Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Fighting for Ourselves (Book Review)

Juan Conatz reviews a new pamphlet by Solidarity Federation. We’re excited about the new pamphlet. You can read excerpts from it here.

Fighting for ourselves: anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle by Solidarity Federation is a relatively expansive document from a membership-based group (as opposed to a writing group like Recomposition or Aufheben). The pre-layout final draft clocking in at just under 100 pages, this isn’t merely a one-off position paper on a certain topic, but an expression of the group’s outlook and how it relates to the past, present and future.

While there are many articles and books focused on some of the subjects the pamphlet takes on, here we find them summarized through an anarcho-syndicalist perspective. Those not familiar with some of the subjects, events and tendencies will find a useful resource here, as the pamphlet goes over them in an introductory fashion, while pointing out where to find more information. Considering this aspect of the pamphlet alone would make Fighting for ourselves valuable. But there’s much more here than that.

The pamphlet is very much worth reading, and I hope SolFed figures out a way to get the hard copy easily available in North America. And while some of us who run this blog know members and have paid attention to the group over the last few years, one doesn’t need to do that to appreciate or get something out of this pamphlet. It does help to know that while SolFed is in the process of moving from a propaganda focused political organization to a revolutionary union, this is happening within the context of the riots last year, massive public sector strikes in response to austerity and a recent explosive student movement.

At the risk of skipping the massive amount of topics and details in the pamphlet, most of what I’m going to concentrate on in this review is the conception of the ‘political-economic’ organization. To break that down some, this is something in disagreement with the usual separation of the economic organization (such as a union) and the political organization (parties, federations, etc.). SolFed instead say both functions can and should be done within the same organization, and that this is their goal.

I find this important and relevant for mainly 2 reasons.

1) The resurgence of anarchism in North America in the last decade led to the establishment of a few dozen political organizations, mostly inspired by platformism and especifismo. More recently, a few small eclectic Marxist groups, centered around a couple of blogs have also popped up. In many ways, their existence or function depends on a not insignificant amount of politicized people ‘getting serious’ or ‘getting organized’. But joining a political organization isn’t the only way to do that.

2) Despite the IWW’s official neutrality in the dispute between European-based radical traditions (anarchism and party socialism), the IWW has its own set of politics which can be developed further, regardless of those who talk of ‘apoliticalism’.

Throughout the pamphlet we see numerous instances of the political and economic being separated. For the economic TUC [a] there’s the political Labour Party. For the AFL-CIO, there’s the Democratic Party. 

In Leninism, we see this separation as an ideological badge of honor, based on the opinion that the working class can only achieve “trade-union consciousness” and thus need a Party to lead them past that.

Even in anarchism, a bitter opponent of left wing capitalist parties and Marxist-Leninism, the separation has been advocated and practiced. The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued to keep syndicalist unions and anarchist groups separate and said any explicit anarchist union will either stay tiny or become reformist as it grew. This is still an argument used against revolutionary unionism. [b] Also, the Platform, written by exiled Russian and Ukrainian anarchists during the late 1920s, also sees a need for a political organization to keep revolutionary unions from becoming reformist.

The first example of revolutionary unionism we see in this pamphlet is the French CGT. Considered the beginning of syndicalism, in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the CGT was a union with significant anarchist and non-party socialist involvement and influence. Yet, officially they remained politically neutral, which was understood as “standing outside all political schools and parties but not opposed to them”.

The CGT’s revolutionary aims, though, were apparently expressed more through the existence of the union’s democratic structures. When the state and capital started treating them differently (not just repression), the reformists won out. Soon, they would mobilize their members for World War I, and later, represent the most conservative force within the working class explosion of May 1968.

The pamphlet gives a decent overview of the CGT, but not knowing much about them it seems somewhat unclear why they ended up the way they did. Did they have written revolutionary goals and an organizational strategy to reach them? Or were these written and espoused by some of their more famous members on a more individual basis, which just received temporary agreement when the union was in a specific time and place?

With the IWW, there was also an official political neutrality, which existed for different reasons than the CGT. Also, the free speech fights, condemnation of racial and ethnic discrimination and antiwar stance meant rather than the standard interpretation of ‘apolitical’ syndicalism, the union still expressed political perspectives and goals. This just didn’t happen by stating preference for the European radical traditions of party socialism or anarchism.

From here, we move to British syndicalism, which never saw the creation of revolutionary unions, but instead saw working through the TUC unions through rank-and-file networks coming from small groups of individuals or tiny political organizations. This form of syndicalism, which sought to work within the reformist unions, was advocated as well in places like the U.S. and Canada, but in Britain it was the norm. Even today, with the UK IWW’s debate on dual card VS ‘greenfield’ organizing, this legacy lives on.

