Protected: Looking back on Anarchism

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Looking back on Liberty & Solidarity

Liberty & Solidarity, the political organisation of which I was a member, has recently disbanded.  Consequently I think it is worth sharing some thoughts here on its successes and its failings.

I was a member of L&S for four years, from its founding conference where we adopted our constitution, to the this September’s, when we formally disbanded the organisation.  During that period I was national secretary for two and a half years and also held the post of education secretary.

The Anarchist movement

Starting at the beginning, L&S very much came from the anarchist movement.  All of those involved initially considered themselves anarchists and the project at that time was to build a “platformist” anarchist organisation.  From the off however we did things a little differently from our sister organisations in Anarkismo, the platformist anarchist international grouping.

For starters, though far more common even just four years ago than it is today, we refused to follow the standard leftist model and produce propaganda paper.  We felt that such initiatives tended to largely be a waste of time, with small print runs and little by way of tangible results.

Similarly, and scandalously to some in the anarchist movement, we tried to avoid political labels, preferring instead to describe what we actually believed, rather than whichever “ism” might be appropriately assigned to us.

Our relationship with the anarchist movement proved to be a difficult one.  Because of several L&S members having split from the AF not long prior to the foundation of L&S there was already much bad blood, and L&S’ political trajectory, moving us away from the anarchist movement, did not help matters.  Perhaps it would have been better if we had made a clean break at that early stage, however at that point in time we still thought of ourselves as anarchists, even if the rest of the anarchist movement didn’t agree with us.

Our reputation in the anarchist movement was also tarnished by some cock-ups on our part, including some less than diplomatic behaviour from our own members.  The blame for poor relations does not rest squarely on the shoulders of L&S however, the sectarianism of the anarchist movement meant that our organisation was soon the subject of various conspiracy theories which went largely unchallenged.  In part this was to do with the closed nature of L&S, with our internal discussions kept private by our members.  On reflection I think it would have served us well to have been more open and had more of our discussions in public, but given the attacks being directed at us from the anarchist movement the instinct to batten down the hatches was an understandable one.

We took the decision to take little heed as to what the anarchist movement thought, after all, 99.9% of the working class weren’t anarchist, so why should we care what this tiny minority thought? The problem however was that we were still in many ways part of the anarchist movement.  For some branches the anarchist social scene was still the norm, and even where this wasn’t the case, the largely anarchist dominated IWW was the prime focus of our industrial strategy.

Industrial strategy

Many L&Sers had first met each other through involvement in the IWW and indeed it was the shared project of the IWW that strategically united L&S for the first couple of years.  Initially we were concerned with helping win an international delegates convention so that the UK section of the IWW would have fairer representation.  This process involved conflict with corrupt bureaucrats such as Jon Bekken and his Philadelphia IWW cohorts.

Whilst the delegates convention was being won we also wanted to play our part in growing the IWW domestically.  The IWW had adopted as its official strategy a focus on building the union as a dual card union in the health industry.  We eagerly set to work on this, doing our best to assist IWW blood service workers in their fight to stop blood centre closures.

In a bid to support our strategy many L&S members got jobs in healthcare and most wound up in UNISON, the largest healthcare union.  As part of our work within the mainstream labour movement we also participated in the National Shop Stewards Network and helped initiate the NSSN syndicalists grouping within it.

Our participation in the NSSN however proved sadly short lived.  Sectarianism from the Socialist Party who held a majority on its executive meant that the network was soon forced to split, leaving the NSSN a shallow SP front.  In retrospect splitting at this point may have been a mistake, it certainly left us out in the wilderness in terms of our industrial strategy, with progress in growing the IWW as a base union slow to nonexistent.  We had also failed to grow our influence in the IWW, being regarded with suspicion by the majority of IWW activists due to our bad relations within the anarchist movement.

Internal organisation

Our platformist roots showed most prominently in our constitution, which started out life as a copy of that of the WSM, our Irish sister group.   Reacting to the structurelessness and disorganisation of the anarchist movement from which we had come we were keen to ensure that we had a well structured and democratic organisation.  The organisation was to be composed only of those who were active in pursuing one or both of our dual strategies, workplace or community organising.

This allowed us to experiment with new ways of organising ourselves. We implemented “battle plans” for branches and disparate members, which were to be derived from an overall national battle plan.  These plans consisted of SMART targets to be achieved over the next year, this way we could monitor our own progress.  This approached forced us to think strategically in the near term, about what we wanted to see and what we thought was realistic to achieve within one year.  Unfortunately we never quite managed to get the system working properly.  Part of the issue was that politics is obviously unpredictable, a more flexible planning mechanism better able to cope with the unforeseen might have been more implementable.

