"Fighting For Ourselves " - lots to learn, a few things to criticize

"Fighting For Ourselves " - lots to learn, a few things to criticize

"Fighting For Ourselves", a new book by which SolFed explains it s view on anarchosyndicalism, deserves to be widely read. In what follows, I try to review the book, both highlighting its strengths and pointing to a few problems I encountered on the way.

"Fighting For Ourselves" , a new book in which Solidarity Federation (SolFed) explains its views on how to struggle against the bosses and the state, why anarchosyndicalism makes sense in that respect, and what anarchosyndicalist strategy could look like in the twenty first century, is a challenge to read and to think about. I spent a few grey December days reading the whole thing on Libcom , and it made the days a little bit less grey. The thing should be widely read, thought about and talked about, preferably also outside the small circles of usual suspects.

This is no easy propaganda piece. It methodically goes through the rise and dynamics of what it calls the mainstream workers' movement, different revolutionary traditions arising in opposition to both the system and the mainstream workers' movement, before going deep into anarchosyndicalism, the revolutionary tradition in which SolFed stands and which it wants to build in Britain. Finally, we get a view on what such anarchosyndicalism could mean in practice, and how this practice can build to revolution through which to fight for libertarian communism. That is a very short summary, and I will not pretend to do the argument full justice. A few things, however, deserve to be highlighted.

What I found most useful is the analysis of union movements' two contradictory dynamics: what the book calls the associational dynamic, as opposed to its representative dynamic. The associational role of union movements points towards its bringing workers together for common interests, a common fight against the boss. It is, simply said, the workers united. The representative role is the union talking on behalf of workers, speaking in their name, becoming a negotiating partner of bosses and state, and impicitly accepting these opponents' legitimacy. Connected with this representational role is the distance developing between the union as an organization, and the workers within that union. Bureaucratic leadership, both representing the workers and disciplining them as agreements with the bosses demand, flows from this representational dimension: “a consequence of representing workers to capital is that you must also represent capital to workers, becoming a barrier to militant rank and file initiative.” How this representation works out in practice, can be seen in the development of both the traditional trade union movement and the Labour Party and similar parties, a development that, in its British variant, gets thorough treatment in the book. The idea that revolutionaries should somehow capture the state thorough either elections or insurrection, also gets short shrift. “Party politics aims at capturing the state, but when you capture the state, the state also captures you.” Both the Bolshevik taking of power in the Russian revolution and its aftermath, and the history of the Labour Party, provide examples around which the argument is build to great effect.

The alternative lies in building upon the associational dimension of workers' organizing themselves for, in and through struggle. The book explains different traditions which try to do so. There is anarchism, simply described as “socialism without the state”; there is syndicalism, simply described as “unions without bureaucrats”; there is council communism, simply described as “Marxism without a party”. The traditions are related in their rejection of top-down power, bureaucratic leadership, and in their stress on direct workers' action from below. Yet, they are not the same, and I found the explanation especially of what separates council communism from the later fusion between anarchism an syndicalism that became anarchosyndicalism, very valuable. Where councilists stress the spontaneous nature of workers' strugge, and its spontaneous and temporary organizational forms (committees, councils), anarchosyndicalists stress the methodical building of much more permanent working class organization, revolutionary unions and groups that propagate the need for such unions, i.e., SolFed, and SolFed-like organizations. Different ways of operating, but clearly working towards the same goal and building around a similar dynamic.

Very valuable also is the historical overview of anarchosyndicalism itself. We read about the founders and men of ideas, especially Emile Pouget who is quoted extensively. We learn a lot about the big anarchosyndicalist movements, the CNT in Spain, but also the very much less well known FORA in Argentine. The paragraphs on the CNT in Spain, its strength and ultimate failure in the Spanish Revolution in 1936-37, are brilliant in my view. The book does not take the easy way of saying “the leaders joined the Popular Front and eventuallyjoined the government; in doing so, they stopped being anartchists; i. e. the CNT's failure was not a failure of anarchism but of a lack of anarchism”, and leaving things there. For, while this way of saying is not wrong, it does not explain why the leaders took the steps they did, and what allowed them the space to do it. Were they just weak and/ or treacherous individuals? “Fighting For Ourselves” digs deeper than that, and tries to explain the process of bureaucratization that the CNT was already gong through, with lots of workers being members on almost an ordinary trade union basis, and the role of safeguarding the revolutionary role of the CNT exercised by the FAI. This reproduced a kind of split between political and economic struggle, a split that is characteristic of exactly the traditional; workers' movement with its trade unions on one side and parties on the other. Anarchosyndicalism did not recognize this separation and was a way of overcoming it. After all, workers fighting bosses and state couldn't permit those aspects to be so separated. The CNT-FAI-model, however, reproduced a similar political-versus-economic divide, and encouraged leadership roles more and more separate from the rank and file. This analysis – here probably very inadequately summarized by me – is not the last and final word on what went wrong in Spain 1936; but it contains essential insights which were new and very useful to me.

