Good syndicalist rebuttals to the "unions are reformist" argument

115 posts / 0 new
Last post
skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 5 2013 23:58
Good syndicalist rebuttals to the "unions are reformist" argument

Anyone know of any? I'm a young (and inexperienced) anarcho-syndicalist but have been hearing this a lot from left communists who are mainly claiming that unions increase in reformism as they increase in size and that they fact that they're "bound to capital" makes them in and of themselves reformist.
Can any anarcho-syndicalists rebut this claim?

syndicalist
Offline
Joined: 15-04-06
Mar 6 2013 01:21

Man, I'd love to try and take a stab at this, but am without time. Where are located (country that is)?

One of the key arguments used agaist anarcho-syndicalism is some equate it with trade unionism, which it is not.

In the meanwhile, let me suggest you look at Solfed's pamphlet "Fighting For Ourselves"
http://libcom.org/library/fighting-ourselves-anarcho-syndicalism-class-s...
I think it may answer some of the basic premises of your question. Well, it will at least pose a 21st Century anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint in an english speaking land / context.

Although specific to the IWW, the "Direct Unionism" piece teases out some of the same things anarcho-syndicalists would advocate: http://libcom.org/library/direct-unionism

This is also good reading and helps to place anarcho-syndicalism outside the norm of "trade unionism". But as a promoter and defender of workers assemblies.
http://libcom.org/history/articles/puerto-real-strike-1987

Sorry to have dropped links instead of teasing out the specifics, but I'm working right now.

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 03:27

Thank you for the help comrade, I'll definitely read up on the texts you mentioned. To answer your question at the beginning though, I'm from the United State (Connecticut to be specific).

Yaakov.Eban
Offline
Joined: 11-02-13
Mar 6 2013 03:40

@ skybutton

The argument that "unions" are reformist is a common strawman argument leveled against AnarchoSyndicalists. They fail to recognize, or choose to ignore, the fact that Syndicates are fundamentally different from your run of the mill Western "trade union". Syndicates are organs of workplace democracy which eschew the concept of private capital and the capitalist employer-employee relationship. Reformist trade unions are invariably affiliated with Social democratic parties or movements and believe it is their job to act simply as an outlet for collective bargaining and to act as a mediator between the capitalist and the worker. They have carved out a nice little niche for themselves, having adopted a corporate mindset and model nearly indistinguishable from those they purport to defend their membership. And have become increasingly more nepotistic and self-serving with each passing decade.

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 03:55

Would the IWW be considered reformist in that they adhere to the law and are therefore limited in actions that they legally take? This is what the left communist I've been debating is now trying to say.

syndicalist
Offline
Joined: 15-04-06
Mar 6 2013 04:05
skybutton wrote:
Would the IWW be considered reformist in that they adhere to the law and are therefore limited in actions that they legally take? This is what the left communist I've been debating is now trying to say.

There are more and better informed/active IWW folks on Libcom, so I'll be brief.

If the IWW only limited itself to traditional "trade union" tactics and orientation, one could be critical in the manner folks are with you. The IWW is generally grounded on direct action and this is why the "Direct Unionism" pamphlet is a good read. It lays out the opposite of the more traditional trade union practices pursued by some. The IWW is multitendency and not an anarcho-syndicalist union. So there are and will be differences over tactics, etc.

Trusting this will tide it over until some other more engaged Wobblies appear on the scene.

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 04:15

Ahhh that makes sense, thanks again comrade. Also, could you please explain how trade unionism and syndicalism are inherently different? I think I sort of understand the difference but certainly not well enough to use it in any debate.

Yaakov.Eban
Offline
Joined: 11-02-13
Mar 6 2013 04:17

@ skybutton

The argument that "unions" are reformist is a common strawman argument leveled against AnarchoSyndicalists. They fail to recognize, or choose to ignore, the fact that Syndicates are fundamentally different from your run of the mill Western "trade union". Syndicates are organs of workplace democracy which eschew the concept of private capital and the capitalist employer-employee relationship. Reformist trade unions are invariably affiliated with Social democratic parties or movements and believe it is their job to act simply as an outlet for collective bargaining and to act as a mediator between the capitalist and the worker. They have carved out a nice little niche for themselves, having adopted a corporate mindset and model nearly indistinguishable from those they purport to defend their membership. And have become increasingly more nepotistic and self-serving with each passing decade.

