the union.

The SDA may be held in contempt by many unions, but it is significant that only one, the Meatworkers, publicly opposed the deal it struck at Coles. The ACTU leadership, charged with overseeing the general interests of the union movement, brushed off criticisms of the SDA, arguing that cashing out penalty rates was a common tactic in enterprise bargaining.[26] Likewise Labor leader Bill Shorten. That the SDA is the ALP’s largest donor and constitutes a significant factional force ensures that Labor leaders usually treat it with kid gloves. Had it not been for the work of a couple of Age journalists, an organiser at the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and a small number of SDA members, Coles’ deal with the SDA would have gone unchallenged.

Like the SDA, the Australian Workers Union also has a history of signing off on cut-price agreements that undercut awards and industry standards in return for membership coverage. It has long established itself as the union favoured by employers wanting to reduce conditions negotiated by the CFMEU and MUA.

But the problem does not just lie with the most craven union leaders. Their supine behaviour is exactly what one would expect. The real problem is that even in those sectors where the unions retain the capacity to land a few blows on the bosses, the fight has been half-hearted. Despite the fact that the country has not experienced a recession for more than a quarter of a century, wage increases negotiated through enterprise agreements have fallen year after year to their lowest level ever. In the public services, where unions still retain a presence, the usual pattern during enterprise bargaining negotiations is for the union leadership to call one or two state or national stoppages followed by a series of partial actions, department by department or agency by agency, that serve only to fritter away the initial momentum and solidarity. The agreements that have subsequently been signed usually feature a very modest pay rise and very often come at the expense of conditions like permanency or limits on outsourcing. It’s been a similar story in higher education. In one of the NTEU’s few strongholds, Sydney University, a very successful enterprise bargaining campaign, including a one-day strike that completely shut down the university, was ended prematurely in September 2017 as the state leadership hurried to settle with the management, abandoning some of the key claims in the process.

The failure of many unions to resist the employer offensive is also evident when it comes to redundancies. In the vehicle industry the AMWU leadership could only issue statements of “regret” when in 2013 the big car manufacturers announced their plans to shut down most of their operations in Australia. Thousands of unionised jobs went with barely a whimper. In the steel industry, the AWU, both at BlueScope at Port Kembla and Arrium at Whyalla, refused to fight mass sackings but rather accepted major losses to jobs, pay and conditions. In the maritime industry, the MUA did not take one hour of industrial action to prevent Alcoa and Rio Tinto subsidiary Pacific Aluminium from replacing Australian crews with foreign crews on much lower wages on their bulk cargo ships MV Portland and CSL Melbourne in the summer of 2016.[27]

In the steel and vehicle industries the unions faced a tough situation – it has been many years since any union has successfully fought for jobs when the employer threatened to shut the company down. But in other cases, there is no such excuse. When the Newman LNP government announced 14,000 sackings in the Queensland public sector in 2012, the biggest job cuts in the state’s history, the public service union Together had every opportunity to strike in defence of jobs – the state government was not just going to shut down. And there was no legal impediment to the union doing so: the previous enterprise agreement covering Together members had expired and so protected action was on the cards. The union leadership balloted members for action and received strong endorsement. Delegates attending special meetings of the Queensland Council of Unions voted for a state-wide stoppage in September 2012. However, after the QCU held a rally which attracted a large crowd of 10,000 in Brisbane, neither the QCU nor Together organised any further industrial action and the government was able to force through the redundancies without opposition

One of the most damaging developments in the union movement over recent decades has been the erosion of the basic principle “touch one, touch all”, even in what are otherwise admirable examples of resistance to employer attacks. During the CUB dispute in Melbourne, unions brought hundreds of workers to the gates of the brewery on several occasions to demand the reinstatement of the CUB workers. The unions also launched a nationwide boycott of CUB beer. Eventually these tactics were successful and the company reinstated the workers. But throughout the course of the dispute, hundreds of workers, members of United Voice, continued to work at the Abbotsford brewery, as did union members at the company’s other big brewery in Yatala in Brisbane. A dispute that could have been won in a matter of weeks, had unions organised to shut down CUB operations, took many months.

The strategy that has come to dominate the union movement in the past decade is electoralism, specifically, campaigning to get the ALP elected, or re-elected.

The idea that workers should put their trust in Labor and vote them into office is by no means new. The unions founded the Labor party and “the two wings of the labour movement”, as they are described by reformists, have worked closely together for more than a century, despite periodic disputes. Each “wing” reproduces the division of labour that is central to the reformist project: the unions are held responsible for the industrial interests of the working class, the Labor party its political needs. This artificial separation of industrial and political demands works nicely both for the union and parliamentary leaders alike. It dilutes the radical potential of each – the existence of Labor, whether in government or in opposition, is used to damp down demands for greater militancy (“Don’t rock the boat, it will cost Labor votes”; “Just wait until Labor is in power, then we can get our grievance resolved”). The ALP also provides the union bureaucracy access to ministerial offices when the party is in government and a potential career option in parliament or well-paid positions that the party has the power to award – on commissions and statutory bodies of various kinds.

But for several decades this cosy arrangement was challenged by another tradition – a willingness by workers to fight for wages and conditions regardless of who was in government. Labor governments came and went, but it was fighting on the job that delivered the victories or pressured governments or industrial tribunals to introduce the reforms that workers were demanding. The battles for shorter working hours or paid annual leave in the 1940s were classic cases of this dynamic. The militant unionists won shorter hours through strikes, and governments and tribunals then generalised them through legislation and awards.

The problem today is that the militants who organised these strikes and who provided the impetus towards militancy were squashed by the Accord. The union movement is now firmly in the hands of the union bureaucracy and their strategies prevail. With unions unwilling to fight industrially, electoralism is the alternative that naturally comes to dominate as unions have been increasingly turned into appendages of the ALP.

The Your Rights@Work campaign against the Howard government in 2007 served as the template which has been adhered to closely in subsequent state and federal elections. In the 2014 Victorian state election, for example, volunteers organised by Trades Hall knocked on 93,000 doors across six marginal seats and made 120,000 phone calls to potential voters.[28] The Napthine Liberal government fell. Unions in Queensland followed the pattern in the 2015 state election, campaigning in 16 marginal seats. The Newman government fell, losing 15 of the targeted seats. The unions were not successful at the NSW state election in 2015 when the NSW Labor Council failed to dislodge the Liberal incumbents.

One indication of the dominance of electoralism in the unions today is the sheer time, money and staff deployed. At the 2016 federal election, the unions contributed $14 million and allocated 24 paid organisers to the ACTU’s “Building a Better Future” campaign. The campaign targeted 22 swing seats. Over the course of 12 months, more than 16,000 volunteers played some role; these volunteers ran 80 door-knocks, handed out 1 million replica Medicare cards and “had conversations” with 46,102 union members to convince them to put the Liberals last.[29] At the 2017 WA state election, the MUA alone organised 200 members and supporters to staff polling booths around the state. Never do unions mobilise the same resources for any industrial campaign. There are cases of some unions pushing to break into new territory, as with the National Union of Workers’ (NUW) organising drive among agricultural workers, but these are small and the exception.

The unions now claim to be in “permanent campaign mode”. But this simply means permanent electoralism: no matter how remote the next election, the resources of the union, other than basic industrial representation, are devoted to electioneering. And so, just months after the Turnbull government narrowly won the July 2016 federal election, the unions began to prepare for the next. The ACTU official responsible for the 2016 campaign, assistant secretary Sally McManus, was hoisted into the position of ACTU secretary to reprise her role.

Electoralism has become the default union strategy and has pushed serious industrial campaigning further to one side. When Queensland unions marched in Brisbane in 2012 against the Newman government’s mass sackings, just six months after the election, the chant was “We’ll be sacking Campbell Newman in three years”. After this one mass action, the unions devoted the resources that could have been given over to organising industrial resistance on the job to electoral campaigning for the ALP.

The penalty rates campaign illustrates the problems with the electoral focus. The attacks on penalty rates were widely opposed as soon as they were first flagged in 2014. There was a general understanding in the union movement that those workers identified for the cuts had been selected because they were poorly organised and that, if the government and Commission met no opposition, they would then proceed to the more strongly organised workers – firefighters, nurses and so on. The cuts to penalty rates were something that were both a threat to Australian workers and could have been used to rally the whole union movement in opposition. The lead would have to come from the big battalions – certainly if it had been left to the SDA and United Voice there was little chance that the cuts could have been stopped since both unions have extremely limited industrial strength after years of neglect. Unfortunately, that lead was not forthcoming.

Rather, the unions looked for an electoral solution: only a Labor government could save penalty rates. This despite the fact that Labor leader Bill Shorten for many months urged the unions simply to accept whatever the Fair Work Commission handed down.

Following the 2016 federal election, the onus in the campaign mostly fell back on the shoulders of United Voice. The union started from a very weak base. But rather than use the issue as an opportunity to mount a serious campaign to target hospitality workers where they are concentrated in big numbers, United Voice organised a series of Sunday speak-outs, comprising mostly union staff and ALP branch members, outside suburban sports clubs. The idea was to put pressure on the club managers to refuse to implement the cuts. The clubs targeted were chosen on the basis that they were in marginal seats and the main game was to generate media coverage and a bigger pool of election canvassers.

The CFMEU did call rallies in the capital cities in the first half of 2017 against the ABCC, to which they added the demand to halt the cuts to penalty rates. However, none of the unions most directly affected by the cuts sent anything more than a token presence of a few union officials, at best. Other than building the local apparatus for marginal seats campaigning, the only other avenue pursued by United Voice was a legal challenge to the cuts on the eve of their introduction in mid-2017.

An obvious defence of the electoral turn by the unions is that Labor in office can deliver things for the unions that their own industrial power cannot. The unions might point to Labor’s repeal of WorkChoices and the Gillard government’s commitment of several billion dollars to fund equal pay in the community services sector. The Nurses Union for its part secured $1.2 billion from the Gillard government to fund higher wages in aged care. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) won a new “safe rates” tribunal with the power to set pay rates for truck drivers, while United Voice won $300 million for childcare workers under the Big Steps campaign. And today, union pressure has forced the ALP to shift its position on penalty rates; Labor now promises to legislate to restore penalty rates if it wins office. The ALP is also considering changing the Fair Work laws to make it more difficult for employers to apply to terminate expired enterprise agreement.

At state level, unions have found the industrial relations climate more congenial under the Andrews and Palaszczuk Labor governments than they did under their conservative predecessors. The Queensland Labor government, for example, passed new laws to regulate labour hire companies and has tabled industrial manslaughter legislation. None of these gains involved anything more than token industrial action on the part of the unions; mostly they were the result of a few rallies, a social media campaign and representations to the relevant minister.

If an incoming federal Labor government were to “change the rules” significantly, as the ACTU is now lobbying for, this would be welcome. Changes to make it easier for union organisers to gain entry to work sites; reducing some of the onerous restrictions on the right to strike; broadening the options for multi-enterprise agreements (“pattern bargaining”) would all improve the unions’ bargaining position. The union leaders certainly would welcome any limit on the right of employers to apply to terminate expired enterprise agreements because such a step threatens them with industrial irrelevance unless they demonstrate the capacity to push back.

There are problems, however with the strategy of awaiting a Labor government. First, many years can pass before Labor is actually elected. The ACTU decision not to challenge WorkChoices industrially gave the employers two years to introduce substandard contracts before Howard was defeated in 2007. Then there is the wait until an ALP government actually repeals anti-union laws. It was only in 2011, for example, more than three years after Labor was elected to office, that the Fair Work Act took effect, and dodgy WorkChoices contracts lingered on well beyond even that date. The ABCC was actually operational for longer under the Rudd and Gillard governments than it was under Howard. With fixed four-year terms now the norm for state governments and the prospect of such for federal government, workers can lose a lot of industrial rights before Labor is ever elected, especially if it fails at the first attempt.

Second, the ALP is by no means obliged to meet union demands. The Gillard government may have made life a little easier for some unions, but, when spread over big workforces, the funding packages for pay increases are not as generous as they may first appear. Given Shorten’s hostile response to McManus’ suggestion that unions have the right to break “unjust laws”, and indeed his own history both as architect of the Fair Work laws and as AWU national secretary, it would be foolish to expect a Shorten-led government to go far in relaxing the many restrictions on strikes, still less to stand idly by in the event of a real industrial fightback. Nor can it be expected that the Senate will be favourably disposed to any laws to grant unions more rights.

There is discussion in Labor circles around making it easier for unions to refer intractable disputes to the Fair Work Commission but this does nothing to boost union power. It may appeal to union leaders for the reasons discussed earlier – it puts them back in the frame – but if workers are not in a strong bargaining position, they can expect little joy from the tribunal. Likewise, while industrial manslaughter legislation and restoring penalty rates might improve safety on the job or working class living standards, they do nothing to rebuild the capacity of unions to fight for workers’ rights, the key ingredient. More than this, the focus on having Labor elected actually cuts against this project. As Tim Lyons, former ACTU assistant secretary, said of the union focus on election campaigning after he left office:

The union becomes not something about your work and your life, but an organisation that periodically tells you how to vote. Compounding this, the message is that it’s voting that is important, not joining a collective that has its own power. There is no future for trade unionism if people experience it as internet memes and random-issue phone calling and door-knocking about how every election is very likely the end of the world. At best this is palliative care for the union movement. [30]

Without building strength in the workplaces, the unions are simply at the mercy of Labor governments. And what Labor gives, it (or its conservative successor) can easily take away. That is exactly what happened when the Abbott government was elected in 2013: many of the union movement’s gains under the Gillard government, for example the Safe Rates tribunal, were simply eliminated at the stroke of a pen. Because the unions had not built the fighting capacity of workers, the government had little trouble wiping out the reforms.

But pointing out these problems is unlikely to shift the union leaders from their dependence on the ALP. It’s not just that many are increasingly anxious as they see their membership rolls decrease by the year and look to the election of Labor to save them from extinction. It’s not just that they see political lobbying as preferable to the hard work (and risk) involved in organising industrial campaigns. It’s not even that many are angling for parliamentary positions and that wheeling and dealing in the factional world of the party is a major obsession of the union bureaucracy. The main factor that draws the union leaders close to the Labor parliamentarians is that they remain deeply committed to the social democratic project of managing capitalism together. Many of them look longingly back at the Accord, when they were trusted partners of Labor ministers and employers. Ged Kearney argues that the Accord was “a highpoint of the political and industrial wings of the labour movement linked informally and formally in the national interest to deliver economic stability and historic reforms”.[31] Former ACTU secretary Dave Oliver was similarly enthusiastic:

In the past, a collaborative approach between government, employers and unions streamlined industrial awards, markedly increased production standards, ensured workplace safety, rationalised subsidies and tariffs and generally brought Australia kicking and screaming into the modern economic world. Collaboration between industry, unions and government enabled us to lay the foundations on which we built the economic success of the decades since.[32]

Doing deals with the ALP is part of the union bureaucracy’s DNA. This suggests that even if a future Labor government were to significantly relax restrictions on the right to strike, union leaders will not be in any hurry to make use of it.

Union decline and, in some cases, the cost of ever-rising legal bills and fines, is putting some unions at risk of collapse and this is encouraging union leaders to pursue amalgamations. Subject to membership ballots, and providing it is not barred by federal legislation, the CFMEU (125,000 members) will merge in 2018 with two unions which have seen dramatic drops in their national memberships over recent decades, the MUA (12,000) and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (3,500). The AMWU, haemorrhaging members, is in discussions to amalgamate with United Voice and the National Union of Workers.

But amalgamations did nothing to revive the union movement during the last big round of mergers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and there is no reason to believe it will be any different today. The leaders of the amalgamated unions may wield more power in factional battles inside the ALP but the mergers will not halt decline. Indeed, to the extent that some mergers will only introduce undemocratic governing structures in unions with more democratic traditions, they will only further alienate members and make it more difficult to revive.

Another indication of desperation in the ranks of the union leaders is the consideration that some are giving to even more dramatic shake-ups, including abandoning any notion that they should be primarily collective organisations of members on the job organising to defend wages and conditions. In the Brave New World that some envisage, unions should become professionally-run service providers selling packages of industrial, legal and consumer services to clients. In 2015, former ACTU president Greg Combet and Andrew Whittaker, a management consultant, produced a report for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. The union, they noted, was a long way from the heyday of the metal trades unions in the 1960s and 1970s and not just in membership. The internal culture of the union was toxic. The amalgamation of the old metalworkers, food preservers, vehicle builders and print workers unions into the omnibus AMWU in the late 1980s had created a dysfunctional structure, and there was a “pervasive sense of frustration, suspicion of colleagues and a conviction that change within the union was a forlorn task”. [33] Combet and Whittaker’s “solution” was for the AMWU to reposition itself as a service provider offering existing and potential new members enticing “value propositions” involving various combinations of “products” and “services”.[34] Elections for organisers would be eliminated and power centralised in the national office. “Digital-based communications” between members and union staff would replace face to face contact with organisers attached to particular sectors or companies.

Combet and Whittaker’s report was in line with thinking as it was evolving in the senior ranks of other unions. In February 2016, a special conference of union leaders, convened to address the dire state of the union movement, considered a report by Chris Walton and Erik Locke. Their report recommended introducing a “cafeteria approach” to union membership, by which workers might select and purchase subscriptions to individual services provided by unions, what they call a “ladder of engagement”, just like pay TV subscriptions.[35] On the lowest rung, workers could become a supporter just to get on a centralised database. They could then pay one or two dollars a week and have access to online support. They could pay more, in the order of $7 a week, and be provided with information about legal rights, industry campaigns, career development and financial planning but with no actual support of the union on the job. Or workers could be a full union member on the current lines. Applicants would simply need to call a centralised call centre in order to purchase one of these options. Like most such documents in recent years, Walton and Locke’s report is stuffed with the language of business consultancy, with its references to “the change process”, outsourcing “backend services” to reduce administrative costs, the need for unions to “calibrate your offer and services” for each target market, to conduct research on the union “brand” and ensure “alignment to core purpose”, etc.

The ACTU special conference in early 2016 established a series of “Innovation and Growth” taskforces and the ACTU executive set aside a kitty of $1 million for unions to experiment with ways to improve their operations. There was much discussion in these task forces about visions, value propositions, capacity building and the like, but missing was any discussion of militancy or strikes.[36] Organisations as diverse as Greenpeace, Lock the Gate, the Hillsong Church, Mamamia, the NRL, Google Hangouts and LinkedIn, were held up as organisations from which the unions could learn useful lessons on how to recruit and engage members.

It is unclear how far unions are willing to go down this road. Some have already moved. In 2016, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance replaced the elected federal secretary’s position with a CEO appointed by a board of management, and introduced a new category of “associate membership”.[37] But if others follow, this would be a major retreat for the labour movement, exacerbating the problem of membership withdrawal. Subscriber-based service delivery organisations run by managers and emptied of any notion that the members are the union and that union power ultimately rests on workers’ capacity to fight the boss at the workplace would turn them into hollow shells. The removal of elections for senior positions and the creation of new categories of quasi-members without voting rights makes a mockery of union democracy. In such circumstances, the incidents of corruption by senior union figures identified by the media in recent years and by the Trade Union Royal Commission would only multiply.

Another development in the union movement that only pushes the unions more to the right is the increasing entanglement of national union leaders in the superannuation industry. The funds under management in industry super funds have ballooned since compulsory superannuation was introduced by the Keating government in 1991. Union leaders are now jointly responsible with employer representatives for more than $500 billion invested in 41 industry superannuation funds, equivalent to nearly one-third of GDP.[38] The biggest fund, Australian Super, has $100 billion under management.

The entrenchment of trade unions in a system of industry super funds has damaging consequences. First, it gives them a stake in what is a fundamentally regressive private pensions system. It structurally disadvantages women unionists who take time out of the paid workforce, thereby rendering them even more financially dependent on male partners, or condemned to poverty in retirement. It funnels money to financial institutions that receive mandates from the funds to manage investments. And, with highly concessional tax treatment of super, more of the national budget is channelled to those with the biggest balances, the well-off. The system ensures that the workers’ access to a financially secure retirement is increasingly dependent upon fluctuations in financial markets and not their rights as citizens. Unions should be fighting for increases to the state pension so that it provides a living income for all retirees, male and female, paid for from progressive taxation. But with unions tied up in industry superannuation, their role as advocates of the state pension is significantly compromised.

Membership on the boards of Australia’s largest financial enterprises pushes union leaders into the role of capitalists, alongside their traditional role of brokers of labour power. They are now responsible for individual investments worth tens of millions of dollars. Union appointees to super funds claim that the industry can be used to develop the Australian economy. Thus Oliver told a conference of superannuation industry representatives in 2016 of the “nation-building” role of superannuation, its role in preventing Australia slipping into recession during the global financial crisis, and its contribution to “building a new, stronger economy into the future”.[39] But the main contribution industry superannuation has made to developing “a new stronger economy” is to fund privatisation of public assets. Key assets on Australian Super’s books include Port Botany, NSW’s major container-handling facility, Port Kembla, Australia’s largest vehicle import facility and a major export facility for coal and other bulk products, Ausgrid, the lessee for NSW electricity transmission operations, and Queensland Motorways. All of them were once state assets.[40] As board members of Australian Super and other big industry funds with investments in these businesses, union representatives have an interest in further privatisation and opposition to any progressive renationalisation of those enterprises.

Union representatives on the boards of superannuation funds are now joint partners in the management of these former state assets. Oliver, AMWU national secretary Paul Bastian and his counterpart at the AWU, Dave Walton, are all board members of Australian Super and are responsible for boosting returns on the fund’s investment in Ausgrid, while Greg Combet plays the same role for industry fund-owned global fund manager IFM Investors. This puts them in an antagonistic role to the company’s workforce. As ETU NSW branch secretary Dave McKinley commented when Ausgrid outsourced jobs and shut down call centres in 2017: “What is most extraordinary is that these attacks on working people are being perpetrated by a company majority-owned by industry super funds”.[41]

As board members of big investment companies, union representatives are drawn closer into hobnobbing with capitalists. Appointees of the construction unions debate the investments of CBUS with the head of the Master Builders’ Association. Appointees of the manufacturing unions discuss the financial affairs of Australian Super with representatives of the Australian Industry Group. The result is what Oliver calls “collegiate and collaborative structures” between union leaders, private capitalists and former politicians.[42] The links with the capitalists continue once they quit the union movement. Garry Weaven, a union pioneer of industry super and former ACTU assistant secretary, is chair of IFM Investors, where he is joined by Combet as deputy chair. For all the scare stories in the right wing media about union corruption in super funds, much more concerning is the insistent right wing pressure that bears down on union board representatives.

Why strikes?

Nothing that the unions have done over the past two decades has halted their relentless decline. Avoiding extinction outside a few small pockets of the workforce requires a radical change of direction. I will argue in what remains of this article that this change of direction must involve returning to the strike as the main weapon of the labour movement.

Australia’s industrial history is replete with examples of strikes winning improvements for the working class. Shorter working hours legislation by the NSW state government, which cut the working week from 48 hours to 44 hours and then to 40 hours, was the result of big waves of strikes in the late 1940s and again in the early 1960s – and by the simple expedient of workers knocking off work having done the target number of hours. Likewise, the progressive extensions of paid recreation leave from one week to four.

In the late 1960s, the upturn in strikes by the stronger unions secured higher wages and put pressure on the Arbitration Commission to generalise the increases to other workers on the basis of having established industrial “facts on the ground”. The same was true with equal pay for women: the Arbitration Commission’s 1969 equal pay decision was preceded by several decades of union struggle to eliminate the pay gap. And it was only industrial action in the following years that forced the Commission to actually flow through equal pay into awards. Left to its own devices, the Commission was happy to string out pay equalisation for much longer.[43]

Over the past 50 years, there is a clear relationship between industrial disputes and workers’ share of national income. When workers strike they push up the wages share, and when they don’t, their share goes backwards (Figures 2 and 3 – see Appendix).

Strikes do not just advance the wages and conditions of the working class; they also build unions. Figures 4 and 5 (see Appendix) demonstrate the relationship between the strike rate and union coverage over the past 30 years: when workers strike, union coverage expands, and when they don’t, coverage shrinks.

The role of strikes in building unions should be obvious to anyone with experience of workplace organising. Every state-wide or national strike by health workers, teachers or public servants in the past decade or two has seen union membership rise by a couple of thousand. There is a simple reason for this: it is only when unions organise industrial action that workers, both members and non-members, see the purpose of unions and feel the confidence to band together collectively. Industrial action answers the basic question “Why should I join the union?” and provides a response to the objection “I can’t afford to join the union”. Without strikes, workers suffer and unions die.

This argument is supported by three recent academic studies.[44] In the largest and most rigorous, Hodder, Williams, Kelly and McCarthy examined strikes by the Public and Commercial Services Union in the UK in the period from 2007 to 2013. On the basis of quantitative analysis of the union’s membership database, a survey of the membership and interviews with senior officials in the union, Hodder et al conclude that:

[T]here is a strong and robust link between strikes and union membership: months in which a union organizes strike action show significantly higher rates of gross and net recruitment compared to non-strike months.[45]

It is not the case that unions are confronting a wall of disinterest among non-unionists. There is a significant body of workers who are not currently union members but who would like to be. According to one estimate in 2007, 13 percent of the total workforce fall into this category.[46] If these “unrepresented” workers were to join a union, coverage rates would be significantly boosted. And that figure undoubtedly understates the proportion of workers who could be drawn to unions if they demonstrated their fighting power.

Nor is it the case that the changed structure of the workforce has made it impossible to build unions today through strikes. It is often suggested some combination of the decline in employment in blue collar areas, the closure of big factories, the impact of new technologies or the growth of “non-standard” work is responsible for union decline and the movement’s dim prospects. Chris Walton, formerly head of the ACTU’s Organising Works program, and Erik Locke, a former secretary of the Victorian ALP, for example, suggest that:

The very existence of an employer-employee relationship is changing. The nature of work is changing. An increasing number of Australians have no employer. Collective bargaining is largely inaccessible to the vast majority of workers. [47]

While ACTU secretary Sally McManus argues:

The reason union membership has declined is due to the destruction of regular work, it’s in decline all around the world. Steady, secure jobs are being contracted out, outsourced, people are put on rolling contracts or forced to get an ABN – all things that have taken power away from workers and made it much harder to organise.[48]

The problem with these arguments is that union coverage has fallen in every industry and occupation and every sector of the workforce since the 1980s – among part-timers and full-timers alike, among public sector and private sector workers and among permanents and casuals.

It’s also important to understand that much less has changed than is often suggested. As Peetz has noted:

Despite many predictions of its demise over many years, including by some deeply opposed to unionism, the employment relationship is still the dominant model for relations between capital and labour, as in many firms it is the most cost-effective model for managing labour. Even in industries that have seen large scale contracting out (such as mining), the majority of workers are typically employees, even if they are working for sub-contracting firms.[49]

The basic data tell the story.[50] Take self-employment. The proportion of the workforce that is self-employed (incorporating independent contractors) was stable at 16 percent between 1975 and 1993, and then fell every year thereafter to reach 11 percent by 2012.[51] Or take casualisation: while the casualisation rate increased in the 1980s through to the mid-1990s, it had stabilised by the late 1990s and has remained steady at about one quarter of the workforce for the past two decades.[52] The result is that the proportion of permanent employees in the work force was higher in 2013 than in 1990.[53] Labour hire or agency work has never been a big component of the overall workforce and has declined: the proportion of employed persons working for labour hire firms (“temporary agencies”) declined from 3.1 percent in 2001 to 2.2 percent in 2015.[54] These kinds of changes are no impediment, then, to rebuilding unionism.

And despite all the talk of the death of the lifelong job, replaced by constant chopping and changing of employers and workplaces, job tenure in Australia has not declined. The proportion of those employed who have been in their jobs for 10 years or more has increased steadily since the early 1980s, driven by the doubling in the proportion of women with long tenure, while the proportion of employees in their jobs for less than 12 months has declined.[55]

Part-time work, it is true, has grown consistently as a share of the workforce, especially in the 1980s, but today is growing more slowly than in the late 1960s and early 1970s when union coverage was on the rise.[56] But, regardless of the rate of growth, its contribution to union decline needs closer examination. Part-time work is a very diverse category, covering everything from school students working a couple of hours at McDonalds after school right up to middle-aged workers working 34 hours a week in a big business or government department.

