Debating the role of the unions

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Devrim
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Jul 11 2009 08:50
Debating the role of the unions

Solfed and the Anarchist Federation: Debating the role of the unions

http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2009/07/Solfed-AF-unions-debate

Two recent documents coming from different parts of the anarchist movement both make attempts to address the questions of the role of the unions and how workers can struggle. The first is a document that was circulated by the Brighton local of the Solidarity Federation for discussion in the period leading up to their national conference. The second is the workplace strategy of the Anarchist Federation that was adopted by their national conference in April.
For us the discussion document from Brighton Solidarity Federation marks something of a break from traditional anarcho-syndicalism, though they are at pains to stress that it doesn't, and it came as no surprise to us that it was rejected by their conference. That does not mean that nothing positive can come out of this current. On the contrary, many of the ideas that have emerged from it recently express a real attempt to try to develop a workable praxis in the current period. However, we feel that this current as a whole is deeply tied to a vision of mass revolutionary organisations which belongs to a bygone period and offers no perspective for workers today.
The Brighton document though rejects this approach and states clearly that "not only are permanent mass organisations not revolutionary, but that in the final analysis they are counter-revolutionary organisations". This is something that we can heartily agree with. It also talks at length about the differences between mass organisations and minority ones and the differences between permanent and non-permanent ones. Here again there is much to agree with.
For the comrades in Brighton, "internal democracy in a mass organisation when the majority of workers are not pro-revolutionary means that the organisation has to sacrifice either internal democracy or its revolutionary principles". Certainly, outside of a revolutionary period, it is inevitable that only a minority of the working class will be actively in favour of the communist revolution. Faced with this reality, the (anarcho-) syndicalist attempt to establish ‘revolutionary' unions has ended up either creating small groups which are essentially political organisations that don't admit their own nature, or mass organisations that behave exactly like trade unions - the most obvious case being that of the CNT in the war in Spain, where it participated in the bourgeois republic at every level, just like the unions in other countries did in the 1914-18 war.

One point which we think could have perhaps been made a bit clearer is the section which talks about 'industrial networks' set up to create links between militant workers with the aim of exchanging experience and acting together in moments of class struggle. The text states that "Of course a level of theoretical and tactical agreement is required - networks are not apolitical - but we do not see this as being as high as for propaganda groups", which begs the question of exactly how high it should be. If the comrades don't see these groups as ones that would lobby to elect union bosses and don't see them as groups trying to democratise the existing unions, that is good. But their conceptions are not entirely clear on this.
Finally we would like to raise the question of whether workers should limit their attempts to form these sort of groups along sectoral lines. For us, if the workers' struggle in general needs to break through boundaries between sectors and enterprises, then the most militant workers need to follow the same logic when they form discussion groups or groups to agitate within the class struggle.

Nevertheless, the document is a serious contribution to what is an essential discussion for revolutionaries today and in that we welcome it and urge our readers and sympathisers to read it and take part in this debate.
The AF document on the other hand seems to us to be much more confused. Indeed much of the introduction seems to be taken up by apologizing for its own existence. There seems to be a distinct uneasiness about actually putting forward political ideas as well as what seems to be nearly a fear of prioritising workers' struggles.

The AF write "simply because we're writing about the workplace here does not mean that we believe that fighting in the workplace is more important than fighting else where". In our opinion workplace struggles are at the core of the working class struggle. Of course there can be struggles in the 'community' that are class struggles it is also much easier for these sorts of movements to end up being confused cross class movements. The workplace is where the working class is concentrated as a class, and also where it has the potential to use its power. Of course, the class struggle has to go beyond the individual workplace and come out onto the streets, incorporate the unemployed, take up housing and other issues, and so on, but the action of the employed workers as workers will always be of central importance in this process.

In fact there are times when the document seems confused about what class action actually is. At one point it talks of a range of workers' groups extending to "loose and informal groups of friends who support each other in small acts of theft and sabotage". While most of us have probably stolen something from work at some point, and we don't want to moralise about this, it should be clear that taking home a few printer cartridges or taking home some work boots for a friend is in no way a collective act of class struggle.

