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Anarcho-syndicalist strategy & the meaning of 'union'

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Mike Harman
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Dec 2 2008 11:46
Joseph K. wrote:
and as has been said by SF members, the constitution is a clunky, hurriedly drafted document that is overdue for revision while the strategy is the basis for our actual practice.

Well good. But for those of us not in SolFed we've relied on being told. When I first checked out solfed, the impression I got was that you want to build unions, and yes, that you like talking about 'crapitalism' and the 'higher orders' - this because my two sources of information were 'Direct Action' and your website, back in 2003 or so.

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so why are they 'orthodox' and i'm 'unorthodox' and not the other way around?

If you look back at the discussions on here when the Education Workers Network was set up, there were people such as myself (then working in Education and an AF member), Knightrose and others who thought they were a great idea, but were told we needed to join SolFed to get involved (which despite various protestations to the contrary, means 'be an anarcho-syndicalist' as far as I'm concerned). That's before all you young geezers down south joined up. This led to some members of the AF joining the IWW instead to set up IU620 - and to some extent my own pessimism towards any kind of decent co-operation between politicos around workplace organising, or even analysis of it - which projects like prol-position and Tea Break have partially reversed.

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as far as i'm concerned you can call it whatever the fuck you like, semantics are secondary to substance.

Again, I don't think the divisions between those four traditions are semantic - they reflect deep rooted historical trajectories and modes of practice. It just happens that there's a convergence both in the material practice of historical movements which can be associated with one or the other (or none), and also a convergence of some people's approaches to politics who may more or less associate with one of them. In the UK where there's no particular advantage to associating with any one tradition - in terms of none of them having any recent history as an actual movement, and all four having deep flaws in one or other area - then invoking one over the other in terms of claiming a lineage is precisely putting semantics over substance - and again, it has material consequences - such as two education workers networks (and to make it clear I'm not exclusively blaming solfed for that).

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i agree about the false unity and divisions (manifestly obvious on this thread, like Dev agreeing with me but insisting it can't therefore be consistent with anarcho-syndicalism, because he's a left communist), but any organisation will be imperfect, and all the existing ones have many failings. out of interest would you join an organisation with the strategy i advocate, or would it have to also have a neutral name?

If the 'strategy you advocate' is what you're arguing the solfed worplace strategy is, then isn't that basically asking me if I'd join solfed?

Quote:
Mike Harman wrote:
Not to mention that 'union' is a very loaded term in the real world, and I think it has quite serious practical consequences on how people interpret that word or use it in any kind of literature, it's definitely not a semantic pissing context when the differences on here are translated into propaganda in the real world.

it does, but this also applies to 'communism', 'anarchism', 'democracy' etc.

Yeah, and that's why we're both involved in a publication which specifically avoids using loaded terminology in favour of arguing concrete tactics and analysis instead. It's also a good reason to have separate news, history and library sections on this site, and have a style guide which discourages phrasing like 'what anarchists think about ...'.

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. i generally think the word is unnecessary because we can just argue for the actual things we want; mass meetings, then delegate councils etc and avoid any ambiguity.

Yep.

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but then again it doesn't hurt to have a shorthand for 'mass meetings open to all workers except scabs and managers co-ordinating their activities via mandated recallable delegate councils and federating by industry/region when conditions are conducive to it.' 'anarcho-syndicalist unions' would seem do the trick.

Well when I hear it it sounds like trying to recreate the heyday of the CNT. "And this is why we should be holding mass-meetings in our workplaces" vs. "And this is why we should be building anarcho-syndicalist unions" wink

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Joseph Kay
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Dec 2 2008 13:05
Mike Harman wrote:
If the 'strategy you advocate' is what you're arguing the solfed worplace strategy is, then isn't that basically asking me if I'd join solfed?

