No Such Thing As A Radical Tactic – Thoughts on Social Movements, Economic Conversion and Labour Movement Organizing

In his thoughtful, moving and inspiring study The Next Upsurge: Labour and the New Social Movements, radical US academic Dan Clawson distinguished between the kinds of social movements spawned by the 1960s and the (US) labour movement upsurge of the 1930s.
Unlike the union organizing drive, the 1960s movements did not leave behind ‘ongoing membership organizations with viable local chapters’. They differed from the unions in their membership, funding, methods of governance, internal organization, relationship to the state, and characteristic method of achieving their objectives.
He notes: ‘Even the seeming exceptions have relatively few functioning local chapters. Unlike unions, the new wave citizen groups can rarely rely exclusively on member dues: in one comprehensive 1980 survey [in the US], only 22 per cent of citizen groups received 70 per cent or more of their money from ordinary member dues; the rest came from government grants, foundations or wealthy individuals. Moreover, the groups most likely to grow were those least reliant on member dues.’
The citizen groups rely on low-paid, generally young, college-educated staff, a patron of some sort, ‘and a mailing list’. The typical member relates to the group exclusively through direct mail or telephone solicitation (rarely door-to-door) and has never attended a meeting of the group. Members neither hold office in the organization nor vote for leaders. Unlike unions.
Clawson observes: ‘The group’s continued existence depends on the ability to tap into high-visibility, hot-button, symbolic issues that either get ordinary people to respond to direct mail appeals or get wealthy sponsors to continue to provide funding.’ Unlike unions.
The social movements tend to operate at arm’s length from their opponents, using class action lawsuits or media exposure. ‘When the group engages in direct action, it rarely involves the mass participation of a strike – which, to be effective, typically requires 90 per cent participation by the affected constituency, all of whom forfeit pay and risk their jobs – and is much more likely to be symbolic.’
In contrast, unions tend to have ‘close, ongoing, often intimate relationships with their opponents (management and corporations)’, operating via ‘compromise and small victories’. Union leaders and staff tend to build political machines able to get grievances resolved. It is these individual-level victories – keeping your job, avoiding discipline, getting a promotion – that build worker loyalty to the union and its leadership.
‘While the structural dynamic of unions pushes them to accommodate and win small victories for members, the structural dynamic of post-1960s groups pushes them to generate publicity and tap into emotional issues that get people to respond to direct mail appeals.’
Clawson goes on to draw the natural conclusions: ‘The constituency of these groups, together with their reliance on foundations and wealthy donors, gives them a strongly middle-class character, although the groups typically vehemently deny this. Given the class character of the new movements and the nature of the issues, the day-to-day lives of group members rarely depend on material victories. Such groups may be less inclined to compromise because the symbolic statement is more important than the incremental advance.’
Clawson is not condemning one social form and praising another. His interest is in the evolution of a new radical labour movement able to ‘combine the new style and tactics with the mass mobilization characteristic of unions at their best’. Marrying the best of each form would lead to ‘the energy, imagination, media savvy, and militant symbolic actions or the new social movements with the broad outreach, local chapters, face-to-face majoritarian mobilization, deep commitment and staying power of the labor movement’.
His book is full of inspiring examples of the first signs of such a fusion, breaking the boundaries of gender, language, culture, race and class. He writes: ‘Labor must do more than build alliances; it must fuse with these movements such that it is no longer clear what is a "labor" issue and what is a "women’s" issue or an "immigrant" issue.’ He does not suggest all the autonomous movements submerge into the trade unions: ‘the model should not be of separate movements forming alliances, but of movements that take up each other’s concerns, incorporating them into their heart, soul, culture, and institutional structure’.
He suggests: ‘Not only the labor movement needs to change: the feminist movement needs to give greater priority to the needs of low-wage women workers, environmentalists need to be as concerned with pollution in the factory as in the wilderness and so on.’
The title of Clawson’s book, which I can’t recommend too highly, is The Next Upsurge – because he is pinning his hopes on a new labour movement organizing drive which rivals and transcends the gains of the 1930s.