When they finally come to writing about the role of the unions the AF, despite recognising that unions "cannot become vehicles for the revolutionary transformation of society" that they "divide the working class", even that they "must police unofficial action", ends up saying that unions provide "important material advantages that workers' simply cannot afford to ignore (e.g. better pay and conditions, better health and safety, some legal protection for industrial action and so on)".

To us it seems quite amazing that such organisations as previously described can manage to win all of these gains for their members. The question is whether the relationship between the two is causal. Do workers have comparatively good working conditions because they are members of a union, or because in the past they have been militant and fought for good working conditions? Very often this fight would have been conducted in spite of or even against the role of the trade unions in their workplace - and very often the union is there precisely because these are militant workers, and in this situation the more intelligent bosses see the union as being essential for the maintenance of ‘good industrial relations' (i.e. labour discipline).

When they go on to discuss whether militants take posts in the union, they seem to recognise the dangers involved, but also inform us that "AF members sometimes take positions as reps or shop stewards". And that "this is a judgment that individual members have to make in particular circumstances". Of course 'particular circumstances' are governed by the level of class struggle. When the working class isn't struggling, union reps are not forced to play a role against that struggle if only for the reason that it doesn't exist. However, when the class does come into struggle, reps are forced into what the AF calls a 'contradictory position', for example being obliged to condemn wildcat stoppages.

When it comes to the question of syndicalist unions, the AF seems even more confused and unclear than the anarcho-syndicalists. While recognizing that "syndicalist unions run the same risks as ordinary unions", they seem to see some difference in that they are "more likely to remain under the control of their membership". It may be that that tiny syndicalist 'unions', such as the IWW in the UK, are under the control of there membership now, but this has more to do with the fact that they don't operate as unions than with any superior organisational model. When syndicalist unions take on the function of unions they are also forced to act in the same way as the 'yellow' unions. In some of the few places where the IWW actually manages to operate as a union in the US, it has already signed no strike deals.

Despite our criticisms of these texts, we are convinced that they can play a role in contributing to a vital discussion. We would also encourage readers to look at our series on anarcho-syndicalism.

Sabri 7/7/9.

Malcy
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Jul 12 2009 01:38

Thanks for this Devrim.

Where in the US has the IWW signed no-strike deals?

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Steven.
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Jul 12 2009 10:11

Here is the thread on here about the IWW with no strike clauses:
http://libcom.org/forums/organise/no-strike-clauses-iww-16122007

As for this discussion, I posted my comments on the AF document directly, and apparently they are working on some sort of update to address peoples feedback, so I will await a response from them there:
http://libcom.org/library/frontline-anarchists-work

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Jul 12 2009 10:34
Devrim wrote:
For us the discussion document from Brighton Solidarity Federation marks something of a break from traditional anarcho-syndicalism, though they are at pains to stress that it doesn't, and it came as no surprise to us that it was rejected by their conference.

to be fair to our comrades, the criticisms of our pamphlet were in large part semantic, in that what we call a 'network of militants', our critics call an anarcho-syndicalist union. in terms of breaking with traditional anarcho-syndicalism, I do think that 'tradition' is more a case of residual revolutionary syndicalist influences than anarcho-syndicalism itself. this is certainly the case in the CNT of the 1930s; durruti described two tendencies, the 'straight unionists' and the anarchists, the former essentially revolutionary syndicalists who wanted to be recognised by the state as a legitimate union etc, the latter who rejected that approach altogether and saw the CNT as a body to unite anarcho-syndicalist workers, who could agitate for direct action involving all workers and who had a program that saw councils as the unitary bodies of the class in struggle. I think brighton solfeds approach is very much in the tradition of the latter tendency, i.e. actual anarcho-syndicalism. in this respect I think our portrayal of 'classical anarcho-syndicalism' was mistaken, since we were in effect describing the practice of notional anarcho-syndicalists with a residual revolutionary syndicalist practice.

anyhow, I'm glad you found our text to be a useful contribution to debate, it has also proven to be so inside solfed, where it has prompted a lot of very useful discussions. we're currently writting a new version of the pamphlet taking on board our comrades criticisms, and with an expanded historical account that discusses the various tendencies rather than presenting unitary 'classical anarcho-syndicalism.'

