What will we do with one less pretentious activist?

This summer I came across a blog called Wobbling Towards Communism, which bills itself as the “Official Blog of the Communists of the IWW”. Despite misgivings about the bombastic title, I was initially happy to see the new page.

In general it’s good to see more open discussion around the IWW and what we’re trying to do. In this case particularly, I was excited to see Fellow Workers who were clearly influenced by Italian Marxism, Bordiga-flavored. I think I first came across Loren Goldner‘s excellent essay on Amadeo Bordiga around 2006, and I’ve considered Bordiga an influence ever since, along with the movement which formed him. For example he was very clear that wage labor is the most basic characteristic of capitalism, and that any system which incorporates wage labor can not be anything but capitalist, whether it calls itself a Workers State or a Workers Cooperative.

More importantly, the movement he was part of developed an understanding of unions that is much more materialist than either the ultra-left (“unions are agents of capitalism”) or garden-variety leninist (“unions are legitimate workers organizations, with bureaucratic leadership”). The Italian left, in the ’50s, began discussing the incorporation of unions into the state as a dynamic process, but one which was not complete, and which workers could struggle against. This general framework is the one that seems to describe reality and the potential for radical intervention the best, and it’s the one I try to work from.

A quick glance at the blog makes clear that their “Marxism” only goes as deep as “Leftist Diatribes for Dummies.” They’ve obviously highlighted Chapter 1, “Make enemies as quickly as you can”, and Chapter 2 “How to write like a pretentious buffoon.” Rhetorically there’s some similarities to Bordiga’s writing here, but taken out of the context of revolution, imperialist war, fascism, and Stalinist counter-revolution, it just becomes nonsense. Talking like Bordiga has the same relation to marxist practice as participating in International Talk Like a Pirate Day does to storming merchant vessels or making secret treasure maps.

I’d assumed that the blog was just a fad or a joke and would not continue past the summer, but they’ve been continuing to post, causing reactions as varied as confusion from some Fellow Workers who are independently influenced by Bordiga, to the establishment of a Facebook group called “Wobbling away from Wobbling towards communism.”

Consider a recent post: THESES ON THE DEGENERACY OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD AS A GENUINE PROLETARIAN ORGANIZATION (all caps in the original). It is composed of ten numbered theses (the most pretentious mode of writing) and a quote by Bordiga with no context. Each thesis is a gem, particularly the ones that begin only with sentence fragments. Although it’s tough to pick a favorite, if I had to I’d go with #6:

6. There is a complete and utter incestuous degeneracy of revolutionary praxis (and even syndicalist praxis) with the adoption of activism. This is mostly a means to waste our time, so that people feel like they are doing something rather than trying to integrate with the class at large. With focus on soft and easy targets and an abandonment and lack of understanding that this abandonment has occurred, of a class theory of history, the reason for the existence of the IWW, and the fact that we are a union and need to have workers in it.

One wonders what exactly “utter incestuous degeneracy of revolutionary praxis” means, but there is a four-, five-, and six-syllable word all in a row, which is certainly a neat trick for wordsmiths. I’d love to hear these theses done spoken-word style at an open-mic night.

And when I’ve tried to figure out who exactly are these “communists of the IWW” who try so hard to impress with polysyllabic words, I wonder if an open-mic night might not be the best place to meet them. Here are my theories:

  1. If it is genuine, the author is most likely a bearded guy in his 20s, with horn-rimmed glasses, a pipe, and a typewriter, who meticulously transfers each manifesto from coffee-stained notebook, to typewriter, and then goes to the South-east Portland Library to load it all to his wordpress. He joined the IWW in Spring 2014 and he’ll be gone by Spring 2015 when we haven’t all adopted his interpretation of Bordiga. His story will be reinterpreted by Fred Armisen in a Portlandia skit;
  2. Somebody has forked the Postmodernism Generator (“If capitalist narrative holds, the works of Pynchon are an example of mythopoetical Marxism. Therefore, Parry implies that we have to choose between socialist realism and the predialectic paradigm of narrative.”) and set it to full left-communism;
  3. It is an elaborate hoax by other wobblies, on the level of Honda’s twitter account being “hacked” by Skeletor, but maintained so long that it’s even less “funny”.
Honda’s Twitter account, “hacked” by Skeletor.

