Organize the Unorganized?

After posting last week Boots Outside the Box, which argued that the poor MUST be organized, I got a few comments to the affect that the poor COULDN’T be organized.  Too demoralized.  Too vulnerable.  No leverage.  It’s a worthy question, and one that has a long history.

Another commenter posed the question in terms of middle-class organizing VERSUS organizing the poor.  My response:  there is no versus.  The question is, what is the relationship between them?

Since the poor are largely unorganized, I think it appropriate to respond in terms of organizing the unorganized.  Which also has a long history.

Back when dinosaurs stalked the earth …

Karl Marx introduced two terms — the Reserve Army of Labour (or Industrial Reserve Army) and the Lumpenproletariat.  The reserve army was considered part of the working class, either suffering temporarily from unemployment, or part of the never-as-yet employed, which capital could employ as needed.  The lumpenproletariat was considered a criminal class of petty hustlers, smugglers and prostitutes, recruitable by the bourgeoisie to be used against the working class.

Looking at actual society, one can see that the line between reserve army and lumpen is — and never was — so clear.  Treatments, definitions and attitudes have varied and been quarreled about over the years (wretched of the earth, multitude), along with their revolutionary or counterrevolutionary character, but these concepts persist to this day in one form or another.

That’s for background.

Craft unionism vs. industrial unionism

This was the big contention in American Trade Unionism circa 1900.  The foundation of craft unionism, the base of the AFL, was access to a narrow skill-set, and the leverage therefrom.  Take a modern factory.  If ALL the electricians went on strike, they could shut it down.  They were the elite of labor.  At their most charitable, the mass of industrial workers were unorganizable.  Having no special skills, they could be replaced en masse by the next batch of immigrants off the boat.  Less charitably, they were despised.  Barely speaking English, unschooled, living in wretched conditions, divided by nationalities, infected with foreign ideologies (like socialism, anarchism and syndicalism), they were in fact perceived as and treated as a threat.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905, represented a massive upsurge of industrial unionism, winning battles in textiles, mining and lumber, organizing women, Black and agricultural workers, workers the lily-white (and proud of it) craft workers wouldn’t touch.  They saw themselves as both revolutionaries and unionists, negotiating their wins, but eschewing contracts, which they saw as legitimizing wage slavery.  It worked well enough as the movement was on the march, but on the wane, it left them unable to consolidate their gains.

When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, the industrial unions were largely crushed, finished off by the post-war Palmer raids which deported their foreign-born leadership.

What was consolidated out of all this were various organizing committees and outfits like the Trade Union Educational League (working within existing unions), led by the Communist Party USA, which had emerged from the fires of WWI with a total (arguably excessive) commitment to industrial unionism.  It all came together in the mass organizing drives of the 1930’s under what became the CIO, which were bitterly opposed by the leadership of the AFL.

New forms of organization

The CP method was to constantly broaden the base of the movement in support of industrial unions.  To this effect, they promoted both the unemployed councils and the Sharecroppers Union, a militant organization of 8,000 poor Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South.  The unemployed councils were urban.  They fought against evictions and for the day-to-day needs of the poor, demonstrating at relief agency offices, etc.  They walked picket lines in strike support.  Both groups were on the radical side.  Both were shut down by the CP when it made its peace with Roosevelt as part of Stalin’s Popular Front period.

The CP rode out the McCarthy era and the consolidation of the trade union movement with the merger of the AFL and the CIO.  The unions then drove CP leaders out of top positions.  But the CP remained embedded in the industrial unions at every level, continuing to function as the gatekeepers of progressivism, conferring legitimacy to some, such as the peace movement and the civil rights movement, and leaving to hang out to dry the Black power movement and the radical anti-Vietnam war movement.

But the relevant point here is that the unemployed councils and the Sharecroppers Union were viable organizations provided they had outside support.  But they were only treated as subordinate, support organizations, not entities unto themselves.

3rd wave unionism

The 60’s saw the fitful development of what was known as 3rd wave unionism.  Craft unionism was the first wave, industrial unionism was the 2nd, and the 3rd wave included everyone else from government workers to field migrants to welfare recipients to home care workers to the unemployed.

As the CP held to the “classical” view, leaders such as Malcolm X saw the poor as a power base, and organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords openly embraced the lumpen as a revolutionary force.

Frantz Fanon on the lumpen:

“one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.”

While their revolutionary potential was never demonstrated in the U.S., as the whole revolution failed, the poor were organized into a great variety of vehicles.  The ghetto rebellions of the 60’s shook the system, and Lyndon Johnson’s poverty programs moved in, bought off the militant that could be bought (who ended up as the Black urban base of the Democratic Party), jailed the ones who couldn’t, and chilled things out.

