Historical attempts at workers’ inquiry

Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi wrote a lengthy and in-depth introduction to Viewpoint Magazine’s Issue 3 on Workers’ Inquiry.  It is worth reading in full in order to get an understanding of various attempts at the project that have taken place in the West.  Workers’ inquiry started off as an idea by Karl Marx himself to combine the perspectives and experiences of workers with an anti-capitalist communist program.

This practice of workers’ inquiry, then, implied a certain connection between proletarian knowledge and proletarian politics. Socialists would begin by learning from the working class about its own material conditions. Only then would they be able to articulate strategies, compose theories, and draft programs. Inquiry would therefore be the necessary first step in articulating a historically appropriate socialist project.

The analysis looks at the efforts of three groups: the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA in the early ’50s, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France in the ’50s, and Operaismo (workerism) in Italy in the early ’60s.  Here are some of the characteristics and insights of each group:

  • Johnson-Forest Tendency: Split off from Trotskyism; saw workers’ inquiry as a way to engage in agitation and raise class consciousness by rooting political analysis in the day-to-day experiences of people; largely divided society into four groups — workers, blacks, women, and youth; their work veered more into the realm of historical fiction than empirical analysis, as it seems that they weren’t very embedded among common people
  • Socialisme ou Barbarie: Closely linked with the Johnson-Forest Tendency and communicated with them quite a bit; connected with several groups of industrial factory workers over time; advanced the idea of workers’ inquiry to be much more of a fusion between intellectuals and workers researching and analyzing day-to-day proletarian experience (seems similar to the Maoist concept of the mass line); over-determined the importance of male factory workers and didn’t pay much attention to the experiences of race and gender (unlike the Johnson-Forest Tendency); some internal splits over the importance of the workers’ paper and how to balance out intellectual analysis and “raw” and “unfiltered” writings from workers
  • Operaismo: Well-connected with workers in various factories; the role of technology in the workplace was a noteworthy focus of analysis and inquiry; as opposed to the other two groups, which seemed to look at the alienating conditions of the workplace as the key contradiction of capitalism, the Italians used their inquiries to look at the larger systemic tendencies of capitalism, and thus built toward the theory of class composition and the role of working-class struggle in being the driving force of capitalist development and restructuring; like the French, they over-determined the role of male factory workers, but this was strongly pushed back by later work by Italian Marxist feminists of the same currents

These seem to be the main groups that took up the most formal kind of workers’ inquiry.  But if we expand the idea of inquiry to be more general, to refer to any kind of serious on-the-ground investigation and analysis of people’s lives and problems and relationships with capital and state, there are a couple of other examples that come to mind, that are actually more rooted in a strategy that embeds research/investigation with an actual revolutionary organization.

  • Abdullah Ocalan and the other founders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) spent at least a year traveling through Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey to talk to people, survey their grievances, analyze terrain and geography, and map out the presence of the state, prior to their launching of a more open organizing campaign and the armed actions in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
  • Amilcar Cabral, the founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), rooted his political organizing in the surveys and inquiries he made of tribes and other communities in Guinea-Bissau during his time as an agricultural researcher, which took him all around the country and allowed him the opportunity to talk to various social and political leaders.  This enabled him to analyze and synthesize the experiences of many different groups, and ground the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle against the Portuguese Empire with the nuances of local context.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about a formal kind of workers’ inquiry that is used to generate Marxist theory, or the more general kind of research that is used to arm revolutionary organizations with local knowledge and networks, inquiry is definitely something that radical leftists of all stripes need to take seriously.  Too many radical left groups are yelling into the wind, attempting to engage with an amorphous and abstract “public” through vague denunciations of capitalism — instead of trying to meet people where they are at, make a genuine effort to understand how other people are working, living, surviving, and resisting under capitalism, and understand that abstract texts from 50 or 100 years ago aren’t sufficient for crafting a revolutionary strategy today.


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