My money is on 1 or 3. I’ve seen enough activists come, bring their elaborate schemes with them, and leave when they don’t find any takers, to make the first option depressingly realistic. Already just a few months after launching their project, they’ve begun to talk about the “utter degeneracy” of the IWW. If there is someone real behind the blog, who genuinely thinks that they are representing some kind of marxist practice, I’ll give them this:

only people devoid of all principle are capable of changing, in twenty-four hours, or, for that matter, in twenty-four months, their view on the necessity—in general, constantly, and absolutely—of an organisation of struggle and of political agitation among the masses.

Or, if they prefer to think only about Bordiga, Bordiga, Bordiga, they could consider that Bordiga and his comrades fought for years to strengthen and maintain the party they were members of, only leaving when they were forced out by Stalinism- they didn’t pick up their toys and go home when frustrated that nobody listened to them in the first few months. Although I generally bemoan our high level of turnover, I have to say that if someone’s social skills are that underdeveloped, they might be better off leaving.

Honestly, though, my gut tells me it’s a hoax, and that there’s a fellow worker who wants to be the next Tom McMaster (an American activist who ran a blog where he pretended to be a teenage lesbian in Syria). It wouldn’t be the first prank in our union: I can think of one April Fools when Scott Nappalos wrote a manifesto announcing a revolutionary split from the IWW calling itself the CNT-USA, and another one at the tail end of the Wisconsin Spring when I announced that I’d taken a staff position with AFSCME’s Prison Guards division, where I hoped to influence them to fight for prisons managed democratically by the guards. Unfortunately it is a somewhat convincing prank because of the context of pretentious activists in the US, some of whom have thrown tantrums in the IWW before. Still, a good joke knows when to die, and this one is beyond the stage of a graceful jab. If the authors keep it up, they will be outed at some point, and it’ll be embarrassing for everyone.

Either way, the blog is irrelevant, and wobbling towards quite annoying. Either way, it should be a billboard for new Fellow Workers about why, when they join an organization that is more than five years old and with more members than they can count on their fingers, they should try to understand the context and “help the work along” before they immediately assume that the organization has somehow become a “grotesque shell” during their months of membership.

The burning question for materialist revolutionaries in the US today is how to make their politics relevant. For those who want to be active in an organization that is more than just a sect, making themselves relevant can only begin with first trying to understand the organization and then realizing that they might actually have to work with other members to show where their ideas wok in practice. It also means they might learn something. “Wobbling towards communism”, whether it is real or not, is believable enough because its style and posture are immediately recognizable – that style and posture, and its proponents, are one of the biggest dangers faced by any genuine attempt to build a non-sect movement in this country.

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10 thoughts on “What will we do with one less pretentious activist?

  1. Hipster marxist union dynamiters….interesting combination, potentially destructive. I didn’t know you had these sorts of problems, but definitely sounds annoying. Do they realize “wobble” for most people means “walk unsteadily”?

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    1. Well I don’t think it’s a problem with the IWW specifically. I think it’s a problem with the low level of class politics in the US. Any workers organization that was even close to relevant would attract sect-ists of various stripes, all trying to reinforce sectification. This is just one particularly loud manifestation of that.

      BTW, there is at least one Bordigist-influenced union, “Solidaridad y Unidad de los Trabajadores”. I’d always assumed they were just online but I did run into one of their members at a manifestation once. They have a phrase I really like for the Spanish business unions: “Empresas de servicios sindicales”. As far as I know it’s the only union in Spain besides the CNT which does not take any subsidies or have employer-funded staff [liberados]. http://www.sindicatosut.org

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  2. I don’t know much about the ID of people behind WTC, but they are definitely real people who are Bordgists. What’s interesting about this blog is that they have rather piecemeal criticism of the IWW — things that are actually basically consensus at this point — but they find their own analysis, steeped in bad Marxology, truly profound. Now, that said, I’ve tried to engage them in a constructive way, but it is difficult. The reality is that, in my experience, they do not want to create relationships with other fellow workers. I was excited to WTC at first. As a Marxist in an organization of mostly anarchists, it looked like a chance to critically engage with Marxist theory and practice inside the IWW, engage our historical roots in Marxism, and generally network with fellow workers who consider themselves Marxist. I found out very quickly that these folks wanted nothing to do with me, despite reaching out to them publically and privately. What I’ve also found is that the other Marxists, especially the others actively engaged with organizing, reached out to them only get the same results. Really sad stuff.

