Pragmatism as ideology

Pragmatism as ideology

Whenever I get into a political discussion these days I find myself accused of ‘dogma’, ‘ideological blinkers’, ‘detached ultra-left purism’ and so on. Now maybe that’s true.

But the accompanying charge is usually one of ‘doing nothing’ and thus not subjecting my ‘sterile’ ideas to the test of practice. That's a bit annoying on two counts; firstly because it's irrelevant since any given practice is no better for the failings of its critics, and secondly because it's factually incorrect since over the last 12 months my SolFed local has probably been one of the most active anarchist groups in the UK. But I’m not blogging about stuff we've been up to, I'm interested in how it is that political principles so frequently come to be dismissed as dogma.

According to Wikipedia

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.

Who then is not a pragmatist? Who could possibly insist on the impractical? Myself apparently. Let’s examine two recent examples in my debate with Iain McKay over co-ops and arguments with some platformists over trade unionism (on facebook and in person, so no links I’m afraid).

Iain wrote

Kay suggests that “often raised as a sort of intermediate, ‘realistic’ demand short of revolution” (…) I plead guilty to the first charge, although I stress that my suggestion was an attempt to bring a revolution closer

In place of advocating workers’ co-ops I argued that if we are in a position to expropriate the boss’ capital and keep it then we’re certainly in a position to demand better redundancy terms or retraining. Whatever the merits of workers’ co-operatives, it’s simply wrong to say that forcefully expropriating the boss’ capital and turning around “firms [that] are about to go bust” to successful, self-managed businesses is more realistic than using direct action such as occupations as leverage to concessions from the boss.

The other example is the argument over trade unionism, where I’ve been accused of having a “'the unions' V 'the workers'” analysis. Of course nothing I’ve ever written was produced to support this, and if you look at what my organisation SolFed says on the matter it is miles away: “trade union organisation around traditional bread and butter issues is not enough on its own, although it is vital.” A recent leaflet compiled by my SolFed local added that “in place of the representation of workers in the trade unions, what is needed is self-organisation by workers exercising their collective power directly” – which I think is basically the classic anarcho-syndicalist criticism of ‘reformist unions.’

So if this is the blinkered and unrealistic position, what do my critics offer up as an alternative? The interlocutors on this occasion were members of the WSM, whose position paper on Trade Unions first sets out the organisation’s pragmatic credentials:

A problem which, from time to time, has manifested itself in other countries is the view that workers should leave the unions and destroy them; that no permanent organisation of workers under capitalism can avoid becoming totally integrated into the state and a tool in the hands of the bosses. The people who promote this nonsense claim that the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution ...now! This analysis is little more than wishful thinking that hopes to avoid the difficult struggle to win the mass of workers to revolutionary politics. It is of little use to an organisation that seeks to involve itself in the actual struggles of our class, warts and all. It also ignores the day to day need of workers to collectively defend themselves.

The most anti-union group I’m aware of is the ICC, and they don’t even argue for workers to leave the unions and destroy them, so this appears to be a straw man. I can only assume this is a reference to Wildcat's 'Outside and against the unions', but even that archetypal exposition of 'the ultra-left position' (of which i have numerous criticisms) argues more for revolutionaries to network independently of the unions to prepare the ground for extra-union action when mass struggles arise than for workers to 'leave the unions and destroy them'. In any case, in opposition to this position the WSM’s pragmatic strategy includes the following:

We encourage 100% union membership and all WSM members are members of their appropriate trade union. When members take up employment in non-union jobs, they are expected to join an appropriate trade union. (…)

We fight to change the role of the full-time officials - not to change the individuals who occupy the positions. Their decision-making powers have to be removed and returned to the rank & file membership. They should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the people they represent. They should only serve for a fixed period of no more than five years after which they return to ordinary work. The unions will have to win the demand for jobs to be kept open in order for this to be realistic. (…)

Where revolutionaries can gain enough support to win election to national officerships in large unions, or indeed small ones, this support should not be used to merely elect a candidate. Instead it should be used to fundamentally change the structure of the union in such a way as to return power to the membership and turn the officers into administrators and resource people rather than decision makers.

I don’t think it’s unfair to characterise that as a strategy of entering the trade unions and reforming them into syndicalist-type ones. It is possible that the Irish unions are a completely different beast to the UK TUC ones (although comrades tell me they’re worse if anything), but by what stretch of the imagination could a strategy to turn Unison into the CNT possibly be termed ‘realistic’?

I think what we have here is an example of the denial of ideology forming an ideology par excellence. The rejection of ‘dogmatic principles’ becomes the dogmatic principle, and any criticism or alternative strategy can therefore be dismissed as abstract theorising, regardless of its practical merits. I think the crux of this is the false opposition of “what works” to “unbending principles” (borrowing the terminology from Liberty & Solidarity). Why is this opposition a false one? Because principles are derived precisely from what works. Political principles do not fall from the sky, they are distilled from the lessons of past struggles. I don’t oppose a strategy of workers’ co-ops because I have a little black and red book of principles I must unswervingly follow, but on the contrary because I look at the reality of workers’ co-ops rather than advocating them in the abstract.

