Debates around the Workers Solidarity Movement

A series of articles from members and ex-members of the Workers Solidarity Movement, critically examining that organisation's history and practice. These articles were first published around 2012-2013.

Submitted by R Totale on December 18, 2021



2 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on December 18, 2021

Written by founding member of Cork WSM and very, very early WSM member.

Of the pieces written to date, thus far the strongest anarchist internal critique.

"Anarchism, Ireland and the WSM"

R Totale

2 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R Totale on December 19, 2021

Yep, I'm meaning to get around to adding that one when I get a chance, but thought the O'Brien one should go first for context.

The WSM and Anarchism: A Political Analysis

An article from a former member of the Workers Solidarity Movement. Libcom note: this article was written by an ex-anarchist moving towards social democracy, and is reproduced for reference purposes only.

Submitted by R Totale on December 18, 2021

The Workers Solidarity Movement is one of the more impressive anarchist organisations of modern times. While always a small organisation it has been active on the radical left in Ireland for close to thirty years and at the same time it has exerted considerable influence on Anarchism internationally, particularly in the early years of the Internet.

The organisation has gone through a number of different periods and has seen its fortunes rise and fall repeatedly in that time. Not that the ride has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs; the highs were, in the grand scheme of things, modest enough, the lows correspondingly tolerable. The WSM, in other words, is no Workers’ Party.

Founded in 1984, the WSM was oriented towards socialism at a time when radical liberalism was particularly influential in British Anarchism, which was as culturally influential then as tendencies from the United States are today. Given the historical weakness of Irish socialism, let alone anarchism, the few precursors of which came out of the Official Republican Movement, this explicitly left ideological foundation served to ground the WSM throughout its history. The avowedly socialist orientation served to inoculate for a long-time against too great a penetration of the more individualist strains that have bedevilled Anarchism since the 1880s.

Not that the journey was plain sailing. Building any sort of socialist movement in what was still a fairly backward and underdeveloped country dominated by a highly religious and rural culture was always going to be an uphill task, one made harder by the lingering presence of a radical nationalist movement.

The WSM was initially the fringe of the fringe. The Workers’ Party was the major left oppositional force and, oriented as it was towards Moscow, an array of Trotskyist mini-parties were sucked into its orbit. The WSM were the thorn in the Trotskyist side; the critic of the critics so to speak.

The Tradition

The attraction of Anarchism lies in its combination of socialism and democracy. But Anarchism also had an inglorious history of distancing itself from the socialist left in favour of an emphasis on individualism. The WSM rejected that approach and instead identified with the Platformist tendency within Anarchism. This tendency traced its core features back to exiles of the Russian Revolution who, reflecting on their defeat, attempted to rethink their experience and help ensure that they wouldn’t suffer a similar fate in the future. Their first document was called a draft platform for future Anarchist organisations, hence the moniker “Platformist”.

Nowadays, the main factors of that document that tend to get emphasised by its proponents are ones of form, that is, relating to structure and organisation, primarily federalism, theoretical and tactical unity and collective responsibility.

Peter Arshinov

Essentially, the authors, most famously Makhno and Arshinov, were emphasizing a more disciplined political organisation than had previously been cultivated by Anarchists. The striving for theoretical unity is an obvious goal of any organisation that aims to last for more than one event. A common framework for understanding the world is essential to cohesiveness and efficiency. Cohesiveness is important because even if there are tactical disagreements, the minority tendencies will generally be happy to go along with the majority if they are confident that they are all on the same page at a more abstract level. It lends itself to efficiency because it saves an organisation from treating every question, no matter how minor, as one of principle, which becomes very draining if it doesn’t lead directly to paralysis. If, for example, one has to debate the pros and cons of electoralism every time a state election is being held, there is less time to discuss the nuts and bolts of a potential anti-electoral campaign.

Of course, achieving total theoretical unity is akin to hitting a constantly moving target, but as long a high enough level of unity is achieved an organisation can continue to function effectively. The minorities in an Anarchist organisation, as in all democratic organisations, are free to canvass for the superiority of its opinions. Again, this seems somewhat obvious these days – and would have been obvious before 1914 – but the aura of the Cominternized Bolshevik Party exalted submission rather than dissent, thereby bestowing a certain novelty to the Anarchist conception of political organisation.

Tactical unity entails going along with actions that you might not agree with. This is not as big a deal as it sounds since most of the time it is hard to know which particular tactic is best suited to a situation. Rather than have everyone try their own thing, why not give the majority proposal a run? The more people that pull together the more likely that whatever tactic is adopted will receive a fair wind. If it doesn’t work, then the competing ideas can be resurrected.

Again, this is a rather elementary idea for any organisation, although it has proven controversial amongst Anarchists. It comes down to seriousness. A member’s behaviour reflects on the organisation and vice versa. If there is unbecoming conduct, either personally or politically, then the organisation has a duty to intervene in order to ensure its position is upheld.

“Leninism without Lenin”: The image is from an article in “The Utopian” criticising platformism from an anarchist perspective.

These principles have provoked much debate in Anarchism over the years. Some of that debate was healthy, clarifying what was meant by theoretical unity, how far it should go and so forth. But much of it was unhealthy too. The Anarchist tendency to elevate any issue into one of moral principle creates a propensity for denunciation and Platformists are regularly accused of importing Leninism into the movement, of supporting authoritarian structures and the like.

Those criticisms echo the anti-organisational sentiments of the post-Bakunin generation, appropriately enough, given that Platformism is itself a recapitulation of Bakunin’s brand of Anarchism (for which reason I shall use Platformism, Bakuninism and especifismo – its Latin American incarnation – interchangeably).

The emphasis which Platformists have placed on matters of basic organisation indicates the degree to which Anarchists have to struggle to keep incompetence at bay: in any other political tendency they would be prior assumptions not ones that require decades of polemics. No ideology can influence society if its organisational expression is overrun by rampant individualism.

Bakuninism never had to direct its focus onto such questions, probably because the rise of Anarchist individualism post-dates Bakunin and the First International itself. Once such organisational questions are settled – or taken for granted – the political ones can come to the fore and there is one particularly distinguishing political factor that Platformism, especially the WSM, aimed at: intervention in mass organisations of the working class.

This also echoes Bakunin and finds more coherent modern expression in its sister tendency especifismo. The strategic orientation of Anarchism is that social revolution will be made by the masses rather than a political party (hence the Anarchist desire to be identified as a mere organisation rather than as a party as the latter implies a desire to assume state power so that it can implement its programme). Anarchism disavows that role and allocates it to the masses. Specifically, Bakuninism allocates it to the mass organisations, i.e. in practice the trade unions, which by their very nature are the worker organisations which are most thrust forward into the class struggle. Conceivably there could be other mass organisations that serve as the vehicle of social transformation, but in practice they have never really materialised.

Mikhail Bakunin speaking to members of the International at the Basel Congress in 1869

Bakunin’s enthusiasm for the First International was therefore much more than a naive gladdening of the heart at cross-country co-operation. It was a strategic orientation, one which later re-emerged from the fog of Anarchist terrorism of the 1880s and 1890s as syndicalism, though for the most part without Bakunin’s concomitant specific organisation dedicated to intervening in the unions. The authors of the Platform correctly identified the complete lack of contradiction between trade unionism and political anarchism.

The WSM, then, was founded on an intention to be involved in the mass organisations, to influence them with libertarian ideas, and, ultimately, to convert them to being instruments of social revolution. The not-always-stated premise of the strategy is the refusal to set up isolated, radical unions at the expense of involvement in the existing large trade unions. The urge to found a radical (in Anarchist parlance a syndicalist or, even more exclusively, an anarcho-syndicalist) union is a perennial rival Anarchist strategy. It is here rather than in the slightly inconsequential – and indeed fairly obvious – ruminations on theoretical and tactical unity that the strategic divisions within socialist Anarchism lies. The Platformists, in other words, advocate “going to the people” rather than setting up radical alternatives and trying to make the people come to them.

Of course there is a big question as to whether such a strategy is viable in the 21st century; I will argue elsewhere that it is not, but it is, at least, a strategy. A small political organisation which consciously does not wish to assume political power itself must find an alternative method for the implementation of its programme. The trade unions provide that.

In order for it to succeed as a strategy, Anarchist ideas must come to predominate in the mass organisations and this requires them to organise as Anarchists and to promote Anarchism within the larger formations. Hence, Bakuninism (or Platformism or especifismo) requires involvement in two layers of organistion: the Anarchist political one and the mass one, which is open to the general working class by reason of their economic situation irrespective of their political opinions.

The WSM, then, was founded on quite a conscious political basis: it was socialist, it was democratic; it was anti-individualist; it was hostile to Anarchist exclusivism and avowedly in favour of mass work.

Ups, downs, and stagnation

It grew from half a dozen members in 1984 to a few dozen by 1988. However the political basis on which new members were recruited was low and they lost a few key members to the Leninist parties and, as happens in splits, others drifted away. By 1991, however, a new core group comprising Aileen O’Carroll, Andrew Flood, Conor McLoughlin and others arose in Trinity College, Dublin and joined with Alan MacSimoin and Kevin Doyle – both founder members – to essentially refound the organisation, this time with a much more stringent process of recruitment.

The higher political level was maintained throughout the 1990s and furnished a useful corpus of Anarchist critiques of Leninism and popularisation of left-libertarian history as well as a record of solid participation in standard left-wing campaigns such as the Anti-Water Tax one of the late 1990s. Reading lists of key political texts were introduced for prospective members and educational meetings, covering the basics of Anarchist thought were regularly held and the notes published.

However, by the turn of the millennium it was apparent that the coherency came at a price; the organisation was unable to recruit more than a dozen active members. Juggling growth with the requirements for coherency is always a bit of a balancing act but if an organisation is so small — a political organisation of a dozen members is minuscule even in a small country like Ireland — its impact is inevitably limited. It is natural that people will want a return on their investment: if you put energy into a project, you want to see some results.

Ten years of stagnation is a long time to tread water, even for a small organisation. And given that the fall of the USSR was expected to benefit Anarchism this was all the more disappointing. Anarchism, after all, had never propounded the Bolshevik Myth; it had stridently criticised the lack of democracy for decades and could have expected to benefit from the USSR’s collapse especially since it led to the precipitous decline of its sister parties, including in Ireland, the Workers’ Party. This clearly opened a space for a radical left organisation, at least in the major urban areas. As it turned out, neither the WSM nor its Trotskyist rivals profited from the sudden laying low of their much larger rival.

Allying with activists

So, by 2000, the WSM was beginning to reassess its situation, in particular its orientation as a fringe group on the edges of the Trotskyist dominated left. The process was not a completely conscious one, but it did involve some level of political understanding, which was expressed in internal debates around the degree of involvement in the so-called anti-globalisation movement, identification with the Zapatistas, and co-operation with other non-Leninist radicals who were interested in anti-authoritarian structures. The two major positions were primarily associated with Andrew Flood and Alan MacSimoin, and they and their positions remained the locus of the debate over the next ten years. One has to be wary of over-personification of course and there were obviously other influential participants (Kevin Doyle, Aileen O’Carroll, Conor McLoughlin, Chekov Feeney, Deirdre Hogan, and James McBarron from that period alone merit a mention), but given the propensity to anonymity within Anarchism it is helpful to identify the human face of the abstract arguments.

Andrew was the leading supporter of increased co-operation with non-WSM libertarians who were emerging thanks to the influence of the Zapatistas, disillusionment with the Green Party, anti-globalisation and so forth, while Alan remained an advocate of the classic union-oriented Platformist strategy that had guided the organisation for two decades. Alan tied the fortunes of the WSM to the wider fortunes of the working class: in the absence of the radicalisation of of the class there was no prospect of the WSM of growing significantly. Nor could a tiny organisation like the WSM radicalise the class. If anything, Alan thought the idea absurd. Andrew viewed this as an anarchist version of Kautsky’s so-called “actionless waiting” and advocated increased attempts to engage with other non-Leninist anti-capitalists with the hope of developing a radical alternative. Of course, reality is always messier than this neat little division. The tendency that considered an orientation towards unions as overwhelmingly important did not suggest non-co-operation with other Anarchists; the pro-anti-globalisation tendency didn’t advocate ignoring union activity. Nevertheless these two polls do express real currents within the WSM, which initially were expressions of differences of emphasis but which over time came to delineate substantial strategic differences.

I joined the WSM in late 2002, at the tail end of the initial debates around the organisation’s strategic orientation. By that time I had identified as an anarchist for three years and was probably one of the last to come to Anarchism primarily through books rather than the Internet and personal contact. Being instinctively left-wing, I had nevertheless been put off radical socialism by the pro-Leninist stance of the Trotskyist parties I had encountered in the mid-1990s. Their frenetic activism also gave them an aura of hysteria that was deeply unattractive. Having never heard of Anarchism until fortuitously coming across a reference by Chomsky and months later a compendium of Bakunin’s work in a library, I hadn’t paid much attention to radical politics in the late 1990s.

At around the time I came across Bakunin I happened to be working in a job that had fairly 19th century labour conditions. Cycle couriers were paid piece rates and had no holiday or sick pay. What’s more, they loved it! There was something about the job that projected the illusion of freedom; the lack of grooming standards, the ease with which one could quit. Since I was working there for a few years, which was long enough in that industry, I eventually developed a level of class consciousness regarding the realities of employment and the division of spoils between employer and employee. If reality hits you over the head often enough, you can come to your senses.

Being young and fired up by reading about the CNT I set about trying to win some gains for the couriers. Being influenced by Anarchism I was intent on doing it democratically. As it happens we were fairly successful, winning two decent pay rises and fighting off cuts in out conditions as well as increasing other workers’ class consciousness, albeit, it has to be said, only temporarily. Arising from that experience, I was very much infused with a pro-union conception of Anarchism: a radical union would have been a dream while the absolute minimum requirement of any political organisation that might win my allegiance was for it to be socialist.

