Reflections on blogging

Having been blogging for around a month now I thought I’d jot down a quick post to reflect on how it’s been.  I started this blog primarily as a place to commit my thoughts to page without needing to be constrained by the more professional and impersonal nature of article writing. When writing articles I am generally far more rigorous with editing, going through several drafts and sharing them with people before publication for feedback.  Blogging by contrast feels quite liberating, being able to put metaphorical pen to paper and quickly bash out my thoughts on an issue and publish them on the same day.  Indeed some of my posts, specifically my most recent on the battle of ideas, started out life as article pieces but having neglected to take them through my usual process of review I took the opportunity to publish them anyway.

Its worth thinking about what the value of all this writing is though.  Generally when doing political activity I try to be as pragmatic as possible, doing what I feel is necessary and most useful politically rather than simply what I personally enjoy or find rewarding.  This makes blogging something of a guilty pleasure.  My blog has a tiny audience, slightly expanded by the fact I’ve been cross-posting on Anarchist Writers (somewhat cheekily, given I don’t identify as an anarchist), and doesn’t form part of a strategy to influence the thinking of the left, at whom most of my posts seem to be aimed.  In short, the time I spent blogging I feel could be better spent on other, less enjoyable things.

That noted, there are certainly some useful functions of blogging.  First and foremost this blog is a handy archive where I can stick things I’ve written for various places for easy access later.  Secondly the process of blogging is usually one of trying to express ideas and analysis I’ve been batting around in my head for a while, and attempting to form a written argument helps to show up contradictions in my thinking and to clarify in my own mind exactly what it is I do think.  On the other hand this can be a double edged sword as having committed to one viewpoint publicly I am more likely to stick to it and defend it, becoming a little more close-minded in the process.

Still, I think this blog is somewhat revealing in terms of its content, taking a look at my favourite political cartoon:

My favourite political cartoon - click to see in detail

I like this cartoon because it largely sums up my feelings about the left, there needs to be less fannying around, and more organising (I also find the inclusion of a “sky pilot” in the background inexplicably hilarious).  But my blog has pretty much entirely been fannying around, tellingly the biggest tag within my tag cloud is presently “political theory”, a subject which dominates this blog, despite my professed distaste for navel-gazing.  I hope this to be only a temporary phase, after all I have been active as a socialist far longer than I have been active within the labour movement and so naturally have accumulated more thoughts with regards to the former.  Adittionally undoubtedly part of the drive behind various posts has been wanting to sum up my feelings on particular debates I’ve been involved in, often over at the Anarchist Black Cat forums.  Sadly these debates tend to be more on questions of political theory than organising strategy and tactics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then this blog is in some ways a reflection of the debates within which I am participating, which in turn are determined by the place the movement I am within is at.  That said, having now put most of my thoughts on more abstract political theory down somewhere I now hope to move on to posts more concerned with what I believe is paramount, the labour movement, its problems, their solutions and the strategies that I believe can help build it into a movement capable of winning socialism.

Winning the battle of ideas

For socialists, how workers power can be brought about is the central question.  Most socialist groups have different answers to this question, from the large idealogical chasm of revolution versus reform as a means of changing society to smaller more nuanced issues of tactics in the here and now.  One notion that does seem to straddle the vast majority of existing socialist groups however is the view that the “battle ideas”, the idealogical struggle against capitalism, is of central importance.  This is often cited as the reason for standing in elections, to give socialist ideas a platform, and the justification for endless paper sales and leafleting.

The problem is, we seem to be losing this battle of ideas.  Capitalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology of the working class (all be it nice fluffy Keynesian capitalism) and over the past decade, even with capitalism facing possible collapse, the socialist left has gained little in terms of support.  If we are serious about winning socialism we need to examine the reasons for these failures and find out in what way we can improve our approach.

Current approaches

Nearly every socialist organisation, from the most authoritarian Stalinists to the most liberal anarchists, has its own publication. Usually this takes the form of a “newspaper” that comes periodically and espouses the position of the group and generally advocates for their chosen ideology. These newspapers are often accompanied by less frequent and more in-depth magazines and a web presence, more or less developed depending on the organisation in question.