The book contains much, much more of value. Its summary of workers' struggle in the Sixties and Seventies of last century in Britain, Italy and France is well word reading. Sometimes the argument there veers dangerously close to the notion “if only there was a sizable SolFed-like organization, a good and strong anarchosyndicalist union, things might have turned out better”. This reminds me a bit of my unlamented Trotskyist days: “if only there would have been an Rrrevolutionary Paaarrrty...” Maybe I am oversensitive here to anything that even remotely comes close to such organizational fetishism; and yes, bigger and stronger revolutionary networks do matter. Still, I am wary of anything that smells of organizational chauvinism directly or indirectly. However, the criticism that the book suffers from a "SolFed-centric vision" - something I read in the otherwise sensible review Adam Ford wrote for The Commune, is rather unfair, in my view. What is wrong with a SolFed book explaining why they thing Solfed has importance? What else would youo you expect? Having said that, I do not think SoFed is pushed to the foreground too much in the book.

The whole book builds up to its closing chapter, “Anarchosyndicalism in the 21st century”. Here, important distincions are made, between what to aim for – a big anarchosyndicalist union – and what to do now – operating through an propaganda group that builds in that direction. SolFed rightly and modestly sees itself, not yet as a union, but as a revolutionary union initiative seeking practical roads toward such a union. But even such union should not aim for as many workers as possible irrespective of their views; it should be a revolutionary union, with encouraging mass- wokrer-controlled struggle through direct action as its goal. In the process workers will get convinced of the worth of anarchosyndicalist ideas and practices and, on that revolutionary basis, maybe join the anarchosyndicalist organisation, union or whatever.

This is all well and good, and I agree with much of it. There are, however, two problems. First, the stress on organization as a precondition of effective struggle. As we already saw, here lies an important difference with the council communist tradition. But other from-below forms of working cklass radicalism – forms of anarchism , related forms of Left Communism, Situationist-influenced traditions – also have more room for spontaneous action and its role in the revolutionary process. When I read “we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers'resistance”, I do not at all wholeheartedly agree. For, sometimes those conditions exactly do lead to such resistance. The big revolts in the Stalinist states – East Germany 1953, Poland and Hungary 1956, Poland 1970-71 and 1976 – were not preceded by methodical building of working class organization. The beginnings of the Syrian revolt in spring 2011 – when it was still truly and predominantly a revolt from below – did not depend on previous building of organizational strength. The same appplies to the revolt in Burma in 1988. More examples could be added. Such building was rather impossible in fully totalitarian states like these. IF there was a role organization played beforehand it came from above, inadvertedly. For instance, the role of the Stalinist bosses orgnizing factory meetings to excplain work norms etcetera from the Party/ managerial point of view, only to get shouted down by angry workers.

Of course, there will have been informal networks. There always are. Of course, the lack of more stable revolutionary organization in an anarchist or anarchosyndicalist sense, mattered. But the idea that revolt without preceding organization does not exist is in its literal sense simply wrong. “Conditions may shape struggle; they do not guarantee it.” On the contrary, conditions W ILL guarantee that struggle breaks out, the council communists and others who think along similar lines are right on this account, even if failure to build upon that insight, neglecting or refusing to build permanent organizations is wrongheaded; however, the conditions do not tell us in what way or form strugge will arise or develop. Anarchosyndicalist or similar organisation is important, not because without it no struggle can ensue, but because it can help such struggle reach its revolutionary potential, in helping the struggle forward, in preventing its recuperation through reformist and/ or Leninist organasations. No less. No more.