Likewise, I do not reject a strategy of reforming the trade unions to make them into vehicles for revolutionary anarchism out of dogma, but a desire not to repeat the errors of the past. For example the French CGT started out dominated by revolutionary anarchists but developed on a fast track into a bureaucratic organ of class collaboration. It didn’t do this because it lacked democratic structures, rather its democratic structures were subverted by its structural role as a representative of labour power. Revolutionaries cannot force the opposite development in today’s bureaucratic, class collaborating unions since the problem is not caused by their lack of revolutionary ideas - an idealist analysis – but their structural role – a materialist one. There’s nothing dogmatic about rigorous materialist analysis (the AF’s is one of the clearest, although it inaccurately conflates syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism imho).

I should make absolutely clear nothing I’ve written here is intended as an attack on any person or organisation. I am criticising political ideas, positions and strategies. I am completely committed to pragmatism – trying things, discarding what doesn’t work and thus improving our practice. It is precisely for this reason that I oppose pragmatism as ideology, for it leads to the repetition of historically failed strategies on the name of rejecting dogma. Principles without pragmatism are but nice ideas, pragmatism without principles guarantees an ahistorical repetition of past mistakes. The two are not opposites, they presuppose one another.

Comments

no1
Oct 11 2009 18:03

excellent post! I think especially activists (not your examples) often fall into a kind of faux-pragmatism that accuses every critic of 'doing nothing' because they have no genuine hope for a better society and just cling to a dim intuition that doing something, doing anything, must somehow sometime lead to some improvement. In reality unthinking, unprincipled, blind activity is usually nothing more than a waste of time and opportunity - and sometimes it is actually worse than doing nothing.

Quote:
I think the crux of this is the false opposition of “what works” to “unbending principles”. Why is this opposition a false one? Because principles are derived precisely from what works. Political principles do not fall from the sky, they are distilled from the lessons of past struggles.

beautiful!

Joseph Kay
Oct 11 2009 18:26

yes thinking about it it does apply much more to activistoids than any of the people/organisations i quote. it's just i've actually debated with them recently, and haven't argued with activists for ages (last time i tried they didn't turn up because they didn't want to be criticised, which is a whole different league of 'pragmatic ideology' to anything cited above).

Django
Oct 12 2009 07:58

Interesting post.

I think the best example of this kind of thing is currently on L&S' front page, where an article on Industrial organisation claims:

Quote:
When anarchists within the IWW describe the IWW as 'having anarchist principles' we are sectarian. When we enter into trade unions with a view to popularising anarchism and anarchist methodology with those terms we are sectarian. It is not that these ideas are wrong per se, it's just that by using that lexicon we unnecessarily alienate those for whom these descriptions, terms, turns of phrase, or ultimate methodology are less than desirable.

Now I'm assuming here that L&S still see themselves as part of the international Platformist current, but if so it means that the whole 'leadership of ideas' theory has been dumped for the sake of promoting unity among 'socialists' and throwing out specifically anarchist political activity entirely. Now I think anyone would admit that in the course of class struggle we're going to end up alongside various Trotskyists etc., but this is another argument entirely.

vanilla.ice.baby
Oct 12 2009 09:00

Django that particular article is the work of one member of L&S not the org as a whole. I actually agree with the portion you have quoted as it happens, but I don't think there's any point building "socialist" unity any more than building abstract unity with anarcho-liberals or the ICC. Instead we need to be building a militant class unity in order to fight for real change, and to use that fight to push forward self education, and self organisation. If not clutching to discredited, and possibly alienating labels helps us to do that then we should, of course I actually think socialist is just as unhelpful a label as anarchist.

Joseph Kay
Oct 12 2009 10:19

i might be misunderstanding, but isn't it dishonest to push anarchist aims and methods while calling them something else? I mean it's not like SolFed turn up on picket lines or union branch meetings and start shouting 'ANARCHY!', but we don't hide our politics, and they haven't been a barrier to our activity or militant class unity. if anything it's expected by fellow workers that industrial militants are going to be 'socialists' of some sort and if we aren't honest about who we are then that's likely to lead to confusion (one of our members was referred to as "that SWP guy" the other day by his union branch sad )

Joseph Kay
Oct 12 2009 12:27

actually, when an L&S member stood up in a meeting for an SF/RMT militant who was being victimised to explain to a room full of RMT members who were ready to walk out on strike if the guy was sacked that he had "the new tactics from the activist left" called "direct action" and they should give him a shout to find out more, that did lead to other RMT people asking our guy if the L&S'er was "one of ours"... it was kinda embarrassed then wall

grin

Django
Oct 12 2009 12:54
vanilla.ice.baby wrote:
Django that particular article is the work of one member of L&S not the org as a whole. I actually agree with the portion you have quoted as it happens, but I don't think there's any point building "socialist" unity any more than building abstract unity with anarcho-liberals or the ICC. Instead we need to be building a militant class unity in order to fight for real change, and to use that fight to push forward self education, and self organisation. If not clutching to discredited, and possibly alienating labels helps us to do that then we should, of course I actually think socialist is just as unhelpful a label as anarchist.

Again I'm assuming that L&S sees itself as part of the larger platformist current here, but if so I'm not sure where theoretical and tactical unity comes into play when there are long articles on industrial strategy written by one member and rejected by others. I don't think theres a problem with internal debate and differences by any means, but it strikes me as cutting against the purpose of having Platformist organisations in these kinds of cases.