Such publications do their best to convince the reader of the merits of a socialist transformation, and in particular of membership of that group, their aim being to create socialists (or to “spread socialist ideas”, which amounts to the same thing). Now there are undoubtedly cases where this approach works, and most experienced paper-sellers will have a couple of anecdotes up their sleeves about this or that comrade that was recruited via the weekly paper-sale.

Such benefits shouldn’t be dismissed, however at present the socialist movement is recruiting in ones or twos, and hasn’t increased markedly the percentage of the population that believe in socialist ideas. Now we can argue that this is because of “objective circumstances”, but, in the midst of a crisis of capitalism it is difficult to imagine circumstances more favourable to socialist ideas, and yet their take up, whilst increased slightly, is still minor amongst the population as a whole.

So why is it that our ideas are failing to spread? To answer this question it is necessary to look at how our political opponents, the capitalist class, promote their own ideas.

Learning from the enemy

Firstly, when we compare our own organisations to the capitalist political parties we immediately notice that these party’s do not have their own organ. Why is this? Would “New Labour Worker” be a successful publication? Probably not as most people are very sceptical of any publication with an explicit agenda, and prefer their media to have at least nominal independence. Of course all of the bourgeoisie press has its own allegiances, and most are not blind to this, but they are none the less considered a more reputable source of information than party-political election materials.

Newspapers may be partisan, but they are still more trusted

Another characteristic of the capitalist newspaper industry is its noted recent decline. Over the last decade there has been a marked decrease in newspaper sales as technology slowly makes this media irrelevant. The newspaper industry has been slow to adapt to this change and has thus lost out, however the left press has found it even more difficult to cope with change.

Various dogmas surround the notion of the centrality of the party paper, especially on the Leninist left.  Whilst party papers undoubtedly played an important role in the Russian revolution and we should seek to learn from that experience what we can, technology has moved on and such an approach is no longer effective.  The notion of organising around a paper these days makes little sense, and usually translates into yet more dismal paper sales.  Other media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as the present day revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have found, are far more potent tools than party-political newspapers.

From action to ideas

However, there is a more fundamental problem than the technological out-datedness and obvious partisanship of the far left press.  For most people socialism seems unattainable, utopian, “nice idea but it’ll never happen”.  Whilst we can try to mitigate against this attitude by wheeling out Marxist dogmas on the inevitability of proletarian victory, or by quoting historical examples, “but look, in 1917, in Russia, for a bit…” neither approach is going to be hugely convincing to your average worker.

This perception of attainability is very important when it comes to looking at motivations.  Socialism does not appear to be in the immediate self-interest, because it appears to be unattainable, of working class people.  As it stands its difficult to argue that doing a miserable paper sale once every weekend at the local shopping centre will tangibly benefit the working class, and so surprise surprise few are drawn in by this sort of activity.

So a central project for us as socialists must be to make socialism, the empowerment of the working class, as attainable as possible.  To do this, we must look to empower working people, creating powerful demonstrations in their own lives that the working class can and should run society.  Such power does not have to come all at once, more naturally it can be built.  Every time an industrial union successfully stops a management attack on the workers, it is demonstrating its power over the workplace.  Every time the workers win a demand, even a small one, they have taken a little control over their workplace away from their boss.

Of course, winning a new coffee machine or stopping a pay cut is still a long way from attaining true socialism, but such victories can help us build the confidence of those involved in winning them and enable us to demonstrate to yet more workers the effectiveness of our popular organisations.  The more organised the working class is, though trade unions, community associations or any other mass organisation, the better able to assert itself it will be, and the more power it will wield.

Eventually, when unions become strong, the question ceases to be “who runs this workplace” and begins to be “who runs this country”.  Worker’s power has been made attainable and it is then that we will find the working classes responsive to our idealogical propaganda and can push for total control over society.  The terrain will be such that the battle of ideas can be decisively won.

