Review of Fighting for ourselves - Anarchist Federation

A review of the Solidarity Federation's booklet Fighting For Ourselves in issue 80 of the Anarchist Federation's magazine Organise!

Fighting for Ourselves: Anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle.

Solidarity Federation. 2012. 121pp. Availability & pricing: http://www.selfed.org.uk/read/ffo

Since its publication in October of last year, Fighting for Ourselves has been the subject of much discussion and deserved interest in the broad libertarian left. The book constitutes the first major exposition of the political perspectives of the British section of the International Workers Association since Winning the Class War, their previous attempt at providing such an outline in 1991.

The book attempts to give an historical overview of the workers’ movement, in what it describes as its ‘mainstream’ and ‘radical’ forms, before describing the phenomenon of 20th Century anarcho-syndicalism through the experience of three unions in Germany, Spain and Argentina. Indeed, the bulk of the book is taken up with history; only the last 17 pages focussing on present day anarcho-syndicalism and specifically the Solidarity Federation’s (SolFed) strategy for moving from being a ‘simple political propaganda organisation’ to a ‘revolutionary union’ (p.94). The historical section contains justification for why the SolFed believe that their particular version of anarcho-syndicalism has both universal and particular (or local) application.

Before considering the historical precedents that have helped SolFed formulate its present perspectives, the book outlines its understanding of the nature of unionism itself, in the chapter ‘The Mainstream Workers Movement’. At the centre of this is the notion of a difference between a union as simply an ‘association of workers’, which can take many forms, and what they describe as its ‘representative’ function. They argue that these two possible roles have become merged in the form of mass trade unions, which act as mediators between the membership and capital. This, it is argued, has tended to mirror the consciousness of the membership, which is not anti-capitalist. Subsequently, the structure which proceeds from this representative role and which accepts the legitimacy of capitalism becomes a break on any potential rank and file initiative that should emerge. The bureaucratic and class collaborationist unions of the TUC are the result of this. The alternative offered is a union that maintains the associational form but does not involve itself in representation. In some senses, the SolFed idea of what constitutes this associational unionism has parallels with the Anarchist Federation’s espousal of Worker’s Resistance Groups.

The book subsequently deals with ‘radical currents’ within the historic workers’ movement that developed differing perspectives to the mainstream (social democratic or reformist) labour organisations: specifically anarchism, syndicalism and council communism. The discussion of anarchism, although relatively brief, is interesting and partially echoes the traditional anarcho-syndicalist criticisms of those anarchists who questioned the fusion of anarchism and syndicalism (the very meaning of anarcho-syndicalism, of course). Whilst considering the SolFed as within the anarchist or libertarian communist tradition, Fighting for Ourselves sees many faults within that tradition. Notable is a claimed ‘lack of focus primarily on the labour movement’ (p. 31) within the early anarchist communist movement. Presumably, this is a comment on the failure of anarchist communists such as Kropotkin to abandon the idea of the commune as the essential model of revolutionary transformation (see article elsewhere in this issue of Organise!) in favour of the workers’ unions, but as this is not made explicit we cannot be sure.

Malatesta’s well-known 1907 conflict with the revolutionary syndicalist Monatte is also discussed. In this, the former criticised the latter’s belief that a politically neutral syndicalism alone could bring about social revolution. Malatesta also argued against establishing purely anarchist unions but for the necessity of anarchist involvement in the labour movement. Although the authors dismiss this as an attempt to keep the anarchist movement ‘pure’, the international experience of those anarchists who do involve themselves in the labour movement without advocating the fusion of anarchism and unionism suggests their motivation is far from a fear of ‘dirty hands’.

This section also looks at the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, the sadly controversial document published in 1926 by exiled Russian and Ukrainian anarchists, which argues for a specific anarchist communist organisation based on theoretical and tactical unity. The Platform informs the practice of both ourselves in the Anarchist Federation and others in the international anarchist movement, such as those around the website/network Anarkismo. Interestingly, Fighting for Ourselves does not reject the essential political premise of the Platform. This is certainly a welcome development from SolFed, who have historically tended to regard Platformism as a form of anarcho-Leninism. The authors rather focus on the attitude of the Platform to syndicalism. The Platform did not reject anarchist unions per se but, written in a period where large syndicalist unions still played a significant part in the international labour movement, considered organised intervention in these as the priority for anarchists.

