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(en) The history of Wildcat (Germany) and their discussion with John Holloway (II)

From C.FRINGS@link-lev.dinoco.de (Christian Frings)
Date Wed, 28 Oct 1998 13:06:34 +0200 (IST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

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Wildcat (Germany) reads John Holloway - an ongoing debate (3/4 - II)

(Wildcat-Zirkular, No. 39, Sept. 1997 *Open Letter to John Holloway*

Dear John,

In the last two years we have translated various texts of yours and  
published them in the Wildcat-Zirkular (1). In the spring you sent us  
your paper on 'Dignity's Revolt' and asked if we wanted to translate  
it and publish it (2). We would now like to explain why we are not  
satisfied with this text, with the aim of starting an open discussion.  
Your inquiry about 'Dignity's Revolt' stimulated us to formulate in  
writing some critical reflections on your theoretical approach. The  
letter consists of three parts: first we shall explain the background  
of our group, in so far as this is important for understanding our  
objections (A). Then we want to focus on a central critical point of  
the paper 'Dignity's Revolt', without discussing the whole text, and  
without getting into a debate about the EZLN itself (B). Finally we  
want to explain through the concept of work what direction we think a  
further discussion might take (C).

A. How Wildcat arose and what our Problems are

>From Jobbing to Militant Inquiry

In the beginning of the 1980s the cycle of factory worker struggles  
was over, but for many young people it was inconceivable to adjust to  
wage labour and to work away at a job until reaching pension age.  
Additionally, we ourselves refused to strive individually through a  
professional career for a better place in the capitalist hierarchy.  
Out of this grew the practice of jobbing: to do any old shitty job for  
a short time, in order then to have time for ourselves, for political  
struggle and for pleasure. In formal terms, we worked under conditions  
that would later be characterised by the sociologists as 'precarious'  
in the sense of being vulnerable to one-sided measures by capital. But  
it was even easier then to use the regulations of labour law and the  
welfare state for our own needs.

Out of the attempt to politicise these practices and to bring them  
into play intentionally as struggle against work and for a  
revolutionary perspective, there arose 'jobber groups'. They were a  
form of self-organisation aimed at mutual support, solidarity against  
the bosses and the spreading of experiences. A group in Karlsruhe  
picked up on Italian theoretical discussions in which this 'figure' of  
the jobber was seen as a rising proletarian subject: through the  
refusal of work and the gradual spread of these practices, this figure  
is seen as being at the centre of a process of class composition.  
Jobbers are seen as embodying the tendency to communism through their  
mobility on the labour market and their high level of qualification  
combined with their rejection of capitalist command. Because of their  
mobility, it is argued that they do not develop any sort of  
identification with capital and thus get involved to a high degree in  
such forms of struggle as sabotage and wildcat strikes.

That corresponded to the experiences that we had in factories,  
building sites and temporary work agencies. But we also observed that  
'jobbers' remained a very heterogeneous and marginal group within the  
working class, and that many just practised an individualised  
rejection of work. While some jobber groups decided to  
institutionalise themselves and to become advice centres for welfare  
state benefits (and this was then referred to as the 'unemployed  
workers' movement'), the group in Karlsruhe - from which the 'Wildcat'  
journal later arose - proposed a comprehensive discussion on the  
working class as a whole. For our theoretical understanding of  
capitalism and class struggle, the Italian 'operaismo' was  
particularly important (3). Especially the early texts of this current  
(by Romano Alquati and others) helped us to decipher the  
mystifications of capital in the immediate process of production. The  
operaist critique offered not just the basis for a theoretically  
revolutionary understanding of the world, but also a practical set of  
instruments. Basing ourselves on the operaist ideas of inquiry, we  
proposed to the undogmatic and non-Leninist left a broad 'militant  
inquiry' within the working class. But the proposal remained a  
minority affair. The only people who were still interested in the  
working class were Leninist and Stalinist 'parties' with whom we did  
not want to have anything to do.

Through the 'militant inquiry' project we wanted to develop a  
revolutionary critique of capitalism out of the critique of the  
production process as contradictory unity of labour process and  
valorisation process. In discussions, surveys and common struggles  
together with our co-workers we tried to demystify the fetishised  
power of capital which confronts us hostilely in production as  
technology, division of labour and alienated cooperation. We wanted to  
see where and how the workers break through these mystifications  
themselves in their struggles and thus recognise their productive  
cooperation as power against capitalism and as possibility of  

Bound up with this approach was an understanding of 'class' and 'class  
struggle' which stood in complete contrast to the traditional  
understanding in Marxist theory and in the labour movement. We  
criticised the reduction of class struggle to an economic question of  
distribution and wages as the ideology of the labour movement, which  
we saw as an essential moment in the mediation and political weakening  
of class antagonism. In all this, it was important that since the  
1970s a whole series of groups had turned to operaismo and had carried  
out their own inquiries (see, for example, the book by Karl Heinz Roth  
on the The 'Other' Labour Movement, published in 1974).

Our experience in the early and mid-1980s in factories, temporary  
employment agencies and building sites made it clear to us that  
everyday class antagonism had in no way disappeared, as many on the  
left maintained. We came across many forms of underground conflict and  
saw what enormous problems capital had in introducing new technologies  
of production or new models of work organisation - exactly as you  
observe at the end of your analysis of Keynesianism: 'The social  
forces that had imposed the recognition of the power of labour upon  
capital still existed, stronger than ever, and could not be abolished  
simply by the declarations of the politicians' (Bonefeld and Holloway  
(1995), 33).