Obviously I agree with you that we should be aiming towards building a class capable of fighting in its own interests rather than promoting sectarian interests, but I don't share the enthusiasm for base unionism or the IWW to be honest. Like you, I certainly don't see lots of 'socialists' as potential allies given that its far from obvious that they have a vested interest in a militant rank and file (as opposed to having in interest in installing 'left' union leaders for instance) and given that their idea of what a 'socialist' society looks like is usually a million miles away from mine. But I don't see the point in hiding anarchist politics, just as I don't see the point in crowing them from the rooftops. The point is making the content of those politics relevant to people's everyday lives, which the article says is 'sectarian' if we do it openly.

Devrim
Oct 12 2009 13:10

I agree with a lot of what Joseph and Django say here. There are a few points I would like to add though.

Firstly, as Django points out, for all the 'platformist'' talk of 'theoretical and practical unity', there seems to be very little theoretical unity in action.

Secondly, if people remember back to when NEFAC were posting here for all there talk of left communists 'standing on the side lines', it turned out that none of them had ever been involved in either a medium sized strike whereas many of the left communists had.

Finally, on a personal note, I remember being told by a 'broad left' member when we were running 'Comminication Worker' that "the more copies of that you produce, the more irrelavant you will become". I suppose in a way he was right. Today, I am still an obscure communist, and he is the general secratary of the CWU.

Devrim

Yorkie Bar
Oct 12 2009 14:16

Brilliant blog, JK. This paragraph particularly caught my eye-

Quote:
I think what we have here is an example of the denial of ideology forming an ideology par excellence. The rejection of ‘dogmatic principles’ becomes the dogmatic principle, and any criticism or alternative strategy can therefore be dismissed as abstract theorising, regardless of its practical merits. I think the crux of this is the false opposition of “what works” to “unbending principles” (borrowing the terminology from Liberty & Solidarity). Why is this opposition a false one? Because principles are derived precisely from what works. Political principles do not fall from the sky, they are distilled from the lessons of past struggles.

I remember running into precisely this mindset during my brief membership in the IWW about a year ago, though at the time I couldn't have articulated exactly what it was about it that was wrong.

~J.

Steven.
Oct 12 2009 15:17

Yes, a good post.

I think you're a bit too generous to our critics, however, in actually seeming to acknowledge that they are "pragmatic".

In fact the "pragmatism" of most of the key groups the post applies to actually ends up being pie in the sky idealism. Whereas actually we are the ones being realistic.

A few examples:

Praxis
- Praxis claims to base its strategy on "what works". However, it also encourages its members to join the IWW. There is no evidence of the IWW in this country helping build workers power.
- point two of Praxis's "economic programme" is to establish apprenticeships from age 14 "especially of plumbers, joiners, building trades. Training undertaken by city council workplaces in partnership with colleges." - this is not a "pragmatic" programme. I would be very surprised if Praxis had more than about seven members, so it's in no position to be setting up a universal apprenticeship programme for the whole population. And there is no thought given here to how this would even be possible under capitalism (where would the extra work to do come from? And if there would be no extra work then surely they would just take the jobs of currently employed plumbers, etc)
- point three of their programme is to "finance new start-up firms that worker owned" and furthermore to "assist in founding a new bank to raise and direct funds to these firms". Again, this is not "pragmatic" these are quite lunatic proposals.

Actually, I would advise looking at their whole action plan. It was stated later in the thread that this was a "realistic" plan to be achieved within three years. It was posted over two years ago, so I would be interested to see what progress has been made... the post is here:
http://libcom.org/forums/organise/new-anarchist-organisation?page=4#comment-217132

The WSM
- one good example, they passed a motion to support the nationalisation of Ireland's oil resources. This outside of mass class struggle, or a mass movement of any kind threatening to take control of it, or mass struggle of oil workers which threatened profitability. This is a meaningless, pie in the sky, and quite pointless demand. I would be curious to know what "pragmatic" action the WSM have since taken in order to try to achieve this nationalisation?

In any case, there is nothing inherently beneficial to workers about nationalisation. It could even be used as an opportunity to rationalise production, slash jobs and wages, as has happened elsewhere.

- as quoted above, the WSM states it wants to reform the unions, democratize them, put officials on rotation, etc. Not only is this not pragmatic in that they are not going to be able to achieve it - pretty much every Trotskyist group has been attempting to do this exact same thing for about a hundred years with no success - but it completely fails to acknowledge the causes of the problem in the first place. These are the structural nature of the unions and their place in society. This is why all unions are subject to the same pressures of bureaucratisation, regardless of how revolutionary, syndicalist, or democratic they are. A lot of current ultra-bureaucratic unions were revolutionary syndicalist unions back in the day - the French CGT being a prime example. Vainly attempting to repeat the errors of the past is not "pragmatic", it is foolish and futile.

Liberty and solidarity
their written strategies are far too confused to even begin to assess really. For example, its industrial strategy states "there are two industry unions in the UK (the RMT and Unite)". Firstly, this is complete nonsense. Unite in particular is a general union, for anyone. In many places it acts as a scab union by undermining the density of the unions. For example in local government it is a tiny minority which breaks up the power of the much bigger, and industrial, union UNISON. It also implies that Unite and RMT "frequently win industrial disputes" because of their industrial nature. This again is nonsense.