A related critical observation lies, as far as I am concerned, in how the idea of building SolFed and similar organizations is presented. Yes, it is a matter of building by example, encouraging direct workers' action self-organized through workers' assemblies with no representational structures, only delegates to build coordination but no representatives negotiating deals that tie the hands of workers and break or dilute their militancy. Yes, in that process, some workers will begin to see the point of anarchism and anarchosyndicalism, some of them may want to join an anarchosyndicalist grouping, SolFed, for instance, and such a grouping would be wise toe encourage such workers joining them. Still, one should be very careful how to operate, and how to present that process of workers-joining-SolFed (or similar groupings).

There are, however, things in this part of the book that make me very uneasy. For instance, after righly rejecting the idea of 'recruiting' people that are not in agreement with the revolutionary goals of (for instance) SolFed, I read:”Still, we should not be afraid of actively recruit through activity either, as this is the only way to expand beyond the existing pool of politicized militants.” Now, “actively recruit'' is a very dangerous way of describing the process. It puts the 'recruiters' in an active role and it ignores the subjectivity, the agency, of the workers who are thusly 'recruited'. I think the whole concept of 'recruitment' should be gotten rid of. Recruitment, as a word and a practice, is something the army does if it wants new soldiers; it is what companies do when they need personnel; it is what Leninist parties do when they want to build 'cadre' . It reflects hierarchy, business-as-usual (literally!), party-building. It is most emphatically NOT what radical, bottom-up, nonhierarchical organizations should be doing. Libertarian, antiauthoritarian revolutionaries – in short: revolutionaries – have no use for this concept. Let's dump it.

Probably my rather allergic reaction to the whole idea of 'recruitment' stems from my Trotskyist past, a past in which 'recruitment' was the be-all and end-all of far too much activity I willingly – and wrongly, I now think – did. I understand that the SolFed comrades mean something different, something much better, that the usual Trotskyist recruitment style. Still, I think that there is a deeper problem with the whole idea of me recruiting you, you recruiting me. It is the separtaion of the doer from the one to whom something is done, the recruiting officer and the recruit. In reality, such separation does not exist: the one about to join SolFed plays a very active role in the proces, it is, after all, she or he that takes the essential step of joining. I trust that, in practice, this is how SolFed operates. It would, however, be better if the formulation better reflected this, in essence non-hierachical, practice. Otherwise, the practice may start to conform to the, in essence hierarchical, formula of “active recruitment”. The whole argument of the book would not lose one inch of its strength if this formula would be skipped utterly and totally, and replaced with sentences which simply present the need for SolFed ecouraging workers to join if they agree, without any idea of 'recruiting' them.

These are some specific criticisms of only a few paragraphs and sentences in a very good book. Anarchosyndicalism represents a very worthwhile tradition and set of concepts and ideas. We need that tradition, its concepts and ideas , if only to use them critically, to build upon, to engage with them. To familiarize oneself with this tradition, “Fighting For Ourselves” is very, verye helpful. I learned a lot from it. I hope many others will.

Posted By

rooieravotr
Jan 2 2013 14:40

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  • [quote]“Party politics aims at capturing the state, but when you capture the state, the state also captures you.”[/quote]

    SolFed, in "Fighting For Ourselves"

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Comments

Shorty
Jan 2 2013 21:37

Are there many people reading this or even aware of it in the Netherlands? What about in the ASB? Just before I left there was a view of having De Vrije Bond as a sort of FAI to the ASB, though it was a very minority position without much traction within the ASB as far as I understood, so it would be interesting now with regards to any discussion around Fighting for Ourselves if it's taking place.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 2 2013 22:05

Hi Roo, I enjoyed reading your review and I think your point that at times struggle will break out spontaneously is a valid one. Implicitly (or explicitly) you also seem agree that outside of spontaneous struggle, building explicitly revolutionary organisation is a good thing--which is where I think you'd break with some in the council communist tradition.

I will say, however, that your criticism of "recruitment" seems a bit semantic. While you acknowledge it could be a hangover from your Trotskyist past, the idea for SF is that folks join after they see the efficacy of anarcho-syndicalist methods in practice and come to share the goals of SF as a consequence. And at that point you (or hopefully they) ask for membership. Perhaps "recruitment" is a sloppy shorthand for that but, in context, I think this,

Quote:
"Still, we should not be afraid of actively recruit through activity either, as this is the only way to expand beyond the existing pool of politicized militants."

covers that distinction.