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    1. Right, so starting with the blog’s title, “Official Blog of the Communists of the IWW” … Official according to who? To quote Monty Python’s syndicalist peasant, “I didn’t vote for them!”

      And then as you point out, both the level of their social skills and their marxist analysis are not up to the task they seem to have set themselves of revolutionizing the IWW. If it is a real person, they’re clearly preparing to leave because they didn’t immediately get their way. If they do want to stay, they probably ought to make some apologies, stop posting on the blog, and ask someone in their branch to help them reframe some of their ideas in a more positive way.

      Either way, the blog should be archived for any new members who want to come in guns blazing, as an example of the kind of bitterness it leads to.

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  3. Although I was aware of the FB page and had previously considered it to be a bit of a joke I’ve just taken a first look at that WTC blog. First thing that came to mind was that it doesn’t actually seem to be a joke at all (which in itself is quite funny). Second thing was about the language used: “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring to everyday reality have a corpse in their mouth.”

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  4. I wonder if workers would equate wages determined by non-worker owners and their agents (management) ,and wages determined by worker owners.

    Capitalism is not determined by wage labor, it is determined by who owns and what flows from that. Non-owners, however well paid, are people who have to make pleas to owners for better material conditions.

    Owners can break strikes easily. For one thing they have the law – and the militarized police – on their side. For another they can move jobs or find more compliant workers. Strikes worked in manufacturing back when owners had physical restrictions on where they must operate. For that reason strikes can work in service industries such as tourism and hotels. Public service strikes are subject to the tolerance of tax payers.

    I thought the overall goal of the Wobblies was worker ownership of the =means of production, producing for the common good. Meanwhile helping workers gain some real power against owners and their agents is a good thing to do.

    Putting aside “isms” and academic dictionary wars what does “Building the new in the shell of the old” really mean? Or is that motto out of date?

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    1. Let me be clear that the discussion of Bordiga’s ideas was very summary here, mostly because i think he’s worth reading but was getting a bad rap because of the WTC blog. The Goldner essay i linked to is a great introduction. Also, Bordiga, like any theorist worth reading, came out of a movement, they weren’t isolated geniuses.

      The IWW is committed to the abolition of the wages system, and the establishment of what used to be called the Cooperative Commonwealth. That doesn’t mean that we went to have a either worker-run venture finance or insurance sector, to give just two of the more egregious examples of socially-negative industries.

      Bordiga demonstrated that wage labor is what reproduces capitalism. Therefore the USSR and it’s satellites could not have been anything other than capitalist since they relied on, and reproduced, wage labor.

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      1. The Soviet Union replaced worker-run soviets with a command an control doctrinal bureaucracy. and that doomed them to failure. Does consent of the governed have any place in your theory? or will proper doctrine determine gets to give the orders?

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      2. Bordiga was writing during an epoch when liberals wanted to paint Stalinist Russia as the wave of the future, and leftists were either ardent admirers, or were critical but could only imagine that it was some other, non-capitalist, non-socialist system because the industries were owned by the state. Many “critical” leftists could not imagine a working-class revolution in the USSR or its satellites because of this, they could only imagine reforms made to the “deformed” workers state. Bordiga insisted, and I think this is valuable, that if there was still wage labor it could not be a post-capitalist system, and therefore the workers still had to struggle and ultimately to overthrow the regime. Even during WW2, the Italian communist left agitated for Russian workers to engage in class struggle against their masters, just as workers in other countries had to fight against their own masters.

        As far as workers control, both the IWW and myself personally have always been for workers control and workers democracy. “Consent of the governed” has no place in any revolutionary theory because we do not want governors and governed; we aim to move from government of people to administration of things.

        If you want to engage with something I wrote, or something about Bordiga, you’re welcome to, though I encourage you to actually point to something specific that I wrote, or something specific about Bordiga.

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