Labor and the State: Platypus 2017 International Convention
Held April 8th, 2017 at SAIC as part of the 9th annual Platypus international convention.
Bill Pelz (Director of the Institute of Working-Class History)
Djamil Arbia (Protagma)
Brit Schulte (Support Ho(s)e, Slutwalk Chicago)
The bourgeois revolutions strove to subordinate the power of the state to the interests of civil society. Yet the revolutions of 1848 disappointed, resulting in the recrudescence of the state, which rose above society to maintain “order.” Revolutionaries were divided over how to respond. Could the state serve as a means of emancipation? Or was it a force of counter-revolution that had to be smashed? For Marx, the capitalist or “Bonapartist” state had to be smashed, but this could only be accomplished by constituting a new state power, a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, that could realize the emancipatory potential unleashed by capitalism. Instead of either accepting or rejecting it, the proletariat had to render the function of the Bonapartist state self-critical.
In his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx warned his followers against regressing to the Lassallean affirmation of the state. Such capitulation was an ever-present risk, tempting the workers to support the political reconstitution of capitalism through state power, rather than the overcoming of both capitalism and the state through social revolution.
After World War I, organized labor was increasingly integrated into the state. In supporting the New Deal, Communists deferred to capitalist state welfare, downplaying the goal of revolution. In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act, in aiming to protect the rights of workers, subordinated organized labor to the state, which had to balance these rights against the "interest of the public in the free flow of commerce." As the AFL and CIO became core constituencies of the Democratic party, the class struggle was repudiated, in favor of a partnership of Labor and Capital brokered by the state.
While the New Left initially reacted against this parochial arrangement, the 70s witnessed a turn toward militant labor organizing, particularly in the public sector. However, this "grassroots upsurge" coincided with the decline of the welfare state and the rise of neoliberalism, whose champions—Democrat as well as Republican—used state power to launch an assault on the labor movement.
How does the State function today? How is it the product of a history of Leftist struggles? Is there a way in which workers in the “Era of Trump” are able make sense of and redeem Labor's history with the State, to develop, as Marxists contend, a dialectical, rather than affirmative or negative relation to the State?