Where they win disputes it is because workers in those areas are well organised, and they have a lot of industrial clout. For example train drivers have a lot of power to disrupt the economy.

Unite does not have any record that is better than any other unions in particular for winning disputes. And again, where it does when it's because the workers are well organised. In most instances, the union itself mostly acts against the workers - see unites role in the Visteon occupation dispute, or it is particularly disgusting victimisation of its own shop stewards in the Northern Ireland airport dispute.

To demonstrate this being true - the RMT does not even act as an "industrial union". When the train drivers strike, just the drivers walk out. When the cleaners strike, just the cleaners strike and other RMT members go to work.

This is in fact the exact opposite of what was originally meant by anarchists and syndicalist "industrial unionism".

However, this is the only way the unions can function today, because they have to function within the law, and solidarity action (i.e. any action not solely on behalf of the group of workers themselves) is illegal. Again, the problem is with the structural nature of the unions.

Us
so, that's what the "pragmatists" have been arguing. And what about us? Through the public sector pay disputes of 2008, which were mostly lost due to different groups of workers being divided up by the unions and picked off one by one, we argued that the division of workers into different unions undermined us. And we argued for as much as possible workers to communicate together, and try to take as much control of the struggle as possible into our own hands - organising meetings across union and employment status boundaries, etc.

When industrial action happened we argued for maximum participation and support for the strikes, and for workers not to cross others picket lines, and for workers to actually visit and discuss with other strikers.

With the Royal mail dispute again we argued for full support for the strikes and the working to rule, and again for control of the struggle to be attempted via mass canteen meetings rather than the union leadership - who then called off the action for "talks", leaving workers demobilised, so when the employers refused to budge their leverage was gone.

We are not saying we are perfect, we know that as workers we are in a very difficult situation at the moment - but we have always proposed small pragmatic steps which we can take to try to better the situation.

It's not as grandiose as calling for nationalisation of this or that, or victory for this or that national liberation movement, or for apprenticeships for all 14-year-olds, or whatever - but it is pragmatic, and based on what has been shown to work. Unlike the false "pragmatism" of our detractors, which is more based on formulating demands in mimicking those of Trotskyist groups, because they seem larger and better organised than anarchists. This may be true, but they are still a tiny minority of the working class, and we can't make any progress by aping their dead-end ideas.

Finally, Devrim also makes the good point that while people in the platform at current often level the accusation at us that we are "do-nothing" ultra-leftists, it did become clear that those arguing their side actually had far less experience of industrial action.

Not that this would be a valid criticism in any case, because the amount that people can "do" in terms of meaningful political activity depends largely on circumstances out of their control - where they live, where they work, etc, as you can't create mass struggle out of nothing.

But it is doubly clear how completely hypocritical and inaccurate this smear is.

Joseph Kay
Oct 12 2009 16:00
Steven. wrote:
I think you're a bit too generous to our critics, however, in actually seeming to acknowledge that they are "pragmatic".

well in the examples i cite i make clear there's nothing 'pragmatic' or 'realistic' about the positions advanced, which can only appear as such when presented as part of a straw man false dichotomy ('co-ops vs dole queue' // 'reform the unions into the CNT v smash the unions make revolution now!')

but in fairness to the groups you cite, i think they are reacting to the uselessness of much of the 'anarchist' milieu. but in doing so i think they make two mistakes:

1. Identifying this uselessness with 'principles'
2. Indentifying the apparent 'success' of 'the Left' as the model to emulate

I've already mentioned the fallacy of the first, the second is more subtle. On the face of it, the various left groups are bigger, better organised and more influential than any anarchists in the anglophone world and often assume leadership of various campaigns and the like. therefore they appear as a tempting model to emulate if you reject "unbending principles" and want to become a "leadership of ideas." i think a lot of the discussions with WSM members around the Corrib nationalisation demand evidenced such a perspective.

the argument was something like 'we aren't content to just coat-tail the left and found ourselves in an influential leadership position and so had to raise a demand. we could hardly say 'revolution now!', so we put forward the case for nationalisation.' i think in all fairness to the WSM they found themselves in an unfamiliar position and thus fell back on 'the done thing' and acted like Trots in that instance, only without the undemocratic machiavellian manouverings.

now there's an argument that this is inherent to the platformist organising model, which was born in opposition to and partial emulation of Bolshevism, but as no1 says there are others far more guilty of this 'pragmatism as ideology' 'do something!' attitude than platformists - activistoids in particular. as you say Steven, i think we (libcom group/Tea Break) are thoroughly pragmatic but manage to do so without dropping our principles.

this is something we've discussed a lot in our local; one of our members is a scientist and we've made an explicit analogy to the scientific method. you start from everything you know and the principles derived from it, which is always an incomplete body of knowledge, then try things. progess is made largely by falsification since we can say what doesn't work with far greater certainty than what does. we shouldn't be afraid to try things and make mistakes since we learn from them, but neither should we stubbonly repeat failed strategies out of ideological opposition to 'principles'; the political equivalent of gravity scepticism.

vanilla.ice.baby
Oct 12 2009 21:51
Devrim wrote:
.

Finally, on a personal note, I remember being told by a 'broad left' member when we were running 'Comminication Worker' that "the more copies of that you produce, the more irrelavant you will become". I suppose in a way he was right. Today, I am still an obscure communist, and he is the general secratary of the CWU.