My involvement with the WSM built up gradually. I hadn’t even been aware that Anarchism was a living tendency when first delving into Bakunin and was delighted when I first came across an existing group that had its own publication. After attending a few open educational meetings and working with them in broader campaigns (e.g. the Bin Tax, the Grassroots Gathering), I signed up. By this stage I had regular access to the Internet and the WSM’s organisational seriousness and clear socialism was attractive. I had no interest in vague anti-hierarchy politics and am temperamentally inclined towards disciplined organisations.

Poster for the 5th Grassroots Gathering, a weekend of discussion for the Irish libertarian left.

Of course, right at the time I joined, the WSM was in the midst of a long-term turn towards an alternative libertarian movement. This is a rather vague term for working with people who were radical opponents of the status quo but who had an instinctive – and sometimes well reasoned – dislike of Leninism. Its institutional manifestation was the Grassroots Gathering which was organised to explicitly exclude Leninists. It provided a forum for left-libertarians to discuss and socialise and although it didn’t organise anything more than six monthly meetings itself, it did provide the impetus for ongoing co-operation between the WSM and the diverse range of individuals who made it up, e.g. in the creation of anti-war network free from Leninist influence.

The turn towards the anti-globablisation movement was not without reason. By 2001 it was clear that the WSM was stagnating and was only going to stagnate further if it followed the old Platformist road. The Zapatistas and the protests in Seattle galvanised a younger generation into radical politics, in particular a layer who were likely to be open to Anarchism. If the Bakuninist strategy of going to the people was not directly applicable – given the minuscule size of the organisation – then perhaps an intermediate step of going to libertarian activists, winning them over to Anarchism and thereby increasing the organisational capacity of the WSM to influence the actual mass organisations, would prove a necessary bridge.

Such was my conception of the reasoning for focusing on what we called the libertarian milieu, a focus which I wasn’t very enthusiastic about, partially for cultural reasons, but one which did seem to make sense.

One of the arguments against old fashioned class struggle Anarchism was that it carries the alienating baggage of a century of socialism with it and the advantage of chucking that baggage overboard was a recurring theme over the next decade. But the argument cuts both ways: for those whose primary allegiance is to classical Socialism and to whom Anarchism is just a variant of Socialism, it is alienating to mix with political activists who are, at best, deeply uninterested in Socialism and whose primary political expression is through stunts that masquerade as direct action, not to mention their tendency to display the traits of that classic label, lifestylism, especially if your lifestyle is pretty conventional and not given to veganism, poor clothes, organic farming and the like. Obviously, this somewhat facetious description of the cultural divergence between the old and the new is yet another simplification: the dreadlocks versus the cloth cap so to speak. But as usual, the simplification contains a truth and one which, over time, assumed a degree of importance.

The cliché of the hippy protestor is a staple of the right. While it is an unfair description of most of their targets, who are normally fairly culturally mainstream, there is some truth to it with regard to the libertarian left. This separates the libertarian left from the population at large in ways that it ostensibly shouldn’t but nevertheless most certainly does. Radical activists are already distant enough from the population by virtue of their political ideas that any other differences exponentially increase the difficulty of influencing them. This isn’t to say that many libertarian activists weren’t insightful and they certainly weren’t lacking in energy. But they were fundamentally uninterested in winning over the population to radical left-wing ideas; hence the complete lack of interest in how they presented themselves in public or in how their actions would be perceived. Political activism was an expression of moral outrage, not an attempt to effect structural change.

The WSM’s ambition was to harness that moral outrage, which, after all, it shared, towards the pursuit of a more a political strategy. To accomplish that it had to ally itself with the fairly amorphous self-described libertarians.

Perhaps on a par with there being a conscious orientation towards the unorganised libertarian left, ongoing co-operation was pursued because it could as much as because it should. The choices available to a small Anarchist organisation are limited.

Grassroots Network Against War banner at a 2003 protest against the US military’s transit through Ireland.

At the time, the USA was gearing up to invade Iraq, and the Irish state gave the US military the use of Shannon Airport as a transit facility, an issue that could hardly be ignored. There was some debate within the WSM about the degree to which it should focus on working with the Trotskyist led Irish Anti-War Movement or the much smaller but more libertarian inclined networks. The de facto decision was to focus on the latter.

The same pattern reoccurred over the next few years. The Grassroots Network, as the broad libertarian milieu came to be called, organised protests at Shannon and against the EU on May Day 2004.

The payoff for the WSM came after the May Day protests, which were and are the biggest explicitly libertarian protests ever held in Ireland. Whereas prior to that, we had been stuck on about 12 members, over the next four years it shot up, first to twenty, then to thirty, forty and eventually over eighty members were on the books and it looked like we had hurdled an important stumbling block. The palpable increase in success lent the anti-globalisation strategy credibility. It felt as if the organisation was at last going places.

A few members, most notably Gregor Kerr and Alan MacSimoin, were involved in union work but this work was for the most part carried out in an individual capacity rather than being under the direction of the WSM. For example, I helped organise many of my colleagues into SIPTU and we sorted out some low-level disagreements relating to working conditions, the sort of work a shop-steward would do. Such work provides some space for raising political consciousness, but it is limited, especially given it was a service providing NGO where the inherent class struggle was fairly low. Any union work I had engaged in, from organising the couriers to simply giving advice to third parties was carried out separately from the WSM; it was personal, not organisational. Partly this was a result of the small and disorganised nature of the workforce which meant that plugging into the wider union movement was difficult (an ATGWU official once informed me that they had no interest in recruiting us!). Partly it reflected that there wasn’t a whole lot of use for the WSM’s input.

Even Gregor and Alan’s input at WSM’s meeting regarding their activity in the unions was confined to reporting back on their activity. There simply wasn’t a lot for the rest of the membership to do which would be of use to them. Of course, on occasion some bigger issue would blow up, such as the strike of Irish Ferries workers in 2005, but in essence they weren’t any different from any other sort of mass demonstration.

During this period, we not only failed to embed ourselves in the union organisation, we failed to try: our efforts were confined to, at best, isolated organising and, at worst, total neglect of even the most basic organising requirement: that of securing a base in workplaces. Larger forces than mere incompetence were at work of course. The drive to recruiting from the anti-globalisation milieu resulted in those recruits being primarily students or young people working in fairly casual jobs. We probably couldn’t have established much of a base if we had tried, but the lack of systematic effort ensured we didn’t have the scantest of influence, apart from, again a half-dozen isolated members whose very isolation was in itself very limiting. It was more or the less the opposite of what Platformist doctrine mandated.

Ploughing the union furrow was evidently going to be a long, hard slog and even then we would require numbers to make an impact. A solid grassroots base around four or five people isn’t going to amount to much even if they are the reincarnation of Jim Larkin himself. We needed to recruit.

The sentiment was widespread and the anti-globablisation movement and the colleges provided fertile territory. Apart from the unions, other areas we were involved in during this period were various referendum campaigns against restrictions on citizenship and abortion, anti-war (2002-2003), the Bin Tax (2001-2003), the summit May Day protests (2004), Shell to Sea (2005 onwards); indymedia (2002-2008); the Social Solidarity Network and the 1% Network (both of which were reincarnations of the networks that we co-operated with in the anti-war and May Day periods).

WSM anti-racist poster produced in 2004.

In addition there was an inexhaustible supply of minor protests attendance at which is the dreary fate of the left-wing activist. The sheer number of coalition networks involving non-WSM libertarians was notable: The Grassroots Network Against War, The Dublin Grassroots Network, the Social Solidarity Network, and the 1% Network spring to mind. There were also other projects in which members were involved, e.g. Seomra Spraoi, a libertarian social pace. Mostly they flared up and faded away only to be resurrected under a different name and – I am quite convinced – with the belief by their advocates that each version was a genuinely new phenomenon. At first, this was a plausible stance, but by the fourth or fifth iteration it was looking a bit threadbare, especially when Alan MacSimoin spared no blushes in pointing it out. Importantly, most of these activities were oriented around other political, usually non-Leninist, activists. They didn’t involve winning public support at all.

The magnetic attraction to networking with fellow libertarians was coupled with an insatiable desire for stunts. Direct Action is one of the holy tenets of Anarchism and the focus on it as a methodology is a direct consequence of Bakunin’s economic strategy. Workers need to learn to act for themselves if they are to emancipate themselves and they can best act for themselves in economic conflict with the bosses since that is where the material basis for the class struggle lies. Political action, i.e. electoralism, is antithetical to that. As with so much of Anarchism, Bakunin’s insights were considerable but by the 21st century the idea had degenerated into a parody. The most minor stunt (holding a banner on the roof of Shell’s headquarters; chaining oneself to a stairs in a government ministry) was interpreted as direct action. Moreover, the desire to win popular support tends to be obviated by the focus on direct action which even tends to disregard the former. Anarchists have traditionally been contemptuous of electoralism, the conventional measure of public opinion because the spirited minority is of more importance than the passive majority.

Over the decade Anarchists were involved in a variety of protests that involved confrontation with the police: Reclaim the Streets, trespassing at Shannon airport, the MayDay 2004 protests, Shell to Sea demonstrations in Rossport, County Mayo. There was an inarticulate desire to be aggressive and to push boundaries, but in reality it tended to be fairly innocuous, with only the protests in Mayo achieving any notable level of violence. In general, the State completely had the measure of the direct actionists and their isolation from the population rendered them impotent in a way that even the much more serious levels of street violence exhibited by, say, northern republicans didn’t. What was notably absent from our aims in of these campaigns was the desire to win over large numbers of people, or at least the willingness to do the type types of things that might make such an aim remotely likely. There was an undercurrent of subsitutionism which only Alan objected to in any systematic way.

While I hadn’t been averse to the turn to the anti-globalisation movement I hadn’t been enthusiastic about it either, seeing it as a necessary, if temporary, tactic. Since we were very small it seemed to make sense to ally with those who were closest to us. At the time the majority of the organisation, with possibly the sole but definite exception of Alan MacSimoin, considered those closest to us to be the consciously anti-Leninist people who were favourably disposed to direct action. Of course there was a spectrum of opinion ranging from enthusiastic embrace of the broader libertarian milieu (or “Grassroots”, as we called them) to a skeptical acceptance of the need to grow. Everyone else accepted the milieu’s libertarian credentials as signifying a fair degree of similarity in political outlook, although some of us, at least, hadn’t bothered to actually examine them in any detail.

I like to think it was my rational assessment of the political gulf between us (socialist Anarchists) and the libertarians that pushed me back towards the advocating a syndicalist (i.e. base trade unionist) strategy. Initially, however, it was probably more cultural distance and direct experience of the limitations, indeed incompetence, of the libertarians that developed my skepticism. Whatever the faults of the WSM, they are the gold standard of competence on the libertarian left in Ireland. To suffer through a Grassroots Network meeting was penance indeed in comparison to the lucidity of debating inside the WSM. In the former, Quaker consensus decision making was the default mode; disciplined agenda setting and speaking were rare; the capacity to disagree strongly was inherently limited because it would lead to people getting offended, wandering off and never being seen again. In my first years in the organisation, the WSM’s relative level of theoretical unity meant there could be quite substantial internal disagreement without fear of splitting because one’s opponents might get upset. Over time, however, that changed, as I shall outline below.

The limitations of the libertarian method of organising was graphically demonstrated by the decline of Irish Indymedia, which had been a pioneer of user-generated content on the internet. For a few years it was the place to go for the Irish left but it was limited by its structure and some procedural rules which it had inherited when adopting the global brand. WSM members were involved from about 2002 on, in an individual capacity, and they tended to be the foremost advocates of structures which would, it was hoped, consolidate the site and enable to become much more popular.

Indymedia had a certain glorious chaos about it at that point and the constant encroachment of structure was viewed by some as incipient bureaucratization. Whatever about the correctness of that assessment (and of course I think it is a stupid assessment), the organisation was unable to resolve the issue. The Quaker consensus method is a boon to the status quo, transmuting every attempt at change into a trial by torture. But more than that, the toleration for low quality, hysterical ranting, not to mention the facilitation of the ill-intentioned and the genuinely mentally ill ensured that the site soon plateaued. Amongst the libertarian-left, such toleration was by no means confined to indymedia. What is striking in retrospect is the degree to which many radicals are happy to be protesters and outsiders rather than part of a long-term counter-project. It is as if the image of radicalism outweighs the substance of socialism in terms of personal allegiance. Since Indymedia was one of the better of the libertarian influenced projects its failure portended ill for the tendency’s ability to actually create a viable challenge to capitalism.

The WSM had 12 members in 2002 and maybe 15 by May Day 2004. Not much different than what it had had in 1997 or 1987 for that matter. After 2004, it benefitted from the influx of a lot of younger members and by 2005 those of us who had been putting in 6 evenings a week began to take our foot off the pedal. Partially this arose from tiredness (and illness for that matter): the pace between 2002 and May Day 2004 was very intense. Partially it was a desire to give room for the new members to organise. Here the Anarchist horror of hierarchy proved to be a weakness. It is doubtful that a single member who joined after 2004 was assessed on their knowledge of Anarchism and of the WSM in particular. Indeed, I hadn’t been assessed myself back in 2002 so that should have been a red flag. As it happens I was a fully paid up member of the Platformist orthodoxy and insofar as I considered the matter, which, embarrassingly, occurred only after the horse had bolted, assumed that other prospective members were too.

