Partyism versus syndicalism

An article on organisation for revolutionaries by Liberty & Solidarity, which contains significant misunderstandings and factual inaccuracies and which we disagree with completely but reproduce here for reference only.

"In action the IWW had been the most militant, the most revolutionary section of the workers’ vanguard in this country. The IWW, while calling itself a union, was much nearer to Lenin’s conception of a party of professional revolutionists than any other organization calling itself a party at that time. In their practice, and partly also in their theory, the Wobblies were closer to Lenin’s Bolsheviks than any other group in this country."

The above quote is how Trotskyist leader James P Cannon saw the historical IWW.

It's illustrative because it underlines what the primary concerns of a particular school of left thought are.

Below is how Malatesta sees the role of 'anarchists' towards the unions.

"In my opinion the anarchists should not want the unions to be anarchist. The anarchists must work among themselves for anarchist ends, as individuals, groups and federations of groups. In the same way as there are, or should be, study and discussion groups, groups for written or spoken propaganda in public, cooperative groups, groups working within factories and workshops, fields, barracks, schools, etc., so they should form groups within the various organisations that wage class war. Naturally the ideal would be for everyone to be anarchist and for all organisations to work anarchically. But it is clear that if that were the case, there would be no need to organise for the struggle against the bosses, because the bosses would no longer exist. "

He continues elsewhere...

"let it be the responsibility of others, not the anarchists, whose mission is to point to the inadequacy and fragility of all improvements that are made within a capitalist society and to drive the struggle on toward ever more radical solutions. The anarchists within the unions should strive to ensure that they remain open to all workers of whatever opinion or party on the sole condition that there is solidarity in the struggle against the bosses. They should oppose the corporatist spirit and any attempt to monopolise labour or organisation. They should prevent the Unions from becoming the tools of the politicians for electoral or other authoritarian ends; they should preach and practice direct action, decentralisation, autonomy and free initiative. They should strive to help members learn how to participate directly in the life of the organisation and to do without leaders and permanent officials. They must, in short, remain anarchists, remain always in close touch with anarchists and remember that the workers' organisation is not the end but just one of the means, however important, of preparing the way for the achievement of anarchism."

There would appear then to be a fundamental gulf between the views of the Trotskyist Cannon, and the anarchist Malatesta. And there is. They are not aiming to do the same thing.

But this gulf masks a unity.

And it is a unity that ought to be rejected.

Both sets of ideas (however different) see the engine of struggle, as external to our mass organisations. For Malatesta the anarchists must prevent the unions becoming the appendages of ideologists, but what is most crucial is that anarchists are there, organised as anarchists. "[T]hey should preach and practice direct action, decentralisation, autonomy and free initiative." What they should not do is "compromise and enter into muddied negotiations with authority and the employers" They ought to "let [that] be the responsibility of others, not the anarchists."

Malatesta may reject the concept of anarchist-ideological syndicalism (and rightly so), as effectively conceiving of the union as the political organisation, but his motive factor in struggle is 'the anarchists', who aren't to get their hands dirty.

That's three distinct currents of thought on the left that are often seen as being at odds with each other, but ultimately all three betray what can only be termed partyism.

Partyism as an idea is the notion that the political organisation (whatever form it takes) is the motor of class struggle. For the Trotskyist it is how the question of the crisis of leadership is resolved. For many who'd self-describe their views as anarcho-syndicalist, it is the idea of a higher form of union organisation, structured federally, to act without compromise, in accordance with the organisational and political ideas of anarcho syndicalism. For Malatestian conceptions of the anarchist milieu, anarchists are the glue that will build a revolutionary movement, because anarchists will popularise tactics, and build anarchist free associations. Essentially this is a retreat to the political organisation, because as Malatesta makes clear, it's not the job of anarchists to get their hands dirty, or deal with compromises to build power incrementally. Theirs is the role of pointing out the 'revolutionary' way. In many ways this is similar to a kind of abstentionist trotskyism. The crisis of leadership can be resolved by popularising anarchist ideas, but without getting stuck in, and compromising in the day to day battles to take our mass working class organisations forward.

All of these ideas are essentially partyist. They place at their doctrinal heart what are essentially big P political matters. It is perhaps ironical that in setting out to condemn this notion in others Malatesta essentially confirms it in his own ideas.

As revolutionaries we need to ask ourselves some basic questions before we get active in struggle. One of those key ideas is the question, what is the vehicle of struggle?

Is it the party-sect, the anarchist tendency, or is it the politically composed, and politically ideologically centred union? Or is it something else?

Let's be quite clear, partyism failed.

It failed in the 20th century. Because it was unable to structure itself in such a way as to afford the working class power across a unitary region of the globe capable of granting the conditions for winning a socialist revolution. The second international has much to be blamed for, but so does the partyism that followed it with the comintern. The left in general had not been pursuing the right tack, long prior to the Russian revolution, just as it did not after it.

