The history of the worker movement : Erudition and self-satisfaction or revolutionary thinking?

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May 30 2007 20:09
The history of the worker movement : Erudition and self-satisfaction or revolutionary thinking?

The crisis the worker movement is going through hasn't prevented the publication of a great deal of books dealing with its history. Yet, we can be worried about the contents of these books. It could be thought that militants are looking for the reasons of our today's failures in past struggles. But, it has nothing to do with that. On the contrary, history serves as a sanctuary into which each movement locks itself by praising its founding myths (1917, 1936...). This "history" education aiming at indoctrinating but not at developing any critical mind.

That's the way it goes with the anarcho-syndicalist movement. French CNT has just published a book dealing with Cuban anarcho-syndicalism. The topic could be interesting if it analysed the reasons for the collapse of a movement that was maintained itself up to the fifties in Cuba. Unfortunately, this book spreads a most dogmatic vision. The book first praises this movement for some hundred pages, showing dates, initials and social struggles that don't have any syndical interest. This "academicism"that multiplies the information without analysing it looks like the alienating teaching that can be found in the government "Education Nationale". Finally, the death of Cuban anarcho-syndicalism is tackled. This death comes to one single conclusion: anarcho-syndicalism was a victim of the repression of those awful Stalinists. It's a bit short!

Many pages bring up some questions. For instance, we learn that the limited review of the movement "Solidaridad", that considers itself as a mass newspaper, has a circulation of only 1500 issues before Castro comes to power. This is not much considering the fact that this movement says it has a mass influence upon the proletariat on the island. It's obvious that at that moment, anarcho-syndicalism has already been going through a crisis since a long time. And this is precisely what it is interesting to understand for revolutionary militants who don't want to repeat the past mistakes but who want to rebuild on experiences.

The position of the libertarian movement towards Castroists raises a problem. It's a critical support strategy that is adopted, the bourgeois guerrilla warfare led by Castro and Guevara's M26 being considered as one of the elements of an opposition front to dictator Battista. And yet, as early as 1957-1958, Castro appears as the alternative to Cuban liberal bourgeoisie against Battista. At this time, Castro receives some help from CIA. As there is no clear-cut position towards the guerilla, anarcho-syndicalism won't try to take the opposition leadership. It has no self-policy and will finally be eliminated by its former allies.

We have to focus on this point because it's recurrent in anarcho-syndicalism. The case of the Spanish revolution is often presented by the dogmatic tendancy of the movement as a drift, an accident. Yet, a more detailed and international study shows the opposite. In most pre-revolutionary situations in which the libertarian movement had some forces, that one positioned itself for a subordination to the bourgeoisie. It is the case in the 20s, 30s, in Korea. At that time, the occupation of the country by Japan leads to popular and proletarian uprisings, to such an extent that the libertarians control a large part of Northern Manchuria. But the movement leadership publicly calls workers not to get involved into a social revolution in order not to divide the Korean national movement. The main aim is to obtain national independence. In the Chinmin, one of the three Manchuria provinces, Korean anarchist federation militants create an administration called the Mandchuria Korean People Association. In theory, this association relies on a federalist and cooperativist system. But, in the name of the war effort against the Japanese occupier, the revolution is postponed. It will be so for a long time because the province is soon attacked by the Japanese army in the South and by the anarchists' "allies" in the North. In 1931, the province is overwhelmed, and as the revolution is perceived by anarcho-syndicalists as a mere step that follows that of independence, there is no conceivable social strategy.

The same policy is followed in the thirties in Bolivia. At that time, anarcho-syndicalism still has a mass influence. Never will it truly try to overthrow the bourgeoisie. It confines itself to immediate social demands, justified by a theoretical revolutionary speech. The lack of self class strategy will lead the anarcho-syndicalist leadership to enforce a policy of mere pressure upon "reformist" military government. After the signature with the Republican Socialist Party in June 1935, the anarcho-syndicalist leaders go even further in their policy of Popular Front. Their main leader, Gabriel Moises, the secretary of the FOT of Oruro, is chosen by his syndical leanings as a candidate for the post of Minister of Employment in the populist government of Saavedra. Although this proposal is turned down, he will keep on repeating the manoeuvres to take this post from the Stalinists who are also committed in this Popular Front policy. This policy is enforced in...1936 ! But, as in Korea, it goes unnoticed because all libertarian militants are looking at what is going on in Spain.