Devrim

And Billy Hayes still has better politics than you. Mr. T

I'd certainly not defend anything Praxis wrote either, luckily most of their former members are now in AFed as far as I know...

Steven.
Oct 12 2009 22:30
Jack wrote:
I think we all know perfectly well which x wrote those words, and which organisation he is now in. grin

exactly - the same one who also said communists need to organise space workers, "pragmatically" said the IWW in Glasgow would have 1500 members by next year, and said that communists will need nuclear weapons to fight imperialist aliens. And I believe he is now in your organisation, liberty and solidarity, is he not? There is an article by him on your website's front page right now anyway... and what happened to "theoretical and tactical unity"?

Steven.
Oct 12 2009 23:00

Ha ha ha ha, yes I forgot. Although you then generously made an additional bet for just 1500, at 5 to one odds in his favour as well!
http://libcom.org/forums/libcommunity/only-little-more-year-go-03072009

Devrim
Oct 13 2009 11:46
Quote:
Finally, Devrim also makes the good point that while people in the platform at current often level the accusation at us that we are "do-nothing" ultra-leftists, it did become clear that those arguing their side actually had far less experience of industrial action.

Not that this would be a valid criticism in any case, because the amount that people can "do" in terms of meaningful political activity depends largely on circumstances out of their control - where they live, where they work, etc, as you can't create mass struggle out of nothing.

I don't think that an individuals experience, or even the collective experience of an organisation, is something that people can be criticised for. Much of it can be put down to location, especially with NEFAC and the levels of struggle in the US, and also age.

That being said though, I do think that that sort of inexperience does shine through in these sort of discussions with these people having very little idea of the dynamics of large scale industrial struggle.

I completely agree with the general point of your post that what we are calling for on a general level, mass meetings open to all workers, is a lot less 'pie in the sky' than some things that our critics come out with.

Devrim

jesuithitsquad
Oct 13 2009 14:03

really fantastic stuff from everyone. could someone c&p some of the counter arguments from elsewhere that got this rolling for those of us not in the know as it's pretty clear by now they won't come here to make their points?

Joseph Kay
Oct 13 2009 14:45

hmm, the current row is on facebook. that's only semi-public so i wouldn't want to C&P the argument. if you look in my libcom profile you can add me on facebook, then you should be able to see the thread in question by following the 'Joseph Kay commented on...' link on my FB profile.

jesuithitsquad
Oct 13 2009 16:24

fair enough

Joseph Kay
Oct 13 2009 16:30
Joseph Kay wrote:
hmm, the current row is on facebook. that's only semi-public so i wouldn't want to C&P the argument. if you look in my libcom profile you can add me on facebook, then you should be able to see the thread in question by following the 'Joseph Kay commented on...' link on my FB profile.

right this doesn't work because of weeler's privacy settings, so i've copy/pasted it here changing real names to protect anonymity.

If any of those involved object PM me or any other admin and we'll discuss it properly.

jacobian
Oct 13 2009 21:32

Two very quick points.

I think both of the criticisms of the WSM are wrong for the following reasons, which by happenstance are quite interwoven.

The Nationalisation question arises naturally in regards to more than one issue. It was initially formulated under increasing pressure by the Irish state to privitise the medical system. Whenever you make a demand such as "don't privitise the medical system", people will get up and ask you "what should we do instead to fund the medical system?". Well there is the obvious answer of anarchist communism, and we actually even have a good analysis I think of how this would work in practice. However, while we say that, and have an analysis that that is what's correct, and we're honest that that is what we want, that's obviously not on the cards without some massive anarchist communist presence. In the wake of that you can point to various sectors in society that are screwing us something terrible and say: "You want to keep capitalism and your healthcare? Well then take the money off them!" We are all quite aware that not all types of nationalisation are identical. Some can be a lot more progressive than others, and we say as much in our position paper. Obviously, setting up some accountable management and giving all the benefit to public services is what we would like.

Now we find ourselves in a serious capitalist crisis in Ireland. The trade unions are currently the only sector of society which has any potential to stop public services from being cut drastically. They're trying to kill us by a thousand paper-cuts, with cuts in almost everything imaginable, to create a disorganised and diffuse resistance. We have a situation were, given sufficient call for militancy by the class, it would be possible to force the state to meet demands on a large scale and in fact stop the cuts entirely. When going into this situation, its important to have something to say when people ask where the money is going to come from. We can say again, "If the rich want to keep capitalism, make them pay for it". Shell and the other oil companies have shafted Ireland in a worse way then any other country save Cameroon. It's a reasonable enough point to say that they'll have to pay the lions share, along with all the other sponges at the top, since their the ones who benefit from the current state of affairs.

Now, if we took a purely hands off, or syndicalist only, or even "outside the unions" strategy, we'd be really poorly placed to do anything. As it stands, we've very little traction in the unions (partly because we're tiny and partly because we've not had a very articulated or unified approach). But at least we have *some* traction *somewhere*, as opposed to if we weren't in SIPTU.

My personal opinion on the unions doesn't correspond nicely with the WSM position paper, however, I do agree with the end decision to enter the large trade-unions. The union represents a forum in which ideas can be heard, and in periods of crisis, they are areas where members can be radicalised, and most importantly, they are capable of mobilising what is necessary to keep the government cuts from going through full-stop.

