Concentrating our forces

The left is undeniably weak.  Compared to our capitalist adversaries we have little in the way of finance and none of our organisations are as powerful or organised as the state.  We need to be able to punch above our weight, and to increase our capacity so that eventually our resources enable us to force lasting social change.

So how can we ensure we get maximum bang for our activist buck? An obvious response is to concentrate our meagre forces so that our combined focus and strategy allows us to win things we would not usually be able to.  The opposite of this, a scatter-shot approach, frequently results in resources being spread too thinly and consequently failing to make an impact.

In order to counter this we need to prioritise where we spend our time and money.  Clearly there is a myriad of activities which can aid the socialist cause so we need to be quite picky in deciding what our priorities are.  Of course in marking something as a priority it is implicit that other activities will be deprioritised.  Sometimes this will mean hard choices, but if we aren’t willing to be hard-headed then we can’t expect our movement to get far.

Applying this logic more broadly we should be looking for a systemic solution to the underlying cause of many of the world’s ills; capitalism.  This might mean that sometimes in our bid to fix this underlying problem we don’t go to the most oppressed first. We ought to more strategic and look at how our immediate actions can contribute to changing capitalism, rather than healing its symptoms. In order to help us make these decisions we need some criteria, how can we tell a priority from something less important? One approach is to help those who are most in need, to find the most oppressed and attempt to improve their conditions.  Taking this moral approach to its logical conclusion often leads us down the road of simple charity.  If workers are being paid badly we want to organise them to allow them to demand better wages, not give them some of our own money to alleviate their immediate plight.  In short we look for systemic solutions to underlying problems, in this case a group of workers lack of collective power.

That said, it is worth noting that in order to bring about lasting social change we need to have the majority of the populace on our side.  In order to achieve that we will need to demonstrate that collective action can improve peoples lives in the hear and now.  Whilst looking at what will provide the best challenge to capitalism should be regarded as most important, frequently this will also coincide with aiding those in need.

In addition to looking at the effectiveness of our actions in contributing to the bigger picture, we also need to have an eye out for what will grow our own capacity.   Organising workers not only allows us to remedy an immediate injustice and increase confidence in the effectiveness of collective action, but it also allows us to build on that workplace organisation, encouraging those organised to get involved elsewhere in the movement.

In summary, concentrating our forces is hugely important if the left is to punch above its weight and stand a chance of winning lasting social change.  This involves being hard-headed about what is most effective and is best to build our capacity.  This needn’t be completely heartless however as what is most effective will often also be activity that sees us aiding our fellow workers in improving their lives.

A brief history of Syndicalism (part 2)

Meanwhile, stateside

Whilst never explicitly syndicalist the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905 in Chicago, clearly had a lot in common with their syndicalist comrades elsewhere around the globe.   The primary instigator in this new union was the Western Federation of Miners, a highly militant industrial union. The WFM sought an alliance with various socialist organisations and smaller unions to create a national union body outside of the craft-focussed American Federation of Labour.  The AFL represented craft-unionism par excellence, its member bodies being forcibly split along craft lines on pain of expulsion.

In contrast to this divisive stance the IWW not only advocated industrial unionism but that there should be one union for the whole of the working class.  After all, they all ultimately had the same interests.  Somewhat optimistically the IWW saw itself as the basis for this One Big Union and this positioning often lead to an antagonistic relationship with the far larger AFL.

In spite of its isolation from the mainstream of the labour movement the IWW mounted many inspiring organising campaigns, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the Lawrence textile strike.  Over 20,000 workers walked out on strike and chose the IWW as their union.  The strike was ultimately won and elevated the IWW to the status of household name.

Sadly, in spite of its new national profile, the IWW failed to consolidate its success and within a couple of years the IWW was back to a token presence in Lawrence.  This pattern was seemingly replicated across many IWW organising drives, with the organisation continually struggling to maintain a stable membership, even though it managed to win many spectacular victories.

The sole exception to this trend proved to be the Marine Transport Workers union, based on the docks in Philadelphia.  This union was to prove stable and lasted for a good 10 years before a large section left the IWW as the result of a political split within the organisation.

Sadly, said split was not an isolated incidence, the IWW suffered numerous damaging splits throughout its history.  The first of these was at its second conference in 1906!  The IWW managed to grow in spite of both these splits and of brutal oppression, up until around 1923, where yet another split acted as a catalyst for a decline from which the union has never recovered.

One of the most interesting splits from the IWW was that lead by William Z Foster, who in 1912 formed the Syndicalist League of North America.  The league’s inspiration had come from the CGT in France and Foster was convinced that as in France syndicalist should work within the mainstream trade unions.  In the years after he left the IWW Foster found himself the leader of the spectacular “great steel strike”, involving over 100,000 steel workers.  Though the SLNA did not outlast the first world war Foster continued his work within the AFL through the Trade Union Education League which was associated with the newly founded Communist Party.   Sadly as happened in Britain and France the cancer of Stalinism slowly replaced syndicalism within the left of the trade union movement. The Comintern eventually forced the TUEL to split from the AFL, resulting in a swift deterioration in the organisation.

And everywhere else…

Syndicalism however wasnt confied to France, Britain and the USA.  There are plenty of other important syndicalist unions, such as the USI in Italy who’s activists were instrumental in the famous workplace occupation and factory committee movement.  The most well known syndicalist union is probably the famously anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo whose millions of members fought Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war.  What many don’t know however is that the CNT for much of its life was not an anarchist union, it was a syndicalist union along the lines of the CGT or IWW.

