Peter Waterman Responds to Martin Legassick

by Jul 26, 2009All Articles

Brian? Martin? Or both? Or are these one and the same?

No matter. I am flattered by the amount of effort you put into refuting my ‘very weak’ book and response to Trevor.

I am, however, disappointed that the response amounts to reiteration of  Marxist-Leninist verities and references to texts from Lenin, speaking from or on the capitalist periphery, around one century ago.
I am also disappointed that you (whichever of the above persons you may be) should reach for the stock-in-trade of M-L critics – The Revolution  Betrayed! Or, to cast it in more contemporary and popular language, ‘it was Stalin that undone it!’. It seems as if ‘betrayal’ is part of the meaning or history of revolution, since leaders and states seem to have been doing this ever since Stalin (or Bukharin?): Tito, Mao, Deng, Togliatti or Berlinguer, Kim Il Sung and Son, Fidel, Daniel Ortega, The Trotskyists Not Belonging to My Groupuscule (and, waiting in the wings of the drama of Revolutionary Betrayal, Hugo Chavez?).

And, finally, I guess I am disappointed that your defence or re-assertion of the idea of working-class leadership of ‘the revolution’ (a sudden, radical reversal of  power-relationships and the establishment of working-class in state power (historically, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’), is not accompanied by at least some contemporary evidence for such.

Let me see if I can further this exchange (also with address to Trevor) in less polemical fashion and without repeating what I wrote in my 1998/2001 book or in my response to Trevor.

OK. Since I am currently reviewing two new books on labour, let me say something about workers, unions and a labour movement strategy in the period of neo-liberal capitalist globalisation.
The two books, both published 2008 (and mentioned in a Debate posting earlier today) are:

*Marcel van der Linden, /Workers of the World: Essays toward a Global Labour History/. Leiden, Brill. 2008. 469pp.*


*Eddie Webster, Rob Lambert and Andries Bezuidenhout, /Grounding Globalisation: Labour in the Age of Insecurity/. Oxford: Blackwell. 261pp.*

Marcel is a labour historian of Trotskyist background and political-economic inclination whose book deals historically with the structure of the working class globally, with trade unions and with labour internationalism.

Eddie, Rob and Andries will be known to you and I won’t attempt to label their backgrounds (New Left in the case of the first two?). But they are all labour sociologists who are or have been identified with unionism in South Africa. Their book deals with what is happening to the factory working class in the Global South under globalisation, with their unions and with labour internationalism.

Both books therefore have solid Left credentials, though rather different ones. It is the Marxist one that directly challenges Marx’s Wage-Workerist and Eurocentric understanding of the working class, and who proposes a far broader redefinition:

‘Every carrier of labour power whose labour power is sold (or hired out) to another person under economic (or non-economic) compulsion belongs to the class of subaltern workers regardless of whether the carrier of labour power is him- or herself selling or hiring it out and, regardless of whether the carrier…owns means of production’ (33).

The South Africans (as I will call them) do not draw from/criticise Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. However they actually address themselves only to Karl Marx’s factory proletariat.

Marcel (re)defines unions as organisations that

‘include self-employed workers…or who are agricultural share-croppers, bonded wage labourers, or slaves for hire. Their ways of defending their interests often closely resemble the practices of so-called “free” wage earers. Moreover their organisations frequently overlap with “regular” trade unions. This holds true not just for unions in the Global South, but also for the North Atlantic region.’ (220).

The South Africans concern themselves only with unions as Marxist-Leninists have understood them but nonetheless say that they have today to articulate themselves with community and domestic matters and involve themselves with the global justice and solidarity movement (my term, not theirs). They seem, however, to assume that the core of any labour-cum-popular alliance will be the unionised workers.

Both books give recognition to such new global social movements, as exemplified by the World Social Forum, but without any critique of this or of union and labour movement presence in it.

With respect to labour internationalism, both continue in the M-L tradition of focussing on UNION internationalism, both consider that, despite past shortcomings, the international unions are responding or will respond to the attacks of a capitalism that is both neo-liberalised and globalised. Both give cognisance to new forms of labour internationalism.

I give this extended account not because I identify myself with one, the other or both. I am actually quite critical of both. And this for reasons suggested by my previous writings referred to.

But why I value both, and strongly recommend them to others, is because they are addressing themselves to the capitalism of today rather than that of a century ago. (Which, of course, is what Lenin did to Marx). Marcel’s book is particularly interesting since it seems to me that his Global Labour History project is being written ‘backwards’  from the nature of a contemporary globalised capitalism, from recognition of the multi-faceted nature of ‘labour for capital’globally today, and from a situation which Eric Hobsbawm called ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ (without, of course, the pernicious political implications of his essay).

I do not myself belong to either of these schools (since one of them is associated with the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and the other with SWOP in Johannesburg). Nor do I belong, for that matter, to the poetic libertarian school represented by John Holloway. My ‘school’, or anyway my itinerary has been that of conceptualising ‘social movement unionism’ and the ‘new labour internationalism’. This, incidentally, is something that the SWOP school has also been engaged with, though they took both in directions I consider inadequate.

I must, however, say that I infinitely prefer new efforts to understand and combat the new stage of capitalism over ahistorical and uncritical regurgitation of verities related to the capitalism of yesteryear.

Right now, as surfers of the Debate list or the CCS website may know, my project is for a Global Labour Charter. In case you are interested, it can also be found here:

None of the authors mentioned above seems to consider it worthy of a critique. So you guys would be welcome to exercise your critical capacities upon it.



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