It is hard to make the case that rising part-time work has been responsible for much of the national decline in union membership, when its growth has been most dramatic in those sectors – retail trade, accommodation and food services and health care and social assistance – that have, with the exception of sections of health care, never been union power bases. The same is true when it comes to age cohorts: part-time work has grown particularly rapidly among those workers (aged 15-24) who have always had the lowest coverage rates.[57] Where unions have been strong in the past or where they still retain some presence, part-time work is marginal to the workforce, for example, mining (3.1 percent of the workforce part-time in 2016), electricity, gas and water services (5.5 percent), manufacturing (11.8 percent), construction (14.1 percent) and public administration and safety (14.4 percent).[58]

It is difficult to be precise, but the number of workers for whom “Uberised” work is their main form of employment is probably no more than 1 percent. As with part-time work, there is no obvious relationship with union decline: those sectors of the workforce where “Uberisation” has established a presence, for example taxi drivers and home handymen, are historically non-union occupations. The same is true for industries such as agriculture, hospitality, tourism, small retail and professional services, where use of immigrant workers and students on visas with sub-standard working rights is most common.

Big workplaces are not vanishing. For every car factory or steel plant that has shut, a hospital, university or airport has opened, each bringing together thousands of workers. Indeed, in some sectors, the tendency is towards increasing workplace size, or at least the clustering together or what were once disparate workplaces. Big office parks have sprung up in places like North Ryde in Sydney. Shopping centres dominated by anchor tenants like Coles or Woolworths have replaced strip shopping zones populated by mum and dad enterprises. Medical centres run by large businesses are encroaching on the traditional small GP practices. Amazon, with its giant warehouses and logistics networks, has wiped out thousands of small retail outlets in the United States and will likely have a dramatic effect here as well.

The fear that workers may lose their jobs, encouraging them to avoid rocking the boat by joining a union, is no barrier to the revival of unions through strikes. First, it is not obvious that many workers are wracked with fear that they may be thrown out of their jobs. Less than 2 percent of the workforce fear that within the next 12 months they may lose their jobs due to business closure/downsizing or the ending of their seasonal or temporary contract, a figure that has fallen since 2001.[59] Further, the unionisation rate is highest of all among those who expect to lose their jobs due to the business closing down or downsizing, making it equally plausible that fear of job loss actually encourages workers to join unions.[60] And nor is there any obvious relationship between unemployment and union decline. The decrease in union coverage set in in earnest during the mid-1980s, a period of falling unemployment, and continued through the years of the Howard government when the rate of unemployment continued to fall. And even when factoring in underemployment, there is no reason why the state of the job market holds workers back from striking. Greek workers in the depth of the country’s economic crisis in 2009-12 managed to pull off 30 general strikes despite unemployment topping 25 percent. And nor is the rate of retrenchments a good indicator: the rate has bounced around over the years but with no obvious relationship to union coverage.[61]

While the shut-downs of the big car factories have resulted in the loss of thousands of unionised jobs, employment in some areas of relatively high union coverage, such as education and health care, has grown strongly in recent decades. And while technological change is shaking up a lot of industries, this is nothing new: entire trades and professions have vanished over the course of the history of the union movement. But new trades and professions have opened up with emerging technologies, most obviously in health care, which can and have in part been unionised.

As for offshoring, the same process of closer integration into the world economy that is contributing to job loss in manufacturing, and with it loss of union members, has expanded other sectors of the workforce that present opportunities for unionisation. Sydney, for example, is a financial centre and regional head office for multinational companies operating in the Asia-Pacific region and is home to hundreds of thousands of office workers. The rise of China has boosted employment in hospitality, transport, the luxury end of retail and food processing as well as higher education. All of these are areas where unions are presented with opportunities to expand their membership.

The arguments that changes to the structure of the workforce and workplace explain the decline in union coverage since the 1980s or why revival is unlikely overlook the role of unions themselves in making their futures. Every new stronghold of unionism becomes established in industries and occupations where the workforce had formerly lacked decent conditions. If shearers were at the forefront of unionism in the 1880s, it was coal miners in the 1940s and builders’ labourers in the early 1970s. It is important to remember that the so-called “traditional” pattern of 9-5, permanent, full-time employment was only a phenomenon for large parts of the workforce from World War II until the 1980s. For the majority of workers, for most of Australia’s modern history, this was far from the norm. It was unionisation that converted industries like the waterfront from casualised to permanent labour. Rather than compositional change being responsible for union decline, it is equally plausible to reverse the causation: it has been the decline of unionism and in particular the decline in union militancy, that has allowed rampant casualisation and sham contracting.

The question is why unions have been unable, or unwilling, in the past three decades to mount the kind of organising drives that built trade unions in inhospitable circumstances in the early decades of the movement’s history. Workers in the “gig economy” can be organised, as recent strikes by meal delivery drivers in the UK and China demonstrate. Outsourced workers from migrant backgrounds can fight for their rights. In 2017 alone, African cleaners at London hospitals struck against their employer Serco, as did workers at McDonalds in the UK and US. The main obstacle to a fast food strike by workers in Australia is not the nature of the workforce but the union covering the sector, the SDA.

The fundamental point is that going on strike is the most powerful weapon in the hands of the working class because it halts the flow of profits to the boss. As the boss of Deliveroo, William Shu, reflected after the strike at his company in London: “Our riders are the lifeblood of our business and without them we are nothing”.[62]

The power of the strike has if anything become greater as a result of industrial change in recent decades. On the waterfront, while containerisation and automation have led to a dramatic reduction in employment of wharfies, and thus the membership of the maritime unions, it has also strengthened the power of those workers who remain. Measures taken by bosses to cut turnover time of capital by reducing stocks in warehouses and tightening integration of different processes through just in time methods enhance the strategic power of workers in production and distribution: a single strike can shut down an entire industry.[63]

Recruitment to the union over the course of strikes is not the end of the story. Strikes also make it more likely that new members will be retained: failure to retain newly recruited members is a major problem. Every year something like 180,000 workers are signed up to unions, commonly during recruitment blitzes, but around 250,000 quit.[64] Some of them will be retiring from the workforce, but many will be members who joined and then quit within a year or two. And why should this high quit rate be surprising? Signing up recruits at any cost just to prop up the numbers for another quarter is no substitute for building a union presence based on willingness to take on the boss.

It is this last factor that is missing from the analysis put forward by former director of the ACTU’s Organising Centre Michael Crosby, author of an influential book, Power at Work. Crosby points to the lack of attention given by many unions to improving local workplace union structures and activist delegates.[65] This is a major weakness in the union movement since unions with such structures and delegates are much more capable of withstanding hostility from employers and governments than unions that lack them.

But organising has to have a purpose – building up the momentum to organise serious strike action, not just organising for its own sake. This was the basic limitation of the “organising model” promoted by Crosby in the 1990s and embraced by many unions at the time. Because the organising model did not break from the practice of tailing the ALP and did not seek to infuse the unions with class struggle militancy, quite the opposite – Crosby completely writes out of union history the role of strikes and political radicalism in building the movement – the organising model did nothing to rebuild membership on a sustainable basis.

The reason why organising toward industrial action, taking control of health and safety structures, enforcing awards or EBAs, developing delegate structures, the basics of organising, don’t take place at anything like the degree necessary is that the union movement has spent a long time without fighting for workers’ rights in any serious fashion. This is a function of politics. Even one or two self-confident workplace activists in any big workplace can be enough to start to turn things around. A widespread union revival must involve the creation of a politicised layer of workers who will push for this and sees the point in spending time and putting themselves at risk.

Mobilising workers for strikes is by no means an impossible task, despite the oft-heard lament from union organisers: “the members just won’t fight”. True, it is not the case that workers are simply primed to fight at the drop of a hat. Years of industrial passivity have taken their toll. Getting a ballot up for industrial action can take a lot of effort. Strike ballots do fail, not so much because of opposition to action in most cases, but failure to enthuse 50 percent of the membership to vote. And employers have taken advantage of union passivity to ballot the workforce to force through some shoddy agreement in the face of union opposition. In these circumstances, union officials can just shrug their shoulders and say “Well, what can you do?”

But while getting a big yes vote up for industrial action can take a serious effort, it is by no means impossible. Workers balloted for industrial action regularly vote affirmatively in big numbers. The problem when turnout fails to reach 50 percent or an employer is successful in bypassing the union is not primarily member apathy but lack of effort and determination on the part of the union leadership. Money and volunteers can usually be found in large numbers by unions when directed towards campaigns they are seriously invested in, like elections. But many union leaders approach campaigns of industrial action in the most lacklustre way, and the outcome is predictable. The union leaders then point to the failure of the ballot to justify their own passivity. And there are plenty of occasions when workers do vote in big numbers to take action but the opportunity to do so is squandered by the leadership who see their negotiating skills as the thing that will make a breakthrough.

On other occasions, union leaders point to the many legal obstacles to militant industrial action to explain their failure to fight. Some of this is self-serving nonsense. Much could be done that does not involve a frontal challenge to the Fair Work laws. In many industries, just the basics of proper organising – building up delegate structures in the workplace, putting effort into getting good turnouts and yes votes for industrial action ballots, following through with actual strikes with full involvement of members – these kinds of actions are still too rare. It was not the law that prevented Together from running a half decent campaign against the Newman government’s sackings. The law does not explain why the public service unions all too often call a halt to strike campaigns when they have fired only a few shots across the employer’s bow, nor why the NTEU pulled the plug on the enterprise bargaining campaign at Sydney University in 2017 just days after a very successful strike. The SDA and AWU have not been required by industrial law to connive with the employers over shoddy enterprise agreements. United Voice is not prevented by the law from having a go at organising hospitality workers in the CBDs of the capital cities. The education unions have not been forced by the law to put all their organising efforts into the #GiveAGonski election campaign while neglecting industrial organising.

It is true, however, that plenty of legal snares do await unions planning on taking action. This is most obvious in the building and construction industry, where the ABCC’s power to initiate legal action against construction unions has changed the terrain. Outside this sector, moreover, the Fair Work Ombudsman can initiate legal action against unions for breaches of the Fair Work Act. The Ombudsman has done so on ten occasions, the most significant being prosecution of the NUW for strikes at two Woolworths warehouses in Melbourne in 2015, with heavy fines likely.[66] Labour lawyer Andrew Stewart argues:

It’s absolutely straightforward. The ILO for the past 20 to 30 years has told governments of both political persuasions that we are in breach of international labour standards. Not only are we flagrantly in breach, but our laws are also so restrictive on the right to strike that they are way out of step with the laws of just about every other developed country.[67]

Plans by the Turnbull government to increase maximum fines for secondary boycotts from $750,000 to $10 million and to generalise the ABCC’s harsh inquisitorial powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman, forcing workers to give testimony against themselves, their workmates or their union, indicate that ILO censure is no deterrent.

Restrictive though the legal framework is, however, it should not be an insuperable barrier stopping unions from fighting for workers’ rights. The content of industrial law and how, where and when it is deployed against unions is fundamentally determined by the class struggle. If sufficient numbers of workers are prepared to flout it, or employers (or the ABCC or Fair Work Ombudsman) fear the consequences of initiating legal action, the legal provisions can lose their effectiveness.

Unions have always faced a wide range of punitive restrictions spelled out in both common and statute law.[68] But employers only rarely initiated common law action against unions in earlier decades because they were scared of the union response. Or, as Creighton put it: “Legal proceedings are by their very nature divisive and tend to lead to a hardening of attitudes on both sides – they are not, in other words, likely to be conducive to industrial peace and harmony”.[69]

In the post-war decades, employers also had recourse to provisions of the arbitration system, including the insertion of bans clauses into awards, the cancellation of awards, union deregistration and court injunctions. In the 1960s, employers took to invoking the penal powers with gusto and the fines racked up. By 1969, the combination of fines and legal costs incurred by unions had mounted to $590,000. Motions to oppose the penal powers were repeatedly passed through union congresses, but unions continued to pay the fines. It was only after the metal trades struck vigorously and successfully against the attempt by the Arbitration Commission to “absorb” over-award payments in 1968 that the ground was laid for confrontation over the question. The broader radicalisation over the Vietnam War also contributed to increased combativity in the unions, as did the determination of the Victorian rebel unions to push past the lethargy of the ACTU, NSW and Victorian peak union bodies. The climax came in 1969 when Victorian unions organised a state-wide strike in response to the jailing of tramways union secretary Clarrie O’Shea for contempt of court for refusing to open his union’s books.[70] Very quickly the strike in Victoria spread to other states. Within days O’Shea was released from jail when an anonymous donor stepped forward to pay the fine. The result of the strike was that the employers were intimidated from appealing to courts for financial penalties against the unions for the next two decades. Class struggle trumped black letter law.

The battle against the penal powers is probably the best known fight against legal penalties on unions. But unions have had to battle repression on numerous other occasions. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the BWIU, Federation of Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA) and Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) were deregistered at different times, as was the BLF in the 1970s. But on each occasion the unions were able to regain registration because they were too powerful to be shoved aside and because other unions refused to poach their members. Likewise, secret ballots to authorise strikes have been on the books since 1928, but were used, according to Creighton, “only in a handful of cases” in the following decades. And in the 1970s, the Fraser government, despite winning thumping majorities at two elections, was unable to make its package of anti-union laws stick because of union opposition. In 1980, NSW petrol tanker drivers went on strike against the invoking of the secondary boycott provisions of the Trades Practices Act and in WA in 1979 unions struck against the arrest and jailing of 10 trade unionists under the provisions of the WA Police Act.[71] As with the O’Shea case, only payment of the outstanding fines by an anonymous donor prevented even more widespread action in WA.

These examples demonstrate that it is politics, not black letter law, that determines when and how penalties are pursued against militant unions. As Creighton concludes from his review of the use of the law in industrial disputes:

There is clear evidence to the effect that penal provisions, criminal or civil, can only work for so long as those to whom they are directed are prepared to allow them to work. If trade unions and their members decide that they are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of the sanctioning process, then those sanctioning processes are ultimately doomed to failure.[72]

That was in 1982. The problem today is not fundamentally the law, but the dead hand of union leaders who have not tried to lead an industrial fight for decades. As the strike rate has fallen ever lower, militant traditions from the past have vanished, replaced by a series of dead-end strategies that are incapable of reviving the movement. Without a conscious attempt to build a campaign of defiance, as the left wing unions did in Victoria in the late 1960s, the employers, courts and governments have been given every encouragement to keep pushing the unions into a corner.

The positive argument for militancy in the teeth of political and legal repression is also made by the experience of unions in South Africa, Brazil and South Korea in the 1980s where unions were built in far more difficult circumstances than Australian unions face today. The negative argument begs the question: must union revival await the day when employers, courts and governments decide to relax their grip? If so, we may as well surrender now.

So, where to from here? It is widely understood that the union movement is in serious trouble. It is shrinking, ageing and has suffered repeated industrial defeats. The coverage of collective agreements is becoming increasingly concentrated in the public sector and is close to nil in many areas of the private. Employers are confident that they can keep squeezing the unions. And the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. An incoming Labor government might make some changes at the margins but is not likely to fundamentally shift the balance of power. And when the next recession strikes, the employers will be driven by their shrunken profits to squeeze unions even harder.

It is impossible to be definitive about the means by which trade unions might reverse this trend. The history of building unionism in Australia and then rebuilding it after historical defeats has seen a wide variety of methods and figures. But several things stand out from the story of rebuilding unionism in the period from the turn of last century until World War I – when union membership grew fivefold from 100,000 to half a million.

First, building unionism in virgin territory and rebuilding it in areas where it has been wiped out takes serious effort and dedication of resources, as the example of the Organising Committee of the NSW Labor Council in the 1900s demonstrates.[73] This effort will have to be pushed along by a determined minority in the face of foot-dragging on the part of many established union leaders. It therefore requires a fight within the union movement.

Second, industrial militancy is a recurring theme in the accounts of union growth, examples including the Broken Hill miners, the Queensland sugar workers and the Sydney rockchoppers who mounted significant strikes and endured savage lockouts in the decade before World War I. The unions did not win in every case, but defeats also played their role. One crucial outcome of these battles was the fostering of a culture of working class solidarity.

Third, radicals were usually to the fore. Even though there were cases like Billy Hughes, who built the wharf labourers’ union in Sydney in the 1900s while a sitting federal Labor MP and an opponent of strikes, there were many more of radical or militant temperament like Ted Theodore, Bill McCormack, Ernie Lane, Emma Miller, Tom Mann, Con Hogan, Henrietta Greville, Minnie Lalor and Peter Bowling who organised the unorganised into a fighting force in Queensland and NSW. In Victoria, members of the Victorian Socialist Party played an important role building the railways union, while militants agitated among women workers in the Flinders Lane rag trade in Melbourne.

Finally, the big upswing in unionism at this time took place in the context of a broader radicalisation in society, and not just in Australia – this was a period of general radicalisation in the labour movements of many countries. None of this is a uniquely Australian story: the experience of building trade unionism in the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression demonstrates the general validity of these points.[74]

These steps cannot simply be recreated today at the click of a finger. There is no indication today that any Labor MP is prepared to give union organising a push along, as Hughes did. Possibly a Corbyn-like figure could emerge in coming years who might be inclined to tackle the job, but there is no sign of this and the odds are against it. It is possible that a John L. Lewis figure could emerge from within the union bureaucracy – an established union leader prepared to throw resources into organising the unorganised in order to build their own empire and to try to forestall the rising influence of radicals.[75] But none has yet done so despite the emergence of broad swathes of un-unionised territory.

The fact that socialists have no control over some of the possible combinations of factors that might yield a breakthrough is no reason, however, for left wing activists to passively await the course of developments. Socialists have made a notable contribution to the revival of trade unionism in Australia in times past. The best historical precedent is the Minority Movement of the early 1930s. Facing savage wage cuts, mass unemployment, state repression and entrenched union leaders who refused to fight the effects of the Great Depression, the Minority Movement, founded by the Communist Party, rebuilt unions in the Victorian and NSW coal mines, the Queensland sugar industry, Victorian textiles, NSW railway workshops and public works projects in Melbourne and Sydney. In Sydney and North Queensland they built unions on the waterfront despite blacklisting, police thuggery and bashings.

In the 1960s left wing militants built the Builders Labourers Federation among labourers on the construction sites of Sydney and Melbourne in the face of threats from organised crime and Liberal governments. A reform ticket in NSW, led by the socialists Bob Pringle, Joe Owens and Jack Mundey, won office in 1968. Within a few years, the new NSW leadership had won smashing gains for builders’ labourers – on pay, on job security, on protection from victimisation, on health and safety on the job – using aggressive industrial tactics, snap strikes to halt concrete pours, “guerrilla action” to sabotage the work of scabs and marches to the offices of the big employers, courts and government departments. Employment conditions for BLs soared, and so too did their morale. Members participated enthusiastically in the work of the union, with numerous new activists coming forward. The union leadership was infused with a commitment to social transformation. As they argued, “In a modern society, the workers’ movement…must engage in all industrial, political, social and moral struggles affecting the working people as a whole”. Building on the confidence that BLF members had developed by fighting for their own conditions, the union took action to support Aboriginal land rights, campaigns against the Vietnam War and the tour by the racist South African rugby team. They also imposed green bans to halt the destruction of working class housing by developers in inner Sydney.

But in the case of both the Minority Movement and the BLF, the fight to build unionism involved not just a struggle against the bosses but a fight within the union movement itself – against the strategies of the day favouring passivity and fatalism and for those promoting militancy, democracy, solidarity and class struggle politics. In this fight, socialist organisation can play a vital role. Simply put, one of the most important steps in halting the rot in the union movement today is the creation of larger numbers of more active and organised socialists in workplaces. The case for rebuilding our unions is also the case to build socialist organisation in this country. No-one is pretending that this will be a simple matter, but it is still the main task ahead for any left wing activists wanting to rescue unionism from its current death spiral.



Figure 1

Note: changes calculated as annual median earnings growth minus annual CPI growth.

Source: ABS 2013.


Figure 2: Industrial action (working days lost [WDL] per 1,000 employees) and wages share (employee earnings as share of GDP), where wages share is lagged 12 months, 1960-2016.

Source: ABS 2017c; ABS 2017d.


Figure 3: Industrial action and wages share of GDP (lagged 12 months), 1960-2016.

Note: relationship statistically significant, p<0.05.

Source: ABS 2017c; ABS 2017d.


Figure 4: Industrial action (working days lost [WDL] per 1,000 employees) and union density (union membership as share of workforce) 1986-2016.

Source: ABS 1997; ABS 2013; ABS 2017c.


Figure 5: Industrial action (WDL) and union density, 1986-2016.

Note: relationship statistically significant, p<0.05.

Source: ABS 1997; ABS 2013; ABS 2017c.



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ABS 2017b, “Employee earnings and hours, May 2016”, cat. no. 6306.0.

ACTU 2017, “Innovation and growth taskforces progress report”, unpublished mimeo.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) 2016, “State conference discussion paper – 2016”.

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[1] ABS 2017a.

[2] Josh Bornstein, “Tough rules on unions have stifled Australian wages”, The Age, 5 July 2017.

[3] AMWU 2016, p3.

[4] http://services.thomsonreuters.com.au/cpdnews/docs/workforce/GedKearneyspeechtotheACTU2016Leadership Forum.pdf.

[5] Troy Bramston, “Where workers don’t count”, The Australian, 2 November 2015.

[6] Department of Employment, Workplace Agreements Database, Historical Trends data. These figures include managerial employees, https://www.employment.gov.au/workplace-agreements-database.

[7] ABS 2017b.

[8] I make this argument in more detail and with extensive sourcing in Bramble 2008.

[9] Peetz 1998, p173.

[10] See Tom Bramble, “Labour movement leadership”, Kuhn 2005, for a more in-depth study of the union bureaucracy in Australia.

[11] Mills 1948, pp8-9.

[12] One example: between 2001 and 2015, the number of AMWU members fell by 44 percent, while the number of officials actually grew by 6 percent. AMWU 2016, p31.

[13] Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union 1982; Burford 1983.

[14] Liz Ross, “Dedication doesn’t pay the rent! The 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike”, Bloodworth and O’Lincoln 1998.

[15] Communication from Sandra Bloodworth, who was at such a picket in 1986.

[16] Pallas 1994.

[17] The following discussion of the Industrial Relations Reform Act is based on Romeyn 2008.

[18] Pallas 1994.

[19] See Bramble 2008, chapters 7 and 8, for more on unionism during the Howard years.

[20] Peetz 1998, p85.

[21] Peetz 2013.

[22] Essential poll, 26 October 2015.

[23] Sutherland 2017.

[24] Jerome Small, “Esso gas dispute: Gippsland workers on the frontline against boss’s offensive”, Red Flag, 18 July 2017.

[25] Ben Schneiders and Royce Millar, “Shoppies’ union faces Senate probe over wages scandal”, The Age, 19 June 2017.

[26] Ben Schneiders, “Workers deserve better than shameful Coles deal with shop union”, The Age, 31 May 2016.

[27] Tony Wright and Nick Toscano, “Armed police remove ship’s Australian crew, escort replacements aboard”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2016.

[28] “Union’s Victorian campaign model to go national”, Workplace Express, 25 September 2015.

[29] Australian Unions Team, “We are the mighty trade union movement”, email to subscribers of the ACTU mailing list, 3 July 2016.

[30] Lyons 2016.

[31] Kearney 2013.

[32] Oliver 2015.

[33] “Change imperative as AMWU faces membership wipeout: Combet report”, Workplace Express, 28 January 2016.

[34] Andrew Martin, “AMWU review proposes major changes as membership falls”, Red Flag, 4 April 2016.

[35] Walton and Locke 2016.

[36] ACTU 2017.

[37] “Media union seeks broader support base”, Workplace Express, 1 March 2016.

[38] Australian Superannuation Funds Authority, “Superannuation statistics, June 2017”, https://www.superannuation.asn.au/ArticleDocuments/…/SuperStats-Jun2017.pdf.aspx.

[39] Oliver 2016.

[40] Australian Super 2016.

[41] Ewin Hannan, “Union fury at new job cuts by industry super funds”, The Australian, 25 September 2017.

[42] Oliver 2016.

[43] Wood 2015.

[44] McCarthy 2010; Cregan 2013; Hodder et al 2017.

[45] Hodder et al 2017, p18.

[46] Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson, “Are unions regaining popular legitimacy in Australia?”, Denemark et al 2007.

[47] Walton and Locke 2016.

[48] “Sally McManus, the ACTU’s new leader, vows to take on ‘corporate greed’”, The Guardian, 15 March 2017.

[49] Peetz 2015, p18.

[50] I discuss the extent and impact of workforce and industry restructuring on working class strength in Bramble 2011.

[51] Atalay et al 2013.

[52] ABS 2014.

[53] Peetz 2015, p14.

[54] Borland 2017a.

[55] ibid.

[56] Borland 2017b.

[57] Borland 2017c.

[58] Borland 2017b.

[59] Borland 2017a.

[60] ABS 2017a.

[61] ABS 2014.

[62] Sean Farrell and Hilary Osbourne, “Deliveroo boss says sorry for pay dispute”, The Guardian, 15 August 2016.

[63] This point is made very forcefully by Kim Moody in the context of the US working class; Moody 2017.

[64] Peetz 2015, p7.

[65] Crosby 2005.

[66] Fair Work Ombudsman 2016.

[67] www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-21/have-the-right-to-strike-laws-gone-too-far/8370980.

[68] Creighton and Stewart 2005, p536.

[69] Breen Creighton, “Law and the control of industrial conflict”, Cole 1982, p128.

[70] Wood 2013.

[71] Creighton, “Law and the control of industrial conflict”, pp137-38, 145-46.

[72] ibid., p147.

[73] Cooper 2002.

[74] Smith 2006, Richard 2017.

[75] Smith 2006, pp115-16.

No.1 Spring 2010
No.2 Autumn 2011
No.3 Spring 2011
No.4 Winter 2012
No.5 Summer 2013
No.6 Winter 2013
No.7 Summer 2014
No.8 Winter 2014
No.9 Summer 2015
No.10 Winter 2015
No.11 Summer 2016
No.12 Winter 2016
No.13 Summer 2017
No.14 Winter 2017
No.15 Summer 2018
No.16 Winter 2018

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The siege and resistance in Gaza: Interview with Toufic Haddad-Written by Omar Hassan

Posted by admin On October - 24 - 2018 Comments Off on The siege and resistance in Gaza: Interview with Toufic Haddad-Written by Omar Hassan


Toufic Haddad is an activist, academic, and author of Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I.B. Tauris, 2016). He recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Arab Council for Social Sciences, entitled “The Political Economy of Siege and Resilience in the Gaza Strip”. He was interviewed by Omar Hassan.


Palestine solidarity activists the world over have been incredibly inspired by the courageous protests taking place in Gaza since March 30. Can you explain the conditions in Gaza that have led to this important development?

There are many interrelated issues going on here, both historical and more contemporary. The most immediate and pressing issue, of course, is the overall conditions of siege that the Gaza Strip has been subject to since the 2006 electoral victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement – Hamas.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently described Israel’s siege as “caging Gazans in a toxic slum”. Here is a territory where 97 percent of water is polluted and in less than two years the poisoning of ground aquifers will be irreversible. You have 48 percent unemployment, 63 percent youth unemployment, and an economy that has collapsed due to debt and a lack of liquidity. On top of this you have education, electricity, wastewater and health sectors in states of advanced disrepair and collapsing. The overwhelming majority of the Strip’s two million residents have not been able to leave Gaza for 12 years, gravely impacting everything from education and health to family life and livelihood, to say nothing of the psychological dimension. The regime of control Israel imposes over Gaza is unprecedented globally, with some academics calling it a “digital occupation”. Remote control machine guns and the constant presence of drones monitor and police this tiny territory (360 km2) while Gaza’s access regime is so sophisticated that Israel counts every calorie and controls every chemical compound that enters the territory.

It would be imprecise, however to explain or reduce protests to purely humanitarian questions. Gaza has been under siege because the international community and Israel want to prevent an alternative political model emerging within Palestinian politics there. Hamas has led this alternative political project, and has and could again legitimately take power in Palestinian politics if elections took place. This counters the existing Western state approach to “managing” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through the US-sponsored Oslo process. These actors have thus imposed the siege in an effort to prevent this tendency from making any gains or spreading further to the West Bank.

But the issue is far larger than Hamas. The entire peace process had no solution to the question of Palestine overall, and which is represented in its most concentrated form in Gaza.

