The penguin history of Brighton SolFed-thought

The evolution of Brighton Solfed, if Banksy drew it.

A brief and incomplete account of the evolution of ‘Brighton SolFed thought’, so if you don’t get what we’re on about you might have some context.

Right, this seems completely narcissistic, but a lot of the discussions on libcom tend to swing quickly into abstract, theoretical discussions, often prone to go in circles with people talking past each other etc. This has definitely been true of stuff I’ve said, but also other stuff from SolFed individuals and collectively written things. Assuming good faith (which for the most part I think you can), there’s a communication problem.

I think it’s partly the nature of internet discussion itself, but also that since the discussion focuses on theory there’s very little context to any of it, very little sense of where it’s coming from and very little sense of what’s at stake. So, I thought I’d write a brief and incomplete account of the evolution of ‘Brighton SolFed thought’, so if you don’t get what we’re on about you might have some context. Personal capacity etc etc.

When we founded the local about 5 years ago most of the members were pretty young and inexperienced in ‘doing politics’, mostly with a background in activism that they’d moved away from. We joined SolFed because we wanted to be part of a proper organisation, a couple of founding members had links to SF and the A&Ps/strategy looked pretty good. We had no real idea of what a SolFed local should actually do, and at this point SolFed nationally was pretty dysfunctional – there was no induction, no introductory literature etc, so we were pretty much on our own.

So we started doing various ‘class struggle’ things. Going along to picket lines. Writing propaganda about class struggles. Leafletting. We actually had a platformist member at one point who suggested doing a local newsletter and delivering it door-to-door in our areas. We did one issue and abandoned it. We weren’t really happy with the activity of the group, but couldn’t put our finger on why. It felt a lot like activism, only with ‘class struggle’ substituted for GM crops or the arms trade.

Fundamentally, although we were theoretically committed to a ‘politics of everyday life’, our politics had nothing to do with our everyday lives! Class struggle was something that happened to other people. Going down to a picket line at 5am to distro a leaflet was barely any different to going to get on the roof of an arms company or trash a field of GM crops. So we started thinking about whether it could be done better, or whether being in a political group was basically just activism for people with better politics.

A few things started happening around the same time. Some of us had problems at work, and were trying to think how to apply the SF industrial strategy of organising mass meetings – which seemed a big jump from being one isolated ‘revolutionary’. The composition of the group had shifted to more workers and less students, which meant we had more stability, and consequently started thinking further ahead and more strategically. At this point there was no formal sharing of skills and experiences within SolFed, so we were working stuff out as we went as mostly young workers with little organising experience (if we’d had someone with experience of workplace organising, maybe things would have developed differently).

By this point SolFed nationally had started to get its act together and had organised a weekend school, a big part of which was strategy discussions. We read-up on SolFed’s strategy and DAM’s ‘Winning the Class War’. These really got us thinking, everyone seemed to agree on stuff but hypothetical revolutionary unions didn’t help us stop being just a political propaganda group – which was feeling a lot like activism to us (maybe we were doing it wrong?).

Two main stories influenced our thinking: one of our members had previously been in the IWW, and got screwed over when organising ‘as a union’ since they didn’t actually have the power to force any concessions. As it was told, they just all got together, said they were a union and then – got fucked. This got us thinking there was more to functioning as a union than just ‘mass’ (i.e. apolitical) recruitment. The other story was from an SF member who’d organised a federation of neighbourhood associations in his town with an anarcho-syndicalist constitution – but which ended up being used for reactionary purposes. This got us thinking that anarcho-syndicalist ‘form’ without class struggle content was a dead-end, or even counter-productive.

So we wrote a pamphlet. We got a lot of details wrong, the history was sloppily sourced and superficial and the writing style was overly abstract, as you might expect when a bunch of university educated people aren’t quite sure what it is they’re trying to express. But our fundamental argument was basically that ditching revolutionary principles in favour of ‘mass’ growth was not a viable strategy (we perceived the IWW as doing this), which left two options: remain a propaganda group or function as a ‘network of militants’ – defined less ideologically but in terms of practice. I don’t think anyone really got this, which is probably our fault for the way we expressed it. Most people seemed to put a label on it (‘council communism’ was a common one) and then be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the pamphlet in its entirety rather than engaging with the arguments.

An SF comrade from Manchester wrote a lengthy critique, which we found ourselves largely agreeing with – thinking we were trying to say the same thing in a different vocabulary. This kicked off all sorts of internal discussions, initially of a more theoretical nature but which evolved into more practical and strategic questions of how we move away from being a propaganda group without ditching revolutionary principles. One result was a Brighton-penned leaflet, incorpoating many of the criticisms, which was reproduced by many locals and adopted as a national leaflet. Strategy discussions are ongoing, although various things have been put in place like an organiser training programme, improving support for new members etc…

An upshot of those discussions was the development of a shared political vocabulary. So we began to think about propaganda groups as one example of ‘political organisations’, while groups which sidelined politics like the IWW or mainstream unions as ‘economic organisations’. What we want to do was move towards being a political-economic organisation, i.e. one which takes on organising as workers, but does so from a clear revolutionary perspective (we didn’t invent this terminology however).

I think all that gets lost in abstract theoretical discussions, where it may seem like we’re pulling concepts out of thin air, arguing over angels on pinheads or at best from spending too much time in the library pouring over historical texts (guilty on that one). I dunno if this helps clear things up, but we're really not arguing about this stuff because we like political theory, it comes from and is intended to clarify and improve real-world activity. “the idea springs from the act and returns to it.”

Comments

Spikymike
Feb 13 2011 18:30

Joseph,

The group history you describe here is a very positive one whatever label it goes under.

As someone who has been involved in various 'libertarian industrial networks' and 'class struggle anarchist networks' in the past, both of them involving DAM or Solfed comrades amongst others, but all of which were pretty ineffective and short lived, I can see why you wanted something a bit more 'solid' and focussed.

I understand (despite what you may have gleaned from some of my other posts) the 'political vocabulary' that you now share with others in the SolFed. Unfortunately, I have to reiterate that this is not a vocabulary which you share with most other 'pro-revolutionaries' let alone most other workers, something which is surely now obvious and which despite your best intentions will remain a stumbling block for the forseable future.

More importantly there still remains some substantial areas of disagreement on exactly what the 'political' in a practical and effective pro-revolutionary 'political-economic' organisation should be (having accepted, as you seem to do, that other 'political' only groups, by your definition, will continue to exist alongside any such 'political-economic' organisation).

I suspect that for the AF and others the current SolFed 'anarchist' definitions may be seen as too restrictive. I mean from your point of view is there any reason why (and I have to use some labels here) workers who regard themselves as 'marxists', 'council communists', or even 'left communists', as well as those with no particular self identifying label, couldn't be part of your/a 'political-economic' organisation. (see note below) Equally some definitions might seem too wide - for instance to what extent are certain religious labels potentially a bar to membership of such an organisation. (I will ignore the 'workplace roles/membership' issue discussed elswhere).

Is this the difference between your self-defined alternative 'union' and others preference for 'revolutionary workplace groups/networks'?

I realise a lot of this has been discussed before on old threads but clearly I am not the only one who still finds you approach at best confusing.

Perhaps the practical development of SolFed along the lines you seem to be moving will answer these questions for everyone but in the meantime it seems most of us will not be part of that development.

(Note from above: It seems for instance that the CNT-AIT and various Council and Left communists in France share both theoretically and practically an 'assembliest' approach to organising class struggle).

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2011 18:38

you know what i'm not going to do? i'm not going to do another round of 'how does your hypothetical revolutionary union differ from my hypothetical revolutionary workplace group'.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 13 2011 18:54

This is really good JK. Is this in personal capacity or did the group agree on the language? (Not saying one way is better or worse, just curious.)

Planning on posting this up on the Brighton section of the nat'l website and how would you see such a piece fitting into how SF promotes itself online?

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2011 19:17
Chilli Sauce wrote:
This is really good JK. Is this in personal capacity or did the group agree on the language? (Not saying one way is better or worse, just curious.)

Planning on posting this up on the Brighton section of the nat'l website and how would you see such a piece fitting into how SF promotes itself online?

tbh, this was just knocked out as a stream of consciousness, because it struck me several of the people taking strongest issue with our semantics aren't actually in a political organisation, let alone a political organisation trying to move away from being a political organisation. i really think our analysis is inseperable from our activity, but that probably doesn't come across in 'theory' threads when it's just a load of disembodied abstractions being chucked about.

the post is personal capacity but the usage of political/economic/political-economic is used throughout the local and much/most of the organisation (and i've found people find it quite intuitive outside of the libcom milieu, fwiw - i don't know why people find hyphens so perplexing tbh). like i say, we didn't invent this terminology, it crops up throughout the 20th century workers' movement.

i'm not sure it makes sense to put it on the website, it's completely introspective and inward looking and the website's meant to be the opposite.

martinh
Feb 13 2011 19:21
Spikymike wrote:
I suspect that for the AF and others the current SolFed 'anarchist' definitions may be seen as too restrictive. I mean from your point of view is there any reason why (and I have to use some labels here) workers who regard themselves as 'marxists', 'council communists', or even 'left communists', as well as those with no particular self identifying label, couldn't be part of your/a 'political-economic' organisation. (see note below) Equally some definitions might seem too wide - for instance to what extent are certain religious labels potentially a bar to membership of such an organisation. (I will ignore the 'workplace roles/membership' issue discussed elswhere).

