In the United States, it seems that perceptions of Communism, Marxism, and revolution are often that of dinosaurs, crystalized in the amber of a failed Soviet Union and buried deeper by Red Scare tactics. Recently, however, discussions of alternative forms of governing and economy philosophies like socialism have been unearthed, notably with the Occupy movement and the Bernie Sanders political campaign. While overall favoritism towards socialism has not changed drastically, the proportion of the younger voting population have increasingly positive views of socialism (Newport, 2016; PEW Research Center, 2011). Simultaneously, growing disparities of capitalism may also be the cause for the growing extremist Right wing politics with the development of the Alternative Right and the election of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Yet while the Right grows stronger, the Left continues to flail and fight amongst each other, eroding any sort of efforts for organization. It is now more than ever that the Left needs to reconcile and organize and what better way than to revisit André Gorz.
Gorz tackles several key concepts at once in his book Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal (1962): the change in human needs from the time of Marx, the question of ‘reform or revolution’, the effectiveness of minimum wage, and the role of technology in the struggle for labor movements. While his book was published in the early 1960’s, the context is very similar to today. The introduction to his book describes society broadly as one where more than ever, workers no longer have control over their production or products. The corporate sector has dominated and informs the government sector. Labor and political movements for change are rare and often fail due to bickering between factions of Left-leaning groups. Even the most successful reform efforts appear to be focused on minimum wage increases, which Gorz finds inadequate and an increasing disparity between the working class and the elite class. In the despair of modernity, what is to be done? Reform, or revolution?
Reform or Revolution
The question of ‘reform or revolution’ for a successful movement for change has been thoroughly debated beginning with Luxemburg, Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky who were in the thick of dealing with the European revolutionary movements in the early 1900’s. Simply put, the debate is the following: is a revolution more successful through a coup or a slow revolution through internal structural reforms? The former is susceptible to power vacuums and alienation of classes within the population who were not a part of the revolutionary group. The latter task of reform risks not making substantial enough reforms to prevent the system from adapting and reproduce itself. Gorz says this historical argument is no longer relevant because societal needs have changed. Insurrection is no longer an option because revolutionary movements tend to fall apart while they wait for their opportunity and thus reforms must be prioritized. Reforms also do not achieve enough (hence the failure of liberal feminism). However, political reforms that tackle structural change, not superficial change has the odds-on-favorite. Through gradual (structural) change and success, this will ideally provide the evidence that socialism is possible and gain momentum for support among the masses. To make the appropriate structural reforms however, it must first be understood what the contemporary needs of the working class are.
In the time of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, poverty of fundamental needs was the unifying oppression amongst the working class. It was far easier to identify the oppressors and the status quo than it is today. The more complex the needs are in combination with the unequal distribution of resources, the greater confusion as to who, what, and where oppression is stemming from. The unification of the working class via class consciousness towards a revolutionary struggle is thus even more difficult and is further problematized by identity politics. Without having a clear idea of who the oppressor is, oppression appears to come from all sides and angles, leading to the creation of many different activist groups who are certain that their single-issue oppression is more important than the other. Without resolving this issue, mass movements will be extremely difficult if not impossible. To identify the unifying needs of the working class, there needs to be a shift from poverty to a greater definition of needs. In contemporary developed countries like the United States, most of the working class has their fundamental needs met (albeit, still a large portion of the population that does not), but is still impoverished with respect to the greater needs demanded by advanced capitalism. The modern day citizen needs more than essential foods and housing – they require additional needs like adequate transportation and access to technology to keep up with the demands of capitalism. This indicates that the labor struggle needs to look beyond campaigns for minimum wage increases (liquid capital will only absorb the wage increase and nullify the increase with inflation, see next section). The key is not to campaign for band aids, but rather shift strategies to campaign for changes in the ownership and relationships to the means of production.
Gorz ultimately concludes that in order to have a successful labor movement, workers must organize in labor unions, garner class consciousness, and make revolutionary reforms (structural reforms) until a socialist state can be accepted and emerge out of the woodwork. Socialism reconciles the contradictions of capitalism because it provides political power to the working class and economic power via the collective ownership of the means of production. Gorz argues further that the task to create socialism is an imperative because it will create a new culture and order of priorities as it changes the fundamental relationship between people. But it will take significant work to achieve this goal. Foremost, Gorz admits that he makes one major assumption to his strategy: that class consciousness must be achieved. This is arguably the crux of any movement. Education and Unions will help spread class consciousness, however Gorz has a few key cautions for Union movements.
1) Like Lenin, Gorz believes Union and the Revolutionary Party should be separate because the union of the two will limit the Union’s autonomous power. The Unions’ freedom needs to be unconditional for three reasons: (1) economic authoritarian wages do not work as it does not account for types of jobs/labor and needs to retain tension between wages and productivity, (2) need flexibility to react to rising needs out of production as the function of wages is not just historical price but also a reflection of need, and (3) politically, the working class movement can bring capitalism to a crisis by revealing contradictions/instability of capitalism (p. 21).
2) As mentioned in the previous section, there needs to be a change from historical needs to that of contemporary society in capitalism. The needs are difficult to recognize because they do not have the same urgency as elementary needs do. Contemporary needs under capitalism “better” life beyond just mere existence (p. 22). Hence the fight cannot stop at minimum wage changes. Such superficial changes allow for liquid capital to let capitalists still gain profit and relinquish no power of their monopolies by absorbing nominal wage increases and working hours (p. 24). These general struggles diminish the working class. Additionally, capitalist efforts to create a wage scale, management to create classes, and bonuses only prevent a united working class (p. 24). Instead, the working classes fight over wages. Successful wage struggles are thus pyrrhic as they lead to inflation when capitalists raise prices of their commodities to adjust for their larger costs to wage labor. “No wage concession can reconcile the worker with the contradictions imposed on them by capital in these three dimensions: (1) work situations, (2) purpose of work, and (3) production of labor power” (p. 32). Increases in wages also works against the worker because it makes them into a new consumer.
3) Substantial change needs to come from structural reform. The work place is authoritarian and the law of production is independent of political democracy (i.e. right to freedom of speech, press, etc., p. 39). To create structural change, unions and other demands should be by contract to receive permanent power so that the productive forces must be negotiated with the worker and the worker can materially influence the manager (i.e. Unions should be in charge of employee training, p. 43).
Gorz concludes his book by discussing the issue of technology, which has only diversified the needs of the worker, the type of worker, and continues to complexify oppression. With technology, there is the growth of the service industry, of who’s labor Union may have very different demands than those of the manufacturing industry, making class consciousness more difficult. Additionally, larger corporate mergers especially between the tech industry and the government make it especially difficult to ascertain what the status quo is. The only way to stem the flow of corporate and technological dominance over the working class is to make structural reforms.
Adrienne L. McCarthy
Kansas State University
Gorz, A. (1962). Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal. Boston, MA: Beacon.
Newport, F. (2016) Americans’ View of Socialism, Capitalism Are Little Changed. Retreived from (https://news.gallup.com/poll/191354/americans-views-socialism-capitalism-little-
Pew Research Center (2011). Little change in public’s response to capitalism and socialism. Retrieved from ( http://www.people-press.org/2011/12/28/little-change-in-publics-response-to-