A set of introductory articles written or compiled by libcom.org clearly explaining different issues and topics, and ideas.
libcom.org is a resource for all people who wish to fight to improve their lives, their communities and their working conditions. We want to discuss, learn from successes and failures of the past and develop strategies to increase the power we, as ordinary people, have over our own lives.
We wake up every day to go to work, taking orders from a manager. We sit at work counting down the minutes until we go home, counting down the days until the weekend, counting down the weeks until our next holiday, wishing our lives away. Or worse, we can't find a job, so we have to scrape by on benefits. We worry about paying the bills and making rent and we always seem to have the same bank balance at the end of every month. We wonder if we'll be able to put anything by to one day start a family, and think maybe next year. We get angry about the latest war the government's decided to start, and they're ignoring us again. We watch the latest news on climate change and wonder if our children have a future.
The problem is that every day we recreate a world that wasn't built to serve our needs and is not under our control. We are not human beings, we are human resources, cogs in a machine that knows only one purpose: profit. The endless pursuit of profit keeps us stuck in boring jobs, or looking for them when we're out of work. It keeps us worrying about the rent or mortgage payments every month when our homes were long since built and paid for. It keeps the planet on course for an environmental disaster as climate change accelerates and world leaders pontificate.
In this world, everything has its price. Every day, more and more things enter the market. A century ago it was automobiles, today even DNA and the Earth's atmosphere have a price. For those things which we enjoy most in life - friendship, love, play - the idea of giving them a price is absurd or even obscene. The idea strikes us as absurd because the market does not work by the same principles we do. 'Market forces' leave hundreds of millions starving in a world with surplus food. Millions are denied AIDS drugs while pharmaceutical companies spend half their budgets on marketing and administration. The market does not recognise human needs unless they are backed up with cash. The only way to get the cash is to work for a boss or claim benefits. By working for a wage, our own bodies and minds enter the market as things to be bought and sold.
When we work, we create more things which can be sold on the market. But we don't get paid the full value of what we create, otherwise there would be nothing left over as profit for the bosses. If the company can't make big enough profits, it will shut down, we will be made redundant and the money will be invested elsewhere. The bosses' interests are not the same as ours. The problem with the market is not that prices are too high or supply too short. The problem is not too much regulation or too little. The problem is that everything has a price. In the world of the market human needs only feature if those humans happen to be rich enough to satisfy them. The world's governments all work to uphold this order, sometimes with the carrots of democracy and welfare, sometimes with the sticks of dictatorship and warfare. This is not our world.
Every day, ordinary people are fighting back. Workers organise, strike, occupy and revolt, standing up for human needs in an inhuman world. This site is for them. You. Us. Those of us with nothing to sell but our labour power and nothing to lose but our chains. Those of us whose lives this deadening world sucks dry like a vampire. When we stand up for our needs, we foreshadow a different world, a world based on the principle 'from each according to ability, to each according to needs.' A world of liberty and community - libertarian communism.
The name libcom is an abbreviation of "libertarian communism", the political idea we identify with. Libertarian communism is the political expression of the ever-present strands of co-operation and solidarity in human societies. These currents of mutual aid can be found throughout society. In tiny everyday examples such as people collectively organising a meal, or helping a stranger carry a pram down a flight of stairs. They can also manifest themselves in more visible ways, such as one group of workers having a solidarity strike in support of other workers as the BA baggage handlers did for Gate Gourmet catering staff in 2005. They can also explode and become a predominant force in society such as in the events across Argentina in 2001, and in Greece today, in Kwanju, South Korea in 1980, Portugal 1974, France 1968, Hungary '56, Spain 1936, Russia 1917, Paris 1871…
We identify primarily with the trends of workers' solidarity, co-operation and struggle throughout history, whether they were self-consciously libertarian communist (such as in the Spanish revolution) or not. We are also influenced by certain specific theoretical and practical traditions, such as anarchist-communism, anarcho-syndicalism, the ultra-left, left communism, libertarian Marxism, council communism and others. We have sympathies with writers and organisations including Karl Marx, Gilles Dauvé, Maurice Brinton, Wildcat Germany, Anarchist Federation, Solidarity Federation, prole.info, Aufheben, Solidarity, the situationists, Spanish CNT and others.
However, we recognise the limitations of applying these ideas and organisational forms to contemporary society. We emphasise understanding and transforming the social relationships we experience here and now in our everyday lives to better our circumstances and protect the planet, whilst still learning from the mistakes and successes of previous working class movements and ideas.
The site contains news and analysis of workers' struggles, discussions and a constantly growing archive of over 10,000 articles contributed by our 10,000+ users ranging from history and biographies to theoretical texts, complete books and pamphlets. We have incorporated several other online archives over the years, and in addition have hundreds of exclusive texts written or scanned by or for us. We are completely independent of all trade unions and political parties; the site is funded entirely by subs from our volunteer administrators and donations from users.
If you think you might agree with us, why not register and get involved?
A quick rundown of libcom.org's website history.
v.4.1 - March 2007 - A major upgrade of the Drupal infrastructure for the site and a new look.
v.4 - Summer 2006 - We went web2.0, the entire site is ported into Drupal giving greater control and interactivity.
v.3 - May 2005 - we renamed the site libcom.org and added new sections (library) as well as updating old content.
v.2 - May 2004 - the re-design, dumping the dull grey and going for a more accessible, easy-read site adding the history section.
v.1 - September 2003 - our public launch, when we adopted a grey/white format and hit the world with our ideas and the project.
v.0 - October 2002 - enrager.net is founded: a personal site hosting a couple of texts and some pictures.
The libcom.org group is a small collective of libertarian communists based mainly in the UK and the US. We run libcom.org, and as individuals are involved with a number of other groups and activity.
Meet the libcom.org group
Mike Harman found fame early when chosen to be the Milky Bar Kid. Now out of rehab, he plays jazz and is an IT worker.
A Brighton resident, sleeps by day and posts on the internet by night, and is a member of the Solidarity Federation.
Brighton-based libertarian communist and anarcho-syndicalist. Also a member of Solfed, and estranged brother of horrific acid jazz singer Jay.
Council worker, libertarian communist, Anarchist Federation member and hipster wanker, Steven Johns lives in East London.
Ed Goddard lives in Italy, is a libertarian communist schools worker from north-west London and Jew.
| Jim Clarke
South London resident, libertarian communist and member of Solfed.
Our token ginger: a libertarian communist nurse in East London.
Pingtiao is a libertarian communist medical doctor living in the West Country, who once killed a crocodile with his bare hands.
A substance misuse worker, call centre worker, education worker and AF member residing in Edinburgh, Ramona also provides vocals to Crystal Castles and was once described as "the soft face of anarchism".
| Juan Conatz
Minneapolis Jew Rican and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Also, one of the editors of the blog Recomposition. One of the primary reasons a general strike never happened in Wisconsin.
libcom.org's brief introduction to capitalism and how it works.
At its root, capitalism is an economic system based on three things: wage labour (working for a wage), private ownership or control of the means of production (things like factories, machinery, farms, and offices), and production for exchange and profit.
While some people own means of production, or capital, most of us don't and so to survive we need to sell our ability to work in return for a wage, or else scrape by on benefits. This first group of people is the capitalist class or "bourgeoisie" in Marxist jargon, and the second group is the working class or "proletariat". See our introduction to class here for more information on class.
Capitalism is based on a simple process – money is invested to generate more money. When money functions like this, it functions as capital. For instance, when a company uses its profits to hire more staff or open new premises, and so make more profit, the money here is functioning as capital. As capital increases (or the economy expands), this is called 'capital accumulation', and it's the driving force of the economy.