People tend to forget that “the Gaza Strip” only exists by virtue of the results of the 1948 war. Namely it is a rump territory where the victims of the Zionist campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine ended up. Three-quarters of the Gaza Strip residents are refugees originating from the coastal and southern regions of Palestine. This is the demographic reverse of the West Bank, where refugees constitute only a quarter of the population.

The collective experience of displacement and its harsh living conditions transformed Gaza into the crucible of Palestinian nationalism and the refugee return movement, with the territory birthing the most significant vanguard political tendencies of the Palestinian movement historically – from the Communist Party in the 1950s and ’60s, to Fateh in the late 1960s, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad more recently. These protests are the latest incarnation of these dynamics, where we witness yet another popular uprising being launched around all the historical issues of the Palestinian movement (for return, self determination, liberation, etc.), and all the new means that Israel, and now the international community, have used to try to control and subvert Palestinian rights.

The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza has been known for a long time, and there is no shortage of reporting on it from all the major international agencies. But the humanitarian approach has been a means used by international actors to guise Gaza’s political significance, which embodies all the main questions of Palestine – from the question of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, to 50 years since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to 12 years of siege, to the political question of the Palestinian opposition to the Oslo process.

In addition to all these historical factors and the issue of the siege, there is yet another important factor that has arisen. Hamas, which won the 2006 elections and attempted to reform the Palestinian national movement through its capture of the Palestinian Authority’s state-like institutions via elections, eventually came to the conclusion that Gaza is ungovernable within existing constraints. That meaning: they are abandoning civil governance and service provision because they understand – correctly – that it is a trap. The pretence that the institutions of the Palestinian Authority could manage Gaza and its contradictions, without sovereignty and freedom of movement and goods, is false. Self-governance – the crowning achievement of Oslo – became a way to alleviate Israel from the most “burdensome” elements of its occupation, while Israel remained and remains in ultimate control. When we add that the Fatah government in Ramallah has cut its spending on Gaza in recent years as a means to pressure Hamas, we realise that the protests are both a popular rejection of the Occupation, the siege, the political crisis of Palestinian politics, as well as a way for Hamas to kick the “problem” of Gaza back to its rightful address – Israel and the international community, who are the main parties responsible for the perpetuation of the problem of Palestine for 70 years.

Israel has tried to justify its massacre of over 120 Palestinians in these protests by claiming that the protests have been organised and led by Hamas “terrorists”. On the left we obviously reject this characterisation of Hamas, but can you tell us about the political leadership of the movement and how it has related to the various political factions?

Any attempt to define the protests as a creation of Hamas is reductionist and seeks to put the Israel/Palestine conflict back into the “war on terror” framework, which I think the demonstrations have been very successful in breaking out of. This has not stopped Israeli commentators from attempting to repackage these demonstrations within this discursive logic, with one describing the protests as a “collective suicide bomb” on Israel’s “border”, and Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman describing Hamas as “cannibals” sending children to be killed in order to make Israel look bad.

But as noted, the protests have deeper roots and considerations deriving from Gaza’s historical and contemporary predicament. With Hamas’ recent decision to abstain from governance, the path was opened for popular forces, and particularly a younger generation of activists, to take initiative and see what could be done to change the situation, not relying on the existing political order – be it international or domestic. Having said this, the traditional structures of the Palestinian national movement – the PLO factions, together with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have all gathered around the new mobilisations and their organic leadership to form the Higher Committee for the Great March of Return, which oversees the movement and protests. So it is a combination of new and old actors, experimenting with new and old tactics.

At the end of the day, Hamas is still the dominant political player in Gaza, and its ability to mobilise forces in Gaza is unmatched there. In this regard, Hamas’ decision to abstain from governance essentially greenlighted its members to join popular mobilisations, providing numerical and logistical weight. This should not however be confused with Hamas being the organisers of the demonstrations. At the same time, we should reject arguments that attempt to counterpose Hamas to them. Hamas is an organic actor in Gaza, and it is and will be a part of any mobilisation against the occupation there – whether it initiates these movements or follows them. Islamophobia has played a negative role in attempting to reduce the question of Gaza to a “war on terror” logic, but at the end of the day, the majority population of Gaza is Muslim, and Islamic institutions have played a major role in providing services and political leadership for the national movement under occupation, in light of the failures and impasse of the secular national movement of the PLO, stuck in the trap of Oslo. In this light, there is no reason to apriori delegitimise Islamist mobilisation within the Palestinian national context, while we can also still support, and should support, progressive wings of Palestinian politics – parts of which will also include Islamists by the way. Ultimately it is the racist Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine and Western imperial support for it which is the source of the conflict, and we should reject explanations that lose sight of that.

Finally, it is important to note that the current protests represent the evolution of struggle dynamics whereby the broader Palestinian theatre has witnessed the failure of the political leadership and strategies of all factions. This includes the failure of Fateh’s “Oslo approach”, and the stalemate/dead end of approaches which rely upon armed struggle. We are thus witnessing the evolution of new dynamics and social forces which also gives the initiative a particularly exciting feel.

Can we talk a little bit more about some of the individual stories of the martyrs killed by IDF snipers? The statistics can be numbing – over 120 killed, thousands wounded, etc. Can you give us a sense of who these people are and what their motivations might have been?

Although it is difficult to answer your question without being on the ground in Gaza – which is almost impossible at this stage – I think it is safe to say that the base of the movement is composed of what can be termed the “Oslo generation”. These are youth, mainly up to 30 years old, who grew up in Gaza during the Oslo years (now, a quarter-century on) and who have never left the Gaza Strip, and never had minimal opportunities for a decent living. Their parents would have witnessed or participated in the first (1987) intifada, but have since also witnessed the drastic deterioration of life quality as a result of the Oslo process itself. Keep in mind that the “peace process” was used as a cover for Israel to implement apartheid, beneath the joint guise of “security needs” and “withdrawal from population centres” for the purposes of “Palestinian self-governance”. Israel used the peace process to forcibly impose “closure” on the West Bank and Gaza as a way to pen Palestinians in, particularly Gaza residents, and to take their lands. The majority of Gaza’s labour force used to work inside the Israeli labour market, and almost everyone was thrown out of work and imprisoned in the economically unsustainable Gaza Strip as a result of “peace”. A fence was built to hermetically seal the Gaza Strip in 1995 – the height of the peace process – seven years before Israel would build its apartheid wall across the West Bank. So youth in Gaza have grown up totally isolated from the rest of the world – without opportunities for normal living, with a historical understanding of their refugee status and its causes, and with the dashed hopes of the peace process. We can add to this the sense of betrayal of the international order to their cause, and the ineffectuality of their leadership and parents’ generation to change their condition. Let’s not forget that the land, just on the other side of these Israeli snipers – is refugee property. So it is right there – they can see their land, but not access it. The starkness of the injustice is only compounded by the difficulty of daily living and the brutality and trauma of Israeli actions that have killed 4,500 Palestinians in Gaza alone since 2008.

This is the context which drives the protests on the ground, and this context forms the personal life experience of the protesters. Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently interviewed some of these youth, who told her “We’re dying anyway, so let it be in front of the cameras”. The international order has been deaf to the cries of Gaza, so these protests de facto represent a prison riot that is attempting to put Gaza back on the table, after Western governments and Israel, together with the Arab order, thought they could bury it in a debilitating siege, and through isolation.

When I think of the protesters, I think of the figure of Wissal Shaikh Khalil, the only woman killed on the horrific May 14 protest, where almost 70 Palestinians were killed – more than 500 shot in the head, and with more than 3,000 injuries from live ammunition. The picture we get from her is of a young woman who is frustrated by the situation, who sees the older generation as having been passive and acquiescent to conditions. She stood up and said “I don’t believe in this, I’m not taking it, and I want to go out with the boys and challenge the Israelis as well”. On that note, while the overall situation perpetually generates protest, protest itself becomes a way of also overcoming social and traditional restrictions on life. Because obviously, when you’re under siege and in states of extreme poverty, what happens is that society becomes much more dependent on extended family and tribal networks as a way of survival and welfare. This has enormous negative consequences on people’s sense of individuality, and reinforces patriarchal values which is very stultifying for youth and women in particular.

The demonstrations also witness clear participation of older people protesting because the siege means that they cannot take care of their families. I’m reminded of Mu’een Assa’i (58) who, a day before he was killed in the protests, offered one of his kidneys for sale online to feed his family, describing life in Gaza as “unbearable from all sides”, and that he was serious and of sound mind. The siege is crushing new and old generations alike while preventing the transition of youth into adulthood, and social actors performing their traditional roles. Society is on the brink of collapse. The explosive conditions can either lead to implosion and social and political collapse, or explosion, towards Israel, the primary source of Palestinian oppression. It has done the latter, to avoid the former. An Arabic news correspondent went to the buffer zone where the demonstrations were taking place and interviewed an elderly woman there. He joked that most women of her generation would be at home, making bread, and asked her what she was doing? With cold resolve, she responded: “My husband has been killed, two of my sons have been killed, another is in a wheelchair, and I don’t care if a bullet hits me through the forehead”. People clearly feel they have little to lose. Non-action is a form of certain slow death. Under these conditions, why not risk active/faster death, if there is at least a chance something can change?

I’d like to talk about what seems to me to have been quite a stark contrast between the scenes in Gaza and then the relative passivity inside the West Bank and in the 1948 areas of Palestine, even in response to Trump’s decision to move the embassy. While there have been protests, there seems to be a “gap” in energy. Am I overstating that, or is this a fair point to make? And if so, what’s behind it?

I think it’s somewhat accurate, though it is more helpful to understand matters in their specificity, which includes appreciating how Israel has undoubtedly fragmented the Palestinian people geographically, politically and socially. Folks need to take into consideration that Israel has different interests in different parts of historical Palestine, and therefore implements different strategies to realise its goals. Political actors and mobilisations take on different forms as a result of these dynamics, and hence it becomes difficult to generalise a common type of struggle, because the means of oppression and control, and with it resistance, vary in each locality.

In this reading, Gaza is the most intense of the theatres, because it is the least important for Zionist aspirations. Gaza is the territory that Rabin – the Nobel peace prize winner – wished would “sink into the sea”. But the West Bank is different. Israel has key strategic interests there in so far as the territory is much larger, contains the strategic high grounds, contains important water reserves, and also contains the historical sites which are important for the Zionist movement to assert its mythology of “returning the Jewish people to the land of Israel”.

This is why Israel basically used the peace process to be able to “separate” from the Palestinians across the 1967 occupied territory, while investing its energies in massive colony construction projects in the West Bank, tripling the number of settlers there since 1993. Israel aims to annexe these territories, thereby uniting the conquests of 1948 Palestine with those of 1967.

In more recent history – because of the Palestinian rejection of the Oslo framework with the eruption of the Al Aqsa (second) intifada in 2000, and especially after the 2006 elections – Israel and the Western states have tried to make the West Bank seem more prosperous compared to Gaza, as a way to lessen the anti-Oslo political tendency, manifested most coherently in Hamas. Namely, the West Bank was given a “carrot” while Gaza was given the “stick”, with the entire logic of the arrangement aimed at getting Palestinians to believe that resistance was futile. While there were nominal improvements to economic conditions in the West Bank since 2007, one should not be deceived, as the situation there remains extremely unstable, with worsening economic conditions in recent years, and no less a brutal occupation regime, albeit administered differently. We must not forget that the West Bank is much larger and more difficult to organise, while Israel is also on the ground there, and on a daily basis enters the hearts of Palestinian cities and towns to conduct arrest campaigns. This does not happen in Gaza, which also helps resistance experience and leadership to accumulate.

Israel currently holds around 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, and the overwhelming majority of these represent the political leadership of the West Bank. If these persons were free to organise, the West Bank context would certainly look different. Israel well understands this, which is why it doesn’t rely upon the Palestinian Authority to arrest these persons – they do it themselves.

On top of this is the dynamic of Fateh, and in particular the majority branch of the party loyal to Abu Mazen [Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas], nominally in control of Palestinian governance functions in the West Bank. These actors see the West Bank as their last stronghold. Fateh in general has a different strategy to addressing the Palestinian condition, which derives from its historical experience of struggle through the PLO. As far as Fateh is concerned, the Palestinians have paid the price of armed resistance (winning recognition through it) while Palestinians should use current conditions to avoid a damaging frontal confrontation with Israel. They believe this will ultimately defeat Zionist ambitions because as long as Palestinians survive and remain in Palestine, organised as self-identifying Palestinians, they will remain “the non-Jews” within the “Jewish democratic state” from an Israeli perspective. Fateh believes this contradiction will eventually force either statehood or the collapse of Zionism. So the PA and Fateh in the West Bank are not interested in a popular mobilisation that could threaten their hold on power, and displace their claim as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian struggle. They are interested in maintenance of status quo and demobilisation. Thus a debilitating , divided internal situation prevails across the Palestinian political sphere and within the West Bank in particular, where factional unity cannot be achieved on the ground, and with the Israeli occupation army doing its part to ensure that none of the Palestinian actors in the West Bank gain much traction – including Fateh.

Alternatively, in Gaza we see the opposite: all factions – including most Fateh branches there, together with the left, are increasingly unified. There are even joint operations rooms and the exchange of military expertise and equipment. But this is hardly possible in the West Bank where the Abu Mazen faction of Fateh dominates and will not allow alternative strategies and actors to gain momentum and potentially displace it and its strategy. We also must acknowledge that Abu Mazen and Fateh still have a fairly wide political and social constituency, with about 16 percent of employed persons working in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (with wages significantly higher than the private sector), and a public sector driving at least 40 percent of consumer demand. The PA is the main economic player in the West Bank, and there are few opportunities besides it – work in Israeli settlements, or the majority state of private sector actors who struggle in a “race to the bottom” in their “mom and pop” shops. There is always unemployment. Israel’s broader “de-development” policies can be thanked for this as well.

On a popular level of course, the West Bank and Palestinians everywhere are inspired by Gaza, and we do witness demonstrations taking place, including among Palestinian communities inside 1948 Palestine (Haifa in particular). But it would be wrong to compare their size and intensity to Gaza, because the political conditions for organising, and the political interests and tactics of Israel vis-à-vis each population and territory differ.

Let’s move to the regional level now. Palestinian protests have historically been a trigger for democratic and anti-imperialist forces across the region, but at this moment the counter-revolutionary aftermath of the Arab spring seems to be making practical solidarity extremely difficult. How do you read this current moment, and where do you see the Palestinian movement in this broader context?

Historically Palestine has been the “cause of the Arabs”, but it’s been obvious to most that this hasn’t been the case for decades, if it ever was, and Palestinians have been left to their own fate, especially after Oslo. With the Arab uprisings of 2010/11, the limited support the cause received further deteriorated in light of local revolutionary dynamics understandably becoming more important. Moreover the Palestinian movement was fracturing internally around the same time, between the West Bank and Gaza, which created a crisis of representation and leadership. Popular forces across the Arab world remain in solidarity with Palestine of course, however this solidarity cannot actualise in a context marked by the extreme counter-revolutionary forces and dynamics that have been unleashed to crush these revolutionary tendencies.

The major counter-revolutionary waves that have been unleashed have understandably preoccupied Arab revolutionary actors, further isolating the Palestinian theatre from its natural periphery. Political actors should be aware however that this is temporary, and will not last indefinitely. Eventually revolutionary dynamics will re-ignite across the region for years if not decades to come, as the old regimes have no answers to the questions the revolutions posed, and the genie will not be able to be put back in the bottle.

In the meantime, we are witnessing instead unprecedented Arab state collusion with Israel – represented most vividly in Saudi-Israel rapprochement, but also unprecedented Egyptian-Israeli collusion. Egypt has even invited Israel to bomb the Sinai with its fleet of drones to squelch the local opposition movements there. The Arab states seek to team up with Israel and the Trump administration to counter “Iran” – but really any perceived local opposition to their rule. These dynamics are debilitating for the Arab revolutionary currents, particularly in the absence of a larger progressive movement and network to be able to sustain it, and which must be built through struggle. At the end of the day, the Middle East and Palestine features within a central axis of world trade, energy and political conflicts. This means that any genuine democratic forces in the area must counter a substantial number of reactionary elements of the world order, together with their local manifestation. The stakes in this respect couldn’t be higher.

What role do you see for solidarity activists in countries like Australia?

In order for the Gaza protests to be successful, we need to have regular, determined demonstrations and solidarity activity going on in the West. We have to use the protests in Gaza to educate around Palestine and build a new generation of activists, and a movement at large, that can expose the cruel apartheid regime Israel has established there, with active Western donor state abetment.

We have to plan for a long term struggle, because currently there are no prospects at this time that the situation in Gaza is resolvable. Donors and Israel vacillate between “technical humanitarian” and “military” solutions, but both have been tried, and both have miserably failed. In fact these approaches are deeply implicated in creating the situation today, because they have attempted to hive political issues from economic and humanitarian ones.

Not one of these actors however is talking seriously about resolving the political problem of Gaza, which in fact is the strongest instantiation of the political problem of Palestine. We can be assured that these actors will fail, as the situation has long passed any “technical” solution, and Western governments know very well what they do in Palestine. While pretending to sponsor peace, by supporting the Oslo process, Western states have actually been cementing apartheid – sometimes quite literally. USAID funds to the Palestinians have gone to pave an alternative road system, separate from that used by Jewish colonists. It’s not just the US though. UK arms sales to Israel have reached historic heights, while Germany is selling Israel nuclear submarines. Meanwhile, these actors feign impartiality, subvert Palestinian democratic processes, and bankroll neopatrimonial Palestinian governance structures in an effort to displace the main contradiction between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, into intra-Palestinian political and class conflicts. They also protect and abet Israel from sanctioning, with these powers never failing to declare that Israel is their ally. In this respect, donor aid to the Palestinians pales in comparison to the funding and benefits given to Israel by Western states, while these actors also argue that the former is given because it helps Israel solve/manage its Palestinian “problem”.

Western solidarity movements can thus play a key role in the struggle to expose this political farce, and the time is long overdue for this. Western state support of a brutal apartheid regime in Israel/Palestine is certainly not representative of the interests of the average Western taxpayer. Solidarity actors in the West are uniquely positioned to do this, and the more they organise, the less bloody the conflict will be. Western states ultimately form the strategic, diplomatic, economic and military conditions which allow Israel to operate, and without this, the project is unsustainable.

Here a historic opportunity has arisen for the Palestinian movement to be wedded to new social and political struggles in the West, which can make the connection between what happens to Palestinians in Gaza, to the scourge of racism, policing, surveillance, immigration policies, austerity and neoliberalism at home. The connection is both moral and inspirational, as well as very practical: Israeli policies and doctrines are widely implicated in everything from wall construction on the Mexico-US border to the impunity of Western urban policing squads, sent on training missions to Israel. In this regard, Palestine and Gaza in particular, is an example of how people with very little can challenge and change history. We must learn from this example and bring this inspiration and ethos into our own lives in the West, where everywhere you scratch the surface – sometimes not even that – injustice lurks at every corner.
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Seymour Hersh. Reporter: A Memoir. Knopf

Posted by admin On October - 24 - 2018 Comments Off on Seymour Hersh. Reporter: A Memoir. Knopf


He Got the Story-Michael Hirsch
Writing in 1940, George Orwell opined in a review of a Bertrand Russell book that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Much the same can be said about the more than fifty-year career of journalist Seymour Hersh, whose pioneering exposés of the lies of the Great Powers report and affirm facts that follow Orwell’s dictum.

His memoir Reporter showcases Hersh as nothing less than journalism’s energizer bunny, unstoppable in exposing not only the My Lai massacre in Vietnam — for which his accumulated freelance pieces won him a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970 — but for essential information breaking the Watergate scandal cover-up and the Nixon administration’s development of offensive chemical and bacteriological weapons.

Reporter works its way through a conga line of miscreant US presidents, from Kennedy to Bush (though Obama and Trump get scant attention) and the venality of Henry Kissinger, of whom Hersh says, “the man lied the way most people breathed.” We’re told about the excesses and connections of a major West Coast mob fixer, the domestic spying efforts of the CIA in direct violation of its governing charter, the sexual abuse by soldiers of male Iraqi inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and the incapacity of the bulk of a credulous US press corps to do more than cozy up to administration sources and miss the big stories.

This laggard media practice isn’t new, of course. Nation editor Carey McWilliams despaired in the early 1950s over how “large majorities can be manipulated by carefully timed headlines, revelations, and a thoroughly unscrupulous exploitation of the silence and secrecy surrounding many phases of government.” For some five decades, Hersh has strived to do better.

Hersh’s story then, as he tells it, is among the world’s lengthiest curriculum vitae. It’s all about the work, and not much about the man. We’re told he was born in 1937, one of two sets of twins born to post-World War I Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In his late teens, he ran his father’s micro dry cleaning plant on Chicago’s South Side while going to college at the same time. We’re told he’s married and with two grown children, but the rest of the memoir is all about his work — at Chicago’s legendary City News, then the Chicago Tribune, United Press International in South Dakota, and the Associated Press.

Hustling as a media flack for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid, his revelations about McCarthy are a tell-all that should disabuse any former “Be Clean for Gene” warrior that McCarthy was in any way an improvement over the run of mainstream Democrats on anything beyond slamming the Vietnam War. His work at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and freelancing is all there, too.

A stint writing screen plays in Hollywood taught him that “it’s all about character,” though his own character abstracted from his work ethic can’t be easily inferred from the memoir. Beyond a drive to be first with a scoop, there’s no person presented here beyond the quarrelsome, even splenetic, proverbial Peck’s Bad Boy in every reporting job he held. His wrangles with top editors including the New York Times’ Abe Rosenthal were legendary, all the while being whipsawed by a mélange of bosses who were either dismissive or supportive of him — sometimes both, as with Rosenthal and the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee. His narrative is at its best a testament to how stories should be investigated and told. Without his having to say so, the recent New York Timesexposé of the seamy origins of the Trump family fortune aptly follows in that tradition.

The largest single section of the book details his ferreting out the real story of the My Lai massacre. His descriptions of GIs wantonly skewering small Vietnamese children with bayonets bring the horror back viscerally, and his fevered hunt for Lieutenant William Calley is a wonder. Calley was later dubbed the chief perpetrator of the war crimes despite ample evidence that he was the fall guy for more senior officers derelict in self-servingly viewing the slaughter as a firefight.

Not only did he expose the massacre, but he located Calley, then hidden away by the military in senior officer bachelors’ quarters at the military’s sprawling Fort Benning, Georgia, base. “I was stunned,” Hersh writes about the result of his tortuous hunt, “a suspected mass murderer hidden away in quarters for the army’s most elite.”

Such masterly investigative and sleuthing justified his conclusion that Calley was a scapegoat for a hypocritical military rule abjuring torture as policy while permitting it factually and blaming such massacres on lower-ranking “bad apples.” The suspicion that the policy was in fact to tolerate such horrors is inescapable, though Hersh never says as much.

In this bizarro-world war, he noted how “many navy pilots, convinced that their targets in Vietnam were not worth the risks involved, were eager to get out of the service as quickly as possible. It was a story that no one at the top wanted to hear.” The reality, as numerous flyers told him, was that just 10 percent of bombs dropped actually hit their intended targets, a figure that made bombing itself not only a hell for noncombatant Vietnamese but — given flack from the North’s anti-aircraft batteries — organized suicide for pilots.

If Hersh learned one golden operating rule, it’s this: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” After a series of his was, as is still the custom, scrupulously fact-checked by the New Yorker, resulting in damaging but exacting exposes that mooted any libel threats, “I’ve been an avid supporter of fact-checking ever since.” He likewise adopted the savvy credo, “Read before you write.”

Culling sources also became a key piece of his modus operandi. “I learned early in my career,” he writes, “that the way to get someone to open up was to know what I was talking about and ask questions that showed it. Humor and persistence often would work, … but being threatening or aggressive never would.”

One of his trade secrets was tracking retired senior generals and admirals, a class of people beyond the military’s’ reach to punish for telling tales. Insider sources “quickly became more than sources; they were friends and stayed friends after they left government.” Often criticized for his voluminous use of unnamed sources, he made it a practice of revealing source names to every editor he’s worked with, with the consent of the sources.

One such source had been a Middle East CIA station chief. Asked why other CIA operatives had such apparent contempt for the FBI that sharing information was a non-practice, even after 9/11, “[h]is answer stunned me,” Hersh writes. “”Don’t you get it, Sy?” he’s told. “The FBI catches bank robbers. We rob banks.”

In writing 1983’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, his tell-all book on the rest of the press’s sanctified warlord Henry Kissinger, he added “Find people who know the truth, or a truth, and let the facts tell the story.” While the book was shunned by the mainstream press whether or not it was read at all, it got accolades from Noam Chomsky, who called it “really fabulous, apart from the feeling that one is crawling through a sewer. “ That and reporting on Kissinger for the Times, Hersh claims, kept Kissinger out of any Reagan White House appointment in 1984.

Even after 9/11, when arch-neocon Vice President Dick Cheney was orchestrating the undermining of constitutionally required congressional oversight of foreign affairs, Hersh had sources willing to talk about “operations, planned and ongoing — and only those operations — that were contrary to American values, or what was left of them.” Still, Hersh had to be selective about what he used, lest he risk Cheney’s unearthing critics. Much as today with a leaking Trump administration, sources used Hersh “as a conduit to have their say without any risk” to their careers.

In his work there’s no thick description beyond what he is told or dug up, the kind of color and texture so richly done by Orwell or Clancy Segal, whose in-depth depictions of working-class life are classics. Hersh’s strengths are elsewhere: they lay in what he’s heard, read, gotten sources to tell him and confirmed. While much of the information had to be on background so as not to expose sources, it was so well-grounded that it made its own mark, particularly in a field in which mainstream reporting consisted in large measure of aping administration spokespersons and retouching press releases.

In these ventures Hersh was a pre-eminent outlier. Among his influences was the independent journalist I.F. Stone, saying he “was wowed by Stone’s ability to take on, and debunk, the official accounts of events annunciated by the Johnson administration. There was no mystery to how Stone did it. He overworked every journalist in Washington.” (It was Stone who said, “All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.’’) Hersh describes the Pentagon press room as “stunningly sedate,” with “the earmarks of a high-end social club” and a press claque too ready to repeat whatever pap the administration handed out that day. Its line was always the Pentagon’s.

Keynoting a conference of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hersh told the crowd, “There is a corporate mentality out there, but there is also a tremendous amount of self-censorship among the press. It’s like a disease.”

His research is indefatigable. Even in My Lai, where he is justly revered for relentlessly hunting facts, working sources and breaking the story, he also makes clear that he built his case on earlier work, especially that of Times reporter Harrison Salisbury’s dispatches from North Vietnam. While widely assumed by the growing anti-war movement that US war policy was not only unjust and unnecessary but murderous, he turned that subtext into text — even before the release of the Pentagon Papers that blew the lid off of every government war lie.

Piggybacking on Elinor Langer’s research in Science magazine on the Pentagon’s chemical and bacterial warfare (CBW) program, Hersh was also instrumental in targeting the Defense Department’s CBW programs, which were aimed not as defensive measures as claimed, but for offensive forays. He also broke the story that Arkansas’s Pine Bluff Arsenal in the late 1960s was storing bombs filled with anthrax and other poisons as well as anti-crop agents “especially tailored for crops grown in Cuba.”

As his reputation for exposing government perfidies grew, so did his battery of sources. While his bosses at the Times and Washington Post were queasy about his against-the-grain reporting, “more and more officials on the inside were talking to me and knew I would deal honestly with the information they shared and protect their identity.”

It’s never clear whether this self-described “fast-talking, hot-headed operator” thinks that bad policy leads to monstrous results, or that the policies have intrinsic value and can be separated from the odious outcomes by a more righteous adhesion to stated rules of war. Were the massacres of peasants in Vietnam the logical outcome of imperialist penetration, or could closer government oversight of troop actions have made for a less barbarous outcome? Marxists would say the latter is nonsense, and that the slaughter of populations is implicit in how a counter-guerilla offensive by imperial forces is waged. But humane rules of war seem to be Hersh’s lodestar.

Similarly, his coverage of Israel’s developing nuclear weapons made him a host of enemies, but his own defense is problematic, as when he writes, “My point was not that Israel should not have the bomb but that the sub-rosa American support for it was known throughout the Middle East and made a mockery of American efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and other nations with undeclared nuclear ambitions.”

