Good syndicalist rebuttals to the "unions are reformist" argument

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Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
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Mar 10 2013 20:30
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The question is whether it's possible to build mass revolutionary organisations in periods of low intensity in the class struggle.

I'm actually slightly confused, who raised that question? It certainly wasn't part of the OP and in SF, for example, we're pretty open that our goal is see anarcho-syndicalist methods used as widely by the class as possible. If SF become a mass organisation in that process, great, but our notion of a revolutionary union isn't one of the OBU.

I mean, as usual, most of this has been covered pretty well in Fighting for Ourselves:

http://libcom.org/library/fighting-ourselves-anarcho-syndicalism-class-s...

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Mar 10 2013 20:46

Personally - the OBU angle is thee red herring.

44
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Mar 10 2013 20:52
plasmatelly wrote:
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.

I'm not suggesting that a libertarian communist society could result from not creating a mass revolutionary movement. I'm saying the creation of a mass revolutionary movement is only possible under certain conditions.

The question for me, I suppose, is, given the impossibility of building mass revolutionary organisations in non-revolutionary periods, whether communists, in addition to organising themselves as communists, should contribute to building mass left-wing organisations.

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Destined to fail - maybe. Impossible - of course not.

How are these not the same things? It's destined to fail because it's impossible, like trying to fly by flapping your arms.

44
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Mar 10 2013 20:54
Chilli Sauce wrote:
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The question is whether it's possible to build mass revolutionary organisations in periods of low intensity in the class struggle.

I'm actually slightly confused, who raised that question?

I think Jura raised it on the first page.

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Mar 10 2013 20:56

You mean you can't fly?! It's not impossible - and that's what I'm saying.

44
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Mar 10 2013 20:58

What?

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Mar 10 2013 21:30

In other words, humans can fly, just not by flapping their wings. It took generations of to build a 'flying machine' and, no doubt, at the beginning that, too, seemed destined to fail.

petey
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Mar 10 2013 21:38

i second plasmatelly's post 59. when i was new-ish here i asked how one could recognize official (so to speak) periods of revolutionary struggle. i asked rather insistently and wound up getting yelled at (by a few) but still without an idea of how to tell. are we in one now? left communist press says "yes" but was Occupy revolutionary or reformist? were the events of the last two years across north africa revolutionary or reformist? (in intent, i'm not talking about their co-optation). worker actions (without or even in spite of their union bureaucrats) are increasing in frequency so that's very good but is this now a "period of return to the class struggle" which allows of different tactics (apart from the fundamental one of expanding/extending actions into other/all sectors)? in the meantime workers in different places are increasingly frequently getting fucked out of what control they have over their worklives. yes, these things are connected but which of increasing-activity-because-of-inceasing-awareness or increasing-getting-fucked-because-of-decreasing-power is the characteristic quality? are industrial or syndicalist unions are a bad thing in such circumstances? do organizations like SolFed not serve to keep alive revolutionary thinking in all environments?

44
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Mar 10 2013 21:53
Chilli Sauce wrote:
In other words, humans can fly, just not by flapping their wings. It took generations of to build a 'flying machine' and, no doubt, at the beginning that, too, seemed destined to fail.

I didn't say flying is impossible, I said flying by flapping your arms is impossible. Don't be silly.

Replace the analogy with literally any other impossible thing if you prefer.

It's destined to fail because it's impossible, like trying to turn into a unicorn, or trying to get a straight answer on a message board.

44
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Mar 10 2013 21:59

Could someone actually answer this question please?

How, without abandoning 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?

Setting aside the question of how to identify such periods, surely, in such periods, you are left with the choice between small revolutionary organisations, or mass non-revolutionary organisations.

skybutton
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Mar 11 2013 02:06

I think that if it was made clear from the start that a union was radical, it'd be unlikely that reformists would join, and if they occasionally did they'd be purged. Honestly I'm starting to think it's useless to argue what will bring revolution and what form it will take. I certainly support revolutionary syndicalism, but I honestly couldn't care anymore what form the revolution takes so long as it's not some crazy Leninist Russia 2.0
We'll find out when we get there and I'll be in support no matter what, as long as it's libertarian socialist and has viable solutions for modern day problems. Thank you for the answers, and I'm sorry if I started a tendency war.