Our task is not simply to overthrow individual states. Nor is it to ensure that lots of people agree with us. No. Our task is to ensure that socialist victory is achieved simultaneously across a geo-region, to such an extent that we can repel attack by the capitalists who remain, and to withstand an total economic embargo. Such a victory, according to resource analysis is only possible if all of the Americas were to have a revolution, or most of Eurasia. And such a revolution requires that we are structured as a class to take power right across this region simultaneously. We need no repeat of the horrors of Stalinism to demonstrate that socialism cannot be built in one country, and let's remember too that even that murderous Stalinism was only possible after a brutal civil war in which more people were killed than in all the trenches, bloodbaths and gallipolis of the first world war.

Partyism then, as the means to hawk our principles, first and foremost (and hope for the best), or the means by which the representatives of the workers can stage a coup in different national governments simply does not offer a solution.

In a recent satirical video, aimed at me in fact, the anarchists Duke, and Al Tucker claim some sort of link between this kind of thinking, and the thinking of partyism. The phrase Trotskyist is used more than once pejoratively.

But the reality is that syndicalism, in the sense of a political current which aims to build the kind of mighty industrial union confederations that were first envisioned by the IWW, and thinkers like Monatte could not be further from this partyist trajectory.

Indeed the syndicalism that stems from this understanding (that if the working class is to take power it must do so across a geo-region, and must launch a revolution across this region, across supply chains, with massive industrial power, supported by community organisation all the way thruout) bears but little resemblance to the 'anarcho-syndicalism' that labels even very ideologically organisations as 'reformist' or 'collaborationist' in that it stems not from a desire for political purity, but for raw industrial power.

Where the partyist syndicalists lay emphasis on mass meetings, federalism, localism, and fidelity to revolutionary principle as the first point of departure, the industrial syndicalists lay such emphasis emphatically and squarely at what is most likely to lead the working class to victory. We may find that our goals intersect with each other, for sure, but for the industrial syndicalists what matters most of all is rank and file control and industrial organisation. Industrial organisation is specifically rejected by the localism of the federalists, who tend to view the union local in much the same way as all socialists would view the ideal post-revolutionary polity.

What we need most of all however is a movement towards industrial unionism, across a geo-region, with specific emphasis on building rank and file control and engagement. The arguments for convincing thru propaganda and logical reasoning, in place of leading by demonstration have been had, and the marketers and science of the capitalists has already discerned the answer decades ago, but partyism is still with us.

It is however in stark contrast to the industrial syndicalism that may actually stand us a chance of building a popular movement structured to take power, where such a movement's participants have become an active rank and file, blooded in struggles that our superior organisation has seen us win.

It is time to demonstrate to Trotskyists, Leninists, and the partyist anarchists and ultra-left organisations that we need industrial unionism, now, more than ever before. The crash of 2008 has set us on a defensive footing that will take a generation of fighting to see us come out with our organisations intact. But as we take on those fights it must be with a view that we are building something far stronger, and far more revolutionary in its place.

Posted By

Mar 25 2010 12:43


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Jul 9 2015 19:02

Whatever happened to the bulk of L&S members?

Jul 9 2015 21:24

they went straight outta glasgow

Jul 15 2020 19:04

Snowball, you still around?

Jul 16 2020 14:53
Let's be quite clear, partyism failed.

But the reality is that syndicalism, in the sense of a political current which aims to build the kind of mighty industrial union confederations that were first envisioned by the IWW, and thinkers like Monatte could not be further from this partyist trajectory.

I feel like it would also be worth re-visiting Trotsky's debates with the French syndicalists to understand where James P Cannon is coming from. When the French syndicalists argued that their strength as opposed to the communist party was that they organized the entire working-class Trotsky responded that no, they never organized even a near majority of the working-class, which was also true for IWW. The syndicalists instead acted as a militant minority within the labor movement, as a movement against craft unionism and for organizing the unorganized. This is a phenomena that we can see in the history of syndicalism play over and over again, in Sweden for example the times that the syndicalists have had the most effect it has been by acting as a militant minority within larger strike-struggles, like the LKAB-miner strike 1969 and forestry-workers strike in 1975, even if a majority of the strikers were never members of the syndicalist union(in the LKAB-strike the 'social-democratic' miners-union had a strong majority) the syndicalists became a driving force for pushing the struggle forwards.

I don't think there should be any shame in admitting that this has and to some extent is the strength of syndicalism. IWW is still very small and its current state I doubt it will organize a much larger amount of workers(especially in like industry, farm workers, etc) than what it is now.

Jul 16 2020 11:49

Anyone know how I can contact Snowball who was part of L&S?

R Totale
Jul 16 2020 13:35

I feel a bit stalkery saying this, but found a medium account from 2015 that seems to be his, which in turn is linked to this twitter account which is still active. Is that any use?

Jul 16 2020 16:39