But in the mean time, our focus should not be on trying to preach our socialist gospel to a largely uninterested working class, but rather we should focus our efforts on preparing the battlefield, building and democratising the popular organisations of our class.  With our limited resources this may mean tough choices, moving finance away from propaganda activities and towards the work we do within mass organisations, but ultimately this strategic realignment will render us better able to win the battle of ideas in the long term.

Anarchism, the best bits

I don’t really identify as an anarchist, partly for the reasons outlined in this post and partly because I think the historical impact of Syndicalism has been more significant.  However, when writing on an anarchist forum the other day about educational proposals I was putting to Liberty & Solidarity (as its education secretary) I was challenged as to why there was a lack of anarchist content in the courses.  This got me thinking, as much as I spend a lot of time critiquing aspects of anarchism and its movement, what are the positive contributions of Anarchism?

Sadly, clarity of definition is not one of these positive aspects.  Anarchism has a very confused identity and is associated with various diverse tenancies such as individualism and insurrectionism.  As a socialist naturally the school of Anarchism I find most relevant is social anarchism, the anarchism of the Spanish Revolution and Nestor Makhno.

Anti-electoralism

One belief that social anarchism is well known for on the left is its opposition to participation in elections.  Whilst most socialists share with the anarchists a critique of democracy as it exists under capitalism, the anarchists typically have a more developed understanding.  For example, anarchists are crystal clear that lasting social change cannot come through the ballot box, and that through participating in elections socialists not only waste resources but risk legitimising a fundamentally flawed system.

Whilst socialist organisations often claim a similar viewpoint, this is frequently contradicted by their practice, throwing disproportionate resources into gaining electoral representation at the expense of other work.  Even in cases where socialists succeed at gaining representation, the compromises made to attain and retain that position often leads to corruption, moving to the right, or elected representatives having an undue influence over their respective party.  Examples of these trends can be seen across the globe such as Rifondazione Comunista senators voting in favour of continuing the Italian presence in Afghanistan or Tommy Sheridan using his power accrued as a member of parliament to turn on his own party when it refused to back him in his disastrous libel trial against a News of the World.

Boring old history

Dull

Whilst whether or not socialists should stand in elections or not is an immediate, practical consideration, social anarchists are also differentiated from other socialists by their interpretation of certain historical events.  Whilst many on the left may roll their eyes at the mention of the Russian revolution the fact remains that it was an event of huge significance. It shaped geo-politics for 75 years and continues to influence the left today.  This is why having an understanding of what happened in the early days of the Russian revolution, and crucially, what went wrong, is still important a century later.

I’m no historian, and I certainly can’t read Russian, but like many leftists I have done a fair bit of reading around the question of what transpired in Russia.  That the Bolsheviks failed to implement socialism there is no question, Lenin himself admitted as much with the introduction of the NEP.  So why did they fail?  For what I can make out, the events of October (or more accurately November) 1917 constituted a coup by a political party, not a worker’s revolution.  Now there is no doubt that this coup was popular, it would not have succeeded otherwise, but there reality of “all power to the soviets” was in fact “all power to the Bolshevik-controlled institutions”, with other arguably more democratic structures such as factory committees effectively hamstrung by the Bolsheviks.

Soon the Bolsheviks began to wield their power to shut down even soviets that would not tow the line.  Even before the outset of the civil war the Bolsheviks and their secret police were shutting down soviets that refused to return Bolshevik majorities.  This does not look a lot like worker’s democracy.

Prefiguration

So why wasn’t there a workers revolution in Russia? Obviously this is a huge and multi-faceted question, but there is an overriding theoretical explanation from the anarchist camp.  Prefiguration is the idea that the new world needs to be built in the shell of the old.  This means building organisations that mirror the society we want to see.

Anarchists don’t advocate this for idealistic moral reasons.  People are socialised into organisations and cultures, if we want to see a democratic society after the revolution individuals need to be socialised into democracies today.  More importantly, revolutions and the administering of post-revolutionary societies are complex task requiring a lot of coordination.  To pull these off we need mature organisations capable of organising and marshalling the forces of the whole of our class as well as allowing democratic expression.  This is why anarchists are frequently the advocates of structural, democratic changes to trade unions, rather than simply seeking to elect a more radical leadership.