For those of us on the social movement side of this equation, there is much to learn from the community-organizing and institution-building approach of the new unions. Faced with desperate conditions, we must also pin our hopes on a new upsurge (speaking from a British perspective) which rivals and transcends the CND second wave of the 1980s, the anti-roads movement of the 1990s, and the extraordinary anti-war mobilizations of the 2000s.
One linchpin issue in this connection is bound to be ‘conversion’. The conversion of military industry to socially-useful purposes.
Personally, I have spent a significant part of my life supporting Ploughshares activists who have literally hammered military equipment in protest against war and injustice. Their ‘symbolic’ actions have caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage, and taken warplanes and arms manufacturing equipment out of service. For their disarmament, they have typically served (in Britain) six months in prison (whether or not they were eventually found guilty at trial).
Noam Chomsky made these remarks about Ploughshares (in a taped discussion): ‘I had a lot of disagreements with some of my friends on that, people I really respect a lot, like the people in Plowshares. I mean, I think these are all tactical questions – like, I don’t think there’s any question of principle involved in whether you should smash a missile nose-cone or not, it’s not like a contract between you and God or something. The question is: what are the effects? And there I thought the effects were negative. It seemed to me that the effects of what they were doing were, first of all, to remove them from political action, because they were going to be in jail for twenty years, and also to tie up tons of money and effort in courts, which is absolutely the worst place to be. I mean, the worst waste of time and effort and money in the world is a court – so any time you can stay out of courts, you’re well off. But the second thing is, I don’t think that they reached people – because they didn’t prepare the ground for it. Like, if you smash up a missile nose-cone in some town where people are working at the missile plant and there’s no other way they can make a living, and they haven’t heard of any reason why we shouldn’t have missiles, that doesn’t educate anybody, it just gets them mad at you.’
Chomsky went on: ‘So I think these questions have to be very carefully thought through – you can’t really predict with much certainty, but as well as you can, you have to make a guess as to what the effect of the tactic is going to be. If the effect is going to be to build up awareness, that’s good. But of course awareness is only the beginning, because people can be aware and still not do anything – for instance, maybe they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs. And obviously you can’t criticize people for worrying about that; they’ve got kids, they’ve got to live. That’s fair enough. It’s hard to struggle for your rights – you usually suffer.’ (Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, p. 187)
(I will leave aside discussion of whether some forms of Ploughshares, such as the Swedish movement, have met Chomsky’s tests of engagement, education and alternative employment initiatives.)
The challenge is not only among assembly-line workers. A large part of the scientific-academic world is funded by military spending in one way or another.
Chomsky remarked in 1969: ‘If a radical movement hopes to make any progress among skilled workers, engineers and scientists, it will have to persuade them that their short-run interest is outweighed by other factors, among them, the personal interest of every man [and woman] in the conversion of intellectual and material resources to reasonable ends, more specifically, in halting the preparations for war that may well lead to a final catastrophe. The task for radicals, in this case, is to develop concrete alternatives and to show how they could be realized under different conditions of social organization….. a movement of the left condemns itself to failure and irrelevance if it does not create an intellectual culture that becomes dominant by virtue of its excellence and that is meaningful to the masses of people who, in an advanced industrial society, can participate in creating and deepening it.’
Chomsky pointed to the urgent need for radical organization of those who develop technology: ‘By means of such organization of scientists and engineers, the system of subsidy to technologically advanced segments of industry and achievement of global dominance through a subverted technology can be threatened at its most vulnerable point, its personnel. Scientists and engineers can make the same key contribution to a radical culture – ultimately a successful movement for significant social change – that they now make to militarism and repression.’ (‘Some Tasks for the Left’, in Radical Priorities)
Chomsky observed in Turning The Tide (p. 215): ‘in the absence of realistic alternative system of state capitalist management, the nuclear freeze [or disarmament] cannot arise as a serious issue within the [US] political system, whatever popular attitudes may be.’ (At that point there was virtually a national consensus in the US on the desirability of a nuclear freeze – a halt to nuclear weapons development, testing or deployment.)
In summary: ‘A nuclear freeze would place limits on the creation of an ever-more intimidating [US foreign policy] posture in which our conventional weapons become "meaningful instruments of military and political power" ([US Secretary of Defence] Harold Brown), and on the crucial state role in high technology development and production.’