i'm wondering if solfed passed a conference motion saying "Joseph K. is the Word and the Light" (hmm, might tack that on as an innocuous amendment to some banal procedural motion... grin) would the self-identification of the organisation as 'anarcho-syndicalist' stop you joining? Like you, i agree that all the historical traditions have flaws and are imperfect (necessarily so), and we have to learn from them and go beyond their prior limitations. but i think a practical co-operation on concrete projects and a clear exposition of strategies etc is the best course of action rather than hoping for a perfectly formed organisation to materialise. i've nowhere claimed my exposition of solfed's strategy is exclusively anarcho-syndicalist, on the contrary, traditions insofar as they are living things not dead curiosities learn from their mistakes, take on board criticisms, can converge as well as diverge etc, and contemporary anarcho-syndicalism as described in solfed's strategy is all about mass assemblies and delegate councils (obviously anarcho-syndicalism isn't much of a living tradition among the wider class, that's not in dispute, even within solfed). this may represent a taking on board of councilist criticisms, it may represent a distillation of the lessons learned from one-big-union building, or a mixture of the two, but it says what it says.

Mike Harman wrote:
Well when I hear it it sounds like trying to recreate the heyday of the CNT. "And this is why we should be holding mass-meetings in our workplaces" vs. "And this is why we should be building anarcho-syndicalist unions" ;)

well in the context of the strategy that says more about you than solfed. now there was a solfed member on here not long ago criticising Tea Break for not telling people to join an organsation (i.e. solfed)* and that "anarchists with plenty more experience than us realised that years ago and have given us the template," so nobody's claiming historical recreationist views don't exist within solfed. my argument is that my views are an exposition of our stated strategy whereas 'recreate the 30s CNT' is an ahistorical fetish quite removed from it.

* fwiw there's something in this criticism, if we think networks of militants are a good idea we should consider having something in Tea Break saying 'if you work in x sector or are interested etc get in touch as we want to network with other workers' or whatever.

Mike Harman
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Dec 2 2008 15:11
Joseph K. wrote:
Mike Harman wrote:
If the 'strategy you advocate' is what you're arguing the solfed worplace strategy is, then isn't that basically asking me if I'd join solfed?

i'm wondering if solfed passed a conference motion saying "Joseph K. is the Word and the Light" (hmm, might tack that on as an innocuous amendment to some banal procedural motion... grin) would the self-identification of the organisation as 'anarcho-syndicalist' stop you joining?

I'm not an anarcho-syndicalist. Neither are many of the people I agree with and work with on stuff - and some of them would be even less likely to join than me. So again, the self-identification would be a barrier to practical working I think, or you could say that we're all too fussy and anti-organisationalist, either way. By the way, I'm pretty sure that to join solfed you have to agree with the constitution - but your website's down at the moment.

Mike Harman wrote:
my argument is that my views are an exposition of our stated strategy whereas 'recreate the 30s CNT' is an ahistorical fetish quite removed from it.

Except 'build anarcho-syndicalist unions' can encapsulate both approaches.

Quote:
* fwiw there's something in this criticism, if we think networks of militants are a good idea we should consider having something in Tea Break saying 'if you work in x sector or are interested etc get in touch as we want to network with other workers' or whatever.

We did that in Dispatch, not sure if it was in the last Tea Break though.

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Joseph Kay
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Dec 2 2008 15:34
Mike Harman wrote:
I'm not an anarcho-syndicalist.

apparently this isn't a barrier to joining if you agree with the strategy/A&Ps, which in this hypothetical instance you would. i mean i'm not an anarcho-syndicalist, i'm a libertarian communist. libertarian communism is the goal of anarcho-syndicalism and i personally don't see the point in identifying so closely with tactics, which can lead to needless confusion and a fetishism of form over content (but doesn't necessarily do so). i'm not trying to recruit you btw, just wondering what it means to be pro-organisation with only imperfect organisations to join. you seem to be saying 'solfed has faults', to which i can only reply 'no shit' wink

Mike Harman wrote:
Except 'build anarcho-syndicalist unions' can encapsulate both approaches.

which might have something to do with why i've started a thread to clarify the meaning of 'anarcho-syndicalist union', our local has a discussion of this scheduled this weekend and we're hoping a document will follow from that discussion. i've argued at length that our strategy makes clear exactly what is meant, but apparently not clearly enough, so hopefully we'll be able to shed some more light on matters.

Mike Harman
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Dec 2 2008 16:07

If the strategy/A&Ps were re-written to be something I'd agree with, then really solfed would be a formerly anarcho-syndicalist organisation (no more priniciples of revolutionary unionism etc.), so it's kinda a tautology. Also I'd not join the IWA.

