Specifism explained: the social and political level, organisational dualism and the anarchist organisation

Specifism explained: the social and political level, organisational dualism and the anarchist organisation

In discussing the platform of Collective Action some individuals have expressed confusion at our use of the label “specifism” to describe the tradition of social anarchism we associate with. The following is a short introduction to what we consider to be the most essential concepts within the specifist model. This text is an adaptation of a forthcoming interview with Shift Magazine on anti-capitalist regroupment.

"Specifism" refers to an organisationalist current within the anarchist tradition which, in contemporary terms, is principally elaborated by the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) but has its historical roots in the writings of Bakunin, Malatesta and Makhno (among others). Many associate these ideas solely with Makhno's "Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)" but they actually date from one of the first organisational documents of social anarchism - Bakunin's programme for the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy. At the core of the specifist framework is an understanding of the division of anarchist activity into the social and political level1. Specifists argue that a lot of the organisational errors of anarchist militants result from a confusion of the social and political level.

The social level is understood as those struggles that exist within the material and ideological framework of capitalism (bread-and-butter issues in layman terms). These will be heavily determined by the ideology of capitalist society and situated principally within the logic of capitalism, for example the demand for increased wages in exchange for labour or the desire for social reforms from the state. These will also be structured by a wider cultural, economic and political framework that will both shape their character, as well as causing their level of combativity and consciousness to ebb and flow, one example being the way in which the ongoing financial crisis has provoked an acceleration of working class resistance in certain sectors and geographical areas. Anarchists need to find a way of engaging with these struggles in a way that relates directly to the existing composition and level of consciousness present within the class. Successful engagement requires both a relationship of study, in terms of the need to understand and critically evaluate the existing composition and ideas of the class, and a relationship of intervention, to practically shape anarchist ideas and methods so they appear as sensible and useful tools for those engaged at the social level.

Anarchists also need to maintain their own coherent vision of an alternative society - anarchist communism. This is the political level. The political level represents the idea (theory) expressed by revolutionary minorities as visions for social transformation and alternative societies. This political line is obviously not static and exists relationally to the social level. The political level cannot be purely the expression of propaganda of the ideal. Anarchist communism is a tradition developed from the lessons drawn from the struggles of the popular classes. Work at the political level is cultivated through the study, self-criticism and organisational activity of anarchist communist militants and expressed through the unity and organisational discipline of the specific anarchist organisation (SAO). While the social level acts at as the “compass”, as Magon puts is, that steers the theory of revolutionary militants, the political level is also distinct from the social level in that the ideas here are held irrespective of the general social framework and therefore not subject to the mediations of capitalism and the state. The political level, therefore, while expressing clarity in revolutionary ideas does this in the form of minority organisations that are independent and not representative of those held by the class-as-a-whole.

What results from this understanding of the political and social levels is the practice of "organisational dualism". Specifically anarchist groups (hence the term "specifism") with well defined positions of principle and operating under conditions of political unity at the political level intervene, participate within or seek to build popular movements at the social level. The objective of this intervention is not to "capture" or establish anarchist fronts but to create the correct conditions, by arguing for anarchist methods and ideas, for the flourishing of working class autonomy. It is this autonomy that is the basis for working class counter-power and revolutionary change, as Malatesta (1897) famously stated, “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves”.

As the Federazione dei Comunisti Anarchici (FdCA) (2005) argue, work at the social level should not be a carbon copy of the organisations of the political level. Intervention at the social level has to arise within the context of the immediate needs of the proletariat and their current state of ideological and technical composition. In this sense work at the social level intervenes within and aims to accelerate the process of, as Marx expressed it, the class acting “in itself”, subject to a common condition under capitalism, towards a class-for-itself, a self-conscious grouping acting to its own material interests – communism.

Specifism is a praxis that seeks to strike the balance between a healthy relationship of influence within the class and an ideologically coherent communist organisation, while rejecting the vanguardist approaches of Leninist groups. Whereas Marxists will traditionally look to the fluctuating struggles of the social level and argue the need for a revolutionary leadership from without, specifists argue that anarchist communists fight by acting as a critical conscience from within.

For this reason specifism is fundamentally organisationalist in character rejecting the idea that anarchism can be developed purely through the propagandistic activity of discussion circles, groups or federations. Rather the SAO needs to form unified tactics and a strategy as the basis of its programme that it carries through in its activity within the class.

Specifism represents both an alternative to anarchist activism, which does not compose itself formally at the political level, and certain models of anarcho-syndicalism, which attempt to unify the practice of the social and political level in the formation of revolutionary unions.

In criticism of anarchist activism, specifists stress the need for an educated and self-critical practice at the political level to build sustainable long-term interventions at the social level. The alternative is sporadic, reactive political work that doesn’t incorporate a cycle of review and re-evaluation. Likewise, as Fabbri notes, the lack of “visible organisations” on the part of anarchist militants, i.e. clear and accessible lines of participation, creates space for the “establishment of arbitrary, less libertarian organisations”.

