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.

Advertisements

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,

Strength in the union

Unionists from the CNT during the Spanish civil war

Unions have forever been a socialists friend, often at the centre of exciting periods of revolutionary activity such as Red Clydeside or the Spanish revolution.  However today’s unions seem a far cry from the revolutionary militancy of yesteryear and so it is worth asking the question, why should socialists and radicals today care about unions?

One reason to care is numbers.  At 6.5 million members the trade union movement is the largest organised body of the working class in existence.  What’s more the trade unions constituency incorporates nearly the entirety of our class, as being a worker is an experience, unlike going to university for example, which almost all of us will share.  Now clearly size alone wont cut, after all the largest political party is the labour party and most of the socialist left is to be found (quite rightly) outside of it, but the sheer capacity of the unions must be acknowledged.

This capacity is at its greatest when trade unions mobilise their members collectively to improve their lot.  Such a mass experience of collective action, and hopefully a collective victory can not only serve as the basis for further strengthening the organisation and power of our class but also carries within it the seeds of our new society.

If or future society is to be a collective, socialistic one, it should follow that bringing it about must also be a collective effort.  Were socialism to be installed by coup or some other individualistic, minority-based strategy then you would expect to find any new collective structures swiftly being corrupted or abandoned as has been borne out by various historical examples.  This is partly because people are creatures of habit, and are not very good at going outside their comfort zones.   If people have not been socialised into collective ways of working, if they have not experienced for themselves the possible pitfalls such as corruption and how best to deal with them, then it would seem that any collective experiment is doomed to failure.  Consequently it would seem that the processes of attaining socialism must in itself be collective and socialistic, building the new world in the shell of the old.

Trade unions can serve to facilitate this collectivism but they can also play an important role in the building process.  A revolutionary change in society, especially one involving massive numbers of people is difficult to pull off.  It needs organisation and the self-confidence of all those involved.  Through building up organisational size and capacity through small victories, increasing the confidence of the members and the reputation of the union bit by bit we have the potential to create powerful fighting machines, just like the unions of yesteryear.

Sadly as we all know unions are presently ill-suited to this task.  Density is in decline and the sort of union activity that builds confidence and wins victories is seemingly rare.  What’s more large sections of the population, especially young casualised workers have never had any experience of trade unionism.  Clearly these workers need to be organised, need to be part of our collective solution to the problems of capitalism, and so the question is then, how is this best achieved?

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addresses striking IWW silk workers

Ultimately this is a tactical decision.  Some, such as the IWW, advocate setting up new radical labour unions and this approach has met with a limited degree of success, for example organising Starbucks workers.  Other socialists, noting the huge capacity of the existing movement, feel its better to intervene within those unions that exist and argue for them to extend unionisation to those whom it is presently unavailable.

There are arguments for either approach, what is clear is that one way or another collective action and organisation must be extended to the entirety of the working class.  This is why as a socialist I have been drawn towards syndicalism, with its focus on the potential of labour unions as transformative agents in society.  But whichever socialist creed you adhere to we should acknowledge that unions, though frequently inadequate and inaccessible, have the potential to play a huge role in changing society for the better.

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.

The case for Community Syndicalism

Community organisation has been a staple of socialist activity for centuries, however, unlike workplace activism, community organising has been subject to less attention in terms of theory and strategising. This article will argue that the ideology and practice of workplace syndicalism has many concepts that apply equally to community organisation, and can provide a useful framework in which to operate.

So firstly, what is Syndicalism?  In the workplace syndicalism stands for many things, primarily that workers should ultimately take power in society, using their own organisations, the trade unions, to wield this power.  Syndicalism is also associated with industrial unionism, placing itself in opposition to unions drawing artificial divides between workers based on their skill set.  De-emphasis of parliamentary politics is another key facet of Syndicalism, which instead advocates that major change will be primarily wrought through the struggle of trade unions on economic ground, avoiding political positioning that may alienate sections of the labour movement.

Historically, Syndicalism as a movement reached its peak in the early twentieth century, where its emergence often coincided with waves of  industrial conflict.  In Britain the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, which represented hundreds of thousands of workers, was founded in 1911, at the beginning of the “great unrest” period leading up to the first world war.  Whilst in the UK the Syndicalists eventually became the main opposition to bureaucratic leadership within the Labour movement, in other countries such as France, the Syndicalists were successful in becoming the dominant force in the unions1.  Syndicalism also influenced many of the great socialists of the time including James Connolly, who spent his years in the United States working as an organiser for the Syndicalist union the IWW.

