Collective Action responds to Adam Ford's (a member of the Commune) criticism of the May Day statement outlining our objections to his proposals for organisational unity and putting forward our own, alternative vision of "libertarian cohesion", regroupment and escalation.
We welcomed the article “Why We Need Collective Action, not ‘Collective Action’”, written on the Infantile Disorder blog by Adam Ford, a member of The Commune. We encourage debate amongst our tendencies and consider criticism an important tool for clarification amongst revolutionaries. As we try and move forward as a class and as a movement against capitalism and the state, it is vitally important that we keep addressing and re-addressing issues that arise from our ideas and our action. This process of developing theory and analysis is the current essence of our association, and so it is encouraging when comrades take the time to help forward those debates.
Our response will cover two of the principle areas that Ford’s article touched upon – unity and class composition – as well as outlining a more constructive vision of how our project is developing. Our aim is to answer some misunderstandings that we believe are contained in Ford’s article and to make clear the areas of analysis in which we differ (and why we can’t accept his proposal of “collective action, not ‘Collective Action’”). Similar themes also emerged within the many informal responses we received to our May Day statement and this response also aims to address them more substantively.
Unity: Too many organisations?
It is clear from Ford’s response that his main objection to the formation of Collective Action is that this is a potentially divisive and fractious move. This is a concern that seems to be shared by a number of activists within the anarchist movement. Either in terms of the need to act in greater unity or that Collective Action is simply replicating activity that is already being performed by other organisations. In terms of the former (we will address the latter in the following sections) Ford believes that at a time of increasing and escalating attacks, working class resistance will begin to supersede the “ideological squabbles” of libertarian organisations. The implication being that the class is essentially moving in the right direction and in this respect the different groupings of libertarians only serve to erect “yet more barriers between comrades”.
Implicit within this is an assessment of the vector of existing social struggles that we are not entirely convinced is held up by the few examples that Ford cites. Either a more detailed case needs to be made here or we would be drawn back to our criticisms of the prevalence of a reductive economism (Crisis = radical upswing) which we cited in our launch statement. We are in agreement that “'what works' will dictate the structure of our revolutionary organisation” and this is precisely why we stress the process of regroupment at this time. This is also why we feel the need to criticise what we perceive to be an outdated activist paradigm of intervention within mass struggles that remain tied to the historical experience of the 1970/80s. Ford continues his assessment by saying that the UK is on the verge of an “explosive class war fightback” and by extension that workers are being increasingly drawn away from the Left (and presumably also the populist Right) towards libertarian methods. If this is the case, it is unclear to us why unity of libertarian activists, and presumably their influence, is so important at this time. If we really are witnessing a popular surge in combative, anarchistic ideas that suggests there is little work to be done for the existing libertarian organisations and the degree of unity that exists between them is of little consequence.
Ford poses the question: “I want to ask why we need so many organisations?” and later more concretely, “Why can't we all just be different tendencies within the same organisation?” The most obvious answer is that political organisations seek to produce their own specific models of intervention – action that in many cases radically differs in purpose and intent. The issue that Ford highlights, however, is less that there are different tendencies and approaches within our tradition, but that this diversity manifests itself in divisive and sectarian ways at the cost of a more ambitious and influential single organisation. This criticism is not new. Within the specifist tradition especially we look to the debates on the Platform and synthesis as a reference point for criticism of these umbrella methods of organisation. We feel no need to re-establish the substance of these arguments here, only to re-affirm the essence of our position – that it is the content of the political action of revolutionaries that should be prioritised foremost, not the numerical strength of their organisations, and especially not if that numerical strength comes at the expense or serves to water down that content.
Ford does pose the question “Surely, together we are stronger?” Yes, but for this we do not necessarily need unity but cohesion. That means a broad, theoretical convergence, not just on objectives and principle, but also on methods and means. An organisational unity could, and probably should emerge at some stage; preferably on a congressional or confederational basis rather than as a unitary party or organisation. But this should only be when it naturally arises from the needs of complimentary praxis amongst revolutionaries. We accept that the unity Ford refers to is between those who agree on the necessity of communism and non-hierarchical organising, and in this sense is very different from the synthesist ideas associated with Voline and de Cleyre. He is also correct to argue that libertarians should not be seeking to replicate the competitive and self-destructive sectarianism of the Marxist and Leninist left, where theoretical disputes usually boil down to issues of control and leadership. In spite of this we still argue that common action requires a more substantive content than a broad convergence on labels and common aims.