NannerNannerNan...
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Mar 11 2013 02:14

You know what, this whole argument is all a bunch of nonsense.
What is a "revolutionary period?" Is it the period directly before a lunar eclipse or something? The fact that this big dumb yuh-huh-nuh-huh Revleft style argument is directly predicated on everyone accepting that 2013 CE is not apart of a "Revolutionary Period™" is only a little less disheartening than the fact that posters like Chilli Sauce and Tommy Ascaso believe in such a dumb idea!

Is the working-class of the United States doomed to virtual serfdom because it's not a "Revolutionary Period™" - or because we have all become so out-of-touch with our roots in the workplaces and our communities that all this idiotic philosophizing becomes our modus operandi and raison d'être?

Without the Donghak organizing the peasants, there would have been no Donghak rebellion. Without the EAM-ELAS essentially rebuilding civil society from the ground-up, the axis wouldn't have retreated with them controlling something like 70% or more of Greece. And, likewise, without the CNT organizing the workers and the peasants, there wouldn't even be a Spanish Civil War!

We should get rid of all this defeatism and get to the real roots of our problems. All of the revolutionary events and situations I've discussed were not spontaneous bouts of "Revolutionary Period™". They were all cases wherein a well-organized group of rabble-rousers and millitants directly organized the toiling classes and convinced them of their immense power and of the need for dignity, social justice, and revolutionary change.

In any place where the rich are confident enough to squeeze the weakest the hardest and the weak yearn for real change is a place where a mass revolutionary organization can exist. The fact that we live in a "low period of class struggle" has nothing to do with the working class and all to do with OUR incompetence and our numerous strategic mistakes and tactical errors.

44
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Mar 11 2013 02:51

Hey, I said no extreme voluntarism!

Tom de Cleyre
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Mar 11 2013 04:24

Am I being the only one being alarmed that a "young anarcho-syndicalist" disagrees with the statement that "unions are reformist" when that is pretty much the reason why anarcho-syndicalism exists and its first tennet? And that later, said "anarcho-syndicalist" says that they do not quite grasp the difference between trade unionism and syndicalism? Have you considered that maybe you joined slightly prematurely and you might not actually be an anarcho-syndicalist?

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Mar 11 2013 09:58
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2013 CE is not apart of a "Revolutionary Period™" is only a little less disheartening than the fact that posters like Chilli Sauce and Tommy Ascaso believe in such a dumb idea!

I'm not sure I've talked or commented at all about a revolutionary period at all on this thread, comrade.

Nanner, I'd agree with you that one of the defining characteristics of the working class is its inherent revolutionary potential. However, the working class' position in the class struggle retreats and advances. In the core capitalist countries (or whatever you want to call them), the power of capital has been on the increase while the power, organisation, confidence, and combativity of the working class has been on the wane since at least the imposition of neo-liberalism.

And, of course, things will vary globally, but at least in the Europe and North America, the class has been on the retreat for over 25 years. Strike days are down massively, trade union membership (FWIW) is down, revolutionary organisations (self-proclaimed and otherwise) are small at best, and self-organisation and a wider labour movement are a fraction of what they have been in previous decades.

Things are on the uptick, but I don't think it's helpful to pretend that our generation isn't basically starting from scratch when it comes to building and sustaining revolutionary movements and organisations. Which, again, is not to say that things can't change pretty quickly (and I hope they do), but an honest assessment of where we're at should help us plan tactics and strategies.

EDIT: No offense intended to the old-timers round here. I'm incredibly grateful for the knowledge which has been passed on to me by older militants. I'm just talking about society in general.