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Jul 13 2009 04:58
Quote:
to be fair to our comrades, the criticisms of our pamphlet were in large part semantic, in that what we call a 'network of militants', our critics call an anarcho-syndicalist union. in terms of breaking with traditional anarcho-syndicalism, I do think that 'tradition' is more a case of residual revolutionary syndicalist influences than anarcho-syndicalism itself.

Not wanting to be unfair to your comrades but I think that this is more than a semantic argument. I don't think that the only disagreement is over what you call things. I think that there are anarchosyndicalists today who still believe that it is both possible and desirable to construct a mass anarchosyndicalist union in the UK.

If you remember I was in DAM in the period leading up to it deciding that it could declare itself to be a union on it's own. In the years before that a lot of differences were put down to being mere semantics, but they actually were deep political differences. I think at that time putting things down to semantics was used to maintain a false political unity.

Quote:
durruti described two tendencies, the 'straight unionists' and the anarchists, the former essentially revolutionary syndicalists who wanted to be recognised by the state as a legitimate union etc, the latter who rejected that approach altogether and saw the CNT as a body to unite anarcho-syndicalist workers, who could agitate for direct action involving all workers and who had a program that saw councils as the unitary bodies of the class in struggle.

This may be my ignorance but I am not aware at all of a tendency in the CNT which saw the councils and not the unions as the organs of the class.

Devrim

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Jul 13 2009 09:45

Yes, I'd be interested in the sources for that as well.

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Jul 13 2009 09:51

the revolutionary program drawn up by the CNT's National Revolutionary Committee (of which Durruti was a member) in 1934 called for the occupation of land and workplaces and the formation of factory committees which would federate into regional workers' councils, while peasants formed free communes in the countryside. where the revolution in '36 went furthest - Aragon - it took the council based form of the Libertarian Confederation, while of course the Friends of Durruti called for the formation of a revolutionary junta (=council) to overcome the dichotomy between collaboration/anarchist dictatorship. such a program can be traced back to Bakunin, if one is interested in ancestry. Also, the founding document of the Argentinian FORA in 1904, widely considered one of the first statements of explicitly anarcho-syndicalism stressed that:

Pact of Solidarity wrote:
We must not forget that a union is merely an economic by-product of the capitalist system, born from the needs of this epoch. To preserve it after the revolution would imply preserving the capitalist system that gave rise to it. We, as anarchists accept the unions as weapons in the struggle and we try to ensure that they should approximate as closely to our revolutionary ideals.

so like I say, I think the idea of building a mass union of all workers which becomes the administrative structure of the new society is very much a relic of anarcho-syndicalisms origins in revolutionary syndicalism and it's one big unionism. as to whether the discussions in SolFed are semantic, our critics broadly endorsed a critique written by a Manchester comrade which stressed (from memory as can't open the document on my phone) 'the role of the anarcho-syndicalist union is not to recruit all workers, but only those who accept the aims and principles of anarcho-syndicalism. The union agitates for mass meetings, and argues within them for militant direct action.' it may well be that there are individuals in SolFed who want to build a sort of anarchist IWW, but nobody has argued for that and therefore I doubt very much it is a significant, much less majority view. fwiw I know several comrades views on this have changed since the DAM days.

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Jul 13 2009 12:08
Quote:
the revolutionary program drawn up by the CNT's National Revolutionary Committee (of which Durruti was a member) in 1934 called for the occupation of land and workplaces and the formation of factory committees which would federate into regional workers' councils, while peasants formed free communes in the countryside. where the revolution in '36 went furthest - Aragon - it took the council based form of the Libertarian Confederation, while of course the Friends of Durruti called for the formation of a revolutionary junta (=council) to overcome the dichotomy between collaboration/anarchist dictatorship.

