Are you a campaigner or an organiser?

Most people reading this blog will have participated in some form of political campaign.  Indeed campaigns, whether to save the local library or earn workers a living wage, are the bread and butter of left wing activism.   Sometimes these campaigns are won, sometimes lost. Sometimes, all too often in fact, we find ourselves having to fight the same campaign all over again.  Clearly there are many factors that determine the fate of a campaign but crucially only some of those factors are within our power to alter.

Any campaign is made up of the same basic ingredients, popular participation, finance, activists etcetera.  The degree to which a campaign is well funded, its ability to mobilise people and its shrewdness of tactics all have a concrete effect on its outcome.  Most campaigns, whilst often run by seasoned campaigners, find themselves starting from scratch with regards to much of this.  A bank account must be set up and funds raised to populate it.   Activists must be trained in various skills or learn on the job how to manage the media, build demonstrations and negotiate with officials.  Contacts lists must be built and websites must be created.

Naturally these many tasks are time consuming and the better each is performed the more likely the campaign to win.  This is why an organising approach, where individual campaigns are used to build longer-term organisation, can yield far better results.  At the conclusion of any campaign the wealth of experience, knowledge, contacts and finance that has been accumulated typically disappears.  Using campaigns to build permanent organisations such as unions or tenants groups allows campaigners to consolidate the power wrought by their campaign, and gives a stronger base for future victories.

Permanent organisations can also enable more than immediate victories.  When a campaign is won the confidence of those in it and indeed all those who witness it that they too can make positive social change grows.  This confidence can easily dissipate though, without structures in place to nurture and strengthen it.  The left doesn’t have access to mass media to get our message out there, so our strategy must be asymmetric, using organisations to communicate with members brought in through campaigns.  In this way we can consolidate the confidence of participants and solidify it into a general culture of fighting back.

But culture and willingness is only one aspect of out capacity to fight and win.  Power, our ability to effect the course of events, is ultimately derived from how organised we are.  By being able to train activists between campaigns, provide serious finance and to maintain contact networks, organisations like trade unions have real power should they choose to wield it.

Looking at campaigns and organisations is of course only looking at one side of the equation.  In examining why campaigns fail or succeed we also need to examine why it is we find ourselves continually fighting them.  The answer, ultimately, has to be the capitalist system, who’s relentless drive for profits at the expense of all else wreaks destruction on our communities and workplaces.  But just as individual campaigns address individual symptoms of this underlying problem, opposition to capitalism can only oppose the symptoms, the excesses of this system.

This is because opposition in and of itself provides no alternative.  To this day there has been only one coherent alternative presented: socialism.  Socialism proposes tackling capitalism at its roots, in the economy which generates its vast profits.  By bring the economy under the control of the general populace (socialising the means of production to use the Marxist lingo) the capitalists are stripped of their source of power and wealth.  In short, the only way to rid ourselves of capitalism is to bring about socialism.

The pursuit of socialism, the winning of individual campaigns and the building of powerful organisations all fit naturally together.  Any genuinely mass organisation must campaign and win for its members or it will decline, examples of this are only too common.  Individual campaigns , on the other hand, that do not serve to build organisations, risk squandering their resources and experience come victory or defeat.   Ultimately, socialist or not, we need to make ourselves organisers rather than campaigners, building long-term capacity to win and win again.


Class warfare

Class war is a concept immediately familiar to most those on the far left and indeed is sufficiently well known as to receive the occasional reference in the mainstream media. As with all concepts we use to understand social forces, it colours how we think about our political activity and influences how we act day by day. Consequently is worth re-examining to tease out our understanding and see how such concepts can be usefully applied and extended.

Clearly, with the irreconcilable differences in interest between workers and bosses there is indeed constant conflict. Comparatively small strikes and other workplace based actions constitute a continual guerrilla warfare between workers and bosses. However recently this class struggle has perhaps been more akin to a cold rather than hot war, with low-level fights breaking out at the peripheries. At no time recently has the capitalist class felt particularly threatened by organised labour. The main armies (on our side the unions) have seldom thrown themselves in to full battle with capital, after all they are not ideologically predisposed to.

Some on the left have sought to counterpoise themselves to this ideologically-induced passivity by elevating unrelenting warfare to a cast iron principle, believing that the correct response is always to strike, always to ratchet up militancy. The folly of this stance is of course that much like in real warfare there are times when an orderly retreat is better than risking a total rout. Striking after the harvest is in is going to be far less effective than waiting 9 months to when your labour is at its most needed.