I can only assume that others thought similarly. In any case, it was a shocking case of the sentries falling asleep at the gate. The WSM was never intended to be a mass party, where vague support for the organisation was sufficient to be signed up. It was an organisation of Anarchist militants and its effectiveness depended on coherency. By 2009 it was apparent that the coherency was sorely lacking. The Bakuninist vision had been that the political organisation would be composed of an active, knowledgeable cadre but that the engine of change depended on the mass organisations. That was where the real action should be and where the supportive but not cadre people should go.

The organisation gained knowledgeable members to be sure, people who had a solid grasp of libertarian socialist basics. But it also gained many members, who however hard-working and good-hearted they undoubtedly were, were not Platformist, perhaps not even socialist: one member notoriously snorted “We’re socialists?” at a branch meeting. The constant round of political activism (protests, leafletting, attendance at libertarian meetings) and the culture of not discussing political fundamentals – hardly necessary since everyone was assumed to be an Anarchist! – hid the reality for a time.

Reality always bites however. The unwillingness of the majority to turn away from protest activism and their orientation to the non-WSM libertarians and the failure to put the increased numbers gained from the post May Day influx to classic Platformist use was a source of unease amongst the minority who had gone along, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, with the anti-globalisation strategy. Unsurprisingly, the economic crash of 2008 brought the divergence to the fore and it played out over a couple of years. “Majority” and “minority”, I should note, are shorthand for the two most clearly expressed tendencies which had, for the most part, mutually exclusive strategic outlooks. In fact, neither current was formally organised and both had roughly similar numbers of adherents, with most members not consciously identifying as either. I use the designation “majority” and “minority” because there was a consistent pattern of the pro-activist (or more militant) wing winning a majority for their approach. Given the absence of a formal leadership the fundamental divergence was not explicitly expressed by the membership choosing one or other tendency as a political leadership. The majority’s pro-activist orientation did, however, chime well with the mood of most members.

An early manifestation of the dichotomous strategies revolved around a proposal in Spring of 2009 to create a libertarian network involving ourselves, the Revolutionary Anarchist-Feminist Group, Seomra Spraoi and others, which eventually became a reality later in the year as the Social Solidarity Network. Some of us opposed the idea on two grounds: firstly, these other groups were a good deal more marginal than even the WSM and our joint forces didn’t bring much to the table that was of value in building either a working class resistance or a libertarian pole. A grouping of such weak forces signified nothing other than the illusion of moving forward.

The debates that were last heard around the time when the anti-globalisation movement was first getting off the ground returned. The minority thought there was little advantage to be had by expending effort in creating a purely libertarian pole; we wanted to engage directly in mass work. Resources and time are limited, especially for a small organisation. There is a social opportunity cost for political action: effort directed at other libertarians is effort not directed at co-operating with other left forces or in creating a mass base. Of course, in theory they are not mutually incompatible but in practice they are, because of that resource problem.

Secondly, we had been through the experience of libertarian networks a few times by that stage and were utterly skeptical of that strategy’s capability of delivering results in terms of anything really. Networks are not well suited to achieving medium-term political aims. They are okay for organising a protest against the G8 or for ad hoc activity on a fairly constrained issue. Their capacity for political discussion tends to be low, their level of organisational structure even lower and their ability to have a sustained impact barely exists. Without an institutional basis the network has no staying power but if it has an institutional basis it is no longer a network but is instead an organisation and one which has to face all the problems that any organisation faces (the basis of unity, policy, accountability, decision making etc). Alan MacSimoin characterised the attempts to forge such networks as a poor imitation of the worst end of Trotskyism, i.e. the SWP, which is notorious for creating and recreating ostensibly independent fronts. To be compared to the Trotskyists is almost the worst insult to throw at Anarchists and the criticism went down poorly but given the pseudo-nature of the Social Solidarity Network it was a barb that hurt because it was accurate.

At this point, Alan was assuming the role of Cassandra within the organisation, leading to frustration for both himself and the leading figures of the majority. Long the voice – the strident voice – of Platformist orthodoxy, not to mention of disdain for the alternative subcultures that orbit Anarchism, Alan developed a reputation for negativity; people complained that he was great at telling you what not to do. Negativity saps enthusiasm. Moreover, he was direct and he upset people who perceived his attitude as personally antagonistic. On occasion he probably did go too far but for the most part his interventions were remarkably political. At a meeting he would ask: what is the aim of such an initiative?; how did it fit with our overall strategy of promoting Anarchism? and a myriad of other questions that if answered, even considered, would have been extremely useful. Still, however reasonable such questions are in themselves, nobody particularly likes being on the receiving end of them, especially if you know that the questioner is hostile to your proposal. Alan developed a reputation for being a bruiser and the more he was perceived as such the more his political questions were side-stepped and his objections treated as a case of him being personally obstreperous.

In retrospect, I am of the view that however direct Alan’s debating style was, he focused on political questions and that, ironically enough, his opponents tended to personalise the issue by focusing on his tone. Be that as it may, the underlying differences in strategic conception in the organisation were beginning to take a more explicit form.

Whereas the previous period of debate that resulted in the WSM’s involvement in the anti-globalisation movement were resolved with the minority substantially on board, from this point on, the minority were very unhappy and increasingly vocal. Alan may have been the incarnation of skepticism from the start, but others, such as myself, had grown to be entirely pessimistic about the prospect of bringing the wider libertarian milieu over to socialism at all. We regarded them as radical liberals who one could co-operate with to be sure, but who merited no special treatment, unless it was special treatment of the negative sort. The category of self-described Anarchist was too vague to be useful in tallying up who was a useful ally and who was not. Such a view was not popular at a time when the WSM was moving in the exact opposite direction. The degree to which the liberal conception of Anarchism had affected the WSM was apparent in the Social Solidarity Network. Despite it being our initiative, we had no idea of what we wanted to achieve with it and brought no substantive proposals to any of its meetings. A simple explanation may be that we were simply idiots who hadn’t thought of it, but I think the more likely one is that there was a culture of not wanting to pre-empt meetings or be seen to foist policy on networks or campaigns that we were involved in for fear of being hierarchical.

2010 was a crux year in which three major debates clarified the long developing fault lines. The first revolved around the recruitment process. It was clear from some members’ surprise at the notion that we were socialists and supportive of the labour movement that there was an issue. The lack of rigour in recruitment was also evident in the establishment of a Belfast branch that had more or less no understanding of our ostensible Platformist basis. Our recruitment process had lost its political content and had become a formulaic fulfilment of the requirement to attend three meetings and agreeing to pay subscriptions. If you agreed to do that it was assumed you agreed with our politics, but that was not actually checked. In fact, I suspect having such a discussion with some members would have led to embarrassment in that they would have been perceived it as a hierarchical move.

As secretary I initiated a process in Dublin of meeting with members before allowing them to attend branch meetings to explain our politics and to gauge their understanding and adherence to them. It was pitched at a very simple level; there is limit to how much information can be absorbed in one meeting, even a three hour one. But it was a start.

It became apparent, however, that Andrew and Aileen had concerns that I would vet people in such a way that it would tilt the balance of members towards a more old-fashioned interpretation of Platformism, something closer to Alan’s conception. As it happened, the political level in the recruitment document, which I had to follow, was pitched low enough that it shouldn’t have been a concern but I was determined to explain the core Platformist strategy of being outward looking and oriented towards mass work rather than towards an Anarchist subculture. I also almost always invited another colleague along to partake in these discussions, partially as a way of policing me, partially as a way of training them up in the art of one-to-one political conversation.

In the interests of clarification I proposed to national conference that the secretary and two other members would be responsible for assessing whether prospective members met the criteria for joining. This provoked a lot of controversy, the crux of which revolved around the idea that Anarchists could sit in judgment over another person’s politics and refuse them membership. The opponents of the policy were unhappy with it for a number of reasons: they thought the recruitment process was more or less fine and that any difficulties could be rectified by educational meetings afterwards. They favoured a process which didn’t rely on the subjective judgments of a few or even one individual. They were concerned it would frighten off people from libertarian circles who would see it as anti-Anarchist and bureaucratic to have someone being able to sit in judgment on their politics.

A further problem was the haphazard nature of our internal educational meetings. There was no systematic inculcation of basic anarchist doctrine; again the assumption was that the membership was familiar with that and indeed in any new group of recruits there were always some who were extremely well versed. But there were others who were not and there wasn’t any expectation that they would become so. It was left entirely up to them to whether that occurred or not. Instead there was a tendency to have educationals on whatever particular members found interesting. Obviously this was not without value in broadening our horizons, but given the dubious grasp of anarchist fundamentals amongst a good deal of the membership, it wasn’t building upon a solid foundation.

The issue over membership illuminated the divisions on the broader question of the role of the organisation itself: the minority thought that, despite calling itself Platformist, the WSM in reality become a radical activist group rather than an Anarchist one; the majority rejected that criticism and argued that a tighter recruitment policy would be return to the stagnation of the 1990s. There was probably an element of truth in that, but there didn’t seem to be much point to an Anarchist political organisation that was politically incoherent or directed towards such a marginal layer of Irish society as the milieu of libertarian activists. In addition I had zero patience for the framing of the issue as one of hierarchical power-relations between recruiter and the candidate: it was absurd to take Anarchism in such a direction: I saw Anarchism as an anti-state version of socialism that emphasised economic rather than political struggle, not as an all-encompassing anti-hierarchical philosophy. Previously I has assumed that such views were the provenance of liberal rather than socialist Anarchists but the vehemence with which that view was advanced raised doubts not only about the level of commonality of our understanding of Anarchism but also about the utility of Anarchism as a political ideology itself. Clearly Anarchism throughout its history has been prone to an individualist strain and it began to seem that the WSM’s history and nominal adherence to socialism meant less in reality than it did on paper. The proposal eventually passed narrowly, but at the expense of mutual trust and it had been undermined in substance. My own confidence in the good sense of the membership was weakened.

That debate was more vigorous and illuminating of the deep differences than any that had occurred over the previous five years, but it was soon followed by an equally important one.

Although the WSM had voted to set up a network with other libertarians (subsequently called the Social Solidarity Network), it turned out to be the dismal failure that its critics had predicted. After some dithering we killed it. I was reasonably satisfied because for once we had a political discussion on not advancing with a project rather than the usual policy of letting it drift along into oblivion. I was surprised therefore when the idea of a network was resurrected a couple of months later.

SWP anti-cuts protest 2010

The immediate reason was a reaction to some shenanigans by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. In May 2010 they attempted to “storm the Dail”, i.e. to charge past the policeman at the gates and with the probable intention of staging a sit-down protest. The Guards whacked a few of them on the head and the incident got a fair amount of publicity in the media.

So far, so ordinary. The SWP periodically engage in such stunts and I gave it no more thought than anything else on the news. Andrew was very excited by it though and pushed for us to demonstrate the following week both on an anti-capitalist basis and against police brutality.

Specifically, and somewhat unusually, he proposed a separate demonstration to the one the SWP were going to organise. It was novel because in the past when we had pushed for separate libertarian organised demonstrations it was usually when we were pushing the envelope on an issue, such as with the anti-war demonstrations in Shannon in 2003. Generally we didn’t attempt to usurp other organisations’ demonstrations. If others were at the forefront of some initiative we always partook in their event rather than organising a separate one. The idea on this occasion was to position the organisation as a radical alternative to the SWP and it seemed to some of us that the proponents were concerned – ludicrously over-concerned – about the prospect of them assuming the mantle of being the most militant opponents of the economic austerity programme. In fact it had the air of the cliched Trotskyist obsession with being an alternative leadership. The proposal passed, comfortably, despite the increasingly vocal objections of the minority.

About 200 people showed up at the demonstration, which was called in the name of the WSM and Seomra Spraoi. The Guards, unusually and bizarrely, tried to prevent the march from using the road, which led to some innocuous scuffles and some minor publicity which ensured a third demonstration would take place the following week.

At this point, a major internal debate arose. The minority thought it an utter waste of time: it was isolationist: the only people who partook in it were dissident republicans and libertarian sympathisers, possibly the two groups in Ireland least likely to engender a positive reaction from the public. And insofar as the public even noticed its existence we thought it likely to alienate them; the only way it could gain publicity was through scuffling with the Guards. And that was hardly an end in itself. In fact there was no clear goal at all.

The majority were positive about the protests. They found them energising and felt the people they were close to in the libertarian circle did too. They were also interested in working with Eirigi, a split from Sinn Fein, on similar demonstrations. The prospect of such events becoming the focus of WSM activity was the ultimate nightmare for the minority.

The debate went on for a few weeks, with Andrew again being the leading advocate of organising the radicals, though others such as Grainne Griffin and Mark Malone also pitched in to lend support. This time Chekov Feeney was his primary opponent, with others such as Gavin Mendel-Gleason and that perennial purveyor of orthodoxy, Alan MacSimoin, expressing severe skepticism. For a seemingly innocuous issue, the debate was quite intense. It was the manifestation of the latent differences that had been brewing for years: to orient towards the radicals or to the masses.

A recurring criticism of the skeptics was that we articulated was no alternative. We were seen as naysayers more than anything. Alan, Gavin, and myself did repeatedly suggest a long-term focus on winning a base in the unions as an alternative, taking a 15 year period as the minimum necessary to succeed. It is hard to emphasise the degree to which that idea fell flat. I doubt many people even noticed it as a choice. Chekov meanwhile was working out, in discussion with others (myself included) a proposal for a political organisation with much looser criteria than the WSM but which would be substantially anti-statist. More on which below.

The old-school syndicalism we had mooted had garnered very little traction, possibly because we were pitching it at a very long-term level, thereby implying that there wasn’t much influence that we could have in the short-term. As a matter of fact, we were very pessimistic about our capacity to influence events in the short term; it was the reason we figured we needed to establish a long-term base in the unions.