Is this the difference between your self-defined alternative 'union' and others preference for 'revolutionary workplace groups/networks'?

This came up in the induction training we trialled last month (and will hopefully be something most people joining SF will get in future).
Ultimately, who joins SF will depend on what the Local and the potential member is comfortable with. There are certain people excluded because of their roles but we explicitly do not exclude people based on religion or how they identtify themselves. This is something we talked about a lot when we last amended the constitution and though I don't think we have a concensus, most SF locals will be happy to have someone who identifies as a communist, anarchist communist, council communist, socialist, or even religious socialist if they agree with what we are doing. It's the agreement that matters, not the label. Personally, I think everyone should be 100% consistent in all their beliefs but am realistic enough to know that it is not likely.
We are, or should be, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation, not an organisation of anarcho-syndicalists. People who don't identify as anarcho-syndicalists are
welcome to join SF as long as they agree with SF.
Regards,

Martin

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2011 19:43
martinh wrote:
I don't think we have a concensus, most SF locals will be happy to have someone who identifies as a communist, anarchist communist, council communist, socialist, or even religious socialist if they agree with what we are doing. It's the agreement that matters, not the label.

that sounds about right.

i mean Spikymike is right, just saying 'political-economic' doesn't tell you any of that - but it's not meant to. it's supposed to be a starting point rather than a conclusion, but discussions have got stuck on loop at that point. i mean the more ideological regional unionism of the historical FORA is distinct from the more 'methodolgical' (i.e. if you accept anarchist methods you're in) industrial unionism of the contemporary CNT, which is distinct from the CNT-AIT in France, which is distinct from the old FAUD and so on. but they all in various ways attempt to combine anarchist politics with syndicalist methods of worker-organisation, as opposed to specific political organisation or dropping the anarcho- from their syndicalism like the CGT-E, SAC, CNT-Vignoles et al. anarcho-syndicaism consists of trial and error around that political-economic core.

Steven.
Feb 13 2011 20:42

Joseph, I think you should consider changing the content type on this to being a blog entry as opposed to a forum thread

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2011 20:53

Good shout

Devrim
Feb 13 2011 21:31
Spikymike wrote:
I suspect that for the AF and others the current SolFed 'anarchist' definitions may be seen as too restrictive. I mean from your point of view is there any reason why (and I have to use some labels here) workers who regard themselves as 'marxists', 'council communists', or even 'left communists', as well as those with no particular self identifying label, couldn't be part of your/a 'political-economic' organisation. (see note below) (see note below) Equally some definitions might seem too wide - for instance to what extent are certain religious labels potentially a bar to membership of such an organisation. (I will ignore the 'workplace roles/membership' issue discussed elswhere).

As some posters on here may know, I was in a political-economic group with some anarcho-syndicalists in the 1980s in the Post office, and was indeed a member of DAM itself for part of the period.

By the standards of SolFed's networks today, I believe that the group was relatively 'successful'. This is not trying to do anybody's efforts today down, and if it was more 'successful', it may well have only been due to differing circumstances. However, the group did exist for a few years, have groups and contacts in differing cities, and produced a reasonably successful bulletin with a circulation of thousands.

It included members of DAM, the ACF, ex-members of Solidarity, a member of Wildcat (myself having left DAM, a supporter of the ICC, some council communists even a disenchanted member of the SWP, and various non-aligned people.

The question that Mike raises concerns what should be the political cohesion of such a group. If I understand correctly SolFed at the moment runs its own networks, which should make for a pretty together group.

Having a wider group as Mike seems to suggest brings up the obvious question of what the political basis of such a group would be.

Communication worker was started by members of DAM as a 'rank-and-file' group. It started other, including in the health sector, at the same time, none of which managed to be as effective. If I remember correctly when we started in DAM had three members in the London Post Office, which latter increased to six (two joining through activity with CWG and one existing member becoming a postman). This gave us a small, but adequate base to produce publications especially when we involved people from the AF, one of whom, who later became 'Monsieur Dupont' was in the London area.

The political basis of the group was a pretty awful, if I remember it correctly, set of 'aims and principles', which we later ditched, but in reality, it was more about whether people wanted to be involved or not.

Now, I don't personal think that a group of this sort needs to have a rigid political platform, and I don't really care what people in such a group would think about God. However, it must have some sort of view about the unions, which is shared by its members. I would think it would be near impossible for people from the ICC, or SolFed, or the AF for that matter, to work effectively with people who wanted to elect a 'left leadership'.

And here lies the problem, CWG split into two after the end of the 1989 strike. The basis of the separation was between members of the ACF, left and council communists, and members of DAM.

It wasn't in any way a bitter split, and those of us who split, the majority I think, changed our name to avoid any conflict, and continued to publish for a while. I don't think the DAM people did. I the left the Post Office (after the strike they introduced a new rule which said that you had to work the hours you were paid for, and the job went a bit downhill), and I think the group slowly fell into inertia.

Why did we feel a need to split. Quite possibly we made mistakes because we were all very young. I was, I think, the youngest of the lot. After three years of editing Communication Worker Bulletin, a national wildcat strike and eight local unofficial strikes I was still only 21. Maybe a more mature approach could have helped, but you know how it is when you are young.

Also the general turmoil in DAM at the time didn't help. At the time DAM believed that it could transform itself, as if by magic, into a syndicalist union, which it decided to do. In my personal opinion, this was a completely unrealistic idea, and I, and another member of CWG were in the South West London branch, which split into the now infamous AWG. Neither of us joined the AWG. I left DAM and joined Wildcat, and the other CWG member in SWLDAM (his initials were PC for those who remember the events) left and joined workers' power.

At the core of the problem I think though was the defeat in the strike, and the conclusions that we drew from it. Whilst the people who were still in DAM (four in London if I remember correctly) seemed to what to continue by finishing every article '...and that is why we need an anarcho-syndicalist union', those who left saw that we needed to be able to intervene on a political level with practical arguments.

Of course this is my, admittedly biased, on the events. Others, though I don't think that many are still around, may well tell it differently.

Still it raises the question of what criteria these sort of groups/networks could have if they are to go beyond being the sections of a single organisation.

Bagtalia Communista (the Italian section of the ICT runs a couple of 'factory groups' and they are, I think, confined to supporters of the organisation though I am not 100% sure.

To bring it up to the present days discussion, I tend to agree with a lot of things that JK says, and if he wants to express it in the language of anarcho-syndicalism that is his propagative. After all, who am I to complain, as a member of an organisation which sometimes seems to set out to explain itself in deliberately arcane terms.

However, I do wonder, and of course writing from another continent makes these things more difficult to discern, whether these are the views of the majority in SolFed, or merely the Brighton local? Are there still people in SolFed who believe that setting up an anarcho-syndicalist union is a practical thing in the near future?

I am not claiming to have the answers, but at least I think I have managed to flesh out Mike's suggestion with a practical example of what it means, and the questions it raises.

Devrim

Devrim
Feb 13 2011 21:33
Steven. wrote:
Joseph, I think you should consider changing the content type on this to being a blog entry as opposed to a forum thread

Just out of interest why? This is a real question I am not really sure what the difference is. Answer by pm if you don't want to derail the thread.

Thanks in advance,

Devrim

Rob Ray
Feb 13 2011 22:03

Forum posts tend to be a bit throwaway and don't get the same exposure as blogs. Personally I see a blog post as halfway between a forum thread and a library piece, not quite a conversation and not quite a full-on article (though there's often crossover).

Steven.
Feb 13 2011 22:08
Rob Ray wrote:
Forum posts tend to be a bit throwaway and don't get the same exposure as blogs. Personally I see a blog post as halfway between a forum thread and a library piece, not quite a conversation and not quite a full-on article (though there's often crossover).

exactly. Usually posts which begin forum threads do not contain new factual information, but are just an opinion on an event, article or something else, often just with a link to it.

nastyned
Feb 13 2011 22:28
Joseph Kay wrote:
dropping the anarcho- from their syndicalism like the CGT-E, SAC, CNT-Vignoles et al. .

I'm sure other are more clued up on this than me but I don't think you're factually correct here.