Would imperialism in Hersh’s view be defensible if the neocons surrounding George W. Bush or the neoliberals in the Obama brain trust were amenable to giving the wise men in the CIA more say in policy? Or if a more inquisitive, less subservient press corps dominated news cycles? We don’t know his thinking, though his comment that he was “only interested in CIA operations or any intelligence activities that were stupid or criminal” leaves the door open for great power abuses that are neither. By that yardstick, Russian support for Assad or US backing of the Saudis can be justified as rational and excusable, no matter the body count.

Hersh admits he was whipsawed between reporting the truth as he knew it and protecting the careers of his sources — a problem plaguing him throughout his career, forcing him like Bob Woodward to rely on unnamed sources. On the administration’s venality, Hersh admits to being

more than a little frightened. I had no idea of the extent to which the men running the war would lie to protect a losing hand. I was dealing with a dilemma that reporters who care and work hard constantly face; America needed to know the truth about the Vietnam War, but I had made a commitment to an officer [his source, then a Navy captain] of integrity.

Hersh stayed in touch with that source for decades, who retired as a three-star admiral, and only revealed his name after the man’s death. Adding to the difficulty was a Defense Department edict requiring officers to inform the department of all requests for information by reporters, a sure way to freeze out dissenting views, such as there were, from the public.

Hersh also prides himself on staying best buds with his informers for decades, something his mentor Stone refused to do, short- or long-term. As Stone put it about a New York Times Washington bureau chief who played medicine ball with Herbert Hoover regularly at the White House, “That’s enough to kill off a good reporter. … You can’t get intimate with officials and maintain your independence.” Even good guys, Stone believed, “will use you.”

Does Hersh get everything right? Who does? Even as astute a chronicler as Stone could get it wrong, as in his early insistence that it was South Korean provocations that sparked the Korean peninsular war and not dirty dealings from all sides — including, as he would later suggest, dueling intrigues from Truman and Stalin. Despite Hersh’s remorseless heresy hunting of every administration since Kennedy’s, there’s no hint that the needs of US-based businesses shape and often determine domestic and foreign policy.

Despite his interest in Gulf and Western’s perfidies as performed by then-head Charles Bluhdorn, “the dirtiest mogul in town,” Hersh has more to say about a culture of greed and malpractice than about the logic of capital. With his eyes on Washington’s misdeeds and on occasion — when editors permit — Wall Street’s avarice but not its systemic prerogatives, he’s more of a humorless court jester than a rebel. In whose interest does the governing elite serve? Hersh won’t tell us. Where is his curiosity about diagnosing and exposing a system that requires victims? He doesn’t do that.

His division of labor makes him look — penetratingly but partially — elsewhere. His exposures of Bluhdorn’s sharp practices are characterological, not systemic. Gulf and Western had bad, self-serving leadership: end of discussion. Taking in Hersh’s work practice is like watching a Punch and Judy show; you catch a miscreant performance but never see the puppeteer.

Even on the stage on which he performs so well, Hersh can stumble. He holds that Syria’s minority Alewite government did not use nerve gas against rebels — this despite claims from the United Nations and other credible sources to the contrary that chemical bombs were used. In a late June 2018 interview with the BBC on the destruction by chemical explosion of the town of Kan Sheikhoun, Hersh insisted that stored chlorine, and not a sarin or chlorine bomb, was responsible for the devastation.

All I can tell you,” he says in the interview, “is that the American intelligence community report — I wish I could flash it here — but the American intelligence community has been very clear that there’s no evidence that the Russians, that the Syrians, the regime used a chlorine weapon because there is no such thing. Chlorine exists. You bomb. Chlorine gets out there.

Stephen Shalom’s in-depth reconstruction of the controversy over the use or non-use of Sarin gas as an offensive weapon effectively demolishes Hersh’s claims.

Hersh also praises dictator Bashar al-Assad as someone with “integrity” because he never lied to Sy. As yet, Hersh has written nothing on Kurdish independence efforts, popular civilian and secular democratic resistance to both jihadist terrorists in the north and the Assadist regime now in control of most of Syria, and intent on seizing the land of many of the more than one million Syrians displaced by the fighting. The operative word “all” in I.F. Stone’s dictum that “all governments lie” means the US can’t be disparaged as the world’s lone malefactor.

Still, we internationalists who count Assad among the more despicable tyrants of the present age shouldn’t be too hard on Hersh. He can get it wrong, too. Yet throughout his career he’s shouldered a broad and brave consistency, adopting in effect what Orwell said so well in Homage to Catalonia: “Every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.” Hersh’s career is nothing if not a life lived working to take the media out of that grim equation.

Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor and political writer and a New Politics editorial board member.

Originally posted at Jacobin.
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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.



Feminisms of the Left-Nancy Holmstrom

Posted by admin On October - 24 - 2018 Comments Off on Feminisms of the Left-Nancy Holmstrom

This essay was originally a talk at the conference held at the New School for Social Research on April 21-22, 2016.

I like our panel’s title: “Feminisms of the Left.” There is a long and confusing collection of names for those who are both leftists and feminists: Marxist feminist, socialist feminist, materialist feminist, black feminist, feminist socialist, anarcho-feminist, and so on. And straddling the line between socialist and liberal feminists would be social-welfare feminists. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the heyday of the women’s liberation movement, when “feminism” was too tame a word, the mainstream feminists were social-welfare feminists. They supported abortion rights of course, and equal pay for equal work, as do all feminists, but they also supported public child care and welfare. Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine are examples. But the movement declined just as so many activists were moving into careers and families; American politics was moving rightward, into neoliberalism, and this general trend took mainstream feminism with it. So instead of collective social provision, we heard about individual responsibility and self-sufficiency. The Clintons’ welfare “reform” exemplifies this change—and Gloria Steinem’s support for Hillary Clinton, despite all that Clinton has done against the interests of the majority of women in the world, is a sad example of the rightward evolution of mainstream feminists.

There are still social-welfare feminists, of course, who should be included on the continuum of “feminists of the left,” though they are less explicitly anti-capitalist than the rest. Personally, though I am a Marxist, I usually choose the label “socialist feminist” to describe myself just because it is the most inclusive and is less likely to be misunderstood. As I define the term, all socialist feminists (whether they would identify with the label or not) see class as central to women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation. All socialist-feminist politics have an anti-capitalist edge, not merely anti-neoliberal capitalism. Parenthetically, as with any continuum, it is not always clear how to draw the lines. For example, Iris Young, whom I knew for decades, saw herself as a socialist feminist, as do I, but is included as a liberal feminist in an encyclopedia entry

Which word we choose to identify ourselves largely depends I think on the political context we’re in, and the debates in which we’re involved, as well as how we understand these categories. So the same label may not mean the same analysis, and different labels may not mean different analyses. For example, Margaret Benston was one of the first Marxists to analyze women’s domestic labor, back in 1969. She considered herself a Marxist, used Marxist categories, wrote in Monthly Review, and is described as a Marxist feminist, but in fact her analysis was more like that of feminists who were calling themselves “socialist feminist” in order to distinguish themselves from Marxists. Hilary Wainwright calls herself a feminist socialist rather than a socialist feminist to signal her interest in bringing insights from feminism into the socialist movement and into visions of socialism. She’s been arguing this since the 1970s and recently expressed her frustration that she still has to make the same argument.

Sometimes these different labels do signal different theoretical analyses of women’s oppression and capitalism—in particular, whether you believe that capitalism and patriarchy are two distinct, though intersecting, systems—or three, to accommodate racism as well. Or, alternatively, if  you believe that we live in one system, capitalism, that has various kinds of oppression, including sexism and racism, as constituent aspects of that system. But I have found over the years that these abstract differences don’t necessarily entail political differences, which are most important for social transformation.

Feminists of the left are involved in all kinds of struggles, not only those that are explicitly gendered. In some contexts one sort of issue may predominate, and rightly so, in others a different one. For example, women involved in Black Lives Matter organized Black Women’s Lives Matter because women had been left out of the picture. Given the realities of black women’s lives, black feminist theory is less likely to omit class issues than white feminist theory.

What defines socialist feminists is both the politics they articulate and the way they organize themselves and articulate those politics. It goes without saying that we support all struggles for women’s legal rights, but that is far from enough. Gender inequalities today are significantly less than class inequalities, as two recent sex-discrimination lawsuits reveal. In one, a woman who sold bonds at Morgan Stanley sued because her salary of over a million dollars a year was much lower than her male colleagues’; women at Walmart sued because their annual salary was $1,100 lower than the men’s, but the average pay for all Walmart employees is only $10 an hour. So the men’s salaries are pretty damned low too! And non-union Walmart is now the largest private employer in the United States—versus unionized General Motors not so long ago. It’s the struggles of working class women that socialist feminists focus on, whether the struggles are on the job, in the community, or wherever. Working class women’s struggles around the world exemplify certain core principles of socialist feminism, as Johanna Brenner and I discussed in the Socialist Register of 2012.

A core principle of socialist feminism is self-organization, the idea that, in Eleanor Marx’s words, women’s emancipation must come from themselves. But at the same time, they can’t do it alone, but only in coalition with others, so socialist feminists work to build inclusive movements, connecting workplace and community, waged and unwaged work, and caring labor recognized as labor. An excellent model of labor-community organizing is the Chicago Teachers Union work uniting the interests of teachers and parents. Public employees combining with those they serve is a huge step forward, something we’ve never heard from New York teachers. Similarly, I would like to see the transit workers unions reaching out to riders about common interests, like better staffing. Hilary Wainwright has several examples like this in her book Reclaim the State (Verso, 2003).

The paradigmatic gendered struggle for legal abortion was won in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, but socialist feminists pressed to go beyond an individual right to choose to include the material and social conditions necessary for women to have a genuine choice as to whether or not to have children. The concept of reproductive rights was developed in the late 1970s by socialist feminists with prodding from women of color who wanted protection against sterilization abuse along with the social changes that would support their decision to have children: child care, maternity leave, welfare, decent medical care, housing, and education. Reproductive rights pushes toward an anti-capitalist politics because unlike legal abortion, these challenge capitalist profits. We never won these in the United States, and where they were won, neoliberalism has brought continual attacks on these benefits.

In contrast, environmental struggles do not seem gendered. What could be more universal than the need for clean air and water? But this does not mean it is not a women’s issue. Just as women’s rights are human rights, as feminists have argued, so are human rights women’s rights. Feminists should not confine themselves to issues uniquely or primarily affecting women. Moreover, there is often some gender dimension even if it’s not explicit. The UN Population Fund says that women in developing countries are particularly impacted by climate change, directly because of the difficulty of meeting their families’ needs and indirectly by the wars engendered by scarce resources. Women are often the leaders of grassroots environmental movements, which socialist feminists strongly support, as they stress that the roots of the environmental crisis lie in capitalism’s inherent drive to expand production.

Sometimes it’s important to work with others who do not share all our left feminist values. La Via Campesina—the worldwide peasants movement—took a strong position opposing violence against women, which they defined in both interpersonal and structural terms. So that is very progressive and quite different from the conservative “law and order” approach of much anti-gender-violence work. But La Via Campesina at the outset was not comfortable with issues of sexual freedom, abortion, and LGBT rights. Working together, however, with the World March of Women, their position has evolved.

The same conflict can arise in the United States when we are involved in economic struggles with people who are more conservative socially. In Chicago the movement against school closings brought together a diverse group, including gay socialist feminists and black community activists, not all of whom supported gay rights. Rather than tackle their differences directly, they worked in solidarity, recognizing that the parents should be in the leadership of the struggle. Over time, that kind of solidarity is the best way to overcome distrust and change minds.

Another way one can advance struggles from a feminist point of view is to pay attention to the structure and process of the groups in which one works. Differences of power and privilege along sex or gender lines are particularly intimate and subtle. So transforming this power requires the transformation of ourselves and our relationships—an insight associated with the women’s liberation movement. One way to address this problem is to allow—or better yet, to encourage—women’s caucuses, whether in unions, social movements, or left groups. In Occupy, despite their focus on horizontal process, the idea of separate spaces for women and people of color met some resistance, which is sad. Leftists should note that more than one hundred years ago, Marx and Luxemburg supported organizing men and women both together and separately. After the Russian Revolution when Alexandra Kollontai was in the government and women were organized independently within the Communist Party, women won all kinds of gains and prevented women’s jobs from being given automatically to returning soldiers rather than allocated according to need.

In the United States today, there is a new openness to socialism. From Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the Sanders campaign, to new labor organizing, we begin to see the possibility of a new radical left. A key strategic question for that emerging movement is whether the insights of socialist feminism will be brought into the center of its politics.


What Is the Secret to the Success of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-MILAN VAISHNAV

Posted by admin On October - 14 - 2018 Comments Off on What Is the Secret to the Success of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-MILAN VAISHNAV

One political party dominates the world’s largest democracy. Why has India’s BJP has become so powerful?


The BJP is a Hindu nationalist political party in India that believes that Hinduism and Indian national identity are more or less synonymous.

For many in the party, Indian culture is quite simply Hindu culture. Given that Hindus make up 80 percent of the country’s population, BJP members believe India is fundamentally a Hindu rashtra (nation). Although there is a great variety of opinion within the party, its core philosophy of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) has often been criticized for being anti-minority in nature.

The party’s current incarnation dates back to 1980, but it was the natural successor to an earlier political party known as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was formed after independence. The Jan Sangh, as it was known, in turn built on an earlier tradition of Hindu revivalist movements, whose roots date back to the British Raj.
The BJP, of course, represents more than just Hindu nationalism. It also espouses a muscular foreign policy and national security posture. It is generally more pro-business than most of India’s political parties, which tend to be left of center.

Like any big-tent party, it is hardly a monolith. You will find internationalists, isolationists, libertarians, and nationalists all residing under the general umbrella of the BJP.


The BJP came to power in the 2014 general election, when India was in the midst of an economic downturn. The ruling Indian National Congress, or Congress Party, was beleaguered by massive corruption allegations, slowing economic growth, rampant inflation, and a pervasive sense of “policy paralysis.”

The BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, cast himself as the right man in the right place at the right time. For more than a dozen years, Modi had served as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, which had enjoyed high growth and a reputation as an investment-friendly destination under his tenure.

Modi’s pitch to the electorate was quite simple: make him prime minister and he would do to India what he did to Gujarat. It did not hurt that he was a gifted public speaker with a compelling life story, having been born into a backward caste family of modest means.

Since 2014, Modi has been able to reshape the party in his own mold. He has drawn on his aspirational agenda to expand the party’s electoral footprint at the state level as well.

Today, the BJP and its allies control twenty of India’s twenty-nine states. That is more than double the number it ran four years ago. For comparison’s sake, its archrival, the Congress Party, runs just three states today.

But the party’s success cannot be reduced to Modi’s popularity alone. Under his watch, the BJP has also strengthened its electoral operations, engineered broad-based social coalitions, and struck useful alliances with smaller regional parties. All of this has improved its stature across India.


The BJP is distinct from other political parties in India in at least two ways.

First, there is the issue of Hindutva. Most Indian political parties are avowedly secular, in that they believe no one religion should be advantaged over any another.

In India, secularism means that the government maintains an equal embrace of, and equal distance from, all religious traditions. It does not mean a strict separation of church and state, as it does in the United States and Europe.

Recently, the appeal of secular parties has dimmed, as there is a perception that they have cynically used minority groups like Muslims as “vote banks,” rather than treating them as genuine political constituencies. Some on the right have also accused secular parties of catering to minorities, at the expense of the majority Hindu population.

The BJP makes no bones about its belief that it principally serves the interest of India’s Hindus. Within the party, there is a great deal of variation in terms of what this means in practice. There are those who are fundamentally anti-minority; those who want to see a more level playing field among faith communities (when it comes to things like subsidies and welfare); and those who are somewhere in between.

The second perceived difference is on economics. The BJP has traditionally espoused more pro-business policies than its competitors, who prefer a more center-left, social democratic posture. When in opposition, it criticized many of the Congress Party’s key social welfare schemes as being too costly and socialist.

However, since it came to power, the party has doubled down on nearly every such scheme.

In practice, the economic differences between the BJP and the Congress are probably overstated. Most political parties in India share what Indian economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia once called a “strong consensus for weak reforms.”


The BJP’s current single-party majority in the lower house of parliament actually represents a break with the past— or, at least, the previous twenty-five years before it came to power in 2014.

It is true that between 1952 and 1989, India was a one-party dominant system led by the hegemonic Congress Party. The Congress Party benefited from the reservoir of goodwill it inherited as the party that helped India achieve independence from Great Britain. It was a catchall party that prided itself on its pan-Indian footprint and multi-ethnic, cross-class composition.
With the exception of the period between 1977 and 1979—when a coalition of opposition parties briefly displaced the Congress in the wake of anti-democratic Emergency Rule imposed by the Congress Party under former prime minister Indira Gandhi—the Congress Party reliably formed the government in New Delhi.

But between 1989 and 2014, no single party was strong enough to form a government on its own, without the help of myriad coalition allies. Most analysts believed that coalition politics was here to stay—until the BJP’s electoral victory in 2014.

The 2014 result, in many ways, marked a break with the patterns of electoral competition that had prevailed for at least a quarter century.


What is unusual about the BJP is that it is not simply a political party. It is the political expression of a family of Hindu nationalist organizations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar.

The ideological guiding force of the Sangh is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is a volunteer service organization made up of individuals driven by a common desire to unite Hindus under the aegis of a Hindu rashtra.

The Sangh’s constituent units range from a farmers’ union, to a women’s wing, to a nonprofit charged with bringing education to India’s most disadvantaged groups living in rural areas.

The RSS is arguably India’s largest nongovernmental organization, and it serves as a mentor to the BJP cadres.


One has to separate the BJP government’s record into at least three categories: economics, foreign policy, and social issues.

In terms of economics, I would say the government gets credit for instituting a number of reforms that have modernized the Indian economy. For instance, the government ushered in the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which helps to unify India’s fragmented network of indirect taxes. It has also put in place a new bankruptcy and insolvency code, which for the first time has established an orderly process for firms to exit the marketplace if they go belly up.

In my view, however, the government could and should have done more to fundamentally reset the balance between the state and private capital, which for too long has been tilted in favor of the former.
For instance, India is home to hundreds of state-owned enterprises, many of which lose money and are a severe drain on the treasury. When it comes to core sectors of the economy—from agriculture to banking—there is far too much red tape. Modi had a once-in-a-generation mandate to tackle these problems plaguing India’s political economy, but his government has preferred (in their own words) a strategy of “persistent and creative incrementalism.”

I think foreign policy has been one of the relative bright spots for the BJP government. It has broadened and deepened India’s relations with the United States in very productive ways, especially when it comes to defense cooperation. The Modi government has also spent a fair amount of political capital building diplomatic and economic bridges to the country’s east, in order to forge closer ties with the economically dynamic countries of Southeast and East Asia.

But it is on the social side that I have the greatest concern. In several instances, Hindu majoritarianism has whipped up social tensions in India. This has detracted from an agenda of inclusive growth and development. The BJP’s 2014 election slogan was “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas” (together with all, development for all). Creating new social divisions is fundamentally at odds with that mantra.
—–Milan Vaishnav

Vaishnav’s primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior
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The dawn of our liberation: The early days of the International Communist Women’s Movement-Daria Dyakonova

Posted by admin On October - 14 - 2018 Comments Off on The dawn of our liberation: The early days of the International Communist Women’s Movement-Daria Dyakonova


Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentaries — On July 30, [1920] in the evening, slender columns of women workers wearing red kerchiefs and holding banners make their way to the Bolshoi Theater from remote districts and outskirts of Moscow. The slogans on the banners run: ‘Through the dictatorship of the proletariat in all countries to the full emancipation of women.’

“A chorus of women’s voices singing the International is heard in the streets of Moscow. Moscow proletarian women are joyfully marching to the opening of the First International Conference of Communist Women at the Bolshoi Theater. Foreign visitors are also joining in.

“By eight o’clock in the evening the theater is packed. Parterre and tiers are occupied by women workers. The stage is occupied by delegates from Germany, France, England, America, Mexico, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Latvia, Bulgaria, India, Georgia, Caucasus and Turkestan.”[2]

This is how revolutionary women described the opening of their first conference held in Moscow in July 1920. Twenty-one women representing 19 countries gathered that month to discuss women’s issues in the framework of the Second Congress of the Communist International (or the Comintern). The Comintern had been founded a year earlier, on Vladimir Lenin’s initiative, to replace a (Second) Socialist International which had discredited itself by militarist and nationalist policies during the World War I.

Women’s emancipation had long been an important point of socialist agenda. The Comintern’s program included total equality of rights of men and women in law and practice, integration of women into political life, free education and medical care for women, social measures to ease the burden of housework and childcare, and measures to do away with the sexual double standard for men and women.

Communism and feminism: partners, rivals or a unity?
Although the studies of the Comintern’s gender policies remain rare, many authoritative voices in western academia have tended to dismiss communist and especially Soviet policies toward women, as “largely inconsequential lip-service.”[3] The same dismissive attitude towards the gains of international communist women’s movement is largely present in scholarly contributions on socialist/communist women’s movements. Liberal feminists of the Cold War era as well as some more recent commentators highlighted that after the World War 2 women’s movements in socialist countries as well as allied international women’s organizations (such as Women’s International Democratic Federation and its American affiliate, the Congress of American Women) mobilized their memberships primarily to serve Party goals rather than mobilize the Party to serve women. The same scholars, by contrast, stressed the autonomous agency and political neutrality supposedly found in Western non-socialist feminist organizations.[4]

Socialist feminists in turn have insisted on important shortcomings of classic Marxist theory’s gender agenda: chiefly its inability to incorporate the centrality of the gender division of labour in all spheres and the lack of concern with sexuality and reproduction questions. It has also been argued that attempts so far to interweave socialist feminist critiques of classic Marxist theory and the history of the movements and political entities that tried to bring it into life remain inadequate.[5]

New and growing scholarship has recently nuanced and modified these interpretations, criticizing the reinforcement (after 1989) of the triumphalist Cold War paradigm. These new contributions posited that “liberal feminists underestimated the extent to which the program of women’s emancipation was a fundamental component of the overall communist program for rapid modernization,” which communist/socialist women believed was the best path to women’s autonomy.[6] It was argued that communist women working in state women’s and international socialist organizations strategically aligned their programs with larger Communist Party goals, seeing such policy as more efficient than using the so-called bourgeois feminist methods. This alignment resulted in significant achievements for women in terms of legal equality and family law, education, and formal labour participation, especially if one compares culturally similar socialist and non-socialist countries at similar stages of economic development. Finally, this scholarship stimulated the re-thinking of the origins of the so-called ”Second Wave Feminism,” suggesting that they were more diverse and complex than the received narrative allowed.[7]

This paper adopts this latter perspective to study the early days of the international Communist Women’s Movement (CWM). [8] It will focus on three points in particular: the CWM’s ideas on women’s emancipation (including the issue of housework and gender division of labour, reproduction, and childcare); relationship with non-communist women’s movements; and the problematic relationship with male comrades.

The First Conference of Communist women: A program for women’s emancipation
Unlike the Communist Youth International, which was organisationally independent of the Comintern, structures for Communist women were integrated into Communist parties. At the First Conference of Communist Women it was decided, however, to establish within parties special agitation institutions for women (to which men could belong as well), which were to coordinate work by local women’s committees on a branch level. By 1922 almost all European countries did indeed set up party structures for work among women.

Within the Comintern, an International Women’s Secretariat (IWS) associated with its Executive Committee was established, with headquarters first in Berlin and later in Moscow. A member of the IWS was also a member of the Comintern’s Executive. From the start the Women’s Secretariat underlined its transnational character and urged the exchange of experience and information among different countries. This was to be achieved through annual meetings of Communist women and through the publication of an international monthly magazine Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (Communist Women’s International), published until 1926.

In practice, however, international ties and exchange of information and experience developed slowly. In 1921 at the Second Conference of Communist Women, the outstanding German Communist women’s leader Clara Zetkin pointed to the Secretariat’s loose international ties due to the disorganisation of the railways in Europe, the difficulty of maintaining personal connections and the hostile political climate.[9]

The First Conference of Communist Women set up a commission to write the “Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement,” which Clara Zetkin drafted. The “Theses” highlighted that the “full social equality with men in reality and actual fact and not just on the passive pages of dead law books was to be achieved through the abolishment of private property and the integration of the activity of women into the “social production of a new order free of exploitation and subjugation.”[10]

The “Theses” also defined the more specific tasks of the CWM, depending on where the work was to be done: in socialist, capitalist, or pre-capitalist countries. One of the important points was the transformation of housekeeping – “the most backward, deformed, and stultifying of the old guild handicrafts” – into a social industry. Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent Russian women’s rights fighter, wrote in this connection in 1920: “The individual household is dying. It is giving way in our society to collective housekeeping. Instead of the working woman cleaning her flat, the communist society can arrange for men and women whose job it is to go round in the morning cleaning rooms.”[11] The idea was not very new. It was, however, the first time that the issue of housekeeping and labour division appeared as a crucial point of a socialist program for women’s liberation. In the nascent Soviet state housework was recognized as major means of women’s subordination, and the idea of creation of public amenities offering different kinds of services (children’s day care, public kitchens, canteens, communal laundries and cleaning facilities, clothes-mending centres, etc.) seemed to be taken seriously. For women in capitalist and pre-capitalist countries the “Theses” suggested striving for establishment of such institutions. In this way the Communist program put the women’s question in the very centre of the socialist project, underlining that women’s emancipation was not only the consequence but the very goal of socialist transformation. [12]

Communist women and bourgeois feminists
Communist women underlined their class identity in quite firm terms: the 1920s conference’s “Theses” stated that “the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement have proved incapable of securing full rights and humanity for the whole of womenkind as these aimed merely at reforming the capitalist order for the benefit of wives and daughters of the possessing classes.”[13] This, however, did not mean that the Communist women were against all cooperation with non-proletarian women’s movements.

One of the bourgeois feminists’ demands that Communists saw as controversial, at least for a certain period of time, was that of universal suffrage. Initially some were suspicious of bourgeois feminists’ demands for universal right to vote.  Revolutionary Marxists in the Second International, although they unconditionally supported universal suffrage since 1889, opposed the reforms that would extend voting rights only to privileged women – given the property requirements associated with the right to vote that denied vote to both men and women of lower social classes. They also did not view suffrage as a heal-all that would complete women’s emancipation. Thus in 1908 Alexandra Kollontai pointed out that “for the feminists the achievement of equal rights with men within the framework of the contemporary capitalist world [was] a concrete ‘end in itself’; for proletarian women equal rights [was] merely a means to be used in the continuing struggle against the economic enslavement of the working class.” [14] By 1917 support for suffrage proved ultimately unifying, in particular in the Russian context. Kollontai then advocated granting women equal voting rights in more unequivocal terms stressing that this would complete the revolution.[15]

Communist women were ready to cooperate with bourgeois feminists in other fields as well. They openly recognized the importance of many of feminists’ demands and achievements. The “Theses” admitted that “carrying through these [bourgeois] demands, of course, entails a fundamental change – and one not to be underestimated – namely, that bourgeois society and its state officially abandon the old prejudice about inferiority of the female sex and recognize women’s social equality with equal right.” [16] Non-Communist feminists themselves in the early 1920s interest expressed in communist ideas on “women’s question” and were ready to promote them. This was the case of the revolutionary Women’s Union of Holland and a number of feminist newspapers in France. [17] In Canada the idea materialized in the foundation in 1924 of the Canadian Federation of Women’ Labour Leagues (CFWLL) where Communist Women actively collaborated with non-Communist activists. Communist Women in Canada were also active in a number of women’s sections of organizations based on ethnic and linguistic communities, such as the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA). Memberships of such organizations had diverse left viewpoints and raised women’s agendas that were not always considered important by the CP leadership. Moreover, throughout the 1920s they followed the united front policy of cooperation with certain labour, women’s and farmers’ organizations that were “reformist” in nature.[18] In Germany the Red Women and Girls’ League (Roter Frauen und Mädchen Bund) was set up in late 1925 to broaden the female working-class constituency. The League succeeded in recruiting women who were reluctant to join the KPD by politicizing issues that working-class women faced in their daily lives, such as the prices of everyday women’s wages, welfare, and reproductive rights.[19] This latter issue was an important point of CWM’s agenda.