Those accumulating capital do so better when they can shift costs onto others. If companies can cut costs by not protecting the environment, or by paying sweatshop wages, they will. So catastrophic climate change and widespread poverty are signs of the normal functioning of the system. Furthermore, for money to make more money, more and more things have to be exchangeable for money. Thus the tendency is for everything from everyday items to DNA sequences to carbon dioxide emissions – and, crucially, our ability to work - to become commodified.
And it is this last point - the commodification of our creative and productive capacities, our ability to work - which holds the secret to capital accumulation. Money does not turn into more money by magic, but by the work we do every day.
In a world where everything is for sale, we all need something to sell in order to buy the things we need. Those of us with nothing to sell except our ability to work have to sell this ability to those who own the factories, offices, etc. And of course, the things we produce at work aren't ours, they belong to our bosses.
Furthermore, because of long hours, productivity improvements etc, we produce much more than necessary to keep us going as workers. The wages we get roughly match the cost of the products necessary to keep us alive and able to work each day (which is why, at the end of each month, our bank balance rarely looks that different to the month before). The difference between the wages we are paid and the value we create is how capital is accumulated, or profit is made.
This difference between the wages we are paid and the value we create is called "surplus value". The extraction of surplus value by employers is the reason we view capitalism as a system based on exploitation - the exploitation of the working class. See this case study on the functioning of a capitalist restaurant for an example.
This process is essentially the same for all wage labour, not just that in private companies. Public sector workers also face constant attacks on their wages and conditions in order to reduce costs and maximise profits across the economy as a whole.
In order to accumulate capital, our boss must compete in the market with bosses of other companies. They cannot afford to ignore market forces, or they will lose ground to their rivals, lose money, go bust, get taken over, and ultimately cease to be our boss. Therefore even the bosses aren't really in control of capitalism, capital itself is. It's because of this that we can talk about capital as if it has agency or interests of its own, and so often talking about 'capital' is more precise than talking about bosses.
Both bosses and workers, therefore, are alienated by this process, but in different ways. While from the workers' perspective, our alienation is experienced through being controlled by our boss, the boss experiences it through impersonal market forces and competition with other bosses.
Because of this, bosses and politicians are powerless in the face of ‘market forces,’ each needing to act in a way conducive to continued accumulation (and in any case they do quite well out of it!). They cannot act in our interests, since any concessions they grant us will help their competitors on a national or international level.
So, for example, if a manufacturer develops new technology for making cars which doubles productivity it can lay off half its workers, increase its profits and reduce the price of its cars in order to undercut its competition.
If another company wants to be nice to its employees and not sack people, eventually it will be driven out of business or taken over by its more ruthless competitor - so it will also have to bring in the new machinery and make the layoffs to stay competitive.
Of course, if businesses were given a completely free hand to do as they please, monopolies would soon develop and stifle competition which would lead to the system grinding to a halt. The state intervenes, therefore to act on behalf of the long-term interests of capital as a whole.
The primary function of the state in capitalist society is to maintain the capitalist system and aid the accumulation of capital.
As such, the state uses repressive laws and violence against the working class when we try to further our interests against capital. For example, bringing in anti-strike laws, or sending in police or soldiers to break up strikes and demonstrations.
The "ideal" type of state under capitalism at the present time is liberal democratic, however in order to continue capital accumulation at times different political systems are used by capital to do this. State capitalism in the USSR, and fascism in Italy and Germany are two such models, which were necessary for the authorities at the time in order to co-opt and crush powerful working-class movements. Movements which threatened the very continuation of capitalism.
When the excesses of bosses cause workers to fight back, alongside repression the state occasionally intervenes to make sure business as usual resumes without disruption. For this reason national and international laws protecting workers' rights and the environment exist. Generally the strength and enforcement of these laws ebbs and flows in relation to the balance of power between employers and employees in any given time and place. For example, in France where workers are more well-organised and militant, there is a maximum working week of 35 hours. In the UK, where workers are less militant the maximum is 48 hours, and in the US where workers are even less likely to strike there is no maximum at all.
Capitalism is presented as a 'natural' system, formed a bit like mountains or land masses by forces beyond human control, that it is an economic system ultimately resulting from human nature. However it was not established by 'natural forces' but by intense and massive violence across the globe. First in the 'advanced' countries, enclosures drove self-sufficient peasants from communal land into the cities to work in factories. Any resistance was crushed. People who resisted the imposition of wage labour were subjected to vagabond laws and imprisonment, torture, deportation or execution. In England under the reign of Henry VIII alone 72,000 people were executed for vagabondage.
Later capitalism was spread by invasion and conquest by Western imperialist powers around the globe. Whole civilisations were brutally destroyed with communities driven from their land into waged work. The only countries that avoided conquest were those - like Japan - which adopted capitalism on their own in order to compete with the other imperial powers. Everywhere capitalism developed, peasants and early workers resisted, but were eventually overcome by mass terror and violence.
Capitalism did not arise by a set of natural laws which stem from human nature: it was spread by the organised violence of the elite. The concept of private property of land and means of production might seem now like the natural state of things, however we should remember it is a man-made concept enforced by conquest. Similarly, the existence of a class of people with nothing to sell but their labour power is not something which has always been the case - common land shared by all was seized by force, and the dispossessed forced to work for a wage under the threat of starvation or even execution.
As capital expanded, it created a global working class consisting of the majority of the world's population whom it exploits but also depends on. As Karl Marx wrote: "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers."
Capitalism has only existed as the dominant economic system on the planet for a little over 200 years. Compared to the half a million years of human existence it is a momentary blip, and therefore it would be naive to assume that it will last for ever.
It is entirely reliant on us, the working class, and our labour which it must exploit, and so it will only survive as long as we let it.
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An explanation of what we on libcom.org mean by the word "class", and related terms such as "working class" and "class struggle".
The first thing to say is that there are various ways of referring to class. Often, when people talk about class, they talk in terms of cultural/sociological labels. For example, middle-class people like foreign films, working class people like football, upper-class people like top hats and so on.
Another way to talk about class, however, is based on classes' economic positions. We talk about class like this because we see it as essential for understanding how capitalist society works, and consequently how we can change it.
It is important to stress that our definition of class is not for classifying individuals or putting them in boxes, but in order to understand the forces which shape our world, why our bosses and politicians act the way they do, and how we can act to improve our conditions.
The economic system which dominates the world at present is called capitalism.
Capitalism is essentially a system based on the self-expansion of capital - commodities and money making more commodities and more money.
This doesn’t happen by magic, but by human labour. For the work we do, we're paid for only a fraction of what we produce. The difference between the value we produce and the amount we're paid in wages is the "surplus value" we've produced. This is kept by our boss as profit and either reinvested to make more money or used to buy swimming pools or fur coats or whatever.
In order for this to take place, a class of people must be created who don't own anything they can use to make money i.e. offices, factories, farmland or other means of production. This class must then sell their ability to work in order to purchase essential goods and services in order to survive. This class is the working class.
So at one end of the spectrum is this class, with nothing to sell but their ability to work. At the other, those who do own capital to hire workers to expand their capital. Individuals in society will fall at some point between these two poles, but what is important from a political point of view is not the positions of individuals but the social relationship between classes.
The working class then, or 'proletariat' as it is sometimes called, the class who is forced to work for wages, or claim benefits if we cannot find work or are too sick or elderly to work, to survive. We sell our time and energy to a boss for their benefit.
Our work is the basis of this society. And it is the fact that this society relies on the work we do, while at the same time always squeezing us to maximise profit, that makes it vulnerable.
When we are at work, our time and activity is not our own. We have to obey the alarm clock, the time card, the managers, the deadlines and the targets.
Work takes up the majority of our lives. We may see our managers more than we see our friends and partners. Even if we enjoy parts of our job we experience it as something alien to us, over which we have very little control. This is true whether we're talking about the nuts and bolts of the actual work itself or the amount of hours, breaks, time off etc.
Work being forced on us like this compels us to resist.