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2011 22:35
Devrim wrote:
However, I do wonder, and of course writing from another continent makes these things more difficult to discern, whether these are the views of the majority in SolFed, or merely the Brighton local? Are there still people in SolFed who believe that setting up an anarcho-syndicalist union is a practical thing in the near future?

I'm not really interested in the ultra-left gossip mill tbh.

As for whether 'political organisation' and the like is arcane language, well, people can figure that out for themselves.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 00:45
nastyned wrote:
Joseph Kay wrote:
dropping the anarcho- from their syndicalism like the CGT-E, SAC, CNT-Vignoles et al. .

I'm sure other are more clued up on this than me but I don't think you're factually correct here.

two out of the three call themselves anarcho-syndicalists. they do this whilst participating in class collaborationist organs and taking state money. it's like an 'anarchist federation' running in elections and expecting to be taken at their word.

i mean obviously i'm anti-works councils/state funds etc, but regardless of the merits of such an approach (e.g. bigger membership, more funds...) it's absurd to call it 'anarcho' with a straight face. it's the practice, the content that matters, not what they call themselves.

Mike Harman
Feb 14 2011 05:39
Joseph Kay wrote:
I'm not really interested in the ultra-left gossip mill tbh.

As for whether 'political organisation' and the like is arcane language, well, people can figure that out for themselves.

I don't think this is just about gossip. The first time I looked into SolFed was between 10-15 years ago, I didn't know anyone from any of the UK anarchist groups, and my politics were mainly informed by my own reading, which was fairly limited, because I didn't know anyone (and no libcom after all).

At that time much of the writing in Direct Action (I just checked a couple of issues around 2000-2003 to confirm my memory isn't completely skewed although I'm deliberately not quote mining) was around contrasting 'reformist' vs. 'revolutionary' (or 'independent') unions, along with trying to persuade people to opt out of the Labour levy. I also remember plenty of conversations on here, from maybe 2005-6 with some of the older SolFed members, where the onus looked to be on forming 'anarcho-syndicalist unions' in the sense a lot of people have reservations about - i.e. an organisation that would would eventually be in a position to compete with the TUC unions on some level, rather than a completely different type of organisation that's orthogonal to what happens with those unions (including splits from them, rank and filist stuff etc. since it wouldn't be competing with those directly either).

Those impressions can be hard to shake, and a lot of the members outside of Brighton aren't on libcom to discuss with directly. Also this probably isn't helped by characters like Gentle Revolutionary who passed through the AF, Solfed and IWW and managed to piss everyone off all at the same time from different angles, but also used to argue very loudly for OBU-esque + merger ideas as a member of each of them - and voices like that can be very loud when so many of the other members aren't around to shut them up.

I'm one of the people who previously has asked 'but is it just Brighton?', and the impression I've got from previous discussions is that while people reacted strongly to the original pamphlet, is that no, it's not just Brighton - and that the process of internal discussion in SolFed has clarified what appear to me to be similar semantic disagreements to the ones seen on here, just from the other side. That comes out a bit from this blog post as well.

If we take the language that JK uses and try to bypass the allergic reaction to 'union' or 'revolutionary union' that many of us have (i.e. that 'revolutionary union' = 'political-economic organisation' = 'network of militants' = non-representational, not union recognition, not open-membership etc. etc.) then it's possible to look back at at least some previous SolFed discussions before this process started, and see people arguing blue in the face about 'revolutionary union' being an oxymoron, and really talking about two different things - but with the actual practice of that hypothetical organisation never really being discussed by either side.

Also writing about practical examples like 'workmates', which would have provided a much more concrete basis for discussion has been very scant over the years, despite (as far as I know) most people having a very positive impression of that group. This would have helped as well in some of these discussions.

I agree entirely that the practical steps towards this kind of organisation are going to be the most important thing. I haven't been a member of an organisation (unless you count libcom) since 2005/6, and currently aren't in a position to be for another year or so, but whatever you want to call it, the practical steps SolFed are trying to take to move towards being an actual workplace-based organisation are great and it's about the only thing I'd consider joining at this point (since libcom and informal editorial groups handles what I want from a political organisation well enough at the moment), and it would have been really useful to have a group focused on this for support when I was trying to organise a couple of different jobs in the past 2-3 years.

I don't think the semantic discussion is completely useless though - it may be annoying and repetitive a lot of the time, but it's not useless. Also it doesn't only apply between people who identify with anarcho-syndicalism vs. other traditions but it's also a presentational issue as well.

If we're still going to be producing propaganda - stuff like Tea Break or the anti-cuts student leaflet, then that propaganda has to be able to deal with criticising the unions from the perspective of workers organising their own struggles. It's possible to do this by making negative criticisms of the unions (or various leftist approaches to the unions), while restricting positive language to only concrete activity rather than any kind of overarching term for what we want - open meetings across members of different unions and non-members, direct links between different groups of workers etc. This is largely the approach we took in Tea Break, but it's quite evasive, and it's quite possible that those struggles will continue to develop before a practical example to point to will be around to point to.

Since it looks like we're going to be entering a context again where there is direct 'anti-union' rhetoric being bandied about even more than before (Boris Johnson etc.), then how we describe the kind of organisation we want to see does matter, as does framing the discussion in such a way that it doesn't just come across as 'anti-union' when read superficially.

There are problems with both the more side-stepping terminology (which I personally favour) like 'workplace groups' and 'network of militants', as there are with 'revolutionary union' - both are going to have to be qualified for different groups of people in different ways, with various preconceptions of those terms, or lack of preconception and just general wtf. This assumes that those in this discussion can agree that they mean exactly the same thing even if they don't like the words.

Getting on and doing it is the best answer to this, but presentation of the ideas is going to be an issue to people without any background in revolutionary politics, the most geeky of us on here, and also a lot of people in the middle - including those just getting politicised.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 09:59
Mike Harmann wrote:
I don't think this is just about gossip.

right, but the problem is neither I, nor anyone else do nor can speak for SolFed, and everybody knows this, so carrying on dicussion by going 'oh i agree with you, but your comrades don't' is passive-aggressive bullshit. and it's a consistent theme of any discussion here. now frankly i don't really care what the assembled ranks of self-appointed internet inquisitors think, since it tends to a completely idealist politics where first you must assemble a conceptually and semantically unassaillable ideal and then, and only then, perhaps begin to adjust reality to this ideal. of course for the ICC, endless discussion is the end in itself, endlessly repeating the line in the hope of attracting more adherents, even seeing it as something to report in the paper... Devrim can be more interesting than that, but it's the prevailing pattern.

i can only say what i've said before, that if you look back 20 years at the strategy document that led to SolFed and the industrial network strategy, there's a pretty well developed critque of why unions "not only fail to defend workers' interests but often go firmly against them." it's actually pretty elementary and really boring, going over and over and over, NO when we say 'revolutionary union' we don't mean 'TUC with a red and black logo'; NO we don't mean getting the bosses to recognise our right to negotiate on behalf of the workforce, and disciplining the workforce; NO we don't mean like the CGT-E, obviously ffs, given the bitterness of their split with the CNT and regardless of how many statues of Durruti they erect claiming a revolutionary heritage...

Mike Harmann wrote:
Getting on and doing it is the best answer to this, but presentation of the ideas is going to be an issue to people without any background in revolutionary politics, the most geeky of us on here, and also a lot of people in the middle - including those just getting politicised.

this may well be generational (i know we're same age bracket, but Devrim's a bit older), but i rarely meet workers who have more than a vague inkling what a union is in the most generic sense, let alone immediately accost you with an ultra-left shibboleth test. practice is what is important. if something is called a 'fighting union', but organises on direct action lines then i don't really care, since even if you called it something brilliant that word would soon be recuperated, debased by reformists and so on (much like 'anarcho' syndicalists taking state money, 'revolutionaries' sitting on works councils etc). the standard libcom reaction is Pavlovian foaming at the mouth to say it's called the wrong thing, it's a mystification, don't they have a critique and so on. likewise if it was called a 'workplace resistance group' but sought recognition by management as the legitimate representative of the workforce, that would be massively problematic. but the discussion virtually never touches the actual concrete practice of organising, it's all at the level of semantics - revolutionary credentials are located at the level of ideology and not practice. this is clear in how the same organisational model with different nomenclature suddenly becomes a goodie instead of a baddie.

now of course the presentation of ideas is important, but the way the libcom constituency demands semantic purity is completely antithetical to actual real-world organsing. if people have a hobby of slapping labels on things and calling it communism so be it, but it has nothing to do with class struggle. i'm much more interested in how to get co-workers taking direct action in our class interests. that's a completely different question to semantic games, and moreover a question which simply doesn't show up in the idealst/semantic schema, where the end point of discussions, if there is one, is to produce a really good leaflet full of CLARITY to go and give to people on a picket, not getting much beyond class struggle as a spectator sport. to be honest, i think Tea Break and the like are largely activity for their own sake, so we felt involved with things external to us. We don't have much ongoing relationship with workers in those industries, no industrial networks to refer people to, no ongoing practice for readers to identify as the alternative. Why should anybody care what a bunch of kids with some half decent layout skills think?

