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.”

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2011 17:04

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nastyned
Feb 14 2011 21:24

Considering the recent history of the IWA I've found Malatesta to be spot on when it comes to anarcho-syndicalism. Do you have a reference for which bit of Malatesta's writings you're referring to?

Django
Feb 14 2011 21:33
Joseph Kay wrote:
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.

I know that this blog post is really about the Brighton Group's thinking, but I wonder if you can give exaples of the kind of organising that you've been doing which has followed from these conclusions?

I ask because I've had a bit of an enforced break from political activity as a result of not having much time between work and studying in my free time. It's led me to consider what kind of organising I want to be in a political group to do, and what would be the most effective kind of work.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 21:44
nastyned wrote:
Considering the recent history of the IWA I've found Malatesta to be spot on when it comes to anarcho-syndicalism. Do you have a reference for which bit of Malatesta's writings you're referring to?

i'm specifically referring to the third part of 'the union makes us strong' piece above, which seems to be drawing on Malatesta's argument here.

if you mean that IWA sections have accepted a trade off of lower membership rather then compromise principles, yeah you're right. but ok fine, so they haven't gone in for class collaboration... so what's the problem?

i think the 'Malatestan' position would be to separate the anarchism and the syndicalism so that the latter is as large as possible, then join that as organised anarchists agitating within it.

i mean that's fine, it's a valid strategy (though not mine). but it's precisely what i'm on about by juxtaposing political-economic organisation to the separation of political and economic organisation.

of course he was writing in a specific historical setting etc, maybe his arguments only applied to the various syndicalist unions in Italy in the 1920s and can't be transhistorically generalised. maybe if we reanimated his corpse he'd come to different conclusions today. i guess we're working on the assumption he wouldn't, but it's probably worth acknowledging he's unlikely to have been making a transhistorical pronouncement.

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2011 22:02
Django wrote:
I know that this blog post is really about the Brighton Group's thinking, but I wonder if you can give exaples of the kind of organising that you've been doing which has followed from these conclusions?

I ask because I've had a bit of an enforced break from political activity as a result of not having much time between work and studying in my free time. It's led me to consider what kind of organising I want to be in a political group to do, and what would be the most effective kind of work.

well we've been trying various things.

- at Sussex we've tried to get a cross-union 'Support Staff Forum' going, but it isn't really an organising committee in the sense our training model would want, more a small rank-and-file group with no defined political basis beyond the lowest common denominator. it put out a leaflet advocating not crossing UCU picket lines during the strike, and some members of it unofficially skipped work to join them.

- we've started to try and solicit 'direct action solidarity' cases, over stuff like workplace rights violations, unpaid wages etc. we haven't had much yet, but haven't been pushing it that hard of late for various reasons.

- we've been rolling out the national workplace organiser training, trying to get workmates and friends along, again it's early days here. the training sets out a process which can take months or even years to go from nothing to direct action in a workplace, and people are trying to put this into practice, doing the early stages of workplace mapping, identifying co-workers who might be up for organising etc.

- we've also been visiting workplaces, mostly retail, chatting to staff about conditions and giving them a localised 'Stuff Your Boss'. again, we haven't made a big push here but have been testing the waters to see if it's a viable model.

- we've set up/are setting up some more industrial networks, which although pretty nascent at the moment are already getting people thinking as militants rather than simply anarchists, with people writing stuff about their conditions/sectors, hopefully leading to industrial bulletins and the like. as much as anything it's the culture-change that's more important than the formal organisational shift, but that's obviously uneven and harder to articulate.

- Edit: we've also done the odd international picket for IWA sections or contacts. This has been something happening more often as e.g. the CNT has a dispute with a multinational. We've done (pretty symbolic) stuff at Zara and Gap stores, and were too slow off the mark with a H&M one as it was resolved within 48 hours (after pickets across europe) when a sacked CNT guy won some compensation and called it off.

What most of these experiences have done is reinforce the feeling we need an organisation behind us giving us the skills and resources to better carry out such work ('..and that's why we need a revolutionary union' wink ). so we've also been trying to develop that kind of organisational infrastructure - getting the organiser training off the ground, building a sweet new website with some great internal functionality for collaboration etc (with new features to come, perhaps including a private forum for non-members who've attended the organiser training and want to follow-up, discuss strategies etc with SF people and others), trying to tailor Catalyst to something we're happy to share with workmates and which normalises the ideas of us vs them, workplace conditions, and collective struggle... that's about where we're up to at the moment, we've got some big national strategy discussions coming up which might (/should) generate some more initiatives to move us in the right direction.

nastyned
Feb 14 2011 22:47

Thanks JK, I'll have a look at that tomorrow.

mons
Feb 15 2011 20:51

I found the original blog post and the discussion really helpful personally.
Just wondering,

Quote:
we've also been visiting workplaces, mostly retail, chatting to staff about conditions and giving them a localised 'Stuff Your Boss'. again, we haven't made a big push here but have been testing the waters to see if it's a viable model.

How did that go down? I have friends who work in retail, and I imagine they'd just be a bit baffled by people coming in and talking to them about their conditions. It would be really nice if that was a standard thing to do, and people didn't think it weird. But I imagine that would require a culture of resistance.

Joseph Kay
Feb 16 2011 00:32
mons wrote:
How did that go down? I have friends who work in retail, and I imagine they'd just be a bit baffled by people coming in and talking to them about their conditions. It would be really nice if that was a standard thing to do, and people didn't think it weird. But I imagine that would require a culture of resistance.

its been fine so far. i mean, maybe everyone pisses themselves and goes 'what a bunch of weirdos' when we leave. but we figure so what? even that means people are chatting about conditions, even if the context is bafflement. 'some guy came in and gave me a leaflet at work today, talking about knowiing your rights or something...' It's been variable, but we've had some decent conversations. will do a proper write up when we've done it enough to draw some conclusions.

syndicalist
Feb 18 2011 14:23

Right quick. I read Joseph lead, very interesting. Some very close parrallels to here (WSA) as well (mainly new members, lack of new membership stuff, etc.

Nate
Feb 24 2011 16:18

Great article. More to say later. For now, some asides -

Joseph Kay wrote:
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.

This. Times ten.

And -

Joseph Kay wrote:
it's absurd to call it 'anarcho' with a straight face. it's the practice, the content that matters, not what they call themselves.

I think I agree but absurdity is in the eye of the beholder and either it matters what things are called, or it doesn't, seems here like a bit of an equivocation between the two.

NannerNannerNan...
Apr 15 2013 16:16

HAH! I knew Brighton Solfed was special!

snipfool
Apr 15 2013 20:56
NannerNannerNannerNannerNanner wrote:
HAH! I knew Brighton Solfed was special!

Thanks Nanner... I read this and half the comments thinking it was recent confused