WSM sticker promoting a general strike

We felt that criticising the union leadership or putting up posters calling for a general strike, which had been the pattern of our organisational intervention in the trade unions was pointless in and of itself. Radicalism only becomes meaningful if it reflects a real-world tendency beyond the rarefied numbers of the libertarian left. Following Alan MacSimoin, we certainly didn’t think that the union base was radical nor that the union leadership were selling them out. A union leadership reflects, in a general way, the opinions of the base, most of whom are, after all, voters for right-wing political parties. If anything, the leadership is substantially to the left of the base and if by some miracle they adopted Anarchist policies they would soon find themselves out of a job. While criticism of the leadership is fair enough, it’s very much a secondary consideration to influencing that base.

Andrew characterised this view as spontaneism as it depended on, as he saw it, the spontaneous trajectory of the class struggle for its effect. To an extent this was accurate; we didn’t think we could short-circuit that process, but his interpretation that the logical policy to flow from that analysis was actionless waiting was wide of the mark. There was plenty of work to be done in establishing a base so that we would be in a position to take advantage of future class struggles in a way that we transparently weren’t capable of at that point. It just wasn’t very high-profile work. It shunned media stunts like scuffling with the police or chaining oneself to the stairs in a company headquarters. On the flip side, we considered the majority’s interest in libertarian networks, particularly in the unions to be absurd. Any libertarians of any use who were union members were likely to be in the WSM. Who were the ones that weren’t? Furthermore, we couldn’t see the point of the desire to protest, apart from it being a sort of howl of moral outrage. But that is never enough of a reason for a political organisation; there are, after all, an indefinite number of things to be outraged about. The ones we choose to protest about or organise around should relate in some way to our political vision and concrete strategy or else they just sink into oblivion. In short, if we were condemned for actionless waiting, we had no qualms about criticising in return their mania for action.

1% Network: the late 2010 incarnation of a network of radical activists.

One of the key problems, as the minority saw it, was the pressure to constantly be doing something. There was always a demonstration around the corner. There was pressure to respond to the SWP’s latest action; to hook up with Eirigi on some stunt; to protest the ICTU leadership’s latest “sellout”, to support Shell to Sea or Seomra Spraoi, all of which had a very unclear connection with building Anarchism. Whereas in previous years we had gone along with it, with a greater or lesser degree of grumbling, by 2010 the grumblings were getting louder and more coherent with Gavin, Chekov and myself becoming vocal on a consistent basis. Alan was no longer so isolated but the perception of the critics as spoilers continued. There is only so much dissonance an organisation can take and the smaller the organisation the lower that threshold is.

That desire for action was not without reason however. As an organisation, the WSM depended on it for its profile. We didn’t have any significant intellectual accomplishments that we could point to. We didn’t have any electoral profile that would put us on the map. If we weren’t to lose out to other radical strands there had to be some way of alerting the public to our existence and the occasional bout of handbags filled that gap. In addition, by this point there was a culture of doing stuff, which was healthy to an extent, but which had become a disease which inhibited political reflection.

But there was a further theoretical reason that underlay the differing strategic directions. The minority of go-slowers did not think there was the remotest possibility of socialist revolution in the short-term. Insofar as there could be a breakdown in capitalism and the authority of the state, the likely result would be chaos followed by right-wing nationalist reaction. Socialist ideas just did not have a grip on much of the population.

The majority, as ever with Andrew as their most vocal spokesperson, but also including other thoughtful contributors such as Paul Bowman, held that there was the possibility of rupturing with capitalism and the state and a libertarian socialist society emerging, Durruti-like, from the ashes.

This was a major gulf indeed. Because if revolution is immediately possible, then any event could kick it off and if you miss that event you could have missed a very brief and rare window of opportunity. The example of May 1968 and how it caught the left by surprise was invoked. This was the underlying reason for the interest in the anti-capitalist demonstrations of May 2010; what if they were the start of something big? On the other hand, if you think that not only is the prospect of socialist revolution remote but that it would actually be counter-productive for socialism if a collapse occurred, you couldn’t help but see those same demonstrations as, at best, a bit of a waste of time.

The third round of intense debate arose from a proposal of Chekov’s, outlined in a document called “Breaking the Anchor”. It arose from the debates surrounding the anti-capitalist protests and the challenge posed by the question: it’s all very well criticising, but what is your alternative?

Andrew was correct in thinking that the difficulties in pursuing the old-school union policy as taken from The Platform were significant, although it was more of an intuitive understanding than a rationally detailed position; it was nevertheless a feeling that was common to a considerable number of members. Chekov aimed to provide a third-way that avoided the sub-culturism that the orientation towards libertarian radicals brought and the Sisyphus-like fate of concentrating solely on the unions. In effect he proposed creating a mass, non-electoral party that would be set up and initially run by the WSM. A major part of it was the modernisation of the use of language (e.g. not to bother mentioning communism), but the basic politics of democracy and equality would remain. The other major facet was a complete rejection of orienting towards the anti-globablisation milieu. He aimed it at regular Joes and thought that it was important not to increase the already considerable distance between us and them by imposing unnecessary cultural barriers between us.

The most important factor, however, behind the proposal was the recognition that we were completely unable to capitalise on any work done in campaigns. We had no ratcheting effect, no cumulative benefit from the hours poured into protesting against Shell, racism, war, the banks, or even on foot of our small but solid work in the Bin Tax campaign because there was no institutional basis with which we could organise whatever level of goodwill we had engendered along the way. Such an oversight would have been understandable if we had held to an idealist notion that the population would take care of creating such an organisation, but in fact we just didn’t discuss the problem at all, which indicates the degree of political reflection in the organisation at the time. And it should be remembered that the Bin Tax campaign was perhaps the high point of our competence both in terms of being able to make an impact on members of the public and with regard to the coherence of our intervention amongst other left forces. The prospect of developing a base played absolutely no role in any of our other campaigns, a major reason why those campaigns achieved remarkably little.

Capitalising upon campaign work required an organisation that people could have signed up to if they were broadly supportive of our politics but were not Anarchist militants, a sort of community syndicalism.

The proposal excited some interest but it was a big change and it would have required a high degree of unity for us pursue it properly. There are some policies that can get by with a slim majority, but this wasn’t one of them. As it happened, it provoked a good deal of skepticism, from Alan on the grounds that it ditched socialist vocabulary and from a fair few others on the grounds that it in effect was creating a hierarchical organisation with a centralised leadership. There had already been mutterings about the spectre of Bolshevism during the membership debate and over various tweaks to the Delegate Council structure (see below); the prospect of centralist organisation is one of the reliable Anarchist bogeymen that is liable to cripple any initiative.

The major fissure over the proposal revolved around competing visions of the role of the Anarchist organisation. In effect, we concluded that despite nominal adherence to Platformism the majority were most interested in a non-electoral radical activist organisation and saw the WSM as being a vehicle for this. We thought it ran counter to Bakuninist strategy of retaining a limited and very specialised role for, as it is called in the trade, the specific political organisation as compared to that of the mass organisation. But there was something to the critique that unions, given the development of Western capitalism since the 1870s, might not be able to cut it as the traditional mass vehicle of choice. In the absence of a mass organisation the WSM had slipped into trying to being one, only it was very, very bad at it, especially since it was the manifestation of an unconscious shift in strategy with an was an old-school orthodox minority who were pulling in the opposite direction.

A mass organisation is a very different beast in all sorts of ways compared to a highly committed group of political cadres. For an organisation to be capable of recruiting a mass membership the recruitment bar has to be set very low with respect to ideological unity, a centralised administrative and policy making apparatus is necessary and so forth. Marketing and branding are also important to a mass organisation in a way that it isn’t to a small group of militants. As long as the WSM was Platformist its branding as Anarchist didn’t really matter because it wasn’t geared towards attaining mass popularity for itself. But once it became an activist organisation that attempted to replicate the function of mass organisations, albeit in a very distorted form, the branding was always going to be unhelpful, even fatal.

Since these changes were antithetical to Anarchist doctrines, or at least to the version of Anarchism that has come to predominate since the 1960s, any attempt by the WSM to be a mass organisation was doomed to failure from the start and, indeed, its many and varied attempts at creating networks which had Anarchist principles baked into their DNA suffered – and will always suffer – the same fate.

Chekov’s proposal actually went some way towards meeting the majority’s desire for activity while setting it upon a more realistic and potentially constructive foundation. Naturally, it was expected to be controversial, though we had thought that there was a fair chance that the more activist core would be interested, as indeed some were. But, as it happened, the key thinkers of the majority (Andrew, Aileen) came out against it. It was seen by them as a big step away from the WSM’s traditional approach.

In some ways it was, particularly in terms of language. It also represented a significant change in that it proposed setting up a mass type organisation rather than simply attempting to create a base in the unions. But at a more fundamental level it aimed at keeping the core of Bakuninism in its separation of role between the WSM (which would revert to a very specific political organisation with a narrow remit of promoting anarchism) and the mass organisation (which would be the vehicle of community struggle). Since Anarchists had been instrumental in setting up unions in the past, we weren’t in principle against being the pioneers in creating mass organisations; we were just against setting up radical ones on an exclusively Anarchist basis. The proposal was criticised by Paul Bowman as a move towards Kautskyist Social Democracy which, in retrospect, it was, albeit an unintentional one – Kautsky is anathema in radical circles after all – and one which suffered from attempting to simultaneously ride both the Bakuninist and Kautskyist horses.

By the end of 2010, while nominally Platformist, only two or perhaps three members were consciously followers of that line, with the two other tendencies, the proto-Kautskyists and the radical activists – having come to the conclusion that a strictly classical approach was not going to be sufficient, were attempting to work out a way forward. In practice this resulted in the new tendencies pulling in very different, i.e. diametrically opposed, directions, both in terms of theoretical conceptions and practical policy. To have three such distinct tendencies co-exist under the one roof is par for the course in a genuinely mass party but it creates an issue for a cadre group (one reason for the bewildering number of small cadre groups on the revolutionary left).

Ultimately, there was some interest in the proposal but it was outweighed by the skepticism, which was understandable given the extent to which it was a change in approach. Overall, most people seemed happy enough to remain with the status quo.

The proposal also explicitly required a cessation of 95% of our political activity – this was in the aftermath of a seemingly eternal series of protests without any noticeable results – in order to provide a prolonged period to think things through and, if we decided to go for that option, to set up an organisation properly rather than in the half-baked fashion that was somewhat traditional.

The possibility of such a cessation engendered strong feelings, both for and against. In my opinion the constant mobilisation militated against our capacity to reflect and plan a way forward. Sometimes, especially when faced with difficult problems like a massive capitalist crisis and the stagnation of your previous strategy, you can’t come up with solutions in a weekend. You need 12 months to think things through.

Right at this point however, the Irish state was bankrupting itself. If ever there was a time to be at the forefront of action, this was it, at least if you thought social conflict could escalate quite considerably. So beyond the disagreement on the proposal itself there wasn’t even basic agreement on how to go about treating the debate.

This latter issue was the catalyst for my leaving the organisation. It was clear I had major differences of opinion regarding Platformism, recruitment, the mass organisations, demonstrations, the fate of capitalism and so on. The surge of WSM protests in late 2010 surrounding the IMF’s entry onto the Irish scene, during the period when the minority believed that we should be ceasing activity in order to reflect on our future directions, indicated that there was going to be no let up in the pace of mobilisation. I considered these protests to be pointless and to be in direct contradiction to our need to take a step back and think. If anything, I was reminded of the SWP’s freneticism, which I had found off-putting back in the 1990s. At least the SWP had some rationale for their approach and an ability to capitalise on it. For Anarchists, it seemed an odd trajectory to be on. Clearly, many members didn’t agree with us on the need to slow down and reflect; in fact, as small protests followed one another, it was as if Chekov had never even suggested it. I decided that being a member of the WSM was more of a hindrance than a help to advancing socialist politics – and that I in turn was probably more of a hindrance than a help to the WSM, given its focus on protests. I decided to leave and over a period of a few months the rest of the minority, including Gavin, Alan, and Chekov followed suit.

Organisational Fetishism

The WSM like many other modern Anarchists is very concerned with structure. It robustly advocates direct democracy and considers representative democracy to be a fraud. When it was an organisation of less than 15 people, the question of structure didn’t pose much of a problem but once it grew to three or four branches, more complex forms were necessary. In response it developed a Delegate Council (DC) with each branch sending delegates commensurate with their numbers. The delegates were supposed to be issued with mandates from the branches they represented.

One of the distinguishing features of libertarian style networks is that anybody can turn up to a meeting and have an equal say in the decisions made. This is made possible by the deliberate absence of having a definite membership list. Indymedia, Grassroots, and Seomra Spraoi all persisted for a long time in accepting anyone who might turn up at their meetings as being entitled to partake in decision making, although over time, tighter policies did arise. Such a model makes longer-term planning very difficult as policy can swing depending on who shows up for a given meeting, which is a major reason why such organisations are unable to grow beyond a very small size. In addition, of course, it is anathema to Anarchists to have a central leadership responsible for policy making. The WSM slotted into the middle between the two, with a clear idea as to who was a member but without a central leadership, elected or otherwise, with the authority to make policy.