Anarchists have a sophisticated understanding of the role of organisations

From this understanding of prefiguration many anarchists (specifically Platformists and Espicifists) have developed a sophisticated understanding of the role of political organisations with regards to the prefigurative mass organisations that we hope will make the revolution.  Upon writing my own piece on the role of political organisations I was pleased to discover that several similar pieces had already been written, for example this one by José Antonio Gutiérrez.  Unlike say Trotskyists who typically have a confused conception of the “mass party” which is seemingly to be both simultaneously 100% socialist and representative of the working class at large (which is not socialist), Platformists and Espicifists see their organisations as existing to both help build mass organisation and spread their own ideas.  They do not aspire to become “mass” organisations in the way that socialist political parties do as they understand that such organisations are not sufficiently inclusive to represent the entirety of the working class, whatever its politics may be.

Sadly, these views are only held by a small minority of those who call themselves anarchists, however these are none the less positive contributions to understanding that I am grateful to the anarchist movement for.  Like many socialists anarchists are often prone to dogma, and taking the above observations (as well as others that I find less useful) as unflinching rules of nature is certainly something that can be frequently observed amongst social anarchists.  Overall though these observations and understandings can greatly strengthen a socialist analysis.  A focus of prefigurative mass organisation as opposed to electoral activity is hugely important and should enable us to build our new world in the here and now.

A syndicalism for the 21st century

From the Dublin Lockout to the Spanish Civil War, syndicalism has made its mark on history. Though presently a far weaker force than it was in the first half of the 20th century, it has done much to aid in the strengthening of the working class across the globe.  Syndicalism of course is a broad church and as with most ideologies over a century in age has suffered its own divergences.  The most prominent of these trends alive today are anarcho-syndicalism and its closely-related but distinct cousin, revolutionary-syndicalism.  Whilst these two strands of syndicalism share much, there are important distinctions in ideas and practice that need to be drawn out so as to best learn from the histories of these two traditions.

The history of these two strategies has always been intertwined, Syndicalism being very influenced by the politics of the anarchists who were some of its most prominent adherents in the early days.  At around the turn of the 20th century a wave a syndicalist unions appeared, including the CGT in France, the ITGWU in Ireland and the IWW in the United States.  To compliment these unions, in several countries there were syndicalist advocacy groups working within the non-syndicalist unions, such as the ISEL in the UK or the SLNA in the US.  This initial manifestation of syndicalism, though often dominated by anarchist militants, remained fairly apolitical, welcoming all workers to its ranks.

Syndicalism was defined then as a militant approach to trade union action, frequently using strikes and sabotage to gain results.  Syndicalism was distinct from other forms of socialism as it de-emphasised the “political” struggle through the ballot box and building political organisations, believing instead that workers own economic organisations, the unions, were what was necessary for social change.

This de-politicised approach contrasts with the later anarcho-syndicalist organisations, grouped around the IWA, founded in 1922, which although many started life as more traditional revolutionary syndicalist unions, gradually moved more into the political sphere, labeling themselves explicitly as anarchist.  Such anarcho-syndicalists were in favour of building anarchist unions from scratch if necessary, none of the initial IWA affiliates had a strategy analogous to that of the revolutionary syndicalist advocacy groups the ISEL or SLNA which worked within the non-syndicalist unions1.

Logo of the IWA

Anarcho-syndicalism today largely mirrors the strategies of 1922, of building anarchist unions outwith the existing labour movement, however it has been considerably less successful than it was in the 20s and 30s.  Many affiliates of the IWA have grown dogmatic and puritanical, setting up their tents in the left-communist camp and dismissing all unions outside of the IWA as hopelessly reformist.  It would be unfair however to assume that these IWA supporters speak for all anarcho-syndicalists, there are still many with a more open approach to questions of strategy.