Fighting for Ourselves then turns to syndicalism itself, considering the first mass ‘revolutionary’ syndicalist union, the French CGT, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The formers rapid growth and the relatively conciliatory approach of the French state and capital in the 1910s are used as an explanation of its transformation, from an ostensibly revolutionary union into one that would support the First World War. However, although anarchists and others of the extreme left were indeed swamped by the influx of hundreds of thousands of new members, the call to defend the French nation was supported by a majority of the union’s militants – many anarchists included. The lesson that the book appears to take from the experience of the CGT is that its main failure was it ‘apolitical’ nature, which lead to its rapid growth and therefore reformism.

From its brief outline of the rise and fall of the IWW, it is obvious that the SolFed perceive limitations in the tendency of the ‘Wobblies’ to look to create One Big Union and thereby potentially dilute the revolutionary small p politics of its preamble. The IWW was (and indeed still is to some extent) eclectic in the makeup of its rank and file, with Marxists, anarchists, syndicalists and others working amongst a membership that was mostly politically unaligned and attracted to the union through its inclusive solidarity and effectiveness. However, it is also obvious that SolFed are influenced by the Solidarity and Direct Unionism of the present day IWW in the United States and Canada, which we shall look at later.

If Fighting for Ourselves pleasantly surprises on the Platform, then its engagement with the experience of Council Communism is revelatory. It is stated that Council Communism – a form of anti-Leninist Marxism that emerged from the revolutionary upheavals in Germany in the period 1918-1923 – arrived at ‘some similar political and organisational conclusions to anarchism and syndicalism’ (p.45), and empathy is expressed for the tendency within Council Communism that favoured a ‘unitary’ workers’ association that dispensed with any separate political organisation. However, whilst this seems to echo the anarcho-syndicalist idea of creating political-economic unions, the essential difference that Fighting for Ourselves claims is that the anarcho-syndicalist union is permanent and engages in workplace activity beyond the dissemination of propaganda, whereas Council Communist ‘unions’, of the 1920s and early 1930s, saw themselves as essentially temporary formations, bringing together convinced communists in workplaces for educational and propaganda purposes.

Finally in the historical section, the authors look at three anarcho-syndicalist antecedents they consider of particular importance to the development of their own vision of a ‘unitary’ or ‘political-economic’ unionism: the Regional Workers Federation of Argentina (FORA); the Free Workers Union of Germany (the FAUD) and the National Confederation of Labour of Spain (CNT). Whilst the authors state that they cannot ‘pluck’ any of those unions from history as a ‘ready-made blueprint’, they do see them providing models that modern anarcho-syndicalists can learn from and perhaps adapt to contemporary circumstances. Certainly the three unions demonstrate definite diversity amongst historical anarcho-syndicalists.

The FORA was essentially a minority (though still mass) union of ideologically committed anti-industrialist anarchist communists engaged in a brutal struggle against semi-feudal bosses. The FAUD had been formed during the German revolution and constituted a small but vibrant part of both the libertarian left and the broader radical labour movement. The authors suggest that FAUD was greatly sustained during the decade following the final defeat of the German revolution through its cultural and political work, which if anything they underplay – as the union declined as an economic organisation it actually grew as a workers’ cultural-educational-social association – until its destruction under the Nazi regime.

Finally they turn to the most legendary of anarcho-syndicalist unions: the CNT, which the authors describe as a ‘contradictory amalgamation of syndicalist union and anarchist organisation’ (p. 55) – a situation which they argue led to the eventual compromises the union made with the bourgeois state under the Popular Front in 1936. They suggest that the union was simultaneously not syndicalist enough (i.e. not preventing a bureaucracy) and not anarchist enough (i.e. failing to ‘smash the state’ when it had the opportunity in Catalonia). This is certainly a controversial interpretation.

So what does the history lesson in anarcho-syndicalism bring to the theory and practice of the Solidarity Federation? This is not made very explicit but it can be guessed at: From the FOR A, they seem to take the idea that a union committed to an overtly anarchist communist perspective can still be a mass organisation given the right circumstances. From the FAUD, they perhaps conclude that a strong cultural-educational-social role is important, not least because it can sustain an organisation through difficult times. From the CNT, they suggest that a successful union requires an organic unification of the political (anarchism) and the economic (syndicalism), which requires a complete identification of the two.

Fighting for Ourselves brings us up to date with discussion of the period from the Second World War to the present, covering the post-war social democratic settlement and the brief period of relative social and industrial peace, broken internationally by the May 1968 events in France and the Hot Autumn of workers struggles in Italy the following year. At home, the Winter of Discontent is seen as the turning point where capitalism began to shed the niceties of social partnership with the trade unions and neoliberalism began to massively restructure whilst launching wave after wave of assaults on working class living standards, which have only intensified in the period of recession since 2008.