A twice yearly annual conference was the supreme decision making body, which was probably too often as this meant it tended not to focus on longer-term issues. This is not to say that nothing beyond the coming six months was discussed, but that such a discussion never achieved a degree of depth and detachment necessary for strategic-level policy as there was always many issues of pressing concern to address. A good example was the WSM’s agreed 5 10 year goals [error in the orginal corrected – J O’B.] . It was proposed by Andrew and adopted with some debate at our Conference in 2008 and entailed a series of ambitious goals to be achieved by 2018, including the establishment of some 80 WSM branches(!), many libertarian social centres, libertarian union networks and more. There was some criticism from Alan (of course!) and Kevin Doyle on the basis that it assumed growth irrespective of the broader class struggle, as if the fortunes of the WSM could be independent of that. More novelly, Chekov expressed skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving 80 WSM branches, given the rarity of political activists among the population, and therefore the wisdom of setting it as a goal, especially in the absence of an actual pathway to achieve the goal. Andrew sold the policy on the basis that although there wasn’t a plan, having a goal would force the organisation to develop one, that is, the policy would be the start of a process rather than end-point in itself. This never happened in practice.

Chekov’s skepticism signalled a differing strategic outlook, which was notable in that it was the first inkling of a divergent thinking that wasn’t confined to Alan MacSimoin; a portent of things to come as it turned out. The skepticism regarding that whole approach deepened given that the goals of the 5 10 year plan were then more or less forgotten about when it came to directing medium term policy, although they were wheeled out occasionally from time to time. Their focus on building a definite libertarian culture ensured that the more orthodox Platformists didn’t attempt to develop an implementation plan at all: we had no interest and saw no utility in libertarian neighbourhood centres or strictly libertarian union-networks. But the people who liked those ideas also didn’t attempt to construct an integrated path to achieving those goals. It was a case of passing policy and then ignoring it, a trend which was to continue.

One reason for the plan’s failure to anchor policy making was that it was so ambitious, well beyond the WSM’s capacity to implement. Goals have to walk a tightrope between ambition and realism and this plan fell off on the ambition side. It’s all very well agreeing goals but they’re not much use if they are arbitrarily plucked out of the air.

Another reason was an over-concern with formalism. There is a difference between getting a motion passed at conference and getting the motion to grab the membership such that they would act on it. We were in the habit of passing policy motions far beyond our capacity to implement them and in time, of course, this lessens the credibility of the process itself. Rather than simply getting motions passed, one has to win people over to actually believing in them. This is a much more subtle process than winning a vote.

In addition, and related to that tendency towards formalism, wherever possible we attempted to replace individual judgment with detailed sets of rules. This was an anarchist solution to the conundrum of coping with organisational decisions affecting more than 10 people while preventing the emergence of a specific leadership. It played out in unusual ways however, e.g. the method for deciding which articles could get published on our website was a strictly algorithmic one: if a submission fulfilled some basic criteria (it was grammatically okay, correctly categorised, within policy etc) then it had to be published. To those of us who had been through the Indymedia mill this was a recipe for mediocrity at best: we wanted capable editors to have the authority to edit, change or reject submissions based on their quality. This was rejected by majority vote on at least two occasions. The distrust of individual judgment was to recur in the membership debate of 2010.

The strange twilight zone of policy making was exemplified by the fate of Delegate Council, a body that is living proof of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics in its ability to suck up energy and remit very little by way of coherence. The Council was made of delegates from each of the four branches in proportion to the size of the branch. It could make policy within the parameters set down by national conference. It never quite clicked however and the level of political discussion at its meetings was low. It suffered from the same problem of too much formalism. A motion would be submitted and it would receive the consensus treatment, not so much in that votes were avoided, but in that it would get passed if nobody actively opposed it. People might have thought a fair amount of the ideas submitted were not all that useful but out of courtesy for the proposer they would passively support it with the justification that if the proposer wanted to put in a bit of work on it then they didn’t feel strongly enough to cause a fuss. Thus a lot of motions got passed that had no hope of being implemented because in a small organisation without full time administrators enthusiasm is a requirement as much as agreement.

Delegate Council expended a lot of effort on trifling administration issues that had little political importance and which one of the executive officers should have just dealt with. But the wariness of being hierarchical entailed the officers being very circumspect about showing initiative in mundane matters. Most things had to be routed through DC. This tended to crowd out political discussion, although it might be more accurate to say it covered up the absence of political discussion, which wouldn’t necessarily have magically appeared if the routine had been shunted out.

This became evident to me in 2010 during my last stint as Secretary. At that point I was conscious of the problem and attempted to canvass the membership for political items for the agenda. Such items tended to be scant and notably failed to evoke input. For example, even after we passed a motion in the Summer 2010 conference in favour of a United Front strategy (against the wishes of the usual suspects of course!) the experience of the 10 year plan recurred; it was policy on paper but didn’t actually mean anything in practice. I put it on the agenda for the next DC, because even though I thought it wasn’t much of a policy, it was still a policy and its proponents had appealed for its passing partially on the basis that we would work out the details later. Recalling the oblivion to which the 10 year plan had been condemned I wanted to get down to the nuts and bolts of finding a pathway to implement it. But despite it having been passed the month before and coming on top of the intense debate on the internal website regarding co-operation with Eirigi, it evoked very little input. It was a sign that something serious was awry.

As Anarchists we had spent quite a bit of time thinking about democratic processes and frankly we attached too much importance to form. While obviously not irrelevant, the bigger issue was that the membership as a whole weren’t particularly interested in thinking about policy and its political consequences. Most members wanted to do things. They were very much radical activists and would have been satisfied with almost any policy that didn’t disrupt that activity or offend their sensibilities. They didn’t have much to say regarding strategy.

Since we had constructed an organisation form that depended on regular input from all the members, when it turned out that such input was not forthcoming, the structures proved to be not really capable of acting at a lower level. This, of course, was not something unique to the WSM; something similar is likely to occur in all such systems, including many participatory democratic ones, e.g. a federated system of Workers’ Councils.

Also, and to be somewhat brutal, it was apparent that although all members had a lot to contribute in a whole host of ways, many did not have a particularly good capacity for considering questions of general political strategy abstracted from day-to-day concerns and issues that were particularly emotive for them. A division of labour goes without saying when it comes to layout and design. But it is factor in policy making too. Some people just weren’t as good at thinking politically as others. The reality of the delegate selection process – we generally relied on volunteers rather choosing on a political basis – meant that people who weren’t particularly suited to the role found themselves giving up their Saturday afternoon to attend DC. Given that it was supposed to be a directly democratic process with delegates being armed with mandates the intellectual quality of the delegates wasn’t supposed to matter all that much. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it did matter. Some members simply had trouble organising the thoughts in their head and this was important because if it was to be a useful decision making body, DC had to depend on that old chestnut, individual judgement.

If the imperative mandate had been strictly followed then there would have been no need of DC meetings in the first place. The internet was good enough to gauge the mood of the organisation. The advantage of a DC meeting was that it provides a forum for the presentation of different policies and the reasoning behind them to be explained in person, which cannot always be fully spelt out in a motion. This allows room to compromise with other viewpoints and the process of negotiation itself helps cement the unity of the organisation. But a malfunctioning Delegate Council where there isn’t much by way of political discussion, particularly given the high turnover and variable quality in its membership, might well maintain Anarchist observance of anti-hierarchical form but does so at the expense of being not much use and at the expense of failing to unify the diverse tendencies. It becomes mired in mechanically following the forms of democracy at the expense of substantive content.

I had pushed for the adoption of a more representative form to the DC and for giving it more leeway to make decisions on its own authority. These were adopted, albeit it with mutterings about the encroachment of Bolshevism, mutterings which were to increase on foot of the membership proposal that followed in 2010. Their failure to result in any substantive difference in the levels of political discussion (there was some minor pick-up) led me to conclude by the tail end of 2010 that the problems we were encountering reflected much deeper issues than this or that wrong policy or this or that particular format.

The experience of Delegate Council indicated that for all the Anarchist interest in organisational form that we didn’t have much useful advice that we could offer the public on this front. If we could barely organise 50 people ourselves, why should we expect unions or society at large to listen to us?


The differences in emphasis that surfaced over the years had, under the pressure of the capitalist crisis, taken overt form as distinct theoretical understandings, strategic choices, and, in its own important way, cultures. Once this occurs in a cadre-type organisation it either has to change its self-conception into something more akin to a mass party that is tolerant of quite profound differences or there has to be a parting of ways.

Overall, the period of 2005 to 2010 is one long argument against the viability of the Anarchist conception of organisation. Ironically, I’m not at all sure that the original Anarchists were particularly concerned with issues of hierarchy that are of such interest to modern Anarchists: the split with Marx revolved around the utility of using the State as an instrument of liberation which had certain implications regarding the relative importance of the political and economic organisations. It didn’t really say much, indeed anything, about hierarchy per se. But anti-hierarchy has become vogue even though when it comes down to it, it is a rather vague concept. Over the 140 year course of its existence, the influence of individualism has permeated Anarchism fairly substantially and in its modern Anglo-Saxon incarnation at least, it doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the Bakuninists of the First International, although it retains the hostility to state-centred political action. At this point, the WSM is probably closer to a Kropotkinite organisation with its utilization of a moral interpretative framework rather than a sober analysis of the balance of forces as its guide to action, its lack of interest in gaining popular support, and its assumption that the population are a lot more radical than they actually are.

The consequence of this is that the return is much less than the investment; members of the organisation have given a fair chunk of their lives (and money) to Anarchism and yet there is not a whole to show for it. There are no institutions of any note that signal a broader base in society, no grounding in the unions, the ephemeral activist groups into which so much effort has been poured come and go like mayflies, the capacity to project media influence remains extraordinarily weak, while the intellectual level of members is trapped by adherence to doctrine that enables survival but not much else. And yet the WSM is perhaps the most impressive Anarchist organisation in the English speaking world. Its members are known for their work ethic and their self-effacement. It has been a participant in many of the progressive struggles in Ireland over the last thirty years. One cannot blame lack of dedication for the sheer unpopularity of Anarchism. The causes go deeper, down to the root of the ideology itself. Decent, hardworking people are constrained by a framework that, due its tendency to embrace inward-looking radicalism, an inability to come to terms with non-revolutionary times and an incapacity to adjust itself to the enormous development in capitalism since 1872, condemns its adherents to forever pushing the rock of revolution up an increasingly steep and slippery slope.


The WSM & fighting the last war - a reply to James O’Brien

Andrew Flood responds to James O'Brien's critique of the Workers Solidarity Movement.

Submitted by Maloney on February 1, 2013

The left is fond of military analogies so I want to open this piece with the observation that poor generals plan for the last war rather than the next one. Those militaries that planned for World War Two by perfecting the trench systems that dominated World War One had their powerful & expensive fortifications quickly overwhelmed in the opening weeks of the war through blitzkrieg. And in turn by 1943 Blizkrieg was defeated though defence in depth at Kursk.

Generals who stuck to a set of tactics that were the best at one moment in history are defeated by those using new tactics made possible through technological improvements and changed circumstances. There is no ‘right answer’ that remains fixed throughout time. There is no ‘right answer’ that allows for the specific circumstances in which you operate to be discounted.

For most of the left in Europe the 1917 Russian Revolutions and in particular the October revolution remains the winning tactic that must be studied to win future victories. That revolution, from the era when trench warfare ruled, sets a tactical guide that is every bit as outdated as the digging of complex trench systems to contain an invading army would be today. This is not simply an analogy, trench warfare was characterised by rigid top down discipline in the implementation of complex plans that remains broadly similar to the way Leninist & other organisations of the left organisations model themselves and see as the ideal.

For anarchists the situation is a little more complex. We are still prone to look back to the methods of the 1910’s but for us the Russian Revolution ended in a rapid defeat - one internal to the revolution as the Bolshevik party liquidated workers democracy completely by early 1921. We are far more prone to take our lessons from a later defeat, that of the Spanish revolution in the 1930’s, but actually although military and political / organisational tactics had advanced that revolution is also long past and really not much of a guide for the present.

The changed terrain

Capitalism has advanced massively in terms of how it imposes control and as significantly creating consensus since either of those revolutions. Mass economically based workers unions, even as in Spain with a revolutionary tinge, have been long contained by a range of weapons from social partnership to Human Resource manipulation. The space for radical newspapers has been swamped by mass media outlets using cynical but populist methods to limit the imaginations of the masses or as with the Sun, Daily Mail or Fox to channel their anger into entirely counter-productive terrain. For western workers Popular Education with its radical base has been largely swamped by state & private funded ‘education for life’ designed to only shoe horn us better into workplace needs.

These provided three of the key building methodologies for the left, including the anarchist movement, in the early 20th century. Union membership, the radical press and popular education were the entry point into the workers movement and into revolutionary organisations. All three are largely closed off yet far left organisations remain wedded to them, constantly trying to imagine a better horse drawn buggy as they are sprayed with mud by passing motor cars.

For revolutionaries in the current generation, sometimes as in Ireland facing the demoralisation of five years of crisis and the roll back of working class organisations, where are we to find the equivalents that will enable us to form a rearguard for this battle and win the next? On the European level we have no victories or even bitter defeats (where substantial resistance was overcome) in recent decades. The end of the military dictatorships of Spain, Portugal & Greece in the 70’s or the Italian ‘red years’ that closed same decade being the most useful. But these are over 30 years old and in any case contained by the neo-liberial direction that capitalism took at the end of the 70’s. Digging through the historical relics of Lenin’s State & Revolution or Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ is as relevant (and as counter productive) as studying up on whatever Haig wrote about trench warfare tactics.

This means when it comes to the challenge of building revolutionary organisation that can win today most of our effort must be to examine in detail the small struggles of our time, the defeats that were easily contained, the movements that failed to develop, for whatever lessons can be gleaned. Well not quite all our efforts, I’ve been careful above to refer to the European left, while what I say would also be mostly true of the North American left this is not true elsewhere. There is much we can learn from the struggles of Southern America, including Mexico and those of north Africa, in particular Egypt. But that is not what this article is about, rather its a response to a partial history of a small organisation of which I happen to be a member.