From this brief historical comparison we can surmise the main points of difference between the anarcho-syndicalists and the revolutionary syndicalists, specifically that the former present themselves and their unions as political organisations, nailing the red and black flag of anarchism to the mast, whilst the latter are less keen to throw their lot in with any one brand of socialism.  Additionally, whilst anarcho-syndicalists have always favoured a “from scratch” approach the revolutionary syndicalists have been more flexible, sometimes choosing to organise within non-syndicalist unions.

The differences defined, which of these two approaches can be most useful to us today?

If we are to be successful in bringing about a revolution, we clearly need the vast majority of the working class to back such an idea.  To this end if seems obvious that we should stick our colours to the mast and advocate anarchist unions, after all if we believe in our theories we shouldn’t be afraid of arguing for them within organisations we create.  In the modern era this approach has seen limited results however, and we may require a more subtle answer than simply planting our flag and propagandising for our ideas.

It is important to note, in attempting to discern how we might win the masses to our politics, that collective self-interest is a powerful motivating factor. This is why trade unions work, workers recognise that it is in their collective self-interest to join up and fight for a better deal for themselves.  The process of moving people towards our ideas, of building class consciousness, has to be one of ensuring that an anarchistic revolution is clearly in the self interest of the great majority of workers.

To achieve this, rather than arguing for abstract notions of what society could be like one day, we need to build the confidence and organisation of the working class, so that it is both confident enough and capable of taking power from the state.  This can be done through winning victories, demonstrating for all to see the power of collective organisation.  In order to win effectively we need as many workers as possible to be with us, this means socialists, social-democrats and even ideologically capitalist workers need to be included.  Flying the anarchist flag above our unions can only serve to exclude those who’s consciousness has not yet been elevated, dividing the working class into boxes based on politics rather than pulling us all together on the basis of collective self-interest.

The issue of whether we should seek to reform and build within existing, non-syndicalist labour movements is entirely related to the question of the role of politics with the unions.  Starting from scratch, or from the plethora of small historical syndicalist unions dotted around the globe, has been the perspective that not only dominates anarcho-syndicalist thinking but also much revolutionary syndicalist thinking.  The reasons for this are evident, the “mainstream” unions in most countries and undemocratic and passive, and we’ve seen the many failures and sell outs of those who have attempted to change them.

So why did the syndicalists of old advocate working within the unions? Again, the question comes down to one of trade union unity.  Whilst the density of the established unions is often low and in decline, these unions still represent millions of workers, and have vast resources that far outstrip anything that the syndicalist movement presently possesses.  In many countries these unions are the only remaining bastion of working class strength. However flawed they may be, they are the only thing slowing the descent into the race to the bottom on wages and conditions.

By attempting to build unions outwith the existing labour movement we risk undermining the only remaining bastion of working class strength, through poaching members.  Further, competition between trade unions usually means that ultimately, we all lose.  As imperfect as the existing labour movement is, it can be changed2, and by opting to instead build our own from scratch we serve to alienate ourselves from the millions of workers already unionised and the thousands of militants amongst their ranks.

That is not to say there will never be a point in building our own unions, rather, we must bear in mind the costs of doing so and adopt a tactically flexible approach.  Sometimes it will be the right thing to do and sometimes it wont. The revolutionary syndicalists knew this which is why, unlike the anarcho-syndicalists, groups favouring both approaches were welcomed amongst their ranks.

In summary, anarcho-syndicalism’s proud tradition has a lot to teach us, however, its emphasis on politics can prove devastatingly divisive, whilst the less political revolutionary syndicalism’s tactical flexibility around the existing labour movement renders it more appropriate for our present circumstances.  Clearly however both movements will continue, and whilst one syndicalism may seem more strategically valid than the other, both have great contributions to make to the international labour movement and the empowerment of our class.

I wrote this article to kick of a debate on anarcho-syndicalism between myself and a member of the Worker’s Solidarity Alliance in the USA.  I will stick up a link to his reply once he has penned it.

[1] With the sole exception of the Comité de Defense Syndicaliste in France, who’s tactics were swiftly condemned by the IWA shortly after its founding conference.

[2]There are plenty of historical examples of this, for example the reforms of the UK labour movement won by the amalgamation committees during the 1910s.