To oppose the arms race is to interfere with the main mechanism by which the Anglo-Saxon nuclear powers manage their economies, using military spending to subsidise the high-technology research and development that is critical to the advanced sectors of their industrial bases.
To challenge the nuclear weapons establishment is to challenge a fundamental underpinning of corporate capitalism. A successful challenge will require more than protest – it will require the mobilization of the workforce, at every level of military industry, from scientific academia to the shop floor assembly-line.
Chomsky remarks: ‘As Seymour Melman has emphasized for many years, the disarmament movement must assign the issue of economic conversion a central place in its agenda, or it will achieve very little. And this is no simple matter, because it bears on the institutional structure of power and privilege, as the owners and managers of the society are well aware.’
The campaign against the arms trade, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and the campaign against militarism in general, will be successful to the extent that they win the support of scientists, engineers, skilled workers and manual labourers within the industries that they challenge. That support can only be won by a serious effort to develop socially-responsible uses for the skills and equipment currently devoted to war and destruction. Such initiatives cannot be a matter for academic research only, but will emerge from genuine partnership with working people.
Industrial democracy will be an unavoidable part of this challenge to militarism, as working people at all levels of the military-industrial-academic complex seek to change the direction of the war machine. Countering militarism will also mean countering capitalist and managerial privileges and authority.
In the 1960s in Britain, the Institute for Workers’ Control convened conferences at which working people in various trades met to draw up proposals for reorganizing their industries and their workplaces. The initiative came not ‘from above’ – with the fine words or blueprint of a radical academic – but ‘from below’ – out of the experience of intellectually-adventurous and experienced working people.
Reconstructing this form of organizing is part of the radical agenda for the peace movement.
In this connection, Chomsky warns us that only objectives can be radical. Back to ‘Some Tasks for the Left’.
Chomsky said: ‘I’m also concerned by discussion within the movement of what is called "radical tactics". I think there is a very serious confusion here, and it’s a dangerous confusion. It doesn’t make any sense to ask whether tactics are radical or not – in fact, you can’t ask about the political content of tactics at all (and I’m not making an analytical philosopher’s point). It seems to me very important to recognize that tactics should be judged as to whether they are successful or unsuccessful in reaching certain goals which may themselves be the subject of political judgement.’
Goals can be radical. Tactics can’t.
Chomsky was even harsher: ‘When people start concentrating on the character of the tactics, and regarding them as an index of political character, then they are taking an ultimately self-destructive approach. Without impugning anyone’s motives, I think that that is the kind of thing that a well-placed police spy would introduce into the movement if he were intent on destroying it. I’m not implying that anyone is a well-placed policy spy. Rather, I think one has to ask oneself objectively what is the character, what is the truth, of certain political hypotheses, certain hypotheses about society, and what the likely effects are of carrying out certain tactics. These are decisions which have nothing to do with the labels "radical", "liberal", etc. They have to do with objective, serious evaluation.’
To be absolutely clear: it is understandable that there is respect within social movements for people who carry out actions with a significant personal risk. Whistleblowers who lose their jobs. Hammerers who spend months in prison. Internationals who put their bodies in front of tractors.
It is also clear that for social movements to exert force effectively against dominant institutions such as transnational corporations or the State, they must go beyond the boundaries of legality and the ‘normal channels’.
However, actions of increasing personal risk and/or escalating ‘illegality’ (in the eyes of the courts, if not in international law) do not equate to greater and greater ‘radicalism’.
Actions may be well-designed to achieve radical goals, or they may be poorly-designed to move society in such a direction.
Chomsky’s verdict is that Ploughshares actions – which have carried with them the risk of death and, at a lower level of intensity, years of imprisonment – have (in general) been poorly-designed, reinforcing repressive and reactionary attitudes among workers who must be won over to the peace movement.
High personal physical risk, high risk of legal penalties – but not helpful in advancing a core radical agenda: developing a movement for the conversion of military industry that involves workers as well as concerned outsiders.
If the peace movement is going to succeed, it will have to learn from, and cooperate with, radical trade unions and labour groups. Radical activity doesn’t mean getting arrested or risking physical injury, it means developing actions of whatever personal intensity that can contribute to uprooting war and militarism and corporate power. It means creating organizations that have deep roots in communities and workplaces, and that grow out of common interests as well as shared values.



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