Outside of anarchism and syndicalism, currents like German council communism of the 1910s and 1920s also faced the political-economic organization question. Drawing a lot from the IWW, the General Workers’ Union of Germany (Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands – AAUD) was a union that shunned day-to-day struggles and concerned itself instead with the immediacy of revolution. It was linked to the Communist Workers Party of Germany (Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands – KAPD), a non-parliamentary political party which was thrown out of the German Communist Party for being too ‘ultraleft’. But despite the KAPD being more of a political organization than a political party, some militants in the AAUD thought the division of functions between the two was still not desirable, and so formed the AAUD-E, which sought to be both the political and economic organization for the class.[c]

Now we finally get to anarcho-syndicalism, which is what SolFed identifies with and is the thrust of the pamphlet. There’s a decent amount on the Spanish CNT up to the point in the Spanish Civil War in which it started to play a negative role. For those who aren’t familiar, after beating a fascist uprising off the streets in areas in which the union was the strongest, it balked when it came to the question of taking power. The beginnings of a revolution in which workers took over their workplaces and peasants occupied and collectivized land was halted in favor of antifascist unity. The end result was anarchists joining the Popular Front government and ordering workers back to work during the Barcelona May Days of 1937.

Rather than blaming the supposed intellectual/ideological shortcomings of anarchism, the personal failings of individual leaders or the lack of an effective political organization, the pamphlet takes a different stance. Instead, at fault was its politically neutral syndicalist structure (‘a union for all workers’) that allowed many members with no revolutionary aims to join and shape the union. This is similar to Malatesta’s argument against revolutionary unionism, but that’s not all. In addition, the pamphlet says, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), which was formed to combat reformists in the CNT, created a layer which was where ‘politics’ happened. So in essence, the political-economic separation occurred and the trajectory of the union depended on which faction had the most trust, leadership and power at any one time.

Another anarcho-syndicalist union of that time was the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA) from Argentina. They disagreed with both the CNT’s form of anarcho-syndicalism and separate anarchist political organization. Rather than being a union for all workers, it was a union for anarchists. SolFed seem to find inspiration in this. But it must be pointed out that although the FORA became relatively large in the 1920s, they suffered a major split that seemed to have been as much at fault for their near demise as any repression from the state and capitalists. They still exist today, but have never regained anything close to their former strength and seem no where as active as the tendencies they once heatedly criticized.

The most interesting part of this pamphlet for me is the last chapter, which could actually stand alone as a pamphlet itself. This is where SolFed get into exactly the way it wished to organize and why.

Saying that their aim is “not to enroll every worker into the revolutionary union”, SolFed’s suspicion of what they call ‘neutral syndicalist’ model is gone into numerous times during the pamphlet. The examples of the mistakes and undesirable possibilities it might facilitate are explained as well. There’s definitely something to be said about that, but not having struggle happen through your organizations opens up some other possible problems that are worth considering.

By rejecting the ‘neutral syndicalist’ model, SolFed will be deemphasizing membership, not being a union for all workers, but a union for anarcho-syndicalist workers.

1) IWW campaigns that have demphasized membership have come across the problem that co-workers are not as invested and efforts are taken less seriously.

2) There is a real possibility that having a more restrictive membership could encourage the downplaying of politics. Doing so can make the tactics we choose less understandable if there isn’t an obvious, known, wider reason for it. ‘Getting the goods’ is not always the reason and the tactics we choose are not always (sometimes never) the best way to accomplish this, in any case.

I think there’s something to be said about people joining the IWW and getting their political education through membership. Although we aren’t the best at this, it does happen. In the best cases, people join through a drive at their work and then are exposed to a tradition and to fellow workers that develop their vague unionist sympathies into anticapitalist class struggle unionism. That isn’t to say everyone should be signed up, but more restrictive membership would probably leave political education to either individual study or external efforts from SolFed.

3) If demphasizing membership and politics happens, the danger then arises that we do initial ground work for a campaign, at which point, a reformist union comes in and takes over. This is always probably going to be a danger for revolutionary unions, but if membership and politics becomes unimportant, the question of ‘Why not [insert other union]?’ becomes harder to answer.

4) John O’Reilly has written about legitimacy when it comes to IWW campaigns. Similar questions are going to happen with future SolFed ones. How will they respond to this if they are portrayed as a small minority of workers because of demphasized membership?

None of these problems are insurmountable though, and SolFed, or at least the members who were behind writing this pamphlet, seem to have a good grasp on being able to adapt and learn from successes and failures. But there does seem to be a danger, in this conception of the political-economic, that the political is stressed to a way greater extent. One wonders what the difference is between SolFed’s model and the Sojournor Truth Organization’s (STO), which was a small Marxist political organization in the 1970s that went through a period of mainly workplace organizing.

I’ve skipped over large parts of this pamphlet for this review. Indeed, if I was to cover everything, while offering my own thoughts, it could be a pamphlet in itself! The vastness of the years and material covered, combined with thought provoking propositions for revolutionary unionism, make this a valuable contribution for workplace militants to read over and discuss.


Originally posted: October 3, 2012 at Recomposition[