Much before, most militants of The House of World Worker (COM°of Mexico ally themselves with the new populist government). This alliance is tied upon the proletarians' blood, because the leaders of the HWW form "red " battalions sent to the front to fight the peasants led by Zapata. Brothers Flores Magon and other militants from HWW will condemn this decision but there will be few people to do so. In exchange for this military help, the leaders of HWW will be able to participate in the co-management of the authoritarian government for several decades. CROM, the official group, will have the unhappy privilege of wearing the red and black colours of anarcho-syndicalism from which it comes.
We could also be interested in the evolution of Polish anarcho-syndicalism during the thirties. There is also a loss of selective memory while ZZZ confederation was at the time the most numerous libertarian center in the world after CNT. And yet there has been no study dedicated to it in the libertarian movement. It's true that its history is not most glorious. When he comes to office in 1926, Pilsudski tries to establish a both social and authoritarian government. In order to form a social basis, he boosts the creation of anarcho-syndicalists trade unions that will give birth to ZZZ in 1931. This one applies to join AIT. ZZZ has to wait up to 1935 and for the collapse of the government to gain a relative unionist independence. But, without the official support of the State, there will no longer be more than 35000 members, this enabling the social-communist group to reach 400,000 members and to organise the great strikes of 1936-1937..
Mexico, Poland, Spain, Bolivia, Korea: the same political weakness produces the same effects.

Worker autonomy and revolutionary strategy.

This weakness is not peculiar to anarcho-syndicalism. All revolutionary movements have been handicapped by their difficulty in working out a really anti-capitalist autonomous programme. The worker movement has always had difficulty in ensuring its autonomy. That's why every revolutionary movement has first to go through a criticism of its past mistakes. The book mentioned doesn't go in this way. We are at the very least surprised by the author's words when he speaks about the treason of some anarcho-syndicalist leaders who join the bourgeoisie's ranks: " Enrique Messonier, Antonio Penichet, Helio Nardo, who respectively joined the Liberal Party in 1901, the Authentic Party in the early 30s and the Orthodox Party in the late 1940s. These attitudes were not considered as treason by most libertarian militants, who thought that these ex-fellows were free to choose their political destiny. As a result, they were not cursed." (page 71). Earlier, we can hear of " friends the libertarians used to count among the Liberal Party members". It's also reminded that libertarians played a main part in the fall of dictator Machado in 1933 (page 76). But, what were the relationships with the liberal bourgeoisie, with rebellious militants and with the USA that also participated in the fall of the dictator, is not mentioned. Because, here too, some bridges existed but it's permanent amnesia! And yet, confusion and opportunism show through as we go on reading. The case of left nationalism in its struggle against Battista is mentioned:
" Looking for allies in groups of revolutionary opposition, some libertarian militants joined a socialist-inspirated organisation called "Joven Cuba"." (page 78). Within two lines, a political choice that was fraught with consequences is disposed of. Joven Cuba has never been a "revolutionary" organisation but one of those nationalist-populist organisations that emerged in the Latin-American bourgeoisie at that time. It was founded by Antonio Guiteras, the former Home Secretary from a former nationalist government. Joven Cuba didn't attract a few libertarians, as we could think when reading the book, but it attracted a great deal of unionist anti-capitalist leaders from all sides. The Authentic Party, in the same left nationalist move, also attracts a lot of syndicalists and unionists. Among the most famous, we can mention Sandalio Junco ( the secretary of CNOC and one of Andres Nin's fellows at ISR) and Eusebio Mujal ( who leads the Worker federation in Havana with other syndicalists close to the Spanish POUM). These renegades allowed the nationalist bourgeois and mainly the Authentic Party to take the control of the Cuban syndical movement.
And these ties with Cuban bourgeoisie were never really cut off, which explains the fact that little by little, because of the lack of revolutionary strategy, Cuban syndicalism , all sides, swang to a class collaboration that was hiding under another name. Nothing then could prevent Castro, supported by the bourgeoisie, from taking the power. For the Labour movement was not really autonomous.

The simplistic, intellectual and dogmatic vision of the worker history is widely spread in "militant" books. Surprisingly, when we want to study these experiences through a class analysis, we have to refer to academic studies, which are sometimes interested in sociological and economic realities, that is to say in materialism. That's the way it goes with the book "Memory and oblivion, anarchism and Brazilian revolutionary syndicalism" by Jacy Alves de Seixas ( Editions de la maison des sciences de l'homme, Paris, 1992, 298 pages). This study reminds us that anarcho-syndicalism was far from representing the hegemonic movement in the Latin American worker movement, as it is often written. On the contrary, Brazilian "libertarian" syndicalists, allied with some dissident Marxist movements in the social democracy, were not in favour of an anarchist syndicalism at all. They would take up again the model of the French CGT, of IWW and of the original Spanish CNT, all of them being attached to unionist independence. Even the Argentinian FORA, that was the spearhead of international anarcho-syndicalism was constantly contested by unitarian movements, from within (FORA 5th Congress) and from the UGT (Mainly Revolutionary Syndicalists, RS). Brazilian worker organisations also take up this worker autonomy line. Unfortunately, they will want to keep in touch with the anarcho-syndicalist trend, deeply antisyndical. And in the name of this unity of revolutionaries, Brazilian syndicalists will refuse to assume a really autonomous line. Brazilian RS, unlike other countries, will never go as far as asserting the role of the Trade Union as a unified revolutionary instrument. They will then let other proletarian organisations develop: community associations, production and consumption cooparatives, mutual help associations,... And the worst is the fact that they are often led by the same militants.