Sadly, the outbreak of the first world war and the rise of Leninism spelt death for much of the syndicalist movement, however its achievements last to this day,  unions having been forced to amalgamate under syndicalist pressure in order to be more effective and shop stewards being empowered within their structures.  Syndicalism was to go on to influence the munitions strikes during world war 1 and the Red Clydeside movement around John Mclean and the Glasgow SLP2.

So can Syndicalism be adapted to community struggles?  Clearly it would be foolish to assume that an ideology developed around industrial struggles must automatically map onto community activism, to examine whether syndicalist ideas are applicable to community struggles, we must first examine the differences between workplace and community organisation.  In its present state, community organisation in the UK is far weaker than workplace organisation.  What bodies do exist, community councils, residents groups and tenants associations, are generally moribund or hopelessly tied into partnership with local councils, whilst having no real mass membership, and hence no genuine claim to represent the communities they originate from.

Within the community the levers of power are also very different from in the workplace.  Classically the withdrawal of labour is seen as the weapon the workers may wield to gain results, this works because such a withdrawal, through strike action, causes their employer to lose money.  If we think about levers in a similarly economic manner in the community, where there is no labour to withdraw, we realise that the obvious means of financial damage is the withholding of rents.  However, issues in the community often centre around service provision rather than being directly related to the land lord, and so levers must also be found that can be used against the local council.  There are several options here, which broadly fall under the category of “direct action”, for example, blocking major roads will have a knock on economic impact about which the council will be concerned.

However, whilst there are clear tactical differences in how day to day struggles may be won, the basic organisational needs in the community and workplace are the same.  Just as in the workplace, in the community working class organisations are best when the are permanent, not temporary and based around single issues as the latter does not allow a body of experience and influence to grow from struggle to struggle.

In the community, ultimately, socialists wish for the working class to take control.  In order for such control to be exercised effectively, the working class needs local organisation as well as workplace organisation, as whilst the running of the economy might naturally be decided upon by workers deliberating in their places of work, it would seem to make little sense to have workplace-based unions decide over which roads need tarmacking in a residential area.

Here to we can borrow from workplace syndicalism, and its models of bottom-up democracy, where geographically disparate groups can federate together and take collective decisions, whilst still remaining accountable to the membership at the base.  As in the workplace, the empowerment of ordinary members to influence decisions that effect the whole organisation, and consequently their community, is a powerful motivator and ensures that corruption can be easily expunged from the organisation.

Of course, such democracy is worthless if not backed up by a unified and hence powerful organisation.  Whilst workers might be divided by craft unionism on the basis of their trade, communities too can be divided organisationally, most frequently along religious lines.  Typically religious groups hold a lot of social capital in communities and religious sectarianism can often be a powerfully divisive force.  Such division is best overcome by finding issues which unite people across these divides, and use said issues to build united, and hence more powerful, organisations.

Politics can also play a similar role to religion both in workplace and community organisations.  Parliamentary politics is a divisive force, there has never been a unified party or political position the whole of the socialist movement and working class has supported.  This was true 100 years ago and even more so today.  Many people find party politics as a whole alienating, with around half of the population not voting, and those who do vote are likely to be disinclined to join a community organisation which allies itself with a party they do not support.

As with in the workplace, this political neutrality does not mean that the union or community organisation ought to abstain from politics, merely that it should enter into politics on the basis of issues around which it can unite its members (initially these will be simple economic demands, higher wages, lower rents etc) and should steer clear of taking sides electorally or ideologically.

However, as sensible as these simple principles may seem, we cannot ignore the fact that syndicalism has had its limitations historically.  There is no point in resurrecting a dead ideology uncritically, as clearly syndicalism’s failure to survive the first half of this century means that it has weaknesses that need to be explored.  In spite of its short life however the Syndicalist movement did empower the labour movement through its emphasis on solid organisational principles and militant action, such an empowerment, both in the community and workplace is needed now more than ever.  Syndicalist ideas as as relevant today as they ever have been, and through their application I believe we can build powerful community organisations capable of challenging the power of the state and bringing socialism to our communities.

1. See the CGT’s Charte d’Amiens

2. Socialist Labour Party, a Deleonist political party heavily influenced by Syndiclaism and central to the Red Clydeside movement