Additionally, there is the peculiar legal situation in Ireland which contributes to the need to be in *some* union, rather than just acting independently. This excludes the IWW as a realistic possibility.

It may be that structurally, unions are defensive institutions for winning concessions from capitalism. It may be that they always capitulated. However they're a lot better placed to become fora for revolutionary ideas and movements than the other alternative, which appears to be nothing. Historically, they've certainly gone a fuck-load further towards libertarian revolution than any other structure.

Maybe we should be dual-carding with some other union, or attempting to build a libertarian network within the union or any of another other strategies to create more radical unions. I'm not sure simply engaging with the union members in branch, distributing propaganda, making motions, supporting strikes etc. is sufficient union activity, but I'm quite convinced it's necessary.

Joseph Kay
Oct 14 2009 09:59
jacobian wrote:
I'm not sure simply engaging with the union members in branch, distributing propaganda, making motions, supporting strikes etc. is sufficient union activity, but I'm quite convinced it's necessary.

you know that neither I nor either of the groups i'm a part of (SolFed, libcom group) has an "outside and against" position right? SolFed says this: "trade union organisation around traditional bread and butter issues is not enough on its own, although it is vital", and one of the libcom group who has also been heavily involved in the discussions is a Unison convenor.

this is what i mean, the WSM position of turning the ICTU into the 1930s CNT can only appear 'pragmatic' in contrast to a straw man which nobody believes; "workers should leave the unions and destroy them... the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution ...now!" My criticism of the WSM is not that they join unions, its that they think that anarchists can turn the ICTU into a revolutionary organisation.

jacobian wrote:
Whenever you make a demand such as "don't privitise the medical system", people will get up and ask you "what should we do instead to fund the medical system?"

aside from the fact i've never actually heard this asked despite involvement in 'Keep Our NHS Public' stuff and even hanging out with the local Socialist Party, there's no such thing as an anarchist-communist fiscal policy. as soon as you get into discussions of fiscal policy you've lost the argument. our terrain is class struggle; the bosses are rich enough they'll find a way to fund things if we force them. a few wealth distribution stats can help back that up, but there is no pro-working class fiscal policy. what determines our standards of living is our ability to fight for it. the terrain of collective direct action is where workers have (potential) power.

i mean consider it this way. Whenever you make a demand such as "don't cut workers wages", people will get up and ask you "what should the boss do instead to cut costs?" anarchist-communists shouldn't then sit down and draw him up a business plan, but say managing the business is the managers' business, we care about our own interests. i mean in practice the WSM supports workers occupying or striking regardless of whether the bosses are skint or not (or at least i bloody hope they do!).

jacobian
Oct 14 2009 10:36
Quote:
this is what i mean, the WSM position of turning the ICTU into the 1930s CNT can only appear 'pragmatic' in contrast to a straw man which nobody believes; "workers should leave the unions and destroy them... the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution ...now!" My criticism of the WSM is not that they join unions, its that they think that anarchists can turn the ICTU into a revolutionary organisation.

In the sections of the unions where left militants have been embedded here, in SIPTU things were more democratic, assemblies of workers existed, and the move towards the strike was vastly easier. This is not an abstract argument, but a present reality. This has nothing to do with conflating ICTU with the CNT.

This leads to our real pragmatic activity, which is helping to mobilise the only force capable of stopping the cuts.

Quote:
aside from the fact i've never actually heard this asked despite involvement in 'Keep Our NHS Public' stuff and even hanging out with the local Socialist Party, there's no such thing as an anarchist-communist fiscal policy. as soon as you get into discussions of fiscal policy you've lost the argument. our terrain is class struggle; the bosses are rich enough they'll find a way to fund things if we force them. a few wealth distribution stats can help back that up, but there is no pro-working class fiscal policy. what determines our standards of living is our ability to fight for it. the terrain of collective direct action is where workers have (potential) power.

Well, this might be your experience, but anyone familiar with reading the newspaper and chatting people in Ireland knows it isn't the case here. I've encountered it nearly every time I've talked to some randomer regarding the health services and the current cuts. People know there has been an economic downturn and the point is continually hammered in the press that we haven't the money. Well somebody does, and such is the nature of capitalism and privilege. One of the dangers of winning the argument that services shouldn't go away is that you'll have to answer how to keep them. Your answer of "Anarchist Communism" is presently absurd. Pointing out where we really could practically get it from shows that the system is a class system, something which doesn't actually occur to most people right now.

Quote:
i mean consider it this way. Whenever you make a demand such as "don't cut workers wages", people will get up and ask you "what should the boss do instead to cut costs?" anarchist-communists shouldn't then sit down and draw him up a business plan, but say managing the business is the managers' business, we care about our own interests. i mean in practice the WSM supports workers occupying or striking regardless of whether the bosses are skint or not (or at least i bloody hope they do!).

"cut the bosses wage, have him give up his mansion and move into a terraced..."

Pointing out the system of privilege is easy in this circumstances and advances the recognition of the class divide. If the boss is honestly skint, then the sector is in collapse and it's a lost cause to be fighting for wages anyhow.