Motherhood as a shared responsibility
The First Conference’s “Theses” stressed that it was only the “old petty-bourgeois, reactionary ideology” that saw giving birth and taking care of children as the “only true natural calling” of women, thus attributing an inferior role to them.[20] Although Communist women obviously wanted to dissociate themselves from this traditional vision of women’s role in procreation and upbringing of children, the “Theses” did not elaborate the question of reproductive rights and the issue of abortion. This does not mean, however, that communist women did not pay attention to this question. In 1920 the Soviet government legalized abortions. The IWS followed up by circulating Soviet literature on abortion among Communist women’s sections outside Russia.[21]

A theoretical framework for Communists’ ideas on reproduction and motherhood was first defined by August Bebel. It was later developed by Alexandra Kollontai who published in 1916 her 600-page Society and Motherhood. Kollontai saw childbearing as a social responsibility, shared between the family and society.[22] Her idea was that not only the mother (or the family) but also the socialized institutions should take care of the children’s physical and psychological well-being, from infancy. Communist women, following the Soviet example where 1918 decrees legally protected motherhood and established socialized child care,[23] integrated this idea into the First Conference’s “Theses”: the state was to facilitate a harmonious combination of motherhood with employment through setting up welfare institutions to protect maternity, children, and youth.[24]

Given the demographic context of the post-World War I era and the fact that birth control was then advocated by many as a means for population control and eugenics, Communist women resisted attempts to stigmatize women for having either too few or too many children. They saw abortion as necessary so long as society was unable to guarantee the material means for a prosperous and happy childhood for all.[25] This did not prevent them from protesting against anti-abortion laws, which they did in France and (even) in Italy of the early 1920s. In Germany Communist women led a campaign against anti-abortion legislation under the quite ahead-of-its-time slogan “Your body belongs to you.” In Denmark they set up the Working Women’s Information Bureau, which made the information on birth control available to women. In Canada, where abortion was then illegal, Communists joined with non-Communist women to demand the de-criminalization of fertility control and establishment of “Mothers Clinics,” which would provide information on contraception and free contraceptives. These initiatives often had a grassroots character, springing up independently of the IWS.[26]

Women and men in the Comintern and Communist parties
Research on the Comintern’s women – scarce as it is – has noted the de-radicalisation of the CWM from mid to late 1920s. It has been argued that by the end of the decade the movement’s aim was no longer the advancement of women but their mobilization for the advancement of the Comintern.[27] The movement indeed became weaker as the IWS was downgraded from an autonomous body to a department of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. The weakening and subsequent de-radicalization has been attributed to the rise of the Stalinist system in the USSR, the domination of the Soviet CP within the international communist movement, and also the increasing centralisation of the Comintern’s apparatus.[28]

These interpretations, certainly, reveal important truths as regards the history of the CWM. By mid-1930s the CPSU indeed would become a major (although not omnipotent) decision-maker within the Comintern. Simultaneously in the Soviet Union the old conservatism would revive and bring about significant retreats as far as women’s rights are concerned – the most important of which was the decision – even though not irreversible – to re-criminalize abortion (1936). Even though the Soviet retreat was not omnipresent and, arguably, did not prevent “the emergence of novel and unconventional gender configurations during the 1930s,”[29] it did affect Communist movement worldwide – although to varying degrees in different countries. These interpretations, however, appear to overlook another important factor of the CWM’s decline – the male chauvinism and resistance of Communist men – both leaders and rank and file – to female activism within the CPs.

Such attitude on the part of male comrades was one of the questions that communist women discussed at their first conference in Moscow. According to the French delegate, within the pre-war socialist movements male workers were seen to “manifest not only indifference but even hostility towards the matter of women workers’ organization.” The Danish delegate then posited that “male workers were not eager to involve their female comrades into social and political life, but preferred to see their wives as keepers of hearth and home.”[30] Similar attitudes – chauvinism in private life – were not infrequent within the Communist movement.

Clara Zetkin was then well aware of such tendencies. In 1921 she pointed out that “leaders all too often underrated the importance” of the CWM, because “they [saw] it as only ‘women’s business’.”[31] Zetkin stressed that “in most countries, the gains of the movement [CWM] have been achieved without support from the Communist Party, indeed in some instances against its open or hidden opposition.” At the same time Zetkin inferred that chauvinistic attitudes were more characteristic of national parties’ male memberships rather then of the Comintern’s Executive, which by contrast, “provided moral, political, and financial resources to sustain the efforts in each country to gather the Communist women in the parties.”[32]

The situation was not of course the same everywhere. The achievements of Communist women in different countries were uneven. During the 1920s, Communist Parties of northern and eastern Europe appeared to significantly increase their female memberships, while in France, Spain, and Italy women continued to represent less than 10 % of members.[33] However, even this proportion was high compared to women’s penetration of bourgeois politics at that time, or compared to women’s presence in the Comintern’s pre-1919 parties, some of which had no women at all.

Despite the Comintern’s equality discourse, the project was unable to escape the impact of a retreat on women’s emancipation in the Soviet Union and to fully overcome chauvinist pressures tending to exclude women from the revolutionary movement

To sum up, the CWM, despite some shortcomings, marked a historical advance, particularly regarding the interaction of women’s liberation and revolution.

Although the CWM firmly linked the struggle for the liberation of women with the emancipation of the working class, it recognized that radicalization among women was present in all social layers. The revolutionary women thus favoured cooperation with non-Communist currents among women on such issues as universal suffrage and reproductive rights.

Communist women leaders became prominent political actors and, in this capacity, together with men, contributed significantly to revolutionary struggle. In addition, the international network of Communist women also fought for a number of specific measures that concerned only women. Such gains were seen as steps towards, not merely as the result of, the socialist transformation of society.

This text is based on a talk given by Daria Dyakonova in a French-language panel, “L’aurore de notre libération” at “The Great Transition: Preparing a World Beyond Capitalism” in Montreal May 20, 2018. Other panel participants were Aziz Fall, Ameth Lô, and John Riddell.

For the other presentations given in this panel, see “The Long March to Post-Capitalist Transition: Pan-Africanist Perspectives” (Ameth Lô) and “The League against Imperialism: An Early Attempt at Global Anti-Colonial Unity”


[1] Inessa Armand quoted in Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Aleksandra Kollontai (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979), 155.

[2] Alexandra Kollontai and Polina Vinogradskaia (eds.), Otchet o pervoi mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii kommunistok [Report on the First International Conference of Communist Women]. Moscow: Gosizdatelstvo, 1921, 19-20.

[3] Anna Krylova, “Bolshevik Feminism and Gender Agendas of Communism” in Silvio Pons, Stephen A. Smith (eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism, Vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 425.

[4] See for example Barbara Wolfe Jancar, Women under Communism, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978; Funk, Nanette and Magda Mueller (1993), Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, New York: Routledge; Brunnbauer, Ulf (2009); “‘The Most Natural Function of Women.’ Ambiguous Party Policies and Female Experiences in Socialist Bulgaria,” in Gender Politics and Everyday Life in State Socialist Eastern and Central Europe, New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Einhorn, Barbara (2010), “Mass Dictatorship and Gender Politics: Is the Outcome Predictable?” in J. Lim et al. (eds.) Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship, Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 34-62; Partridge, Damani (2012), Hypersexuality and Headscarves: Race, Sex and Citizenship in the New Germany, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[5] Sonia Kruks, Rayna Rapp, and Marilyn Young (eds). Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989, Introduction, 8. For Marxist feminist critiques see also Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: toward a Unitary Theory, Leiden: Brill, 2013; Sharon Smith, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation, Chicago: Haymarket, 2012.

[6] Kristen Ghodsee, “State-Socialist Women’s Organization in Cold War Perspective. Revisiting the work of Maxine Molyneux.” Aspasia, (10, 2016): 111-121, 115.

[7] Haan Francisca de (2010), “Continuing Cold War Paradigms in the Western Historiography of Transnational Women’s Organisations: The Case of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF),” Women’s History Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 547-573, 564-565.

[8] The name (Communist Women’s Movement) was not an official term and is rarely used in Comintern’s documents. But this was how women comrades commonly spoke of it, see for example John Riddell. ed. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden: Brill, 2012, 838.

[9] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921.

[10] John Riddell. ed. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, vol 2, 977-978.

[11] Kollontai, Alexandra. “Communism and the Family” (1920) in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, edited by Alix Holt. London: Allison & Busy, 1977.

[12] Elizabeth Waters, “In the Shadow of the Comintern: the Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1943” in Sonia Kruks; Rayna R Reiter; Marilyn Blatt Young, eds. Promissory Notes : Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York, Monthly Review Press: 1989, 32-33.

[13] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 978.

[14] See Kollontai, Introduction to The Social Basis of the Women’s Question. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1908/social-basis.htm

[15]Goldberg Ruthchild, Rochelle. “Misbehaving women and the Russian Revolutions of 1917”, ASEEES blog: International Women’s day, March 17, 2017.

[16] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 978.

[17] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921; Waters, 36.

[18] See Margarett Hobbs and Joanne Sangster (eds.), The Woman Worker, 1926-1929, St. John’s, Nfld.: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1999.

[19] See “Second International Conference of Communist Women,” Report of Session of June 12, Published in Moscow, June 15, 1921, Sewell, 268-269.

[20] Riddell, Workers of the World, 983.

[21] “Second International Conference of Communist Women,”June 9 session, published in Moscow, June 11, 1921.

[22] A. Kollontai, “Vvedenie” in Obshchestvo i materinstvo, in Marksistskii Feminizm. Kollektsiia tekstov A.M. Kollontai (Tver: Feminist Press-Rossia, 2003), 130-32, quoted in Anna Krylova, “Bolshevik Feminism and Gender Agendas of Communism,” in The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, 1917-1941, edited by Silvio Pons, Stephen A. Smith, 424-448, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 431.

[23] The 1918 Labour Code provided at least one paid 30-minute break every three hours to feed a baby. The maternity insurance program decreed a fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing brakes and factory rest facilities for working mothers, free pre- and post-natal care and allowances. At the same time the 1918 Family Code forbade adoption in the belief that the state would provide better care for an orphan than an individual family. See И.Я.Киселев, Трудовое право России, Москва, 2001 (http://www.hist.msu.ru/Labour/Law/kodex_18.htm#f1 – retrieved April 18, 2018); Сажина Н. С. “Социальная политика в отношении материнства и детства в первые годы советской власти” // Вестник БГУ. 2013. №2. URL: https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/sotsialnaya-politika-v-otnoshenii-materinstva-i-detstva-v-pervye-gody-sovetskoy-vlasti (retrieved April 18, 2018); Wendy Z. Goldman. Women, the State and Revolution. Cambridge, GBR : Cambridge University Press, 1993, 52.

[24] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 989.

[25] Waters, 41; John Riddell. “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-1926),” June 12, 2011.

[26] Margarett Hobbs and Joanne Sangster, eds. The Woman Worker, 217-222 ; Waters, 41-42.

[27] Waters, 51.

[28] See for example Waters, Studer and Bernhard H. Bayerlein.

[29] Krylova, Soviet women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 23

[30] Kollontai and Vinogradskaia (eds.). Otchet, 61.

[31] Kommunistische Fraueninternationale, vol. 1, no. 2–3 (1921), p. 55 quoted in Riddell, John. “The Communist Women’s Movement (1921-1926).”

[32] See Sewell, Sara Ann. “Bolshevizing Communist Women: the Red Women and Girls’ League in Weimar Germany,” Central European History, 45:2 (2012).

[33] In the USSR the CPSU had 14% of women; Germany – 16,5 % ; Czechoslovakia – 24 % in 1929; France – 3%-4% in 1924; Italy – 1%-2% between 1921 and 1925. See Sewell, 280 ; Brigitte Studer. The Transnational World of the Cominternians. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 48; Christine Bard, and Jean-Louis Robert. “The French Communist Party and Women, 1920-1939,” 323 and Mary Gibson. “Women and the Left in the Shadow of Fascism in Interwar Italy,” 398 in Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, Women and Socialism/ Socialism and Women. New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998; Gibson, 398.


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Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism-Rjurik Davidson

Posted by admin On October - 7 - 2018 Comments Off on Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism-Rjurik Davidson







Between Como and confinement: Gramsci’s early Leninism

Written by Rjurik Davidson
Part One: Active or Passive Marxism?

A decisive confrontation



In May 1924, near the small town of Como, close to the border of Italy and Switzerland, the two great figures of early Italian communism faced each other at a meeting of the Parti Communista d’Italia (PCI) leadership.

On the one side stood Amadeo Bordiga, the dominant personality in the early years of the PCI. Bordiga was a charismatic man of uncommon drive and confidence, traits that made him a natural leader. For three years, since the party’s foundation in 1921, Bordiga had been its unofficial head. His policies had been outlined in the “Rome Theses”, provisionally adopted at the previous party conference, which emphasised separation of the communist party from all other currents.

For Bordiga, the Socialist Party (PSI) was as execrable as Mussolini’s fascists. The task, as he saw it, was to tear away the PSI’s support by strictly counterposing the communist current to them. In particular, he was against any fusion with the Third International (Terzini) socialists, the left wing of the PSI who claimed adherence to the policies of the Comintern. Indeed, the Third International had been promoting a merger between the groups for some time, but Bordiga was against it. As his Rome Theses argued, “the aggregation to the party of other parties or parts detached from parties…does not bring with it an ensemble of elements that can be effectively assimilated en bloc; on the contrary, it impairs the solidity of the old party’s political position…”[1]

Bordiga’s opponent at the Como conference, Antonio Gramsci, had been the pre-eminent leader of a group from Turin (which included other celebrated figures, Palmiro Togliatti, Umberto Terracini and Angelo Tasca), who had been centrally involved in the factory council movement of 1919-20. A small, hunchbacked man with an immense capacity for work despite his constant struggles with ill health, Gramsci had made his name as a gifted writer of iconoclastic articles that theorised the councils, especially for the newspaper he had edited during the “red years”, Ordine Nuovo. Even at this early stage, his polemical style had a kind of involution to it and often offered strikingly fresh formulations, indicative of his highly original way of seeing the world.[2]

Never entirely content with Bordiga’s leadership, Gramsci had for a year been reconstituting the leadership of the PCI around new policies. He had constructed a new “Centre” against Bordiga’s “Left” and the party’s “Right” led by Angelo Tasca. When the fascists had arrested Bordiga and up to 5,000 mid-level party activists in 1923,[3] Gramsci had assumed de facto leadership of the party and a new executive had been appointed under the direction of the Third International. Under Gramsci’s leadership, the PCI ran a joint list called Unità proletaria with the Terzini in April 1924, a month before the Como conference.[4] The PCI acquired thirteen seats in parliament and the Terzini five – a vindication of Gramsci’s new line.[5]

Now in an alberghetto (inn) in a secluded mountain valley near Como, Gramsci faced his first important party gathering, a consultative conference where the new leadership would explain its position and defend the resolution proposed for the conference (and opposed by resolutions from both the Left and Right groupings). Gramsci had the floor and tension must have crackled through the audience as he spoke, for he was facing the mid-level leaders, most of whom supported Bordiga. Sixty-seven officials attended, including 46 secretaries of the regional federations.[6] Bordiga himself was present, having been acquitted of the government’s charges against him. After his release, he had refused to rejoin the party’s leading bodies: the changes in political line and the composition of the new leadership were anathema to him.

In his quiet, reedy voice, Gramsci calmly assessed the state of the party and outlined the development of the Centre of which he was the leader. The Ordine Nuovo group had always allied with the party’s Left against the Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. But the situation in Italy had changed in recent years, he explained:

In 1919 and 1920, the whole working population – from the white collar workers to the North and the capital to the peasants of the South – was following, albeit unconsciously, the general movement of the industrial proletariat. Today the situation has changed, and only through a long, slow process of political reorganization will the proletariat be able to return to being the dominant factor in the situation. We consider that this work cannot be carried out, if we continue to follow the orientation which comrade Bordiga would like the party to continue to follow… [I]t is undeniable that our movement lacks the support of the majority of the proletariat.[7]

At this point, Bordiga called out: “We would have it, if we had not changed our tactics towards the Socialist Party! In any case, we are in no hurry”.

Gramsci replied: “Well we are in a hurry. There are situations in which ‘not being in a hurry’ leads to defeat”.[8]

For Bordiga, the essential thing was the clear separation of the communist party from all competing forces. The revolutionary movement would inevitably bring the working class into action, at which point the party would be ready. Bordiga’s position on this had always been consistent.[9]

In Gramsci’s eyes, this was an apocalyptic approach with theoretical roots in a mechanical Marxism, a kind of inversion of the Second International’s theoretical outlook, in which socialism was an inevitability.[10] But nothing would happen automatically, Gramsci believed. “Predestination does not exist for individuals, and even less does it do so for parties”, he wrote during this period.[11] During the “red years”, the Socialist Party had adopted a purely verbal “revolutionism” but didn’t carry out any action, and was thus chiefly responsible for the defeat of the factory occupations in 1919 and 1920. What difference, Gramsci asked in another article, “would there be between us and the Socialist Party if we too…abandoned ourselves to fatalism? If we cherished the sweet illusion that events cannot fail to unfold according to a fixed line of development (the one foreseen by us), in which they will inevitably find the system of dykes and canals which we have prepared for them, be channelled by this system and take historical form and power in it?”[12]

For Gramsci, people had always made their own history, and Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, which emphasised the active side of Marxism, remained touchstones for him. Gramsci thus emerged from a different tradition from that of the Second International, laced as it was with positivism and evolutionism. Indeed, his intellectual horizons were formed not by Kautsky or Plekhanov, but rather by the giants of Italian Hegelianism, Croce and Gentile, the original philosopher of “praxis” Antonio Labriola, and the French anarchist Georges Sorel.[13] Like his philosophical sibling, Georg Lukács, Gramsci adopted a critique of bourgeois science and a humanism fundamentally at odds with the scientism of the Second International. “The tenacious will of man has replaced natural law, the preordained order of things of the pseudo-scientists”, he wrote in his early Crocean phase.[14] The theoretical consequences of this philosophical lineage are clear. In Gramsci, we rarely read of the laws of history that we might find in the work of Leon Trotsky, for example (indeed, it was for the “mechanical” elements in his Marxism that Gramsci would later criticise the Russian leader).[15]

The danger of such a position is, of course, subjectivism (evident in Gramsci’s early analyses of the Russian Revolution, his famous article on the revolution “against Capital” and a second on “The Russian Utopia”).[16] Yet if Gramsci’s early Crocean writings flirted with subjectivism, by the time the factory council movement of 1919-1920 had been defeated, he had altered his focus. He cleverly inverted the terms of his position – maintaining the active element as the primary theoretical component – and began to ask, if they are capable of it, why don’t people make their own history? This in turn led him to questions about the forms and institutions through which bourgeois hegemony is constructed, one of his lasting concerns. From then on, he reintegrated the subjective into a new notion of the objective, and it became a central part of a study of a complex totality.[17]

However one conceives of this emphasis on the active element, all those committed to a practical politics must accept an emphasis on it – even if it is mediated by structural elements – because it is the precondition of political strategy: all strategy depends on the belief that groups and collectives can intervene with definite effects. Indeed, Gramsci believed this outlook was essential for the PCI if it were to make the transition between an organisation of propaganda and agitation to a mass party of action. As Togliatti was to say later, Gramsci’s group was able to make “real qualitative progress in their ability both to understand objective situations, national and international, and to apply to these situations not only propaganda and agitation, but genuine political action” [my emphasis].[18]

Part Two: The Complexities of Strategy

The Third International and the geo-politics of strategy

Gramsci’s decision to work with the Terzini was a part of his acceptance of the policies of the Third International, as elaborated by their early congresses and which was later codified as Leninism. In this sense, Leninism is the strategy of building an organisation of militants, which would act as a vanguard of a differentiated and stratified working class. This party would struggle against all cases of oppression, no matter who was suffering, and in so doing win the hegemony of the class and its allies. Yet because working class consciousness was uneven and often found itself caught in the cul-de-sacs of capitalist ideology, a complex political strategy composed of variegated tactics was required. At some point during this process, a revolutionary upsurge would produce a situation of dual power, in which the masses would forge their own state, likely in the form of workers’ councils, break apart the old state and construct their own in its place.[19]

Endorsing these policies, Gramsci applied it in his own specific mode of reasoning, with his own particular inflections and emphases. Within certain limits, he extended the theory and developed a “Gramscian Leninism”, which would form the basis of many of the themes he later developed and which appear in the Prison Notebooks.

Gramsci had been won to Leninism when he had been the Italian representative in Russia from 1922-1923. There he had participated in the day-to-day running of the Third International, attended meetings of the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI), and come to know personally the leaders of the Russian revolution. In November 1922, Gramsci met with Lenin in a private discussion, where they discussed the “south” of Italy, the Italian Socialist Party and the possibility of its fusion with the PCI.[20] During this important meeting, which until recently has remained relatively unknown, Gramsci outlined his “profound” differences with Bordiga, but pointed out that Bordiga claimed the allegiance of the majority of the party and hence it had been necessary to follow his direction. Around the same time, in November and December 1922, Gramsci attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, which was to have a powerful impact on him: echoes of it would be found in his subsequent thought and writing.

The first key strategic question on which he and Bordiga differed – a question that has wound its way through subsequent socialist history, resulting in political caesuras everywhere – was whether the Leninist strategy was applicable to the West or whether it applied only to Russia. This problem had arisen in the debates of the Third International as it had struggled to comprehend the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe between 1917 and 1921. Indeed, when Gramsci arrived in Moscow, the Third International was undergoing something of an unacknowledged theoretical crisis. While the revolutions of the other European countries had shared certain key features with the Russian revolution, the proletariat of the former had also shown an allegiance to reformist forces that was not seen in Russia. Whatever the errors of Marxist organisations or groupings during the revolutions in Italy, Germany, Finland, Hungary and elsewhere, it was clear that sociological and cultural factors had also played a part.[21]

In his reflections on this question, Trotsky’s report on the NEP and the world revolution emphasised the differences between the Russian revolution and challenges facing the European working classes. In Europe, he argued, the “bourgeoisie is more intelligent, more farsighted; it is not wasting time. Everything that can be set foot against us is being mobilised by it right now. The revolutionary proletariat will thus encounter on its road to power not only the combat vanguards of the counter-revolution but also its heaviest reserves… By way of compensation, after the proletarian overturn, the vanquished bourgeoisie will no longer dispose of powerful reserves from which it could draw forces for prolonging the civil war”.[22]

As he coalesced his new grouping three months before the Como Conference, Gramsci referred to this idea. In a letter dated 9 February 1924, which became one the PCI’s most important historical documents, he argued that:

[Bordiga] thinks that for the more developed countries of central and western Europe, this [the Russian] tactic is inadequate and even useless. In these countries, the historical mechanism functions according to all the approved schemes of Marxism. There exists the historical determinism which was lacking in Russia, and therefore the over-riding task must be the organisation of the party as an end in itself… I think that the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russians was formed on an international and not on a national terrain. Secondly, because in central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also – and as a consequence – has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups. The determination, which in Russia was direct and drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising, in central and western Europe is complicated by all these political super-structures, created by the greater development of capitalism. This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics altogether more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917.[23]

This formulation is of particular interest, because here Gramsci defends the “Russian” strategic outlook against Bordiga’s mechanical view that focused on the purity of the party and the inevitability of revolutionary “development” of the situation. At the same time, it asserts the essential difference between the “east” and “west” in terms that prefigure his famous distinction in the Prison Notebooks. The difference here, Gramsci asserts, is to be found in the existence of the political superstructures and the labour aristocracy, which, interestingly, he equates with each other. The labour aristocracy and bureaucracy, we must remember, were in Zinoviev’s (and Lenin’s) memorable phrase, “agents of the bourgeoisie, destined to demoralize systematically the labor movement and to inculcate it with the virus of opportunism”. In other words, they were “the most reliable advance guards of the imperialist bourgeoisie in the camp of the working class”.[24] As a result, as Lenin was to reaffirm, they must be “driven out of the trade unions” and the workers’ movement.[25]

Gramsci pointed out that, while in Russia the party led both trade union and political struggle against tsarism, in western Europe “an increasing division of labour grew up between the trade-union organisation and the political organization of the working class. In the trade-union field, the reformist and pacifist tendency developed at an increasing pace; in other words, the influence of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat grew steadily stronger”.[26]

For this reason, both at the Como conference and later in 1926, Gramsci insisted that “social democracy, although it still to a great extent conserves its social base in the proletariat, must so far as its ideology and the political function it fulfils are concerned be considered, not as a right wing of the working class movement, but as a left wing of the bourgeoisie”.[27] Though the PSI may have initially emerged from the workers’ movement, it had failed the challenges before it, developed in a particular direction, and during the red years of 1919-1920 “was to a great extent the vehicle for [the] bourgeois ideology within the Northern proletariat”, in particular their prejudices toward the “southerners”.[28] Indeed, this helped explain why both the PSI and the more right wing PSU disdainfully refused joint actions with the communist party.[29] That is, for Gramsci, the reformist socialist party was in the first instance an instrument of bourgeois hegemony and the task was to break its working class supporters away from the party. Here he was echoing Lenin’s argument that the British Labour Party was “a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns”.[30]

It was not Bordiga’s Left who objected to the claim that social democracy was the “left wing” of the bourgeoisie – since they themselves tended to simply conflate social democracy with the right wing parties – but Tasca’s Right, whom Gramsci considered “liquidationist”. Tasca argued that “It is true that social-democratic ideology is a reflection of the bourgeoisie’s influence on the working-class movement… But this does not take away the class character or social structure of the workers’ movement, even when it follows social democracy. I therefore ask that this point be reworked…”.[31] Gramsci rejected Tasca’s argument and the Comintern’s delegate Humbert-Droz, who was present at the meeting, agreed with him: “It is true that social-democracy sometimes has a social base in the proletariat, but it is a left wing of the bourgeoisie because of the political function which it fulfils”.[32] The task was thus to ultimately “disintegrate” it, that is to tear away the support of those sections of the working class that still loyally followed it.

Whatever one’s typology of social democracy, for Gramsci – again prefiguring a famous formulation in the Prison Notebooks – argued that “in the advanced capitalist countries, the ruling class possesses political and organizational reserves which it did not possess, for instance, in Russia. This means that even the most serious economic crises do not have immediate repercussions in the political sphere”.[33] If in the 9 February letter Gramsci makes a distinction between Russia and western and central Europe, elsewhere he divides Europe into advanced western Europe and the “peripheral states”, which include Italy, Poland, Spain and Portugal (and even France), where “a broad stratum of intermediate classes stretches between the proletariat and capitalism: classes which seek to carry on, and to a certain sense succeed in carrying on, policies of their own, which often influence broad strata of the proletariat, but which particularly affect the peasant masses”.[34] In Gramsci’s view, Italy still stands on the periphery and yet, as we have seen in his debate with Bordiga, as part of “western and central Europe” it maintains some characteristics of the advanced capitalist societies too.[35]

Thus for Gramsci it behoved Marxists to distinguish between the more developed capitalisms and the less developed – these were variations of manifest importance. Yet such geopolitical differences did not mean that the Russian perspectives were obsolete in Italy – or in the “advanced capitalist” societies – but rather that they were more important. Striking a different tone from Lenin, who tended to emphasise the similarity of the strategy needed for West and East, Gramsci argued that Leninist strategy must be developed in greater detail precisely because institutionalised the reformism and complex capitalist development (of “civil society”, as he would later develop the idea) made the terrain even more variegated and intricate. It was to this task that he had set himself since his return from Russia.

The temporalities of political strategy

Central to Gramsci’s strategic ideas, the tactic that would need to be “developed in greater detail”, was the policy of the united front, adopted after the Third Congress of the Third International and elaborated at the Fourth. According to this tactic, in a situation where the communist party was in a minority, and on the defensive (as they were in Italy since the triumph of Mussolini’s fascists in 1922), it should carry out joint actions with larger parties that commanded the allegiance of significant sections of the working class.

Gramsci’s differences here were not only about the nature of strategy towards the PSI but also in their assessments of fascism, a phenomenon still relatively untheorised in the Comintern. For Gramsci had always taken this new movement more seriously than Bordiga, for whom fascism was not fundamentally different from other versions of reactionary bourgeois rule. By contrast, Gramsci had argued as early as 1920 that if the proletariat did not take power Italy would face “a tremendous reaction on the part of the propertied classes and governing caste. No violence will be spared in subjecting the industrial and agricultural proletariat to servile labour: there will be a bid to smash once and for all the working class’s organ of political struggle…”.[36] Over the next few years, Gramsci would develop an original analysis of fascism, as a movement of a decaying petty bourgeoisie, a savage recrudescence of base and barbaric outlooks, and ultimately a “servant of capitalism and landed property” and “agent of capitalism”.[37] If his time in Russia had influenced Gramsci theoretically, fascism had shocked him into seeing these strategic developments’ decisive relevance. In this new context, he saw, the unity of the working class became a pressing exigency.

