Swinney's "Building the Bridge to the High Road"
A New Manifesto on the Strategy and Tactics of Radical Democracy
Reviewed by Carl Davidson
Networking for Democracy
"Building the Bridge to the High Road" has been characterized
as a new left manifesto for the year 2000. It combines participatory
democracy with a market socialist vison and an economic program
of radical structural reform. Most important, the 87-page booklet
makes a new breakthrough in helping today's left activists out of
one of their most difficult problems: projecting a credible strategy
and tactics for achieving a sustainable socialism as an outcome
of campaigns for immediate reforms.
The term "high
road" in the paper's title comes from a current widely used
distinction made in progressive policy circles to describe alternative
paths for businesses in meeting today's economic problems. The "low
road" is where business emphasizes short-term profitability
and competes with third world labor markets by lowering wages, gutting
benefits, breaking unions and ignoring environmental concerns. The
"high road" is where business emphasizes long-term sustainability
by increasing skills and compensation, worker participation, and
for this strategic analysis is the visible emergence of the Low
Road in our domestic and international economy in the late 1970s
and the enormous destruction of our productive base and capacity.
This has had an enormous ripple effect on all aspects of society
and contributed to growing economic, environmental, social, and
political instability despite the hollow claims about a "dream
economy" in the US. This vacuum will be filled by either the
left or the right-and the right is far ahead in building its economic,
cultural, political and social base. Finally, we see the new growth
of fascist elements in the fundamentalist religious right.
The left has
no choice but to contend in this increasingly dangerous and destructive
environment. And to contend requires a contemporary and sophisticated
plan that its core addresses the ownership, control, management,
and development of the productive capacity of society. A failure
to contend is a policy of capitulation to the right. It is a form
of passive defeatism on the part of the dominant section of the
left, no matter how left-sounding and pure the justifying rhetoric
sounds. It's time for a sharp break with this defeatist and passive
the Midwest Center for Labor Research, learned the importance and
implications of this "low road-high road" distinction
through 17 years of fighting plant closings and job loss in several
of the country's "Rust Belt" cities and states. As a research
center, MCLR has a well-respected reputation for providing invaluable
information and analysis to unions, community coalitions and local
government in their confrontations with low-road corporate greed.
MCLR also combines its information with activism, and has often
helped directly in the organizing efforts of its clients. Swinney's
paper takes the form of a summary of that experience, and is rich
in down-to-earth examples and practical lessons.
is developed in practice
The first lesson
is that strategy, while certainly concerned with theory, is a profoundly
practical matter. The initial task of strategy is finding clear
and concrete answers to the question, "Who are our friends,
who are our enemies?" in order to win a projected goal. For
some leftists, this doesn't require much thought. It has always
been enough simply to name the capitalist class as the enemy, and
then seek to rally the workers to a "class against class"
strategy. Others have given the workers' movement a variety of regular
allies--the Black civil rights movement, women, the Third World--but
in such a mechanical fashion that the formula is always true, decade
after decade, with little regard for changing conditions. Still
others have gotten stuck or nervous on the matter of making distinctions
among the capitalists. Either they avoid it entirely as a slippery
slope to reformism; or they hang onto an outdated formula--such
as the distinction ma de between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois
fascism in the late 1930s--when current conditions are substantially
The High Road
is a refreshing break from all these cul-de-sacs. With immediate
social conflicts as its starting point, it seeks to draw new strategic
lessons from recent practice. Since a good deal of MCLR's practice
over the past two decades has been the fight for jobs, its lessons
are particularly important to activists in urban areas hit hard
What MCLR learned
first hand was that blue-collar job loss was a complex issue. Some
jobs were exported to lower-wage areas abroad, while others were
rendered obsolete by information technology. Still others were lost
due to military cutbacks, environmental problems, failure to modernize
or mismanagement. Some factories closed simply because the owner
died and his or her heirs weren't interested in an inner-city business;
other perfectly viable businesses were bought, stripped of their
cash, and shut down by speculators.