In response to anarcho-syndicalism, specifists argue that the formation of social-level organisations - unions - with revolutionary principles, does not resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level. Rather, as the FdCA argue, what result often is, “a strange mix of mass organisation and political organisation which is basically an organisation of anarchists who set themselves up to do union work”. This situation usually resolves either in the actual existence of a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line in the face of fluctuations at the social level, often being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles which leaves open the question of where the radicalisation between the political and social level will occur. Likewise the FARJ make a historical point that the dissolution of anarchist activity into the social level has meant in many cases the complete loss of any political reference point following the collapse or repression of these organisations. The SAO, in this sense, can act as a vital line of continuity for anarchist communist ideas.

Collective Action argues that the lessons and guides derived from specifist theory are a critical tool in the process of anarchist regroupment. The only way there can be a future for anarchist politics in the UK in the 21st Century is in making anarchist communist ideas and methods a practical and coherent tool for organising workplaces, intervening in social struggles and empowering working class communities. Anarchism needs to recapture its traditional terrain of organising, what Bakunin referred to as, the "popular classes" and abandon the dead-end of activism. This means a fundamental re-assessment of what we do and what we hope to achieve. It also means returning, as Vaneigem would call it, to the politics of "everyday life". This means reorientation of our practice to both the social and political level and utilising the richness of our own political tradition to clarify and improve our own organising efforts.

- Collective Action

REFERENCES

Federazione dei Communisti Anarchici (2005) Anarchist Communists: A Question of Class. Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: FdCA

Malatesta, E. (1897) “Anarchism and Organisation” Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/malatesta/1897/xx/anarchorg.htm

  • 1. A certain elasticity must be allowed with these terms and the labels should by no means be considered exclusive. The “social” level, for example, is of course at the same time “political” in that it is a sphere for both the contestation and birth of ideas. Likewise the “political” level is simultaneously “social” in respect to the fact that anarchist communist ideas are derived from a historical and materialist analysis of society, and composed of the experiences and lessons of social struggle (for more commentary on the historical materialist character of anarchist communism see “Appendix 1: Historical Materialism and Dialectical Materialism” In: Federazione dei Communisti Anarchici (2005) Anarchist Communists: A Question of Class. Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: FdCA).

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Collective Action
Sep 9 2012 20:15

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  • The only way there can be a future for anarchist politics in the UK in the 21st Century is in making anarchist communist ideas and methods a practical and coherent tool for organising workplaces, intervening in social struggles and empowering working class communities.

    Collective Action

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Comments

Automaton
Sep 9 2012 21:59

Really good simple explanation of the specifist position. Thanks.

Juan Conatz
Sep 9 2012 22:25

Someone's been reading a lot of Scott Nappolos wink

Quote:
This situation usually resolves either in the actual existence of a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line in the face of fluctuations at the social level, often being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles which leaves open the question of where the radicalisation between the political and social level will occur.

I think the first section of this ('An Undemocratic Organization With Only Paper Radicalism') is a good refutation of this often said line by platformist groups.

klas batalo
Sep 9 2012 22:59
Automaton wrote:
Really good simple explanation of the specifist position. Thanks.

Agreed. Definitely good for an English speaking audience. I think I might repost to USA.

Quote:
...or necessarily preserving a minority (my edit: or specific) membership for the union...
Quote:
...intervene, participate within or seek to build popular movements at the social level.

I guess this has been my point all these years at least in relation to SolFed's conception of a revolutionary union/specifically anarcho-syndicalist organization, and the partisans of especifismo/specific anarchist organization. In both cases in the western world, we are faced with a situation where these revolutionary minorities pretty much have to create self-organized and autonomous workers movements from scratch at the "social" level.

I reread Strategy & Struggle last night because I noticed SF people saying the revolutionary union were not the mass or social level assemblies (like laid out in that document) but the revolutionary minorities, as industrial networks of militants and local territorial groups. Because we do not have really available social or mass level movements other than Leftist activist campaigns, or what often ammounts to an activist approach to Labor (read typical critique of platformism as trotskyism-lite), it seems SF folks through the practice of trying to create workplace struggle committees (resistance groups in AF parlance) and mass assemblies at the "popular" or "social" level, would really have the same practice as what is pretty much required of any good especifist group at this point. Now in S&S these were called mass non-permanent groups (these committees, assemblies), and I don't have any clue if views have changed on that, but I do imagine especifists would be more open to building permanent groupings at the mass/social level. I wonder though if these would just end up looking more like groupings of tendency, intermediate level organizations, community or industrial network of militants, etc.

At this point it just seems to me that one revolutionary minority says their group builds from scratch non-permanent mass/open assemblies, etc ... while the other revolutionary minorities say their group is trying to build permanent self-organized tendencies. Considering both sides don't say not to join the existing unions if you happen to be in a union shop, etc than the only real difference is there is a claim that some especifists/platformists want to reform existing unions to become anarcho-syndicalist, instead of just focusing on anarcho-syndicalist methods of struggle. TBH some groups do call for that, I took a look at Zabalaza last night and that is pretty much their line, but other groups are more pluralistic or focused on direct struggle.