Like other classical Marxists, Gramsci believed that working class consciousness was brought about by activity rather than pure education. The point of the united front policy was to unify the working class around concrete struggles and in doing so to win the bulk of the class to the side of the communist party. Once he had accepted this line of reasoning, Gramsci’s entire orientation during this period was to build working class unity in action. He suggested the name of the party paper be L’Unità to reflect the policy.[38]

By contrast, Bordiga’s Rome Theses had polemicised against the united front tactic.[39] When Gramsci and Bordiga clashed a second time at the Como conference, it was over a particular form of the united front, expressed in the slogan for a “workers’ and peasants’ bloc” or “workers’ and peasants’ government”, which flowed (in the words of the Comintern’s Theses on Tactics) “unavoidably from the entire united-front tactic”..[40] Again, the Rome Theses and the Left’s Como Conference Resolution had rejected this notion but the Unità proletaria election campaign with the Terzini had been a practical application of it.

At the Como conference Gramsci outlined the party’s new orientation towards the slogan of a “workers’ and peasants’ government”. In his eyes, bourgeois policy was to align itself with the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy of the north against the south, which became a kind of colonial outpost, denigrated by northern “common sense”. It was essential, Gramsci argued, that the working class work win the support of the peasantry, a position he had held since his Ordine Nuovo days.

“Why call it a ‘bloc’ and not simply Communist Party?” called out Bordiga, re-emphasising his isolationist view. “Does the Communist Party not have the alliance between workers and peasants in its programme?” Gramsci replied:

It is necessary to present things in the way one considers most effective to move even the most backward sections of the masses. Not all the workers can understand the whole development of the revolution… We must take account of such states of mind, and seek means to overcome them… If one of us went to my village to talk about “struggle against capitalists”, he would be told that “capitalists” do not exist in Sardinia. Yet even these masses must be won over. We have the possibility, given precisely the conditions created by fascism, to initiate a mass anti-reactionary movement in the South. But it is necessary to win over these masses, and this can be done only by participating in the struggles which they launch for partial victories and partial demands. The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan must serve to bring together and synthesize the content of these partial struggles, in a programme which can be understood by even the most backward masses.[41]

For Gramsci, the slogan was a popular way of posing the problem of a proletarian and peasant dictatorship. As one Comintern formulation explained, the slogan was not to be considered “a phase of democratic transition but simply like a method of agitation and of revolutionary mobilisation”.[42] Gramsci didn’t believe, as Tasca’s Right did, that a “worker’s and peasant’s government can be constituted on the basis of the bourgeois parliament”.[43] In Gramsci’s eyes this would lead to serious “deviations”. But the conflict with Bordiga had a different inflection. For Gramsci, it was essential to maintain contact with the popular classes and to express the Marxist perspective in terms they could understand. Later, Togliatti summarised the debate in this way: Bordiga believed the party would base itself on “foreseeing a future moment when it will be called upon to lead the working class in the final assault for the conquest of power” whereas in Gramsci’s view it should accompany the class in “all the intermediate positions it goes through”.[44]

For Gramsci, revolution had always been a process. Some years earlier, he had written that “the revolution is not a thaumaturgical act, but a dialectical process of historical development”.[45] Now he combined this notion with the strategy and tactics of a supple Leninism, which implied a policy of multiple allies and quickly changing orientations. In 1925 he wrote that “Comrade Lenin has taught us that in order to defeat our class-enemy, who is strong, who has many means and reserves at his disposal, we must exploit every crack in his front and must use every possible ally, even if he is uncertain, vacillating or provisional”.[46] As Gramsci himself notes, this is a direct development of Lenin’s argument in “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder (one of whose targets was Bordiga) where he states that “the more powerful enemy can be vanquished only by exerting the utmost effort, and by the most thorough, careful, attentive, skillful and obligatory use of any, even the smallest rift between the enemies, any conflict of interests among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisies within the various countries, and also by taking advantage of any, even the smallest, opportunity of winning a mass ally, even though this ally is temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional”. Indeed, Lenin had affirmed in this important pamphlet that “the entire history of Bolshevism, both before and after the October Revolution, is full of instances of changes of tack, conciliatory tactics and compromises with other parties, including bourgeois parties!”[47]

In the 9 February letter, Gramsci had explained: “I do not doubt that the situation is actively revolutionary and that therefore, in a given period of time, our Party will have the majority on its side; but if this period will perhaps not be long in terms of time, it will undoubtedly be dense in secondary stages [my emphasis], which we shall have to foresee with a certain precision in order to be able to manoeuvre and not fall into errors that would prolong the experiences of the proletariat”.[48]

Alliances, corporatism and the councils

This conception of political temporality as composed of phases is key to understanding Gramsci’s version of Leninism.[49] The idea of stages allows for the understanding that through the political process the party might enter into a series of alliances with separate political forces. Though for Gramsci the alliance between the workers and peasants was a strategic one, the forms that the alliance takes might differ markedly during different phases, as various parties and institutions emerge, develop and disappear – just as the working class might not have one single party or mass institutions, but be split between competing ones (this conception he later formulated as a “war of position”).[50]

Thus in his famous essay “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” Gramsci wrote: “The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances [my emphasis] which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”. For example, it would do this by making the demands of the peasants “its own from the social point of view; understanding the class demands which they represent; incorporating these demands into its revolutionary transitional program; placing these demands among the objectives for which it struggles”.[51] In order to do this, the proletariat needs “to strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and incrustation”.[52]

Such a development required a close and concrete analysis of the terrain. Indeed, Gramsci’s writings from 1924-1926 are full of such concrete analyses of the dynamics of various class fractions and the significance of various grouping and parties. In a letter to young communists – importantly called “What is to be Done?” – Gramsci outlined the significance of such concrete reconnaissances. He began by asking the question, “How was the Italian workers’ movement defeated?” The response that the defeat occurred because of the lack of a revolutionary party was inadequate because it presupposed another question: why was there no revolutionary party? The formulaic answer that the cause was the “lack of a revolutionary party” – always true by definition – underestimates the difficulties of actually building such an organisation, which starts on a much more concrete level, one which takes into account the ensemble of social relations. “Why have the Italian proletarian parties always been weak from a revolutionary point of view?… They did not know the situation in which they had to operate, they did not know the terrain on which they should have given battle.”

To pursue the argument further: the problem of leadership was also composed of the problems of the class; one could not be understood without the other. Specifically, the revolutionary parties had not succeeded in disseminating their ideology to the class, and hence the class had no ideology of its own, but rather was caught in the cul-de-sacs not only of reformist but also fascist ideology.[53] This attitude contrasts strikingly with Trotsky’s, as expressed in his later Transitional Program, in which he goes so far as to reduce the problem of workers’ revolution to the problem of leadership.[54]

The influence of Lenin is not hard to detect in Gramsci’s emphasis on a concrete analysis of the terrain in order to construct working class hegemony through a system of alliances. This was a development of the argument the Russian leader mounted against economism in his famous pamphlet, What is to be Done? “To bring political knowledge to the workers,” Lenin had argued two decades earlier, “the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions”.[55] Indeed, working class “consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected… Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social-Democrats [i.e. are not Marxists – RD]”.[56]

Here, Lenin is asserting the primacy of the political and its independence from directly economic demands posed in unmediated class terms. We need only remember that in 1917 the Bolshevik slogans were “Bread, Peace and Land” and “All Power to the Soviets” – that is, political demands, posed in non-class form (though with a class content, including, in the case of land, “peasant content”). It is this method that allows the party to win over its allies, and for this reason Gramsci was later to describe Lenin’s “greatest contribution” as the concept of hegemony.[57]

For Gramsci, this system of alliances would not be what was later known as a “popular front”, in which the party “chased after” an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie or the labour aristocracy – it was the party’s Right, led by Tasca, who posed this threat, which might desire if not “a bourgeois-proletarian bloc, for the constitutional elimination of fascism, at least to a tactic of real passivity, with no active intervention by our party, thus allowing the bourgeoisie to use the proletariat as electoral cannon-fodder against fascism”.[58] Rather, these alliances would be based on common activity and struggle for immediate demands and eventually lead the “proletariat back to an autonomous position as a revolutionary class; free from all influence of counter-revolutionary classes, groups and parties; capable of collecting around itself and leading all the forces that can be mobilized for the struggle against capitalism”.[59]

Particularly important here were those groups that broke to the left of social democracy, not just the Terzini but also groups like the left of the mostly peasant Popular Party. Again Gramsci and Bordiga clashed on this question. For Bordiga these alliances represented an unnecessary dilution of revolutionary homogeneity but for Gramsci, even if these groups might still represent a minority of the working class and peasantry, they were crucial because they were breaks from the system of bourgeois hegemony and integration as represented by the PSI. To abandon these ruptures was to risk that these groups – the more politically advanced sections of the movement, even if they weren’t necessarily the strategically most important section of the working class – would be channelled back into that bourgeois network.

These alliances might take many forms: demonstrations, election campaigns, joint meetings. Yet one of the most important forms that the worker and peasant bloc would take was the development of workers’ and peasants’ councils.[60] For Gramsci, the revolution was still a mass process carried out by the class and he still believed in the limitless “capacity for initiative and creation of the working masses”.[61] As a result, Leninism “says that the party leads the class through mass organisations, and hence says that one of the key tasks of the party is to develop mass organization; for the far left, by contrast, this problem does not exist”.[62]

In the 9 February letter to his “Centre” grouping, Gramsci explained that the party had been entirely passive and had not tried to “stimulate the masses”:

The party’s error has been to put the emphasis, and abstractly at that, on the question of Party organisation, which then has meant just the creation of an apparatus of functionaries who were orthodox as regards the official conception. It was, and is still, believed that the revolution depends solely on the existence of just such an apparatus, arriving at the point of believing that this existence can bring about the revolution. The party has lacked an organic activity of agitation and propaganda, which is what should have received the whole of our attention and have given rise to the formation of real specialists in this field. We have not attempted, at every single opportunity, to create among the masses the possibility of expressing themselves in the same sense as the Communist Party [all emphases mine – RD].[63]

This argument integrates his earlier work on the factory councils, which would “transform the masses” from workers into producers: “If I did not have a certain fear of hearing cries of Ordine Nuovo-ism, I would say that today one of the most important problems we face, especially in the major capitalist countries [France, Germany, England], is the problem of factory councils and workers’ control – as the basis for a new regroupment of the proletarian class”[64] So these non-party institutions were not to be the result of proletarian regroupment but the terrain on which that redeployment would happen. He incorporated the kind of argument he had made during the “red years” that “the Council is a class, a social institution… Hence the Council realizes in practice the unity of the working class; it gives the masses the same form and cohesion they adopt in the general organization of society… All the problems inherent in the organization of the proletarian State are inherent in the organization of the Council. In the one and the other, the concept of citizen gives way to the concept of comrade”.[65]

Gramsci is interested here in the creation of an intermediate layer of activists, some of whom may be non-party militants. Within the councils, the worker becomes a “producer”:

He has acquired an awareness of his role in the process of production, at all its levels, from the workshop to the nation and the world. At this point he is aware of his class; he becomes a communist, because productivity does not require private property; he becomes a revolutionary, because he sees the capitalist, the private property owner, as a dead hand, an encumbrance on the productive process which must be done away with. At this point he arrives at a conception of the “State”, i.e. he conceives a complex organisation of society, a concrete form of society, because this is nothing but the form of the gigantic apparatus of production which reflects – through all the novel, superior links and relations and functions inherent in its very enormity – the life of the workshop.[66]

In his later work, Gramsci believed an analogous process would happen in all the councils and committees that he was proposing, not only those located in factories, but ones which included the “participation of all the population not grouped in the factories, and with the inclusion of women”.[67] Indeed, here he specifically ruled out the notion – held by some scholars of his later work – that the organisers of the class would be intellectuals. Rather, he insisted that they would workers themselves.[68] He later developed this in his work on “organic intellectuals”, first examined in his essay on the southern question, where the party’s task, as he saw it, was to create a new group of “intellectuals” (again understood as technical specialists or on-the-ground leaders rather than “traditional” intellectuals) who would replace the traditional petty bourgeois leadership of the southern peasants and rural workers. In the Prison Notebooks, he would claim that “the weekly Ordine Nuovo worked to develop forms of new intellectualism and to determine its new concepts”.[69] In other words, the factory council activists were exemplars of just such a new group of “organic intellectuals”.[70]

Part Three: Strategy and Organisation

Party, concept and organisation

Gramsci’s strategic perspectives could only have their effects on the very organisational form and internal norms of the party. This aspect of Gramsci’s Leninism is often overlooked, in part because scholars are rarely involved in the quotidian aspects of organisational activity. In these years Gramsci was, we must remember, primarily a party man, involved in the gritty, day-to-day struggle to forge a functional organisation.

Contrasting himself to Bordiga, Gramsci stated bluntly, “I have another concept of the party, its function, and the relations which should be established between it and the masses outside the party”.[71] Under Bordiga, the party had not been seen as “the result of a dialectical process, in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge. It has been seen merely as something suspended in the air; something with its own autonomous and self-generated development; something which the masses will join when the situation is right and the crest of the revolutionary wave is at its highest point”.[72]

For a party to be living and breathing suggests that “historically a party is never definitive and never will be…it will pass through a whole series of transitory phases, and will from time to time absorb new elements in the two forms which are historically possible: through individual recruitment, or through the recruitment of smaller or larger groups”.[73] So if the political situation passes through a series of phases, in which the party itself must “manoeuvre” to build a system of alliances and to integrate and absorb other groupings, then the party itself must pass through a series of phases. Thus for Gramsci, a party could not be judged separately from the class. “Organisational work, the tenacious and difficult struggle to maintain the Party apparatus, are certainly important, but it is not on these things that we can draw up a balance sheet of the Party. It is not enough just to live: we must have a history…”.[74] This different conception was reflected in the debate over whether the party should be considered an “organ” of the class (Bordiga) or a “part” of the class (Gramsci).

Gramsci would later point out that that Bordiga’s line resulted in deep organisational problems in the “intermediate bodies, federations and city branches” and in “a widespread passive mentality of ‘waiting for orders’, namely the ultra-leftist conception that the P[arty] serves only for direct action and, while waiting for the great day, as a mass it has nothing to do but wait”.[75] Elsewhere he pointed out that “passivity has the outward appearance of brisk activity [my emphasis – RD]; because there appears to be a line of development, a seam which workers are meritoriously sweating and toiling away to excavate”.[76]

The truth of these claims could only be ascertained by detailed research into the PCI of the early 1920s, but the theoretical conclusions are clearer. In Gramsci’s view, the explanation for a party’s evolution – both politically and organisationally – must be found in an examination of the complex totality of relations and events.[77]

There were two tasks as Gramsci saw it. The first was to plunge into practical work to build unity and working class activity, to “stimulate the masses” as he had said – because only this could guarantee the health and growth of the party. He later wrote in prison that the way to avoid “bureaucratic centralism” was to ensure a democratic centralism of “movement – i.e. a continual adaption of the organisation to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above”.[78] The blame for bureaucratic centralism lay with “a lack of initiative and responsibility at the bottom, in other words, because of the political immaturity of the peripheral forces”.[79] We can see then that the task of stimulating the masses becomes an essential component of Gramsci’s theory of party organisation: without it, the party cannot guarantee itself against bureaucratic centralism.

But this needed to be combined with a thoroughgoing education campaign in the fundamentals of Marxism, in which Gramsci took particular interest, to be carried out by a party school, a correspondence course, and the printing of new periodicals and pamphlets (he would later connect this task to the idea of “Boshevisation” proposed by the Comintern at its Fifth Congress in 1924).[80]

So where other organisations might accept the second task – to circle the wagons in conditions of reaction – Gramsci felt that the two tasks were complementary. How could “specialists in the field” be created without both processes? Gramsci, even in a period of fascism, insisted that the party must develop in interaction with the class, not stand aside from it. How else would one avoid creating a party of Bordiga-style disembodied functionaries?

The national and the international

Gramsci thus saw himself as elaborating the international political line of the Third International in the concrete situation of Italy, a process that was complex and multifaceted. His problem here was the “reconciliation of national traditions with an international framework” as Cammett puts it.[81] Gramsci became acutely aware of this during his tenure as leader of the PCI. “For all the capitalist countries,” he wrote, “a fundamental problem is posed – the problem of the transition from the united front tactic, understood in a general sense, to a specific tactic which confronts the concrete problems of national life and operates on the basis of the popular forces as they are historically determined”.[82] Indeed, his devastating assessment was that the united front had “in no country found the party or the men capable of concretizing it”.[83]

How much tension lay between these two levels of operation and what forms did that tension take? There can be little doubt that the presence of the Comintern helped both to illuminate and to confuse the strategic debates in Italy. While the Third International did much to generalise the lessons of postwar revolutionary strategy, Comintern meddling in foreign parties – which increasingly occurred throughout the twenties – also resulted in serious deleterious effects. In the case of Italy, Third International representatives had approached Gramsci to “take over” the leadership of the party, something Gramsci refused as an internecine intrigue.[84] Only when he had been convinced that the political line had to change did he step forward to challenge Bordiga.

In the period leading up to Como, Gramsci switched allegiances without making much critique of the International’s processes, so that at the conference he was able to pose the debate in terms of loyalty to the “international party”. Was the national party greater than the international one? He was correct in asserting that if they continued with Bordiga’s policy, they risked expulsion from the International. As he had written to Terracini a few months before Como, “The Comintern cannot sit back peacefully and allow there to be formed in the international field a Party majority which is both in opposition and demanding a rediscussion of all the decisions taken after the Third Congress”.[85]

The limitations of this approach should be clear: no call to institutional authority can ever be a good argument for a position; it amounts to an organisational approach to a political question. On this, Bordiga was formally correct. For his part, Bordiga was prepared to face expulsion rather than abandon his principles.

The notion of loyalty to the Comintern was later used to silence opposition to the growing Stalinisation, a process in which Gramsci played a contradictory role. He certainly showed an “independence of mind in his judgement of all the post-Lenin Bolshevik leaders, bar none”, as Derek Boothman writes,[86] and wrote perhaps the most critical letter to the Russian majority, imploring them to stop destroying their own work. The letter was too radical for Togliatti, who objected, but Gramsci had little time for the protestations and replied to Togliatti that “Your whole argument is tainted by ‘bureaucratism’”.[87] Still, Gramsci was also prepared to lay the blame for the situation in the Russian party primarily on the Left Opposition and later the Joint Opposition (complicating things was Bordiga’s support for Trotsky, and in some cases Gramsci seems to conflate the two).[88] These passages are the most discomforting to read in retrospect, even if Gramsci was one of the earliest International figures to begin to make criticisms of the bureaucratised Comintern leadership (James P. Cannon, for example, did not mount a criticism of Stalinism until 1928). [89]

After his ascension to leadership of the PCI, Gramsci himself came to see the centrality of an independent, self-directed national organisation. He had already recognised a problem with “the way in which the so-called centralism of the Comintern has been understood: up to now, no one has succeeded in developing autonomous, creative parties that are automatically centralized by means of their response to the general plans of action arrived at in the [Comintern Congresses]”.[90] This was a profound perception, contrary to the main lines of thought in the Comintern. The responsibility would have to fall on the Italians themselves, if they were to build such a party. “At any rate, I am more and more convinced that it is we ourselves who have to work, in our country, to build a Party that is strong, politically and organisationally well-equipped and resistant, with such a stock of clear general ideas, well-lodged in the consciousness of each individual, that there will be no possibility of these questions disintegrating with every blow aimed at them …”.[91] Emphasis now had to be placed on the construction of powerful indigenous national parties, each with its own self-developed leaderships.

In this, Gramsci recalled a second speech at Fourth Congress of the International that influenced him greatly – Lenin’s “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution”. In this speech, Lenin notes that at the Third Congress, “we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their work. The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it. … [E]ven if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit”. Lenin’s conclusion was that “the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike is to sit down and study”.[92] This came as part of a more general rethinking on Lenin’s part in response to the theoretical “crisis” in the Third International, when he was prompted to rethink the organisational consequences of the political rethinking that had emerged from the defeats of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21.[93]

As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “After the failure of the revolution in Germany [in 1923], Gramsci had been thinking about how to translate the internationalist tactic of the united front ‘into Italian historical language’. For him, such a translation would mean displacing the process of the formation of communist parties from the international terrain to the national, and, as such, it would then imply a significant change in the understanding of internationalism”.[94] In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would reaffirm this notion in an important passage, where he argues that “the international situation should be considered in its national aspect… To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is ‘national’”.[95]

During his time as leader of the PCI, Gramsci increasingly pursued an independent policy, maintaining his emphasis on the united front even after the Comintern jagged sharply to the left in 1925, and once more became formally closer to Bordiga. Later, in prison, he criticised the Third Period of the Comintern, which echoed Bordiga’s theories almost word for word. This caused him considerable trouble and isolated him from the more “loyal” comrades. He was shaken by the expulsion of three leading PCI comrades for similar opposition. Around the same time, Gramsci seemed to be developing a critique of Stalinism (bureaucratic centralism, “Cadornism” as he termed it) in his prison notes. In this period he tried to get access to Trotsky’s writings, but the prison authorities only allowed him to read My Life, which seems to have reaffirmed him in his critique of Trotsky’s Marxism as overly mechanical. Still, after a conversation in which Gramsci expressed his doubts about the political line and actions of the PCI and the Comintern, his brother decided not to pass on his criticisms to Togliatti for fear that “not even Nino [Antonio] would have been saved from expulsion”.[96]

After the Como conference: Gramsci’s early Leninism crystallised

The Como conference of 1924 was an ambiguous victory for Gramsci. Though he had won over the majority of the central committee, he failed to convince the mid-level leaders. In the consultative vote, his position was defeated by a vote of 39 to four. In Gramsci’s mind, this probably reflected the fact that the secretaries present were exactly the orthodox “functionaries” he had criticised as having been created by Bordiga’s position. Gramsci thus found himself in a complicated position: he was in a majority in the Comintern and on the PCI’s highest leadership bodies, but in a minority among the mid-level leadership. What of the membership proper? Gramsci likely believed that the membership would, once they were made aware of the issues at stake, come over to his side. Tasca certainly believed before the conference that the majority would soon side with Gramsci, while Scoccimarro told Gramsci that he simply had to make open the “latent” support for his line.[97] This is easy enough to believe, for under the conditions of fascism, the bulk of the party membership would likely be sympathetic to a policy of working class unity (and thus the united front). Indeed, some years before they had spontaneously joined the militant anti-fascist groups called the Arditi del Popolo, an activity that Gramsci had encouraged, before Bordiga banned such engagement, a tragic error.

In the following period, Gramsci led the party through the dangerous shoals created by Italian fascism, including the crisis of the regime created by the fascist assassination of the Socialist Deputy Giacomo Matteotti, the walkout of the anti-fascist opposition from the parliament to the “Aventine” that the PCI participated in and Gramsci hoped would become an “anti-parliament”, and the maintenance of the party underground structures and activity. Meanwhile, Gramsci campaigned tirelessly across the country to consolidate his new line and one year later, in a letter to Zinoviev, he declared the battle won.[98] To another comrade in Moscow, he wrote that “there has never been an Exec[utive] that has worked, and that is making comrades work, as much as the present one, one that studies everything, right down to the small problems of the various local organisations, trying to advise comrades, to spur them on with letters and circulars, with visits and inspections, sending capable cadres to the spot… I just observe that the P[arty] in its entirety is more respected and appreciated by everyone, even by its most strenuous opponents; it comes over as a serious force that is developing relentlessly”.[99]

Gramsci’s attitude to leadership was noteworthy for its inclusiveness. In his eyes, the leadership should be composed of all tendencies within the organisation and a collective line would emerge through the discussions between them. In one of his famous letters to Togliatti on the “Russian Question”, Gramsci wrote that the “Leninist line consists in the fight for P[arty] unity, not only for external unity but for that somewhat more intrinsic unity that consists in there not being within the P[arty] two completely divergent lines on all questions”.[100] Indeed, for this reason he believed that Leninism was opposed to factions – hardened groups who began to have greater loyalty to their faction than the party as a whole – and instead operated via “the organic collaboration of all tendencies through participation in the leading bodies”.[101]

There would be no driving of minorities out of the organisation under his leadership, and indeed he castigated Bordiga for refusing to take a leadership position. Yet Gramsci was also was prepared to censor Bordiga’s views within the party, which may have been justified considering the external threat of fascism and the fact that communist parties of that time often went through specific periods when discussion was closed off.[102]

The proof of any political organisation is in its practice rather than in its schemata. Under Bordiga, the party had suffered from a precipitous decline. By the end of 1921 its membership had halved to 24,638 and by the march on Rome in October 1922 it had fallen to 8,709 members (in a country of around 40 million). Some of this was likely due to the difficulties in establishing a new party under conditions of fascism, but the turnaround under Gramsci was dramatic. Quickly, L’Unità more than doubled its circulation to over 50,000 copies. In late 1924, the Terzini finally joined the PCI en masse, bringing with them a significant membership, especially in the rural areas. By December 1924 the party had roughly doubled in size to 17,373 and grew again to 24,837 in 1925. By this time, the party was accumulating the remaining assorted leftists in the remaining bastion of resistance to Mussolini.[103] Gramsci was thus able to point out that “Our party is one of the few, if not the only, party in the International which can claim such a success in a situation as difficult as that which has been being created in all countries”.[104] In these terms, Gramsci’s leadership of the party can only be considered a definitive success.

The PCI’s Lyons conference in 1926 finally crystallised the victory of the Gramsci’s early Leninism. The brilliant “Lyons Theses”, written by Gramsci and Togliatti and adopted by a vast majority of the delegates, codified Gramsci’s position (90.8 percent of the vote in support of the theses, with 9.2 percent for Bordiga).[105] They represented the moment at which Gramsci’s Leninism was finally triumphant. In the words of Paolo Spriano, the Lyons Theses “represent the greatest effort led by the Italian party to apply the beginnings of Leninist tactics and strategy to the situation of a country like [Italy]”.[106] Gramsci believed that the party had resolved the crisis in its development and could call itself a “mass party, not simply because of the influence it exercises on broad strata of the working class and the peasant masses, but because it has acquired…a capacity for analysing situations, for political initiative and for strong leadership which in the past it lacked”.[107] Togliatti agreed: as he looked back on the years of the Como conference, he wrote that the “progress and fate of this movement, if the new leading group had not been formed, and formed at precisely that moment and in that way, through the initiative of Antonio Gramsci and under his immediate direction, would without a shadow of a doubt, have been different, even profoundly different”.[108]

Part Four: A suspended tradition

How might we assess Gramsci’s early Leninism? An emphasis on the subjective as essential to the development of the ensemble of social relations, a complex political strategy based on sensitivity to geopolitical differences and concrete national analysis, an insistence on the primacy of the political in building essential alliances – including through a policy of the united front and the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government – through a series of “secondary phases”, the measurement of the party in relation to the class, the building of a national party as more important than abstract internationalism, a focus on unity both in the working class and the party itself – Gramsci’s particular accents diverge from a current such as Trotskyism, the last surviving Anglophone Leninist tradition, which tended to emphasise international programs at the expense of the concrete and national.[109] Indeed, on first reading, Gramsci’s pre-prison Leninism seem unfamiliar to those brought up outside Italy, for his intellectual touchstones include not only the various Bolshevik leaders, but also his own indigenous tradition of idealism, most obviously that of Croce and Gentile, Labriola and the Frenchman Sorel.