One of the most successful organizations was the National Welfare Rights Organization (which was sanctioned by the CP), which organized the poor, including poor women, to get the most from the poverty agencies through militant direct action.  As the “good times” ended in the mid-70’s. though, the NWRO went under at the national level in 1975, but remained a force at the local level.

The CP and the NWRO were challenged by the development of the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council in the late 70’s.  The NYCUWC explicitly considered itself a union, and asked to be treated as such by organized labor.  Organized labor, and particularly the CP elements, treated this with scorn.  The left, threatened by something outside itself, alternated between declaring the poor unorganizable, or in some cases, better left unorganized:

The revolutionary proletariat must exercise great caution toward those members of the lumpenproletariat who are able to join the revolutionary movement because they often tend to be unstable and advocate adventurism and anarchism, harming the disciplined character of the movement.

But they were organized, the effort fueled by dozens of high-committed activists, winning some benefits and building a base of support in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn.  But the leadership saw themselves in a trap.  They could keep providing services, but at best this would have been tantamount to doing the work the government should be doing without getting paid for it.

Convert to electoral

Their move was to form the New Alliance Party, converting their base into an electoral force.  Their tactic was inside/outside.  Run mainstream candidates in the Democratic primaries, provided that candidate pledged to run in the general election as an independent.  An early success was Frank Barbaro’s 18% under the Unity Party line against Ed  Koch in 1981.  NAP peaked in 1988, when they got chair Lenora Fulani on the presidential ballot in all 50 states.  And the District of Columbia.  She got almost a quarter million votes that year.

But seeking a larger venue, NAP went into Ross Perot’s Reform Party and, in New York, the Independence Party.  The Reform Party tore itself apart in an orgy of sectarian bloodletting.  The NAP forces played a major role in the Independence Party gaining ballot status.  But part of the deal was that the NAP/Fulani forces abandoned their left politics.  Then the upstate party tried to drive them out.  They hung on, but at the expense of any connection to progressive issues other than electoral reform.  Their fate was sealed as they became Republican mayor Mike Bloomberg’s get-out-the-vote operation in Harlem in exchange for some funding.


Again, even this sordid tale shows that the poor CAN be organized — a 10-year run of good years is impressive by contemporary standards.  No, the poor haven’t made the revolution.  But then, neither did anyone else, and the unions have gone from 36% of the workforce in 1945 to 12.5% now.  Yeah, they’re doing great.

The question is HOW.  Recall the case of the IWW.  They won gains when the movement was on the upswing, and couldn’t consolidate them.  Likewise, much was won in the 60’s.  To the extent it was consolidated, it was through absorption into the Democratic Party.  But the greatest achievement these days is to elect a Democratic president who is finding new ways every day to cut our throats.

So I conclude with a few points.

(1)  The unemployed and poor CAN be organized if they have support from outside the ranks of the unemployed and poor.

(2)  One way their organization can be consolidated is electorally.

And here I make a jump.

(3)  Their electoral organization must be independent.  The Democratic Party does not want them, treats them as the craft workers of 1900 treated the immigrant factory workers off the boats.

We can do better.  To play off an old saw, first they came for the homeless, but I was not homeless so I said nothing …


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  1. and vague dividing lines.

    Thanks for the perspective and the historical recap.

    Just as, for polemical purposes, Marx drew an excessively bright line between the “reserve army” and “the lumpen”, we fall too easily into believing in a bright line between “the middle class” and “the poor”.  Of course, that latter division has front and center to its purpose the elimination from our very political language that centerpiece of Marx’s worldview, the working class itself.  Instead we have allowed the ideologists of capital to rip the working c lass into pieces, elevating some into the “middle class”, while sweeping the rest into the category of “the poor”, where hard-working people can then be labeled and dismissed as “welfare bums” and “criminals”.  The only mainstream use of “working class” is as a reference to certain lower-income white demographics, easily and superficially sketched out as conservative economically and politically, and socially racist and sexist.  Despite the fact that in reality, the working class is the most diverse, integrated and multicultural of any class in the US today.

    If we are to be effective in organizing the unorganized, we must begin with the reintroduction of the concept of the working class, as it really is, into the common language.  Class consciousness, a necessary precondition to successful self-organization, can only happen when the largest sections of a class recognize and identify with fellow members, not by race or religion, not by social caste status or aspiration, but by their current existing class.  When this is achieved, the false duality of organizing among the poor, and organizing among the “middle class” evaporates.  Unfortunately, we have yet to even begin the work of creating that precondition.  

  2. for expending resources dedicated to organizing, and not a question of either-or. I would hope that the question can be approached via analysis of data that already exists. Surely, somebody must have studied the socio-economic composition of members of the peace movement in the last 40 years, no? What about members of the anti-WTO efforts, women’s movement, etc? My speculation was based on a smattering of psychological knowledge, and not much more.