I just bring this all up, because it's good theory and all, and it resonates a lot with me on abstract level, but the anarcho-syndicalist question is gonna be: What do your groups actually do? What is our practice? Aren't SAO's just discussion and study circles, propaganda groups? What is the activity within the class that they do? How do we do that work as illuded to below?

Quote:
...rejecting the idea that anarchism can be developed purely through the propagandistic activity of discussion circles, groups or federations. Rather the SAO needs to form unified tactics and a strategy as the basis of its programme that it carries through in its activity within the class.

Edit: If the IWW didn't exist in the US, or was more pro-contractual like UK IWW I think this wouldn't be as big of an issue in thinking about this for US conditions. It would be obvious that we'd have to create industrial networks of militants as well as doing locally based community work, along the lines that I think SolFed has pretty much laid out. Instead in the US you mainly see a majority of US platformists/especifists/dual organizational anarcho-syndicalist for fairly obvious reasons doing their workplace organizing via the IWW (it's got a lot more resources, etc). This begs the question then more of what are these revolutionary minorities doing around more community organizing work and how are they doing it. Are they promoting direct self-organized struggle, or are they trying to build up NGOs, or are they trying to subvert and push self-organized struggle within NGOs if they are there beyond the limits of such groups? Personally I am more in favor of promoting community assemblies and solidarity network activity. We've started to see a possible orientation towards such as an unofficial strategy in the WSA, it'll be interesting to see if that takes off more, if there will be further discussion, etc.

syndicalist
Sep 10 2012 00:06

Right quick.

Quote:
We've started to see a possible orientation towards such as an unofficial strategy in the WSA, it'll be interesting to see if that takes off more, if there will be further discussion, etc.

Not sure I get this Sabotage.

WSA has historically been favorable, over the decades, to self-organized community stuff. Be it around tenants issues, public transportation and so forth.

I would agree, in large measure with this, but find it a bit of a stretch at making it the sum total of shopwork:

Quote:
a majority of US platformists/especifists/dual organizational anarcho-syndicalist for fairly obvious reasons doing their workplace organizing via the IWW

But would extend that and advocate for the creation of "industrial networks of militants" in both the workplace and community.

Quote:
In response to anarcho-syndicalism, specifists argue that the formation of social-level organisations - unions - with revolutionary principles, does not resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level. Rather, as the FdCA argue, what result often is, “a strange mix of mass organisation and political organisation which is basically an organisation of anarchists who set themselves up to do union work”. This situation usually resolves either in the actual existence of a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line in the face of fluctuations at the social level, often being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles which leaves open the question of where the radicalisation between the political and social level will occur.

Additionally, I think the door still remains open on this in the 21st century, with better possibilities for anarcho-syndicalists minorities than in the last century. And, after all, in whatever work we do, we are still a minority. It's about how bridges are built and how the principles and planning are applied (practice or rethoric?).

Gots to shove off.

klas batalo
Sep 10 2012 00:48
syndicalist wrote:

WSA has historically been favorable, over the decades, to self-organized community stuff. Be it around tenants issues, public transportation and so forth.

I would agree, in large measure with this, but find it a bit of a stretch at making it the sum total of shopwork:

Quote:
a majority of US platformists/especifists/dual organizational anarcho-syndicalist for fairly obvious reasons doing their workplace organizing via the IWW

All I mean is informally within WSA many have started to reaffirm that they want to do such organizing that we've always been open to, as WSA, i.e. arround issues that directly affect members in their workplace or community.

Regarding the IWW, yeah I mean none of the organizations are formally only for doing stuff in the IWW, others are for self-managed methods also if they find themselves in other organizations. I know no US organization that is directly for a strategy of entering the trade unions on purpose to reform them, mostly just not abstaining from struggle if they happen to find themselves in a trade union shop.

Nate
Sep 11 2012 06:01

It seems to me this kind of stuff, for all the talk about organization, doesn't actually say much about organization. It says a lot about kinds of work - political work and... umm, social work. But there's little argument made about why those distinctions in kinds of work have to mean a division of labor composed of formal organizations corresponding to each kind of work. The flip side of this is that there seems like a fairly flat conception of kinds of political work and ways to build institutions that do those kinds of political work. Lots of different sorts of organizations do lots of different political work - bookfair organizing committees, editorial committees who put out publications like Shift, groups of communists in workplaces, etc etc etc. Political work isn't just one thing and there's more than one way to do most kind of political work. The way it's written here, the piece sounds like either you're in a formal anarchist political organization or you're doing "the dissolution of anarchist activity into the social level." That seems inaccurate to me.

Edit:
Also there's a claim that this kind of "dissolution" often leads to "loss of any political reference point following the collapse or repression of [social-level] organisations." Why are specifically anarchist organizations somehow more repression proof?

Also: "In response to anarcho-syndicalism, specifists argue that the formation of social-level organisations - unions - with revolutionary principles, does not resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level."

