Good syndicalist rebuttals to the "unions are reformist" argument

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Angelus Novus
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Mar 8 2013 17:10
syndicalist wrote:
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.

Only if you think that unions are always acting as a brake on an insurrectionary working class. In my experience, that's usually not the case. Quite the opposite. A lot of union functionaries tend to be leftist idealists, generally trying to mobilize a passive and apolitical membership.

Honestly, I think too many people read these critiques of unions written in exceptional situations like 1918, where they do act as such a brake, or Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, and take an essentially correct understanding of the unions as immanent to capitalist logic, but try to extrapolate that in unenlightening ways. In situations of general passivity and immobility of the class, unions aren't really holding anything back. They're performing their normal function of bargaining over the price of labor-power.

syndicalist
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Mar 8 2013 17:18

I wouldn't agree with this:

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Only if you think that unions are always acting as a brake on an insurrectionary working class

And just think this is, respectfully, rote marxism, that is generally limited, but in many instances not off base:

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bargaining over the price of labor-power.

The rest of the critique I generally agree with on the level of a critique.

Spikymike
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Mar 8 2013 17:46

jura makes a number of valid points but I think Tim Finnegan gets closest to the heart of the matter in their post No23.

It is of course possible for ideologically based workplace style groups to operate effectively (ie usefully) in some circumstances, but they will inevitably remain at a minority level outside of situations of mass class struggle that emerge from circumstances, which experience suggests, will be largely outside of their control or influence. Outside of such circumstances whilst some may survive intact, many will degenerate or disapear.

Leftcoms of course are not generally against ideologically based workplace style groups anyway but reject the idea that there is potential to build mass based unions on a revolutionary basis in todays global capitalism. They, as with others have both a structural and historically based critique of the union form as commonly experienced by workers accross the world.

The SolFed 'Fighting For Ourselves...' text has much to commend it but is still open to these criticism's and skybutton could usefully have a look at other older discussion threads related to that as well as other extended discussions on the issue of trade unions in general..

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Chilli Sauce
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Mar 8 2013 20:00
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Can an organisation properly be called "revolutionary" if it isn't actually participating in revolution

Left Communist semantics FTW.

How can you call yourself a communist if you're not living under communism, hhhmmm????

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Tim Finnegan
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Mar 9 2013 00:08
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
Can an organisation properly be called "revolutionary" if it isn't actually participating in revolution

Left Communist semantics FTW.

For the record, I'm not a leftcom. I'm just not a syndicalist.

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How can you call yourself a communist if you're not living under communism, hhhmmm????

I think music is a good thing; am I therefore a musician?

Some terms are used simply to describe ideological orientation; "communist" would tend to fall into that category. Others are used more narrowly, to denote certain kinds of practice; "revolutionary", in my experience, tends to be one of them. We could use "revolutionary" in the former sense, but, generally, we use it in the latter- at least, not in my experience.

I mean, if it's any good to you, I don't think of myself as a "revolutionary". Do you?

bastarx
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Mar 9 2013 00:17

It would be a massive improvement to most unions if they became reformist either in the classical sense of thinking that incremental reform would lead to socialism or the modern sense of just trying to better the lot of workers within capitalism.

These days they mostly seem to be negotiating cuts to wages and conditions and sabotaging any moves by workers to struggle outside them.

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Chilli Sauce
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Mar 9 2013 07:02

dp

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Chilli Sauce
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Mar 9 2013 07:03
Tim Finnegan wrote:
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
Can an organisation properly be called "revolutionary" if it isn't actually participating in revolution

Left Communist semantics FTW.

For the record, I'm not a leftcom. I'm just not a syndicalist.

Quote:
How can you call yourself a communist if you're not living under communism, hhhmmm????

I think music is a good thing; am I therefore a musician?

Some terms are used simply to describe ideological orientation; "communist" would tend to fall into that category. Others are used more narrowly, to denote certain kinds of practice; "revolutionary", in my experience, tends to be one of them. We could use "revolutionary" in the former sense, but, generally, we use it in the latter- at least, not in my experience.

Exactly my point: it's semantics. Instead of looking at beliefs and how those beliefs are expressed (the content), you're focusing on language to score some sort of political point. In other words, semantics.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of self-proclaimed revolutionary unions that aren't worthy of the term. But that's because they act in ways that aren't in keeping with revolutionary principles, not because they haven't actively participated in a revolution.

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plasmatelly
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Mar 9 2013 08:25

Or Skybutton - you could counter your Left Com mate's critique of mass revolutionary organisations by offering the bleeding obvious - beatniks don't make revolution!

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jura
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Mar 9 2013 09:01

I agree with Spikymike as regards Fighting for Ourselves.

Plasmatelly, do trade-unionists make revolutions? (Or counter-revolutions?)