The final chapter, ‘Anarcho-syndicalism in the 21st century’, attempts to put forward SolFed’s vision for the here and now. This part of the book most closely resembles their Winning the Class War pamphlet. It might be useful to begin with what the authors actually reject as ways forward. These include attempts to reform the existing trade unions; to function as a ‘political organisation of anarchists’; involvement in union rank and file movements; recruiting workers into the revolutionary union as a priority; and seeing the anarcho-syndicalist union as a ‘monolithic organisation’. Let’s look at these individually to see where there may be a commonality between SolFed and ourselves.

With their argument that attempts to transform the existing trade unions into revolutionary workers organisations are a waste of time and energy, we are in full agreement. Neither organisation will be spending any time capturing leadership positions in the TUC unions or attempting to build reform caucuses when we could be building rank and file confidence and autonomy.

The Anarchist Federation believes that building a political organisation of anarchists is one of our central tasks; one that is active in all spheres of working class life, including the cultural and social, as well as ‘economic’. However, it is obvious that this is also what SolFed have themselves built, albeit with the desire to become something else. It is hard indeed, not to regard our SolFed comrades as anarchist communists in their working clothes. Whether they continue as a political organisation or transform into the political-economic association remains to be seen; although we are convinced of their sincerity in this aim.

Like the SolFed, we also have great reservations about the various predominantly Leninist dominated union rank and files and left caucuses, and see little point in putting energy into endless debates with left activists when we could be talking directly to other workers. That said, some rank and file initiatives that are not party fronts do have the involvement of both SolFed and Anarchist Federation militants (for example the Civil Service Rank and File); and we should perhaps consider how we can work together to encourage their continued vibrancy and autonomy.

Related to this is the continued engagement of SolFed members in the revolutionary unionist/syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, in which many Anarchist Federation members are also active. The model of unionism in the IWW in the UK may at times lean more towards the representative one, but the dominant model remains ‘Solidarity Unionism’ – a variety of which, known as Direct Unionism, has obviously been an influence upon SolFed.

The SolFed’s approach of not opening up their Industrial Networks to militants unwilling to join SolFed itself, which can be seen as an attempt to prevent the dilution of their politics, is on one level understandable. On the other hand, if the organisation is to make the desired transition from propaganda group to revolutionary union, outside of any large scale resurgence of class struggle, then its intention not to prioritise recruitment of workers into that union begs the question of how far they can go along the route from political to political-economic association.

SolFed’s acknowledgment that not all libertarian (nor indeed, working class) activity can take place within the confines of the anarcho-syndicalist union is welcome. Although other, broader struggles, are mentioned in Fighting for Ourselves, it is plain that their orientation is essentially towards the workplace. Despite that focus of struggle remaining pivotal, the fight against capitalism, the state and hierarchy does not end at the call centre car park.

Fighting for Ourselves has set out the vision of the Solidarity Federation, providing a substantial historical context, with a definite internal consistency. The question now is how this perspective will be applied in practice. The authors make clear that they see this as a case of trial and error, and that they are far from even organising workplace branches, never mind the insurrectionary general strike. As the revolutionary union movement that SolFed want to see emerge remains at the speculative stage, it prevents them (and us!) from ascertaining whether their particular model of non-representative unionism is realisable. What is certain is that their attempts to put the model into practice over the next years will be watched with supportive anticipation.

from issue 80 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federation

Posted By

Battlescarred
May 14 2013 12:59

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klas batalo
May 14 2013 18:57
Quote:
The Anarchist Federation believes that building a political organisation of anarchists is one of our central tasks; one that is active in all spheres of working class life, including the cultural and social, as well as ‘economic’. However, it is obvious that this is also what SolFed have themselves built, albeit with the desire to become something else. It is hard indeed, not to regard our SolFed comrades as anarchist communists in their working clothes. Whether they continue as a political organisation or transform into the political-economic association remains to be seen; although we are convinced of their sincerity in this aim.

This is one of the critiques that originally really resonated with me about this stuff, but now I am less convinced. While I don't think we should compartmentalize ourselves too much, I do not think we should decompartmentalize ourselves to such a degree that we are aimless and end up chasing single issue after single issue, usually through our own libertarian or other left front groups. I think it is less that SolFed are anarchist communists with their working clothes on, and more that they are trying to develop not only an industrial strategy but also community strategy. Of course we may wait more development of the community strategy's practice, but this could look like student, tenants, transit syndicalism, etc.