The worker movement is thus chopped up, which led to its division and to its lack of homogeneous revolutionary strategy. the case of Brazil is caricatured. Trade Unions, federations and confederations keep on changing initials after their fall following a few years' life. They often come back to life after having fallen down because of their lack of stability, a stability which could only be offered by socialised services and by the worker control strategy. The caricatured image of the general strike, influenced by the politician strategy of "revolutionary gym" would only cause people to lose heart, the backward surges following the partial victories. Because it lacks strategic view, the worker movement is thus unable to organise itself as a counter society. It's restless but it has no power to protest against the political leadership of the bourgeoisie.

From these material weaknesses, we can understand the development of Bolchevism in Latin America. Because, in nearly all countries, the Communist Parties are organised from RS networks and especially from the "libertarian" branches. The best-known career is that of Enrique Flores Magon (Ricardo's brother and struggle comrade) who will quickly become the leader of the Mexican CP and of the ISR on the continent. The CP could only organise itself thanks to the weaknesses of RS and to libertarians. Because, above the mythic vision of the Russian revolution, it's above all the Leninist rigour that seduced thousands of militants committed so far in short-lived struggles with no political perspectives. Denying this reality, as most "militant" books do, amounts to refusing to analyse the reasons for our mistakes and to locking ourselves into a logic of perpetual vanquished and martyrs... or traitors who end up being integrated and taken over by the bourgeoisie.

A political book on the Spanish revolution at last!

Among the books that can help the militants to form themselves, we can recommend you nothing but the recent book by François Godicheau, The Spanish War, Republic and revolution in Catalonia (1936-1939). Editions Odile Jacob.
We won't focus on what makes the core of that book, that is to say the political repression against revolutionary militants in Catalonia from 1936 onwards. We won't do so because our readers wouldn't believe us if we took up the information given by this young academic who has devoted his Ph.D on this subject. The data can't be denied because they are not based on the study of some testimonies, as in most other books, but they're based on archives. To sum up, we could say that the leadership of the CNT has supported and then actively participated in the repression of their own militants (4,000 arrests in Catalonia only) as early as 1936. We suggest the militants who are interested in getting more information to read the 200 explicit pages. What is interesting there is not the fact that it breaks down the near religious vision some militants have of the Spanish revolution and of the CNT once and for all. What is interesting is the fact that it shows that the action of an organisation that is supposed to be revolutionary is not determined by philosophical references. They're the material conditions that this one has participated in eliminating. In support of this book, a very important political comparison can be done between the drifts of the Russian revolution and the Spanish revolution. That is how a bourgeois State managed to rebuild itself by relying on a so-called revolutionary organisation.

And F. Godicheau rightly goes back over the determining material facts. He gives details, for lots of pages, about the conditions of the class war at that time. A war class the CNT goes through from July 1936. Thus, we learn that in 1937, the "dissidents" of the CNT, avove all representative of the unskilled proletariat, lead a real class struggle in "cooperative" companies. For, in these cooperatives, CNT and UGT leaders take the power by unitying with the executives in order to dispossess the workers of their company. That's why Durruti's Friends will undertake the reinforcement of industry federations to which they gave two functions. First of all, protesting against the economic power of the state bureaucratie (confederal and republican) relying on true proletarian organs of economic planning. Then, to Durruti's Friends, these federations were used to coordonate the unionist sections that would reorganise in these "cooperative" company to... struggle against the bureaucratized CNT leadership of these companies. This reality is also an answer to leftist and "councilist" movements which justify their existence by a fundamental criticism of revolutionary-syndicalism. Yet, in Spain, it was the unionist sections that were used as revolutionary proletarian power to face the board of management coming from "direct democracy". This example shows that without the practice of worker control in the unionist movement, workers have much difficulty in managing their company after the victory of revolution. It also shows the limits of "councilism" (conseillism) because without any industry federations and local unions, the "cooperative" companies founder into corporatist and selfish practices. The worker councils can't replace the structured organisations of the unionist movement. At best, they can help them organise themselves.
We learn that these conflicts were not anecdotic at all and that on the contrary, the position of Durruti's Friends represented the majority in the Catalonian CNT trade-unions. We are then far from the idyllic description published by some libertarian papers about the economic "socialization". When reading the book and the material description of the means of production, we feel like it was a real mess leading to the scarcity and to the reinforcement of the republican movement. All that is due to the lack of economic training of the CNT militants and of the non existence of trade-unions and of industry federations (blocking any worker control before 1936). We don't go from capitalist domination to worker management in 24 hours! A lot of workers have to be syndically trained before. Neither the political agitation of the FAI nor the papers of Kropotine, the Russian prince who knew the peasant and worker world only from a distance were not really helpful.

This study that can become a reference for each syndicalist militant, must help us organise ourselves today in order not to repeat the same mistakes when we want to have revolutionary perspectives.