One point stood
out in this process that the left has often ignored: getting more
jobs requires both more employers and better employers. Growing
real jobs today also requires growing capitalists. There's no way
around this unless we are to be satisfied with make-work "jobs"
that create little or no value and are mainly excuses to hand out
welfare or unemployment payments under another name.
Some have argued
that this distinction between real and make-work jobs doesn't really
matter, since it's not the job of the left or the workers' movement
to help capitalism run better. Until socialism arrives, our task
is mainly redistributing wealth to get a bigger piece of the pie
by militantly and massively opposing the status quo. Otherwise,
we end up as allies of at least a section of capital and even become
managers of enterprises in a market economy ourselves.
Beyond Oppositionism & Redistributionism
This is precisely
the challenge that The High Road takes by the horns. Swinney argues
that the real question is not whether to form an alliance with capitalists,
but what forces do we bring to an alliance, which capitalists do
we seek out and what kind of alliances do we need? The left's problem's,
he explains, are mainly due to its self-imposed "oppositionist"
and "redistributionist"outlooks. Rather than simply being
an opposition force, we need to project ourselves as a qualitatively
better governing force that can take control of government or of
industry level by level and sector by sector and run it in a democratic,
sustainable fashion. Moreover, rather than simply redistributing
wealth, we need to establish or manage enterprises and institutions
capable of generating new wealth in a democratic, sustainable fashion.
of who guides and controls the production of wealth is central to
this strategy," says Swinney. "There must be fundamental
change in the social relations of production and in those responsible
for the creation and control of wealth and developing our productive
capacity. The strategy demands that the labor and community social
movements transcend the politics of opposition and the limits of
advocating only the redistribution of wealth. Instead they must
take responsibility for the creation of wealth, the starting of
companies and the creation of jobs, welcoming the responsibility
for good management, productivity and efficiency as well as justice."
makes distinctions among adversaries
Road starts by dividing the capitalist class into two main groups:
the productive sector and the parasitic sector. Productive capital
is mainly engaged in creating new wealth. It makes money by
assembling the means to produce the goods and services needed
for mass consumption, infrastructure and the reproduction of
factories themselves. Parasitic capital is mainly engaged in
speculation. It creates no new wealth, but makes money by moving
profitable factories from high-wage areas to low-wage areas,
speculating on the difference. Or it liquidates profitable businesses
in one industry to reinvest in another with a higher short-term
rate of return. Or, in its most pure form, it simply gambles
in the global derivatives market, betting millions on whether
a given currency is going to go up or down in the next hour.
capital has many conflicts with speculative capital. Speculators
can simply buy publicly held corporations and liquidate them.
Speculators can also wreck entire industrial areas or sectors
by liquidating or moving key anchor industries. Or they can
degrade entire regions by forcing down corporate tax rates and
the ability of government to renew infrastructures. The productive-speculative
conflict, moreover, does not only exist between firms; it also
can exist as two trends or two competing blocs of owners and
managers within a firm. Nor is size the issue. Some large multinationals
can be productive while others are parasitic.
this distinction primary, Swinney is directly criticizing the
"anti-corporate" and "anti-monopoly" strategies
of much of the left has held for some time. A large corporation
can be a high road producer, while a small business can be a
low-road runaway sweatshop. The critical point is to evaluate
a firm by what it does and what path it is taking, rather than
mere size or form of ownership.
distinctions can be made among government bodies and among politicians.
Almost all of these are tied to business interests of some sort.
The critical point is finding out which are tied to high roaders
and which to low roaders, and on that basis develop an appropriate
strategy and set of tactics.
recognize the positive aspects of the market and use them, just
as we see and oppose the negative aspects," Swinney explains.