This in turn reminds us that Leninism is not some unitary theory, but rather a complex of interrelated propositions – a practical research program – that individual theorists might emphasise differently. As Francisco Fernandez Buey points out, “Amid the controversy of [the post-Lenin] years, Gramsci’s position cannot be assimilated to that of any other communist political leader of the time, either in the Russian party or in the International. Properly speaking, he was neither a Stalinist, nor a Trotskyist, nor a Bukharinite. He was too secular, too ‘Protestant’ to be any of those things”.[110]

As a research program, Gramsci’s Leninism continued. Indeed, his Prison Notebooks were in many ways a development of the themes outlined in this essay. Gramsci’s carceral project can be understood as an investigation into the failure of the revolutionary movements of the early 1920s.[111] One aspect of this project, then, is a critical assessment of his own early political activity, first of all in the factory council movement in Turin of 1919-1920, and in the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party, and as a development of his early Leninism, influenced in particular by the Fourth Congress of the Third International. As a result, however one sees Gramsci’s later work – as continuity, rupture, aufheben – his earlier work provides one essential key to understanding it.[112]

As a political current, though, Gramsci’s Leninism was suspended by his imprisonment. The rise to power of Togliatti bound the PCI to the fate of the wider communist movement. From then on it struggled in the clutches of Stalinism through notable and yet tempered successes. In any case, Gramsci himself might not have survived this process. Thus an alternative version of Leninism was closed off, leaving that propagated by Trotsky as the sole remaining tradition which maintained fidelity to the first four congresses of the Communist International – those which had such an effect on Gramsci’s thought. The end of Stalinism however allows for a new rediscovery of this fertile form of Leninism, both in its early, pre-prison phase and in the rich and cryptic Notebooks.



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Budgen, Sebastian, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek (eds) 2007, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press.

Cammett, John, 1967, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, Stanford University Press.

Claudin, Fernando 1975, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, Penguin.

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Davidson, Alastair 1977, Antonio Gramsci: Toward and Intellectual Biography, Merlin Press.

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Gramsci, Antonio 2014b, Quaderni del Carcere, Eineudi.

Gramsci Jr., Antonio 2014, La Storia di una Famiglia Rivoluzionaria: Antonio Gramsci e gli Schucht tra la Russia e l’Italia, Editori Riuniti.

Harman, Chris 1977, “Gramsci Versus Eurocommunism”, Part 1, International Socialism (1st series), 98, May.

Lenin, V.I. 1964 (1916), “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.

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Lenin, V.I. 1976b, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers.

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Lih, Lars 2008, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context, Haymarket.

Lih, Lars 2011, Lenin, Reaktion Books.

Riddell, John (ed.), 2011, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Fourth International, Haymarket Books, Chicago.

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Serge, Victor 2002, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, University of Iowa Press.

Shandro, Alan 2014, Lenin and the Concept of Hegemony, Brill.

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Trotsky, Leon 1971, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon, Leon Trotsky On France, Monad.

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[1] Amadeo Bordiga and Umberto Terracini, “Theses on the Tactics of the PCI”, in Gramsci 1978, pp95-6.

[2] Paolo Spriano’s two-volume Storia del Partito Communista Italiano (Einaudi, 1976) remains one of essential histories of this period, though it is hampered by its concentration on the central core of the PCI. Spriano was also a “party historian” for the PCI and this means his judgment is at times questionable.

[3] This number according to Terracini’s letter of 13 February, quoted in Spriano 1976, p260. According to Spriano, the objective of the arrests was to hamper any fusion attempt between the PCI and the PSI (p260).

[4] The PSI had been a party divided between revolutionaries and reformists, though unlike many of the other parties of the Second International it had not supported its government in World War One. During the 1920s it passed through a number of splits and realignments. The Terzini had been marginalised after the expulsion of the reformists (who formed the Unitary Socialist Party, PSU) by a faction in the party opposed to fusion and any united front or electoral alliance with the PCI. This new group quickly reinstituted the party’s dominant reformism and later reunited with the PSU.

[5] The Comintern later summarised the election campaign as “a consecration of the efficaciousness of the tactics of the united front”; quoted in Spriano 1976, p341. Around the same time the Central Committee first discussed Gramsci’s line. Spriano calls it one of the most important Central Committee meetings in the PCI’s early years. See Spriano 1976, p247.

[6] See Davidson 1982, p213.

[7] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp250-251.

[8] ibid, p251.

[9] See, for example, Davidson 1982, Note 81, p280 (see also p95).

[10] See for example Lars Lih’s discussion of inevitability in Kautsky in Lih 2008, p78.

[11] Gramsci 1978, “Problems of Today and Tomorrow”, p232.

[12] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.

[13] Mario Del Roio emphasises the influence of Luxemburg on Gramsci too. His book, Prisms of Gramsci, was published in English as this essay was being finished and to some extent runs parallel to it. See Del Roio 2015, pp12-50.

[14] Quoted in Santucci 2010, p62.

[15] Lenin, for his part, underwent a reassessment of his philosophical lineage after the outbreak of World War One, when he re-read Hegel. See Savas Michael-Matsas, “Lenin and the Path of Dialectics” and Stathis Kouvelakis, “Lenin as a Reader of Hegel: Hypotheses for a Reading of Lenin’s Notebooks on Hegel’s The Science of Logic”, both in Budgen et al. (eds) 2007.

[16] On this, see the analysis of “The Russian Utopia” in Buey, p73.

[17] Davidson 1977, pp158-9. See also “Gramsci’s Theory and Practice”, in Togliatti 1979, pp151-153.

[18] Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-1924”, p261. Spriano makes the same point, see Spriano 1976, p503.

[19] While I’m sympathetic to those like Sandra Bloodworth who find the term “Leninism” unhelpful (Bloodworth 2013), I think this is a useful enough definition, and in any case essentially the one used by Gramsci himself. This definition also runs counter to Lars Lih’s valuable and erudite Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done in Context (Lih 2008). For all Lih’s usefulness, it seems to me that Lenin already had a conception and practice distinct from the Erfurt program before World War One, a conception further developed in his reflections on imperialism and the split in socialism (the development of “bourgeois labour parties”), and finally codified in the resolutions of the Third International. Alan Shandro argues a similar case in Shandro 2014.

[20] See Gramsci Jr. 2014. This information had come from key PCI organiser Camila Ravera. In his book, which contains the letter (p52), Gramsci’s grandson, Antonio Jr., asks, “But why had not [Camila] Ravera described this episode in her memoir published a few years beforehand? Why did it elude all of the Gramsci biographers, including as eminent an author as Giuseppi Fiori? And why doesn’t Gramsci himself ever mention it in any letter and in any article, in spite of all the admiration for Lenin and the strong connections of friendship of the family of Giulia Schucht with that of Ulijanov? [Lenin]? It can’t be excluded that the cause of this strange silence is due to the modesty and correctness of my grandfather towards Amadeo Bordiga. In fact Antonio Gramsci, in spite of the political divergence, always had a great estimation of the true founder of the Communist Party not to talk about their personal friendship.” [My translation – RD].

[21] Fernando Claudin, in his thoughtful book The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform (Claudin, 1975, pp46-102) outlines this theoretical crisis, even if he tends to over-exaggerate it.

[22] Trotsky 1953, pp221-22. Lenin had also made this argument in contracted form in “Left-Wing” Communism an Infantile Disorder, in Selected Works, Lenin 1976b, p320.

[23] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp199-200. There are two translations in English of this important letter [the other is by Derek Boothman in Gramsci 2014a]. I’ve used both for the purposes of this article.

[24] Zinoviev 1942.

[25] Lenin 1976b, pp320-21.

[26] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation of our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p294.

[27] Gramsci 1978, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)”, p359.

[28] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p444.

[29] See, for example, Spriano 1976, pp347-48.

[30] Lenin 1967, speech on affiliation to the British Labour Party, Second Congress of the Third International, 1920, pp183-4. This is a different emphasis to the more dualistic notion of a “bourgeois workers’ party” (or “bourgeois labour party” as found in Lenin’s 1916 piece “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (Lenin 1964), which leaves open the question of whether these organisations are workers’ parties with bourgeois leaderships, or bourgeois parties with working class memberships. Chris Harman’s conflation of Gramsci’s position with the bourgeois-labour party position overlooks the important differences between them. See Harman 1977.

[31] Tasca in Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission Nominated by the Central Committee To Finalize the Lyons Congress Documents”, p326.

[32] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission…”, p338.

[33] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p408.

[34] ibid., p409.

[35] Walter Adamson divides Gramsci’s typology into a geographic division between East and West and three socio-political categories of Advanced Capitalist, Transitional and Peripheral societies. The result is thus six “types” of society. See Adamson 1980, p89.

[36] Gramsci 1977, “Towards a Renewal of the Socialist Party”, p191.

[37] Gramsci 1977, “The Monkey People”, p374.

[38] Spriano dates this plan and proposal in September 1923 as the first concrete example of a turn in the PCI’s work. See Spriano 1976, pp298-299.

[39] Cammett 1967, p161.

[40] Riddell (ed.) 2011, p1159. For a short summary of the debate, see Riddell’s “Editorial Introduction”, pp20-27.

[41] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci’s Intervention at the Como Conference”, pp253-254.

[42] Quoted in Spriano 1976, p355. (My translation – RD.)

[43] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p391.

[44] Quoted in Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p30.

[45] Gramsci 1977, “Development of the Revolution”, p92.

[46] Quoted in Coutinho 2012, p37.

[47] Lenin 1976b, pp335-336.

[48] Gramsci, “Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p230. See also Gramsci’s discussion of phases in Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, pp409-410.

[49] Spriano notes its central importance in his history; Spriano 1976, p33-334.

[50] Spriano points out that at least in the time around the Como conference Gramsci, believing the situation was still revolutionary, tended to overestimate the autonomous role the party might play. See Spriano 1976, p345.

[51] Gramsci 1978, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question”, p443.

[52] ibid., p448.

[53] Gramsci 1978, “What is to be Done?”, pp169-171.

[54] See Fernando Claudin’s compelling and rather Gramscian critique of Trotsky in Claudin 1975, pp79-80.

[55] Lenin 1976a, “What is to Be Done?” in Selected Works, Progress, Moscow, p154.

[56] ibid., p145. As Lars Lih has shown, the basis for this attitude actually can be found in the Erfurt program’s “hegemony” scenario. See Lih 2008, pp96-101.

[57] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 2, p187; Notebook 4, §38, pp464-65. Gramsci directly echoes this argument in “Elements of the Situation”, in Gramsci 1978, p308.

[58] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p303.

[59] Gramsci 1978, “Elements of the Situation”, p308. See also Gramsci’s critique of the German communists Brandler and Thalheimer in the 9 February letter, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others” in Gramsci 2014a, p193.

[60] Some see Gramsci’s emphasis on this as a reflection of his continued Left–Communist approach to the united front, i.e. emphasising the united front “from below”. See Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, “General Introduction” in Gramsci 1971, plxxiii. However, Trotsky was to make a similar argument in his writings on Germany. See Trotsky 1971, pp193-199.

[61] Gramsci 1978, “Once Again on the Organic Capacities of the Working Class”, p419.

[62] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p395.

[63] “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, in Gramsci 2014a, p225.

[64] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410. A decade later, Trotsky would compose a similar argument in his writings on France. See “For Committees of Action! Not the People’s Front!” in Trotsky 1979, pp129-134.

[65] Gramsci 1977, “Unions and Councils”, p100.

[66] Gramsci 1977, “Syndicalism and the Councils”, p111. Here Marcel Del Roio sees the influence of Sorel, especially in Gramsci’s “spirit of separation from the state and reformism”. See Del Roio 2015, p143. However, Del Roio underestimates the way Lenin too understood the party as a representative of the creative forces of its class, preferring to see Gramsci’s position as closer to “Sorel and also to Luxemburg”, p187. Lars Lih does a good job of dispelling this erroneous dichotomy in Lih 2011.

[67] Gramsci 1978, “Report to the Central Committee: 6 February 1925, p280.

[68] Gramsci 1978, “Minutes of the Political Commission”, p315.

[69] Gramsci 1971, pp9-10 and Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 12, p1550. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci would still associate the development of these organic intellectuals as intimately connected with the development of the party. See for example, Swartzmantel 2015, pp81-89.

[70] Indeed, Gramsci’s interest in the intermediate layers is revealed in his claim that “in every party, and especially in the democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational apparatus is very loose, there exist three strata” – of leaders, masses and an intermediate activist layer. Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p401. This prefigures once more a formulation in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci 1971, p152; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, §70, p1733.

[71] Gramsci 1978, “Gramsci to Scoccimaro”, p174.

[72] Gramsci 1978, “To Togliatti, Terracini and Others”, pp197-198.

[73] ibid., pp198-199.

[74] “To Negri and Palmi”, in Gramsci 2014a, p236.

[75] “To Vincenzo Bianci”, in Gramsci 2014a, p332.

[76] Gramsci 1978, “Against Pessimism”, p213.

[77] Davidson 1977, p159.

[78] Gramsci 1971, p188; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.

[79] Gramsci 1971, p189; Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 13, §36, p1634.

[80] See “To the Executive Committee of the Italian Communist Party”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp208-215.

[81] Cammett 1967, p168.

[82] Gramsci 1978, “A Study of the Italian Situation”, p410.

[83] Gramsci 1978, “What the Relations should be between the PCI and the Comintern”, p155.

[84] “To Scoccimarro and Togliatti”, in Gramsci 2014a, p244.

[85] “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, p203.

[86] Gramsci 2014a, “General Introduction” by Derek Boothman, p41.

[87] Gramsci 1978, “Letter to Togliatti”, pp439-440.

[88] For Gramsci’s direct comparison between Trotsky and Bordiga and their attitude to the party see Spriano 1976, p361 and then the chapter “L’equazione bordighismo-trotskismo”, pp429-456.

[89] Victor Serge suggests that Gramsci was more aware of the situation than he could publicly admit and this partly explains his decision to leave Russia. See Serge 2002, pp186-7.

[90] “Quoted in Cammett 1967, p168.

[91] “To Terracini”, in Gramsci 2014a, pp263-264.

[92] Lenin 1967, “Speech at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”, p676.

[93] See Claudin 1975, pp63-71 and Lih 2011, Chapter 5.

[94] Buey 2015, p88.

[95] Gramsci 2014b, Notebook 14, p187; Notebook 14, §68, p1729 and Gramsci 1971, pp240-1.

[96] See Fiori 1990, pp252-3. Paolo Spriano throws doubt on Gennaro Gramsci’s story, though there seems to be no reason for him to have invented the narrative. As a “party historian”, Spriano tended to minimise Gramsci’s differences with the official line. See Spriano 1979, pp56-60.

[97] Davidson 1982, p142.

[98] “To Zinov’iev”, in Gramsci 2014a, p346.

[99] “To Vincenzo Bianco”, ibid., p332.

[100] “To Togliatti”, ibid., p438.

[101] Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, “The Italian Situation and the Tasks of the PCI (‘Lyons Theses’)” in Gramsci 1978, p365.

[102] As Adamson suggests, Gramsci later in his prison notes seems to have conducted a self-critique of the internal functioning of the PCI during his time as leader. Adamson 1980, pp96-97.

[103] Davidson 1982, p150.

[104] Gramsci 1978, “The Internal Situation and Our Party and the Tasks of the Forthcoming Congress”, p293.

[105] Davidson 1982, p173.

[106] Spriano 1976, p496.

[107] Gramsci 1978, “The Party’s First Five Years”, p385.

[108] Togliatti 1979, “The Formation of the Leading Group of the Italian Communist Party in 1923-24”, p261.

[109] For example, the Fourth International and other Trotskyist currents took a disastrous “turn to industry” en bloc in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

[110] Buey 2015, p87.

[111] Coutinho 2012, p51.

[112] Marcos del Roio also makes a compelling argument for the continuity of Gramsci’s interests between his pre-prison and prison writings. See Del Roio 2015.


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The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure-Sandra Bloodworth

Posted by admin On October - 7 - 2018 Comments Off on The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure-Sandra Bloodworth

“One of the most absurd notions taken over from eighteenth century enlightenment is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man.”

– Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.[1][2]

“A fundamental principle of Marxist analysis is that…there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution. It also sees change as produced by forces internal to the social system itself. In other words, causes are not external to and independent of social organization. Inevitable population growth, ecological conditions, or God’s will are not explanations of war, poverty, sexism, or any other social question.”

– Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality.[3]


Frederick Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (hereafter The Origin) was published in 1884. In it he argued that early humans had lived in non-hierarchical societies in which women were not oppressed. The idea that classes might not exist and that men have not always dominated women was widely and systematically denounced as preposterous in the social sciences academy. And the book has remained the subject of debate, especially among feminists, to this day.

There are weaknesses in Engels’ argumentation, not least because he had to rely on the now superseded knowledge of his generation. But also because, in spite of being one of the then most progressive supporters of women’s rights, he accepts many of the stereotypes about women’s sexuality of his time. Nevertheless, there is wide recognition of the importance of this book. Gerda Lerner, a feminist theorist not known for her support of Marxism, says that in spite of self-evident weaknesses,

Engels made a major contribution to our understanding of women’s position in society and history… By locating “the world historic defeat of the female sex” in the period of the formation of archaic states, based on the dominance of propertied elites, he gave the event historicity. Although he was unable to prove any of his propositions, he defined the major theoretical questions for the next hundred years.[4]

Engels basically summarised notes made by Marx and himself on the research of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. He also incorporated research on the history of the family in ancient societies by Johann Bachofen, a Swiss historian and archaeologist, and relied on his own research about Germanic and Celtic societies. This book was not some isolated, discrete work. It can only fully be understood if taken together with the ideas developed by both Engels and Marx in The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Communist Manifesto and Capital, to name just the best known. Their joint efforts to understand capitalist society and all its degradation and oppression involved, from their earliest writings, grappling with the question of women’s oppression. In On the Jewish Question, written when Marx was 25, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The Holy Family later that year, Marx frequently comments on the enslavement of women and the need for their emancipation.[5] Engels, in his first major work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written from 1844 to early 1845, repeatedly returns to the dangerous and debilitating conditions of women workers. He discusses the effects on women and men of having women working while men are left at home unemployed and makes a point against the moralising of liberal commentators. If this seems unnatural, he says, it must look so because there is “some radical error in the original relationship between men and women. If the rule of the wife over her husband…is unnatural, then the former rule of the husband over the wife must also have been unnatural”.[6]

Also, Engels’ article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, mostly neglected by the critics of The Origin, laid a solid foundation for understanding human development. Predicated on Darwin’s theory of evolution, but theoretically grounded in his and Marx’s materialist conclusions, he argued that it was the use of hands freed by standing upright which drove human development down the path of tool-making. This then led to a growing intelligence and the development of speech. After a series of controversies and even fraudulent evidence over the next century, the discovery in Africa in 1974 of a three and a half million year-old skeleton with an ape-sized brain but erect posture meant Engels’ proposition was widely accepted, if not always explicitly attributed to him.

The point of this article is to consider whether Engels’ basic proposition – that women’s oppression coincided with the division of society into classes and the rise of the state – stands up. I will not deal with every error or weakness, as many of them are peripheral to this question. And I will not answer every argument made by his critics, as most of them are also not relevant to this point, and I have answered some of them elsewhere.[7]

First, drawing on anthropological and archaeological knowledge assembled over the last half century, I reply to some of the most common arguments which assert that women’ oppression is universal. Then I outline Engels’ basic argument. Thirdly, I outline my argument, which relies heavily on the British Marxist Chris Harman, who interpreted more recent research using Engels’ theoretical method.[8] Finally I will show that the most recent archaeological evidence, while it radically challenges Engels’ historical detail, actually strengthens his central thesis that women’s oppression was established as society divided into classes. However I go beyond both Engels and Harman to explain the origins of women’s oppression in a way that I consider more consistent with Marxism.

Is women’s oppression universal?

Until the 1960s anthropologists almost unanimously agreed that women have always been oppressed. Anthropology, because of its claim to scientific research, was difficult to challenge. And so feminists who took this position were influential. Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed in her famous book The Second Sex, “this has always been a man’s world” and that “the female…is the prey of the species”.[9] Susan Brownmiller’s argument that men have always been violent towards women was very influential among feminists in the 1970s.[10] In opposition to Marxism, she attributed other social divisions such as class and race to men’s domination of women:

Concepts of hierarchy, slavery and private property flowed from, and could only be predicated upon the initial subjugation of woman.

She struck a nerve among feminists happy to accept pop-psychology conjecture in place of historical evidence so long as it painted men as the key enemy:

[O]ne of the earliest forms of male bonding must have been the gang rape of one woman by a band of marauding men. This accomplished, rape became not only a male prerogative, but man’s basic weapon of force against women, the principal agent of his will and her fear… By anatomical fiat – the inescapable construction of their genital organs – the human male was a natural predator.

It was women’s “fear of an open season of rape” which led them to strike the “risky bargain” of “conjugal relationship” and was the “single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man”.[11]

The anthropologist Margaret Mead found “the Arapesh [do not] have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them”. This clearly indicates that rape is a product of particular social systems, not simply men’s physiological attributes. But Brownmiller makes no attempt to explain how this can be understood in view of her own sweeping assertions.[12]

Since then, there has been a wealth of anthropological and archaeological studies which provide overwhelming evidence that women have not always been oppressed and therefore have not always suffered male violence. And yet most non-Marxist writers, and even some who profess to agree with Marx (though not Engels), such as Heather Brown – author of the most recent serious study of Engels’ book and Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks – are still reluctant to accept this basic proposition.[13]

Some feminists studied non-human primates, extrapolating from what they observed to build a picture of human evolution and what the earliest societies might have been like. They concluded there was no evidence that the first hominids, evolving from the apes, would have been male-dominated with females subjected to violence. Brownmiller herself quotes Jane Goodall, who studied wild chimpanzees and found the female did not accept every male who approached her. Even persistent males were not known to rape. Brownmiller even quotes Leonard Williams’ Man and Monkey which concluded that “in monkey society there is no such thing as rape, prostitution, or even passive consent”.[14] However, she claims that because human females are sexually active at any time, unlike other primates, men are capable of rape. The implication is that monkeys and chimps are physically incapable of rape. But the feminist scholar Sally Slocum found that non-human primates “appear not to attempt coitus (when the female is unreceptive), regardless of physiological ability”.[15] A later study, based on similar observations plus archaeological and anthropological studies, concluded “the picture then is one of bipedal, tool-using, food-sharing, and sociable mothers choosing to copulate with males also possessing these traits” at the dawn of humanity.[16]

There are many gaps in our knowledge between these first steps in the evolution of hominids from the apes, probably over two million years ago, and the rise of class societies. Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged from homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and for almost 190,000 years they lived in egalitarian communities with increasingly sophisticated and complex cultures in which there was no oppression.

The starting point from which to assess anthropological evidence about these gatherer-hunter societies is to recognise the bias embedded within the data. Academics and anthropologists who collected this information accompanied colonial invaders and Christian zealots. They were invariably culturally blind and prejudiced against other societies, so their conclusions cannot be read at anything like face value. Overwhelmingly male, they took with them the cultural and social values of capitalist society which distorted their interpretation of what they saw, especially when it came to gender relations. Anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock, Karen Sacks and others have convincingly demonstrated the male-oriented and prejudiced nature of arguments by influential anthropologists such as Malinowsky and Lévi-Strauss.[17] As I concluded in a study of the diaries of early “explorers” in the west of Australia:

[T]he gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society were understood very much in the terms set by European prejudice and expectations of the time. The ideal of idle women and the juxtaposition of “damned whores and god’s police” were embroidered by and entwined with the brutal racism and sexism which characterised the white settlement.[18]

Western anthropologists and other observers, imposing their view of the world on the societies they studied, assumed the nuclear family of modern capitalism to be a universal feature of human organisation of reproduction and sexuality. Society was thought to be divided into the “public”, male sphere and the “private”, female sphere, a concept clearly associated historically with the rise of capitalism and completely useless in understanding the egalitarian, co-operative and integrated nature of gatherer-hunters’ lives. Because women’s responsibility for childcare in our society contributes to their inferior status and oppression, it was erroneously assumed this could be read into the meaning of their work in all societies.[19] Even many feminist anthropologists “assume low status for maternity, which they see as constraining activities, hindering personality development, and reducing women’s symbolic value. They project the values of our culture onto other cultures”.[20] Judith Brown, writing about the assumed division of labour by sex in gatherer-hunters, writes that women’s “tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions (by children)”. This, she assumes, means that women were of low status.[21] I will show below that this view, which was already being challenged, is even less tenable in light of the most recent knowledge.

Secondly, the Eurocentrism of most anthropology obscures the effects of colonial expansion on pre-capitalist societies. As the feminist anthropologist Rayna Reiter noted:

We cannot literally interpret the lives of existing foraging peoples – such as the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari, the Eskimos, the Australian Aborigine – as exhibits and replications of processes we speculate to have occurred in the Palaeolithic. Neither can we assume the decimated, marginalised existences of peoples pushed to the edges of their environment by thousands of years penetration will exhibit original characteristics.[22]

Colonial expansion brought profound changes. These changes could be rapid, affecting research done even at a very early period of invasion. For one thing, members of the society being colonised soon learnt strategies for survival and for minimising attacks on themselves.[23] It is widely believed that Indigenous women in Australia were treated as inferior chattels before white invasion. The arguments rest on reports which reflect the prejudices of early settlers and ignore the catastrophic effects of the white invasion. Most accounts of early contact refer to “the natives” as though the men were the only ones of any consequence; for example, “we saw the natives and their women”. Explorers would have expected to deal with men and viewed women as sex objects, if noticed at all. The Aborigines very early on experienced abduction and rape of women. Henry Reynolds recounts that Torres Strait Islanders told a government official in 1881 that when whites were seen, the women were buried in the sand to avoid ill-treatment.[24] Where this was the case, the male bias of explorers and other observers would have been exaggerated even further. Their impression of gender relations in Aboriginal society would have been of men as the dominant, outgoing sex and women as retiring, submissive and afraid. This then had a dynamic which reinforced the exaggeration of the importance of men. The male explorers gave gifts to men. These gifts of tomahawks, knives, flour, sugar and tobacco may seem trivial taken individually. However, as contact increased and the products of the invaders became more coveted and widespread among Aborigines, these gifts could be expected to change the balance of relationships between women and men. For instance, when land was rendered less accessible or productive because of invasion, Aborigines depended more on food from whites. This undercut the women’s ability to provide for themselves and their children independently of the men.[25]

Leacock documented the pressures exerted on egalitarian social relations by the Jesuits and others committed to hierarchical social relations and women’s oppression, as they colonised the lands of the Montagnais-Naskapi of Canada and the Iroquois Indians of North America.[26] She summarised:

[T]he structure of egalitarian society has been misunderstood as a result of the failure to recognize women’s participation in such society as public and autonomous. To conceptualize hunting/gathering bands as loose collections of nuclear families, in which women are bound by dyadic relations of dependency to individual men, projects onto hunter/gatherers the dimensions of our own social structure. Such a concept implies a teleological and unilinear view of social evolution, whereby our society is seen as the full expression of relations that have been present in all society… Reinterpretations of women’s roles in hunting/gathering societies reveal that qualitatively different relationships obtained.[27]

Some of the most recent and compelling evidence that women have not been universally oppressed exists at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which was continuously occupied for 1,400 years until 6000 BC. New interpretations of archaeological evidence and advances in science in DNA testing have challenged original conclusions about this fascinating site. The team working with Ian Hodder, the chief archaeologist at the site since 1994, “searched hard” for differences in the diets of women and men as an indicator of social differences. They found “little evidence of radically different lifestyles”. And the fact that all skeletons had carbon residue on their ribs from spending time in smoke-filled houses shows that women were not tied to the home any more than men. He concluded: “[O]verall, there is little evidence that gender was very significant in the allocation of roles… There must have been differences of lifestyle in relation to childbirth, but these differences do not seem to be related to major social distinctions”. Nor did differences in dress or lives mean that “one gender was privileged above the other in terms of the transmission of rules and resources or in terms of social status and lifestyle”.[28]

A considerable body of anthropology shows that in societies such as the !Kung and Mbuti of Africa, women until quite recently participated in decision-making as equals with men, controlled their own sexuality and contributed as equals to productive activity.[29]

In light of this widespread evidence, to which I will add more below, let’s now turn to Engels’ explanation of the origins of women’s oppression.

Engels’ argument

Engels argued that the earliest humans lived in small egalitarian bands, what he called “primitive communism”, or sometimes “savagery” and later “barbarism”, which are offensive to a modern reader, but were in line with archaeological terminology employed at the time. Over thousands of years humans found new, innovative ways to provide the needs of the group until the labour of an individual could produce more than was necessary for their survival. This, he argues, leads to

differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval.

In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property…[30]

Women’s subordination to men was rooted in this process. He outlines changes in the family from group marriage in which groups of women and men are permitted to have sexual relationships with everyone in the group. In this communistic household, he argues, women are highly valued because they are self-evidently parents of their children whereas paternity is indeterminate.