Employers and bosses want to get the maximum amount of work from us, from the longest hours, for the least pay. We, on the other hand, want to be able to enjoy our lives: we don't want to be over-worked, and we want shorter hours and more pay.
This antagonism is central to capitalism. Between these two sides is a push and pull: employers cut pay, increase hours, speed up the pace of work. But we attempt to resist: either covertly and individually by taking it easy, grabbing moments to take a break and chat to colleagues, calling in sick, leaving early. Or we can resist overtly and collectively with strikes, slow-downs, occupations etc.
This is class struggle. The conflict between those of us who have to work for a wage and our employers and governments, who are often referred to as the capitalist class, or 'bourgeoisie' in Marxist jargon.
By resisting the imposition of work, we say that our lives are more important than our boss's profits. This attacks the very nature of capitalism, where profit is the most important reason for doing anything, and points to the possibility of a world without classes and privately-owned means of production. We are the working class resisting our own existence. We are the working class struggling against work and class.
Class struggle does not only take place in the workplace. Class conflict reveals itself in many aspects of life.
For example, affordable housing is something that concerns all working class people. However, affordable for us means unprofitable for them. In a capitalist economy, it often makes more sense to build luxury apartment blocks, even while tens of thousands are homeless, than to build housing which we can afford to live in. So struggles to defend social housing, or occupying empty properties to live in are part of the class struggle.
Similarly, healthcare provision can be a site of class conflict. Governments or companies attempt to reduce spending on healthcare by cutting budgets and introducing charges for services to shift the burden of costs onto the working class, whereas we want the best healthcare possible for as little cost as possible.
While the economic interests of capitalists are directly opposed to those of workers, a minority of the working class will be better off than others, or have some level of power over others. When talking about history and social change it can be useful to refer to this part of the proletariat as a "middle class", despite the fact that it is not a distinct economic class, in order to understand the behaviour of different groups.
Class struggle can sometimes be derailed by allowing the creation or expansion of the middle class - Margaret Thatcher encouraged home ownership by cheaply selling off social housing in the UK during the big struggles of the 1980s, knowing that workers are less likely to strike if they have a mortgage, and allowing some workers to become better off on individual levels, rather than as a collective. And in South Africa the creation of a black middle class helped derail workers' struggles when apartheid was overturned, by allowing limited social mobility and giving some black workers a stake in the system.
Bosses try to find all sorts of ways to materially and psychologically divide the working class, including by salary differentials, professional status, race and by gender.
It should be pointed out again that we use these class definitions in order to understand social forces at work, and not to label individuals or determine how individuals will act in given situations.
Talking about class in a political sense is not about which accent you have but the basic conflict which defines capitalism – those of us who must work for a living vs. those who profit from the work that we do. By fighting for our own interests and needs against the dictates of capital and the market we lay the basis for a new type of society - a society based on the direct fulfilment of our needs: a libertarian communist society.
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A brief introduction to what we at libcom.org mean when we refer to the state, or government, and how we think we should relate to it as workers.
States come in many shapes and sizes. Democracies and dictatorships, those that provide lots of social welfare, those that provide none at all, some that allow for a lot of individual freedom and others that don't.
But these categories are not set in stone. Democracies and dictatorships rise and fall, welfare systems are set up and taken apart while civil liberties can be expanded or eroded.
However, all states share key features, which essentially define them.
All states have the same basic functions in that they are an organisation of all the lawmaking and law enforcing institutions within a specific territory. And, most importantly, it is an organisation controlled and run by a small minority of people.
So sometimes, a state will consist of a parliament with elected politicians, a separate court system and a police force and military to enforce their decisions. At other times, all these functions are rolled into each other, like in military dictatorships for example.
But the ability within a given area to make political and legal decisions – and to enforce them, with violence if necessary – is the basic characteristic of all states. Crucially, the state claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, within its territory and without. As such, the state is above the people it governs and all those within its territory are subject to it.
In a capitalist society, the success or failure of a state depends unsurprisingly on the success of capitalism within it.
Essentially, this means that within its territory profits are made so the economy can expand. The government can then take its share in taxation to fund its activities.
If businesses in a country are making healthy profits, investment will flow into profitable industries, companies will hire workers to turn their investment into more money. They and their workers will pay taxes on this money which keep the state running.
But if profits dip, investment will flow elsewhere to regions where profits will be higher. Companies will shut down, workers will be laid off, tax revenues will fall and local economies collapse.
So promoting profit and the growth of the economy is the key task of any state in capitalist society - including state capitalist economies which claim to be "socialist", like China or Cuba. Read our introduction to capitalism here.
As promoting the economy is a key task of the state, let's look at the fundamental building blocks of a healthy capitalist economy.
The primary need of a sound capitalist economy is the existence of a group of people able to work, to turn capitalists' money into more money: a working class. This requires the majority of the population to have been dispossessed from the land and means of survival, so that the only way they can survive is by selling their ability to work to those who can buy it.
This dispossession has taken place over the past few hundred years across the world. In the early days of capitalism, factory owners had a major problem in getting peasants, who could produce enough to live from the land, to go and work in the factories. To solve this, the state violently forced the peasants off common land, passed laws forbidding vagrancy and forced them to work in factories under threat of execution.
Today, this has already happened to the vast majority of people around the world. However, in some places in the so-called "developing" world, the state still plays this role of displacing people to open new markets for investors. Read our introduction to class here.
A second fundamental requirement is the concept of private property. While many had to be dispossessed to create a working class, the ownership of land, buildings and factories by a small minority of the population could only be maintained by a body of organised violence - a state. This is rarely mentioned by capitalism's advocates today, however in its early days it was openly acknowledged. As the liberal political economist Adam Smith wrote:
Laws and government may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.
This continues today, as laws deal primarily with protecting property rather than people. For example, it is not illegal for speculators to sit on food supplies, creating scarcity so prices go up while people starve to death, but it is illegal for starving people to steal food.
Different states perform many different tasks, from providing free school meals to upholding religious orthodoxy. But as we mentioned above, the primary function of all states in a capitalist society is to protect and promote the economy and the making of profit.
However, as businesses are in constant competition with each other, they can only look after their own immediate financial interests – sometimes damaging the wider economy. As such, the state must sometimes step in to look after the long-term interests of the economy as a whole.
So states educate and train the future workforce of their country and build infrastructure (railways, public transport systems etc) to get us to work and transport goods easily. States sometimes protect national businesses from international competition by taxing their goods when they come into the country or expand their markets internationally through wars and diplomacy with other states. Other times they give tax breaks and subsidies to industries, or sometimes bail them out entirely if they are too important to fail.
These measures sometimes clash with the interests of individual businesses or industries. However, this doesn't change the fact that the state is acting in the interests of the economy as a whole. Indeed, it can be seen basically as a way to settle disputes among different capitalists about how to do it.
Some states also provide many services which protect people from the worst effects of the economy. However, this has rarely, if ever, been the result of generosity from politicians but of pressure from below.
So for instance, after World War II, the UK saw the construction of the welfare state, providing healthcare, housing etc to those that needed it. However, this was because of fear amongst politicians that the end of the war would see the same revolutionary upheaval as after World War I with events like the Russian and German revolutions, the Biennio Rosso in Italy, the British army mutinies etc.
This fear was justified. Towards the end of the war, unrest amongst the working classes of the warring nations grew. Homeless returning soldiers took over empty houses while strikes and riots spread. Tory MP Quitin Hogg summed up the mood amongst politicians in 1943, saying “if we don't give them reforms, they will give us revolution.”
This does not mean reforms are 'counter-revolutionary'. It just means that the state is not the engine for reform; we, the working class – and more specifically, our struggles – are.
When our struggles get to a point where they cannot be ignored or repressed anymore, the state steps in to grant reforms. We then end up spending the next 100 years hearing people go on about what a 'great reformer' so-and-so was, even though it was our struggles which forced those reforms onto them.