What anarchosyndicalists have argued that forming unions with revolutionary principles "resolve[s] the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level"? I don't know much about anarcho-syndicalism but my understanding from reading SolFed's stuff is that for them, their being anarcho-syndicalists doesn't mean they can "resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation." Rather their anarcho-syndicalism is a matter of how they relate to those problems and that mediation, how they orient themselves in trying to navigate the problems thrown up by capitalism and mediation of workers struggles under capitalism.

On this: "This situation usually resolves either in the actual existence of a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line in the face of fluctuations at the social level, often being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles."

Let's say for the sake of argument that that's correct. The argument is that there will be rises and falls in social struggle and anarchists need to respond to them which leads to "a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line." Which is what you're actively advocating, except you think that the minority should join their own groups instead (I mean, you're a small anarchist political organization arguing about the importance of small anarchist organizations in maintaining political continuity). So then it seems like the problem is one of how to best maintain a line as a revolutionary minority, either as an official part of a 'social level' organization or as a formal political organization. Why is it that formal existence of anarchists in a radical 'social level' organization guarantees those three bad outcomes but being in a formal organization gets around those outcomes?

Let's say we imagine two different scenarios. One with a radical union where the anarchists are part of the union without a formal political organization otherwise, and another where there is a specific anarchist political organization. Under what conditions would the first anarchists make one of the mistakes you list, and what would the members of the specific political organization do differently in that situation? You listed "being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles." That seems to imply that where the first anarchists, in a radical union, would act undemocratically, the speficists would push for democracy and act democratically. The second seems to imply that where the anarchists in the radical union would push for the union to be smaller, the specifists would push for the union to be bigger. But that only makes sense when being more democratic or bigger are the best option in keeping with anarchist principles. (Unless you think "more democratic" and "bigger" always means "more in keeping with anarchist principles.) And again what is it about being in a specific anarchist organization that equips the specifists to know that the important thing to do is be bigger/more democratic in a way that anarchists who just are in a radical union couldn't also figure this out?

Edit again:
I should have also said, I like this bit a lot.

Quote:
The only way there can be a future for anarchist politics (...) is in making anarchist communist ideas and methods a practical and coherent tool for organising workplaces, intervening in social struggles and empowering working class communities. Anarchism needs to recapture its traditional terrain of organising, what Bakunin referred to as, the "popular classes" and abandon the dead-end of activism. This means a fundamental re-assessment of what we do and what we hope to achieve.
Battlescarred
Sep 10 2012 10:42

I have no problems at all with CA's statement, in fact I agree with the bulk of it
BUT
"Anarchism needs to recapture its traditional terrain of organising, what Bakunin referred to as, the "popular classes" and abandon the dead-end of activism. This means a fundamental re-assessment of what we do and what we hope to achieve. It also means returning, as Vaneigem would call it, to the politics of "everyday life". This means reorientation of our practice to both the social and political level and utilising the richness of our own political tradition to clarify and improve our own organising efforts."
How is this done exactly in practical terms?
( and please don't administer one of those stern magisterial raps across the knuckles that you are wont to apply with any of my questions please by saying , "you haven't read the text properly")

Spikymike
Sep 10 2012 11:18

I can sympathise with Battlescared's frustration with this statement since I am sure it does resemble at a theoretical level at least his own and the AF's understanding of how an anarchist organisation should operate.

Clearly CA have emmerged from the AF with the view (perhaps justified?) that the AF did not operate in this way in practice but have so far not eleborated on why they think that was (other than a one-line reference to the problems of federalism). Such an explanation would be helpful to everyone struggling with these questions.

Apart from that the answer to Battlescared's question ''How is this to be done'' will probably have to wait till this new group actually practices what it preaches and we can all compare that with the practice of other tendencies in our milieu. I remain skeptical as to whether such a tiny handful of people are in a position to fulfil their very ambitious aims any more succesfully than their ideological competitors.

RedAndBlack
Sep 10 2012 12:51

Unfortunately I don't have time to address the substantive criticisms here (which are worth addressing and I will return to in due course).

I just wanted to quickly respond that I believe remarks asking for more detailed and practical elaborations of the ideas are a little unfair given the stated aims of this piece. This is an introductionary article designed to give the bare bones of our position. Necessarily that wil be in broad strokes and somewhat abstract.

Joe Roe
Sep 10 2012 12:59

I would also say that these kind of criticisms highlight a lack of understanding of the nature of the project. As we have repeatedly said, we are engaging in what we call a process of regroupment, as are other organisations, and that this process is one of development and understanding. We have never stated we have the answers, only that there is a need to re-investigate the questions. In the course of doing that we hope that we can find a clearer approach to our activity, but we are not there yet and have never claimed to be.

That being said, we are currently working on our first major publication, which will address the issues of how we apply these ideas into practice. People just need to have some patience.

Battlescarred
Sep 10 2012 14:22

If only you would understand, you duffers. Rap over knuckles. Ouch!

Joe Roe
Sep 10 2012 14:37

Why do you insist on conducting yourself in this manner?

Battlescarred
Sep 10 2012 14:54

Go and stand in the corner boy, and wear this dunce's cap!

