An Account of the January 18-19 (2014) Meeting on Working Class Politics at Sevagram

In our October (2013) meeting at Sevagram, we sought to comprehend the lag between the evolving nature of capital-labour conflicts and the institutionalised political language that most of us spoke – how latter was becoming a hurdle not just in not allowing us to make any meaningful contribution in workers’ politics, but many times by forcing us to play unknowingly reactionary role by thwarting the full realisation of politico-organisational potential of workers’ spontaneity and self-activism. It was this task of understanding and overcoming the lag that led us to demand from ourselves for our January meeting an attempt to engage in “workers’ inquiry” (the concept that we discussed in October) and deconstruct our politico-organisational programmatic abstractions in terms of reflections upon our engagement in concrete processes of class conflicts in our areas of work.

There were presentations from Nagpur that dealt with the history of workers’ struggles under a competitive regime of multiple trade unionism in particular industries. They showed how, on the one hand, these trade unions complemented the managerial techniques to produce and reproduce divisions among workers. On the other hand, various segments of workers indulged in ‘opportunistic’ manoeuvrings of the agencies of these unions to confront capital. During the discussions it came out that in recent years more and more workers in these industries are employed through contractors and on casual basis, and are thus generally not part of any union. The comrades from Nagpur stressed on bad unionism that simply instrumentalised workers for political gains and pointed at the lack of political consciousness among workers as a reason for their instrumentalisation. They do not consider workers’ said “opportunism” as a possible self-activity under specific conditions of entrenched unionist competition. However, it was pointed out during the discussion that ‘self-activity’ and ‘self-organisation’ are not to be glorified, rather they must be taken as something that necessarily happen in conflictual relationships between labour and capital.

A report presented from Dhanbad dealt with changes in industrial relations in collieries – with more and more workers being employed through contractors. The problem of multiple unionism on the basis of political lines does nothing but divide the strength and class consciousness of workers – they give a ready mechanism for the management to divide and rule. But the experience of collieries demonstrates that many a times workers, through their own initiatives and spontaneous coordination, confront managements. These initiatives force unions to come together, especially not to allow the competitors to take advantage. It was pointed out during the discussions that the unionist competition complementing the managerial strategies tend to clog out spaces for workers self-initiatives. It takes the suddenness of spontaneity to flush out blockages to workers’ coordination.

There was a report on the activities of Revolutionary Bolshevik Circle (RBC) and Union Research Group (URG) in 1970s -1980s that also touched upon independent cooperative experiments like that of Kamani Tubes in Mumbai. A worker-activist, who worked in RBC and later on was very closely associated with URG, presented the report. While the RBC was an attempt to move beyond traditional mass bureaucratic political formation within the working class, the leadership soon realised the gap between its programme and workers themselves – a gap between what they were targeting and what workers were up to. In their efforts to transcend this ‘communication gap’, the circle effectively dissipated itself in eclectic concerns of social importance – thus, reducing the working class to the sociologies of stratification and to mere one of those concerns.

The URG was a product of this dissipation, but was a unique recognition of the complexity of industrial relations beyond just the street rhetoric and muscle flexing that traditional unionism entailed. It did some very interesting studies on hi-tech industries and sought to develop the self-capacity of workers in organising themselves beyond the pecuniary logic of traditional unionism. It sought to arm the workers’ leadership in a factory with its research so that they negotiate with capital as equals and with an advantage – a knowledge of the opponents’ possible moves – changes in technology and managerial strategies. However, as it came out during the discussions, in the process URG seemed to idealise employees’ unions against traditional unions where ‘outsiders’ held the leadership, and sanctified the institutions of collective bargaining. It was noted that the stress on employees unions went well with the upcoming multi-national industries at the time that were wary of India’s traditional ‘political’ trade unionism and its erratic nature, and preferred either no unions or unions which would have interest in companies’ growth.

A contingent of University Workers, which mostly consist of students and adhoc teachers from various universities in Delhi, discussed their project of bringing out a newspaper, The University Worker (the draft of its first issue was circulated at the meeting). They discussed the crisis of the traditional left student movement, which conceived universities and education as sites of privileges. The political tasks for this movement were envisaged in a dual manner. On the one hand, the ‘workplace’ struggle was reformist and limited to making education inclusive, so that the underprivileged could share the privileges. Inclusion here implied both – an accommodation of more and more students from the underprivileged communities and a change in the curriculum design that can build an environment to facilitate such accommodation. On the other, the ‘revolutionary’ task was to mobilise martyrs who could sacrifice some of their privileges or utilise them to support the masses struggling somewhere else. Students’ movements too reflected the programmatic divide between the economic and the political – instrumentalising the former to prioritise the latter. Left students’ organisations like other left mass organisations engaged in “economic” struggles to mobilise cadres for “political” struggles which were supposedly happening at different sites or planes. During the Naxalbari phase, when we find a heightening of the discourse of sacrifices among students, it was mainly a symptom of a tremendous existential crisis among them. They were unable and unwilling to face the truth of their proletarianisation, in the wake of a massive increase in educated unemployment in the 1960s-70s. The political was an escape from the economic.