When as a class we are organised and militant, social reforms are passed. But as militancy is repressed or fades away, our gains are chipped away at. Public services are cut and sold off bit-by-bit, welfare benefits are reduced, fees for services are introduced or increased and wages are cut.
As such, the amount of welfare and public service provision to the working class in a society basically marks the balance of power between bosses and workers. For example, the French working class has a higher level of organisation and militancy than the American working class. As a result, French workers also generally have better conditions at work, a shorter working week, earlier retirement and better social services (i.e. healthcare, education etc) -regardless of whether there is a right or left wing government in power.
For decades, in addition to the struggle in workplaces and the streets, many workers have tried to improve their conditions through the state.
The precise methods have differed depending on location and historical context but primarily have taken two main forms: setting up or supporting political parties which run for election and are supposed to act in workers' interests, or more radically having the party seize political power and set up a workers' government through revolution. We will briefly examine two representative examples which demonstrate the futility of these tactics.
However, faced with the realities of being in Parliament, and therefore the dependence on a healthy capitalist economy they quickly abandoned their principles and consistently supported anti-working class policies both in opposition and later in government .
From supporting the imperialist slaughter of World War I, to murdering workers abroad to maintain the British Empire, to slashing workers' wages to sending troops against striking dockers.
When the working class was on the offensive, Labour granted some reforms, as did the other parties. But, just like the other parties, when the working class retreated they eroded the reforms and attacked living standards. For example just a few years after the introduction of the free National Health Service Labour introduced prescription charges, then charges for glasses and false teeth.
As outlined, this was not because Labour Party members or officials were necessarily bad people but because at the end of the day they were politicians whose principle task was to keep the UK economy competitive in the global market.
In Russia in 1917, when workers and peasants rose up and took over the factories and the land, the Bolsheviks argued for the setting up of a "revolutionary" workers' state. However, this state could not shake off its primary functions: as a violent defence of an elite, and attempting to develop and expand the economy to maintain itself.
The so-called "workers' state" turned against the working class: one-man management of factories was reinstated, strikes were outlawed and work became enforced at gunpoint. The state even liquidated those in its own quarters who disagreed with its new turn. Not long after the revolution, many of the original Bolsheviks had been executed by the government institutions they helped set up.
This doesn't mean that our problems would be solved if the state disappeared tomorrow. It does mean, though, that the state is not detached from the basic conflict at the heart of capitalist society: that between employers and employees. Indeed, it is part of it and firmly on the side of employers.
Whenever workers have fought for improvements in our conditions, we have come into conflict not just with our bosses but also the state, who have used the police, the courts, the prisons and sometimes even the military to keep things as they were.
And where workers have attempted to use the state, or even take it over to further our interests, they have failed - because the very nature of the state is inherently opposed to the working class. They only succeeded in legitimising and strengthening the state which later turned against them.
It is our collective power and willingness to disrupt the economy that gives us the possibility of changing society. When we force the state to grant reforms we don't just win better conditions. Our actions point to a new society, based on a different set of principles. A society where our lives are more important than their 'economic growth'. A new type of society where there isn't a minority with wealth that need to be protected from those without; that is, a society where the state is unnecessary.
The state needs the economy to survive and so will always back those who control it. But the economy and the state are based on the work we do every day, and that gives us the power to disrupt them and eventually do away with them both.
A brief introduction to trade or labour unions, their function in society and how we at libcom.org think we should approach them, as workers.
To most people, a union is an organisation of workers created to defend and improve its members' conditions with respect to things like pay, pensions and benefits.
This is partially accurate, but definitely far from the whole story.
It leaves out the other side of trade unionism: the backroom deals, the cuts in pay and conditions presented as a "victory", the strikes called off pending endless negotiations, the members told to break the strikes of other unions, the union activists disciplined by their own unions…
Time and again, union leaders - even left-wing ones - disappoint us. And just like with politicians, every time they do, there's always another one telling us it'll be better next time if we elect them.
The problem, however, is deeper than having chosen the wrong person for the top-spot.
Unions of any reasonable size have a paid staff, and are organised like a company. You have six-figure salary earning executives, appointed middle-managers enforcing decisions from the top and a career ladder into social-democratic political parties, think-tanks, government departments.
In the workplace unions are run day-to-day by workers who volunteer to be representatives, and often suffer personal costs in terms of victimisation for their troubles. However, union members and their lay reps in the workplace can also come into conflict with the union's paid bureaucracy.
This is because the rank and file have different interests to the people who work for and run the union. Union leaders have to put the needs of the union as a legal entity above those of the union as a group of workers fighting for their own interests. This is because their jobs and political positions are dependent on this legal entity continuing to exist. So supporting any action which could get the union in trouble - such as unofficial strike action - is just not on the cards for union leaders.
Even at regional and local level, full-timers don't share the interests of their members. This isn't to do with their ideas or intentions (lots of full-timers are ex-workplace militants who want to help workers organise beyond their own workplaces), it's about their material interests. A win for a worker is more money, longer breaks, better benefits. A win for a full-timer is a spot at the negotiating table with management, so that workers will continue to pay membership dues to the union.
Lay rep or shop steward posts - often taken by the most militant workers - can be complicated. Unlike full-timers, they still work on the shop floor and are paid like those they work with. If bosses cut pay, their pay is cut too. And as a workplace militant, they can be victimised by their bosses for their role.
However, they must also balance between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy's interests. For example, a union rep may be furious that her union is recommending workers accept a pay cut, but she will still have to argue for workers not to leave the union. If they put workers' interests ahead of the bureaucracy's they can find themselves under attack not only from their bosses, but also their union.
Some problems have been with unions since they were first founded. However others are the result of changes in capitalist society since then. Originally, trade unions were illegal, and any organising effort was met with intense repression from employers and governments. Early union militants were often jailed, deported or even killed.
However, when workers kept striking and fighting despite the repression, and succeeded in greatly improving their conditions, employers and governments eventually realised it was in their interests to allow unions to be legally established, and give them a say in the management of the economy.
In this way open conflict between employers and workers could be minimised, and the actual say workers would have could be drastically limited by creating complex legal structures through which our official "representatives" would speak on our behalf. And similarly the way in which we can have our say could also be regulated within a legal framework overseen by the state.
This process has taken place in different ways in different countries and different stages in history, but the net result is similar. Across much of the West we can join unions freely but the actions we can take to defend ourselves from employers are limited by the web of industrial relations laws. Big barriers are placed in the way of taking effective strike action, in particular by banning any action which is not directly related to particular union members' terms and conditions and any kind of solidarity action. The unions have to enforce these anti-worker laws on their own members, as if they did not they would suffer financial penalties and asset seizure - and therefore cease to exist.
Furthermore, once unions accept the capitalist economy and their place in it, their institutional interests become bound to the national economy, since the performance of the national economy effects the unions' prospects for collective bargaining. They want healthy capitalism in their country to provide jobs so they can unionise and represent them. It's not uncommon therefore for trade unions to help hold down wages to help the national economy, as the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) did in the 1970s, or even assist their national governments in mobilising for war efforts, as unions did across Europe in World War I, or as the militant US United Auto Workers (UAW) did in World War II, signing a no strike pledge.
One thing which many radical and left-wing union members often argue for is 'reclaiming the unions' or, sometimes, building new unions without bureaucrats at all. The thing is, unions don't function how they do because of bureaucrats; it's that bureaucrats are created by how unions function (or want to function) in the workplace.
The union's role is a tricky one: in the end, they have to sell themselves twice, to two groups of people with opposing interests (i.e. bosses and workers).
To sell themselves to us, they have to show that there are benefits to union membership. This sometimes means they can help us take action to force management to maintain or improve our conditions, especially if they are trying to gain recognition in a workplace for the first time.
Through getting us to join, they show management that they are the main representative of the workforce. But equally, they also have to show that they are responsible negotiating partners.