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Tim Finnegan
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Mar 9 2013 10:34
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Exactly my point: it's semantics. Instead of looking at beliefs and how those beliefs are expressed (the content), you're focusing on language to score some sort of political point. In other words, semantics.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of self-proclaimed revolutionary unions that aren't worthy of the term. But that's because they act in ways that aren't in keeping with revolutionary principles, not because they haven't actively participated in a revolution.

Well, if you look back at my original post, I spent another paragraph explaining why I think this distinction is more than just a semantic distinction.

Tim Finnegan wrote:
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!)

Point being, "revolutionary principles" are not a Newtonian absolute, along which we can organise at all places and at all times. By affirming a particular set of organisational principles as "revolutionary", no matter how sound those principles are in non-revolutionary periods, or how effective the organisational form that follows from them, you're in danger of confusing the reproduction of the "revolutionary" organisation with concrete revolutionary activity; of form with content.( Look at May '68, when the Trot and Maoist sectlets so boldly responded to the prolertarian insurgency by... staging membership drives.)

solidariedade
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Mar 9 2013 12:31

It is incredibly dishonest to frame this discussion as one between those mean ultra-left commies who only like to criticize and the honest hard working syndicalists building their revolutionary union.

I am an anarcho-syndicalist and yet I generally agree with the arguments put forward by the hipster art-school, armchair whatever camp, at least as far as this thread is concerned. So much for your little black and white world.

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jura
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Mar 9 2013 13:08

Yeah, I feel bad about this thread. I apologize if anything I said came across as arrogant. I think that the debate among "libertarian communists" about unions is usually framed in very simplistic terms and is often viewed, from both sides, as an opportunity for simple point-scoring. (I feel like I was provoked to do the same on this thread.)

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plasmatelly
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Mar 9 2013 13:27

TBH - I think the thread was derailed far too early as it had potential. But this is a familiar thing now where 2 camps on Libcom are essentially pitted against each other. Don't beat yourself up Jura! You certainly didn't come over as arrogant.

solidariedade
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Mar 9 2013 14:34

Yeah, I think that to some extent all (maybe not all, but anyway...) the people involved in this thread have been involved in quite a bit of strawmanning.

Conclusion: neither ultra-left detached hipster, nor chest-thumping MASS UNION syndicalist.

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Chilli Sauce
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Mar 9 2013 23:05
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chest-thumping MASS UNION syndicalist.

And what exactly are you talking about?

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( Look at May '68, when the Trot and Maoist sectlets so boldly responded to the prolertarian insurgency by... staging membership drives.)

Self-proclaimed revolutionists vs.....

All off that said, of course many times the actions of those who don't immediately identify as revolutionaries have far more revolutionary content--action before conciousness and all that--but so what? Let's not conflate issues, here.

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Chilli Sauce
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Mar 9 2013 20:40
jura wrote:
I agree with Spikymike as regards Fighting for Ourselves.

Plasmatelly, do trade-unionists make revolutions? (Or counter-revolutions?)

Jura, I don't think you're coming across as arrogant at all on this thread, but I would like to see you expand on these points.

What's your assessment of FFO? And what point are you trying to make about trade unionists (I mean that as a legitimate question)?

solidariedade
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Mar 9 2013 22:05
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And what exactly are you talking about?

Well, I was deliberately misrepresenting the position of some people on this thread, to illustrate my point about the fact that there are quite a few strawmen being thrown around.

I certainly did not mean to be offensive.

syndicalist
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Mar 9 2013 22:42

Hola Skybutton.... have any of us help shed some light on your initial question? Anything still missing, not answered or left perplexed about?

NannerNannerNan...
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Mar 10 2013 05:40

Man, I know this isn't relevant to the topic of "left-communists" being really bizzare and obtuse, but what is all this nonsense I keep on hearing about "times of hightened class struggle?" I've read it somewhere else and now I'm hearing it here. Isn't this silly line just spontaneism?

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Tim Finnegan
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Mar 10 2013 10:24
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Self-proclaimed revolutionists vs......

That's a bit easy, isn't it? "Oh, that won't happen to us because we're real revolutionaries". As if the Trots and their ilk didn't say the same thing.

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Chilli Sauce
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Mar 10 2013 12:15

And the running around in circles begins...

Of course just declaring yourself a revolutionary doesn't mean that you're immune from co-optation and counter-revolutionary actions. However, it's about the actions you take as an organisation and the structural position you put yourself in.

Guess what? Trots volley for position in trade unions, view themselves as vanguards of the working class, try to take over broad left groups and sponsor front organisations, and, oh yeah, seek to mediate struggle and achieve state power. That's the reason they act they way they do and the reason they so readily act in ways that suppress widespread revolutionary moments.