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Mar 11 2013 10:02
Tom de Cleyre wrote:
Am I being the only one being alarmed that a "young anarcho-syndicalist" disagrees with the statement that "unions are reformist" when that is pretty much the reason why anarcho-syndicalism exists and its first tennet? And that later, said "anarcho-syndicalist" says that they do not quite grasp the difference between trade unionism and syndicalism? Have you considered that maybe you joined slightly prematurely and you might not actually be an anarcho-syndicalist?

This seems unfairly accusatory, if not an outright misreading of the OP.

The OP made it quite clear that his/her discussion was based on nature of the IWW--who, for whatever their faults, do have a self-proclaimed radical ideology and undertake a lot of worthy organising.

Maybe I'm assuming too much, but I generally think by the time someone comes to identify as an an anarcho-syndicalist they've come to reject the trade unions (or business unions in American parlance) to one degree or another. And I, for one, am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt rather than make snarky comments from the sidelines.

skybutton
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Mar 11 2013 08:17
Tom de Cleyre wrote:
Am I being the only one being alarmed that a "young anarcho-syndicalist" disagrees with the statement that "unions are reformist" when that is pretty much the reason why anarcho-syndicalism exists and its first tennet? And that later, said "anarcho-syndicalist" says that they do not quite grasp the difference between trade unionism and syndicalism? Have you considered that maybe you joined slightly prematurely and you might not actually be an anarcho-syndicalist?

My position is that unions are not inherently reformist (e.g. revolutionary unions), not that there are no reformist unions in existence. And I now understand what was meant in differentiating trade unionism from syndicalism. The reason I was confused is that when I was first getting into syndicalism, I had actually seen it defined (obviously very poorly) something that was the same thing as trade unionism. It wasn't that syndicalism was defined wrong, it was that trade unionism was and that it was lumped in with it. I haven't had much experience with trade unionism, so at that point I did not question that information, which I now understand as wrong. But yes, I understand what is meant by syndicalism.

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Mar 11 2013 08:28
44 wrote:
How, without abandoning 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?

Hmm, the main problem that I can see here is that no one is using the same words in the same way.. so for instance, you say 'mass'.. now for some people, 'mass' (as in mass meeting, mass organisation etc) just means everyone in a given workplace/site of struggle, for others it means 'lots of people' (fwiw, I use the second definition).. then there's 'revolutionary', which I use to mean 'believe in revolution' while you use to say 'takes part in revolution' (again, both are acceptable). And then there's 'union', which you haven't mentioned above but is important anyway: some would say that a union was simply a group of workers coming to together to fight for better conditions, others would say it's an organisation that represents labour to capital..

So in response to the question above, depending on the combination of the definitions I've outlined, really the only response I can give you is: "Is that what anarcho-syndicalists are trying to do?". I mean, is there anyone in SF who thinks that they will become a multi-million member anarchist TUC? I would doubt it, so it's unfair to couch the debate in those terms.

But for a more likely scenario: Is it possible that a small workplace - a cinema, for example - could have a large enough anarcho-syndicalist presence to build a workplace section that could fight management (i.e. behave like a union)? Could this be a 'mass organisation' in the sense of uniting all the workers? Could it be 'revolutionary' in the sense of 'believing in revolution' and organising in a way that puts workers in control of their own struggle? The answer to all these questions would seem to be 'yes'..

And just to take it further, would it be possible for such an organisation to also have small-to-medium sized networks of workers in other industries, some of who also have critical masses of militants in their workplaces who can initiate struggles (of various sizes, whether over big stuff like redundancies or little stuff like your manager being a dick)? Would this be a 'union'? I would say 'yes'. Maybe you wouldn't, but I think the most important question isn't what you call it, but whether it would be desirable..

Actually, no, another important question: in the event of an upturn in struggle, do you think there would be some benefit to the existence of an organisation like the one described above, with experience of long-term organising of small, medium and even possibly the odd large scale struggle, all on the basis of workers' control, direct democracy/action etc? Or do you think it's mostly irrelevant?