Management need to know that once an agreement is reached, the union can and will get their members back to work. Otherwise, why would management do any deals with a negotiating partner that can't honour the agreements it negotiates?
It is from this desire to be a recognised negotiating partner that unions end up acting against their own members. It shows them up in front of management as not being able to control their members. This is why in the UK in 2011 you get a Unite union negotiator calling a rank and file electricians' group “cancerous” just as in 1947 a miners' union official called for legal action against wildcat striking miners “even if there are 50,000 or 100,000 of them”. Similarly, at highpoints in the US union movement in the 1940s and 1970s, the UAW got its own members disciplined and fired for striking unofficially.
So when unions ‘sell us out’ it's not just them ‘not doing their job properly’. They might do one side (ours) badly, but they're doing the other side really well! After all, they need to be able to control our struggles in order to represent them. And this is why the efforts of the so-called "revolutionary left" over the past 100 years to "radicalise" the unions by electing the right officials and passing the right motions have ended up in a dead-end. Indeed, rather than radicalising the unions, the union structures have more often deradicalised the revolutionaries!
The only unions which have resisted this have been those that refused to take this representative role, like the historical IWW in the USA, the old FORA in Argentina and the modern day CNT in Spain. This refusal has cost them in reduced membership numbers, state repression, or both.
Most unions take the easier road, helping to ensure peace, at our expense, in the workplace. They kick our problems into the long grass of grievance procedures, casework forms and backroom negotiations. And employers love it. As a manager at a multinational in South Africa once said when asked why his company had recognised the workers' union: “Have you ever tried to negotiate with a football field full of militant angry workers?”
Since the 1980s, we've seen huge attacks on workers' conditions and drastic changes to the job market. Casual, temporary and agency work have become increasingly common, with workers changing jobs regularly. In the West, many of the traditional industries of the trade union movement have closed down and been replaced by those historically less organised like retail, hospitality and the service sector.
This new reality undermines traditional trade unionism as building union branches with a stable membership becomes much more difficult. However, rather than trying to keep members by helping militants organise in the workplace, the solution for the unions has been in mergers (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE into Unison, TGWU and Amicus into Unite in the UK) and in offering supermarket discount cards and cheap insurance as perks of membership.
Equally, the international nature of the job market has further undermined the official unions. Workers can be employed in one country while working in another and companies themselves can move factories and offices to where labour is cheaper.
For instance, in 2011, Fiat workers in Italy were encouraged by their unions to accept worsened contracts under threat of having the work moved to Poland. Meanwhile, Polish workers themselves were struggling against Fiat. However, in neither country did the unions try to forge international links between workers.
Whereas their representative function makes dealing with the trade union bureaucracy extremely slow and draining for militants in them, these changes to the job market have made them more or less irrelevant for many workers outside of them.
When industrial disputes come up, non-union workers feel they can't do much to support while even those striking may feel they are just going through the ritual of official strike action: management put forward a terrible offer, the union is 'outraged' and calls a one-day strike (maybe a few), negotiations restart and strikes are called off, management come back with a very slightly less terrible deal and union bosses declare victory and recommend it to their members.
However, it does not always have to work like this. The important thing – whether we are members of a union or not – is that we go beyond the limits set by the official unions and restrictive labour laws. Instead of voting for different representatives or passing motions in stale union branch meetings, we need to organise together with our coworkers, to break their rules and stick to our own:
These are not new ideas. These are things which workers – both in unions and out – have done throughout history and, in doing so, have often come into conflict not just with their bosses but also their union bureaucracy.
We often see unions as an organisational framework that gives us strength. And certainly, this is partially true. What we don't always acknowledge (or at least don't act upon) is that the strength a union gives us is actually just our own strength channelled through - and therefore limited by - the union structure.
It is only by acknowledging this and taking struggle into our own hands - by ignoring union divides and not crossing each others' picket lines, by not waiting for our union before taking action, by taking unsanctioned action such as occupations, go slows and sabotage - that we can actually use our strength and start to win.
libcom.org's brief introduction to direct action and why we prefer it to other forms of political activity.
Many people today are worried about the direction that the world is heading in. Whether it's about their working conditions or unemployment, the environment, housing, war or any number of other problems, it's certain that millions (even billions?) of people at some point look for some form of political action to solve their problem.
There are loads of different methods which people use to try and change the world, too many to mention here. Often, however, we think that we can look for help from various 'specialists' like politicians, union leaders, legal experts and the like.
In reality, this isn't the case. Politicians and union leaders have interests different from our own, like basically anyone earning six-figure salaries or even those bumbling around £80-90,000 a year. And trying to find protection behind the law can leave us equally at sea, as the laws that protect us today can simply be changed tomorrow - assuming they're even enforced in the first place!
At the same time, we sometimes decide that at least we can decide to not 'take part' in the worst parts of capitalism. We can choose not to buy from certain 'unethical' companies or even grow our own food.
However, the problem with this is that it makes resistance to capitalism an individual lifestyle choice, and one that not all people can make. For instance, 'fair trade' and organic products are often more expensive than food which is neither.
More seriously though, it makes social problems about individual companies or governments which behave 'badly' rather than a problem with society as a whole. And it still leaves us to face them alone, through our consumer choices. Business as usual continues, just for different businesses. Exploitation continues and there's no amount of fair trade cashew nuts that's gonna change that!
This is why we favour direct action: because it relies on our collective strength to stop 'business as usual' rather than our individual lifestyle choices or appeals to political and union leaders. And because at the end of the day, it means relying each other – the others who share our situation – rather than on so-called 'experts' who ultimately won't have to live with our problems.
Put simply, direct action is when people take action to further their goals, without the interference of a third party. This means the rejection of lobbying politicians or appealing to our employers' generosity to improve our conditions. Ultimately, it's not even just that they don't care – it's that they profit from making our conditions worse. For more on this, read our introduction to class and class struggle.
So we take action ourselves to force improvements to our conditions. In doing so, we empower ourselves by taking control of and responsibility for our actions. So, fundamental to direct action is the idea that we can only depend on each other to achieve our goals
Direct action takes place at the point where we experience the sharp end of capitalism. Often this will mean where we work, as our bosses try to sack us or make us work harder, for less money. Or it can be where we live, as local politicians try to cut spending by getting rid of public services.
Direct action at work is basically any action that interferes with the bosses' ability to manage, forcing them to cave in to their staff's demands.
The best-known form of direct action at work is the strike, where workers walk off the job until they get what they want. However, strike action can sometimes be limited by union bureaucrats and anti-strike laws. That said, workers often successfully ignore these limits and hold unofficial, or 'wildcat', strikes which return a lot of the impact of strike action.
Though there are too many to mention here, some other direct action tactics used by workers are:
occupations; where workers lock bosses out of a workplace, effectively striking but not letting the boss replace them with strike-breakers (also known as 'scabs').
Go-slows; where workers work much slower than usual so as to ensure that less work is done (and so less profit made).
Work-to-rules, another form of on-the-job action, where workers follow every little rule to the letter, again so as to slow down the pace of work.
There are many examples of these kinds of tactics being used successfully. In 1999, London Underground workers engaged in a 'piss strike' against not being allowed to go home once their work was finished. Instead of pissing by the tracks as usual, they would insist on being accompanied to a toilet by the safety supervisor, who had to bring the rest of the team with them (for safety). On their return, someone else would 'realise' they had to go as well, effectively stopping any work happening!
In Brighton in 2009, refuse workers held a successful wildcat strike over management bullying while the same year saw Visteon workers in London and Belfast occupy their factories against redundancies.
Direct action in the workplace has often been used for political ends as well. For instance, in 2008, South African dockers refused to unload arms that were to be taken to Zimbabwe.
However, it is possible for successful direct action to take place outside of the workplace as well, over a variety of issues.