but that kind of 'politics of intervention' is the logical practical correlate to spilling tens of thousands of words thrashing out the semantic fine points. really i think it's ambulance chasing... by the time a struggle is visible and public and there's picket lines to be visiting, it's usually already lost since militancy has been directed into the proper channels, using disempowering and dissilusioning representative methods and so on. i think it's far more important to be getting in touch with workers with grievances, looking to collectivise them wherever possible and use direct action to resolve them. that could be as simple as organising a picket over unpaid wages, or could involve getting people trained up for ongoing organising which could go on underground for years. i mean one way of doing this is starting from basic rights violations, since even pretty non-militant workers can get worked up if their boss is breaking the law. But when we redesigned 'Stuff Your Boss' last year, people on here were calling us 'reformists'... there really is a gulf between internet communism and organising.

thing is, i completely embrace trial and error. there will be fuck-ups, no doubt. the point is not to make the same mistakes, but new ones. we might be so cautious of works council recuperation that we walk into another trap. ok, we learn from it. if we spend a lot of time building for direct action somewhere, and the boss reacts by calling in a 'responsible' union, if we haven't done a good job of innoculation then people might all join up and recuperate themselves. ok, i don't think that invalidates the effort. we need to learn from it, and do better. if we had a small job branch going, federal autonomy might mean they start recruiting people on apolitical grounds and then vote to do dodgy shit. The IWW and CNT have both had that problem, obviously you hope to avoid it but as long as there's procedures in place to deal with it, it's an occupational hazzard.

of course for libcom culture, such fuck-ups will simply prove why we were right all along and it's foolish to try and actually organise according to communist principles. i have my criticisms of the North American IWW, but i think they're more communist in the real movement sense than a thousand polished critiques. which is annoying, because my natural skill-set is much more writing polished critiques than agitating and organising, but these skills can be acquired if we see it as our role. the whole point about political organisations is they typically don't, they leave it up to someone else to do it on non-revolutionary lines, or at best advocate 'informal workplace organisation' as if that's (a) any protection against recuperation (it really isn't, bosses study informal work groups and how to break them up, co-opt them into hierarchies etc) and (b) actually means anything specific, rather than being a placeholder concept.

I/we certainly don't have all the answers, but that's precisely the point. we only work things out by trying, failing, trying again, failing better... theorising about that can be part of the learning process, drawing general lessons about what doesn't work and what might, and bringing in historical experiences to supplement our own, but its a reflective process rather than a prerequisite for activity. i don't think that really comes across in forum discussions most of the time, where it's just a clash of abstractions detached from all practical considerations.

Mike Harman
Feb 14 2011 13:02
Joseph Kay wrote:
Mike Harmann wrote:
I don't think this is just about gossip.

right, but the problem is neither I, nor anyone else do nor can speak for SolFed, and everybody knows this,

Well the AF put out a new workplace strategy, as an organisation, that was discussed on here (and frankly I was much less keen on it than the original Brighton pamphlet for various reasons), I realise these things take time, and probably the revised pamphlet you're working on is a part of that process, but it's not impossible for an organisation to clarify strategy as an organisation.

Quote:
so carrying on dicussion by going 'oh i agree with you, but your comrades don't' is passive-aggressive bullshit. and it's a consistent theme of any discussion here.

Not really. Devrim was in DAM a long time ago, and for all I know may have known some current members of SolFed from that time but be out of touch with them now (no idea if that's the case or not, or whether Devrim has asked exactly this question before and got an answer).

However, I do know that I personally brought up that same point a few months or over a year ago - not sure whether that was on here or in private (or both) 'cos I know we've discussed this a bit off-line, but it wasn't being passive aggressive . It was a genuine question based on my previous (albeit limited) experience of SolFed, and the fact there was a strong negative reaction within SolFed to the original pamphlet which those of us who aren't members don't know much about, except that it happened. So it was not at all clear from outside the organisation how things would go. I don't think it's fair to characterise this as passive aggressive questioning by the same people over and over again despite being given an answer, people are genuinely interested and want to see this happen from what I can tell.

Quote:
now frankly i don't really care what the assembled ranks of self-appointed internet inquisitors think, since it tends to a completely idealist politics where first you must assemble a conceptually and semantically unassaillable ideal and then, and only then, perhaps begin to adjust reality to this ideal. of course for the ICC

You know as well as I do that it's not just people in the ICC, in fact mainly people who are much more more hostile to the ICC than they ever have been to solfed. In fact plenty of people saw the Brighton pamphlet as quite a big break with what SolFed had previously said (no matter whether that was due it being a real break, or faults in the pamphlet, or terminology or a combination), while also agreeing with it. Amalgamating anyone who thinks there might be internal disagreement in SolFed (oh the horror!) into the ICC just because an ICC member asks about it, is much more disingenuous than asking about that internal disagreement in the first place and just makes you look overly defensive to be honest.

Quote:
i can only say what i've said before, that if you look back 20 years at the strategy document that led to SolFed and the industrial network strategy, there's a pretty well developed critque of why unions "not only fail to defend workers' interests but often go firmly against them." it's actually pretty elementary and really boring, going over and over and over, NO when we say 'revolutionary union' we don't mean 'TUC with a red and black logo'; NO we don't mean getting the bosses to recognise our right to negotiate on behalf of the workforce, and disciplining the workforce; NO we don't mean like the CGT-E, obviously ffs, given the bitterness of their split with the CNT and regardless of how many statues of Durruti they erect claiming a revolutionary heritage...

It might be elementary, but there are plenty of idiots around pushing that sort of line, albeit not any SolFed members that I know - most of them in the IWW and L&S. And let's not forget that a large number of AF members joined the IWW and didn't have a good experience while in there. While L&S itself came out of a split in the AF - which still has its own issues around member education Django's comments about steady membership but high turnover are any indication. So those concerns aren't baseless, and they're based on people's own mistakes (or recent observations of others) which are quite close to home. Even with the CGT-E vs. CNT example - the CGT was a split from the CNT, so at one point those tendencies co-existed in the same organisation.

Now I think you've answered this really well in the past, and at this point I just want to see it happen, and hopefully get involved when I'm not several thousand miles away, but I think it's understandable that this keeps coming up. Also I've been following all the discussions around this very closely, but not everyone can be expected to have read every word written on it.

Mike Harman wrote:
this may well be generational (i know we're same age bracket, but Devrim's a bit older), but i rarely meet workers who have more than a vague inkling what a union is in the most generic sense, let alone immediately accost you with an ultra-left shibboleth test.

When I worked in a sixth form college library, there was no organised union presence for support staff at all, but there was a Unison convenor. Several of my colleagues, my age or younger, had been (albeit passive) members of unions in previous jobs, some others in their 30s/40s/50s had been union members but got shafted one way or the other, like not following through with grievances or whatever, not full-blown ultra-left critique by any measure but negative experiences that made them wary of anything which looked like just trying to sign people up to Unison. Those prior experiences and conceptions definitely affected how people saw any organising method - for example despite me being very critical of Unison I was constantly seen as the person 'trying to organise a Unison branch'.

I've also worked in jobs where there was no union presence in the entire industry on any level, and a lot of people had never been members, but there were also plenty of individuals with liberal or leftist politics who were in favour of unions in the abstract from that perspective (albeit with less chance of setting one up than I have of a functional workplace resistance group in that industry, but it is going to affect any attempts to organise when those are around). This is only a small subsection of people I've worked with, and many people I've worked with I've not discussed unions with at all, but it's very, very variable.

Quote:
practice is what is important. if something is called a 'fighting union', but organises on direct action lines then i don't really care, since even if you called it something brilliant that word would soon be recuperated, debased by reformists and so on (much like 'anarcho' syndicalists taking state money, 'revolutionaries' sitting on works councils etc). the standard libcom reaction is Pavlovian foaming at the mouth to say it's called the wrong thing, it's a mystification, don't they have a critique and so on. likewise if it was called a 'workplace resistance group' but sought recognition by management as the legitimate representative of the workforce, that would be massively problematic. but the discussion virtually never touches the actual concrete practice of organising, it's all at the level of semantics - revolutionary credentials are located at the level of ideology and not practice. this is clear in how the same organisational model with different nomenclature suddenly becomes a goodie instead of a baddie.

I agree with all this, but it's also a problem with pretty much any internet discussion isn't it? There's very little discussion of people's own workplace organising experiences on here either - somewhat understandable due to anonymity but I think we could manage more. Similarly even discussing historical events like the Russian Revolution there is a tonne of discussion about what state capitalism is, was it a bourgeois revolution or not etc., which doesn't at all go into the actual processes that occurred except for Kronstadt (suppression of factory committees, groups like Miasnikov's, strikes in 1918 and later into the '20s etc. etc.). So even theoretical and historical discussions can be overly abstract.