Jim Clarke
Jan 3 2013 10:44

Thanks for the review Roo, thought it was very good although I don't agree with what you've written about spontaneity. The sentence you've quoted goes onto say: 'for us the key determinant in workers’ resistance is organisation; the greater the organisation, the more resistance, the greater the chance of success.'

Quote:
The big revolts in the Stalinist states – East Germany 1953, Poland and Hungary 1956, Poland 1970-71 and 1976 – were not preceded by methodical building of working class organization. The beginnings of the Syrian revolt in spring 2011 – when it was still truly and predominantly a revolt from below – did not depend on previous building of organizational strength. The same appplies to the revolt in Burma in 1988.

None of the revolts mentioned above led to the creation of the libertarian communist society so I'm not sure how listing them challenges the point made in the pamphlet.

no1
Jan 3 2013 12:50

iI agree with Jim here.

rooieravotr wrote:
Of course, there will have been informal networks. There always are. Of course, the lack of more stable revolutionary organization in an anarchist or anarchosyndicalist sense, mattered. But the idea that revolt without preceding organization does not exist is in its literal sense simply wrong. “Conditions may shape struggle; they do not guarantee it.” On the contrary, conditions W ILL guarantee that struggle breaks out, the council communists and others who think along similar lines are right on this account, even if failure to build upon that insight, neglecting or refusing to build permanent organizations is wrongheaded; however, the conditions do not tell us in what way or form strugge will arise or develop.

I don't see the point of saying that "conditions will guarantee that struggle breaks out". The mechanics of how struggle suddenly breaks out are extremely complex and defy meaningful analysis IMO, and so I just don't see the relevance of arguing over this. Take the 2010 student movement that arose in the UK after the Millbank 'riot'. Nobody predicted that a boring NUS demo would lead to Tory HQ being trashed, which would then ignite pretty militant if short-lived mass movement. With the benefit of hindsight you can say that "the conditions guaranteed it", but so what? It's a completely useless insight in the sense that we all did what we would have done anyway as nobody knew something like this was on the cards - so it can't be used to empower the working class.
However, what we can say with certainty is that the level of pre-existing organisation has a massive impact on the course of struggle once it breaks out. The UK student movement was over less than a month after it all began when parliament voted through tuition fess, and I think it's pretty clear that its early failure had a lot to do with the extremely low level of organisation. By contrast the student movement in Quebec managed to fight back against tuition fees, and the influence of a syndicalist student union is no co-incidence here.
If our aim is to increase the power of the working class, we need to focus on the things which are predictable (the positive effect of permanent organisation, esp if it is along anarcho-syndicalist principles) rather than those that aren't (the complexities of the outbreak of struggle).

rooieravotr wrote:
other from-below forms of working cklass radicalism – forms of anarchism , related forms of Left Communism, Situationist-influenced traditions – also have more room for spontaneous action and its role in the revolutionary process. When I read “we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers'resistance”, I do not at all wholeheartedly agree. For, sometimes those conditions exactly do lead to such resistance.

I don't know enough about the examples you cite to judge them. In any case, in principle it's easy to disprove the idea that "conditions will guarantee that struggle breaks out" by pointing to examples where the conditions favour struggle but nothing happens.

A lot of people expected there to be significant resistance to austerity in the UK - ie. we've got to assume that the conditions favour struggle - but so far there's been very little, esp from those worst hit. IMO this is mainly due to the low working class confidence - workers just don't think we are able to fight austerity, which again is a consequence of 3 decades of working class defeat, the extinction of traditions of workplace organising, etc - generally the low level of organisation. Which raises the question, do we classify "working class confidence" as part of the conditions created by capitalism, or as part of our level of organisation? IMO talking about spontaneity and whether conditions necessarily cause struggle is partly an exercise in classification that doesn't help us understand what we need to do.

P.S. I enjoyed reading this review, thanks

Spikymike
Jan 3 2013 12:33

Jim,

Your comment above seems irrelevant in the context of a discussion about the potential for widespread working class/proletarian 'revolt' , that is an increase in organised class combativity, since there are NO historical examples as yet of a genuinely libertarian communist society. The scenario painted in the SolFed pamphlet of how the small (perhaps tiny even) examples of the 'success' of struggles initiated or assisted by SolFed today could lead in stages to a big AS Union and on to the actual creation of such a society are largely conjecture. They might turn out to be a small part of a growing working class resistance to capitalist crisis conditions which in turn might help create the objective conditions that could potentially result in a shift from a militant defensive struggle towards an attempt at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and a transition to a libertarian communist society. But such a rupture is likely to be the result of many factors both objective and subjective in which many actors other than the IWA would play their part.