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 04:24

This is the exact argument I'm being presented with btw: "[Unions have a] general tendency of integration into the state of all unions in all states- making them an apparatus of capital, not a part of the worker's movement any longer. The example of the IWW is just a specific example of a specific way this integration has happened (for a self-described revolutionary union). I post this as someone who was originally introduced to revolutionary communism via syndicalism and the IWW."

This certainly seems like a faulty logic seeing as the IWW in it's practices I don't think have really become reformist, although I'm not really sure how to pinpoint this argument and concisely disprove it. Probably because I'm pretty inept at arguing over politics.

syndicalist
Offline
Joined: 15-04-06
Mar 6 2013 04:33

The key, is not to get integrated into the state apparatus. That is, relying wholly and fully on state-sanctioned labor laws, labor-management cooperative relations schemes, etc. Now, I would simply say that the person you're conversating with will never be convinced because they seem to have their own politics in place.

So what does the person with such politics proscribe as alternative forms of workers struggle?

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 04:39
syndicalist wrote:
So what does the person with such politics proscribe as alternative forms of workers struggle?

S/he is a left communist. Quite the sectarian tendency I must say.

syndicalist
Offline
Joined: 15-04-06
Mar 6 2013 05:41
skybutton wrote:
syndicalist wrote:
So what does the person with such politics proscribe as alternative forms of workers struggle?

S/he is a left communist. Quite the sectarian tendency I must say.

Good luck. I'll be happy to have you bounce stuff off of me (and others, of course). But I'm afraid you will go round x round with this person.

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 18:50
syndicalist wrote:
Good luck. I'll be happy to have you bounce stuff off of me (and others, of course). But I'm afraid you will go round x round with this person.

Yeah I see what you mean. It's on a pretty big forum though, so I was hoping that maybe others who would encounter such a post might be dissuaded from adhering to the flawed ideology that unions are always reformist. This might be fallacious though, as most people on revleft seem to be pretty much decided on what their views are already, anyways.

Tim Finnegan's picture
Tim Finnegan
Offline
Joined: 16-05-12
Mar 7 2013 21:42
skybutton wrote:
S/he is a left communist. Quite the sectarian tendency I must say.

How can left communism be sectarian, when most left communists are not members of any formal organisation? confused

edit: Four downvotes and not a single response. Shower of bastards, you lot. tongue

plasmatelly's picture
plasmatelly
Offline
Joined: 16-05-11
Mar 6 2013 19:06

Skybutton - I'll give it a go.. Revolutionary unions that rely on decisions being made at the base can lose their revolutionary way as they grow by not ensuring that new members are in agreement with the aims and principals and methods of decision making and organisation.
Winning battles can make revolutionary unions seem like a useful thing to be a member of if only for short term self-interest to even the most uninterested liberal. A union can take on a bit of this (though they would probably have to lie to get in), but there is a tipping point and that's when these unions go down the pan.
So, you either ensure you have a revolutionary membership, or expect to go the way your left com chums have warned. (But tbf - that's ultimately their default position on any collection of workers!)

jura's picture
jura
Offline
Joined: 25-07-08
Mar 6 2013 20:26

Or in other words, outside times of intense class struggle, sustaining a mass revolutionary organization is impossible.

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Mar 6 2013 20:39

Okay, so a lot to say here.

One, is that there are some legitimate criticisms of the IWW that lend themselves to the sort of structuralist criticisms you're hearing from the left communists. The IWW in both the UK and America have registered with the State. In America, this led them to pursue NLRB elections and resulted in not only contracts with the boss but contracts that included things like no-strike and management rights clauses. Totally legitimate criticisms and ones that can be situated in a structural critique of unions that focuses not on their proclaimed ideology, but there position in the workplace.

However, unions don't have to be mediative, recognized, or registered with the State. To borrow from the Fighting for Ourselves (which Syndicalist has already linked to and is well worth a read) unions can be 'associative' without being 'representative'. That's the essence of a non-mediative union that anarcho-syndicalists would support. On reading about syndicalism, I'd start here:

http://libcom.org/library/introductions-political-theories

In the final analysis, though, I have to agree with Syndicalist. Be prepared to go in circles until it becomes a semantic argument: “All unions share these characteristics and, therefore, experience the same pressures and will eventually act in the same manner.” “But an anarcho-syndicalist union won't act in that way because it's not trying to fulfil those same functions as a trade union.” “Well, then it's not really a union....” Ad infinitum.

skybutton
Offline
Joined: 5-03-13
Mar 6 2013 21:30

Ah alright, this makes a lot of sense. Thank you again for the help guys.