James O’Brien’s history of internal debate within the Workers Solidarity Movement in the first decade of the millennium is a detailed example of a look at a movement that were easily contained. It’s a substantive piece of work that is largely free of the bitter snipping that similar pieces by ex-members of organisations they have left / been expelled from tend to be dominated by. But it is also just one person’s memories and interpretations of what were often complex and nuanced debates. Memory often plays tricks on people, in particular when it is memory of fragments of a larger whole and where the writer has a very strong point of view that inevitably effects what they most remember.

Although what is covered in his account of the WSM is so minor in the scheme of global revolution as to seem irrelevant there are perhaps still general lessons that can be understood from the interventions by one small anarchist organisation in the minor struggles on a small island off the west coast of Europe in the first decade of the 3rd millennium. In any case it’s a set of lessons I can talk about as ‘I was there too’ and as we shall see my perspective and the lessons I drew are often at odds with those James presents.

I’m not defending any sort of orthodoxy in this piece. James’s break with the anarchism as practised by the WSM led him to the heresy of electoralism, the ULA and most interestingly looking back to Kautsky and the mass party. My own journey is following a different path towards a different destination but also based around a sense of the left as we know it having run its course. He tried to bring WSM with him and failed, I’m still trying because that offers a collective process and core around which a new left, which we are only beginning to imagine, can be built. I say this here because as will probably become apparent my vision of that new left lies almost at polar opposites to his even if we both claim to base it in part on the same experiences in the same tiny organisation.

The limits of what follows

I joined the WSM in 1991 and remain a member today in 2013. I was absent for a year in 2007/8 as I was living in and touring North America but otherwise I went through the same debates and discussions that James did. He mentions me often in his text, most commonly as the loudest voice of what he perceived as the opposite pole (‘the majority’) of a series of disagreements. In this reply I want to do two things.
A) Correct factual errors in some of the key interventions & debates that James details or in other cases provide more balanced examples than the extremes James has presented as typical.
B) Offer a very different interpretation of how this decade of experience should be interpreted and what lessons are to be drawn from it.

In terms of building revolutionary organisation in the modern age it is the second section that is key. But it is hard to ignore what I consider errors of fact & interpretation in the text and it would be next to impossible to build an alternative analysis leaving such errors unchallenged. Therefore the first section of this piece will be a somewhat tedious but I hope useful counter-narrative to James versions of WSM activity & debates. In many cases I will build around not just my memory but a re-examination of internal documents, in particular minutes and debate pieces from the period in question. In other cases I’ve simply linked to material published at the time and in a couple of cases, as part of the process of preparing this piece, I have sought out my abandoned drafts of particular histories and finished them off in order to allow considerably more detail that what would be suitable in this article to be more generally available.

But from the start lets be clear this is not written as a history of the WSM and not even a history of the WSM in the period James covers. For better or worse this text arose as a reply to his piece and so for the most part covers the areas of activity he choose to cover and even within those areas concentrates on the aspects he considers most relevant. Substantial areas of activity are missing from his account (e.g. our pro-choice work) and haven’t been added here, you will find some material on the WSM web site covering this and other areas. If I was to start from scratch I’d probably write something quite different to what is here, this piece is really more about polemic than history even if I hope the combination of both pieces offers something of a step towards a history where none other exists.

This version of the piece has taken a considerable time to prepare but should be viewed as a first draft. I point to factual errors in James piece, it is entirely possible there are some in mine, despite my best efforts to check against what documentation exists. It’s also very possible that in sections of what follows I assume far too much from the reader and thus fail to explain aspects that are obvious to me because of decades of immersion. So I’m going to publish this version of the reply in sections over a week or two on Anarchist Writers - my archive & blogging site - and use your feedback in the comments section to prepare an improved version for the WSM site. [libcom note: it is not clear if the final version was ever published] This version and comments made will be left up as a record of that process.

It is far from perfect but something of a more general history of WSM for most of that period is contained in this recording of a talk I gave at a conference in Chicago in early 2008 as part of a 44 city speaking tour.

II - Before 2000

My involvement in the WSM started in 1991 although the group of us who effectively refounded the organisation that year had contact with the two remaining members (Alan & Kevin) for a couple of years previously. We had formed a small but hyper active student group on discovering each other in the student struggles of the late 1980s, struggles which were characterised by their relatively extreme militancy. The Anarchist-Communist Group as we called ourself drew its experiences from student occupations, pro-choice activism, anti-fascism and, from the summer we worked and lived together in London, anti-imperialism, squatting and anti-Poll tax organising.

We published one issue of a magazine, Anarcho-Communism in Dublin, and a ‘Troops Out’ leaflet while we were working in London. As we were young students we were targetted for recruitment by a number of the existing left organisations and so had debates with the Socialist Workers Movement and the Irish Workers Group in Ireland and (more informally) the Spartacist League in London. Also while in London we attended 3 or 4 internal meetings of the then Anarchist Communist Federation (now the Anarchist Federation).

It’s useful to understand these origins in understanding our first decade of involvement in the WSM as these experiences were quite intense both physically and intellectually and therefore created a strong bond of solidarity and a high expectation of what an anarchist militant should be. Our activity started in the closing years of the republican military struggle in Ireland which meant regular contact with people who had served significant prison sentences for their political activity and almost immediate contact with the Irish secret police (Special Branch) who were quick to question anyone new on the scene. All of this tended towards taking ourselves very seriously despite a reality of being a handful of people barely out of their teens with hopelessly marginal ideas.

We were delighted to discover the WSM and after a couple of formal meetings decided to short cut the ongoing discussions by offering to dissolve the ACG and join the WSM. In refounding WSM (although this was not the term used at the time) a document drawn up summarising the first three years of the WSM was extremely influential.

There is perhaps a minor inaccuracy in James text at this point at he claims the first wave (pre 1990) of WSM grew to a “few dozen” whereas I understand it peaked at around 15. This is of some small importance as my understanding of subsequent internal organisational history is based on the struggle we had to break beyond 15 to reach “a few dozen” a number only achieved in the early 2000’s. Much of the discussion about the role of Delegate Council is relevant to that specific problem.

The early 1990’s of the WSM were characterised by the de facto formation of a cadre organisation although formally we rejected that particular term. Cadre is another military term the left is fond of borrowing and basically refers to the disciplined core around which a mass army is built. In our context cadre formation meant that a huge part of our effort went on internal education & debate. Despite, for a good part of that period, there only being 5 of us in Dublin we managed to prepare an educational almost every week without fail, something the organisation proved incapable of doing with 6 times that number a decade later. We more or less expected members to put the organisation first in their lives - although we would have denied doing so - and we placed almost no priority on recruitment. In fact the few people who did join in that period pretty much had to stalk us to do so and were all recruited in the basis of 100’s of hours of contact with WSM members.

This attitude along with our exemplary involvement in key struggles like the X-case demonstrations and the Water Tax campaign gave us an impact and visibility way beyond our tiny numbers. The effort we put into publication added to this and in particular with our very early use of the internet quickly gave us an international reach and reputation that was completely out of scale with what was our reality. While all this can be seen positively it is also true that this is frequently the receipe for the foundation of small, rigid and sectarian sects that are so impressed by their own wisdom they fail to notice that no one outside the tiny circles of the radical left even notices them. This at least partially applies here so nostalgia for those days of coherency need to be balanced against the reality of having no influence outside the tiny circle of left activists paying close attention to us.

A further note is needed here on the cadre organisation concept. At this point in time much of our international contact was with the Anarchist Workers Group in Britain - we attended their conferences and they attended ours as well as exchanging internal bulletins. They openly proclaimed they sought to build a cadre organisation and after their disintegration Kevin Doyle published an analysis arguing that their Cadre Organisation policy document lead “to the demise of the AWG as an anarchist organisation.”

You can read this, my analysis of their collapse and several of the AWG articles but what is of interest here is that in accepting Kevin’s analysis (which is accurate enough in terms of an analysis of the AWG version of a cadre organisation) we made the mistake of making it harder to understand the aspects of cadre organising we also had in reality adopted. Unlike the AWG we saw mass struggle and addressing arguments outside of the existing left as important. But a huge amount of the time we spent on self eduction was on the minute detail of anarchist and left history and only makes sense in the context of an organisation very much directed at arguments within the existing left. It’s also relevant because I think James concluding arguments are very much for a cadre organisation.

In his account James sees a quite sudden departure from WSM’s early 1990’s direction around the year 2000 but as I recall it the shift was in fact gradual and ran over five years from 1994 to 2000. 2000 was when the key decision to turn Workers Solidarity into a free newspaper was made.

There were three key elements to this shift
A. Zapatista solidarity work - we had started covering the Zapatista rising shortly after its outbreak in 1994 and I had significant involvement with the Irish Mexico Group including visiting Chiapas in 1996 & 1997. This exposed us to a wide range of revolutionary ideas that were either libertarian or representing libertarian shifts within previously authoritarian organisations. The methodology of the Zapatista’s also proved to be an entry point to considering anarchism for a very large number of solidarity activists and very much laid the basis for the radical end of the alternative globalisation movement.

B. A study of modern revolutions that was the basis for talks and a dayschool in 1996 - see for instance my talk Modern Revolutions Or Is Revolution Still Possible? for an early version of the debate James presents as starting 6 years later in 2002. This section towards the end of my talk captures this in “The speed at which ideas now flow, exemplified perhaps by the speed of the reaction to the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico make change very likely to be quick…. A couple of truly significant victories internationally could change the mood here almost overnight. In this sense there is enormous opportunity ahead.
Having said this we are in a weak position to take advantage of it. Unless anarchist ideas are dominant it is likely a revolution will be turned down the dead ends of reformism or re-vamped Leninism… But we do not have the numbers to assert that dominance. That is why we need to take growth very seriously anarchists cannot afford to remain as tiny propaganda groups we must grow to organisations of thousands and tens of thousands.”

Some of the core ideas were in fact first publically argued in the first edition of Red & Black Revolution published 1994 in the articles on “Has Socialism A Future? The Left - Ashes To Phoenix Part 1” . And the creation of Red & Black Revolution in general involved collectively identifying an audience that went beyond the traditional left.

C. A break from traditional revolutionary organisational methods in recognition of the huge impact technology was having on the way ideas were being spread. This was a drawn out and often informal process but had two key components, our increasing use of the Internet for the publication of our ideas and then at the dawn of the milennium our abandonment of the standard model of ‘selling the revolutionary paper’ as an organising tool for the free and large scale distribution. Given the way ‘The Paper’ is put at the centre of most projects of revolutionary organisation, including the formative years of the WSM, this is much more significant that may be immediately obvious to some readers.

There is a significant difference with the narrative James presents which is one of a return to Platformist orthodoxy with the refoundation in 1991 for almost a full decade before some sort of break towards ‘activism’ took place under the pressure of disappointing results. My version doesn’t quite fit into the story James needs to tell to reach his conclusion but as shown above it does appear to better fit what we were saying in public in those years. Importantly we didn’t so much react to the alternative globalisation movement - rather we were a part in the story of its formation through the Zapatista encuentro’s. (see Where did the Anti Capitalist Movement come from) And the turn to ‘activism’ had existed from the start, in particular around our involvement around Dublin Abortion Information Campaign which is where the bulk of our recruits in the 1990’s actually came from.

III False divisions - Summit protests or unions?

In James account the collectively driven shift over time in outreach & recruitment of the 1990’s becomes instead an internal debate in 2000. He presents this shift as “Andrew was the leading supporter of increased co-operation with non-WSM libertarians who were emerging thanks to the influence of the Zapatistas, disillusionment with the Green Party, anti-globalisation and so forth, while Alan remained an advocate of the classic union-oriented Platformist strategy that had guided the organisation for two decades. Alan tied the fortunes of the WSM to the wider fortunes of the working class: in the absence of the radicalisation of of the class there was no prospect of the WSM of growing significantly. Nor could a tiny organisation like the WSM radicalise the class. If anything, Alan thought the idea absurd. Andrew viewed this as an anarchist version of Kautsky’s so-called “actionless waiting” and advocated increased attempts to engage with other non-Leninist anti-capitalists with the hope of developing a radical alternative”

Now all this is semi qualified with “reality is always messier than this neat little division. The tendency that considered an orientation towards unions as overwhelmingly important did not suggest non-co-operation with other Anarchists; the pro-anti-globalisation tendency didn’t advocate ignoring union activity.” I’d suggest however that the polarised debated presented by James above didn’t actually exist when he suggests it did. Rather his account is reading history backwards by imposing the divisions & debates of 2008-10 onto what was in reality a policy reached mostly through consensus in the period before 2000.

I would present our policy in that period in terms of a collective understanding being reached that at a time of massive economic expansion and social partnership the scope for activity in the unions for almost all of our members was very limited. This is because with everything but individual cases being dealt with through national negotiations there was very little reason for any local union activity in this period. My section which has around 700 members on paper met once a year at lunch time for an AGM throughout this period. Only 50 or so members attended and the AGM’s main business was making sure there would be a committee for monthly meeting with management the following year.

This wasn’t that new a development, it was more or less the situation that had existed from the first round of social partnership, which was why even in the early 1990’s with the exception of the water tax campaign the bulk of our activity had involved ‘activism’ around pro-choice struggles. A serious effort had been put into trying to build a network in SIPTU in the years 1997-2000 through our involvement in the SIPTU Fightback publication but by 2000 it had become clear that while up to a couple of hundred union reps were interested in consuming the publication there was little possibility of getting more active involvement.