Sorry, well long.. hope it's helpful..

Tom de Cleyre
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Mar 11 2013 08:54

I am really sorry if I sounded accusatory, I was genuinely concerned that the response the original poster was getting seemed confusing to someone with little grasp of anarcho-syndicalist principles.

Tom de Cleyre
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Mar 11 2013 08:56

(But yes, I was quite shocked by the title of the OP, since as an anarchosyndicalist I have spent countless hours arguing how reformist unions were, and probably did not understand what was really at stake and I apologise.)

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Mar 12 2013 19:46
Tommy Ascaso wrote:
Not sure if anybody has made this point and don't have time to read all the responses so far, but the existence of a mass revolutionary union would guarantee there was a heightened level of class struggle.

Or maybe just a reflection of that fact? Y'know, the chicken'n'egg thing?

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Mar 14 2013 05:27

can small pro-revolutionary organizations oriented to class struggle become large "mass" revolutionary organizations, does any increase in pro-revolutionary consciousness and activity, mean that the possibility is greater for the later to exist? lulz

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Mar 15 2013 16:52

No, That's voluntarism. Don't for a second think that a dedicated group of class conscious workers can spread revolt.

If they could, there would be revolt, and since there isn't revolt, it must be impossible. Therefore, we must wait for the stars to ali-, err I mean the material conditions to evolve, such that they heighten class struggle.

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Mar 15 2013 19:23

Pennoid - would you be so kind as to alert everyone when the material conditions are right for revolution, there's a good chap.
It gets so blurry sometimes for those running around like a blue-arsed flies trying to create those revolutionary situations, just so as the good people like yourself and all the other wise owls who don't care to waste their times with building revolutionary unions and organisations can step outside, lick their finger, look up to the sky and give a nod of consent; for deep in my heart, I know that it will only be a left-communist who can ever tell the world with any degree of certainty whether the time is right for revolution. Only a left-communist.

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Mar 15 2013 19:47
Pennoid wrote:
No, That's voluntarism. Don't for a second think that a dedicated group of class conscious workers can spread revolt.

If they could, there would be revolt, and since there isn't revolt, it must be impossible. Therefore, we must wait for the stars to ali-, err I mean the material conditions to evolve, such that they heighten class struggle.

wink

44
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Mar 15 2013 20:09

Hey Plasmatelly, is workers' class consciousness affected by the changes in their material conditions associated with the boom-bust dynamics of capitalist production? Or is workers' understanding of, receptivity to, inclination towards, revolutionary ideas the same in all periods?

Are there objective forces compelling workers to develop a class consciousness? Are workers compelled by circumstance to organise in their own self-interest? Or are enlightened activists carrying the cross for all of humanity? Is there really nothing here a little elbow grease won't fix?

44
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Mar 15 2013 20:37
Ed wrote:
44 wrote:
How, without abandoning 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?

Hmm, the main problem that I can see here is that no one is using the same words in the same way.. so for instance, you say 'mass'.. now for some people, 'mass' (as in mass meeting, mass organisation etc) just means everyone in a given workplace/site of struggle, for others it means 'lots of people' (fwiw, I use the second definition).. then there's 'revolutionary', which I use to mean 'believe in revolution' while you use to say 'takes part in revolution' (again, both are acceptable). And then there's 'union', which you haven't mentioned above but is important anyway: some would say that a union was simply a group of workers coming to together to fight for better conditions, others would say it's an organisation that represents labour to capital..

Actually I'm using 'revolutionary' in the former sense - the sense of 'believing in the desirability, possibility, necessity of communist revolution'.

But yes, I'm using 'mass' in the sense of 'the masses', as in, the normal working class people who collectively are the potential agents of the communist revolution, and whose participation is necessary in order for the revolution to occur. Their understanding of, receptivity to, inclination towards revolutionary ideas is not solely dependent on how indefatigably tiny communist organisations 'agitate, educate & organise'. It's dependent on the actual conditions in which these people live, which is a part of the dynamic evolution of capitalist society, which reproduces itself according to certain laws of motion, but which never reproduces itself in exactly the same configuration. There are certain linear processes at work - capitalism is heading towards something, be it communism or cataclysm.