Angelus Novus
Offline
Joined: 27-07-06
Mar 7 2013 19:17
jura wrote:
Or in other words, outside times of intense class struggle, sustaining a mass revolutionary organization is impossible.

This.

A union exists to negotiate the price of the commodity labor-power, on the most advantageous terms for labor-power.

A "good" union is one that does exactly that. The moral conceptions of idealists don't enter into the picture.

I think the Sojourner Truth Organization has written some of the best stuff on the nature of trade unions in capitalism, without moralist hand-wringing: The Workplace Papers.

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Mar 8 2013 08:14
Quote:
A union exists to negotiate the price of the commodity labor-power, on the most advantageous terms for labor-power....

I think the Sojourner Truth Organization has written some of the best stuff on the nature of trade unions in capitalism, without moralist hand-wringing...

Did you see the slight of hand there?

I'm sure that comes across as snarky and I actually like Sojourner Truth, but negotiating the price of labor power doesn't have to be the sole (or, arguably, even definining) function of a union. Not to mention, that the manner in which that negotiation occurs is pretty fundamental to defining the particular type of unionism we're talking about.

solidariedade
Offline
Joined: 21-11-12
Mar 8 2013 12:59

Surely the question of wheter a revolutionary mass union can exist outside of high level class struggle periods is a meaningless one. If we define a revolutionary union as an organ of class struggle, wich should point not towards a better integration of the working class, but towards its abolition, then the existence of such a mass organization outside a revolutionary or at least a intense class struggle period would evidently be a contradiction.

Tim Finnegan's picture
Tim Finnegan
Offline
Joined: 16-05-12
Mar 8 2013 13:05
Tommy Ascaso wrote:
Agree with Chilli and claiming something is 'impossible' is just daft, having a mass revolutionary organisation outside of times of intense class struggle is highly unlikely, incredible difficult, not something we're likely to see but impossible?

Can an organisation properly be called "revolutionary" if it isn't actually participating in revolution? It might well be possible to maintain some sort of radical/direct workers' organisation in a non-revolutionary period- I would tend to think that it is, and that we should- but that when its activities are limited by sector and local, as non-revolutionary struggles always are, it's difficult to see what is "revolutionary" about it beyond ideological orientation.

I don't think that's just a semantic distinction, either, because by designating a given organisation "revolutionary" in a non-revolutionary period, you identify it as the proper sort of organisation for revolutionary activity in a revolutionary period, which I think represents a step towards dogmatism. Revolutions are by necessity bound up with the social conditions of a given time and place, so the forms of organisation appropriate to a particular revolutionary episode don't reveal themselves until the revolutionary actually occurs. By binding ourselves to this-or-that-model of "revolutionary" organisation, we close ourselves off to the demand of these circumstances, and become advocates not for working class power, but for our organisational model as an end itself. (This, of course, applies to left communist parties as much as revolutionary unions!)

I think that both syndicalists and leftcoms trip up because they conflate "revolutionary" with "useful". Direct workers' organisation is useful, say the syndicalists, so it is revolutionary. It is not revolutionary, say the leftcoms, so it is not useful. If we don't assume the conflation, a lot of the obstacles we're seeing here don't seem to appear.

Entdinglichung's picture
Entdinglichung
Offline
Joined: 2-07-08
Mar 8 2013 13:28
Angelus Novus wrote:
jura wrote:
Or in other words, outside times of intense class struggle, sustaining a mass revolutionary organization is impossible.

This.

A union exists to negotiate the price of the commodity labor-power, on the most advantageous terms for labor-power.

A "good" union is one that does exactly that. The moral conceptions of idealists don't enter into the picture.

I think the Sojourner Truth Organization has written some of the best stuff on the nature of trade unions in capitalism, without moralist hand-wringing: The Workplace Papers.

or (sorry, in German)

Rainer Zoll: Der Doppelcharakter der Gewerkschaften: Zur Aktualität der Marxschen Gewerkschaftstheorie (Suhrkamp, 1976)

jura's picture
jura
Offline
Joined: 25-07-08
Mar 8 2013 13:58
Tommy Ascaso wrote:
Agree with Chilli and claiming something is 'impossible' is just daft, having a mass revolutionary organisation outside of times of intense class struggle is highly unlikely, incredible difficult, not something we're likely to see but impossible?

OK, it's unlikely enough so as to prevent me (personally) wasting effort on trying to make it possible. It is not impossible for monkeys to write perfectly good literature, but I won't be putting off all my other reading while waiting for the next bestseller to come out of the ZOO.