The 2003 Iraq war saw huge demonstrations, including the biggest in British history in London on February 15th where over a million people got really wet marching to Hyde Park. This was unsurprisingly ignored by politicians, who didn't really care about how wet, cold or numerous we were. But direct action outside the workplace and in the community can be effective.
The most famous example in recent British history is the Poll Tax. When Margaret Thatcher attempted to bring in the unpopular tax in 1989, up to 17 million working class people across the country refused to pay it. Non-payment groups spread through communities all over the UK and people set up local anti-eviction networks to confront bailiffs. By 1990, Margaret Thatcher and the Poll Tax had both been beaten. She was also later filmed crying on telly.
Similar non-payment campaigns successfully beat increasing water charges (1993-1996) and bin taxes (2003-2004) in Ireland. In 2011, working people in Greece began the 'We Won't Pay' campaign against rising prices, with people refusing to pay motorway tolls, public transport tickets and some doctors even refusing to charge patients for their treatment.
Mainland Europe has also seen the spread of 'economic blockades'. Often used by students or workers where strike action has not been hugely effective, they involve participants blocking major roads or transport hubs. The idea is that by stopping people getting to work or slowing the transportation of goods and services, the protesters block the economy in much the same way as a strike would.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been involved in tactics like these, breaking out from government-approved (and ineffective) tactics such as lobbying and A-to-B marches.
Direct action is a rejection of the idea that we are powerless to change our conditions. Improvements to our lives are not handed down from above. They must be (and have always been) fought for.
We are always told about how people fought for the vote. Rarely, however, is it mentioned how workers fought for the welfare state, for decent housing, health care, wages, decent working hours, safe working conditions and pensions.
But direct action is more than just an effective means for defending or improving conditions. It is also, as anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker said, the “school of socialism”, preparing us for the free society many of us strive to create.
Like former Liverpool manager Bill Shankley's approach to life and football, direct action involves collective effort, everyone working for each other and helping each other for a common end. By using direct action, even when we make mistakes, we learn from experience that we don't need to leave things to ‘experts’ or professional politicians. This course offers us nothing but betrayal and broken promises as well as that long-felt sense of powerlessness.
Direct action teaches us to control our own struggles. To build a culture of resistance that links with other workers in their struggles.
And as our confidence grows in the strength of our solidarity, so too does our confidence in our ability to change the world. And as this grows, the focus moves from controlling our own struggles to controlling our entire lives.
Based on/stolen from What is Direct Action? by Organise! Ireland.
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libcom.org's brief introduction to work, what we think is wrong with it and what we, as workers, can do about it.
For the majority of us, most of our lives are dominated by work. Even when we are not actually at work, we are travelling to or from work, worrying about work, trying to recover from work in order to get back to work the next day, or just trying to forget about work.
For many of us, we don't care about the work we do, we just need the money to get by. And at the end of the month, our bank balances are barely any different from the month before. We spend our days checking our watches, counting down the minutes til we can go home, the days til the weekend, the months til our next holiday…
Even for those of us who have jobs in areas we actually enjoy, we do not control our work. Our work controls us, we experience it as an alien force. Most of us do not control what time we get to work or what time we leave. Nor do we control the pace or volume of our work, what products we make or what services we provide, or how we do it.
For example, nurses may love caring for their patients but still be frustrated by bed shortages, insufficient staffing, punishing shift patterns and arbitrary management targets. And designers may enjoy being creative, but find their creativity is restrained: they are not given free rein to innovate in the way they may want, often having to effectively copy existing products which bosses know will sell.
Paradoxically, while millions of people are overworked, barely able to cope with high workloads and long working hours, millions of other people are jobless and desperate to work.
And then much work, which may be extremely difficult, boring and/or dangerous for workers and destructive for the environment, is not even socially useful. Like in manufacturing, where built-in obsolescence causes products to break down making people buy new ones, or entire industries like sales and advertising which exist only to persuade people to buy more products and work more to buy them.
Lots of other useful work is squandered in supporting socially useless industries, like energy generation being used to power telemarketing call centres, the manufacture of bogus cosmetic and medical products, or the arms industry whose only product is death.
While automation, mechanisation and productivity continually increases, working hours and working years don't fall. In fact, in most places they are rising, as retirement ages are put up and working hours are increased.
So if there are so many problems with work, why is it like this?
The reason is pretty simple: we live in a capitalist economy. Therefore it is this system which determines how work is organised.
As outlined in our introduction to capitalism, the primary essence of the capitalist economy is accumulation.
Money - capital - is invested to become more money. And this happens because of our work. Our work is the basis of the economy.
This is because our work adds value to the initial capital, and the value we add comes to more than our wages. This surplus value results in the growth of the initial capital, which funds profits and expansion.
The lower our wages, the harder we work and the longer our hours the bigger this surplus value is. Which is why employers in the private, public and even cooperative sector continually attempt to make us work harder and longer for less pay.
Similarly, our jobs are made dull and monotonous, so unskilled workers can do it cheaper. The products we produce or the services we provide are also often substandard to keep costs low.
Mass unemployment functions to keep wages of overworked employed workers down as workers who are not afraid of being replaced by the unemployed can demand higher wages, better conditions and shorter working hours. (This is why governments don't just end unemployment by reducing the length of the maximum working week.)
Enterprises which extract the most surplus value - and so profit and expand the most - succeed. Those which don't, fail.
So if a company or an industry is profitable, it grows. This is regardless of whether it is socially necessary, destroys the environment or kills its workers.
This growth also relies on unwaged work, such as housework or domestic labour. This includes the reproduction of workers in the form of producing and raising children - the next generation of workers - and servicing the current workforce: physically, emotionally, and sexually. This unpaid labour is predominantly carried out by women.
Even though the nature of work is determined overall by the economic system we live under, there are things we can - and do - do as workers here and now to improve our situation.
If our work is the basis of the economy, and the basis of growth and profits, then ultimately we possess the power to disrupt it, not to mention ultimately take it over for ourselves.
Every day we resist the imposition of work. Often in small, individualised and invisible ways. We sometimes get in late, leave early, steal moments to talk to colleagues and friends, take our time, pull sickies…
And sometimes we resist in bigger, collective and more confrontational ways.
By taking direct action like stopping work - striking - we stop the gears of production, and prevent profits from being made. In this way we can defend our conditions and leverage improvements from our bosses.
In the 1800s in Western countries, working hours averaged 12-14 hours per day, six or seven days a week under appalling conditions with no holidays or pensions.
Facing off massive repression from employers and governments, workers organised themselves and struggled for decades, using strikes, occupations, go slows and even armed uprisings and attempted revolutions. And eventually won the far better conditions most of us have today: the weekend, paid holiday, shorter working hours…
Of course outside of the West many workers still experience these Victorian conditions today, and are currently fighting against them.
If we organise to assert our needs on the economy, we can improve our conditions further. And if we do not they will be eroded back to the level of the 1800s.
By organising together we do not only improve our lives now but we can lay the foundations for a new type of society.
A society where we don't just work for the sake of making profits we will never see or building a 'healthy' economy but to fulfil human needs. Where we organise ourselves collectively to produce necessary goods and services - as workers did albeit briefly in Russia in 1917, Italy in 1920, Spain 1936 and elsewhere. Where we get rid of unnecessary work and make all necessary tasks as easy, enjoyable and interesting as possible. A libertarian communist society.
libcom.org's clearly written short introductions to various political philosophies related to libertarian communism with which we are sympathetic.
A short introduction to anarchist-communism.
Anarchist communism is a form of anarchism that advocates the abolition of the State and capitalism in favour of a horizontal network of voluntary associations through which everyone will be free to satisfy his or her needs.
Anarchist communism is also known as anarcho-communism, communist anarchism, or, sometimes, libertarian communism. However, while all anarchist communists are libertarian communists, some libertarian communists, such as council communists, are not anarchists. What distinguishes anarchist communism from other variants of libertarian communism is the formers opposition to all forms of political power, hierarchy and domination.