"We reject the 'command' as well as the 'neo-liberal' or
approaches to the economy and government. We are committed to
economic democracy and an expanded level of public participation
in all aspects of society, and in all aspects of the economy.
essential for the development of people, as well as the success
of our initiatives. It must take place in the firm and community,
as well as in government and civil society. The High Road strategy
also requires adoption and development of the strategy in local,
state and federal government. We must contend for the use of
all the power of the state to take the High Road strategy of
Marxism-Leninism, making use of these sorts of distinctions
among capitalists has been referred to as deploying the "indirect
reserves" or "indirect allies" of the working
class. When China was occupied by Japan, for instance, the Chinese
Communist Party made a distinction in the enemy camp between
Japan, the main enemy, and the U.S., an indirect reserve, since
the U.S. was also at war with Japan. The CCP, with some degree
of success, worked to develop a temporary wartime alliance with
the U.S. and Chiang Kai-shek. In this period, the "direct
allies" of China were the other national liberation movements,
and the socialist and working-class movements around the world.
to the question of the difference between strategic and tactical
alliances. Generally speaking, strategic allies are those who
share an interest in achieving the overall goal of the struggle,
while tactical allies are forces who share an interest in winning
a particular battle or campaign. Strategic alliances are thus
generally long-term and close relationships, while tactical
alliances are more limited in scope and duration.
Road Strategy & Tactics: A Case in Point
Road gives a number of examples of these alliances in the fight
for jobs and democratic control of local economies. The Brach
Candy campaign stands out as the clearest and most comprehensive.
As Swinney describes it, Brach Candy, a major employer on Chicago's
West Side, was in a management crisis after being purchased
by a Swiss billionaire. Jobs were being lost by the thousands
and the fear was that the plant would be broken up and the more
profitable parts shipped abroad. African-American workers first
raised their concerns through their churches and community organizations.
These groups sought help from MCLR, which in turn helped bring
in the Teamsters Local in the plant into the effort. This would
be the core strategic alliance: the African-American community
and the union. They mainly pressed Brach's owners to take the
high road, but also made it clear that they would try to buy
them out if they didn't.
were drawn into this alliance as well, including politicians
representing the area, and small businesses dependent on Brach's
existence for their customer base. All shared not only an interest
in keeping Brach open, but also in job retention and the democratic
development of the area. Then there were the forces associated
with Brach itself. While the current owners were the main enemy,
it was also clear that Brach's management had been in turmoil
and divided. A good number had been dismissed. They were differentiated
into low roaders and high roaders, with a grouping of the high
roaders becoming supporters of the community forces and coming
to play a key role in the campaign. These tactical alliances
in high places emphasized that a Brach shutdown was simply bad
for business and sought out others on that basis. But they were
critical for another reason: they helped MCLR and the Brach
Coalition put together a web of financial commitments tha t
gave credibility to a potential offer to buy out the company.
This managed to split the City Council, with one grouping going
with the community and another with Mayor Daley, who opposed
the Brach campaign on the grounds that capital's prerogatives
shouldn't be challenged.
Role of Worker Ownership
to worker ownership is strategically positive and tactically
critical. It details all the tactical pitfalls from its involvement
in a number of worker-ownership projects. Still, Swinney is
clear on his basic orientation:
need to challenge the view that labor's interest in employee
ownership is merely as a last resort in keeping the company
open, or that it is only an opportunity for a few workers
and managers to have a good job and a good investment. These
reasons are important, but . . . if we do not develop a more
aggressive stance toward these issues, we will miss an opportunity
to give specific definition to the growing movement for greater
democracy in our country (and around the world) . . . We need
to affirm by example that ownership is more than a stock certificate
or profit sharing. We need to take up the issue of democratic
management with enthusiasm and commitment. We need to show
how this makes companies more productive and efficient. We
need to demonstrate how companies become places that transform
and develop employees in positive and dynamic ways. We must
fight the deeply-held view that workers do not have the ability
to manage complex enterprises, much less manage in a democratic
lesson of strategy implicit in The High Road is not putting
yourself in a situation where you confront all your adversaries
at once. The critical function is to mobilize all positive factors
and narrow the target of attack. To paraphrase the CCP again,
strategy involves "uniting the many to defeat the few"
by developing the progressive forces, winning over the middle
forces, isolating and dividing the diehard reactionaries, and
"crushing our enemies one by one."
campaign was a success because of these alliances. The company
made a number of concessions: a better contract for the union,
a stop to job loss and relocation plans. This partially satisfied
the interests of all the forces in the coalition, which also
campaign also raised other new issues. An important force to
join the coalition, for instance, was the Chicago Archdiocese
of the Catholic Church. Where did it fit in? Institutions like
this bring an obvious moral and political force to mass campaigns.