Mark.
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Dec 2 2008 16:11

According to the Syndicalist Workers Federation aims and principles

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To achieve a free, classless society the workers must organise. They must replace the hundreds of craft and general trade unions by syndicalist industrial unions. As an immediate step to that end, the SWF aids the formation of workers' committees in all factories, mines, offices, shipyards, mills and other places of work and their development into syndicates, federated nationally. Such syndicates will be under direct rank-and-file control, with all delegates subject to immediate recall.

I'd say that this was the traditional anarcho-syndicalist position, at least after the experience of workers' committees during the first world war. What is being talked about here is turning a movement of workplace assemblies or committees into permanent syndicalist unions. Something along these lines happened in Italy with the formation of the various COBAS unions out of a movement of base committees. To me there's a clear distinction here between a temporary movement of committees or assemblies and more permanent unions.

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Joseph Kay
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Dec 2 2008 16:38
Mike Harman wrote:
If the strategy/A&Ps were re-written to be something I'd agree with, then really solfed would be a formerly anarcho-syndicalist organisation (no more priniciples of revolutionary unionism etc.), so it's kinda a tautology

well this whole thread's a tautology since you (and Dev, and Ret...) are defining anarcho-syndicalism a certain way, then insisting solfed's strategy is read accordingly, despite the actual words.

JH wrote:
To me there's a clear distinction here between a temporary movement of committees or assemblies and more permanent unions.

well my point is precisely that solfed's strategy recognises that it's only "in the most militant workforces" that "regular mass meetings will be held and this is obviously the ideal we are aiming at", i.e. the mass meetings (and subsequent delegate councils, federation etc) which distinguish anarcho-syndicalist unions from your common-or-garden union are related to the level of militancy, i.e. non-permanent, using the definition of permanent as enduring between cycles of struggle.

now, if people want to claim solfed's strategy isn't anarcho-syndicalist, that would make more sense, but i still don't think there's an obvious break there, tracing back through how Workmates operated, through Puerto Real etc, as i've argued. apparently the only counter to this is to say 'yeah well all that theory and practice of actual anarcho-syndicalist organisations, that's not anarcho-syndicalism. anarcho-syndicalism's whatever i say it is, which is whatever the most stuck in the 30s member of solfed i can find thinks.'

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Red Marriott
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Dec 3 2008 12:01
Quote:
yes, because you've already decided what anarcho-syndicalism is and isn't regardless of the published strategy of an actual anarcho-syndicalist group.

Well there's a lot of class struggle history came before the emergence of lil ole Solfed. And, in light of that, if your personal interpretation is accurate, then, IMO (and others) maybe it's not an anarcho-syndicalist group. But then, your interpretation differs from fellow members.

But then, if it's as you say and it's all just semantics, then my definition is just as valid as yours - and certainly less confusing and more in accord with historical usage.

Mike Harman wrote:
If the strategy/A&Ps were re-written to be something I'd agree with, then really solfed would be a formerly anarcho-syndicalist organisation (no more priniciples of revolutionary unionism etc.), so it's kinda a tautology
Quote:
well this whole thread's a tautology since you (and Dev, and Ret...) are defining anarcho-syndicalism a certain way, then insisting solfed's strategy is read accordingly, despite the actual words.

Whereas? You are defining it to mean what you want? Regardless of its actual historical meaning as most commonly understood?

JK wrote:
JH wrote:
To me there's a clear distinction here between a temporary movement of committees or assemblies and more permanent unions.

well my point is precisely that solfed's strategy recognises that it's only "in the most militant workforces" that "regular mass meetings will be held and this is obviously the ideal we are aiming at", i.e. the mass meetings (and subsequent delegate councils, federation etc) which distinguish anarcho-syndicalist unions from your common-or-garden union are related to the level of militancy, i.e. non-permanent, using the definition of permanent as enduring between cycles of struggle.

"Regular" but "non-permanent" meetings? I'm not sure that kind of distinction is sustainable; in the post office, for example, there are workplace 'mass meetings' called by branch reps when an issue is looming. If the level of struggle got to the point where 'syndicalists' of the JK type were organising mass non-union strike meetings, then you might win or lose and then return to work. Then another issue looms, so, while still working, it becomes necessary to meet and discuss how to respond. A regular pattern of this would, it seems, likely lead to a more formal type of organisation, or at least a more formal, regularised, form of organisation. Emerging patterns of how things are done, settling into applicable roles etc.

