Not one nor two: political organization, syndicalism, and thought

A piece exploring an experience organizing with transportation workers and the connections between political ideas, action, tactics, and radical potentials. Militant forms of reformism is explored along the way.

Submitted by s.nappalos on September 10, 2013

“We would like to thank these activists and the lawyer who won this fight for us. Before we met them we fought for 15 or more years with nothing. We were powerless, but thank god we have people to help us now do what we couldn’t do on our own”.[1]

After years of working together and six months of actions, they won. The county had fined them almost daily hundreds of dollars for an infraction involving their vehicles. Research had revealed that the county commission never passed a law which would have given them the power to do so; for 5 years or so they were illegally collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from poor drivers without any legitimacy. The drivers organized, held general assemblies, picketed, led actions shutting down parts of the city, and disrupted county meetings. Without a leg to stand on the county buckled and admitted fault, promising to refund the money to the drivers.

Before we began working together, the drivers had paid a lawyer more than a mortgage per month to advocate on their behalf. Every election they pooled money for candidates, and sat on countless county meetings to try and correct basic daily issues making their lives and work miserable. The fight has been on 20 years or so when we met, but the current generation of leaders had fought for 10. There were very few victories. The drivers are candid; what works is when we shut things down. But they didn’t want to do that.

The problem isn’t that they didn’t not know how to fight, but that they are committed to another view of life and politics. Following the victory, the workers dove head in to lobbying commissioners and seeking an advocate on the council. Feeling they had won, they openly rejected the idea of being forced back onto the streets and out of their vehicles. Instead they believed that the power of outsiders to win favors gained them a seat at the table.

Despite the initial boom, it fell flat. The county, seeing their unwillingness to follow through, later reneged on all the money. The credibility of the drivers’ organization was damaged after having spent their time at meetings with politicians without much to show for it. Taking note, the county saw an opportunity and moved on it, something the drivers couldn’t manage to accept. They never saw any money despite having fought and won, despite wholesale illegal harassment from government authorities, and despite the work we did as radicals.

It’s frequently said that politics get in the way of organizing, and in a way it’s true. The drivers did not desire the politics of direct action or class confrontation; they wanted the system to work as it had been promised to them; a democracy where representatives advocate for you with their professions while you do yours. The fact that it didn’t and that they lost because of their unwillingness to carry through with their fight didn’t change their resolve to invest energy into making a well functioning American political system. This was not interpreted, but explicitly stated in their meetings; their struggle was to make capitalism and the republic work for them. They would return to this theme at nearly every meeting, and especially when things were not going as planned.

The solution to the social stagnation we experience is often taken to lie in our tactics, “direct action gets the goods”. The reality is more complex. Society is not a blank slate that we can write our politics onto, and good tactics won’t inherently give us the results we seek. People carry their own ideas, goals, and perspectives, and it is not enough merely to move forward like an economist criticizing diminishing margins of returns. Political ideas matter. This is the opposite of popular radical political thought; the animation and life of the struggle comes from the thinking of those struggling, their subjectivity and agency. This small example of the transportation workers points to the role of peoples’ conception of struggle and their collectivity at the center of why and how they fight; it should be central also to how we fight as people committed to a radical break from capitalism.

Ideas do not fall from the sky however. The drivers did not see their future through representative democracy because they had studied it in University. As drivers, they faced a governing body making decisions that run the county every day. The drivers palpably sensed how the structure worked, how it could be used for or against their advantage, and identified with other groups that did find representation like the employer’s association. Many openly expressed their desire to become business owners, to purchase capital, and acquire the clout of the associations, but to use it for the good of all drivers. This is not a mechanical duplication of the ruling class, but instead real peoples attempt to find a place for their values and desires within a system that they try to navigate day-to-day and with which they were not ready to break from.

Within the IWW today some feel that a politically neutral union will be the most successful, and success is defined by attracting large numbers of people generally. Focusing on the tactics and methods of struggle is seen as the core of the political project. Yet cases like that of the drivers raises questions about that strategy. If politics is not incidental but central to whether we can fight at all, then it will be impossible to sit out debates about things like county elections, political parties, small business, regulation, etc. Today this is even more necessary to get a grip on in an era where institutionalized sections of the left move towards militant reformism and venture syndicalism.[2] More and more radicals are being mobilized and lined up behind initiatives to reform and improve capitalism via militant tactics (or at least the appearance of militancy). The organizing in big box retail, low wage sectors, and fast food primarily led by front groups for SEIU and UFCW provide a vivid and active examples. Actively recuperative and reformist forces seeking to entrench their section of the ruling class can adopt similar tactics, language, and strategies, if not identical, to radicals. If reformism becomes militant and acts like we act, what will distinguish us? How will we move towards defeating the system rather than saving it?

Radicals are not immune to the influences that society plays in our struggles. The debates around contracts for instance in the IWW are ideological, but the role of the objective situation shouldn’t be overlooked. What we debate, our positions, and how debates come to be are shaped by our day-to-day reality of the economy, the political landscape, and our experiences in our moment. For example, it is in response to the overall failure of the labor movement to provide a serious counter-weight to the assaults of unbridled capitalism that sets the stage for positions around union contracts within the labor left or IWW more specifically. Both opponents and supporters of contracts are responding to the inability to mobilize workers to take up direct struggle against capital on a sustained basis. One side sees numbers and resources as a hurdle and the other sees quality of organizers and organizing. The example of the drivers suggests another perspective; it is the lack of a subjectivity amongst sections of the working class that holds back struggle and this is informed by the objective situation, though not only that.

