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Remembering Fitch: Recollections of a Solitary Syndicalist

Bob Fitch died on March 4, 2011 at the age of seventy two. I first met him in Berkeley during the early 1970s and then, until shortly before his death, we continued to meet every month or two at Pete’s Tavern on 18th Street in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. It remains one of the oldest restaurants in NYC. Intellectuals and political people used to gather there, and it was the place where O. Henry supposedly wrote his great short story “The Gift of the Magi.” Pete’s Tavern was always noisy, packed with people, and the food wasn’t great. But it was near Fitch’s tiny apartment on 17th Street and it reminded us of an admirable past. I can barely remember a conversation with him that did not involve the radical literary or political heritage of times past. It was almost as if he read too much. Historical insights, stories, bristling ideas, facts upon facts, and pregnant theories played off one another in his remarkably fertile mind. How often, after a debate on some obscure issue or another, Fitch would call the next day to say that he had checked it out – and found a citation that clarified the matter (and, usually, validated his position). He was a terrific interlocutor: one walked away from a discussion with him smarter – and more intellectually honest – than before.

 

Fitch showed little patience for the fashions associated with the 1960s and its aftermath: authoritarian Marxism, identity politics, populism, spiritualism, or what much later become known as “politics of meaning.” He was a person of great intellectual depth. Fitch studied the culture of classical Greece (like everything else) on his own. His political outlook fused the communitarian ideals of Rousseau, the ethical rationalism of Kant, the critical political economy of Marx, and a vision of unions as the expression of working class solidarity that derived from Durkheim. But the theorist was also concerned with practice. Fitch first joined a union when he was fifteen and then, after a stint in military intelligence while in the Air Force, he wound up in Berkeley. Radicalized by the 1960s, for a time, Fitch became something of a Maoist. He helped create the Revolutionary Union that, under the stewardship of Bob Avakian, turned into the Revolutionary Communist Party. But Fitch lacked the sorry megalomania of so many revolutionary sectarian “leaders.” He was never intoxicated by violence.  A trip to Eastern Europe, meanwhile, soured him on communism and vanguard politics. Fitch was also skeptical of third world populism: Ghana: End of an Illusion (1966) that he co-authored with his wife, Mary Oppenheimer, provides a sobering analyses of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah.

 

Fitch would later spend two years working the Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians from 1989 to 1990. At Local 802, Manny Ness recounted how Fitch organized many shops for the union and was considered a model organizer, He then was hired by CWA Local 1180, a union representing New York City public employees, to develop a plan to rebuild New York’s eroding manufacturing base. His research would serve him well and, in the process, Fitch became aware of corruption in the union ranks. He refused to turn a blind eye – and his public estrangement from organized labor began. To the day he died, however, Fitch was respected by many leading union officials and, in private, some of them continued to ask his advice on union revitalization.

 

While in Berkeley, along with David Horowitz and David Collier, (both of whom later turned to the far right) Fitch served as an editor of the iconic magazine, Ramparts, and he later helped found Socialist Revolution. So, now, he turned back to journalism. He became one of the finest essayists of the 1960s generation. Many of his articles and editorials dealt with the nitty-gritty of urban politics. Others were concerned with crisis theory and the contradictions plaguing American capitalism. “Who Rules the Corporations?” (1970), also written with Mary Oppenheimer, illuminated the empirical organizations, workings, and interests generated by the existing accumulation process and what Marx called the “political economy of capital.” Fitch was intent upon determining the great within the small: it was perhaps the fundamental theme that ran through his work.

 

Empirical inquiry was intended, according to Fitch, to illuminate the larger structure and spur indignation against it. And the wealth of his empirical knowledge was amazing. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the collusion of finance, insurance, and real estate – or what he termed “FIRE” – that resulted in the loss of manufacturing jobs and the creation of a metropolitan playground for the wealthy at the expense of working people. The Assassination of New York (1996) exposed the capital working hand in hand with city officials in both parties — when it came to subsidies or housing or jobs — and it created a sensation. Many urban activists and students of city life still consider it a classic. But Fitch received only criticism from liberals for its attack on the Democratic Party establishment and, following the coronation of Rudi Guliani as “America’s mayor” in the aftermath of 9/11 (and his disastrous showing in the Republican primaries of 2008), it has largely been forgotten.

 

The Assassination of New York (1996) was based on articles that first appeared in The Village Voice and the Nation. It seems far removed from the university towns and populist politics that were so much a part of the New Left. But Fitch never fully abandoned Berkeley. His romantic vision of solidarity, or “class consciousness,” hinged on popular democracy. Fitch was committed to the empowerment of workers and ordinary communities – and exposing the obstacles that hindered it. Fitch identified with working class neighborhoods resisting the capitalist-city government and local unions challenging larger ones. He also envisioned these proletarian communities and unions linking up with one another to create a systematic and organic alternative from the bottom up. Fitch understood the fundamental premise of Marxism, namely, that the power of capital rests on the degree of organizational and ideological disunity among workers. But he understood it in his own quixotic way looking back to the Knights of Labor and the IWW for inspiration. Fitch was always a syndicalist at heart – and that got him into trouble.

