A recent article written by Leeds SolFed on the 99th anniversary of the International Workers' Association.
In 1922, amidst the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and the chaotic aftermath of the First World War, a collection of radical unions representing over a million people from across Europe and the Americas came together in Berlin to decide the future of the revolutionary labour movement. At this congress, these groups founded the International Workingmen’s Association (now the International Workers’ Association, or IWA) – a global organisation of Anarchists and Revolutionary Syndicalists dedicated to freedom and solidarity, pioneers of direct action and new forms of radical democracy. In each section of this International, the workers ran their own union without the interference of politicians and bureaucrats. No more would the struggle be outsourced to those with a lust for power over others, the rot that seeps into so many movements. Indeed, this was already beginning to happen in Lenin’s Russia with the imprisonment and murder of Anarchists, as well as in the increasingly lukewarm, reformist trade unions that continue to dominate socialist organising to this day. During the Spanish Revolution, the IWA’s form of bottom-up unionism went on to demonstrate just how possible libertarian communism really is – but was ultimately doomed to be crushed by the forces of state collaborationism, Stalinism and fascism.
But, after decades of war, repression and exile, the IWA has begun to expand again. Inch by inch, its form of Anarcho-Syndicalism is spreading to new regions where the movement previously had little presence – with prospective members in places as diverse as Pakistan, the Philippines and Jamaica. As our voices reach each new location, our ideas grow stronger and our perspective becomes increasingly global, moving out of the Western Hemisphere and into the regions that contain the majority of the global working class. While it remains far smaller than many mainstream unions and parties, its sections punch well above their weight due to the dedication and ferocity of its members, and has significant potential to grow.
So what is it a revolutionary union does in the 21st Century? Above all, we orient ourselves around direct action, in other words: actually doing things. It is important to dispel the idea that Anarchists are idealistic at all costs, with nothing better to do than sit around fruitlessly discussing an ‘inevitable’ revolution. That could not be further from the truth. The direct action we champion often takes place in the workplace, one of the primary places of exploitation under the power of capitalism and the state. In this setting, the modern IWA has been able to help bring about large-scale, successful wildcat strikes. And even where our influence is more marginal, we are still able to take effective action and agitate to slowly grow our presence through solidarity. It is also important to emphasise that, contrary to many assertions about Anarcho-Syndicalism, our view of work is not one-dimensional. We do not fetishise it as a thing of mystical dignity or valour – we fully recognise it is often hell, and that divisions other than class exist, as reflected in the British Solidarity Federation’s women-oriented workplace organiser training (and hopefully soon its LGBT+ equivalent).
There is also a strong emphasis on organising in the wider community, including action on housing and many other diverse forms of solidarity with workers, both employed and unemployed. Indeed, it is important to say that we mean ‘workers’ by the socialist definition – ultimately anyone who does not control the means of production. Many of our members are students, benefits claimants, retired, homekeepers, or otherwise not involved directly in wage labour. From organising rent strikes in Poland, to handing out free soap and masks during the pandemic in Bangladesh, our methods of action are extremely diverse. We protest for LGBT+ rights, form benefit claimants’ unions, support migrant solidarity networks, fight environmental destruction and ally with many other radical community movements. We do not forget about leisure time or political education. We strive to make life bearable to live in the here and now. No matter what, the core is building solidarity and power amongst ordinary people, instead of trying to assert power over them.
In the workplace, there have been countless instances of solidarity with precarious workers, particularly with getting back unpaid wages – even when their workplace is not organised – thanks to the way the IWA operates. This may take many forms, from small acts of inconvenience like blockading a business’ phone and emails, all the way up to pickets and occupations. This is all intended to inconvenience and shame the employer as much as possible, as well as eating into their profits until giving in becomes their easiest option.
While this action is often against small employers, such as cafes or hairdressers, it has also had some success against some relatively big corporations. Some recent actions included an entire supermarket chain, where members of the Polish Union of Syndicalists (ZSP) were able to picket regularly outside the shops with banners and flags – generally dragging the company’s reputation through the mud, while also advising workers on how to prove that they had worked overtime (which was the problem at the root of the unpaid wages). The campaign was a great success, gaining hundreds of workers the overtime pay they were owed. In another recent case, the Spanish CNT-AIT forced CEX, a secondhand electronics shop, to change their working hours for a member who had been unable to care for his child with the workload he had been given. Thus, while we ultimately intend to move towards organising full workplaces, we can see how even a small-scale union with only a handful of members in the affected area can still win significant concessions from employers.