Of course this sensible stance can lead to leftists and union activists to put themselves in odd positions. If some hot-head wants to call a strike the day after the harvest is in any sensible revolutionary would do their best to contradict them, to argue against striking. Similarly there are times when we have to advocate reaching agreements with our bosses, armistices in the class war, as our meagre resources do not permit us to fight on all sides simultaneously. As much as such compromises may be distasteful to those who prefer to preach from an ivory tower, no revolution will ever be made without someone getting their hands dirty.

“Amateurs study strategy; professionals study logistics” goes an old military adage, one which can also be applied to the class warfare analog. In our context strategy can be seen as the grand plan, how we intend to win a given confrontation with the government.  Logistics then is the ability to set up the context of a battle, the ability to mobilise resources that serve to establish the strategic context in which a battle will be fought.

In regular warfare logistics is hugely important. To pick just two prominent examples,  the Ho Chi Minh trail was key to the victory of the Viet-cong by enabling them to swiftly move supplied to the front. Similarly the Prussian railways proved a decisive factor in their victory in the Franco-Prussian war.

Our equivalent has to be our own war machines, our mass organisations. Where we are well funded and well organised, where our members are well trained and closely linked in with the rest of the union, we will win. We need to build the sort of organisations that are optimised for victory and designed to build and consolidate based on them. In practice this means that in addition to maintaining a solid administrative base we also need to be at the forefront of developing training and encourage intra-union socialising.

In order to ensure the organisational cohesion  systemic planning necessary for our war machines, much like a regular army we need a unified command.  At present coordination between unions is rare and ad-hoc.  Rivalries between unions are often intense and frequently there will be a multitude of unions competing to organise one industry or even one workplace.  If we are serious about building unions as fighting machines, capable ultimately of transforming society, then we need to argue for mergers, for organisation on an industrial basis and for extending unions across borders.  In short, we need One Big Union.

In summary, I think looking at class struggle as analogous to military warfare is a largely useful concept.  The metaphor can be extended in several ways to suggest to us areas of importance and we can learn much from the great lessons of military history, whether it be the importance of logistics, the necessity of a unified command or the importance of a well ordered retreat.

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.

Some ideas for union renewal

In order to create a better world we, the working class, need power.  Such power can only come through collective organisation around the one thing that unites all members of our class – work.  But trade unions, the bodies with which we socialists attempt to create such collective organisation, are in decline.  If we are serious about building trade unions and winning them to socialist ideas then we need to come to the table with ideas of how to reverse this downward trend.

The traditional left wing approach has often been to argue for greater militancy, an approach which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog.  However there are other less obvious but perhaps even more important possibilities for trade union renewal.

Recruit or organise?

One of the obvious places to look for ideas for union renewal is the few success cases of today.  One of the few unions that has grown substantially in the past 10 years is the American behemoth the SEIU.  over the past decade it has succeeded in nearly doubling its membership to a staggering 2.1 million.  This has been in spite of the incredibly hostile conditions of industrial relations within the USA.

So how did the SEIU achieve this against-the-odds success? It looked to the Australian movement the organising methodology it had adopted to raise its own membership figures, the organising model.  Now both the left and the trade union movement in the UK like to talk about organising.  For the trade unions “organising” often simply means recruitment, handing out union membership forms, whilst for the far left “organising” only really seems to translate as party or front building.

The organisng model on the other hand sets up organising as an approach that is rather different to traditional union “servicing” and recruitment.   The approach of this model is to map workplaces and conduct surveys to find out what issues the workers there are most concerned about.  An issue is then selected and a campaign run to get a victory.  Through building by starting small and working up the self confidence of the workers and the standing of the union can be steadily improved.

What’s more the organising model can be far more confrontational than the servicing/recruitment approach, with strikes (such as the successful Sodexo workers strike resulting from UNISON’s attempt to implement the model) a fairly common tactic to gain results.  With such demonstrable effectiveness and the possibility for militant outcomes you’d think the far left would be raving about this new approach, yet the far left has virtually nothing to say on this new methodology.

This is in part the fault of the far left for not taking sufficient interest in workplace issues.   Such an attitude has left as the sole champions of organising certain factions with the union bureaucracies and consequently a conservative vision and practice of organising dominates.  Whilst using militant tactics might be a great way to force reluctant employers to recognise your union and to build your membership numbers, once you’ve done a deal with that employer you don’t want pesky members messing it up by trying to win more.

In order to prevent this being the reality of organsing the left needs to engage with and learn this new model.  Of course as many lefties will point out large elements of the model aren’t new, they’re a historical rediscovery of how unions used to work.  This is only part of the picture though, old-school militancy has been complemented by modern organising techniques, making the organising model a powerful tool.

