This article was published as part of a symposium on Class Power at Zero Hours by the Angry Workers of the World.
On the last day of 1918, at the founding congress of the German Communist Party, Rosa Luxemburg argued:
…. history is not going to make our revolution an easy matter like the bourgeois revolutions in which it sufficed to overthrow that official power at the center and to replace a dozen or so persons in authority. We have to work from beneath, and this corresponds to the mass character of our revolution which aims at the foundation and base of the social constitution; it corresponds to the character of the present proletarian revolution that the conquest of political power must come not from above but from below. The 9th of November was an attempt, a weak, half-hearted, half-conscious, and chaotic attempt to overthrow the existing public power and to put an end to class rule. What now must be done is that with full consciousness all the forces of the proletariat should be concentrated in an attack on the very foundations of capitalist society. There, at the base, where the individual employer confronts his wage slaves; at the base, where all the executive organs of political class rule confront the object of this rule, the masses; there, step by step, we must seize the means of power from the rulers and take them into our own hands. In the form that I depict it, the process may seem rather more tedious than one had imagined it at first. It is healthy, I think, that we should be perfectly clear as to all the difficulties and complications of this revolution. For I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyze neither your zeal nor your energy.
The Angry Workers have provided us with an opportunity to re-think what the radical left in America might do and to get serious about doing so. Faced now with the greatest crisis in capitalist rule since the Civil War, the radical left is a marginal presence in the larger political world and, far too often, we are bystanders to or minor players in events.
Class Power on Zero-Hours is intended for a left audience but it’s not written in a traditional left idiom–neither exhortation (ending every written text with a call for revolution), nor sectarian nor academic. The book reads as if it was crafted in anticipation that its arguments could be adapted for more popular audiences. But probably it’s the other way around—the language of the book is likely grounded or “rooted” in the language of their encounters and engagements with the workers of Greenford over the last six years. The analyses and the arguments they advance are the products of the work they have done.
It would be wise not to interpret all of their ideas and recommendations in the book as formal statements that have been crafted to withstand close textual scrutiny. And they are certainly not intended to be stark statements of their unchangeable views in a sectarian food fight. Instead, I see them more as points that they would make in the course of substantial conversations or discussions, mostly with friends and comrades. This is not to suggest that they should not be taken seriously. Although they have a quite good sense of humor, they are very serious. They suggest a different way to have political discussions.
When they wrote this book, the Angry Workers saw no global pandemic coming and they saw no rebellions across America ready to explode beyond its shores. However, the issues they probe in Class Power on Zero Hours have become only more important in light of what’s transpired since the book’s publication in April. Two challenges are fundamental for their argument—1) what needs to be done to prepare the working class for taking over and transforming the social production needed for human survival for all and dramatically improved life circumstances for billions of impoverished people across the globe, and 2) what kinds of political action do we need to fuse together the explosive anger of rebels on the streets and squares and the simmering anger of many billions of workers and peasants. In both instances, the answers are intended to allow revolutionaries to come up with a plan for what to do next and for the eventual takeover of social and political control and the replacement of this wretched state of affairs with a classless society. The Angry Workers insist that these are fundamentally practical questions.
The AW folks make a number of distinctive, if not unique, contributions. They urge that we develop very fine-grained and comprehensive understandings of the form and content of global social production with a simultaneous focus on local conditions and international connections. They suggest that workers be prepared for seriously imagining the possibilities of a future society that can meet all material needs, reduce work time to enable active participation in the management of social life, and allow for the elimination of the different kinds of impoverishment that are evident across the globe. The place that workers have in global production provides a starting point for serious thinking about the second.