Collective Action does not aim to compete with or fracture the existing anarchist movement, it aims to more critically question, revitalise and explore new models of praxis (something we perceive as specifically absent from the movement at this time). In this process we ask our sister organisations, as well as non-aligned libertarians, to be partners in dialogue. Calls for unity do not address the conditions that we outlined in our formation statement – conditions that we consider make the regroupment process we are engaging with necessary – that existing practices are proving to be inadequate, particularly in respect to solidifying into more substantive mobilisations. Our aim is to forward analysis and praxis that is not simply valid to Collective Action, nor even necessarily to libertarians, but foremost to our class.
Organisational or Class Unity?
“Unity”, as we have already noted, is an organisational orientation with a long history within the labour movement. Its common associations with the Marxist Left, despite their actual practice, is no accident considering the deeper, theoretical content of this position. Unity, in this sense, develops from a competitive and even worse a representative attitude towards class struggle. The need to form some kind of homogeneous group of revolutionaries derives from the ideal model of a singular party or organisation for the class. This has as its basis the mistaken belief that it's 'the party' rather than a programme that is key to successful future proletarian struggle, i.e. it is the organisational composition of revolutionaries, not the content of their actions which is most important. From this substitutionist – prioritising party-building/formation before class struggle - and all manner of spectacular politics follow. It would be unfair of us to put forward a blanket characterisation of the position of our critics as this. Nonetheless, we believe it is necessary to address the characteristics of these specific calls for unity more clearly in order to explicate our own alternative understanding of the working basis for libertarian cohesion. More importantly, as active minorities of revolutionaries the aim of our activity should not be to win the confidence of the working class as a political entity, but to use organisation to insert necessary ideas and tactics within social struggles. For this the central issue is not the formal ties between these initiatives and organisations, nor whether there is one or many, but the extent to which they form a harmonious and co-operative praxis.
Our political organisations should be about forming ideological and strategic coherency amongst militants who prescribe to a set of ideas and a tradition, so you can propagate those ideas and tactics you believe necessary to achieve your collectively agreed objectives. Collective Action isn’t about forming the appearance of unity and in turn compromising principles; we are about creating organised ways of inserting and promoting revolutionary anarchist communist ideas and practice. Seeking organisational unity is ultimately politically superficial. It provides no meaningful guide for libertarians’ struggle other than the priority to compromise with other libertarians. We seek something more substantive on the basis of our theoretical investigations.
Within Our Class
On the issue of unity it is clear that we offer alternative points of principle to those put forward by Ford. With regard to his comments on the organising priorities of Collective Action and our analysis of class composition we believe it is necessary to offer clarification on areas in which there have been misunderstandings.
Ford criticises the distinction we make between privileged and non-privileged workers in our May Day statement, suggesting that the distinction was unnecessary. He further qualifies,
“After all, people who work in all sectors and none depend on workers in the state sector - to heal them when they are ill, to look after and teach their children etc.”
He is correct that we do rely on public sector workers. This however was not the point of the distinction. Our aim was not to establish a hierarchy (or kyriarchy) of social struggles with public sector workers at a low priority, or to argue for an anarchist withdrawal from anti-cuts groups (a more critical re-assessment of their role perhaps). We are in absolute agreement with Ford when he states that the real issue in respect to these campaigns is that “they are losing, and losing badly!” and that “we have to ask ourselves why this is, rather than blaming or writing off the victims.”
Our emphasis on the stratification of working life in this country comes exactly from this aim. It is an attempt to recognise the current nature of class composition and how to organise effectively around it. It’s necessary to actually define what it means to be losing and winning. What are these workers losing and what do they aim to win? In respect to public sector workers this particular section of the working class who, admittedly, have accelerated resistance against austerity, have done so in the context of defending their positions as non-precarious, contracted and pensioned workers, who simply wish to maintain those positions. They aim to win secure pensions, keep their jobs and their salaries. These defensive demands have seen the formation of traditional left and trade unionist campaigns to “win” or defend themselves, not against austerity per se, but simply against austerity within the public sector most affected. These campaigns have failed to generalise resistance or make it aggressive, because they have taken on a dynamic of focusing solely on public sector cuts rather than on austerity generally as a social problem for all workers. They have refused to take a more militant stance against these measures, relying on conciliatory models of protest despite the rhetoric of the Trade Unions Congress.