Our collective understanding was that social partnership & the boom would end at some point end but that before that point we needed to find ways to build up a layer of militants who would be ready to take advantage of the crisis that would arise. The attempt to do this through the unions via SIPTU Fightback hadn’t born results, despite a very serious effort, and the complete lack of activity at the base of most unions meant that the opportunities to reach potential militants simply were not there.

We agreed a collective analysis of this in our position paper on the unions in the following section which was added as early as May 2006 (the exact date is unclear, that date is the earliest version of that position paper I found which includes the text).

“12.3.1 The long years of social partnership and the low level of struggle have devastated rank and file organisation in most unions. Branch meetings and AGM's are badly attended and rank and file positions from unions reps to branch committee are often given to whoever is willing to do the work rather than contested. In the private sector union membership has drastically declined with many new companies being effectively non-union. .. This means that very few of the new generation of political activists have any experience of union activity. Encouraging involvement in unions is no longer a simple question of encouraging people to attend meetings or stand for union rep. Done in isolation both of these experiences can be demoralising. And most young workers now find themselves in non-unionised workplaces. Advocating joining a union to this layer can seem like a pointless strategy when all they hear of is unions that are toothless and long drawn out recognition disputes that are seldom seriously fought by the union side and which end in defeat or Pyrrhic victories.”

To add a section to our existing papers it has be circulated to all members in a written form at least 4 weeks before conference giving them a chance to read it and suggest ammendments. There is then a debate slot at conference at which any member can speak and the proposal then only passes if 50%+1 of those present vote for it. I don’t remember any controversy about that section at all. There would have been differences in nuance between myself and Alan on the union questions but not really the sort of significant disagreement and debate suggested by James’s account.

Here I think James is also ‘preparing for the last war’ in a way that would have delivered less that the actual strategy we followed. Our understanding of the limitations the the new methodologies of Social Partnership imposed on opportunities for radical workplace organisation were with hindsight under rather than overstated. And while we were right to imagine Social Partnership would ‘end’ when a crisis hit, we were wrong to imagine that this would see the unions leaders forced to accept a return to struggle in which radical ideas would inevitably unfold at the base.

The second point here is that for revolutionary organisations to survive - never mind expand - they need to adapt to the actual situation they find themselves in rather than acting as if there were somewhere else. The 1999-2004 period in Ireland was one where there was little or no significant workplace struggle and little or no activity at the base of the unions. But it was one where thousands of mostly young people where being drawn to a broad anti-capitalist politics by international events, in particular the summit protests. Many of these people were either already self defining as anarchists or adopting broadly anarchist organisational methods - in short they were a willing audience for our ideas.

One measure of this being that increasingly we would describe ourselves as ‘anarchists’ on first contact with people rather than ‘libertarian socialists’ - previously it was the case that anarchist was either a meaningless term to people or one they associated with punk music rather than politics. So rather than chase a disinterested audience we had few mechanisms for reaching it made sense to engage those who were interested and self-identifying as being close to us and try and convince them of our politics and organisational methods.

Again in hindsight the under theorised and limited work done in this sphere was much better preparation for the reality of 2008-11 where the high points of radicalisation would not be old style mass strikes but rather the radical street movements of the ‘Arab Spring’ & Occupy. Only in the first case did mass strikes play any part in the emergence of the movement (although union support was important for Occupy). Sadly although our work in this period was interesting we failed to either develop the theoretical or tactical tools required to take full advantage of the Occupy moment, even if perhaps we were the most successful of those who tried on the Irish left.

At the same time we massively stepped up efforts to speak to the working class in general though shifting our newspaper from a 3-4 times a year sold format with a limited circulation that seldom reached past the left to a 6 times a year free format that was mostly delivered door to door where our members lived. In terms of time spent writing and distributing and in terms of financial resources our paper Workers Solidarity used by far the lines share of resources from 2000-2010. It’s hardly mentioned in James account at all, presumably because it really doesn’t tie into a narrative of an organisation that supposedly shifted focus away from trying to reach the mass of the population.

So the major problem with James’s account of this period is that the areas he selects to talk about doesn’t reflect the sum of what we were actually doing and trying to do. As another example the annual Dublin Anarchist Bookfair is also unmentioned but would be our second biggest expenditure per year after the newspaper. The bookfair is explicitly run to provide a easy entry point for finding out about anarchism to the general population and attracts up to 800 people.

Failure to at least examine a representative cross section of WSM activity in the period means his account if taken as representative can be quite misleading and so lead to a seriously skewed analysis. Not least because while organisationally we strived to maintain a careful balance between ‘activist’ orientated and ‘popular’ engagement that balance has entirely vanished in his account.

Ideas or terminology

Sections of his account suggest that James sometimes didn’t really fully grasp the nature of the work we were doing. In relation to the discussion on ‘activism’ central to his misunderstanding is the sentence reading “One of the arguments against old fashioned class struggle Anarchism was that it carries the alienating baggage of a century of socialism with it and the advantage of chucking that baggage overboard was a recurring theme over the next decade.”

In 2000 it was not the actual ideas of socialism/communism that many activists found alienating, it was the rather stale traditional language and imagery that much of the left used to express them. The language was in fact such a barrier that people simply turned off and didn’t listen to the explanations of what we really meant by such terms and how it was different to what the Communist or Labour Party meant when they used similar language.

We recognised this when we began the process of forming the Grassroots Gathering and simply reformulated the traditional concepts of the libertarian left in language that did not immediately produce such a negative effect. In 2011 the emergence of Occupy saw a similar creation of a new terminology in order to describe class divisions & power because the old terminology was felt to be more ideological than explanatory. Very much earlier the dozen Grassroots Gatherings that were held over the first decade, and which probably over 1,000 people attended, were all based on agreement on the principles below.

“The Grassroots Gathering aims towards a network which would:
1. Be based on the principle that people should control their own lives and work together as equals, as part of how we work as well as what we are working towards.

2. Within the network this means rejecting top-down and state-centred forms of organisation (hierarchical, authoritarian, expert-based, Leninist etc.) We need a network that’s open, decentralised, and really democratic.

3. Call for solutions that involve ordinary people controlling their own lives and having the resources to do so: the abolition, not reform, of global bodies like the World Bank and WTO, and a challenge to underlying structures of power and inequality.

4. Organise for the control of the workplace by those who work there.

5. Call for the control of communities by the people who live there.

6. Argue for a sustainable environmental, economic and social system, agreed by the people of the planet.

7. Working together in ways which are accessible to ordinary people, particularly women and working-class people, rather than reproducing feelings of disempowerment and alienation within our own network.”

These (in particular 4 & 5) are not a rejection of the concepts of the libertarian left but a restatement of them. They also represent a revolutionary break with the reformism of the mainstream of the alternative globalisation movement on the one hand and a libertarian break with the top down methods of the trotskyists on the other. That second point is important because the Gatherings represented for the first time in Ireland an ongoing libertarian structure that was capable of reaching beyond the tiny handful of committed ideological anarchists and thus organising events that carried discussion of anarchism into the mainstream media.

The second issue with James’s presentation of this period is that in describing what were some problems with the Grassroots milieu he refuses to recognise that it is the role of a revolutionary organisation to address such problems. We are not going to magically find some section of the population comprised of close to perfect revolutionaries waiting to have anarchist ideas dropped into their heads. Different oppositional movements will have different problems but the point in particular here is that for much of the 2000’s there were no mass economic based opposition movements in which we might have hoped to find developed class politics. The one example of where there was (the anti-bin tax campaign of 2002/3) was one where at its peak we dropped almost all other activity to concentrate on just as today the campaign agains the household tax takes up the bulk of our organiser time.

There may have been a limited truth in the idea that many involved around the Gatherings were “fundamentally uninterested in winning over the population to radical left-wing ideas” but this can be said of any oppositional youth movement in conditions similar to the Celtic Tiger years. James skips over our success at countering that tendency and at winning the arguments to structure activities in ways that reached out to the general population. There are many examples that can be given but perhaps the single most demonstrative is convincing the Gathering in the build up to the Mayday 2004 summit protest that rather than put energy into attracting and providing accommodation for ‘international activists’ we should instead put the resources into trying to explain the issues to and mobilise the population of Dublin.

This was quite unusual (perhaps unique?) in the summit protest period globally and meant that a lot of effort was put into media work and more importantly the production and distribution of 50,000 leaflets door to door mostly in the areas of Dublin where our protests would take place. It’s worth quoting the conclusion of this leaflet as this makes clear it was very much about “winning over the population to radical left-wing ideas”

What Sort of Europe do we want?
The groups and individuals involved in this Grassroots Network are united by a vision of a better future, one without bosses or governments, be they in Dublin or Brussels; one in which all local communities are directly run by the people living in them and all workplaces by the people working in them; a future in which everyone has control over their own lives and an equal say in the decisions that affect them.

We are talking not just about receiving an equal share of what is produced, but also transforming the quality of life, doing away with long working hours and increasing free time. We struggle for a genuinely sustainable economy and an end to environmental policies in which every 'solution' must be corporate-led and profit-driven.

People like you all over Europe are fighting for the same things. We are taking to the streets not only to build our resistance in Ireland but to forge links throughout Europe. Tens of thousands of people in Ireland have already been involved in resisting the race for wealth that is capitalism, which robs so many of us of our voice, our dreams and our aspirations.” Full text

Agreeing the text did involve convincing some grassroots activists that this was the right approach but the mass distribution despite state intimidation shows that this argument was won. It is also the case that at a time when similar movements elsewhere were refusing to talk to the mainstream media the Dublin Grassroots Network (formed out of the Gathering to work on the EU summit) did this so well that we got our spokesperson on the Late Late Show. All this considerable and effective work carried out by the DGN with the express purpose of communicating with the population are simply invisible in James account but in reality consumed the bulk of DGN’s collective time & funding.

In James account convincing Grassroots activists to carry out activity aimed at addressing the general population is assumed to be either impossible or perhaps not worth the effort. Our actual experience was that yes while we needed to make the argument it was not hard to convince the majority that this was the best way to proceed. And that in doing so we greatly expanded the reach for the arguments that were being made, the WSM at the time could neither have distributed 50,000 leaflets nor got onto the Late Late. After the Mayday 2004 protests we even recruited a some of those who had favoured the more traditional ‘international riot bloc’ approach but who were convinced by the success of the popular approach in bringing out 1000’s of people after the cops had announced a de facto ban on the march.

It was our very success at making these arguments and leading on their implementation in the 1999-2004 period that was responsible for the large and sudden growth in numbers that took place at the end of this period. With person after person who joined the reason given for doing so was because they had been working alongside us and observed how we were able to collectively pull together to make sure that what needed to be argued and done to build the movement was carried through.

The real challenge - which is only clear in hindsight - is that the 1999-2003 period was a new situation were quite large numbers were radicalised by very radical politics in a time of prosperity and social partnership by international events. In most places this period ended in 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq - the very success at mobilising millions to march against the war just before it broke out served to demoralise the same millions when it turned out marching was ineffective at preventing war and that the leadership of the anti-war movements had no implementable alternative. The wave lasted another 14 or so months in Ireland because we were able to bring together a significant enough group of people to briefly provide a counter strategy for the anti-war movement around direct action at Shannon and then as that became marginalised to carry those people into one last effort around Mayday 2004. But the tide had retreated and it was only a question of time before we would be stranded, our real failure, and perhaps in the circumstances it was inevitable, was to prepare those new members for the low period of routine activity that was to come.

One, two many networks?

There is a second serious inaccuracy that needs to be challenged in James account at this point and this is that there were a sequence of projects that “flared up and faded away only to be resurrected under a different name.” This simply isn’t a correct understanding of what the projects were that James names and how they related to each other. Rather the Grassroots Gathering remained the main network from 2000 to 2006 (and still has an existence today - one was held in Galway in October 2012). The Gathering spun off different projects to deal with specific issues and events, this was the reality of what the Grassroots Network Against War (GNAW) was and the Dublin Grassroots Network (DGN).

GNAW was the national network which existed to organise action against the US military use of Shannon airport. DGN was limited to Dublin and existed to organise the 2004 Dublin Mayday protest and very briefly afterwards. Neither was a reincarantion of the other (indeed they actually over lapped in 2004) nor were either a reincarnation of the Grassroots Gathering itself which after all continued to meet and was the ‘parent’ network for both.

All these organisations were in fact a long running and somewhat successful experiment in the new form of organisation that more clearly emerged in the revolts of 2011, loose but broad networks. In terms of ‘preparing for the next war’ it was precisely that sort of organisational methodology that revolutionaries needed to be seeking to understand rather than the older more centralised forms that did exist in previous class wars but which had little influence in the 2011 revolts.

The argument can weakly be made that some four years later the Social Solidarity Network had some aspects of DGN but only if you ignore the time limited basis of what DGN was set up to achieve and the fact that the DGN was very successful in that limited goal. James also suggest the 1% Network belongs in that category but the 1% Network wasn’t set up to be libertarian at all but rather as a project between WSM and the left republican group eirigi. The only aspect of resurrection being perhaps that both the SSN and 1% Network also aimed at involving RAG & Seomra initially but they were such a minor component of the 1% Network that really its not a claim that holds. The idea that the 1% Network, the fourth organisations James named in this section can be described as the “the fourth or fifth iteration” of the same thing thus makes little sense when you pay any attention to the detail of the very different goals each had and the significant structural difference between the 1% Network and the rest.

Perhaps from the point of view of a less then interested outsider all these things looked similar enough to each other but that is to not understand what forces they involved and what purpose they had. When it comes to his failure to distinguish between the 1% Network, the SSN and DGN I think James is showing one of the major problems both of the text and his internal contributions at the time. The tendency to assume that he already understood what was being argued and to jump straight to offering a cogent but pretty irrelevant counter argument to his own misunderstanding. This becomes particularly visible when we examine the discussion of the 1% Network.