They don’t even name themselves as the authors on the front cover of the book. Unlike what I have seen of the overbearing personalities in many left groups, the Angry Workers appear to be people I’d want to have long conversations with. I mentioned their sense of humor (there’s a hilarious line about the prospect of building a revolutionary organization having as much appeal to workers as a “tasty lamb kebab for vegans”); they’re willing to be self-deprecating (as when they show a photo of a sleeping worker who they say probably fell asleep reading their explanation of the origins of capitalism). They’ve been incredibly productive in their combination of on-the-ground activity and the publication of numerous accounts and analyses—including the book at hand. They tell us a bit about that effort:
We wrote this book in six months while working manual, low paid jobs and while continuing our work around the solidarity network and the workers’ newspaper. We don’t want a medal for it, but it’s relevant in two regards we use it as an excuse for the fact that the book is rough and raw; but we also want to make the point that writing something relatively substantial doesn’t mean you have to become an academic or journalist or take on any another (sic) form of intellectual profession.
All and all, it seems evident that that they’re not travelling down the same old roads made dusty by legions of their predecessors.
When they moved to Greenford, AW were hoping to support the self-organization of workers ignored by the left. They imagined that such organization would take place within the class, “not in place of it and not outside of it.” They came to understand that their efforts needed to be situated in the context of specific class compositions (meaning inter-locking hierarchies of skills and wages, unionization, immigration status and gender). Since class composition was seldom transparent, this suggested a need for inquiry—methodically and thoroughly finding out what was what in the immediate reality confronting workers, but also including an account of global connections. They came to appreciate the importance of not paying too much attention to yesterday’s news or the glib analyses of the mainstream media and the self-imagined left about what the workers were like and what they wanted.
Soon enough, they were confirmed in their conviction that if leftists were grounded in a working class community and workplaces, they would be better able to talk about the realities of workers’ lives. They found “real pleasures” in getting to know people. Their accounts reminded me of a couple of episodes from my taxi driving life in the 1970s. Once I was sitting in a diner across the street from my garage. Of all things, I was reading an issue of New Left Review. An older driver, who I knew well enough to chat with, was sitting next to me and he asked what I was reading. I was caught off guard but responded that it was an article about Bertolt Brecht. He then said that Mother Courage was his favorite Brecht play. On a later occasion, I was assigned a cab for the night shift that a day driver had just left at the gas tanks. I got in and drove off into the blistering western sun. I quickly turned down the sun visor for a bit of shade and discovered a wad of bills tied by a rubber band on the back of it. It was the day driver’s take for the day. I turned around, went back to the garage, found the driver and gave him the money. I said, “You were probably worried.” He said, “No, I knew it was you.” Now, what was striking about that encounter was that a couple of weeks earlier, he and I almost came to blows in an argument about whether cab drivers should pick up black passengers. Apparently, my willingness to argue with him on that charged issue is what gave him confidence that I’d never rip him off. Experiences like those are hard to come by but hard to forget.
In January of this year, I spoke at a memorial event for Noel Ignatiev, who died a few months before. Here’s a bit of what I said:
I mentioned [previously in the speech] that he had completed a memoir/novel. It’s about his work in a steel mill in Gary, Indiana in the early 1970s. The text includes dozens of stories that capture the bittersweet attitudes of workers who had spent years doing backbreaking and dangerous work and the ways in which they tried to make the best of things—covering for each other, sleeping whenever they could, developing elaborate schemes to call in sick so that a co-worker could get overtime for filling in and to reverse the exchange a couple of weeks later, even setting up food stores within the mill and frying fish in a work shanty—with the fish provided, on a seasonal basis, by the mill’s daily draining of the water of Lake Michigan.
From Noel’s account, in those mill years, he was a student—a student of the organization of production, of the profound skills that workers acquired, of workers’ deep-seated convictions about and sometimes quite fantastic notions of why things are the way they are, of the foolishness of supervisors, of the shallowness of corporate propaganda, and of the unexpected friendships that developed across the fault lines of job hierarchies, race and gender. Noel probably knew how to tell a good story before his time in the mill but his time there allowed him to perfect his talent.
I believe that Bertolt Brecht once said that people should have lots of theories; he may have been right. But more than theories, people need lots of stories. But stories seldom come out of thin air.