These strategies have also functioned well outside work, including in the rental sector. Handing in a sharply-worded, official-looking letter threatening direct action can be enough to spook an unwitting landlord into giving up hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds to a wronged tenant. More serious housing issues are best fought with rent strikes – as effectively proven by the Brighton local of the British Solidarity Federation, who helped over a dozen tenants win their deposits back in 2019. Even a tiny group of people can achieve a lot when they are well-organised and motivated. Imagine what we can achieve when we are thousands.
A core aspect of the IWA’s strategy – in comparison to even other militant unions – is our rejection of bureaucratic, legalistic and reformist practices. This means we refuse to constantly resort to slow and expensive court action in a system that is clearly designed to delay and demoralise all attempts at workers’ militancy. We aim straight for the heart of the problem. We do not beg our “representatives” to bring up an issue in Parliament for us, or wait for trade union bureaucrats to fight “on our behalf”. With our anti-legalism and anti-reformism, we drop all pretence that we care what the bosses think: we want what we want, and we will get it by any means necessary. As Solidarity Federation’s workplace organiser trainings make clear, we view the law not as an end in itself, but one means among many. Understanding it is valuable, but ultimately it is there to chain workers down, not to liberate us. Strike after strike is hampered by red tape, where if we just had the right level of organisation and the spine to do so, we could make it happen almost on the spot.
The structures of our unions reflect this attitude too. We have no paid officials or organisers – and we never will – because we do not want to create a new class of bureaucrats whose interests are separated from the general workforce. We fight against division among workers, so long as they do not ‘hire and fire’, or protect the status quo (hence we do not allow bosses or police to join). If they work in the same building and under the same boss, why should a cleaner be in a separate union to a desk worker, or a university librarian from a lecturer? Mainstream unions are often divided along such arbitrary lines, and only serve to perpetuate disunity instead of fighting for everyone. In contrast, we are industrial unionists: everyone joins the same union. All too often, one group of workers may go on strike, while their colleagues cannot due to existing barriers. This is clearly a farce, especially if we are ever to view the union as a genuine tool against bosses and not a glorified insurance company.
International solidarity is also key to how the IWA functions. When a dispute develops, members from around the world will jump at the opportunity to offer solidarity. For example, in 2017 members of the Indonesian section (PPAS) went on strike as part of a dispute against Uber. Around the world, solidarity poured in from IWA groups, including SolFed picketing Uber’s British offices. More recently, there has been an international boycott of Chilean exports in solidarity with arrested protesters. In both cases, direct action is key.
Other forms of internationalism have also been affective, such as when the Bangladesh Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation (BASF) were provided with significant donations and aid with translating anarchist texts from abroad. Thanks to this, many of the works of Rudolf Rocker are now available in Bengali, as well as Urdu due to a similar project by the Workers’ Solidarity Initiative (WSI) in Pakistan. As the BASF say themselves, the region is more accustomed to immensely top-down forms of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, which have in their opinion utterly failed to deliver in repressive workplaces such as the tea industry (where many of its members work). The same was of course true for the Indonesian Uber drivers. Thus, we can clearly see the benefits of self-management and mutual aid, compared to the command-and-control strategy taken by the USSR and other authoritarians internationally.
The recent global wave of pandemic-driven resentment has been epitomised by student rent strikes here in the UK, vast protests in the US over police brutality, and the unprecedented wave of strikes sweeping across the globe. In this climate of ever-increasing direct action, we cannot allow the militancy of ordinary workers to be diverted towards and squandered upon toothless, legalistic and Parliamentary campaigns. We need to seize the potential of the moment before it slips away. Every gain made during the height of the rage of the masses will be rolled back unless we can learn to control our own struggle. There can be no place for “vanguard parties” or self-appointed leaders – only solidarity between workers, acting in our shared interests. Anything less is a capitulation and a path to inevitable failure.
Therefore, our most important task over the next years and decades is to organise ourselves everywhere. We aim to continue with our strategies of direct action and mutual aid. We aim to build a presence in workplaces and communities with some real backbone, ready to strike the enemy at a moment’s notice. We aim to create new mass organisations outside capitalism and the state, bringing politicians, employers, landlords and all other parasites to their knees, until we can finally bring about the social revolution: a great reordering of human civilisation into one that rejects exploitation, and instead values cooperation above all else.