44
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Mar 10 2013 16:42
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?

I'd say it's impossible.

Outside of times of intense class struggle the general level of class consciousness will be low. Therefore any mass organisation will not be characterised by a high level of class consciousness and will therefore not be revolutionary.

Outside of times of intense class struggle it's possible to maintain small revolutionary organisations (if you want to call them that), or to maintain mass left-wing, reformist, social-democratic, left-liberal, whatever, organisations. But not mass revolutionary organisations.

This is the reason that Trotskyist organisations, who are forever trying to "build the party" outside of times of intense class struggle, have to utilise a crypto-Stalinist form of 'democratic centralism' (slate system, ban on factions) to keep their organisation from becoming entirely left-liberal, that is, to ensure that the core Marxist cadre remains in power, and keep the party from being genuinely bent to the democratic will of its predominantly left-liberal membership.

44
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Mar 10 2013 19:13

Maybe the people who downvoted my post could offer a response to it?

How, without abaondoning a materialist analysis and resorting to a position of extreme voluntarism, can you argue that a mass revolutionary organisation can be maintained when revolutionary consciousness (understanding of, receptivity to, inclination towards, revolutionary ideas) doesn't exist among the masses, as is the case in periods of low intensity in the class struggle?

skybutton
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Mar 10 2013 19:33
syndicalist wrote:
Hola Skybutton.... have any of us help shed some light on your initial question? Anything still missing, not answered or left perplexed about?

I think I get the gist of it thank you. I probably should have done a better job of making sure this thread didn't turn into a tendency war, which I admittedly played somewhat of a role in provoking. Anyways though, you and others did a good job of answering my questions, so thank you. There was quite a lot of verbiage (done by others, not yourself) to sort through, although I think most of it wasn't really an attempt to directly answer my question as much as it was used to argue with another poster.

The conclusion I've arrived at from this thread to phrase it as simply as possible is that there are no absolutes in terms of unions.

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plasmatelly
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Mar 10 2013 19:35

The thing about revolutionary times - and this isn't meant as a pop at any one person who has posted on here - is many revolutionaries throughout history couldn't identify living in revolutionary times using 2 hands and an instruction manual. So I'm a bit wary of nay-sayers who dismiss trying to build the revolutionary organisations believing they dilute before we get to that magic moment where they decide to play a part. To be so concrete in dismissing potential is blinkered; anarcho-syndicalists today possibly provide the best critique of how revolutionary unions can lose their way, and arguably the best understanding of how to avoid those pitfalls. Impossible my arse. It's from these attempts to build a self-aware revolutionary movement - which take many years - that we may avoid what certainly could happen if we waited for "times of intense class struggle" - we get squeezed out of the picture and the pied piper comes along. IMO anarcho-syndicalist are also building revolutionary culture as well as revolutionary unions.

Spikymike
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Mar 10 2013 19:44

44,

Just ignore those up/down markers as they are quite meaningless - just a sop to the lazy reader.

I think it more likely that some SolFed'ers and other anarcho-syndicalists may'be don't think such a mass 'revolutionary' union can be built now, but that much smaller minority unions could become mass revolutionary unions in changed circumstances? My own view is that this is unlikely, both because long periods of limited connection with large scale class struggle tends to cause such minority unions to either dissapear or degenerate (politically and organisationally) and because mass class struggle rarely develops openly in any kind of slow evolution but rapidly escalates finding it's own means of expression and rapidly surpassing previous established and longstanding ideologically based organisations, but I suppose there is always a first time (or a second time if you accept the more uncritical anarchist interpretations of Spain in 1936).

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plasmatelly
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Mar 10 2013 19:50

Perhaps a minor tangential detail that seems to be missed out on this thread, is that that these doomed to failure unions that anarcho-syndicalists build also fight and often win for the here and now. Just a thought.

44
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Mar 10 2013 20:15

The question of how we can identify a revolutionary period is separate from the question of whether it's possible to build mass revolutionary organisations in non-revolutionary periods.

The arguments that "nobody saw May '68 coming" or that "Lenin thought he'd never live to see a revolution", and so on, are true, but they reduce the organisational question to a matter of optimism or pessimism, a matter of personal character, of faith.

Also, nobody is arguing against communists organising as communists, so that's a bit of a strawman. The question is whether it's possible to build mass revolutionary organisations in periods of low intensity in the class struggle. All you said in response to that was "Impossible my arse."

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plasmatelly
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Mar 10 2013 20:25

44
Well, I don't say never - and efforts can bring results.
I believe that it is very much less likely that a libertarian communist society could result from not creating a mass revolutionary movement. I also believe that there isn't enough consideration for the huge cultural shift required - and that is where mass organisations come in.
Destined to fail - maybe. Impossible - of course not.