However, what we see now is ever more realisation that education is another work-site – it is integral to the social factory. It too is driven by the same logic of capitalist productivity and work discipline that is imposed through hierarchies and relationships that constitute the university system. Further, the hierarchisation of disciplines, schools, colleges, universities etc reproduces the same segmentation that characterises the labour market and the division among workers. The recent course restructuring and conflicts over it, especially in Delhi University, remarkably reflect all these processes. This has really changed the level of discourse in university politics – students and their organisations talking about the segmented labour market that the university system perpetuates and about the workerisation of the student life, while teachers reflecting upon intensity, productivity and the devaluation of their work to the level of instructors’ – the fading of their autonomy. There is a tremendous increase in ‘flexible’ employment in education – ad hocs, guest lecturers etc., are generally taken up by research students and new graduates. All this has virtually made the old understanding of solidarity redundant and even reactionary – because it leads to escapism and refuses to think education as a site of open class struggle. What is required is an inquiry-based coordination of concrete questions, and struggles around them, among various segments of workers divided across work-sites, including the sphere of education.

It was this presentation of university and schooling as sites of class struggle that opened up debates regarding the conceptualisation of class as a process continually posed and composed against and through proletarianisation and conflicts over the mobilisation and subsumption of living labour.

We also discussed the politics of common man (aam aadmi) as a statist response to the legitimation crisis that the capitalist state has been facing – and how its prime motivation is to organise and coopt the “street rage”, which is an expression of socially widespread precarities that manifests the mass character of intensive proletarianisation happening today. We discussed how in the centre of the recent anti-corruption and anti-rape movements were the anxieties and precarities of various proletarianised segments. We also tried to understand in the present conjuncture the meaning of spectacular gestures in terms of which traditional radicalism judged its successes, when they necessarily tended to blunt the critical edge of the centrality of the working class in the name of overcoming economism and socialising the unrest.

Faridabad Majdoor Samachar (FMS) presented their note on electronics – how its introduction has made many conceptualisations and organisational forms irrelevant for the contemporary working-class movement. There is a general consensus among managements about loyalty and commitment that permanent workers display – this consensus never dies as it revives every time some or other incident of defiance involving temporary workers occurs. But the unpredictability to which the introduction of electronics has exposed companies and governments by decomposing and intensifying production, along with the services transformation does not leave any scope for them to settle with permanent workforce. An increase in the temporary workforce is not a mark of strength and success for these companies and governments, as generally presented by experts and labour activists, but rather it exposes their fragility. They are eventually exposed to more precarities – mercurial and indifferent youthful workforce, having worked in geographically and industrially diverse environments at the age of 20-25 years. They can buy their labour-power, but not loyalty and commitment. The new spirit of the labour movement is embodied by these workers. It came out during the discussion that institutionalised organisational forms and languages are unable to capture this spirit. They are not only incapable of organising these workers, they are even unable to recognise the simmering unrest until and unless some grave incident happens. Therefore, the unpredictable behaviour of these workers is not only a problem for the human resource managements of companies, but also for the big and small managers of the labour movement.

The discussion on the organisational question was informed by debates around these reportings. The two notes that were circulated prior to the discussion were read in the light of diverse experiences. The note from a Kolkata comrade was, in fact, a response to the invitation letter that was circulated before the October Sevagram meeting, in which he raised apprehensions on any attempt to write off the utility of trade unions and party-forms for the contemporary workers’ movement. Trade union continues to play a defensive role in class struggle, however its bureaucratisation and conservatism must be challenged from below. While history has seen various forms of workers’ organisations, “no form can either nullify or guarantee self-activities of the working class.” Further, one can definitely question the substitutionist tendency, but that should not become the ground to reject the role of theory, individual and party as a network of communists.

The second note written by a comrade from Nagpur was a response to the first note. It questioned the radical utility of preconceived organisational forms – trade unions and party – outside the labour and capital conflict. Trade unions because of their permanent legal nature have become institutions that cannot question capitalist legality – seeking to reproduce capital as social power, which is established through the wage system. They become complicit in this reproduction. Therefore, independent workers organisations are necessary. The role of communists is to aid workers in developing and sustaining the class capacity to self-emancipate themselves. But in order to undertake this role, they must be inseparable from the working class and fully grounded in class praxis.

During the course of discussion it was pointed out that it is not sufficient to present a critique of forms only in their own terms – forms are historically specific, contextual. Workers’ organisational forms relate to specific junctures and purpose in class struggle. The resilience of forms must motivate us to examine how the same forms might have changed their functionality and purpose in accordance to their appropriateness in the structure of new reality. In the case of TUs, their legalisation per se is not a problem – because it was also a demand of the movement to decriminalise them. Instead, the issue is whether they are capable of comprehending the exigencies of the political recomposition of today’s working class, whether they are capable of resisting or have become complicit in its normalisation as technical class composition – in the management of class conflicts.

It was generally accepted during the discussions that the radical character of class conflicts is already evident in the self-activities of workers in their daily encounter with capital and each other since here they confront the root of the capitalist system – the capitalist imposition of work. This recognition exposes the impotence and irrelevance of preconceived organisational forms and vanguardist manoeuvrings, except in dealing with the after-effects of immediate confrontations – the political displacement of class conflicts in representative articulation of demands, rights, claims etc that necessarily must present the effects in understandable (political) language.

To keep apace with the time, the need to meet every three months was reiterated and it was decided to have the next meeting in Delhi on April 19-20, 2014.

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