Another good idea that didn’t quite work out was the decision we took early on to concentrate on growing through the “mass organisations”, the unions and community groups we were involved in, rather than through recruiting from the anarchist movement.  Sadly recruitment was something we never managed in great numbers, with most of our new recruits coming from the anarchist movement in spite of our decision to look away from it.  Partly I think the issue was it was a rather big jump, from being a trade union member to joining a disciplined political organisation.  Some broader interim organisation would have been useful to enable potential recruits to politically develop and to allow us to work with allies who perhaps might never join our organisation.

Our failure to recruit meant that the organisation stayed roughly the same size, with structures like branches proving difficult to maintain and less useful with fewer members.  This resulted in L&S becoming something of a burden rather than a help to its members, with smaller branches seeming somewhat pointless.  Nationally the organisation had been useful at coordinating our work within the union movement, but when we lost direction in this arena after our withdrawal from the NSSN this left the organisation with less purpose.  On the community side of things this had always been a more disparate form of activity less likely to benefit from a national organisation.

Our concern that the organisation was becoming a burden rather than a useful tool stemmed from our now syndicalist perspective that a political organisation was only valuable in so far as it helped strengthen and influence working class organisation.  Rightly, we always prioritised this goal over building our own group.

In the end though we decided to disband the organisation we also concluded that we still held a lot of shared ground.  Hopefully in the coming years former L&S members will stay in touch and work together for our still common goal; the elevation of the working class to power in society.

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.

Anarchism as a brand

For some in the anarchist movement “marketing” and “branding” are dangerous words, however even those of us more pragmatic in our outlook have often failed to critically evaluate the anarchist brand identity. Clearly marketing and branding are useful tools for our movement, to abandon them on idealogical grounds would be to deny ourselves an important weapon in the battle against capitalism. So what exactly is a brand identity?

To quote wikipedia:

Brand identity is what the owner wants to communicate to its potential consumers. However, over time, a products brand identity may acquire (evolve), gaining new attributes from consumer perspective but not necessarily from the marketing communications an owner percolates to targeted consumers. Therefore, brand associations become handy to check the consumer’s perception of the brand.

So what of our brand, “anarchism”?

Ask any non-leftist in the United Kingdom what an “anarchist” is and they will describe to you at best an insurrectionist, black-clad Molotov thrower. Even on the left anarchists are widely viewed as being ultra-leftists opposed to organisation. Clearly this isn’t a useful brand as it is an alienating image and has nothing to do with the ideas of anarchist communism. However, shouldn’t we fight to reclaim this word as our own? After all in countries such as Spain the term is better understood by the working class.

It would certainly be possible to reclaim our brand, as the Spanish situation demonstrates, however we must consider how useful such a reclamation would be, versus how much effort it would require. The price we would pay for such a reclamation is suffering for a long period of time under a brand which at present does not work, alienating most and ensuring that what few we attract based on brand alone will misunderstand anarchism.

Additionally such a reclamation would presumably require a large increase in resources (time and money) dedicated to it, given the propaganda output of ananrcho-communist groups (which far outstrips the output of any other “anarchist” groups) has thus far failed to make a dent in the popular impression of anarchism. So given this hefty price, what is the benefit of reclaiming anarchism?

But surely every brand we attempt to adopt will be smeared by the capitalist press? Whilst this is undoubtedly true, calling ourselves “anarchists” would seem to make it easy for them, given “anarchy”‘s literal meaning. Further, some brands have been markedly less tarred than anarchism, brands such as syndicalism still have generally positive connotations, at least within the trade unionist movement.

It could be argued that describing ourselves as “anarchists” is an important link to our movement’s past, and to part with it might lead us down the path towards the dilution of our ideas. However, were this to be the case it would suggest that our understanding of historical anarchism, and our confidence in our ideas is extremely weak. Would hundreds of years of anarchist theory and practice, our anarchist principles and methodology, slowly be abandoned as a consequence of a name change? This would seem unlikely, and were it to be the case it would be indicative of far deeper problems within our movement, as if we have a genuine understanding and appreciation of anarchism then why would we abandon it?

So if not “anarchism”, then what? Arguably ideology itself is a bad brand (hence why the main political parties seldom attempt to appeal to voters on an idealogical level, but rather on bread and butter issues) so one option is to simply present our ideas as non-ideological. However at some point it will presumably be valuable to have a brand which we can build, so what shall it be? There are numerous options, “syndicalism” would seem to be a good one, or if we feel especially confident we could create a brand new one. What is most appropriate will of course depend on what our target audience is receptive to, which will depend on what context we find ourselves in.

In summary Anarchists, much like the broader left, have inherited a lot of traditions from our predecessors. Some of this is of course valuable, there is no point in reinventing the wheel, however much of anarchist strategy has been adopted blindly, and a good example of this is our movements attachment to the “anarchist” brand. There would seem to be little case for expending the large amount of resources that would be required in order to recapture this word when other brand would far better serve our revolutionary purpose.