Quote:
So in response to the question above, depending on the combination of the definitions I've outlined, really the only response I can give you is: "Is that what anarcho-syndicalists are trying to do?". I mean, is there anyone in SF who thinks that they will become a multi-million member anarchist TUC? I would doubt it, so it's unfair to couch the debate in those terms.

But for a more likely scenario: Is it possible that a small workplace - a cinema, for example - could have a large enough anarcho-syndicalist presence to build a workplace section that could fight management (i.e. behave like a union)? Could this be a 'mass organisation' in the sense of uniting all the workers? Could it be 'revolutionary' in the sense of 'believing in revolution' and organising in a way that puts workers in control of their own struggle? The answer to all these questions would seem to be 'yes'..

And just to take it further, would it be possible for such an organisation to also have small-to-medium sized networks of workers in other industries, some of who also have critical masses of militants in their workplaces who can initiate struggles (of various sizes, whether over big stuff like redundancies or little stuff like your manager being a dick)? Would this be a 'union'? I would say 'yes'. Maybe you wouldn't, but I think the most important question isn't what you call it, but whether it would be desirable..

Actually, no, another important question: in the event of an upturn in struggle, do you think there would be some benefit to the existence of an organisation like the one described above, with experience of long-term organising of small, medium and even possibly the odd large scale struggle, all on the basis of workers' control, direct democracy/action etc? Or do you think it's mostly irrelevant?

Of course I think organising in the workplace is beneficial and useful.

My contention is that there is a low ceiling on these kinds of organisations until certain material developments take place - which are outside of the control of tiny communist organisations.

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Mar 15 2013 22:10
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Their understanding of, receptivity to, inclination towards revolutionary ideas is not solely dependent on how indefatigably tiny communist organisations 'agitate, educate & organise'.

I feel like there's sort of a combination of strawmanning and changing the terms of the debate going on here.

I don't think anyone on this thread has claimed it solely the work or revolutionaries/revolutionary organisations that will lead to a revolutionary situation. So if that's what you're trying to argue against, a few days on libcom or a brief reading of some, for example, SF literature should be enough to disabuse you of the idea that libcom anarcho-syndicalists believe in such a simple and linear notion of revolutionary activity.

44
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Mar 15 2013 21:57

Really? NannerNannerNanner's post (#75) appears to be an argument exactly to that effect:

Quote:
All of the revolutionary events and situations I've discussed were not spontaneous bouts of "Revolutionary Period™". They were all cases wherein a well-organized group of rabble-rousers and millitants directly organized the toiling classes and convinced them of their immense power and of the need for dignity, social justice, and revolutionary change.

In any place where the rich are confident enough to squeeze the weakest the hardest and the weak yearn for real change is a place where a mass revolutionary organization can exist. The fact that we live in a "low period of class struggle" has nothing to do with the working class and all to do with OUR incompetence and our numerous strategic mistakes and tactical errors.

Effectively a denial that there are any objective dynamics to capitalist development, and that people's consciousness is reflective of their everyday social experiences.

No, it's us, we're carrying the cross. The communist's burden.

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Mar 15 2013 22:14

Well, no disrespect to Nanner (whose posts I enjoy very much and I'm glad he's on libcom) but his post often generate a lot of, ummm, discussion.

And, according to his profile, I don't think he identifies as an anarcho-syndicalist. (After all, my post said "libcom anarcho-syndicalists", with a specific reference to SF). Nor is he, as far as I know, a member of any sort of organised political group at all. Besides, you were posting the same type of arguments well before post 75.

Quote:
No, it's us, we're carrying the cross. The communist's burden.

Also, you're snarky and condescending which certainly doesn't ingratiate anyone to your arguments.