Quote:
i'm much more interested in how to get co-workers taking direct action in our class interests. that's a completely different question to semantic games, and moreover a question which simply doesn't show up in the idealst/semantic schema, where the end point of discussions, if there is one, is to produce a really good leaflet full of CLARITY to go and give to people on a picket, not getting much beyond class struggle as a spectator sport.
Quote:
to be honest, i think Tea Break and the like are largely activity for their own sake, so we felt involved with things external to us. We don't have much ongoing relationship with workers in those industries, no industrial networks to refer people to, no ongoing practice for readers to identify as the alternative. Why should anybody care what a bunch of kids with some half decent layout skills think?

but that kind of 'politics of intervention' is the logical practical correlate to spilling tens of thousands of words thrashing out the semantic fine points. really i think it's ambulance chasing... by the time a struggle is visible and public and there's picket lines to be visiting, it's usually already lost since militancy has been directed into the proper channels, using disempowering and dissilusioning representative methods and so on.

Definitely there's a degree of truth to this - and Tea Break itself has been cursed with being ready just as things got finished pretty every attempt. But if you look at something like the recent student protests, there has been a lot of engagement on a political level from people involved - some of it good, some of it fucking terrible - like UCL occupiers writing blog posts about why they just joined the Labour Party or the Greens as the best way to fight the cuts, sadly not fiction. There is some value to engaging with these kind of events on a political level - whether that's the Commune's 'violence against the police' article, or Django's blog post on UK Uncut. Because there are people involved in this stuff who are becoming politicised and a lot of them are going to be sucked into some shitty political group because it happens to be what's around - as many of us were 5, 10, 15 years ago. Now I don't think this is necessarily the role of a 'political-economic' organisation (well semi-regular industrial bulletins, or blogs, might be), but it's not pointless - and it's trying to engage with people around concrete class issues, rather than just 'anarchism'.

Quote:
i think it's far more important to be getting in touch with workers with grievances, looking to collectivise them wherever possible and use direct action to resolve them. that could be as simple as organising a picket over unpaid wages, or could involve getting people trained up for ongoing organising which could go on underground for years. i mean one way of doing this is starting from basic rights violations, since even pretty non-militant workers can get worked up if their boss is breaking the law. But when we redesigned 'Stuff Your Boss' last year, people on here were calling us 'reformists'... there really is a gulf between internet communism and organising.

I think I missed that discussion, or at least people calling you 'reformists'.

Quote:
thing is, i completely embrace trial and error. there will be fuck-ups, no doubt. the point is not to make the same mistakes, but new ones. we might be so cautious of works council recuperation that we walk into another trap. ok, we learn from it. if we spend a lot of time building for direct action somewhere, and the boss reacts by calling in a 'responsible' union, if we haven't done a good job of innoculation then people might all join up and recuperate themselves. ok, i don't think that invalidates the effort. we need to learn from it, and do better. if we had a small job branch going, federal autonomy might mean they start recruiting people on apolitical grounds and then vote to do dodgy shit. The IWW and CNT have both had that problem, obviously you hope to avoid it but as long as there's procedures in place to deal with it, it's an occupational hazzard.

This is all completely fine, and I've had similar issues just trying to organise informal groups at work - like I said more or less ending up with a Unison branch by accident.

Quote:
of course for libcom culture, such fuck-ups will simply prove why we were right all along and it's foolish to try and actually organise according to communist principles. i have my criticisms of the North American IWW, but i think they're more communist in the real movement sense than a thousand polished critiques. which is annoying, because my natural skill-set is much more writing polished critiques than agitating and organising, but these skills can be acquired if we see it as our role. the whole point about political organisations is they typically don't, they leave it up to someone else to do it on non-revolutionary lines, or at best advocate 'informal workplace organisation' as if that's (a) any protection against recuperation (it really isn't, bosses study informal work groups and how to break them up, co-opt them into hierarchies etc) and (b) actually means anything specific, rather than being a placeholder concept.

Well I know I've personally been involved in 'informal organising' and tried to write about it, but it's somewhat difficult to do that concretely in public without identifying yourself. There are a few posts, not loads but double figures, on this site from people who have been trying to do similar things - often from the same more or less standing start.

I think these efforts would be much better served if there was the 'network of militants' - of other people trying to organise their workplaces (neither into the TUC unions, nor the IWW, nor going overboard trying to recruit people to SolFed) that you could lean on for discussion in a much more secure setting than a public forum, face-to-face meetings (and role play/training), possibly collective propaganda with other people in the same trade or industry, and hopefully SolFed will become that - definitely it would've helped me a bit a couple of years ago, and there's issues at work recently that I've discussed with some people via pm but would be a bit too identifying to post on here - but would be great in a more private forum.

On 'winning the class war', I just read through it quickly, will try to give it a proper read later, but. However I scanned down to your own comments: http://libcom.org/library/winning-class-war-anarcho-syndicalist-strategy#comment-368203

That criticism stands up pretty well, and those omissions - "the relationship between the union organising from a clear revolutionary perspective and the rest of the workforce (the union/mass meeting approach of the CNT in Puerto Real seems the favoured approach). I also think the description ofthe role of the revolutionary union could be clearer, as it's a bit ambiguous (the critiques of reformist unions and juxtaposition to 'a football field of angry workers' imply it wouldn't seek recognition and the right to negotiate on behalf of the workforce, but agitate within it for direct action to impose demands. but this isn't really spelled out)." relate exactly to the kinds of questions that keep coming up in these discussions.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 14:22
Mike Harmann wrote:
but it's not impossible for an organisation to clarify strategy as an organisation.

no, but it's impossible for me, as an individual posting on this forum to speak on behalf of the organisation. obviously. if people are that into SolFed Kremlinology, this leaflet was based largely on the criticisms of our pamphlet and was subsequently reproduced by most locals, including the the most critical. that was 18 months ago.

Mike Harmann wrote:
It was a genuine question based on my previous (albeit limited) experience of SolFed, and the fact there was a strong negative reaction within SolFed to the original pamphlet which those of us who aren't members don't know much about, except that it happened.

any AF member is free to read the response to our pamphlet, and the subsequent replies, if they're interested. it's on the joint forum. it's not a great mystery. i haven't actually seen much reference made to it fwiw. i think a lot of the disagreement was also a language problem, but we worked through that in a way which has proved largely impossible on here (probably because members of a group have a stake in mutual understanding that is lacking on an internet forum).

Mike Harmann wrote:
I don't think it's fair to characterise this as passive aggressive questioning by the same people over and over again despite being given an answer, people are genuinely interested and want to see this happen from what I can tell.

the passive-aggression is the constant line of 'i'm sympathetic to you but your comrades aren't', which is no way to carry on a comradely discussion. if people are genuinely interested, they could e.g. read the leaflet above, which was a product of the post-S&S debate.

Mike Harmann wrote:
Amalgamating anyone who thinks there might be internal disagreement in SolFed (oh the horror!) into the ICC just because an ICC member asks about it, is much more disingenuous than asking about that internal disagreement in the first place and just makes you look overly defensive to be honest.

i'm not amalgamating people into the ICC, and Devrim is obviously the 'least ICC ICCer' in the sense he's been posting here longer than he's been a member. my point is more on what passes for political discussion on libcom, which is for the most part abstract theorising and repetition of shibboleths. it's a really low standard of debate that's utterly alienating, not to mention off-putting to potential posters. obviously there are exceptions and good threads etc.

Mike Harmann wrote:
I agree with all this, but it's also a problem with pretty much any internet discussion isn't it?

not even just internet discussion to be honest. a lot of academic literature focusses on the formal level without really getting inside the processes. i think it's inherently harder to write about concrete specificities, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try (...which reminds me i still need to write up my last job).

Mike Harmann wrote:
There is some value to engaging with these kind of events on a political level - whether that's the Commune's 'violence against the police' article, or Django's blog post on UK Uncut. Because there are people involved in this stuff who are becoming politicised and a lot of them are going to be sucked into some shitty political group because it happens to be what's around - as many of us were 5, 10, 15 years ago. Now I don't think this is necessarily the role of a 'political-economic' organisation (well semi-regular industrial bulletins, or blogs, might be), but it's not pointless - and it's trying to engage with people around concrete class issues, rather than just 'anarchism'.

the distinction i was making was between working out some great politics and trying to inject them into something we weren't a part of, and propaganda/analysis of things we are. now we were well aware of that problem when we did Tea Break, and made every effort to get it written by participants etc, but i don't think we overcame the inherent problem. with student movement stuff i think the difference is it's a movement people are actually involved in, rather than a rather stage-managed set of symbolic strikes (Royal Mail, Public Sector) or a wildcat we had no connection to beyond reading about it (LOR). Again, i think we were aware of these problems at the time, but in hindsight the idea that turning up at a picket line with literature advocating self-organisation is likely to contribute to that is a bit idealistic/niave. i'm not even saying there's no place for such things, but i think they need to be part of a strategy at least. i can't shake the feeling we did it because of the urge to do something, rather than in pursuit of any defined goal.

