Class war is a concept immediately familiar to most those on the far left and indeed is sufficiently well known as to receive the occasional reference in the mainstream media. As with all concepts we use to understand social forces, it colours how we think about our political activity and influences how we act day by day. Consequently is worth re-examining to tease out our understanding and see how such concepts can be usefully applied and extended.
Clearly, with the irreconcilable differences in interest between workers and bosses there is indeed constant conflict. Comparatively small strikes and other workplace based actions constitute a continual guerrilla warfare between workers and bosses. However recently this class struggle has perhaps been more akin to a cold rather than hot war, with low-level fights breaking out at the peripheries. At no time recently has the capitalist class felt particularly threatened by organised labour. The main armies (on our side the unions) have seldom thrown themselves in to full battle with capital, after all they are not ideologically predisposed to.
Some on the left have sought to counterpoise themselves to this ideologically-induced passivity by elevating unrelenting warfare to a cast iron principle, believing that the correct response is always to strike, always to ratchet up militancy. The folly of this stance is of course that much like in real warfare there are times when an orderly retreat is better than risking a total rout. Striking after the harvest is in is going to be far less effective than waiting 9 months to when your labour is at its most needed.
Of course this sensible stance can lead to leftists and union activists to put themselves in odd positions. If some hot-head wants to call a strike the day after the harvest is in any sensible revolutionary would do their best to contradict them, to argue against striking. Similarly there are times when we have to advocate reaching agreements with our bosses, armistices in the class war, as our meagre resources do not permit us to fight on all sides simultaneously. As much as such compromises may be distasteful to those who prefer to preach from an ivory tower, no revolution will ever be made without someone getting their hands dirty.
“Amateurs study strategy; professionals study logistics” goes an old military adage, one which can also be applied to the class warfare analog. In our context strategy can be seen as the grand plan, how we intend to win a given confrontation with the government. Logistics then is the ability to set up the context of a battle, the ability to mobilise resources that serve to establish the strategic context in which a battle will be fought.
In regular warfare logistics is hugely important. To pick just two prominent examples, the Ho Chi Minh trail was key to the victory of the Viet-cong by enabling them to swiftly move supplied to the front. Similarly the Prussian railways proved a decisive factor in their victory in the Franco-Prussian war.
Our equivalent has to be our own war machines, our mass organisations. Where we are well funded and well organised, where our members are well trained and closely linked in with the rest of the union, we will win. We need to build the sort of organisations that are optimised for victory and designed to build and consolidate based on them. In practice this means that in addition to maintaining a solid administrative base we also need to be at the forefront of developing training and encourage intra-union socialising.
In order to ensure the organisational cohesion systemic planning necessary for our war machines, much like a regular army we need a unified command. At present coordination between unions is rare and ad-hoc. Rivalries between unions are often intense and frequently there will be a multitude of unions competing to organise one industry or even one workplace. If we are serious about building unions as fighting machines, capable ultimately of transforming society, then we need to argue for mergers, for organisation on an industrial basis and for extending unions across borders. In short, we need One Big Union.
In summary, I think looking at class struggle as analogous to military warfare is a largely useful concept. The metaphor can be extended in several ways to suggest to us areas of importance and we can learn much from the great lessons of military history, whether it be the importance of logistics, the necessity of a unified command or the importance of a well ordered retreat.
Originally posted at Snowballs & Syndicalism
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