Also I think my last post on the other 'New pamphlet by the SolFed....' thread asked a similar question to Shorty about the wider response to this pamphlet in the rest of the IWA sections.

PS: My comment here is not intended to detract from other more positive comments I have made on the other thread.

no1
Jan 3 2013 13:16
Spikymike wrote:
The scenario painted in the SolFed pamphlet of how the small (perhaps tiny even) examples of the 'success' of struggles initiated or assisted by SolFed today could lead in stages to a big AS Union and on to the actual creation of such a society are largely conjecture. They might turn out to be a small part of a growing working class resistance to capitalist crisis conditions which in turn might help create the objective conditions that could potentially result in a shift from a militant defensive struggle towards an attempt at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and a transition to a libertarian communist society. But such a rupture is likely to be the result of many factors both objective and subjective in which many actors other than the IWA would play their part.

SolFed isn't a cult: we are quite aware that there is no certainty, we are giving it our best short but it might simply all turn out to be a waste of time. I feel we have pretty much the same understanding of society, the main difference is that you're throwing your hands in the air saying "but what can we do? we can never know!" while SolFed are saying "lets organise!". IMO anarcho-syndicalism is all about trial and error, but with communist principles.

Jim Clarke
Jan 3 2013 13:24
Spikymike wrote:
Your comment above seems irrelevant in the context of a discussion about the potential for widespread working class/proletarian 'revolt' , that is an increase in organised class combativity, since there are NO historical examples as yet of a genuinely libertarian communist society.

There are examples of genuinely libertarian communist societies but that's probably worth saving for another discussion. Would you disagree with the Debord quote that the Spanish revolution was the 'the most advanced model of proletarian power in all time'?

Spikymike wrote:
They might turn out to be a small part of a growing working class resistance to capitalist crisis conditions which in turn might help create the objective conditions that could potentially result in a shift from a militant defensive struggle towards an attempt at the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and a transition to a libertarian communist society. But such a rupture is likely to be the result of many factors both objective and subjective in which many actors other than the IWA would play their part.

Well yes, I don't think anybody would disagree with that. Anarcho-syndicalist unions could also turn out to play a large part in growing working class resistance but since this is all conjecture we won't know until we get there. wink We're not arguing that global revolution will only happen if everybody joins the IWA, we're saying that the IWA can play a part in making it more likely to occur. I thought the pamphlet had been pretty clear on all of this but it's a while since I read the drafts and I haven't read the final version yet.

Spikymike wrote:
Also I think my last post on the other 'New pamphlet by the SolFed....' thread asked a similar question to Shorty about the wider response to this pamphlet in the rest of the IWA sections.

As far as I'm aware we haven't had any feedback from the rest of the IWA but I'm looking forward to hearing what people think when they've got round to reading it.

Spikymike wrote:
PS: My comment here is not intended to detract from other more positive comments I have made on the other thread.

lol, don't worry. We know you're a long standing critic of anarcho-syndicalism. wink

Spikymike
Jan 3 2013 14:16

Thanks to No1 and Jim for their clarifications.

I suppose I was just stressing that there is no automatic connection between increased working class militancy in defence of our conditions of life under capitalism ( however materially beneficial in the short term) and the creation of a libertarian communist society.

The widespread working class 'revolts' in the post world war one period and others such as Spain '36,Hungary '56, Poland '81 etc were undoubtedly genuine expressions of working class power but none, including Spain resulted in the creation of a libertarian communist society. There limitation was a lot to do with their national isolation (especially significant to Spain) but that in turn reflected certain objective conditions. There is much to discuss about the balance of influence, for good or ill, as between the various political-economic organisations and other 'spontaneous' action in each of those examples, but Jim's initial response to the qualifications made in this review seemed misplaced to me.

As to Debord, he like other subsequent pro-situ's, perhaps sometimes overemphasised the forms of struggle as compared to their content, which however doesn't detract from their past contribution to our understanding of modern capitalism.