Joseph Kay
Oct 14 2009 10:59
jacobian wrote:
If the boss is honestly skint, then the sector is in collapse and it's a lost cause to be fighting for wages anyhow.

this is the crux of it. if you limit your demands to what the boss can reasonably afford then you've no business calling yourself an anarchist, communist, or revolutionary. i mean if you occupy a workplace of a bankrupt firm, you have leverage. the firm may be skint, but by taking direct action workers can prevent the administrators liquidating the assets until they secure concessions.

jacobian wrote:
One of the dangers of winning the argument that services shouldn't go away is that you'll have to answer how to keep them. Your answer of "Anarchist Communism" is presently absurd.

ffs could you be more dishonest? where the fuck do i say my answer to privatisation is "Anarchist Communism" - what are you talking about? This is precisely the kind of dishonest, battling straw men faux-realism i'm objecting to, creating a false dichotomy between a mental made up position and your own. Notice how when i criticise the WSM position i provide referenced quotes, whereas you're just attributing made up stuff to me, in quote marks no less.

My point is it's enough to point out that 10% of the population own 90% of the wealth then treat their pleas of poverty with the utter contempt they deserve. there is absolutely no need to get into debates on fiscal policy.

jacobian wrote:
In the sections of the unions where left militants have been embedded here, in SIPTU things were more democratic, assemblies of workers existed, and the move towards the strike was vastly easier. This is not an abstract argument, but a present reality. This has nothing to do with conflating ICTU with the CNT.

yes, and in a Brighton SolFed comrade's Unison branch they've managed to open up meetings sometimes and push for joint strike action (which is being vigorously opposed from a regional and national level). there's a lot betwen that and a strategy of reforming Unison by fighting to replace all representatives with recallable delegates or electing people to make such changes. the Anarkismo statement goes further: "Within them we fight for the democratic structures typical of anarcho-syndicalist unions like the 1930's CNT."

WSM strategy:

WSM wrote:
UNION DEMOCRACY

(a) We fight to change the role of the full-time officials - not to change the individuals who occupy the positions. Their decision-making powers have to be removed and returned to the rank & file membership. They should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the people they represent. They should only serve for a fixed period of no more than five years after which they return to ordinary work. The unions will have to win the demand for jobs to be kept open in order for this to be realistic.

(b) All officials to be subject to mandation and recall.

(c) We are totally opposed to the ICTU "two tier" picket.

(d) For regular branch and workplace meetings, in working hours where this is possible.

(e) For direct elections to all committees, conference delegations and national officerships, subject to mandation and recall.

(f) All strikes to be automatically made official as long as they do not contradict trade union principles.

(g) Support for all disputes, official or unofficial, in pursuit of higher wages, better conditions, jobs, trade union principles or any issue in the interest of the class.

(h) For the publication of minutes of all union meetings.

(i) Where revolutionaries can gain enough support to win election to national officerships in large unions, or indeed small ones, this support should not be used to merely elect a candidate. Instead it should be used to fundamentally change the structure of the union in such a way as to return power to the membership and turn the officers into administrators and resource people rather than decision makers.

SolFed strategy:

SolFed wrote:
Decisions should be made collectively. This means they are made by mass meetings, not by officials in union offices. These mass meetings include all those in the workplace, regardless of union membership. It will not, however, include scabs or managers.

Anyone we elect to negotiate with management should have a mandate from the workforce that gives them clear guidance on what is and is not acceptable. Mass meetings of workers need to be able to recall all delegates.

the WSM approach is about democratising the unions, the SolFed approach is about democratising the struggle (without dissolving militant minority organisation).

jacobian wrote:
This leads to our real pragmatic activity, which is helping to mobilise the only force capable of stopping the cuts.

no, the only force capable of stopping the cuts is the working class, a significant minority of whom are organised in Trade Unions (31.5% in Ireland, about 22% in the UK). This is a vital distinction to make - for instance the Vestas workers were not unionised when they occupied their factory, many casual postal workers are not unionised which will play an important part in the upcoming national strikes and so on. our activity has to be aimed at workers not the unions.

jacobian
Oct 14 2009 11:10
Quote:
this is the crux of it. if you limit your demands to what the boss can reasonably afford then you've no business calling yourself an anarchist, communist, or revolutionary. i mean if you occupy a workplace of a bankrupt firm, you have leverage. the firm may be skint, but by taking direct action workers can prevent the administrators liquidating the assets until they secure concessions.

'Tis the crux, and shows perfectly where you've lost the plot. We'll help a sector that's a lost cause (Look at Waterford Crystal) to get whatever is possible. The fact is though, unless you have a broad, powerful, working class movement, calling for revolution is asinine. This is the difference between viewing things strategically, and being a dogmatic lunatic.

Quote:
ffs could you be more dishonest? where the fuck do i say my answer to privatisation is "Anarchist Communism" - what are you talking about? My point is it's enough to point out that 10% of the population own 90% of the wealth then treat their pleas of poverty with the utter contempt they deserve. there is absolutely no need to get into debates on fiscal policy.

If you never win, you'll never have to come up with such answers. If you do, you'll have to say something. You just said it (the 10%), then you say don't say it. You're confused.

Quote:
no, the only force capable of stopping the cuts is the working class, many of whom are organised in Trade Unions (31.5% in Ireland, about 22% in the UK). This is a vital distinction to make - for instance the Vestas workers were not unionised when they occupied their factory, many casual postal workers are not unionised which will play an important part in the upcoming national strikes and so on.