In our May Day statement we assert that, "ultimately the objective of an autonomous and self-organising workers’ movement is to build unity” (our later emphasis). However we also declare that, “such an aspiration ... should not lead us to ignore both the conservative and privileged nature of certain sections of the workers’ movement as significant barriers to this goal”. Our meaning is that building a genuinely inclusive struggle against austerity is about acknowledging difference and building unity through it.
The point is that unorganised, private-sector workers are a majority of the working class and represent the dominant experience of working life. This is while anti-cuts groups and especially trade unions are tailoring their activity to the defensive struggles of workers in the public sector. This isn't arguing for an exclusive approach to organising, but an acknowledgement of how sectoral and defensive struggles say very little to the majority of workers in this country. What is lacking is a theoretical investigation on how the anti-authoritarian/left libertarian movement fits within the framework established by anti-cuts group. At present the common practice appears merely to be handing out propaganda and attempting well intended but negligible interventions.
We reject the reductive view that the fight against austerity is about better wages and comfort for the working class. The notion that what we need to be doing is “levelling up to the comforts enjoyed by the elite,” both as a marginalised, precarious working class and as a more secure employed working class, demonstrates a problem of perspective. The objective of revolutionary communists isn’t to achieve a society where the public sector workers are as “comfortable as the elite”, but that we – as a class – are building a counter-power to attack, destroy and replace capitalism. What we are suggesting is that the “most marginalised” are, by current class formations, the sections of the working class who, in recent months, have displayed a desire to build, or at least harbour the most potential to build, that very counter-power. That’s not to say this potential cannot disappear or that it will be an easy task to achieve, but we should at least be attempting to understand how we build links within this marginalised majority, and by extension outside of those Left dominated groups and public sector struggles. It is necessary to repeat that as a movement we have failed to investigate how we build on the existing frustration within these communities, and how we work to connect the politics to the otherwise disconnected expressions and deep-seated feelings of anger. This has been to our detriment and it is something we must rectify.
Understandably a number of individuals have approached our organisation with interest of how we intend to further the project. More specifically, and this is commented on by Ford as well, what it is that is “different” from the existing organisations that we have to offer. These are all reasonable questions. It is not, at this early stage, possible to offer a definitive and complete response to these. As means of a partial response we re-state that we are foremost a “regroupment” current seeking to re-visit our own tradition in ways that are relevant to class struggle activists in the UK in the 21st century. In a practical sense “regroupment” means the reorientation of revolutionaries and implicit within this theoretical and active investigations into the junctures that face us. Our current focus is on the re-discovery of the practice of the anarchist programme.
By a programme we do not simply mean a process for facilitating the strategy and tactics of militants (it is also this) but the basis on which social anarchism retains both its social and organisational orientation (an article on this is forthcoming, a reference piece which we find particularly useful can be found here - "Considerations about the Anarchist Programme" J. A. Gutiérrez). The programme is our tool as militants to revolutionise. It is evidence of the involvement of revolutionaries in social struggle and their dialogue with working class communities. Components of the programme emerge through “diagnostics” (social and theoretical investigation) as a result of meaningful analysis and the testing of praxis within communities in struggle. The programme in this sense carries and builds social weight – counter-power – as a result of being produced and catered to the real conditions of the working class. We contrast this approach with the methodology of the group with which we left – the Anarchist Federation. We believe it is generally lacking in the anarchist movement in general but can only speak principally to our own experiences.
In Anarchist Federation literature “workplace resistance groups” are described as both a “medium aim” and “the only form of workers organisation consistent with anarchist communist politics” (we take issue with this assessment but will leave aside our criticism for a future article). As the title of “On The Frontline” suggests workplace organisation is, and should be for any class struggle organisation, a priority for the Federation. Yet in its twenty-five years of existence the Anarchist Federation has not formed a single “workplace resistance group”. It would be wrong to attribute this failure on inertia or inefficiency; Anarchist Federation groups are active in their locales. Rather we understand this as a failure in terms of the practice and implementation of the programme. In the absence of a programme, AF activity is unfocused and, without a social/organisational element, resolves principally around the production and circulation of propaganda. As a propagandistic organisation the call for workplace resistance groups is principally this, a call.