From my experience in the united states because of the compartmentalization of the movement this has left me doing workplace organizing with the IWW, and using anarchist groups for political development and operating in front groups to do community organizing. I know some disagree with me but I'd rather see that developed at the revolutionary level via one organization. I recognize that the facts on the ground mean many players though. But I think pushing for that is an aspect of pushing for an anarcho-syndicalist/anarchist communist workers movement.

Quote:
The SolFed’s approach of not opening up their Industrial Networks to militants unwilling to join SolFed itself, which can be seen as an attempt to prevent the dilution of their politics, is on one level understandable. On the other hand, if the organisation is to make the desired transition from propaganda group to revolutionary union, outside of any large scale resurgence of class struggle, then its intention not to prioritise recruitment of workers into that union begs the question of how far they can go along the route from political to political-economic association.

I find this assertion perplexing. It criticizes SolFed for not trying to build their union by saying they don't let people to join their industrial networks without having to join their union. Usually when you join a union you become a member of it. If people want to engage in the organizing they probably can do that through the open committees, assemblies, etc that they espouse. If SolFed was to also make their industrial networks open I think that would do the exact opposite and reinforce that SolFed is just a propaganda group.

Quote:
SolFed’s acknowledgment that not all libertarian (nor indeed, working class) activity can take place within the confines of the anarcho-syndicalist union is welcome. Although other, broader struggles, are mentioned in Fighting for Ourselves, it is plain that their orientation is essentially towards the workplace. Despite that focus of struggle remaining pivotal, the fight against capitalism, the state and hierarchy does not end at the call centre car park.

See the above first comments about it being useful for organizations to have a strategic focus.

Also their Community Strategy:

http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed-community-strategy

Ostensibly locals could develop into community networks that could eventually develop into community unionist initiatives.

Chilli Sauce
May 14 2013 21:24

KB's covered this really well and I don't have the time to write a direct response to this, but I feel like this open network discussion has been hashed out over years and I'm really surprised to see it come up again.

In short, the problem is that (a) the networks would then become SF-sponsored independent organisations, (b) we would end up with a two-tiered membership or (c) we'd be allowing non-members full participation without being members. While I think (a) could maybe be worthwhile experiment, none of the options fit SF's stated strategy and, to be honest, I think it's weird to have outside organisations--even ones I/we respect like AF--making such suggestions.

All that said, I thought this review was really good (although there is certainly some others bits with which I'd quibble.)

Also, does F4O use the term 'unitary'? I can't remember if it does but I'd be surprised if it did, given that that term is ussually reserved to differentiate a federalist anarchist organisation from, well, a structurally unitary one.

Spikymike
May 21 2013 18:55

Well presumably if SolFed ever does achieve genuine status as a (minority) anarcho-syndicalist union operating at both a workplace and 'community' level (and in more than just a few isolated areas), then such as AF members and others (including some from the marxist tradition) could join it without concerns from either party, but there would still remain the practical problems associated with political priorities and allocation of resources as between the 'union' and the 'political group', or would SolFed worry about 'outside' political influences? Short of such a situation arising then we are still left with working together with whoever we can trust politically and personally whether in the workplace or 'community'.

Chilli Sauce
May 22 2013 08:26

Spikymike, I'm not really sure I understand that post or how it relates to my post, the review, or FFO, to be honest.

I'm also not sure why you put 'community' in quotes. It's come across as a bit dismissive. That may have not been your intention, but intentions are often lost on the internet, so would you care to clarify?

Spikymike
May 22 2013 09:55

Chilli,

Well I was just commenting on the still continueing differences, or perhaps concerns, expressed by the AF in their review regarding the current status of the SolFed as opposed to it's aspiration and the issues around joint membership of both, and relecting my own scepticism as to the real potential to effectively realise SolFed's aspirations, especially in the current UK situation.

As to my use of 'community' in this form it reflects my concerns as to the muddled and contradictory uses of that term in common parlance in wider political circles from the Tories and liberals through to the 'alternative' scene which ignores real differences of class and social status and the different material basis for practical class struggle organising.

Chilli Sauce
May 23 2013 07:29

Again though Spikymike, you know me and you know SF. Given that, I think your quotes come across as quite confrontational. I mean, I have little doubt you've read SF's community strategy. And even if you haven't come across the community strategy, wouldn't it make more sense to just ask for clarification instead of putting up some snarky quote marks and assuming we might be using the term in the same way as Tories and liberals?