I am not sure about the 34 programme, but I am quite sure that the Council of Aragon was a body with combined union representation and not a workers' council. Equally the FoD call for a 'junta' does not mean workers' council ascot is generally understood but another union formed committee.
Devrim

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Jul 13 2009 12:25

I'll pull out the stuff on the '34 program when I get home, it's certainly the clearest statement of a revolutionary program from the CNT (something that was lacking in '36); thousands of copies were printed and distributed. I'll double-check on Aragon. My understanding of the FoD's position was that the absence of unitary class organs (since CNT membership was high in places but nowhere 100% of workers) had created an untenable choice between CNT dictatorship and collaboration; anti-bolshevism leading to the latter. The impasse needed to be resolved by a revolutionary junta. that said I haven't done a huge amount of reading on the FoD yet; we've got a few books and pamphlets on them to read as part of researching the new pamphlet.

Skips
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Jul 13 2009 21:06

Thanks for this Devrim very interesting.

akai
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Jul 13 2009 21:51

I think part of the confusion here is that in the 30s the terms "consejos federales" , "consejos comunales" and "consejos muncipales" were sometimes used in CNT literature. As far as I know (I may be wrong), the term "consejo obrero", was not particularly used by anarchists, although it was used by council communists.

Joseph translates these "consejos federales" as "regional workers' councils" and I think this is a fair translation but one that confuses matters slightly as they were not proposing the kind of councils advocated by council communists. Therefore I think Devrim's remark about the Council of Aragon is correct from this point of view.

I find the debating the role of unions pieces quite interesting and agree that a certain part (although not all) of the "confusing" positions on unionism and anarcho-syndicalism result from a certain semantic problem but suppose that this results as much from certain idee-fixes of the ICC on what constitutes "classical" anarcho-syndicalism as it results from anarchists struggling with the meaning of syndicalism and how one can redefine practicable tactics in this day and age in the absence of mass political consciousness.

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Jul 13 2009 22:57

ok, i'm home and i've dug out Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, AK Press. all translations here are from that, not mine. following on from the FORA's 'Pact of Solidarity' above, Paz writes that:

p.395 wrote:
There were two conflicting tendencies within the CNT: the simple syndicalists believed that the CNT structures should provide the foundations of the new society, whereas the anarchists argued that the organisation formed to wage class war should not serve as the model for the new social order.

i would argue the former position is residual revolutionary syndicalism, the latter actual anarcho-syndicalism. in any case, Durruti himself held the latter position:

p.381 wrote:
Some think the organisation is simply a vehicle for defending their economic interests. Others see it as an organisation that works with the anarchists for social transformation. Of course it makes sense that it's so difficult for the straight union activists and anarchists to get along.

so if the unions were not the form of the "new social order", but were only to serve as a means to bring about this 'social transformation', what forms would a revolutionary society take? In 1934 the National Revolutionary Committee, of which Durruti was a member advocated the following:

p.322 wrote:
The National Revolutionary Committee (NRC) printed pamphlets urging the workers to take immediate control of the means of production by occupying the factories, mines and workshops. They were to set up Workers' Committees in the workplaces, which would federate locally and form the Local Workers' Council. People in rural areas were to form Free Communes and federate by county. They would seize the large food depots and distribute food through co-operatives. They would also create an armed workers' militia that would provide revolutionary security.

so basically i think our comrades were right to say we were being unfair on 'classical anarcho-syndicalism', since we actually have much affinity with anarcho-syndicalist practice over the last century. it is revolutionary syndicalism to which we object. the above program shouldn't be surprising noting Bakunin's influence on the Iberian peninsular, where his brand of insurrectionary, council/commune based revolution was very influential. advocacy of councils can be traced right back to him, it certainly didn't begin with Rosa Luxemburg's reflections on the Russian mass strikes of 1905.

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Jul 15 2009 10:20

On the Libertarian Confederation of Aragon, Abel Paz writes:

p.544 wrote:
For the first time in history, a region embarked on a revolutionary venture without political parties and took the assembly as the paramount body. That is why the regime in Aragon was so close to libertarian communism.

(He goes on to talk about the Ukraine, so i assume there were political parties active there, hence his claim to novelty for Aragon). Of course such an approach shouldn't surprise us, after all since 1922 the IWA had been committed to:

Principles of Revolutionary Unionism wrote:
the establishment of economic communities and administrative organs run by the workers in the field and factories, forming a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party, bar none.