Working Classes: Global Realities, Socialist Register 2001

Reviewed by Hobart A.

Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds. with Greg Albo and David Coates, Working Classes: Global Realities, Socialist Register 2001 (London, New York, and Halifax: The Merlin Press, Monthly Review Press, and Fernwood Press, 2000 and 2001).

This thirty-seventh volume of the Socialist Register contains twenty articles by twenty-six authors, the overwhelming majority of whom are academics working in North America or Europe. The volume's central theme, summed up in its title, is the status of the labor movement/working classes in the face of today's globalization. In all, the articles cover substantial ground, and many are rooted in short historical discussions that set the stage for contemporary analysis. The contents may be grouped under several headings.  There are overviews or mostly theoretical discussions such as one on conservative tendencies among the "disappearing peasantry" (which argues that the peasantry is neither conservative nor disappearing) and another on North-South divisions (which according to the authors constitute the main obstacle to building a world proletarian movement).  Regional contributions include focuses on East Asia, Southern Africa, and Western Europe. Women, who comprise 11 of the 26 contributors, are the subject of four articles (two on India), while a pair of other pieces treat Chinese immigrant workers in New York and the multi-race/class/gender Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. Two authors center in on the information age, one discussing an emerging cybertariat, the other the rise of the "no collar" worker. Lastly, geographically specific pieces discuss Russia, Iran, and Brazil, as well as Chiapas and India twice each.

Despite the scope, both geographical and topical, several major themes run throughout the volume. Perhaps the most important and unifying is the proposition that the end of the era of cooperation between labor and capital (the so-called "New Deal" for labor) and the rise of globalization have wrought profound changes for both labor and capital. What these changes are and what they mean is the subject, explicitly or tacitly, of almost every chapter. Several major sub-themes emerge. One, the rapid process of re- and de-composition of the working classes around the world. This has a different meaning in different places, but still is a fundamental trend. Two, the general all-around failure and/or inability of the old unionism to respond meaningfully to new situations, both to globalization and to the newer trends inside the working class. And three, the urgent need to reformulate old strategies and, perhaps more important, invent new ones in the face of the present world order. Any future direction must incorporate previously neglected and emerging groups and give them real voice inside the working class movement. This means women (although this process has already begun in some unions in some countries), immigrants, migrants, the unemployed, the unorganized, youth, and in some countries other minorities such as indigenous peoples, the lower castes, etc. Clearly, the old unionism's bias male, white, aging, employed no longer speaks to the new working class.  Further, under pressures from the neoliberal juggernaut, the traditional working class/unionists have changed due to eroding benefits, downsizing, less job security, and the demand for new skills.  All of this is by now well known, but the strength of these works is that they offer in many instances concrete examples of what is, as well as theoretical insights into how obstacles might be overcome.

For the most part the authors are quite realistic about the diminished possibilities of any meaningful working class offensive in the short term.  The most pessimistic have even taken the seizure of power off the agenda for the foreseeable future. Most, however, are clear that trying to buy back into the system under today's conditions is meaningless, more so if not accompanied by a clear vision of how labor and the working classes can build a movement that will actively challenge neoliberalism and offer a viable alternative to it. Thus, merely using legal means, even putting labor and environmental clauses into international treaties, while not bad in and of itself, is not a substitute for class struggle and confrontation. On the other hand, militancy alone goes nowhere. A leitmotif of the work is that labor must somehow link with the new anti-capitalist wave (which may or may not be socialist, or even searching for alternative systems based on fundamental equality).  As a whole, the volume presents differing political and ideological positions, but one senses in a number of its authors an affinity for Trotskyist interpretations.

While certainly far, far from the old "victory is inevitable" vision once put forth by some Marxists, neither is the future sculpted here defeatist. But hard realities are hard realities. In the more developed areas, despite some significant inroads and progress, the new ideas and practices have had a difficult time taking root. As more than one writer points out (e.g., in the case of Canada), the fight for women's rights and inclusion has increased their presence, but at the cost of some institutionalization and bureaucratization, and clearly a marginalization of socialist-feminists. In India, to take another case, 92-93% of the population still belongs to the "unorganized" sector, that is, those without regular participation in the labor force. The main struggle thus is for a class, not yet against another class. Several authors examine victories, some smaller, some larger, that have occurred. Examples include the PT in Brazil, the recent wave of strikes in East Asia, the victory of a lower-caste-based electoral coalition in Uttar Pradesh, and even the demonstrations at Seattle (to which we may now add those at Davos and Quebec).

In a short review it is not possible to discuss every nuanced position or argument, let alone every article. In addition to the points noted above, several interesting issues emerge from the collection. One, clearly the feminization of the labor force has enormous implications for organizing and strategy. The feminization of migration in some areas also needs looking at, as does the emergence of poly-class families with women and men located in different relations to capital. Two, North and South workers, although facing many of the same obstacles, are at different points in terms of organization and status. The former are in retreat from the gains won over the past century, the latter more like North workers at the beginning of the past century. Three, despite wholesale repression across the board which varies only in degree (e.g., Iran vs the U.S), workers have responded and even under the worst conditions it is possible to move forward. Four, variables other than class still have an important weight in the organizing or revolutionary equation. Thus, gender, ethnicity, caste, culture, or sexual preference must be considered, although class should remain the centerpiece of any truly Marxist analysis. Five, although the counter-neoliberal movement is important, just to oppose or attempt to soften the neoliberal attack misses the mark. The anti-capitalist movement must forge a vision of its own, of which only a part concerns controlling capital. And this vision and its implementation must spring from workers themselves, and not be a product of bureaucracies or students or NGOs or international labor organizations. Activity must focus at the local level, but build outwards reaching an international solidarity.

Most of the essays are well written although a few become lost in turgid theoretical debates. Given the fact that most of the authors explicitly recognize the US as the hegemonic or imperial power, the lack of an article specifically on the US labor movement and working class strikes one as odd.  Three of the pieces (e.g., the ones on Chiapas) hinge on having read a previous article on the subject, and so the debate plus the author's response means little unless the reader is familiar with the original point of discussion. Perhaps one or two pieces by grassroots organizations or those engaged in cross-border work at the one-to-one level might have added a needed dimension, as would have some contributions from actual workers, those on the line.

The above carps, however, are relatively minor. Socialist Register 2001 makes interesting reading for anyone on the left. It raises controversial questions that we all have to grapple with in our practice and our analysis. Perhaps most important, it goes a long way towards achieving its objective of placing class squarely back into the debate.

Reviewed by Hobart A. Spalding
City University of New York (Emeritus) and Brecht Forum