Joe Roe
Sep 10 2012 14:55

It's a shame that someone with such experience and wisdom, someone who people could look up to, someone who is looked up to, by me in fact, has chosen to reduce themselves to being a troll. Seriously, you're better than this.

Can we just stop the incriminations and accusations. I'm not calling you stupid. I apologise if that's how it was perceived. My point was merely to highlight that there is a misunderstanding about what CA is attempting to do. That is evidenced by the continuous implication that we need/should have answers to all the questions in order to say something.

We realise that to substantiate our positions we have to address the issue of application, and we are doing that.

RedAndBlack
Sep 10 2012 14:59
Spikymike wrote:
I can sympathise with Battlescared's frustration with this statement since I am sure it does resemble at a theoretical level at least his own and the AF's understanding of how an anarchist organisation should operate.

Clearly CA have emmerged from the AF with the view (perhaps justified?) that the AF did not operate in this way in practice but have so far not eleborated on why they think that was (other than a one-line reference to the problems of federalism). Such an explanation would be helpful to everyone struggling with these questions.

Apart from that the answer to Battlescared's question ''How is this to be done'' will probably have to wait till this new group actually practices what it preaches and we can all compare that with the practice of other tendencies in our milieu. I remain skeptical as to whether such a tiny handful of people are in a position to fulfil their very ambitious aims any more succesfully than their ideological competitors.

Just briefly, this commentary is a little infuriating tbh. Aside from the differences between ourselves and the Afed that have already been outlined - our internal use of concentric circles (which was accused by some Afed members of being "hierarchical"), rejection of consensus decision-making, criticism of "workplace resistance groups" and the "culture of resistance" strategy, affinity with Anarkismo over IFA-IAF, the use of nationally-bound policies and position papers, expectations of membership, alternative analysis of the prospects of the trade union movement as well as involvement in TUC dominated anti-cuts coalitions - point me to where in Afed literature is the above analysis either made or adhered to? If this is indeed the politics of the Afed, what is its currrent programme and how is this evident in the tactics and strategy of its groups? How does this programme relate to the composition of the class and how is this made clear in its work at the social and political level? What social level organisations have Afed members built or intervened within in a clear, sustained and visible way?

"The Afed already believe this" is wearing a bit thin. Either Solfed and ourselves are brilliant at capturing the existing positions of the Anarchist Federation (saving them a lot of trouble in terms of writing and endorsing it themselves presumably), the Afed truly is the umbrella network of social anarchism that we have maintained is the case leading up to and following our split from that organisation or this response displays the poverty of theory at the heart of Afed activity, that AF activism really is incoherent and untheorised and, as a result, adaptable to any proposed model of anarchist praxis (see, for example, "On The Frontline" and "workplace resistance groups" described simultaneously as "an autonomous manifestation of workers’ struggles", "clandestine militant, even violent, action in support of a particular workplace conflict" as well as the same time "broader networks such as those currently being formed through IWW dual-carding and the industrial networks of the Solidarity Federation")

Spikymike
Sep 10 2012 15:34

RedAndBlack,

Well that response does at least include a brief but neat summary of some diferences with the AF as you see them - so thanks. I was certainly aware (as a non-member of either group) of some of those potential theoretical differences but certainly not of their published availabillity in any detail and not, so far, as to any practical beneficial effects of the application of those differences.
I have my own criticism of the AF's political practice which may overlap with some of yours but I am not convinced that your swapping one anarchist organisational model and network allegiance for another will get you much closer to the influential role you are seeking.

I do have a fear that there is a risk here of going round in (concentric) circles but it would be nice to be proved wrong.

Joe Roe
Sep 10 2012 16:18

But presumably, Mike, if you think that one particular model isn't working, something has to be done, right?

I would be interested to know what your thoughts would be on that smile

rat
Sep 10 2012 16:17
RedAndBlack wrote:
social anarchism

We prefer the term social war anarchism.

klas batalo
Sep 10 2012 18:46

Hey...

I'm sorry for maybe sparking the whole "but what do you do? what does this look like in practice?" questions.

Like CA members have said this is just a brief overview of the model. Much like has happend over the years for SF, people seem to just be really impatient to find out the details of the actual practice. I know I've been impatient and probably a bit annoying about this.

Just like others are waiting for Fighting for ourselves I guess we'll all have to wait for this new CA pamphlet.

Also to just touch on what Nate brought up, I generally think he is sorta on target about really what is the differences between an anarchist minority in a union, or an anarchist minority outside and inside a union. It still ends up that there will be anarchists in the union pushing for a certain politics, methods, etc. Even if you look at historical examples of dual organizationalism, the FAI and then FoD were more like rank and file anarchist caucuses of the CNT.

Theft
Sep 10 2012 23:57

While I have problems with "On The Frontline", though probably from a different prospective to RedAndBlack, I do find it strange that you never brought this up within the organisation. It's very easy to put forward criticism without putting forward an alternative, which as far as I'm aware you have not done, though I can guess that it will be based around the IWW. Feel free to correct me and point me in the direction of a document.
Also Afed has been engaged in discussions on strategy including looking at how we relate to workplaces amongst other things, which CA members will know about, as a discussion documents was produced before you left and which is still an ongoing process.