Union culture

Larkin loved a good picnic

Another incredibly useful tool is that of trade union culture. When the union is the centre-point of cultural and social activities for its members it will be rendered far stronger.  After all your much more likely to go down and support the picket line if your mate Bob, who you met through the union football tournament is one of those on strike.  The central importance of the union as a social institution was realised by Jim Larkin, who as leader of Ireland’s syndicalist union, the ITGWU, organised union picnics and other cultural activities that greatly contributed to the early successes of this new union.

Another syndicalist union, the CGT in France, used similar tactics.  Through its Bourse Du Travail localised structures the union would provide services and a social space to working class communities, building up popular support for the union and encouraging members to socialise together.  Sadly such locality based organising is more difficult today as workers in one workplace are unlikely to all live in the same locality, however in spite of this the comrades in the Comités Syndicalistes Révolutionnaires are having some success at reconstructing a local CGT presence.

Whilst on the left we often regret the demise of union clubs and the centrality of unionism in working class life we would do well to head  the old socialist adage: don’t mourn, organise!  This social infrastructure can be rebuilt, starting small and building up, but it is up to us to ensure that this happens.

If the working class is to stand a chance it must be organised thoroughly to assert its collective power.  The techniques of the organsing model and the strengthened social bonds that come through a trade union culture are two vital tools in this task.

General strike?

Much of the far left, most prominently the Socialist Worker’s Party, are campaigning for a general strike.  This demand often takes various form, but the principle is the same, we need a big strike, the more militant the better.  Such demands are beginning to gain traction amongst young radicalised workers and trade unionists,  and so it is worth examining whether this call for a general strike is one all socialists should be taking up.

Clearly were the unions to bring out all their membership, millions of workers, in an indefinite general strike the country could be paralysed and the austerity agenda halted in its tracks, however the reality on the ground in many trade unions makes this scenario exceedingly unlikely.

The difficulty here is tacitly acknowledged by the leaderships of the unions.  Whilst they may not be the bold and daring leadership we might like they are none the less genuinely hostile to the Tories (sometimes for ideological reasons, sometimes because their future career as an MP depends on Labour being in power).  Yet they are unwilling to take up the calls of the far left for a general strike.  This is not simply cowardice, the union leaders know that behind the often inflated membership statistics lies a sorry picture of union organisation.

Besides the already well documented ageing and decline of trade union density most trade unionists will not have been on strike in years.  A decade of “partnership” with the bosses has done its damage and even those more militant unions who occasionally strike frequently find it is a battle enough to try to get their own union membership out, let alone the workforce as a whole.  A general strike then, a decisive confrontation with the government, risks a major defeat for the trade unions, as it was in 1926.  Indeed we need look no further than Greece, where several one day general strikes, of the kind advocated by much of the far left, combined with massive civil unrest have thus far failed to stop the austerity agenda.

This attitude of trying to mimic those tactics which are seen as most militant, which appeal aesthetically to idealistic young activists, rather than a focus on the hard work needing put in in the here and now is sadly a trend much of the left is guilty of.  This focus on militancy is not simply a distraction, it can often prove quite dangerous.  If the far left wins its argument for a piece of seemingly militant action to take place, and that action fails to be effective, militancy will be discredited in the eyes of all those who participated.  Workers are not going to hurry to try another workplace occupation if the last one got half of them fired.  Yes, we should be arguing for bold tactics such as sit-ins, wildcat strikes etcetera, but only where these tactics will bring us victories.  The principle of fighting to win must take precedence at all times over a preference for aesthetically militant action.

Of course a hugely important factor when fighting to win is ensuring that whichever tactic we ultimately adopt has the support of the vast majority of those involved in the fight.  Again here the far left’s attitude of militancy for militancy’s sake can prove dangerous.  A workplace occupation will be destined for failure if we only manage to win a small proportion of the workforce to this tactic.  Consequently, when propagandising to the whole of the labour movement we need to be concious of where that movement largely is, and what sort of actions are likely to win mass support as opposed to isolating the far left in its own militant bubble.

This of course does not mean that we need be bound by lowest-common-denominator passivity. We need to move the labour movement in a generally more militant direction, but any attempt at this must begin with where the working class is currently at, and must build the foundations, the membership density, the buy-in, that make successful militant action such as a general strike possible.

A large section of this post was originally part of a larger “how can we beat the cuts” article written in conjunction with others for Liberty & Solidarity which can be read here.