Anarchist communism stresses egalitarianism and the abolition of social hierarchy and class distinctions that arise from unequal wealth distribution, the abolition of capitalism and money, and the collective production and distribution of wealth by means of voluntary associations. In anarchist communism, the state and property no longer exist. Each individual and group is free to contribute to production and to satisfy their needs based on their own choice. Systems of production and distribution are managed by their participants.
The abolition of wage labour is central to anarchist communism. With distribution of wealth being based on self-determined needs, people will be free to engage in whatever activities they find most fulfilling and will no longer have to engage in work for which they have neither the temperament nor the aptitude. Anarchist communists argue that there is no valid way of measuring the value of any one person's economic contributions because all wealth is a collective product of current and preceding generations. Anarchist communists argue that any economic system based on wage labour and private property will require a coercive state apparatus to enforce property rights and to maintain the unequal economic relationships that will inevitably arise.
Well known anarchist communists include Peter, or Piotr, Kropotkin (Russia), Errico Malatesta (Italy) and Nestor Makhno (Ukraine). Kropotkin is often seen as the most important theorist of anarchist communism, outlining his economic ideas in books The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops. Kropotkin felt co-operation to be more beneficial than competition, arguing in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution that this was illustrated in nature. Anarchist communist ideas were very influential in the introduction of anarchism to Japan through the efforts of Kôtoku Shûsui in the early 1900s who corresponded with Kropotkin and translated his works. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (who were both deported from USA in 1919) became important proponents of ‘Communist anarchism’ and became especially critical of Bolshevism after they discovered its devastating reality first-hand in Russia, and after the Red Army's crushing of the Kronstadt uprising. They in turn had been influenced by German-born émigrée to the USA, Johann Most, who had earlier helped bring anarchist communist thought to Britain though his contact with Frank Kitz in London around 1880 (see Anarchist Communism in Britain for a full historical account).
Many platformists refer to themselves as anarchist communists, although other anarchist communists are uncomfortable with some areas of the Organisational Platform document, such as the issue of ‘collective responsibility’ as supported by Mahkno but opposed by Malatesta. While historically many anarchist communists have been active anarcho-syndicalists, many are critical towards those syndicalists who seek some form of self-managed wage system rather than its abolition, pointing out that any system which maintains economic relations based on reward of effort and exchange is not communist.
Modern day anarchist communists are represented in several organisations within the International of Anarchist Federations, including the Anarchist Federation (Britain). Platformist anarchist communists include the Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and the North-Eastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (USA). Many nascent Eastern European, Russian and Caucasian anarchist groups identify with anarchist communism and there is a strong anarchist communist current amongst contemporary Latin American and Caribbean anarchist organisations.
Edited by libcom from an article by the Anarchist Federation.
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A short explanation of anarcho-syndicalism and notes on its history.
Anarcho-syndicalism is one of the major forms of social anarchism. The idea behind anarcho-syndicalism is to combine the economic methods of syndicalism with the revolutionary politics of anarchism. This leads anarcho-syndicalists to be involved in everything from small propaganda groups to mass revolutionary unions, always organised according to anarchist principles, on a decentralised, federated basis.
Anarcho-syndicalism developed out of Revolutionary Syndicalism, however whereas Revolutionary Syndicalists rejected any politics in the union (in the 1906 Charter of Amiens), anarcho-syndicalists insisted that any organisation of workers must have explicitly revolutionary politics lest it lapse into reformism and collaboration with the ruling class. Following the Revolutionary Syndicalist CGT’s support for World War One, against the anarchist principle of international working class solidarity, the Spanish CNT voted in 1923 to adopt libertarian communism (anarchism) as its explicit goal.
While anarcho-syndicalists advocate similar tactics to syndicalists, their revolutionary politics mean they don't aim to recruit all workers into ‘One Big Union.’ Instead, they try and organise alongside non-anarcho-syndicalist workers by advocating mass meetings, factory committees and workers’ councils which unite all workers. Commenting on the Russian Revolution, Russian anarcho-syndicalist GP Maximov wrote that:
It is a noteworthy feature of the revolution that despite the rather small influence of Anarchists on the masses before its out break, it followed from its inception the anarchistic course of full decentralisation; the revolutionary bodies immediately pushed to the front by the course of revolution were Anarcho-Syndicalist in their essential character. These were of the kind which lend themselves as adequate instruments for the quickest realisation of the Anarchist ideal - Soviets, Factory Committees, peasant land committees and house committees, etc.
At its foundation in 1922, the International Workers' Association (IWA) committed itself to "the establishment of economic communities and administrative organs run by the workers in the field and factories, forming a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party, bar none." In more recent times, the late 1980s saw the CNT organise mass assemblies in the workplace and community during the Puerto Real dockyard struggles.
|Spain 1936 - anarcho-syndicalist workers in the CNT construct armoured cars to fight the fascists in one of the collectivised factories|
Another important element of anarcho-syndicalism is that it doesn’t limit itself to workplace activity, seeing tactics such as rent strikes and unemployed organising as means to further working class demands outside the workplace, alongside the more typically syndicalist direct action of strikes, occupations and sabotage by workers at the point of production.
The aim of the anarcho-syndicalist union is not just to win improved conditions. It would also serve as "the elementary school of Socialism" (Rudolf Rocker, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism). In this way, anarcho-syndicalist unions aim to ‘create the new world in the shell of the old’ and they take very seriously Bakunin’s remark that the workers’ organisations must create "not only the ideas but also the facts of the future" in the pre-revolutionary period. The organisation of the union would prepare workers for the direct democracy, self-activity and mutual aid needed if the future society is to succeed.
Anarcho-syndicalists, like all libertarian communists, "are convinced that a Socialist economic order cannot be created by the decrees and statutes of a government, but only by... the taking over of the management of all plants by the producers themselves" (Rocker, ibid.). Political parties are not just unnecessary for social change, but actually hold it back. These parties (even those claiming to represent the workers) stifle working class self-activity by attempting to either negotiate with government or by trying to lead the working class to victory.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers should take direct action to get better conditions at work and win social and political demands (while always having revolution and workers’ control as their final goal). An example of this would be the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) striking for the release of political prisoners in the beginning of the 20th Century, and British construction workers doing the same in the 1970s. Other recent political strikes include general strikes against the second Iraq war in Italy, Spain and Germany.
Between 1905 and 1939, anarcho-syndicalism gained itself a very prominent position in the workers’ movements of France, Italy and Spain (the CNT playing a leading role in the Spanish Civil War and Revolution in 1936-39) as well as in Latin America where anarchism was the predominant force in the workers' movement in many countries (such as in Argentina, Brazil and, to some extent, Peru). Today, though not as powerful a force as it once was, it still plays a significant role in workers’ struggles in areas of Western Europe.
A short history and explanation of the ideas and practice of council communism.
Council communism was a militant workers' movement that first emerged in Germany and the Netherlands during the 1920s. Today it continues as an important theoretical current within libertarian communism.
The central (and simple) argument of council communism, in stark contrast to both reformist social democrats and Leninists, is that workers’ councils which arise in workplaces and communities during periods of intense struggle are the natural form of working class organisation. This view is completely opposed to reformist or Leninist arguments which stress that the working class are incapable of doing anything by ourselves and need to rely on vanguard parties, ballot boxes (and the state institutions that both of these entail) to sort out our problems.
These conclusions lead council communists to maintain very similar positions to those held by anarchist communists with the main difference often, but not always, being a commitment to Marx and his methods of analysis. As such there are historical and present day instances of close cooperation between the two currents, even to the point of council communists becoming members of anarchist communist groups.
Following from this, council communists argue that society and the economy should be managed by federations of workers’ councils, made up of delegates elected at workplaces and can be recalled at any moment by those who elected them. As such, council communists oppose bureaucratic state socialism. They also oppose the idea of a revolutionary party seizing power, believing that any social upheaval led by one these ‘revolutionary’ parties will just end up in a party dictatorship.