Mike Harmann wrote:
I think these efforts would be much better served if there was the 'network of militants' - of other people trying to organise their workplaces (neither into the TUC unions, nor the IWW, nor going overboard trying to recruit people to SolFed) that you could lean on for discussion in a much more secure setting than a public forum, face-to-face meetings (and role play/training), possibly collective propaganda with other people in the same trade or industry, and hopefully SolFed will become that

i think that's the aim. i think the controversy comes when SolFed people say, ok, we do this, and start developing the capacity to organise (or initiate the self-organisation of...) direct action in multiple workplaces - then we're functioning as an (albeit small) revolutionary union. personally i don't really care where exactly the threshold is for calling it that, and i'd suggest calling it a 'revolutionary union initiative' to cover all bases. but that's just me (afaik).

fwiw, SolFed's current approach is a hybrid of two old syndicalist strategies - boring from within and dual unionism. it's boring from within in the sense we're not leaving the trade unions to set up our own, but neither are we trying to turn the trade unions syndicalist, instead we're trying to organise within unionised workplaces along anarcho-syndicalist lines. It's dual unionist in the sense we want to build a parallel industrial structure capable of organising independent action and serving as a pole of attraction for militant workers.

Edit: i actually don't see any reason to rule out things like being or giving rise to some kind of rival union confederation at some point, although there's little tradition of it in Britain. if you had a decent org like described going into a patch of significant class struggle i don't see an a priori reason why some radicalised branches or significant sections thereof may break away from their unions, possibly joining up with the a-s org. as long as that was done on a principled basis rather than going all wide eyed at the sight of real working class militants wanting to join i don't see a problem. it's conceivable that ideas of direct action and social revolution could become significantly more widespread again, and dissillusionment in the trade unions was a big part of the 'syndicalist revolt' pre-WW1. but equally, i don't see any point in basing a strategy on such hypotheticals. there's plenty of work in just getting SF functioning as a 'revolutionary union initiative' before we start fantasising about exodus from the TUC.

Mike Harmann wrote:
That criticism stands up pretty well, and those omissions - "the relationship between the union organising from a clear revolutionary perspective and the rest of the workforce (the union/mass meeting approach of the CNT in Puerto Real seems the favoured approach). I also think the description ofthe role of the revolutionary union could be clearer, as it's a bit ambiguous (the critiques of reformist unions and juxtaposition to 'a football field of angry workers' imply it wouldn't seek recognition and the right to negotiate on behalf of the workforce, but agitate within it for direct action to impose demands. but this isn't really spelled out)." relate exactly to the kinds of questions that keep coming up in these discussions.

Yes those criticisms are valid. My point is the critique in there of unions policing struggle, seeking to maximise membership at all costs, retaining the right to negotiate with management as the source of their power etc shows very clearly what a revolutionary union is not. i've no idea if the lack of positive elaboration reflected lack of agreement in DAM at the time, an oversight or an intended flexibility as opposed to a blueprint, or some combination of those. but things have been elaborated since, the leaflet linked above probably being the clearest example.

Mike Harman
Feb 14 2011 14:50
Joseph Kay wrote:
any AF member is free to read the response to our pamphlet, and the subsequent replies, if they're interested. it's on the joint forum.

tease...

Quote:
i think a lot of the disagreement was also a language problem, but we worked through that in a way which has proved largely impossible on here (probably because members of a group have a stake in mutual understanding that is lacking on an internet forum).

Right I can fully accept this, but if there's a language problem in the more or less fixed and sympathetic context of SolFed, it's not at all surprising that there's a language problem on here too.

JK wrote:
the passive-aggression is the constant line of 'i'm sympathetic to you but your comrades aren't', which is no way to carry on a comradely discussion. if people are genuinely interested, they could e.g. read the leaflet above, which was a product of the post-S&S debate.

In the other thread, you mentioned in passing AF members you've had to explain A&P number 7 to. I remember there being some members like that (the aforementioned GR for one) when I was in the AF as well. There are different ways of pointing this out, but it can be done without it having to be point scoring - from my own experiences, and people I've talked to, there is and have been real issues in terms of (lack of) internal political discussion in both SolFed and the AF, which leads to people drifting in and out without much hope for political development. It can be hard to discuss those issues without the discussion getting either snarky or defensive, but it's a discussion worth having as to why this happens. Your bad experiences with Brighton AF for one.

JK wrote:
my point is more on what passes for political discussion on libcom, which is for the most part abstract theorising and repetition of shibboleths. it's a really low standard of debate that's utterly alienating, not to mention off-putting to potential posters. obviously there are exceptions and good threads etc.

Right I agree with this and it's a sad state of affairs considering we're both admins.

Quote:
think it's inherently harder to write about concrete specificities, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try (...which reminds me i still need to write up my last job).

Yep.

JK wrote:
the distinction i was making was between working out some great politics and trying to inject them into something we weren't a part of, and propaganda/analysis of things we are. now we were well aware of that problem when we did Tea Break, and made every effort to get it written by participants etc, but i don't think we overcame the inherent problem. with student movement stuff i think the difference is it's a movement people are actually involved in, rather than a rather stage-managed set of symbolic strikes (Royal Mail, Public Sector) or a wildcat we had no connection to beyond reading about it (LOR).

There's obviously a continuum though - the 'student movement' incorporates a tonne of activity in a tonne of different places, and the handful or tens of people we're able to discuss it with and propagandise about it are never going to be representative of the thing as a whole. There's a similar issue with the UCL 'unofficial leadership' bollocks as well. I'm literally much more distant from the UK student stuff than I was from Royal Mail though, so it's a bit different looking at it from over here - where all I can do is update news articles and rant on twitter.

Quote:
Again, i think we were aware of these problems at the time, but in hindsight the idea that turning up at a picket line with literature advocating self-organisation is likely to contribute to that is a bit idealistic/niave. i'm not even saying there's no place for such things, but i think they need to be part of a strategy at least. i can't shake the feeling we did it because of the urge to do something, rather than in pursuit of any defined goal.

I don't think we thought Tea Break would affect the outcome of the strike, at least I didn't, but I hoped that it could start some connections with more militant postal workers and if the strikes continued that we could turn it into something with a firmer grounding in the industry. This actually started happening betwen Tea Break and posting on Royal
Mail Chat - I had a few different conversations with wildcat strikers from sorting offices around the country (more than 3, less than 10), but then it all went to shit very quickly so those never really got followed up.

Quote:
i think that's the aim. i think the controversy comes when SolFed people say, ok, we do this, and start developing the capacity to organise (or initiate the self-organisation of...) direct action in multiple workplaces - then we're functioning as an (albeit small) revolutionary union. personally i don't really care where exactly the threshold is for calling it that, and i'd suggest calling it a 'revolutionary union initiative' to cover all bases. but that's just me (afaik).

Yeah this and what and how a workplace 'branch' might operate are still the things that nag me when this comes up, they'd also be an issue if the same initiative was coming from a mostly councilist background I think - in the sense that anything can end up the victim of its own success and once it gets going it's going to attract people who want something even a little bit different to how it's intended.

Quote:
fwiw, SolFed's current approach is a hybrid of two old syndicalist strategies - boring from within and dual unionism. it's boring from within in the sense we're not leaving the trade unions to set up our own, but neither are we trying to turn the trade unions syndicalist, instead we're trying to organise within unionised workplaces along anarcho-syndicalist lines. It's dual unionist in the sense we want to build a parallel industrial structure capable of organising independent action and serving as a pole of attraction for militant workers.

I don't think the first is really 'boring from within', I see that basically as a form of rank and filism and SolFed's (and the AF's) strategies are diametrically opposed to anything like that. The parallel structure is where it gets more complicated I think - as to how parallel it might end up, and obviously no one knows this without trying it, but people also don't want to get involved in something that has this as its aim for the start.

Ed
Feb 14 2011 14:59
Joseph Kay wrote:
i think the controversy comes when SolFed people say, ok, we do this, and start developing the capacity to organise (or initiate the self-organisation of...) direct action in multiple workplaces - then we're functioning as an (albeit small) revolutionary union. personally i don't really care where exactly the threshold is for calling it that, and i'd suggest calling it a 'revolutionary union initiative' to cover all bases. but that's just me (afaik).