Similarly, it is not "impossible" to achieve communism via parliamentary means, yet you'd probably agree it's not the best approach. My view of unions is analogous to this.

Angelus Novus
Offline
Joined: 27-07-06
Mar 8 2013 14:25
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Did you see the slight of hand there

Yeah, great, way to derail a discussion about the nature of trade unions by introducing the semantic ambiguities of the word "union."

Germany's conservative party also calls itself a "union." So what? We're obviously not talking about all the different types of organizations that might use the term.

Quote:
but negotiating the price of labor power doesn't have to be the sole (or, arguably, even definining) function of a union.

Sure. My union also supports legislation to implement a legal minimum wage in Germany, and supports a campaign against income inequality. Those are all things I support, because as long as I have to live in capitalism, I want my life to be as comfortable and pleasant as possible, but none of that has to do with abolishing capitalism. Unions are not anti-capitalist institutions.

Keep in mind, I'm not formulating the critique of the left-communists that unions are "reformist." Reformism, properly speaking, is anti-capitalist. Bernstein and all those guys also wanted to get rid of capitalism. They simply thought that piecemeal reforms were the way to do it. Unions don't want to abolish capitalism, and make no pretense of wanting to. Therefore, it's absurd to accuse them of some sort of betrayal of this aim, as histrionic left-coms do.

P.S. One more STO link: A critique of "class-struggle unionism."

plasmatelly's picture
plasmatelly
Offline
Joined: 16-05-11
Mar 8 2013 16:27

jura wrote

Quote:
Similarly, it is not "impossible" to achieve communism via parliamentary means, yet you'd probably agree it's not the best approach. My view of unions is analogous to this

.
Thing is Jura, the art school knock everything, offer nothing approach that not just left coms but many others have spewed out over the years hasn't helped on any practical level. There's much to take on board, granted,by endlessly critiquing struggles against state and capitalism but essentially it's hipster politics and I dare say a luxury that many working-class people haven't time nor use for, even if it came with free beret.

jura's picture
jura
Offline
Joined: 25-07-08
Mar 8 2013 16:47

Every time someone plays the "practical level" card against the critique of unions, a puppy dies. No offense but in my view this is an argument worthy of a Trotskyist.

Do you think that even though the critique of unions is correct, all we are left with on the "practical level" are unions? Or do you think the only choice in communist politics is between "building unions" and being an "art school" "hipster"? (It's true that I was into all kinds of weird music before it went mainstream, you see, but I certainly didn't go anywhere near an art school!)

jura's picture
jura
Offline
Joined: 25-07-08
Mar 8 2013 16:51

I must have misunderstood what you meant, plasmatelly. Because it seems like you're implying that the autonomous (outside of unions and political parties) struggles of the 1960s, 70s, 80s all over the world never existed?

Angelus Novus
Offline
Joined: 27-07-06
Mar 8 2013 16:56
jura wrote:
Do you think that even though the critique of unions is correct, all we are left with on the "practical level" are unions? Or do you think the only choice in communist politics is between "building unions" and being an "art school" "hipster"?

Maybe the practical level also doesn't have much to do with the eventual construction of communism.

If I have a dispute with my landlord, I will go to my tenant's association, and consult with a lawyer, and hopefully find a solution to my advantage. My tenant's association doesn't oppose the existence of the rent relationship as such, and that doesn't bother me. I just want my problem solved. I don't lose any sleep at night about acting within the parameters of the bourgeois legal form.

Absent certain objective conditions, mass revolutionary organizations are pretty much impossible. I think communists spend their time better educating people (I don't like the phrase "propaganda") and clarifying their own arguments.

syndicalist
Offline
Joined: 15-04-06
Mar 8 2013 16:58

FWIW, I believe strongly in the "practical" ......but that includes finding ways of intertwining solid anarcho-syndicalism/anarchist-communism with trying to reach folks and do stuff in a concrete manner. Of course, it doesn't always work.

I gather that most folks who raise the criticism of "left coms" do so from the point that "left coms" criticisms are usually not based on any form of practice. But simply of a practice of denunciation's. Of course, this is said in a broad way, and, I suspect, there are some who actually engage in some form of practice.

Hey, all for a good critique here, all for recognizing that building unions, any form of union for union sake, is limited and confusing..... from a class struggle perspective.

plasmatelly's picture
plasmatelly
Offline
Joined: 16-05-11
Mar 8 2013 17:04

Jura - syndicalist beat me to it mate! Left coms have all the best tunes, but never dance!