RedAndBlack
Sep 11 2012 12:16
Nate wrote:
. But there's little argument made about why those distinctions in kinds of work have to mean a division of labor composed of formal organizations corresponding to each kind of work. The flip side of this is that there seems like a fairly flat conception of kinds of political work and ways to build institutions that do those kinds of political work. Lots of different sorts of organizations do lots of different political work - bookfair organizing committees, editorial committees who put out publications like Shift, groups of communists in workplaces, etc etc etc. Political work isn't just one thing and there's more than one way to do most kind of political work. The way it's written here, the piece sounds like either you're in a formal anarchist political organization or you're doing "the dissolution of anarchist activity into the social level." That seems inaccurate to me.

I think conceiving of the division of the social and political level into a division of labour isn't quite correct. As it states in the article social and political level work have to be conducted relationally anyway. Rather it's about acknowledging that there are different social contexts (particularly in the case of building class power at the level of capitalist reproduction) that makes different forms of activity more effective. Likewise I don't think it's necessarily the case that the political work outlined has to be as reductive as simply the practice of one group. As I've said below what we are painting here is necessarily broad strokes. Specifist groups like the FARJ, for example, have union, ecological, indigenous and education fronts incorporating a diverse range of activity (from the maintenance of an anarchist archive and social centre to the formation of tenants unions). What might be the more critical question is why, in the Anglophone world, are initiatives like these predominantly conducted by independent anarchists and not members of national organisations? This, in my view, creates a whole host of difficulties in terms of accountability and the criticisms of informality outlined above.

Nate wrote:
Edit:
Also there's a claim that this kind of "dissolution" often leads to "loss of any political reference point following the collapse or repression of [social-level] organisations." Why are specifically anarchist organizations somehow more repression proof?

The short answer is that they are not, but their minoritarian position allows them to go clandestine if the need arises in ways that popular organisations cannot. Although it should be clear that this analysis also applies to political degeneration which is perhaps more damaging to an anarchist legacy. Overall this is a minor point.

Nate wrote:
Also: "In response to anarcho-syndicalism, specifists argue that the formation of social-level organisations - unions - with revolutionary principles, does not resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level."

What anarchosyndicalists have argued that forming unions with revolutionary principles "resolve[s] the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level"? I don't know much about anarcho-syndicalism but my understanding from reading SolFed's stuff is that for them, their being anarcho-syndicalists doesn't mean they can "resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation." Rather their anarcho-syndicalism is a matter of how they relate to those problems and that mediation, how they orient themselves in trying to navigate the problems thrown up by capitalism and mediation of workers struggles under capitalism.

Ok fair point. The FdCA analysis (which we draw on here) may be a little reductive. We tried to make the distinctions a little more nuanced in stating first that this applied to "certain models" of anarcho-syndicalism (largely the traditional variant). I think aspects of "minority unionism", as some Solfed members have advocated, tends to meet some of the analysis here or at least incorporate it in different ways. For me personally the ideas put forward by Recomposition/US IWW and Solfed represents a slightly different debate and probably deserve to be treated independently of this (not that we wouldn't also have our criticisms here as well).

Nate wrote:
On this: "This situation usually resolves either in the actual existence of a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line in the face of fluctuations at the social level, often being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles."

Let's say for the sake of argument that that's correct. The argument is that there will be rises and falls in social struggle and anarchists need to respond to them which leads to "a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line." Which is what you're actively advocating, except you think that the minority should join their own groups instead (I mean, you're a small anarchist political organization arguing about the importance of small anarchist organizations in maintaining political continuity). So then it seems like the problem is one of how to best maintain a line as a revolutionary minority, either as an official part of a 'social level' organization or as a formal political organization. Why is it that formal existence of anarchists in a radical 'social level' organization guarantees those three bad outcomes but being in a formal organization gets around those outcomes?

Let's say we imagine two different scenarios. One with a radical union where the anarchists are part of the union without a formal political organization otherwise, and another where there is a specific anarchist political organization. Under what conditions would the first anarchists make one of the mistakes you list, and what would the members of the specific political organization do differently in that situation? You listed "being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles." That seems to imply that where the first anarchists, in a radical union, would act undemocratically, the speficists would push for democracy and act democratically. The second seems to imply that where the anarchists in the radical union would push for the union to be smaller, the specifists would push for the union to be bigger. But that only makes sense when being more democratic or bigger are the best option in keeping with anarchist principles. (Unless you think "more democratic" and "bigger" always means "more in keeping with anarchist principles.) And again what is it about being in a specific anarchist organization that equips the specifists to know that the important thing to do is be bigger/more democratic in a way that anarchists who just are in a radical union couldn't also figure this out?