While if you insist on and impose a 'non-permanency', that seems to by definition mean a councilist position chosen rather than an anarcho-syndicalist one. Unless you dismiss the historical reasons for and usefulness of those descriptions and pretend they're interchangeable.

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now, if people want to claim solfed's strategy isn't anarcho-syndicalist, that would make more sense, but i still don't think there's an obvious break there, tracing back through how Workmates operated, through Puerto Real etc, as i've argued. apparently the only counter to this is to say 'yeah well all that theory and practice of actual anarcho-syndicalist organisations, that's not anarcho-syndicalism. anarcho-syndicalism's whatever i say it is, which is whatever the most stuck in the 30s member of solfed i can find thinks.'

If it has no close relation to what occurred in the 1930s, then it seems unecessarily confusing to give the impression that it does by naming it so. (How about a 'councilist'-named group that actually wants to set up permanent anarcho-syndicalist-type organisations? I have a feeling anarcho-syndicalists might be among the first to point out the historical contradiction/misuse of terms.) I generally enjoy the clarity of your posts and I don't mean to be rude, but I find your argument absurd. Sorry. I suggest that Solfed has a similar relationship to the anarcho-syndicalist tradition as the ICC do to the left-communist tradition - an ideological identification, but without the practical means or historical opportunity to, well, really practice the theory. Hence the modifications in definition to accomodate what can be practiced. As catch hinted, these seemingly ideological differences (between anarcho-syndicalism and your councilist-like assemblyism) only seem ideological or 'semantic' now because of their practical impossibility. But we would do well to be clear about why the distinctions emerged historically, and their potential importance if/when they may become practical tactical choices. That's why I say it's important to maintain that there is a real distinction carried within those terms - otherwise history is reduced to a pick'n'mix of semaphors or labels with no informed content. (Not that I'm expecting to pursuade you...)

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Joseph Kay
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Dec 3 2008 13:23
Ret Marut wrote:
Whereas? You are defining it to mean what you want? Regardless of its actual historical meaning as most commonly understood?

i'm defining it as what's in solfed's strategy, since that's the strategy of a contemporary anarcho-syndicalist group. if you want to argue the strategy's emphasis on mass meetings is a break with anarcho-syndicalism, then go ahead. i don't think it is, though of course mass meetings aren't exclusive to anarcho-syndicalism, or any tradition, as i keep saying.

Ret Marut wrote:
"Regular" but "non-permanent" meetings? I'm not sure that kind of distinction is sustainable

well if the level of militancy is such that regular mass meetings can be held, you do so, but if the level of militancy falls, so do the meetings. therefore they (and the structures based on them, delegate councils etc) are not permanent organisations. really not that complicated.

Ret Marut wrote:
A regular pattern of this would, it seems, likely lead to a more formal type of organisation, or at least a more formal, regularised, form of organisation. Emerging patterns of how things are done, settling into applicable roles etc.

which is precisely why we have a strategy - to pre-empt TU co-optation of struggles into legalistic, bureaucratic forms - that such organisation should take the form of mandated/recallable delegate councils, industrial federation etc, all the while rooted in the mass assemblies without which these forms are nothing. the organsiation would be an empty shell without mass meetings, is therefore tied to the level of militancy and therefore the anarcho-syndicalist union is non-permanent. i'm arguing this is at least implicit in the strategy (well, pretty explicit, "in the most militant workplaces..."), and that we should recognise this and act accordingly, i.e. not try and build empty shell 'unions' and wait for workers to join, or suffer a delusion to be a a-s union when mass assemblies have waned and all that's left at best is a network of militants.

i don't think it's enough to argue for mass assemblies but have no strategy for where to go from there if the struggle escalates to the point where they become regular (this was arguabley the criticism of the CNT from the FoD, the lack of a program/strategy to go beyond organising the struggle to implementing communism). as far as i can work out there's quite broad agreement with what i've actually set out (mandated/recallable delegate councils to co-ordinate between assemblies etc), but the argument is it isn't anarcho-syndicalist. as far as i'm concerned i'm expressing solfed's strategy.