In any case, I really don't know you mean by the conflict between the 'union' and the 'political group' in SF (especially because our stated aim is to be a political-economic organisation--and if you don't think such a thing is possible you haven't laid out why). Nor do I know what you mean by 'outside' political influences or what your scepticisms are generally.

Finally, the main issue folks have raised is the review's suggestion that SF ought to open its networks. As far as I can tell, you haven't commented on that at all.

klas batalo
May 23 2013 03:53
Quote:
I really don't know you mean by the conflict between the 'union' and the 'political group' in SF (especially because our stated aim is to be a political-economic organisation--and if you don't think such a thing is possible you haven't laid out why

I don't know what Spikymike means either, and it is a more substantial point possibly, so I'd like to hear him lay it out... otherwise I am left to assume it is something like you can only have mass organizations (quantitatively) in periods of heightened struggle type critique?

Quote:
Nor do I know what you mean by 'outside' political influences or what your scepticism are generally.

Also I am left to guess on this one too. It implies something like "if you are really an anarcho-syndicalist organization and not an organization of anarcho-syndicalists you'd let left communists, and afed members join your industrial networks right? Wait but really, would you?"

But from what I can tell there are pretty clear guidelines for membership, and I assume they allow for dual membership in other working class organizations.

Spikymike
May 23 2013 10:21

Sorry if I am less clear in my comments than usual as this is just the tail end of many other discussion threads that I have contributed to in the past around the recent SolFed strategy and more general discussions about the practice of separate political and 'political-economic' organisations (this later being the SolFed anarcho-syndicalist union I and they refer to).

It seemed to me that there was potential for a number of problems associated with, for instance, future AF members ( or Collective Action members or members of The Commune or whatever) having joint membership with this proposed future SolFed anarcho-syndicalist union, a repeat of the difficulties of the resurected Spanish CNT or more likely some new scenario in changed circumstances. There are also the difficulties arising from a narrowly based half-measure in terms of the SolFed aspiration which crosses over with the issues raised by the AF around common networks in their otherwise very generous and positive review. klas might 'wish' to see one organisation combining all their political/economic activity but if that might eventually happen for them it will not materialise for everyone involved in pro-revolutionary activity, so the issues being discussed between the different groups around to-day won't go away. I accept though that much of this will only play out more fruitfully in practice rather than theoretical discussions here.

I don't see a need to change my particular use of the term 'community' for this thread separate from others as much as you might be aware of the issues associated with it's wider useage.

Perhaps AF members would be better placed to respond to klas and Chilli's comments since this was in respect to their review - would be equally interested to see that include a comment on 'Collective Actions' review of the same SolFed strategy rather than all these different reviews generating different sets of comments - possiblities for a forum type discussion, perhaps at a future bookfair, if group loyalties could ever be toned down enough for that to be productive?

klas batalo
May 23 2013 16:32

that is much more clear.

so you are saying there could be factions that would perhaps at later date cause problems. honestly i don't see how this could be just as bad within a larger assembly based movement, etc. there is always the potential for this in any form of organization IMHO.

regarding the community stuff, i think it is i guess fine for you to use whatever definition there you want in whatever amount of snarkyness to it's usual use... but it seems your general point is still that you don't think SolFed has community organizing centered enough, and so the AFed critique still sticks.

i guess my challenge to those who say this is i'd like to see more on AFed's community strategy and how they seek to organize within that sphere. something like on the frontline.

i say this because in the US this is also a common critique of anarcho-syndicalism/revolutionary syndicalism by anarchist communists mostly only because the IWW is also officially much more focused on workplace organizing... namely along the lines of "what about the community?" but there hasn't been much development on a more coherent/unified strategy for doing community organizing by the same such people and groups.

i guess this is why i think anarcho-syndicalism can put forward the strategy of community unionism as a clear way forward, compared to the scatter shot approach or non-strategy i've seen from most anarchist communists.

Chilli Sauce
May 23 2013 18:37
Quote:
possiblities for a forum type discussion, perhaps at a future bookfair, if group loyalties could ever be toned down enough for that to be productive?

You're not a member of AF, Spikymike? My apologies, I thought you were.

On that point, however, there was an SF/AF meeting after the London bookfair a couple years back on the exact topic of SF's vision of a revolutionary union. The meeting wasn't perfect or as productive as many of us would have liked, but to say that "group loyalties could[n't] be toned down enough' for such discussions to occur is to gravely overstate the situation.

Plus, theirs must have been at least half a dozen AF-specfic groups that have had the SF organiser training--not to mention all the AF members who've been to other trainings. So I don't think there's a need to create any animosity or sectarianism where it doesn't exist.