The scenario is highly contextual so its difficult to state definitively what the role of the SAO would be as this would depend on both the union and the wider composition. Broadly the SAO should be pushing for the broadest application of anarchist methods in the given social context. Does that necessarily mean a to-the-letter defence of an anarchist communist programme? No, not necessarily. Especially not if this is going to serve to completely isolate militants. So I guess the answer could be that a certain flexibility is implied here, but this isn't at the expense of any loss of political coherence at the political level (i.e. in the principles of the SAO). Is there a line in which flexibility degenerates into opportunism and reformism? Absolutely, and I suspect both anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist communists would be on the same page with that one.

I think the more important point is not necessarily what either party would do, but rather how they are in a position to do it. Yes, ultimately a core of anarcho-syndicalist compared to anarchist communist militants are ultimately in the same boat when it comes to enacting influence (although anarchist communists are perhaps in a better position to enact a political retreat and recomposition than anarcho-syndicalists - see the various CNT/CNT-F/CGT legacy disputes). I think the benefit, focusing purely on unions here, of the specifist position is in the formality of the structures that it operates with. Its interventions are structured as the conscious efforts of militants under organisational discipline operating on the basis of clearly outlined principles. Does Recomposition, for example, organise itself in this way? To me that provides you with a better basis to conduct influence. That is, of course, focusing solely on union work and ignoring arguments to conduct equivalent work in the community or perhaps intervene and build organisation in the workplace that falls short of a formal union structure.

RedAndBlack
Sep 11 2012 12:26
Theft wrote:
I do find it strange that you never brought this up within the organisation. It's very easy to put forward criticism without putting forward an alternative, which as far as I'm aware you have not done, though I can guess that it will be based around the IWW. Feel free to correct me and point me in the direction of a document.

Collective Action is my alternative.

A number of criticisms were repeatedly raised in our time in Afed either to be dismissed as "authoritarian" or to completely collapse through lack of proper implementation. It became quite clearly that any further progress we intended to make in re-evaluating our practice and ideas had to come in the form of a new organisation and not under the suffocating conditions within the organisation.

Theft wrote:
Also Afed has been engaged in discussions on strategy including looking at how we relate to workplaces amongst other things, which CA members will know about, as a discussion documents was produced before you left and which is still an ongoing process.

I don't really know what you are referring to here. If you mean the series of discussions that were conducted at the national conference then I don't really classify that as the basis of a national strategy. In many cases it just re-affirmed the existing model of activism, distribution of propaganda and maintaining a street presence on protests.

Nate
Sep 11 2012 16:27

hey RedAndBlack, I appreciate the substantive reply. Rereading my initial comment I want to apologize for my tone, I didn't mean to be harsh. I disagree with some of your statement but I still think it sounds like y'all are doing something worthwhile. I think a lot of my disagreement amounts to "cool, do your thing, but don't generalize so much while you do it." For instance I think a lot of the formality-talk etc around platformist/specifist stuff strikes me as overstating the differences between formal and informal organizations etc. Over all personally I'm not against formal political organization per se just not interested in being in one myself and put off by some of the larger claims made by advocates of formal political organization. Anyway, I need to run now but I'll get back to you later with a more substantive reply. Oh yeah before I forget, I don't know for sure but the union stuff may be tied to different industrial relations regimes in different countries. I think often in our milieus folk generalize like "unions are like this" and there's a lot of truth to those claims but they mix up features common to all unions with features that are more particular to where people live.

Spikymike
Sep 11 2012 17:42

Joe Roe,

Well yes you've caught me out there with your subtle version of the 'so what's your model then' reposte. I don't of course have one.

My concern is that CA seem to have concluded that the weakness of the class response to the current crisis and the inabillity of 'anarchist' (and presumably at least some other pro-revolutionary elements?) to influence the class is primarily a result of the wrong forms of organisation adopted by such. Whilst your desire for a more coherent and structured political organisation is understandable and desireable, the material reality of the situation we find ourselves in means that setting up a new group within the present milieu, even if it achieves an improved coherance and structure, will still only consist of a tiny number of people with a very limited range of experience and influence on events. It will not ecclipse other pro-revolutionary groups who will continue to exist and with whom you will need to co-operate to have even the semblance of some worthwhile influence. Alternatively you could expend a great deal of energy in a competitive ideological battle with those groups in the hope of somehow replacing them at some time in the future when you might have the same influence as the combined forces you have displaced. Looking around me at the various groups in our milieu what I see is some limited growth overall but much more in the way of movement between groups and out of them again. Further more it seems that each time a new group emmerges it has to defend it's separateness by attaching itself ideologically to some larger historical tradition and spend time defending that at the expense of co-operative efforts on the ground.

It may be that we (along with the rest of our class) will be influenced in the way we think and move more by objective conditions than we, well organised or not, will consciously determine those objective conditions.

That is just a bit of an explanation of my scepticism- don't take it as any outright antagonism to your efforts.

rat
Sep 11 2012 18:00

Excellent post by spikey.

RedAndBlack
Sep 12 2012 09:47
Spikymike wrote:
My concern is that CA seem to have concluded that the weakness of the class response to the current crisis and the inabillity of 'anarchist' (and presumably at least some other pro-revolutionary elements?) to influence the class is primarily a result of the wrong forms of organisation adopted by such.