The AW tell us stories about their lives, their experiences in Greenford workplaces (especially in food processing), histories about the companies that they worked for, histories about the supply chains within which their factories were embedded and, of course, stories about individual workers, their jobs, their living circumstances and home lives.
For the Angry Workers, the absence of any concrete relationship with workers or working class areas is a very big problem. In its absence, the left remains focused on internal politics and has little to offer in the way of strategic analysis. It remains “crudely insurrectionist and abstract or monopolized by social democracy”. Or, as they write elsewhere in the book, “the left has lost its brains and guts for universal and strategic thinking.”
At the end of the day, the Angry Workers didn’t get very far in their efforts to build a revolutionary class organization in Greenford. And they are completely honest in their account—even though they could have easily given it all a nice gloss that made it seem a lot better. Nonetheless, they believe that their organizational framework is a good one. In their words, it’s “better than four old men and a dog discussing Durruti” or going to Socialist Workers Party front demonstrations.
The AW are not offering up recipes for anyone to follow. They’re telling a set of powerful stories that take very seriously the possibility that workers can free themselves and remake the world. Their stories deserve to be read carefully and discussed extensively. And, sooner rather than later, they deserve to be translated into real activity here in the US. Hopefully, there will be some really good new stories to be told.
A Few Questions for the Angry Workers
It seems that AW discount the significance of state violence when it is faced with a revolutionary takeover. Is that estimate limited to the UK? I ask because I see the US armed forces and police as an all but overwhelming danger and I imagine few hesitations on the part of a threatened US ruling class to resort to terror on a grand scale—even against its own citizens.
At one point, one of the AW activists reports that she should have focused on ESL classes earlier for the immigrant workers whose limited English proficiency was a significant barrier. How much have you looked into the educational quality of those classes? I ask because most adult education classes (for all practical purposes, worker education classes) in the US are quite uninspired and do little to develop substantial skills or knowledge by students.
When the AW discuss planning for a revolutionary transition, you make no mention of what Marx referred to as “reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc.” If anything, Marx underestimated the extent of the need for such a reserve of both human labor power and materials and equipment—which, in the case of health care provision, has become excruciatingly obvious during the COVID epidemic
I am inclined to believe that there is a need for a broad democratic affirmation of decisions made to take over and how to go forward during a revolutionary moment. I don’t think AW addressed that. Have I missed something?
In regard to AW’s inclusion of a “communist internet,” have you come across the speculations about planning by the Russian communist, Alexander Bogdanov, in his sci-fi novel, Red Star or, in a more down to earth manner, the approach to statistics, information, planning and distribution developed by Otto Neurath, the Austrian socialist? If so, what’s your take on their relevance? If not, you might want to check them out.
Paul Mattick once argued that, given the increasing incorporation of scientific and technical knowledge into production, it made sense to think about more universities as factories. How does that sound to you?
Finally, it appears that you have been able to function pretty well so far on a mostly informal organizational basis. As you attempt to move beyond the immediate collective, what are your thoughts about more formalized discussions and decision-making?
 When we were discussing participation in the roundtable with prospective contributors, I was asked for a word limit. I suggested 2,000 words, more or less. I too have had to live with that limit. As a result, there is much that I wished I could have said but could not. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to do so on another occasion.
 “Our Program and the Political Situation,” available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/31.htm.
 The AWW might object to this characterization since they have their own troubles with being identified as part of the left.
 Noel’s memoir, Acceptable Men, is being edited and prepared for publication by Noel’s old comrade, Dave Ranney. If things go well, it will be published in 2021 by Charles Kerr Publishers.
 Alexander Bogdanov was an early Bolshevik who broke with Lenin in 1908. He was a physician, an economist, a science fiction writer, a philosopher of science and a theoretician of tektology. For a comprehensive biography, see James D. White’s Red Hamlet. Otto Neurath is most well known, but not nearly well known enough, for his role as Planning Minister in the 1919 Bavarian Soviet Republic, the adviser to the post-war housing squatter movement in Vienna, the inventor of the Isotype picture language and a theoretician of post-capitalist planning, production and distribution.