>From the middle of the 1980s there arose new class conflicts in Europe  
which escaped from the traditional grip of the trade unions. Workers  
rose as subjects of their own struggles and their radicality embodied  
a new offensive moment. These conflicts took place especially in 'new'  
sectors (public service, transport, hospitals, schools, banks, but  
also in some 'modernised' factories) and seemed to represent a new  
class composition. We thought that a revolutionary perspective could  
again become practical in these struggles. In contrast to the trade  
union struggles for peaceful accommodation with exploitation, a  
comprehensive hostility to capitalist society could be seen here. We  
were actively involved in the nurses' movement of 1989 and saw what  
sort of initiatives were possible without the obstructive influence of  
the trade unions.

For this reason we paid little attention to the theoretical debates of  
the 1980s. We observed the change-over of most of the intellectual  
left to the side of capital, but thought that in the context of the  
new class struggles the theoretical questions could be approached from  
within the struggles. In other words, we considered our theoretical  
basis quite adequate in order to develop a revolutionary project from  
the working class itself.

The Radical Change of '89 and its consequences

At the beginning of the '90s we proposed to a group of the  
revolutionary left in Europe the idea of undertaking a common research  
project on the situation of the working class. (This proposal was  
later taken up once again in your journal, Common Sense: see Ed Emery,  
'No Politics without Inquiry: A Proposal for a Class Composition  
Inquiry Project 1996-97', Common Sense no. 18). Some comrades from  
other countries, however, thought that, in view of the world- 
historical change, it was more urgent to examine our theoretical  
concepts. At that time we ourselves still approached the collapse of  
really existing socialism very optimistically.

In 1988/89 there were the beginnings of an instensification of class  
conflict in West Germany. In the course of the change in the GDR it  
came to - now long forgotten - mass discussions in the factories there  
about a social perspective beyond capitalism and GDR-socialism, and  
with the economic ruin of the former GDR there developed there a broad  
movement of struggle against factory closures and the deterioration of  
social conditions. In spite of that, we were no longer able to read a  
communist perspective in these quantitatively increasing struggles.  
With the massacre of the Gulf War in 1991 and the economic crisis,  
which broke rather late in Germany (in 1993, after the unification  
boom) and which led to the acceptance of the intensification of labour  
and deteriorating social conditions on a broad scale, we were no  
longer convinced by our original optimism.

Previous revolutionary concepts and certainties were thoroughly  
shaken. Struggles in the factories had now only a defensive character,  
even stooping to begging for jobs. The left was concentrating on  
racism, fascism and nationalism, without either wanting to or being  
able to connect these with the class character of capitalism and the  
question of its revolutionary overcoming. That is why more and more  
influence in political discussion was gained by those theories which  
had already in the 1980s departed from the radical critique of class  
society (as you (pl.) have shown in detail and criticised in relation  
to Hirsch's theories). We did not wish to become supporters of these  
theories and to forget the class character of this society. A large  
part of the work in the journal Wildcat consisted in presenting and  
analysing the class struggles in the world, which had by no means  
disappeared after 1989. But struggles and wars were breaking out (Gulf  
War, Yugoslavia, Chechenya, Somalia, Rwanda...) which seemed to  
indicate the tendency towards barbarism rather than towards liberation  
from capitalist domination.

The significance of your (pl.) theoretical efforts for our discussion  

In this situation, we felt it was necessary to examine (and, if  
necessary, to develop anew) our theoretical basis. A reckoning with  
the 'new' left theory, which had departed from its radical hostility  
to capitalism, was more necessary than we had thought. They offered  
plausible explanations for the new developments, and we had nothing to  
offer in their place. The operaist thesis that 'the workers produce  
the crisis' became meaningless, since the open crisis of capitalism  
bore no direct relation to offensive struggles by workers. Then how  
could we understand this crisis without seeking refuge in the  
'objective laws of development' of the Marxist textbooks or the then  
fashionable regulation theory? How can we explain that the working  
class is forced to accept a serious deterioration in their conditions  
without any radical struggles developing? And why, in spite of this  
apparent weakness of the working class, does capital not come out of  
its crisis?

We therefore began with an intensive theoretical discussion of these  
questions and looked at all sorts of theories about the present crisis  
(from the regulationists to Wallerstein's world system theory). It was  
a special piece of good luck that in this process we came across your  
texts, which, unlike most other theories, start out from the same  
question as ourselves. You criticise radically the theories of the new  
left as a capitulation in the face of the tasks of revolutionary  
theory. Against the apparent all-powerfulness of capital, you stick to  
the point that it is not a question of autonomous 'things' or  
'structures', but of a social relation, in which antagonism is  
inscribed. Starting from the social constitution of the social  
relations you try to sketch a different explanation of current  

Precisely because we agree with you on the way the question is posed,  
we consider that a more precise discussion of your theses would be  
important and productive. For us it is a question of coming to a  
revolutionary theory which has practical meaning. The theory must  
relate to the reality of the present-day working class. We can imagine  
such a project only as a collective one, as one of many people  
discussing and working together. For us it is not a question of  
getting immediate answers, but of starting up a process of asking and  
exploring. To anticipate: the main problem that we have with your  
texts is that in many points they do not follow through the  
revolutionary and de-mystifying approach radically enough. This may be  
because you often want to give general solutions too quickly, where  
today it would be more important to leave questions and problems open  
in order to lead into a collective theoretical process. 

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