This is a gross simplification of our position.

Spikymike wrote:
Whilst your desire for a more coherent and structured political organisation is understandable and desireable, the material reality of the situation we find ourselves in means that setting up a new group within the present milieu, even if it achieves an improved coherance and structure, will still only consist of a tiny number of people with a very limited range of experience and influence on events. It will not ecclipse other pro-revolutionary groups who will continue to exist and with whom you will need to co-operate to have even the semblance of some worthwhile influence. Alternatively you could expend a great deal of energy in a competitive ideological battle with those groups in the hope of somehow replacing them at some time in the future when you might have the same influence as the combined forces you have displaced. Looking around me at the various groups in our milieu what I see is some limited growth overall but much more in the way of movement between groups and out of them again. Further more it seems that each time a new group emmerges it has to defend it's separateness by attaching itself ideologically to some larger historical tradition and spend time defending that at the expense of co-operative efforts on the ground.

But I think this is in fact largely our point, that the "efforts on the ground" are currently not things that we perceive as useful things to co-operative with (with a few exceptions) at this point. Our argument is about the orientation of praxis - what useful things should be done and where - in the face of a seeming lack of activity that does have a class and organisationalist orientation within the anarchist movement as a whole. If our influence can only be limited (I think you are just wrong here, organisations ARE missing opportunities to catalyse further resistance in the present social and political context) then our argument is that even that limited influence is lacking at the present point, i.e. judged against that standards of what an anarchist organisation can do where it is based (not in terms of its relationship to the class-as-a-whole which is understandably far more complex).

Your comments on tradition and ideological principle are again grossly simplistic. I hear this argument a lot from non-aligned and independent activists and tbh it lacks credibility. Our tradition is a resource and our study on specifism in particular is helping us to rejuvenate our perspective. Personally I have little interest in wasting time debating the differences separating, for example, us and the Anarchist Federation. To me they are self-evident and I'd much rather actually get on with the process of organising and developing our theory (that's not to rule out the more fruitful exchanges occurring on the basis of theoretical principle - as is the case with some of the issues raise on syndicalism above). But then you are one of the parties principally responsible for putting the debate in these terms.

Spikymike wrote:
It may be that we (along with the rest of our class) will be influenced in the way we think and move more by objective conditions than we, well organised or not, will consciously determine those objective conditions.

Maybe true, but this line of reasoning, as it stands, gets you nowhere. Really its just a reiteration of what we've said above in terms of a relationship to the class and the need to move with its ideological and technical composition. I'm sure the wider economic and social context will influence our further activity and it should, I'm not sure why you have posed these things as exclusive (or characterised our position as such).

In terms of how these questions reflect on the issue of organisation, personally as a young, low-waged worker renting in a low-income community in the middle of a recession with consistent and ongoing attacks on my welfare and access to benefits I have a MASSIVE stake in being better organised. When did these issues disappear from our collective consciousness and it all become about "objective conditions"? To "wait and see" are the sentiments of someone solidly removed from the day-to-day realities of class struggle. If communism can't be produced from the everyday experiences and struggles of the workers it is a dead theory and useless to myself and others like me.

To quote our May Day statement:

Collective Action wrote:
Some radicals may look longingly at the resistance in Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe and, falling back on classical Marxist economism, argue that it must get substantially worse to get better. Although the simultaneous rise in “political suicides” in these countries should at the very least lead us to question the wisdom of this analysis - do we want it to get that bad? Such a view ignores the sustained, politicised resistance that Greece, for example, has retained throughout the 1980s/90s, the combative nature of social struggles, a record of concessions won from the state (particularly amongst the students and youth) and a growing anarchist/anti-authoritarian movement that is active, visible and engaged with the communities in almost every urban centre throughout the country.
Spikymike
Sep 12 2012 11:22

R&B,

Engagement with reality is not the same thing as ''wait and see''. It is quite reasonable of you to conclude that a tiny group could be more effective, at least in the limited area in which it has a practical presence, than a larger if still tiny group, if the former has a more coherent theory and strategic practice. Quoting the more substantial if disparate anarchist/anti-authoritarian movement of Greece as compared with the UK is no evidence for the superiority of your particular organisational approach however.

Anyway your comitment to re-examine the reality of todays social, economic and class conditions with at least some other elements of our milieu is certainly welcome and as you say may well influence further your organisation and activity. I am genuinely interested in the outcome of that if remaining sceptical at present.

RedAndBlack
Sep 12 2012 11:29
Spikymike wrote:
Quoting the more substantial if disparate anarchist/anti-authoritarian movement of Greece as compared with the UK is no evidence for the superiority of your particular organisational approach however.

True but it is some vindication of the positive effect of the sustained presence of organisation and social intervention conducted by anarchists.

Joe Roe
Sep 12 2012 11:57
Spikymike wrote:
Engagement with reality is not the same thing as ''wait and see''.

Can you clarify what you mean by "engagement with reality"?

the button
Sep 12 2012 12:25
Joe Roe wrote:
Can you clarify what you mean by "engagement with reality"?

Only on LibCom grin