Struggle will open doors for us, but it will also create dividing lines. Militant reformism attempting to make a better capitalism will likely lead to organizers becoming disillusioned with reformism. Likewise radicals organizing direct action to facilitate breaking from the system will facilitate reformists using those struggles to reroute struggles into defending capitalism. For these reasons no organization will be free of politics, political struggle, and political organization. Right now there is the luxury to avoid such work in our personal lives, and as long as struggles fail to sustain themselves such problems will seem like crystal gazing. In Occupy radical ideas of previous struggles encapsulated in bits like “occupy everything demand nothing” (which came out of anti-austerity university occupations a few years prior) became a guiding spirit in a different context. In our own situation, we are planting seeds for which it’s difficult to guess how they will grow. When radical ideas become embodied in action, the battle lines will be laid and we can disarm ourselves if we do not prepare or give ourselves the tools to advocate for an alternative to attempts to improve, save, and develop capitalism.

Throughout the life of syndicalist movements workers have seen the necessity of banding together to promote, reflect, and develop their positions in order to maintain or change the course of their unions. Inside the Spanish anarchosyndicalist union the CNT[3], the Friends of Durruti[4] and Mujeres Libres[5] are the most obvious examples of groups of militants within the union that sought to develop and promote courses of action based on their experiences. Countless groupings, affinity groups, publications, collectives, and organizations existed within the vibrant syndicalist movement from the CNT to the FORA. Reading the IWWs One Big Union or the Industrial Pioneer[6] of the 1920s makes this clear; political ideas and work around those ideas have always been integral and not merely academic or brought in from the outside. Part and parcel of workplace struggle was constructing politics within the union: framing the struggle, interpreting and changing the methods and structure, and putting forward an interpretation of their values and goals.

Today the lack of a coherent organized anarchosyndicalist and anarchist communist force within working class and its organizations only frustrates our ability to understand and take action better than we might if we got together, experimented, and consolidated our lessons cooperatively as a group of likeminded comrades. In the future however it may mean being hamstrung against attacks. A stable environment is more forgiving, but what will happen if our projects become coopted by reformists in the streets taking illegal action for a New Deal? Or contemporary fascists that draw from a racist interpretation of workplace organizing? Or with authoritarians and opportunists that enter a vacuum with a program of rebuilding a ruling class out of the ashes of the old? This isn’t to say that we have good models of how to be organized politically. Too often political organization is not based out of social relationships and activity, but instead speculation and posturing. That too should show us a great deal about our situation and not just dismiss those who are trying to find those alternatives.

Just as we need to do politics and to cohere with our shared commitments and perspectives, there’s a need to recognize that our work is not centered in one place or position. For example, think of what the foreclosure crisis would have looked like if anarchist communists had built for housing what we built for workplaces? Today where there is a dizzying array of organizations without clear directions, it’s impossible know the best course except by experimentation and working with others. Just as we should build a political project that helps us be better workplace organizers, we need a space for coming together with others who share the same objectives, values, and strategy who are waging struggles where we aren’t. There is the possibility of connecting, learning, and deepening our creativity and experimental capacities by linking together our work in a political home.

The limitations of isolation, intransigence, and reaction are clear enough. Today there are more people than ever in recent history who have taken up struggle with their lives and invested their futures in a libertarian alternative. This experiment and its fruit are making possible reflection and actions that were not within grasp a decade ago or even 5 years ago. As the shifting terrain of capitalism decomposes old social relationships and creates new divisions and equilibriums, possibilities are opening for us as people are thrown out of their stability. Part of the genius of the anarchosyndicalist movement was to see the inherently political character of struggle, and to seek to build both libertarian thought and movement out of basic fights not within the system, but against it. This world, changing beneath us, has opened up and offered us new bases to advance. It is not in one front or organization, nor is it possible to artificially divide movements from political thinking and struggle. Our task it to fight, but to fight as anarchists. In these struggles we must work to spread new subjectivities through engaging the limitations of daily life and offering a new horizon to view the future and humanity.

[1] Paraphrase of a quote from a victory speech of Florida transportation workers after winning a battle with the county.

[2] See Nate Hawthorne’s piece Venture Syndicalism: Fanning and dousing the flames of discontent.


[4] See Friends of Durruti’s Towards a Fresh Revolution.


[6] These were the alternating names of the IWW’s monthly magazine which featured international reports from anarchosyndicalist unions increasingly in the 20s and onward, but also theoretical and political debates about theory, strategy, and vision within the union.



10 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by syndicalist on September 13, 2013

The limitations of isolation, intransigence, and reaction are clear enough. Today there are more people than ever in recent history who have taken up struggle with their lives and invested their futures in a libertarian alternative. This experiment and its fruit are making possible reflection and actions that were not within grasp a decade ago or even 5 years ago

Sorry, I know I'm not to bright...but what does this mean exactly? That within the past number of years the levels of struggle and numbers of libertarian are greater, which then allows for a different ability to reflect (then 10,25,30 years ago)?