A Tale of Two Democracies – Part Two

Read part one here.

Understanding power

“Power flows from the barrel of a gun” said Mao, and whilst in a time of warfare and insurrection this is certainly true, for socialist organisations functioning within western democracies our understanding needs to be a little more nuanced.  At its most simple, power, the ability to direct or influence the course of events, flows from several key interrelated resources: time, money, relationships and legitimacy.  Time and money are often interchangeable, an individual who is wealthy or has at their command the wealth of an organisation can hire underlings who’s time can be used to their own ends.

This time can be used to have a word in the right ears, to phone round everyone before that crucial vote to argue your case, or to build longer lasting relationships which can be called on at a later date when needed.  In this way full time officers in an organisation, even if they have little financial resources, can become very powerful.  Their job will often take them across the country, allowing them to make arguments and build up relationships which can then be utilised when the time comes.  As employees of an organisation full timers also have a greater vested interest in the direction of the organisation, as certain courses of action could result in them losing their job.  This means the full timers not only have the potential to build a lot of power for themselves, but they also have the impetus to use it.

So how can we ensure the power implicit in being a full timer is used to further the collectively agreed interests of the organisation?  Working within the rules and staying within the accepted culture conveys legitimacy to an officer’s actions.  No matter how much time and money an officer has, they are going to find it difficult to get away with blatantly violating the constitution of an organisation, because by default this move is seen as illegitimate.  The same can be said of going outside the established norms of the officer’s position.  An organisation might not have a rule that its general secretary cant employ family members in their office, but this would none the less be frowned upon and difficult to justify as such a move violates the expectations and democratic culture of the organisation.

Clearly however legitimacy is not the be-all and end-all.  Most military coups utterly violate the existing constitutions and accepted democratic process of the countries in which they occur, yet with enough guns (ultimately acquired through time, money and relationships) legitimacy becomes unnecessary.  Equally in our own organisations, where an individual has enough raw power they can typically override democratic process, however this will always be a risky move.

There’s no simple answer to the problem of containing and directing the power of full-timers, but basic oversight such as access to their work diaries, monthly reporting etcetera should be enough to at least keep most of their energies directed at achieving the organisation’s goals rather than their own.

The power of factions

Another potential coup-making force within larger organisations are factions.  Within democratic organisations factions are often loathed.  They have the power to turn routine debates into quagmire and can be hugely destructive to the organisation as a whole.  In spite of this, once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, factions are both inevitable and necessary.

Without factions, be they formal or informal, it is down to unorganised individuals to uphold the democratic structures and culture of the organisation.  If an officer violates the rules its up to individuals to ensure a blind eye is not turned, that rules violations do not become the norm, rendering the constitution redundant.  Whilst unorganised individuals may be sufficient to keep an eye on those in power in small organisations, when organisations get beyond a certain size their voice becomes too weak be be effective.  This is where factions come in.  Those factions that are opposed to those in power have it in their interest to hold those in power rigidly to account.  It will not be in their interest to turn a blind eye.

In using the power of factions to help maintain our democracy, we need to also have a means of ensuring that these factions do not behave in a destructive manner, placing short term factional interest above the longer term interests of the broader organisation.  Again this seems to be a question of creating both structures and culture that can facilitate this.   If a branches number of delegates to the decision making bodies of the organisation is determined by the number of people in a branch, it suddenly becomes in the interest of all factions to be the best builders of the organisation, after all, the more people within the branches where they hold sway, the more votes they will get.

The two democracies

It is for reasons such as accommodating and using the power of factions to maintain democracy that the structure of a democracy can be hugely important.  Additionally we have seen how seemingly democratic methods, such as ballots, may in fact be far less democratic than alternative approaches because they fail to foster a culture of discussion and engagement.  Both of these components are necessary for a genuine democracy to take root, to successfully control and direct the power contained within an organisation.

With a greater understanding of power an democracy we can create better socialist organisations. Traps that previous socialist groups have fallen into can be avoided and confident in our democracy we can focus on the real task in hand, building power for our class.