“Workplace resistance groups” are likewise argued for without any reference to the historical or class compositional issues that face our class, nor any practical examples of successes or failures as an organisational model. This is not an organisational theory; it is an ideological statement of intent. As a result the basis of AF group’s activity is, like many UK anarchist groups, the spread of ideas and analysis, intervention within existing struggles and dialogue with other political activists.
Of course, propagandistic activity does have its place within the movement as much as any other, but with the aim of clarifying the nature and content of libertarian activity. At the moment we consider the tasks of anarchists to be building a mass organised and focused counter-power. This means being able to challenge more effectively the issues surrounding the TUC led anti-austerity fights and escalating parochial defensive fights into generalised offensives. By building that effective counter-power, which is able to escalate conflict into a phase of communisation (a step we see leading towards the eventual seizure of the means of production), we begin to break down the myth of reformism; we challenge the strategy of class compromise and we demonstrate that change is possible through our own self-activity. For us these are not matters of principle but statements of organisational intent. We consider it our priority to develop an organisational praxis that matches that intent.
What tasks face social anarchists in the 21st century? At the present stage the problems often appear insurmountable – we operate in a terrain of pervasive consumerism, corporatised and bureaucratised labour organisation, general apathy and potentially catastrophic threats to our ecology. The economic crisis, and in some areas simultaneously a social and political crisis, has clearly thrown open a critical juncture that was not there previously. Paul Mason may be overly optimistic when he says that the crisis, and series of popular revolts that have followed, have ended the period of capitalist realism. What they have done, however, is created large and complex organisational problems for the state as it tries to reconcile the power and interests of Capital against its responsibilities as the keeper of capitalist “social peace” while the resources employed for class management have been bled away by decades of privatisation and Neo-Liberal reform. These are problems that create opportunities for revolutionaries.
This should not, however, lead us to conclude that opportunities equate to a trajectory of systemic change. Revolutionaries at the turn of the previous century posed the problem as the following, “socialism or barbarism” (now we can add to that ecocide). For them, as it is for us, the challenge remains the same – how to transform, or more importantly now overcome, conservative and defensive struggles into an offensive capable of bringing forth a proletarian counter-power? This means discovering methods and interventions that facilitate the transformation of class discontent into an assertion of class confidence, and ultimately, a rejection of the structures, constraints and categories of capitalist society itself.
This formula is, of course, abstract. Our task as revolutionaries is to transform this general schema into the necessities of our everyday organising. In practical terms seeking to escalate those moments in social struggle when workers start to transform their perspective from that of victims of a specific injustice to a position of confidence and strength in their acts of solidarity – prefiguring the communistic reconstruction of society. In essence to put forward on every level of organising - from the informal run-in with the boss to the takeover of the town hall - of the absolute practical necessity to wield the dual weapons of struggle and solidarity: To establish a genuine counter-power.
The process of building a counter-power, to its existence as a phase of class conflict, must always have in mind why and how it will lead to our grand objective of the working class seizing the means of production and in so doing abolishing ourselves as a class, since the proletarian condition is not a human characteristic; it is a social relationship that exists outside oneself, projected onto us by the logic of capital. This counter-power exists only when proletarians begin to recognise the fallibility of this externalised representation and we take the step to escalate our response to this, seeking to break down capitalist logic and begin communising the products of our labour. This could be as simple as a refusal to pay rent or for amenities, or taking food from supermarkets to feed ourselves and our communities. It could be as ambitious as taking control of a hospital, as we have seen in Greece. It is, in effect, that moment when all proletarians recognise themselves as protagonists in the narrative of their own liberation, and reject the constraints of authority, fear and disempowerment.
For this there is a pressing need to develop a theory that is both programmatic, practical and situated (coming from the needs and necessity of organising) but always judged principally on its basis to produce rupture - rupture from which the proletarian imagination is limitless.
- Collective Action