Regarding this, I think it's relevant to add that, in my opinion anyway, a revolutionary union isn't necessarily created in one big break away from the TUC creating The National Confederation of Labour (as Devrim seemed to describe it). I mean, say for instance, SF had a significant (though still minority) presence in a shop or cafe (or even a small chain) and was able to organise collective action with workmates, hold mass meetings to decide direction of the campaign etc.. it would be acting like a revolutionary union even if SF as a whole would still be a 'network of militants' or whatever.

I think this kind of uneven development is actually quite likely if we get anywhere with this anarcho-syndicalism business so the idea that one day we just declare an anarcho-syndicalist union is a bit of a misnomer for me..

PS I've added a picture above just to show graphically what the evolution of Brighton SF's politics looks like.. wink

Mike Harman
Feb 14 2011 15:04
Devrim wrote:
Steven. wrote:
Joseph, I think you should consider changing the content type on this to being a blog entry as opposed to a forum thread

Just out of interest why? This is a real question I am not really sure what the difference is. Answer by pm if you don't want to derail the thread.

Thanks in advance,

Devrim

A bit belated but one thing to add to this. Generally (not always) the discussions on news/library/history/blog posts are better than those in the forums, and overall we'd like to see more discussion happening in those areas relative to the forums - this is the way that websites in general are going - most new websites don't have separate discussion areas from their main content, everything is integrated (sometimes with off-site comments like twitter too). This is happening naturally, but it's something we'd actively encourage as well.

Rob Ray
Feb 14 2011 15:08
Quote:
I see that basically as a form of rank and filism

Not really, rank and filism would imply that we don't want to go beyond pressuring the unions from below. I'd see that sentence as falling into exactly the sort of semantic trap JK's been complaining about (though yeah it's not particularly helpful that he's lifted a loaded term as a descriptor).

Chilli Sauce
Feb 14 2011 15:09
Quote:
involved people from the AF, one of whom, who later became 'Monsieur Dupont'

Just curious?

Ed
Feb 14 2011 15:13
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Quote:
involved people from the AF, one of whom, who later became 'Monsieur Dupont'

Just curious?

Trust me, you're not, it's not that interesting..

jef costello
Feb 14 2011 15:24

Interesting post JK, thanks for writing it up. It was a bit disappointing not to have an answer at the end of it but as it's an on-going process that shouldn't have been surprising.

A lot of the discussion has been good but I think you've been very defensive at times JK and I don't think that has helped you get across your point too well.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 15:25
Mike Harmann wrote:
Your bad experiences with Brighton AF for one.

to be honest i'm not counting 'Brighton AF' as part of the AF for the purposes of the discussion. point taken though, i shouldn't react in kind. my point was that i don't think anyone's in any position to be casting stones about presumed disagreements, and that it's not really a constructive line of discussion.

Mike Harmann wrote:
Right I agree with this and it's a sad state of affairs considering we're both admins.

yeah, that's a whole other discussion.

Mike Harmann wrote:
I don't think we thought Tea Break would affect the outcome of the strike, at least I didn't, but I hoped that it could start some connections with more militant postal workers and if the strikes continued that we could turn it into something with a firmer grounding in the industry. This actually started happening betwen Tea Break and posting on Royal
Mail Chat - I had a few different conversations with wildcat strikers from sorting offices around the country (more than 3, less than 10), but then it all went to shit very quickly so those never really got followed up.

right, but i don't remember having any worked out strategy beyond an instinctive sense it would be sweet to make contacts with militant posties. i'm not saying it wasn't worth doing, i'm saying it's worth critically reflecting on what we want to achieve. of course there was no 'postal workers network' or something we could have done it with even if we'd have wanted to, so we were working with what we had.

Mike Harmann wrote:
Yeah this and what and how a workplace 'branch' might operate are still the things that nag me when this comes up, they'd also be an issue if the same initiative was coming from a mostly councilist background I think - in the sense that anything can end up the victim of its own success and once it gets going it's going to attract people who want something even a little bit different to how it's intended.

right, it's possible yeah. but basically that's saying 'to avoid becoming a victim of your own success, simply avoid success.' i mean the pressure to recruit on an unprincipled basis comes principally from the need to convinve management you're the legitimate representative of the workforce (and implicitly that you can control them etc). if there's no desire to play that role, the pressure dissappears. i mean there's all sorts of other factors; people might just feel bad saying no to someone who doesn't grasp that it's not just another union, it's a revolutionary organisation. there can be other pressures, i heard about a row in the CNT over alleged paper members, since voting is weighted by membership for example. but these things are all avoidable if we're clear what makes a revolutionary union revolutionary, i.e. principally its methods.

Mike Harmann wrote:
I don't think the first is really 'boring from within', I see that basically as a form of rank and filism and SolFed's (and the AF's) strategies are diametrically opposed to anything like that. The parallel structure is where it gets more complicated I think - as to how parallel it might end up, and obviously no one knows this without trying it, but people also don't want to get involved in something that has this as its aim for the start.

traditionally (i.e. pre-WWI british syndicalism), dual unionism meant leaving the unions to set up your own, while boring from within meant trying to transform the existing unions - obviously we're not doing that, but the rationale of remaining in the unions in order not to cut yourself off is identical to Tom Mann's reasoning. in that respect it's a hybrid of the two, looking for the to build the capacity for independent action rather than reforming a bureaucratic union, but also not setting yourself up as a separate entity, with the dangers of dividing the workforce, isolating yourself etc.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 15:36
jef costello wrote:
A lot of the discussion has been good but I think you've been very defensive at times JK and I don't think that has helped you get across your point too well.

well it's probably frustration that calmly and methodically getting my point across doesn't seem to get my point across either. i dread to think how many thousands of words i've written here on this topic alone, only to have the same conversation over again. like Sisyphus, me tongue

Mike Harman
Feb 14 2011 16:11
Joseph Kay wrote:

to be honest i'm not counting 'Brighton AF' as part of the AF for the purposes of the discussion. point taken though, i shouldn't react in kind. my point was that i don't think anyone's in any position to be casting stones about presumed disagreements, and that it's not really a constructive line of discussion.

I'm not sure you entirely got me. Although calling out groups on internal disagreements isn't very constructive, there is a need for constructive discussion about those disagreements, why they arise, how they are or aren't dealt with. People are understandably far more reluctant to do this about their own organisations th- how does everyone become clear?an those of others, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen.

Quote:
right, but i don't remember having any worked out strategy beyond an instinctive sense it would be sweet to make contacts with militant posties. i'm not saying it wasn't worth doing, i'm saying it's worth critically reflecting on what we want to achieve. of course there was no 'postal workers network' or something we could have done it with even if we'd have wanted to, so we were working with what we had.

Nothing to disagree with here.

Quote:
right, it's possible yeah. but basically that's saying 'to avoid becoming a victim of your own success, simply avoid success.'

No I've seen you point this out elsewhere and I don't think it's a fair characterisation of my arguments or others (it would be a fair criticism of Du Pont though). The hypotheticals of 'what if it gets big and x happens' are because this has happened with many, many other workplace groups in the past - both self-consciously revolutionary and not. We may not personally have been involved in those groups, but it's a massive part of the history of the working class that the vast majority of us don't want to repeat. So trying to flesh out what people actually think about this is fair enough, even if it does lead to circular discussion a lot of the time.

Quote:
i mean the pressure to recruit on an unprincipled basis comes principally from the need to convinve management you're the legitimate representative of the workforce (and implicitly that you can control them etc). if there's no desire to play that role, the pressure dissappears. i mean there's all sorts of other factors; people might just feel bad saying no to someone who doesn't grasp that it's not just another union, it's a revolutionary organisation. there can be other pressures, i heard about a row in the CNT over alleged paper members, since voting is weighted by membership for example. but these things are all avoidable if we're clear what makes a revolutionary union revolutionary, i.e. principally its methods.

The most likely scenario for me would be less "people might just feel bad saying no to someone who doesn't grasp that it's not just another union, it's a revolutionary organisation", but more those people who identify as revolutionaries, and agree more or less with the goals, but are much softer on letting other people who are non-revolutionaries join, or on representation - in other words people who disagree on a similar borderline semantic level that we do, but from the other direction. And then that opens a wedge towards either a split into some kind of UK IWW esque group, or a further watering down of politics.

In other words it comes down to how do you make sure:

Quote:
these things are all avoidable if we're clear what makes a revolutionary union revolutionary, i.e. principally its methods.

Who is we? What is the process of adding to we? And how does we become and remain clear on these things? And this comes back to how do you resolve internal disagreements, internal education and discussion, and criteria for membership, which is something that appears to plague both national feds (or if not did until very recently), and this is with them both being political organisations.

Quote:

traditionally (i.e. pre-WWI british syndicalism), dual unionism meant leaving the unions to set up your own, while boring from within meant trying to transform the existing unions - obviously we're not doing that, but the rationale of remaining in the unions in order not to cut yourself off is identical to Tom Mann's reasoning. in that respect it's a hybrid of the two, looking for the to build the capacity for independent action rather than reforming a bureaucratic union, but also not setting yourself up as a separate entity, with the dangers of dividing the workforce, isolating yourself etc.