They also believe that the role of the revolutionary party is not to perform the revolution for the working class, but only to agitate within the class, encouraging people to take control of their own struggles through the directly democratic institutions of workers’ councils.
It’s sometimes been thought that council communists have maintained an ‘outside and against’ position on bureaucratic reformist trade unions, seeing them as a brake on workers’ militancy and believing that the leadership, whose role is seen as little more than ‘cops with flat caps’, will always eventually sell out the membership. It is true that, historically at least, council communists have been anti-trade union. However, this has largely been due to the context in which council communists were writing. For instance, German council communists of the 1920s were fully aware of the German trade unions’ role in betraying the attempted workers’ revolution in 1918. However, in modern times, though keeping a very critical view of trade unions and their undemocratic nature, council communists generally believe that having a union is better for workers than not having one.
Council communists obviously also held a strong criticism of the ‘successful’ Russian revolution of 1917. Though they felt that originally it had a pro-working class nature about it, it ended up being a bourgeois revolution, with the new ‘communist’ leaders replacing the old feudal aristocracy with a state capitalist bureaucracy. The council communists hold that the Bolshevik Party just took over the role of individual capitalists rather then got rid of it.
The council communists emerged largely out of the German rank-and-file trade union movement, who opposed their unions and organised increasingly radical strikes towards the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. These formed into the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), it's union the AAUD, and the AAUD-E, whose hey-day was in the attempted German revolution of 1918-19. Similar tendencies developed within the workers’ movements of Italy, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.
The brutally repressed but briefly successful anti-USSR workers' uprising in Hungary 1956 is often used as a practical example of how workers' councils can arise naturally out of the working class during periods of intense class struggle, even despite the workers' lack of explicit commitment to council communist theory.
Council communist ideas have since been taken on by many libertarian communists around the world with groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Situationist International being greatly influenced by them.
However, these groups are sometimes designated derogatively as 'councilist' by council communists, for overtly obsessing over workers' spontaneity and submitting to what Mark Shipway describes as 'an empty, formalistic emphasis on workers’ councils which completely neglects the communist content of the council communist equation.' This is perceived as dangerous because it is possible that workers might be able to spontaneously take over the means of production during a crisis but only end up establishing a form of 'self-managed capitalism' in which federated workers' councils govern the world but unpleasant capitalist wage relations are still retained.
Council communists in contrast think that the working class must develop to possess a strong political consciousness and have communism and the abolition of capitalism set as their goal; the councils are only the means by which this goal can be realised. This was also the criticism made by the KAPD/AAUD when the AAUD-E split from them in rejection of a separate organisation of communists.
By libcom, 2005 (subject to subsequent edits by forum members)
|Council communism - an introduction.pdf||57.34 KB|
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A short introduction to the ideas of the Situationists. Based in France, their strand of libertarian Marxism became popular after the mass strikes of 1968.
Situationist ideas came from the European organisation the Situationist International, formed in 1957. While it lasted only 15 years, its ideas were deeply influential, and have been a part of Western society - and radical movements - ever since.
Resisting any attempts to file their ideas into a static ideology, situationism, the SI called attention to the priority of real life, real live activity, which continually experiments and corrects itself, instead of just constantly reiterating a few supposedly eternal truths like the ideologies of Trotskyism, Leninism, Maoism or even anarchism. Static ideologies, however true they may be, tend, like everything else in capitalist society, to rigidify and become fetishised, just one more thing to passively consume.
Partly as a result of this, Situationist ideas are notoriously difficult to explain, and open to a wide degree of interpretation. However, a few facts can be stated. Most introductions to the Situationists focus on their cultural ideas, particularly in relation to detournement (subverting elements of popular culture) and the development of punk, but the roots of Situationist ideas are in Marxism. Libertarian Marxism, closer to anarchism than authoritarian strands of traditional Marxism, with the central idea that workers are systematically exploited in capitalism and that they should organise and take control of the means of production and organise society on the basis of democratic workers' councils.
The Situationists, or Situs, were the first revolutionary group to analyse capitalism in its current consumerist form. Then as now, in the West most workers were not desperately poor, toiling 12 hours a day in factories and mines (workers' struggles over the previous 150 years saw to that) but the poverty of everyday life had never been greater. Workers were not beaten down with savage repression, so much as with illusions in empty consumer goods, or spectacles, which were imbued by culture and marketing with characteristics they don’t really possess. For example, that purchasing this or that gadget or brand of shoes will make your life complete, or make your sad life like that of the celebrities and models culture shows us.
The Situs argued that increased material wealth of workers was not enough to stop class struggle and ensure capitalism’s perpetual existence, as many on the left argued at the time, since authentic human desires would be always in conflict with alienating capitalist society. Situationist tactics included attempting to create “situations” where humans would interact together as people, not mediated by commodities. They saw in moments of true community the possibility of a future, joyful and un-alienated society.
"People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths." 1
In a (anti-)spectacular demonstration of the validity of their ideas, a group of Situationists, along with anarchists, at the Nanterre University were instrumental in sparking the Revolt of May 1968 which swept the country, bringing it to a state of near-revolution, with 10 million workers on General Strike, many of them occupying their workplaces.
The key figure in the SI, Guy Debord, committed suicide in 1994 but Situationist ideas live on, having been made a fundamental part of most anarchist theory today, as well as their thoughts on consumerism which are now held as truisms by most people.
“We have a world of pleasure to win, and nothing to lose but boredom.” 2
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A short explanation of revolutionary syndicalism and industrial unionism as well as some notes on their histories.
Syndicalism refers to the practice of organising workers into unions to fight for their interests. Originally, the term comes from the French work for Trade Unionism (Syndiclisme), but in English the term specifically refers to rank-and-file unionism.
There are two major tendencies: Revolutionary Syndicalism, typified by the French CGT, and Industrial Unionism, typified by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). A related tendency is anarcho-syndicalism, but its specifically anarchist politics differentiate it from syndicalism, which is purely economic, or 'non-political'. The idea behind syndicalism is to create an industrial, fighting union movement. Syndicalists therefore advocate decentralised, federated unions that use direct action to get reforms under capitalism until they are strong enough to overthrow it.
Revolutionary Syndicalism has its roots in the anarchist movement, and can be traced back to the libertarian tendency in the First International Workingmens’ Association, when prominent Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that: "the future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal." Industrial Unionism has its roots in the Marxist tradition, with the IWW’s famous 1905 ‘Preamble to the Constitution’ quoting Marx’s dictum “instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’”
|The origins of syndicalism - libertarian socialists meet at Basel in 1869|
Despite these different origins, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism converged on a very similar approach. The central idea is that trade unions divide workers by trade, which can (and has) end up in scabbing. In America, industrial disputes would sometimes see violent clashes between workers of different unions who would ignore each other’s requests to respect picket lines. The aim of syndicalism is to unite all workers into ‘One Big Union’ controlled by the members, from the grassroots.
This is obviously in deep contrast to the current reformist unions who are filled with layer upon layer of bureaucrats who can call off industrial action regardless of the wishes of the membership. This kind of union democracy puts control of workers’ struggles where it belongs: with the workers themselves.
Both Industrial Unionism (as per the 1905 IWW constitution) and Revolutionary Syndicalism (as per the 1906 Charter of Amiens) are non-political, aiming to build unions for all workers regardless of political persuasions. However, this doesn’t mean syndicalists are indifferent to the great social and political issues of the day. Rather syndicalists argue that only by building democratic, workers’power at the point of production (‘industrial democracy’) that social ills can be addressed:
When the industry of the world is run by the workers for their own good, we see no chance for the problems of unemployment, war, social conflict, or large scale crime, or any of our serious social problems to continue.