But The High Road also looks at them in fresh economic terms.
On one hand, churches, foundations and other nonprofits are
clearly part of the capitalist landscape: they have managers,
employees, capital holdings and assets, and services to provide
to members, clients and customers. On the other hand, as nonprofits,
they don't have to pay dividends. They only have to meet their
costs. Swinney places them in what he calls the "social
economy." Others have named it the "third sector,"
as distinct from the private and public sectors.
So are the
institutions of the social economy tactical allies or strategic
allies? It's clear that its components are politically diverse.
The Christian Coalition and its nexus of allied nonprofits are
clearly on the right. Many others however, such as Jesse Jackson's
Operation PUSH, are on the left. Their political character is
often determined by a complex mix of their initial charter and
funders, their leadership and the input of their constituents.
Swinney's key point is that there is nothing inherent in their
structure that prevents them from surviving and even thriving
in a democratic, market socialism. Thus, some components of
the social economy are capable of being strategic as well as
Politics for Nonrevolutionary Times
just who comprises the progressive forces, the middle forces
and so on depends on a rigorous assessment of time, place and
circumstance. Are we in a revolutionary or nonrevolutionary
situation? Is it wartime or peacetime? Are we in a developed
or underdeveloped part of the world? The High Road tries to
put all these questions in a new context: the working class
is still a progressive force, but in the U.S. deindustrialization
has shrunk the blue collar sector while expanding the underemployed,
the prison population, service workers and high-tech workers.
Globalization, by eroding the structure of economic privileges
between the "Great Nations" and the Third World, has
both deepened the racial divide and created conditions for a
new worldwide labor solidarity. Speculative, parasitic capital
is wreaking havoc everywhere; yet the political situation is
mainly nonrevolutionary. True, there are several profound structural
crises building up e xplosive forces, but the ruling classes
still maintain the ability to rule in the old way.
is often naturally biased toward drawing on the lessons of revolutionary
upheavals and victories. The writings on a successful revolution's
major turning points and final showdown are often what get translated,
circulated and absorbed first. The experiences of the longer,
defensive and nonrevolutionary periods are played down or ignored.
Lenin's State and Revolution and other wartime writings are
much more widely known than those on his parliamentary work
or his battles with ultraleft liquidationists around 1910. Other
important but relatively lesser known works would include Gramsci's
prison writings, Bukharin's writings on the New Economic Period,
Georgi Dimitrov on the antifascist front, Mao Zedong on the
united front and even Andre Gorz 1960s work on structural reform.
times, strategic victories are mainly culminated by the seizure
of power, the disintegration of the old government, and the
consolidation of a new political and economic order. But what
about nonrevolutionary periods, which, after all, take up more
than 90 percent of history? Do we mainly subsist on the margins
while waiting for the next apocalypse? Or do we fight with a
strategy and tactics that prepare our forces to rule, that sustains
us economically and develops our forces as a counter-hegemonic
power? Do we define victory, not by whether we have won this
or that demand, but by whether or not our forces have greater
organization, strength and fighting capacity after the battle
than they did before the battle began?
High Road lists a number of organizations, enterprises and institutions
that, albeit in embryonic form, already exist and can begin
to serve as a sustainable base for a powerful challenge to the
present order. Its importance is precisely because it is not
a manifesto for a revolutionary offensive, but for nonrevolutionary
conditions. It does not pretend to be the final word on the
subject, but it does project some solid working hypotheses on
how to gather forces and shape conditions for the radical upsurges
the Bridge to the High Road: Expanding Participation and Democracy
in the Economy to Build Sustainable Communities is available
in booklet form for $10 from the Midwest Center for Labor Research,
3411 W Diversey, Suite 10, Chicago IL 60647. It can also be
read on MCLR's "High Road" web site at www.mclr.com