No I really think it's neither, and calling it a hybrid model is going to confuse the fuck out of people. If you neither want to reform the existing unions nor set up a competitor, then you can't say you're doing both.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 20:24

Advance apologies for epic post:

Mike Harmann wrote:
Although calling out groups on internal disagreements isn't very constructive, there is a need for constructive discussion about those disagreements, why they arise, how they are or aren't dealt with. People are understandably far more reluctant to do this about their own organisations th- how does everyone become clear?

am i the only one seeing the irony in people so opposed to representation being so keen for people to speak completely unmandated on behalf of others? tongue

Like i say, there's an 18-month old leaflet that seemed to represent something of a consensus (which was itself almost word-for-word the main critique of S&S coupled with 'Winning the Class War' and the industrial strategy/A&Ps), people don't seem that bothered about it though. it was posted on libcom at the time.

Mike Harmann wrote:
No I've seen you point this out elsewhere and I don't think it's a fair characterisation of my arguments or others (it would be a fair criticism of Du Pont though). The hypotheticals of 'what if it gets big and x happens' are because this has happened with many, many other workplace groups in the past - both self-consciously revolutionary and not. We may not personally have been involved in those groups, but it's a massive part of the history of the working class that the vast majority of us don't want to repeat. So trying to flesh out what people actually think about this is fair enough, even if it does lead to circular discussion a lot of the time.

it's not a characterisation per se, but it's the implication of the prevailing theory-based politics where finding a potential flaw in something is reason not to do it. the thing is, i don't think anyone's really bothered to understand how and why notionally revolutionary unions frequently do unrevolutionary things. The argument is at the level of axioms, pro-revolutionary union people explain it by 'reformism', which is just a tautology unless an attempt is made to explain the reformist tendency. Anti-revolutionary union people use similar tautological 'explanations', like AF A&P #7 (i'm picking this because it's the strongest example, compared to say the ICC, i'm not picking on the AF).

Now A&P #7 defines the "fundamental nature of unionism" as being accepted by capitalism and needing to control its members, and therefore not capable of being revolutionary. But this is axiomatic/tautological. The conclusion is contained already in the premise. This is important because it ends up actually being very uncritical as it doesn't apply to lots of real-world examples. I mean 90% of CGT pre-war strikes were apparently won or lost without any negotiations (via Paul Mason), and a lot of old IWW disputes, or the tactics of the british syndicalists often explicitly rejected such. that's not to say they were unproblematic. i'm reluctant to quote the more substantive analysis 'the union makes us strong' which was published in Organise, since it draws heavily on Malatesta to explain the 'inevitability' of union degeneration, and people seem to get upset when i criticise Malatesta's arguments. But that too focusses on inevitability, if they win things anarcho-syndicalist unions inevitably recruit lots of non-revolutionary workers ('victims of their own success') who therefore inevitably make the union take on a mediating role by sitting down with management. The caveat is it can refuse but might lose members, and therefore isn't "acting as a union", which is back to tautology (it's a union if it acts according to our critique).

of course you can find plenty of examples of this happening, but none of that makes it inevitable. i mean how hard is it to say - do you share our A&Ps? do you understand we're a revolutionary organisation, not just a union? The CNT has 'Los Tres NO' for example (although i find their 'you can have any political views as long as you accept our aims and methods' a little bit paradoxical). Now clearly there was plenty wrong with the pre-war CGT, but it actually didn't do much negotiating and the lack of strike fund meant its minimal bureaucracy had little control over grass-roots strike action. Maybe you could say it always aspired to be recognised as a mediator, and i think you'd have a point as the CGT was always open to reformists as well as revolutionaries. But again there's no reason to say this is necessarily so. Simply defining unions which to refuse to take up such a role as 'not unions but revolutionary groups' is an excercise in tautological taxonomy. it's not really explanation, and that piece ends up arguing in favour of SolFed's industrial networks so long as they don't become revolutionary unions but federations of revolutionary workplace groups! i.e. we end up back at axioms/semantics - since WTCW makes it pretty clear DAM had the same critique of unions needing to control their members etc.

Now fwiw, pro-revolutionary union people are normally just as bad. Rudolf Rocker's pretty much the core text, which is a bit of a joke as it was written 70 years ago and anarcho-syndicalism's only a century old. He was also pretty superficial in his treatment, glossing over say the CGT by saying it contained reformists and revolutionaries, and glossing over the CNT's collaboration (blaming it mostly on foreign capital and stalinists). the latter's a major problem since visceral hostility to class collaboration has been probably the single most defining issue of the post-War IWA. anarcho-syndicalists have written pretty scathing critiques of trade unionism (e.g. winning the class war), but haven't really criticised apolitical or neutral syndicalism all that much (spats with the ex-IWA sections have tended to operate on the level of throwing accusations of reformism and sectarianism back and forth), certainly not much that's available in English (i think the French CNT-AIT have written stuff against Amiens Charter style unions).

I think that probably reflects the influence of the CNT, which has a somewhat schizophrenic position that you can have any ideology so long as you agree to act within the (anarchist) A&Ps and respect their methods. in principle therefore lots of non-revolutionaries could join a branch and democratically decide to join a works council, sign a no strike agreement or whatever, in which case they'd be expelled (unless this happened in a big way simultaneously, in which case it would probably split). i think things like that have happened, but the CNT seems to get away with it since you'd generally join a larger union unless you had a particular affinity for their methods. i think that stores up splits for the future tbh, and is a legacy of the CNT's origins in revolutionary syndicalism. it also has implications for internal democracy, with members of political parties allowed to join but barred from office. in practice they've gone beyond 'apolitical' syndicalism by taking a hardline anarchist position on works councils, state funds etc, and have accepted reduced membership as the trade off for fidelity to revolutionary principles. but in theory they still argue that's not ideological. consequently, very few sympathetic accounts try and unpick the tensions or the developments since WWII (V Damier's book is quite good).

So basically i haven't seen any critique that really gets to the heart of the problem, mostly people picking examples to suit their argument and explaining exceptions on an ad hoc basis (whether that's the semantics of saying 'if it stays revolutionary it's not a union' or Rocker's blaming the failings of the CNT on... everyone else). I think the Malatestan-type argument has merits, but only insofar as revolutionary unions seek to recruit on an unprincipled basis. i see no reason why that should necessarily be the case, and in practice i don't think it is, certainly within SolFed where this is one point that has been debated extensively. in fact one of the main objections to S&S was precisely that we conflated the revolutionary union with mass meetings, and our critics (rightly) rejected this: "the aim of anarcho-syndicalism is not to enroll every worker into the revolutionary union but rather to organize mass meeting at which the union argues for militant action. The mass meeting is not the anarcho-syndicalist union but a democratic means of organizing. The union is made up of workers committed to the methods and ideas of anarcho-syndicalism."

I think the main thing Malatesta (and similar arguments, before anyone has a cry) overlook is that revolutionaries are made not born. the argument membership ebbs and flows with struggles assumes two things: (1) it's open to all regardless of principles and (2) radicalisation is a symmetric process, when in actual fact if you're radicalised via direct action (or a cop's baton) it's often one-way, or certainly you stay radicalised for some time. it is in struggle that revolutionary ideas become more relevant, and thus in principle at least it's possible for anarcho-syndicalist groups to organise struggles along direct action, libertarian lines, for people to be radicalised by the experience of winning things through their own activity, to recognise the bosses as enemies by nature not just 'unfair' or whatever and come to share a revolutionary perspective. which could mean principled growth, and further ability to organise struggles. which means to explain why revolutionary unions go bad, you need to take a closer look at their practices - do they recruit on a purely economic basis or are there some principles to it? do they aspire to recognition as legitimate representatives, or do they actively favour direct action? and so on.

in other words the idea of a political-economic organisation is a point of departure not a conclusion. the content of the 'political' has been the subject of much debate throughout the history of anarcho-syndicalism, and there isn't, nor probably can there be a single answer. it's for revolutionary workers to discuss and decide the terms of their association. personally i don't think ideology itself is much defence, since plenty of anarchist ideologues do reformist shit, advocate 'pragmatism'. Marcel van der Linden says there's three components; ideological (self-explanatory), organisational (structures, role etc), and shopfloor (militancy, attitudes of membership). that might be something to work with, and i'd say you need some element of all three to qualify as a revolutionary union. but that's a new discussion over the constitution of a revolutionary union, not whether to have one.

Mike Harmann wrote:
No I really think it's neither, and calling it a hybrid model is going to confuse the fuck out of people. If you neither want to reform the existing unions nor set up a competitor, then you can't say you're doing both.

fair enough, throw away remark. i've been re-reading Bob Holton and remembered i was told it was a reference point when coming up with the network strategy.