Irish Transport and General Workers Union is another great example of the importance of building unions as social insitutions.  The ITGWU in its heyday was the most powerful union in Ireland and bought over a country estate outside Dublin for use for union picnics and other social activities.  The union’s syndicalist influence clearly derives from the likes of James Conolly who was one of its key organisers and who previously worked for the IWW in the United States.

Syndicalists today can learn a great deal from all of these unions. Whether its the importance of the union as a deeply rooted social institution or the need for membership stability there are clearly lessons to be learned.  Whilst I don’t presently feel qualified to discuss Syndiclaism outside of France, Britain and the US hopefully this small snapshot will prove useful, I intend to add to it with further national examples as I read more.

Read part one here.

This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity.

A brief history of Syndicalism (part 1)

It started in France

The Confédération générale du travail, formed in 1895 in France, is widely regarded as the grandfather of the syndicalist movement.  Within its ranks socialists alienated by party politics, radical republicans and anarchists joined forces to forge a new movement; revolutionary syndicalism.  In a short space of time syndicalist ideas came to dominate the CGT, at the time the only sizeable union in France.

This dominance was reflected by the Charte d’Amiens, a declaration of syndicalist principles adopted by the confederation in 1906.  It asserted the political independence of the CGT from all parties:

as far as it concerns individuals, the Congress asserts the complete freedom for union member to participate — outside of his corporate grouping — in those forms of struggle that correspond to his philosophical or political concepts, limiting itself to asking him in exchange to not introduce into the union the opinions he professes outside it.

Around this time the CGT was at the centre of the campaign for the eight hour day in France.  This campaign provoked much industrial unrest and triggered the spectacle of a “socialist” parliamentarian (and erstwhile proponent of the general strike!) ordering troops to fire on strikers.  The CGT used tactics pioneered in the  early days by leaders such as Émile Pouget who advocated the use of sabotage to aid strikes and stop scabs.

The true strength of the CGT however lay not in such tactics but in the solid basis it had within working class communities.  This strength flowed from organs known as the Bourse du Travail which brought together unionists in a given town to provide services for the working people which the state did not.  This encouraged workers to socialise together around the union and rendered it a powerful social institution.

The syndicalist’s dominance of the CGT ended with the beginning of world war one.  The anarchist Leon Jouhaux and his supporters on the union’s executive lined the union up with the French state in the infamous union sacrée.  Syndicalists throughout the CGT attempted to reverse the betrayal, opposing it on the executive and attempting to call a congress to deal with the matter, however they were outmanoeuvred.

After the war and in the wake of the Russian revolution the syndicalists attempted to regain hegemony within the CGT.  They formed the Comités syndicalistes révolutionnaires and by the end of 1921 had succeeded in winning almost half of the CGT back to revolutionary syndicalism.  It was at this point however that pressure both from those wanting to join the communist Profintern and the anarchists combined to force a split, the revolutionary syndicalists forming the Confédération générale du travail unitaire.

Eventually in 1936 the CGTU and CGT merged, however by this time syndicalist influence had waned, replaced largely by the stalinism of the Parti communiste français.  After further splintering of the trade union movement later in the century, the CGT is still to this day the largest union in France.  On paper it is still committed to the Charte d’Amiens and a refounded Comités syndicalistes révolutionnaires works within its ranks to once again win it to revolutionary syndicalism.

Syndicalism spreads to Britain

In the UK the syndicalist movement was kick started in 1910 by veteran trade unionist and socialist Tom Mann, who had visited France and was impressed by the model of the CGT.  Much like the revolutionaries in France he adopted the approach of working within the existing unions, forming the Industrial Syndicalist Education League to propagandise for syndicalism.

The victorious Liverpool transport strike of 1911

During this time Mann lead the successful 1911 Liverpool transport strike.  After the strike he was imprisoned for having published a leaflet during the course of the strike urging troops not to fire on strikers.  This imprisonment brought him and the fledgling ISEL great attention and the ISEL’s newspaper The Syndicalist reached a circulation of 20,000.

A broader syndicalist movement out with the ISEL also flourished after Mann’s imprisonment. In 1912 the Miner’s next step, a pamphlet arguing that the miners must go beyond nationalisation and argue for workers control of their workplaces appeared in the coalfields of south wales. The Daily Herald, a distant ancestor of todays Sun was also founded in 1912, the paper was hugely sympathetic to the syndicalists and its readers groups up and down the country became hives of syndicalist debate and practice.

Sadly in spite of this strong movement the ISEL came to a premature end in the 1913-14, when the organisation was seized by “dual unionists” who favoured splitting from the existing labour movement to set up new unions.  Though this was the end of the UK’s primary syndicalist organisation its influence was felt in coming decades, as the syndicalist influenced Socialist Labour Party helped organise munition worker strikes during the first world war, leading to the formation of workers committees across the country and the famous “red clydeside” period.

Syndicalist inspired politics also found a home in the early british communist party, many former members of the ISELincluding Mann filling its ranks and working within its “minority movement” within the TUC unions.

Part two is available here.

This post was originally part of an educational presentation entitled “Syndicalism then & now” I made for Liberty & Solidarity,