Ret Marut wrote:
I generally enjoy the clarity of your posts and I don't mean to be rude, but I find your argument absurd.

your tact is appreciated and i'm not the type to take honest politcal disagreements personally, but my argument isn't what we should call it, but what our strategy actually says. your argument, and dev's seems to be that the majority of solfed members are just paying lip-service to the strategy while secretly waiting for the day to implement the impecable 1930s blueprint. a) i don't think this is the case, b) even if it is, it in itself proves that anarcho-syndicalist unions can only exist in periods of increased militancy, confirming my argument and c) has no bearing on my exposition of our stated strategy.

Ret Marut wrote:
I suggest that Solfed has a similar relationship to the anarcho-syndicalist tradition as the ICC do to the left-communist tradition - an ideological identification, but without the practical means or historical opportunity to, well, really practice the theory.

well, the recent example with a solfed member involved was Workmates, and our comrade considered the mass assembly/delegate council structure exactly what we're aiming for. with staff turnover, defeat and other factors the militancy waned and became simply a culture of canteen mass meetings within the RMT. substance (militancy, levels of struggle) as well as structure (mass meetings, delegate councils) are needed. again, the fact there may be people in solfed who refuse to learn anything since 1936 (i really don't think this is the case) doesn't change the fact our strategy says what it says, there is an example of this in practice and that there are further lessons to be learned from that practice.

Ret Marut wrote:
That's why I say it's important to maintain that there is a real distinction carried within those terms - otherwise history is reduced to a pick'n'mix of semaphors or labels with no informed content. (Not that I'm expecting to pursuade you...)

historically, obviously there has been. i've been discussing "Anarcho-syndicalist strategy and the meaning of 'union'" today, using solfed's strategy (which i think is pretty good) as the springboard. it may well be through various historical lessons solfed's strategy has converged with other tendencies, since political tendencies are not trans-historical platonic forms. but this would put old-school 'build the union' anarcho-syndicalists at odds with solfed's strategy, not me. if there's a strategy that people from different groups all agree on that can simply be called 'communist' or whatever, then great. i'm not going to be an organisational chauvinist about it.

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Red Marriott
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Dec 4 2008 15:44

Well at least I think we've clarified where we stand, if without convincing each other - but if, in your view, your chosen strategy can be so easily shared with councilists and more or less the whole anti-leninist left (as well as, up to a point, some rank'n'file/shop steward initiatives) then I still don't see the point of naming it specifically as anarcho-syndicalism. But maybe that expresses a latent tension within the group that will be worked out in involvement in wider practical struggles at some point.

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Steven.
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Dec 15 2008 03:00

I just finish this discussion now. It's been interesting.

I was thinking on a related note, it would be good to have a proper recent account of what happened with the whole workmates thing. Either for a history article, or an interview or something. Is there anything decent written already?

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Joseph Kay
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Dec 15 2008 07:24

2 things...

- this discussion, along with recent ones within solfed nationally and within the brighton local has lead to me being mandated to turn this into a short 3-4000 word pamphlet for the brighton local, introducing the industrial strategy. aiming to have it written for the new year, then it will go through the local for amendment/ratification so should hopefully be available by the end of january.

- don't think there's much written on workmates; almost everything i've said about it is from conversations with the comrade involved (the idea of substance/structure prompted a lot of the ideas in this thread). however i think it's a really important episode of recent class struggle and something more should be recorded. one of our local has suggested doing an interview with the guy, we haven't asked him about this yet but will keep you posted.

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Joseph Kay
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Jan 2 2009 13:07
Joseph K. wrote:
this discussion, along with recent ones within solfed nationally and within the brighton local has lead to me being mandated to turn this into a short 3-4000 word pamphlet for the brighton local, introducing the industrial strategy. aiming to have it written for the new year, then it will go through the local for amendment/ratification so should hopefully be available by the end of january.

for those of you on tenterhooks as to the latest musings of everyone's favourite south coast anarcho-syndicalists, this is on schedule. a draft is currently being reviewed within the local.

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Joseph Kay
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Jan 26 2009 07:51

bump; this pamphlet is now written and being circulated internally. should be available on libcom in a week, in print shortly after that