Engels argues that the domestication of large animals produced the first surplus above what society needed. Given men were thought to be responsible for this as a continuation of their role as the hunters, they were assumed to have control over this surplus product. He outlines a complicated argument about mother right and inheritance through not the family but her gens.[31] By various means, the rules of inheritance were changed so that their newly acquired wealth could be passed down through the men’s gens. He actually quotes Marx’s research into some American Indians who appeared to be in transition, and who were changing the way they named their children: “[T]he custom has grown up of giving the children a gentile name of their father’s gens in order to transfer them into it [instead of their mother’s gens to which they previously belonged], thus enabling them to inherit from him”. Marx said of this: “Man’s innate casuistry! To change things by changing their names! And to find loopholes for violating tradition while maintaining tradition, when direct interest supplied sufficient impulse”. This indicates that inheritance could be changed to account for new social relationships.

Engels says “[t]his revolution [was] one of the most decisive steps ever experienced by humanity”, this “overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex”. And so, if women’s oppression was grounded in the rise of class divisions, then women would only throw off that oppression once they were ended. Engels knew he couldn’t prove how or when these changes occurred, but was confident that there is plenty of evidence that it did happen.[32]

He has been proven absolutely right. Increasingly archaeological evidence and revised assessments of the anthropology of pre-class societies reinforce Engels’ major propositions. The latest evidence shows that for most of the 200,000 years of the history of homo sapiens, they lived in egalitarian societies. It is legitimate to assume there was no oppression. By what means would anyone impose systematic discrimination on any group, and what purpose would it serve in a society which depended on everyone’s contribution? Without a surplus there can be no layer in society not required to contribute to production. And without exploitation, there is no material basis for the oppression of any section of the community. When I was doing research in the late 1980s, the contributors to anthropology journals who argued that women’s oppression is universal instinctively recognised that they would have to defeat the more basic argument that humanity began its social life in non-hierarchical, cooperative societies. As Karen Sacks says, a consistent Marxist, materialist analysis rests on the understanding that “there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution… [C]auses are not external to and independent of social organization”.[33]

The question is, why did the rise of classes lead to the oppression of women? Engels had to work with evidence which existed in his time. So he accepted the dominant but mistaken idea that only men hunted. He also worked with the dominant but wrong thesis among archaeologists that the herding of animals produced the first surplus. So he not unreasonably concluded that men were responsible for and therefore in control of it. In his view, this was the material basis for the changes to the rules of family rights and responsibilities so that previously matrilineal lines of descent and responsibility were replaced by inheritance passed through the male line. For this to be possible, women’s sexuality had to be controlled, so that the paternity of children was clear, unlike in the past when women could have numerous sexual partners.

Engels’ argument in the modern context

So let’s turn to what the latest research indicates and how it affects Engels’ argument. Evidence assembled since the 1960s and now widely accepted as valid debunks virtually every detail of Engels’ argument. However, his central proposition is more soundly confirmed, that is, women’s oppression is not universal but is grounded in the rise of class society. Summing up the widespread consensus which has emerged, Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, two of the editors of the 2014 edition of The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers (hereafter The Oxford Handbook) write:

[S]mall-scale hunter-gatherer communities…in all likelihood, remained egalitarian societies lacking pronounced differences in social status, and with little in the way of archaeological evidence for the presence of private wealth or accumulation of prestige objects.[34]

It took tens of thousands of years even after some communities could produce a surplus before a minority, exploiting class backed up by a state emerged. And the process by which these developments took place was very different from how Engels, and even many still today, explain it. Some archaeologists now argue that technological and social features formerly associated with fully settled agricultural societies, such as large sedentary populations, socio-economic inequalities, slavery, craft specialisation, etc., are evident among many communities much earlier than previously thought. These developments took off as early as 40,000 years ago in Europe and spread to many parts of the world over the next 20,000 years. Brian Hayden, a contributor to The Oxford Handbook, argues that “the major watershed in cultural development was not the domestication of plants or animals, but the emergence of the more complex societies that first occurred among hunters and gatherers”.[35]

The evidence is scattered, depending on where archaeological sites are established. However, we see qualitative developments when the last of the ice sheets of the Palaeolithic era melted. As rivers swelled and coastlines rose from melting ice, animal life proliferated along the banks and shorelines. It created new ecosystems with abundant resources such as fish, fertile soil, good rainfall and the like, which encouraged nomadic communities to settle more permanently or at least seasonally. These developments happened first, as far as we know, on the north-east coast of Japan and in the Ukraine, later on the north-west coast of the US, Anatolia, Australia, and along rivers in South-East Asia.

Increasingly across the globe humans who, as far as we know at this time, had travelled vast distances from Africa, were experimenting with burning, tilling the soil, weeding, planting, sowing, irrigating and draining the land. All were gradually contributing to the increased productivity of human labour.[36] These societies maintained their habits of foraging and hunting, but could begin to produce a surplus, if only for difficult times such as drought. But they remained egalitarian and collective communities.

Many of the first “explorers” leading the invasion of Australia or those who established properties on Aboriginal land before their culture was completely destroyed reported that the Indigenous people produced large stores of grain clearly not needed for immediate use. A typical account was described as a “native granary” on the Finke River in the Northern Territory. On a platform built in a tree over three metres from the ground were bags stuffed with grain. Another in the Northern Territory recorded about a ton of grain stored in wooden dishes covered with bark. In central New South Wales another recorded kangaroo skin bags full of grain. The Europeans were unable to explain this behaviour; why would anyone leave stores of nutritious and delicious grain unguarded? To them, only civilised, settled people “farmed”. But Aboriginal communities were semi-sedentary, building houses sometimes where they lived while harvesting or managing a particular area of land. They could leave their stores knowing they would be untouched when they returned from walking across their land, something those from class society simply could not grasp.[37]

Hayden’s conclusions are commensurate with Marx and Engels’ explanation of social change: “[I]t appears that there is an important relationship between resource productivity and surplus production on the one hand and socio-political complexity on the other”.[38]

And so, after at least 150,000 years, this creature which had evolved from early hominids reaching back millions of years – now known to have interbred with Neanderthals who, contrary to early assumptions, had complex social and cultural practices – began to divide between those who produced the needs of society and a minority who lived off the labour of the majority. “The world historical defeat of the female sex”, as Engels put it, was not a single event. Engels would easily embrace the latest conclusions drawn by archaeologists, as they are so clearly comparable with his and Marx’s approach. They understood that society was always in a constant process of change. Small developments in the way production is carried out accumulate and gradually change the way people relate to each other. Engels actually comments that the changes took place over thousands of years, so the long term consequences of changes would not have been evident to any individual. It would take thousands of years before ruling classes and states were established only about 8-10,000 years ago, emphasising that there is nothing natural about exploitation and oppression among humans.

I have been uncomfortable with aspects of Engels’ explanation since I began looking at the evidence in the 1980s. It raises a crucial question which has not been addressed by either his detractors or defenders. If whole families or lineages became a ruling class, what was the role of women in that? The society which was undergoing this development was egalitarian, in which all members, both women and men, participated in important decision-making. So why would women in that social layer just let the men get control? It is not credible that they played no role either in implementing some of the changes or resisting them, possibly both at different times. So I want to outline a different account, not original in all its points, but including one I don’t think anyone has argued before, which acknowledges that women were active participants in the development of the class divisions which led to the systematic oppression of women themselves.

Evolving debates and evidence

First it’s worth summarising some relevant arguments and debates over the last four decades among feminists and Marxists. In the 1970s some feminists began to challenge the accounts which assumed men’s dominance in gatherer-hunter societies. The best of them, some mentioned above, found that women played a constructive, productive role as gatherers which gave them equal standing with men. Karen Sacks was typical. She showed that in some gatherer-hunter societies women adapt the number of pregnancies to the needs of production. She showed that !Kung women in Africa do not take a break from gathering while nursing their infants which, she wrote, “attests to the cultural centrality of women’s productive roles, as well as countering a simple minded reproductive determinism”.[39]

These were very useful studies, as they established that the origins of women’s oppression must be sought in historical, social developments. However, they reinforced the image of man the hunter and woman the gatherer, just reworking it to show that women played a key role in early societies which gave them equal standing with men. More recently the assumption that there was a strict division of labour between women and men has been challenged. Feminist archaeologist Rosemary Joyce comments that some archaeologists began to realise that the assumptions of researchers too often “locked them into viewing the past as a version of the present”, and that it is wrong to assume that gender is “timeless, and more important than any other social distinction”. She also showed that advances in DNA analysis of skeletons revealed that allocations of gender by association with clothing or occupation, as was the usual practice, were erroneous.[40] Two ethno-archaeologists, writing in The Oxford Handbook, also strongly challenge all the old assumptions about a gender division of labour:

Actualistic, field-based studies reveal that the division of labour was highly variable and more flexible than commonly assumed, both within and across populations…[the] division of labour occasionally followed lines of age, ability and experience, among other factors, rather than gender alone.

They comment that “[a] growing ethnographic literature documents the simple but undeniable reality that women also hunt”; and for a wide range of animals of all sizes. “While work areas do sometimes appear to be divided along gender lines, there is also ample evidence for widespread comingling of men’s and women’s activities and work areas, or organisation of work and space along lines other than gender.” They argue that the assignment of tools and implements to women and men in archaeological finds is unreliable because it can just as easily reflect the bias of the researchers (examples of which Joyce documents). But importantly, they argue that an emphasis on the moment of capture and killing is misleading. For one thing, traps, snares and various constructions moderated the dangers and difficulty inherent in hunting: “The full repertoire of procurement technologies and strategies, no doubt, required the complementary labour of women, men, and children”. They argue that insufficient attention is given to what follows the capture: preparing food, clothes, implements, thread, much of which women could do when pregnant or breast-feeding, and conclude:

Carrying the point further, one might note the predominance of women in manufacturing hides and sophisticated tailored skin, gut and fur wardrobes, which allowed hunter-gatherer populations to live and work in cold environments. Facile arguments about women’s “marginalization” and/or men’s “high prestige” tend to wither in the face of such behavioural realities…

A critical issue here is that even though men can have negligible or limited roles in some activities of vital economic concern, these limitations are rarely recognized or used to revise entrenched ideas about the sexual division of labour. On the contrary…the profession has a history of interpreting hunter-gatherer society in terms of women’s marginalization and exclusion.[41]

So to repeat: the evidence does not indicate that men would automatically have got control of any surplus created by domesticating animals; the first surpluses were probably the result of better production of vegetables, fruit, grains and/or fishing, activities which no one disputes women played an active role in. Neither can men’s dominance be explained by the use of the heavy plough as many argue, because class societies and women’s oppression arose in the Americas before its introduction.

Beyond Engels

To explain how women’s oppression became integral to class societies we need to uncover the relationship between objective developments in production and changes this brought about in social relations, including how reproduction was restructured.

Gatherer-hunters and fishers began to settle at least seasonally where they could produce something of a surplus while still largely egalitarian. Control of any surplus was allocated to trusted individuals or groups, perhaps religious figures – any of whom could have been women. They played a necessary social role involving reciprocal responsibilities, coordinating increasingly complex production methods, storing and distributing resources as needed. For thousands of years this did not give those with responsibility for the surplus undue power backed up by coercive powers of a state, even though they may have a high status and access to extra wealth. So how do we explain what changed and why that resulted in men dominating women?

Among nomadic gatherer-hunters it was important that no woman was responsible for more than one infant at a time and so women spaced childbirth around the needs of production. By contrast, in more settled societies, children are potentially extra producers. There is also the need to compensate for a higher death rate, the result of a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, and the possibility of wars over the resources which are stored. So the higher the birth rate the more successful that society is likely to be.

It is in the interests of the whole society for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel or later heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks of death, infertility or abortion – or which expose to danger infants dependent on their mother’s milk. So gradually, women’s role changes from being central to production, as well as reproduction, in gatherer-hunter and early horticultural societies. Over time they are excluded from some aspects of production. The anthropologist Ernestine Friedl found evidence that in horticultural societies where men travel long distances for trade and are involved in war, their status increases relative to women. And I want to stress that women were decision-makers in this process. Every step down this path was small and incremental. As Engels emphasised, individuals did not know what the long term, cumulative effects would be.

At Çatalhöyük in Anatolia – a settled, though classless community lasting 1,400 years between 7400 and 6000 BC – as the incentive (or possibly simply the possibility) for women to bear more children than in nomadic society, Ian Hodder notes: “gender roles may have become more demarcated as part of wider changes in society… Men and women may increasingly have become associated with specialist tasks and spheres”.[42]

So with women bearing more children and not as involved in some areas of productive activity, there would be a new emphasis on relations between successive generations of males tied to the land and other means of production. As Harman concludes: “Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality”. We can now say that those trans-egalitarian gatherer-hunters Hayden writes about, settling in areas of abundance, would experience the beginnings of this process. Importantly, as Harman, but not Engels, notes, not all men got control of any surplus, only those in an emerging ruling group.

For this group to develop the mentality of exploiters, they would have had to come to identify the interests of society as a whole with their control of production. They did not necessarily think of themselves as introducing oppressive relationships. And here I want to diverge from both Engels and Harman, whose accounts are generally accepted by Marxists.

Women in that group could well have agreed that their family lineage, no matter how it was organised, should keep control of the wealth they were in charge of. So just as men in the ruling group could well want to ensure the paternity of their children was clear in order to pass on responsibility for producing and managing the wealth they controlled, so too could women associated with them. It is not convincing to talk of a ruling group emerging in which only men have any say, given that in the society which is being transformed it is generally thought that women and men all contributed to important decisions. Women as well as men had an interest in changing the lines of inheritance. Women’s roles shifted, not because the surplus was created by herding which put men in control, but because with increased numbers of child births, it made sense for lines of inheritance and responsibility for production and management of surpluses to pass through the male line.

Engels’ argument that the imposition of onerous rules could well have provoked resistance is rarely given any serious consideration, and so evidence of this possibility is not taken into account. Indeed the notorious Hammurabi Code of around 1717 BC – drawn up by the Babylonian king of that name and based on even earlier laws in the new class societies of Mesopotamia – prescribed monogamy for women on pain of death, and the rule that women who resisted their subordination “must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks”. It “tended to exact severer penalties for certain offences, especially for offences against the sacredness of the family”.

The existence of this Code indicates that attempts to oppress women at least sometimes met with resistance which was in turn crushed with ruthless force.[43] Some more class-conscious women could well have participated in imposing such controls over the sexual activity of rebellious members of their circles.

Even though the most dramatic result of this social reorganisation was the oppression of women, it would not have been evident to either the fledgling rulers or those ruled over. As Engels argued, these developments happened over hundreds if not thousands of years, causing a raft of changes, many of which would have unforeseen consequences. There was an upheaval of social, cultural and political life, just as any major change to the productive capacity of society has generated in the thousands of years since. As women hadn’t been oppressed, no one would have anticipated such a devastating outcome.

The argument about the long term evolution of class and state structures can appear to be a seamless, teleological process; too seamless. There is evidence that emerging ruling groups could well have met with resistance. So to maintain their authority to manage the surplus, they would most likely have begun to codify the obligations and rights of members of the community. And as they became more controlling, their position increasingly entrenched by rules and laws, so society’s expectations changed. Gradually any challenge to them would have become a crime against not just them as individuals, but against society.

A number of Neolithic towns in Anatolia which remained egalitarian and dependent on gathering and hunting were occupied by thousands between 10,000 and 7000 BC. However gradually they exhibit signs of hierarchies. Göbekli Tepe, 9600-8000 BC, is thought to be a ceremonial centre, with no houses for living. This suggests the existence of a religious elite whose prestige extended over a wide area.

And there is evidence that developing hierarchies were resisted. The Turkish archaeologist Mehmet Ozdogan, involved in these sites, believes there was a social revolution about 7200 BC which overthrew an elite in Çayönü followed by similar revolutionary upheavals around the surrounding region. In a private email to me in 2011 he wrote:

I am almost sure that there must have been some sort of social turbulence [in that period], not only at Çayönü but in most of the core area of Neolithic Anatolia.

Bernhard Brosius, who studied Anatolia and Balkan Neolithic societies agrees.

On a certain day 9,200 years ago the manorial houses were burnt down… The temple was torn down and burnt, and converted into a municipal waste dump. The slums in the west disappeared for good… The new Çayönü was erected. There were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard… All hints to social differences were erased.[44]

He argues that this resulted in a classless society at Çatalhöyük with traditions which lasted for at least 1,000 years.

James C. Scott, in his book Against the Grain, summarises evidence about the history of the early states of Mesopotamia. The most popular explanations by archaeologists of the collapse of many early states are invariably climate change, environmental degradation, population pressures. Scott hints at if not outright rebellions, then escape to surrounding communities not subject to taxation and control by the state, as a factor contributing to that decline. It is usually thought city walls were to keep marauding “barbarians” out, but there are archaeologists who think they were to keep people in.[45]

As ruling groups made efforts to stamp their authority and control over societies in the face of recurring resistance, control over women’s sexuality had to be imposed. This was critical if they were to entrench their position and that of their descendants as the owners of society’s surplus. Women as well as men resisted all these steps in the overthrow of egalitarianism. And so an increasingly repressive cycle ends with woman as “a mere instrument for the production of children”, as Engels thought.[46]

If it is difficult to imagine women participating in the establishment of a ruling group which insisted on control of women’s sexuality, and the accompanying compulsory constraints it entailed such as monogamy and heterosexuality, look no further than known history. Women in ruling groups throughout history have benefited from and enforced the exploitation and oppression of women. Modern day figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Gina Rinehart emphasise the point. To say nothing of Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, whose wealth of $US43.9 billion is made from an industry which encourages women to obsess about our appearance and then feeds off our anxiety. Alice Walton, heir to the fortune of the retail giant Walmart in the US, accumulated her $US46.6 billion by paying a mostly female workforce miserable wages.

They promote the stereotypes which justify systematic discrimination, even against themselves within their circles, in order to maintain their class’s power and prestige. So women could well have participated in imposing this new regime. While they experience oppression, they also have access to power and wealth by virtue of their class position, which depends on maintaining both the class and gender oppression of those their class exploits.

Also most women today – from all social classes – play a part in imposing, reinforcing or perpetuating women’s oppression to some degree today. It is by and large mothers, for example, who inculcate girls into the norms of a sexist society, and who uphold often most strongly the social values of family, respectability, etc. There is nothing automatic about the oppressed opposing, resisting or even being conscious of the way their oppression manifests.

As Marx and Engels argued, the ideas of society are necessarily the ideas of those who rule. So once ruling circles accepted new attitudes to women, they would quite naturally impose those ideas on the exploited, underpinned by the fact that exploited men could well be producing an increasing percentage of the surplus, while women were being encouraged to bear more children as future labourers to be exploited.


Marx argued in the Theses on Feuerbach that as humans act – producing their necessary food, clothes and shelter – they change themselves. Gradual cumulative changes give rise to new relationships which surround this means of producing, challenging old ideas and social relationships.

Engels’ details were completely askew. He knew next to nothing of gatherer-hunters in earlier societies other than slim reports from Australia. American Indians, studies of whom he read, were already impacted by colonial occupation. He discusses the changes which took place when the German tribes invaded the Roman empire. But it is not directly relevant if we want to know about the earliest societies which made the transition to exploitation, the state and women’s oppression. All it provides us with are hints, from which Engels made deductions, and which did provide some evidence of how family structures could change over time when wider changes occurred.

The fact is when we turn to the latest research, Engels’ arguments, just as his argument about the very development of humanity, are more clearly substantiated today than when he wrote the book. He was right to surmise that the changes involved increasing control over women’s sexuality so that the paternity of children was known. These changes arose from the interaction of the biological needs of reproduction of society and changing social relations of production – but not in the way Engels, and for that matter, how Marxists and feminists still explain it. For control of the surplus by a new ruling class living off the labour of the majority to become the norm, oppression of the majority of both women and men was necessary. The sexuality of women in the ruling elite was subject to new controls in order to ensure the inheritance of property by their class. Over time women’s inequality became entrenched in all classes, giving rise to new oppressive ideas about women’s “nature” and sexuality in particular, but in ways which imposed stereotypes on men as well. The ways in which this oppression has been maintained has varied in different class societies; but maintained it has been, whatever the cultural veneer that surrounds it. The rise of classes, the establishment of a state and women’s oppression was not some smooth, inevitable process; it was fraught with the possibility of resistance and turmoil, as Engels’ broad description of the process makes clear, contrary to those such as Heather Brown who dismiss his account as linear and undialectical:

[W]ithin this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up.

In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations.[47]

It is incumbent on Marxists and feminists to either defend or debunk Engels on the basis of the latest reliable scientific conclusions.

The clear gender division of labour everyone assumed is no longer a viable assessment of early human communities. So men did not just seize a surplus created by domesticating animals. For one thing, the process by which the earliest surplus was produced predates herding in many places and was the result of a more multi-faceted and complex process than just domesticating large animals. In Çatalhöyük there is no evidence of herding even in a settled township, while there was storage of plant foods, indicating that at least some surplus was produced by other means. And I have referred to other evidence of a surplus even among semi-nomadic communities with no domesticated animals for consumption.

Secondly, it was not just men who got control over the wealth which could be stored for difficult times. Trusted families or lineages, or perhaps religious leaders, any of whom could have been women, were voluntarily given responsibility to manage and distribute the surplus. At first this involved no undue power. However it did lay the basis for the eventual dominance of a minority with wealth and power which they increasingly defended with some kind of state apparatus.

Thirdly, women in that emerging ruling group would have gained power and prestige as well as men. Women were accustomed to participating in collective decision-making. So it’s not credible to ignore the part women would have played in changing rules which governed the community, including the imposition of new controls on the sexuality of women in the increasingly entrenched minority in control of the surplus. Once a ruling class was established, then their ideology of monogamy had to be imposed on the majority, just as the capitalists’ ideology of individualistic competition dominates not just their elite circles but is propagated as the norm for all of society.

The final victory of ruling classes was, as Engels said, the world historic defeat of women, but it was also a drastic defeat for the vast majority of humanity. As Engels comments, from then on, once states were established to defend those ruling groups, every step forward by humanity – such as improved production, the development of science, writing and culture – occurred, and still does, at the expense of the vast majority, the exploited and oppressed.[48] For them, both women and men, liberation will only be possible when the whole class structure has been destroyed.



de Beauvoir, Simone 1987 [1949], The Second Sex, Penguin.

Bloodworth, Sandra n.d., “Gender Relations in Aboriginal Society”, http://sa.org.au/interventions/gender.htm.

Bloodworth, Sandra 1992, “Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism”, Socialist Review, 5, Autumn.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2010, “Marx and Engel on women’s oppression and sexuality and their legacy”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring.

Brown, Heather 2012, Marx on Gender and the Family. A Critical Study, Brill.

Brown, Judith K. 1970, “A Note on the Division of Labour by Sex”, American Anthropologist, 72.

Brownmiller, Susan 1986, Against Our Will. Men, Women and Rape, Penguin.

Choonara, Joseph and Chris Harman 2009, “Pick of the Quarter”, International Socialism, 123, Summer.

Cummings, Vicki, Peter Jordan and Marek Zvelebil (eds) 2014, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers, Oxford University Press.

Dahlberg, Frances (ed.) 1981, Woman the Gatherer, Yale University Press.

Engels, Frederick 1972, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers.

Engels, Frederick 1977, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress Publishers.

Etienne, Mona and Eleanor Burke Leacock 1980, Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives, Praeger.

Gammage, Bill 2012, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, David F. 1988, The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press.

Harman, Chris 1994, “Engels and the Origins of Human Society”, International Socialism, 65, Winter.

Hodder, Ian 2006, The Leopard’s Tale. Revealing the mysteries of Çatalhöyük, Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2008, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Sex, Gender, and Archaeology, Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1978, “Women’s Status in Egalitarian Societies”, Current Anthropology, 10 (2), June.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1981, Myths of Male Dominance, Monthly Review Press.

Lerner, Gerda 1987, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press.

McGregor, Sheila 2015, “Marx Rediscovered”, International Socialism, 146, Spring.

Moore, Henrietta L. 1991, Feminism and Anthropology, Polity Press.

Reiter, Rayna R. (ed.) 1975, Toward an anthropology of women, Monthly Review Press.

Reiter, Rayna Rapp 1977, “The Search for Origins”, Critique of Anthropology, 3 (9/10).

Reynolds, Henry 1981, The Other Side of the Frontier, James Cook University.

Rohrlich, R. 1980, “The State Formation in Sumer and the Subjugation of Women”, Feminist Studies, Spring.

Sacks, Karen 1982, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality, University of Illinois Press.

Sanday, Peggy Reeves and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough (eds) 1990, Beyond the Second Sex. New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender, University of Pennsylvania.

Sayers, Janet, Mary Evans and Nanneke Redclift (eds) 1987, Engels Revisited: new feminist essays, Tavistok Publications.

Scott, James C. 2017, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press.

Tanner, Nancy and Adrienne Zihlman 1976, “Women in Evolution. Part 1: Innovation and Selection in Human Origins”, Signs, 1 (3), Spring.


Sandra Bloodworth, editor of Marxist Left Review, has written about Lenin and the 1917 Russian revolution, Marxist economics, women’s and sexual oppression and pre-class societies.

[1] This article has been largely shaped by over a decade of discussions about women’s oppression in Socialist Alternative by many comrades, both women and men. Mick Armstrong and Louise O’Shea in particular helped shape the arguments summed up here.

[2] Engels 1972, p113.

[3] Sacks 1982, p104.

[4] Lerner 1987, p23.

[5] All from the Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org.

[6] Engels 1977, p163.

[7] Sayers et al (eds) 1987 for a range of critics who presented papers at a symposium to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and Bloodworth 2010, pp76-79 for my reply to some of them.

[8] Harman 1994.

[9] de Beauvoir 1987 [1949], pp93 and 97.

[10] Brownmiller 1986. For my critique of her book see Bloodworth 1992.

[11] Brownmiller 1986, pp11-18.

[12] Brownmiller 1986, p284.

[13] Brown 2012, pp170-173. See McGregor 2015 for an excellent review of Brown. McGregor disproves virtually all of Brown’s arguments against Engels. She also outlines the weaknesses and errors in Raya Dunayevskaya, on which Brown heavily relies for her argument that Engels did not present Marx’s ideas correctly.

[14] Brownmiller 1986, p13.

[15] Sally Slocum, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology”, in Reiter 1975, p44.

[16] Tanner and Zihlman 1976.

[17] Leacock 1981, Chapters 11 and 12 for a critique of Lévi-Strauss; Sacks 1982, pp. 1-67; Dahlberg 1981.

[18] Bloodworth n.d.

[19] Moore 1991, pp38-41.

[20] Dahlberg 1981, p21.

[21] Brown 1970, p1074.

[22] Reiter 1977.

[23] Etienne and Leacock 1980 documents the effects of colonial domination in 12 societies, drawing on reports of missionaries, explorers and traders and other historical material.

[24] Reynolds 1981, p145.

[25] Bloodworth n.d.

[26] Leacock 1978; Leacock 1981.

[27] Leacock 1978, p255.

[28] Hodder 2006, p211.

[29] See Sanday and Goodenough (eds) 1984.

[30] Engels 1972, p72.

[31] The used of “gens” changed over time. Engels uses it to mean a group much wider than an immediate “family”, claiming descent from a common ancestor and united by a common name traced through the mothers. Later it was used to refer to the patriarchal groupings of families in ancient Rome.

[32] Engels 1972, pp112-120.

[33] Sacks 1982, p104.

[34] Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, “Introduction to Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Innovations”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p590.

[35] Brian Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p643.

[36] Jennie Robinson, “The First Hunter-Gatherers”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p600.

[37] Gammage 2012, Chapter 10, “Farms without fences”, pp281-304.

[38] Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p646.

[39] Sacks 1982, pp70-71.

[40] Joyce 2008, pp24 and 51; Greenberg 1988 for a discussion of gender/s in early societies, especially Part 1.

[41] Robert Jarvenpa and Hetty Jo Brumbach, “Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, pp1244-1248.

[42] Hodder 2006, pp210-211 and 218.

[43] Rohrlich 1980.

[44] Bernhard Brosius 2004, “From Çayönü to Çatalhöyük. Emergence and development of an egalitarian society”, cited in Choonara and Harman 2009, p223.

[45] Scott 2017, pp232-234.

[46] Engels 1972, p120.

[47] Engels 1972, pp71-2, emphasis added.

[48] Engels 1972, p226.

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