    Now, it’s occurred to me that one interesting way that the question itself could be wrong-headed is that, pre-occupied as I am with national and international issues (and frankly mostly ignorant of local and state issues), I hadn’t considered the scope of activists’ focus, and the potential for transforming that scope. In particular, transforming it from the smaller playing field of local activism to the larger field of national-level scope. (Well, I’ve written about such things before, but not recently.)

    Well, what brought this potential factor back to mind was listening to the latest installment of the Black Agenda radio show on the (See the show of 4/19). They interviewed the member of a vibrant group of local activists here in the very town where I live, viz., Newark, NJ. That group is People’s Organization for Progress (POP). (Actually, examining their web page shows far more than a local scope, even if their actions are locally based, AFAIK.)

    A better example, I suppose, are the Democrats for Change, which was the engine behind a huge influx of new blood into New Brunswick, NJ politics. See Progressives and Revolutionaries Win 25 Seats in Local Democratic Party. This group is definitely focussed on local issues. But as they are politically active, at all, they are probably an excellent route into enlisting their members in coalitions that have national scope. I’ll guess that, nowadays, New Brunswick residents are on the average middle class, but if they were lower class, I believe the same argument would hold.

    As for reaching people who are initially, completely unafilliated with any political group, though, with the purpose of getting them involved, I’m still sticking with my guess that it’s easier to do so with middle class people who are on a downwards trajectory into the lower class, as opposed to people who have been poor all their lives.

    I welcome data to show what the facts of the matter are. Maybe class doesn’t make any substantial difference. That’s certainly a logical possibility, also.

    • banger on April 25, 2010 at 15:08

    First, my complements on initiating a subject that really is important, as is usual with you.

    As Activist Guy commented without class-consciousness you have nothing on which to base an organization. Why is class consciousness impossible in this particular society at least at present? That is a big question we ought to be looking at around here but largely are not.

    The reason I don’t think anything can happen is that fundamental enculturation comes from the mass media, mainly television. The logic behind the medium itself and the values it espouses are ingrained from infancy in nearly all Americans. There is no escape from it. Yes, family and community play a part in early childhood development but the child sees that enormous attention is paid to what is on a screen in where, in other cultures, a family alter would be. I believe human beings are hardwired for what we call religion–when religion is the shifting images on the screen that tell us that our vision quest is to define ourselves by the products we use and the characters on the screen that strike our fancy (all created and manipulated by an oligarchy that seeks to enslave the masses and I mean this literally) then we see why it is impossible to generate class-consciousness in America.

    This is why politics in America is shifting steadily to the right and why there is no counter-force other than a handful of outlaw intellectuals on the internet who are literally speaking ancient Greek as far as the vast majority of the American people are concerned–particularly the poor.

    Real poor people are a mess in this country because they have been taught that they are worthless and expendable and don’t have the right to exist and live in dignity. It’s not the dire economic conditions, the lack of “education”, the lack of food, the lack of medical and dental care, it is the belief inherent in their worship of the screen that dooms them. To the extent that they have access to a deeper culture and honor their ancestors and their collective experience their lies their strength and in many it exists despite the vile values they have to imbibed provided by the all-powerful media.

    Forget working-class or any other consciousness. Marx never foresaw something like television and its ability to shape consciousness and to take on the role of religion–a religion that is conveniently structured to be used by any oligarchy that cares to form to control the populace not through using thugs but mind-control techniques–in short, magic.  

    • rossl on April 25, 2010 at 21:24

    However, both are being consumed by studying for a giant AP European history final.  Take a look at that Chris Hedges video I posted, it seems a bit related to this.

  3. at the outer membrane of this bubble and see only the reflections of themselves. They may not like what they see, but it’s the only thing they have. Like all insecure creatures, they cling to the familiar. If they attempt to look “through” the membrane to the wider universe, their bubble will burst. They will lose their importance.

    IMHO, we have only made it this far because our adventurous

    ancestors overcame bottleneck after bottleneck. And I’m talking about our pre-historical epoch. By annhilating indigenous people we’ve killed all links to ourselves.

    We need a serious anthropological, introspective study of our mind. And it has to be multiperspectival and dialogic.

    It has to be a joint endeavor of mutual discovery and understanding.

    We do not sit atop the pinnacle of historical progress, the great linear arrow into the future inside a protective bubble. The bubble is of our own making. I think we’re at the point where our politics must reflect an understanding of universal interdependence. We have to catch up to science real fast. The ultra modern, political apotheosis of private property as the “core of freedom” is just too absurd to lead to anything but conflict and oblivion.

    I know I haven’t directly addressed this excellent essay, but I always comment with a spontaneous, flow of consciousness, and hope, at least, to be tangentially relevant.

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