No, the working class has no self conception. SIPTU and ICTU can mobilise people and give people a sense of themselves in opposition to the bosses. If we did what you suggest, we'd be in a meeting with ourselves, congratulating ourselves for being the working class.

Regarding the SolFed vs. WSM papers contrast, that's totally up to strategy on the ground for mobilising. It might make sense in different contexts to use either one. The WSM one makes far more sense here.

jacobian
Oct 14 2009 11:20
weeler wrote:
Any justification for nationalisation is really coming after the fact, it was a concession to stop Eirigi from running away with the show, a project so urgent we had to get on board. Time to grow up and put the ultra left sloganeering away, lets hand this gas over to the irish government.
Of course, this is part of the myths perpetuated inside the WSM to keep up the illusion of relevance. Urgency is a must and there is never really enough time to question things that are happening. You say you are just being honest, the reality is anything but.

You've erased the question of why people thought it was a reasonable initiative to pass in national conference. The origin is less important than whether it makes sense. It still makes sense and it's curious that nobody has attacked it on the basis of pragmatism in and of itself.

As an example of the differences that you'd like to hide in the question of nationalisation, look at the NHS versus the nationalisation of the coal mines. Obviously, as a slogan, it needs a context. In the context of the health service or the cuts, it makes perfect sense as *in what way* is given by the need for public funds.

Joseph Kay
Oct 14 2009 11:24
jacobian wrote:
'Tis the crux, and shows perfectly where you've lost the plot. We'll help a sector that's a lost cause (Look at Waterford Crystal) to get whatever is possible. The fact is though, unless you have a broad, powerful, working class movement, calling for revolution is asinine. This is the difference between viewing things strategically, and being a dogmatic lunatic.

so i'm "calling for revolution" now? incredible dishonesty mate, seriously. what i actually said was: "the firm may be skint, but by taking direct action workers can prevent the administrators liquidating the assets until they secure concessions."

you know how bankruptcy works right? the firm may have assets of £1m, but if it has liabilities of £2m it can't meet as they fall due then it's insolvent. those liabilities will be to creditors such as banks and other businesses (i.e. suppliers). but there's £1m of assets there to play with, which if workers seize and occupy they can win a bigger share of. you know, as has been happening sporadically throughout the crisis. but the boss is genuinely skint and can't afford it.

jacobin wrote:
If you never win, you'll never have to come up with such answers. If you do, you'll have to say something. You just said it (the 10%), then you say don't say it. You're confused.

if you can't tell the difference between "the state/bosses have loads of money let them figure it out" and "they should pay by nationalising natural resources/taxing the rich/whatever fiscal policy you choose" then you're either dishonest or a bit dim...

Jacobian wrote:
No, the working class has no self conception. SIPTU and ICTU can mobilise people and give people a sense of themselves in opposition to the bosses. If we did what you suggest, we'd be in a meeting with ourselves, congratulating ourselves for being the working class.

right so you're ignoring the concrete examples i give like Vestas and the non-union postal workers. democratising the CWU will not help prevent scabbing in the upcoming postal strikes, encouraging mass meetings for all workers might.

Jacobian wrote:
Regarding the SolFed vs. WSM papers contrast, that's totally up to strategy on the ground for mobilising. It might make sense in different contexts to use either one. The WSM one makes far more sense here.

ah the old Irish relatavism chestnut. this was pulled out in the "Greedy Bankers" argument too, with the claim that only the UK bourgeoisie was using that as a scapegoat (later discredited with links to various mainstream Irish press stories). of course strategies have to be develped according to context, but if you really can't see the difference between an orientation towards the unions and an orientation towards our fellow workers then i despair (e.g. see the CWU example above).

Chilli Sauce
Oct 17 2009 19:52
Quote:
I think what we have here is an example of the denial of ideology forming an ideology par excellence. The rejection of ‘dogmatic principles’ becomes the dogmatic principle, and any criticism or alternative strategy can therefore be dismissed as abstract theorising, regardless of its practical merits. I think the crux of this is the false opposition of “what works” to “unbending principles” (borrowing the terminology from Liberty & Solidarity). Why is this opposition a false one? Because principles are derived precisely from what works. Political principles do not fall from the sky, they are distilled from the lessons of past struggles.

I haven't read all the response to JK's very impressive blog post, but I just want to echo BigLittleJ in his praise of this paragraph. I've dealt with the same thing...

medwards
Oct 26 2009 04:03

I just want to say that I thought this was a good piece, and the comment thread even better. I noticed that since then the image for the article changed and I think thats kind of a low-blow. I'm unsure where the IWW deviates drastically from your position (especially the part about developing class conciousness).

Mike Harman
Oct 26 2009 06:29

medwards, I'm not sure what the original image was, but the current one is a very obscure in-joke about an IWW member and platformist who used to post on here, who continually criticised everyone for being impractical and ultra-left sloganeering, while on the other hand claiming the IWW's membership would gro 15,000 in three years from around 2-300 (one year to go!), and that they should make organising space workers a priority.

Steven.
Oct 26 2009 10:56

Actually, he said that membership would be 15,000 in Glasgow alone by next year.