 

Solidarity for Sale (2006) was the book that he loved. Known simply as an expose of union corruption and as an unqualified indictment of the labor movement, it was neither one nor the other. Fitch had intended to provide a theory of union corruption and his attack was directed less against industrial than craft unions. The problem was that the cavalcade of stories and statistics in his sprawling book obscured the underdeveloped theory and smothered the nuance. Fitch knew that unions were important organizational forms for resisting capitalist exploitation and that they remain relevant. He admired the large and bureaucratically efficient European unions greatly for their relative lack of corruption and the benefits that they provided workers. Fitch believed that the weakness of American unions helps explain the widest inequality of income and the most debilitated welfare state in the Western world. The issue then was not unions but the way in which they are organized in our country or, better, what European labor activists still call “the American disease.”

 

Fitch knew that capital has the upper hand in capitalist democracy. He noted the debilitating impact upon labor of weak laws, employer criminality, and de-industrialization. But he refused to cast unions simply as victims trampled by external forces beyond their control. Fitch insisted that the American union movement was complicit in the erosion of its membership and its power. He believed that particular forms of union organization can strengthen or weaken the ability of workers to confront capital. Fitch despaired over a situation reminiscent of feudalism in which 20,000 and semi-autonomous craft unions fragment the workforce while low-level officials depend upon the favors of higher-ups to control jobs within their local jurisdiction. Fragmentation creates problems of enforcement, according to Fitch, which leads local leaders into the arms of the mob, while lack of democratic accountability to the membership fosters inefficiency and corruption. Embezzlement of funds and pay-offs for compromises with capital thus reinforce one another – at the expense of workers. Stagnation is the result.

 

Ironically, for this syndicalist, the problem was not too much bureaucracy –but too little.

What Fitch termed the “fiefdom syndrome” undermines incentives to organize the unorganized and class solidarity. If facilitates the most craven compromises with capital. For Fitch, indeed, the question was not why American unions were weak but why they were ever stronger. He believed it was due not to the courage and intelligence of the conservative and fragmented union federations, but in spite of them. Business was pressured by the state to recognize unions in exchange for non-strike pledges during the two world wars while radical organizations like the IWW and the CIO offered organizational alternatives and generated unrest from the working class thus spurring action by the AFL. Fitch sought to link these two positions. Maximizing state support for labor calls for a unified union movement while, today, only small wildcat unions like those of the Chinese restaurant employees in NYV and their spontaneous strikes provide alternatives to the stagnant, fragmented, and fundamentally conservative union federation that exists.

 

Fitch never squared the circle. He could not translate his critique into a practical stance. But that was not what left him isolated. It’s not as if anyone on the left has a clear idea of how to transform American unions. What the left establishment could not abide was Fitch’s seemingly sectarian stance. His structural analysis of unions identified internal attempts to reform them, or the old tactic of “boring from within,” with the labor of Sisyphus. No one else stated so openly that it was impossible to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.

 

His estrangement from the establishmentarian labor movement really began with what would become a prophetic critique of UNITE and John Sweeney who succeeded the stolid and reactionary successor Lane Kirkland at the AFL-CIO. Hopes were high among the left establishment but Fitch brought his critical perspective to bear. Old union comrades were appalled; academic technocrats sneered; populists recoiled; and the more prized left-wing publications like The Village Voice and the Nation no longer had much use for him. Solidarity for Sale merely sealed his fate. A small circle of close friends like Mike Hirsch and Jane La Tour remained steadfast. A few more radical journals like New Politics still published Fitch. He joined Democratic Socialists of America. But his outlook remained what it was. His name still came up in almost every conversation dealing with unions. Looking back, I can’t think of anyone more isolated than this great Marxist voice of American syndicalism.  Fitch knew it, too. But he wasn’t bitter. Generous to a fault, and not just when it came to money, he was one of those rare intellectuals who actually enjoyed seeing another writer receive recognition. Until the last year of his life, Fitch never had a full-time academic job. He ran around frantically teaching various courses as an adjunct at different universities, gave a few talks on the side, made a bit of money from his writing, and scraped by. John Ehrenberg, Chair of Political Science at LIU, told me that Fitch’s students loved him. And I believe it.

 

Fitch had a wonderful sense of humor and he was a terrific storyteller.  Often I implored Fitch to write a memoir about Berkeley in the 1960s. It might have made him some money (which he sorely needed as he grew older). He seemingly knew everyone from Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement to Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers to Jerry Rubin of the Yippies and Michael Lerner the future Rabbi and editor of Tikkun. But Fitch always demurred. And it was not merely a matter of humility. He believed that his old stories belonged in the café. Fitch had bigger things on his mind. He was an intellectual of the old school: wide-ranging in his outlook, always ready to battle over ideas, suspicious of the latest philosophical fad, ever curious, respectful of genuine scholarship, and proud of his erudition. There are few friends from whom I learned so much. His critical spirit, uncompromising intellectual integrity and unique voice remain with me. I still remember when he wrote these wonderful lines from “Vetting God’s Politics” (MZine 11/04/06) that perhaps best crystallize his critical spirit, intellectual integrity and unique voice:

 

For modernity, political consciousness begins with disenchantment: the understanding that religion is a form of alienation. Man makes God, not vice versa. No true political dialogue is possible with people who engage in ventriloqual routines with burning bushes, magic mountains, or enchanted clouds. For those influence by the Enlightenment the claim of being on God’s side is not simply unconvincing. It’s a coercive, authoritarian form of discourse. Don’t tell me what God says. Tell me what you know. Don’t tell me what the Lord did. Tell me why it’s good to do.

 

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