IV – Debate and the SSN

James account pivots around the first couple of years of the crisis and in particular around the short lived Social Solidarity Network (SSN) and the 1% Network. He presents a ‘majority’ position of engaging with the libertarian movement as winning out over a ‘minority’ position of working in the unions. I think the ‘majority’ ‘minority’ labels are intended as a witty if somewhat obscure reference to ‘Bolshevik’ ‘Menshevik’ divisions at the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) congress in 1903.

As I recall these discussions there wasn’t really clear factions on these questions and those who agreed or disagreed on particular debates seldom did so for the same reasons. There were certainly no declared formal factions. The labels are perhaps useful only for the purpose of polemical argument but here I think it has the negative impact of simplifying complex discussion in a way that leads to a rather weak parallel with what WSM activity in that period amounted to.

The appearances of James piece prompted me to go back and finish a review of the SSN that I had prepared a couple of years ago but abandoned. It describes what little the SSN amounted to in considerable detail.

But to start with the majority / minority positions sketched out by James is in itself a poor description of the reality of the internal debate. In fact the WSM Spring conference in 2009 had debated trying to get a national libertarian network similar to the Grassroots Gathering going to organise resistance to the crisis but that proposal had actually been voted down! At that point in time the ‘majority’ was the ‘minority’.

It was some time after this conference that the idea of a Dublin only network emerged, from the Dublin branch James was part of. But as is clear from the history of the SSN linked to above this never amounted to very much. A leaflet, a badly executed protest and a poster for that protest along with 3-4 meetings over four months was the sum total of the SSN. WSM involvement was pretty minimal for most of that time with only a bit of a peak around the SSN participation in the ICTU march on Nov 6th 2009. But even this amounted to no more then helping to distribute the leaflet and half a dozen members at a post march public meeting attended by abut 30 people.

This is important to establish because the SSN certainly didn’t suck in all available energy & resources from all 3 Dublin branches never mind the organisation nationally. It wasn’t a strategic direction coming from conference or even delegate council. Rather it was a minor initiative that emerged from one branch, was very experimental in form and only ever really involved much effort from a couple of the 30+ members on the books in Dublin at that time.

It is almost certainly the case that in the year in question Dublin members of WSM put several times the work that went into the SSN into workplace activity. Quite probably more WSM effort went into organising for the ICTU demonstration of February 2009 then went into the SSN in total. And certainly more work went into the organisation of the 24 November National public sector Strike where all of our members working in the public sector played significant roles in their branches.

As a crude measure there were 9 articles on the WSM site covering the Nov 24th strike and only 3 on the SSN in its entirety. I’d expect if you were to count workplace related articles for 2009 on the WSM site there would be between 10 and 30 times the figure for the SSN and that this is a reasonable picture of the ratio of actual effort that members put in. Arguably this effort went into preparation to ‘fight the last war’ – it was the lack of outcome from the union work that is more deserving of analysis rather than an overly long critique of the poorly resourced and minor attempt at innovation that was the SSN.

James then moves on to the discussion of what he perceives as the internal debate around the SSN. Here perhaps there is a clue to where these mistakes come from. He is keen to defend Alan “assuming the role of Cassandra within the organisation.” He goes on to say “Alan developed a reputation for negativity; … Moreover, he was direct and he upset people who perceived his attitude as personally antagonistic. On occasion he probably did go too far but for the most part his interventions were remarkably political. .. Alan developed a reputation for being a bruiser and the more he was perceived as such the more his political questions were side-stepped and his objections treated as a case of him being personally obstreperous. In retrospect, I am of the view that however direct Alan’s debating style was, he focused on political questions and that, ironically enough, his opponents tended to personalise the issue by focusing on his tone.”

Now the SSN proposal emerged from the branch James & Alan were members of and I think here we are seeing an illustration of how a lack of concern with the process of discussion and a sole focus on the political positions being advanced can lead you to some very wrong conclusions. An insistence on bringing up the same basic questions week after week and seeking to polarise discussions between extremes (‘majority’ ‘minority’) can very often have the effect of making a somewhat irrelevant sideshow take up a huge percentage of time at meetings and worse still suck in a large amount of people’s energy.

In this case not only did it disrupt the ability of that branch to carry out activity to the point where it was being gossiped about nationally but it also obviously created an incorrect impression of what the organisation as a whole was debating and working on. In my opinion it is very probable that a less polarised and more respectful internal culture in that branch at that time would have seen the relative balance between the effort going into the SSN (very little) and workplace organising (a lot) being much more visible. This in turn should have led to an emphasis on the important failure of this period, the ease with which the strike movement that closed 2009 was contained.

It’s another topic but organisationally we failed to deal with the awful dynamics in the branch until eventually it got to such a crisis point that the branch itself had to perform an intervention. It is probable that the failure to intervene earlier led to the resignation of at least one member from the WSM (who said she found the atmosphere too distressing) and at least 3 members of that branch invented excuses for why they had to transfer to other branches. Others stopped coming to meetings for a period. It’s really quite odd to see those dynamics held up as some sort of model.

One of the problems with the old left model is that idea that what is important is getting up and saying something as an end in itself. Internal debate in the WSM has generally avoided going down that road. Elsewhere at extremes it leads to the sort of unhealthy interventions all too common at public meetings and campaign organising meetings where 6 or 7 members of the same organisation will deliver what is basically the same point over and over. The method can achieve results in the sense of making it appear that whatever point the party concerned wanted to make was popular. And it can browbeat those who are not sure of the idea into silence. This can lead to bad decisions being adopted and will demoralise those who felt too intimidated to raise objections.

Anarchists with our recognition that process is often as important as the result reached should strongly discourage this approach to political discussion. The intervention model we need to encourage should be based much more around first listening to what people’s concerns are and then only once we are sure we actually understand them seeking to address those concerns.

V. ‘Scuffling with the cops’ & the 1% Network

The description of the work around the 1% Network shares many of the problems with the discussion around the SSN. The origins of the 1% Network are as James’s describes in the occasion when there were scuffles with Garda at the end of a SWP/Right to Work demonstration.

His presentation of this is however a little odd. He writes “The Guards whacked a few of them on the head and the incident got a fair amount of publicity in the media. So far, so ordinary. The SWP periodically engage in such stunts.” Well no actually. The SWP would certainly not have had any sort of reputation for scuffling with the guards (indeed apparently there was major internal displeasure in the SWP over this). But far more to the point the use of batons by the Garda at Dublin demonstrations was anything but routine and this was the first occasion in a long while that it had been directed at a ‘mass’ demonstration. The following Saturday the police attacked an eirigi occupation of Anglo Irish Bank, again with batons being used. These two incidents within days of each other were a significant break with Dublin policing methods which was why I thought it important we organised to demonstrate against police brutality at the follow up Right to Work protest.

The bulk of the Dublin WSM membership were not keen in taking part in Right to Work demonstrations because it was seen to add credibility to yet another dead end SWP front whose only real purpose was recruitment to the SWP. They also thought the demands of Right to Work were pretty poor. And initially it wasn’t clear how ‘official’ the attempt by the SWP members to ‘storm the Dail’ had been. Members were not too keen on accepting SWP stewarding where we felt that they were inexperienced and unpredictable in that sort of confrontational situation. All three reasons led us to put out a call for an ‘anti-capitalist bloc’ which would show solidarity in the face of Garda aggression but also allow us to be distinct from the Right to Work/SWP program and methods and not be obliged to be under the direction of their stewards.

We put out the call for this with Seomra with less than 36 hours notice. The call read “Last Tuesday Gardai used extendable steel batons against the heads of protesters trying to enter the Dail carpark resulting in at least five head injuries. On Saturday they again attacked an occupation of Anglo Irish Bank by eirigi. We’ve seen the state react in a similar fashion to resistance in Rossport, Mayday 2004 and Reclaim the Streets. It’s time to say Enough.”

What I would estimate as about 300 people took part – including just about every libertarian activist in Dublin, eirigi members and a large number of dissident republicans. In what seemed to be a confirmation that the nature of policing had changed the Garda (including the mounted unit and the helicopter) attempted to stop us marching – this is pretty much unheard of. They were unsuccessful in that attempt and after pushing through the badly organised Gardai cordon we had a short rally outside the Anglo Irish Bank HQ before marching down to join the main static demonstration at the Dail.

We held a second ‘Anti-capitalist’ bloc the following week, this time for logistical reasons called with eirigi alone, in part to demonstrate that we were not going to be intimidated into silence by this new policing. That was uneventful in that the Garda appeared to have abandoned their new aggressive tactics and when the SWP called yet another RtoW demonstration the following week we decided not to mobilise for it. It was small and passed off without incident.

Whatever was up in these weeks it was certainly a break with routine policing and one that needed the sort of measured response that the anti-capitalist bloc provided. A demonstration that we were not simply going to be intimidated off the street that did not make the mistake of becoming a mini riot between the tiny forces of the anarchists & republican left, and the police. It could have been that this was precisely what the Garda hoped to provoke in order to effectively isolate us from any potential mass movement. It was very noticeable throughout this period that the level of undercover/secret policing had increased, culminating in the ICTU march of December when the Garda had secret police disguised as demonstrators among our ranks.

Retrospectively the question of just what the Garda were up to in that period is interesting. It is possible that the relatively aggressive response to the eirigi Anglo occupation and the first anti-capitalist bloc were no more than the implementation of an order to ‘put manners’ on the left after the scuffle at the Dail gates. It does appear that in that period the state expected much more resistance to the cuts than emerged, stories were planted in the media about the riot squad training with petrol bombs being thrown at them etc.

The news story I wrote describing the 3rd RtoW event ended with “However we have to be wary of simply looking at building resistance as a question of moving from one stunt to the next. The capitalist assault is massive and can only be turned back by an organised and united working class response involving hundreds of thousands if not millions, most probably in the form of a general strike. The trade unions leaders have demonstrated they will argue and organize against such a response so building towards this requires a genuine united front, not just of the left but also of union branches, community organisations and campaign groups united around struggle and a desire to make the rich pay. It’s unfortunate that to date the left parties and individuals have only been interested in building fronts that they can control rather than building towards the eventual launch of such a united front at the point where it would be a real power rather than a paper tiger.”

It may be worth re-reading that paragraph a second time. In his account James presented me as the main voice of a ‘majority’ that wanted a turn to stunts performed by the libertarian movement rather than mass work. That paragraph clearly says something else all together. This wasn’t a one off, a couple of weeks earlier on the 12th of May I submitted the following amendment for WSM National Crisis to be inserted into our ‘Capitalist Crisis’ position paper "We will argue for the construction of a genuine united front of struggle against the cuts on a non electoralist basis that involves left organisations, union branches, community organisations and campaigning groups. This should be based around a common set of slogans against and to reverse the cuts. We will proceed by getting such individuals and organisations to sign up to a call for a founding conference of such a united front which will be open to all who agree that the wealthy rather than workers must pay for the crisis. Such a conference should only be held if and when it has achieved substantial backing from a range of organisations."

In order to ignore what was actually being argued for in this period James uses the 1% Network in a similar fashion to the way he earlier used the SSN. Like the SSN the 1% Network was a fairly minor set of events aimed this time at exploring the possibility of common work with the section of the republican movement around eirigi. A number of us had worked in Shell to Sea with some eirigi members for a couple of years and had developed good working relations with them. We shared a similar approach on the questions of direct action v passive protest and confrontation (although eirigi as a whole was a little prone to stunts).

Politically eirigi was interesting to us as alone among the republican splits from Sinn Fein they didn’t simply seek a return to military conflict or just see the mistakes of that movement coming from bad leaders. Instead they saw the first task as building mass opposition and saw the top down leadership methods of the IRA and Sinn Fein as a problem. Clearly this opened them up to the anarchist critiques of leadership and in Ireland where the republican movement rather then the far left has tended to be the source of mass upheaval it made sense to encourage developments in that direction.

In the aftermath of the anti-capitalist blocs a few WSM delegates sat down with a few eirigi representatives to discuss the possibility of more formalised joint work. Out of this meeting came the proposal for the 1% Network. From reading James’s account it becomes very clear that he simply wasn’t listening to the internal WSM discussion about why we should do this. In his account James says he wasn’t keen on this work because what he terms the minority “thought it an utter waste of time: it was isolationist: the only people who partook in it were dissident republicans and libertarian sympathisers, possibly the two groups in Ireland least likely to engender a positive reaction from the public. And insofar as the public even noticed its existence we thought it likely to alienate them; the only way it could gain publicity was through scuffling with the Guards.”

Yet these were the very reasons why we moved from the anti-capitalist bloc with its emphasis on Garda generated confrontation to the 1% Network whose emphasise was purely on imaginative propaganda. We understood that it was easy for the state to isolate the elements involved in the anti-capitalist bloc and in particular we wanted to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. We’d no interest in small scale scuffles between us and the Garda, indeed we discussed and looked at ways to minimise that possibility. Our mission was very simple – to try and do what we could to move public discussion of the crisis away from the idea that ‘the unemployed’ or ‘public sector workers’ had to pay to the idea that the richest 1% had to pay. This we thought was a very simple concept that if taken up on a popular basis would transform public understanding of the crisis.

At the start one of the WSM members (possibly Mark) suggested that maybe the 1% Network was the wrong name. It had been taken from the headline item of a Bank of Ireland report that stated that 1% of the population owned 34% of the wealth. Mark thought that maybe instead our name should refer to the other 99%. We didn’t go with that idea but in retrospect it is very clear that rather than being an exercise in self marginalisation as James suggests we’d sort of stumbled across the core popular message that Occupy built around a year later, that of the 99% and the 1%. A message that in its 2011 expression saw some 2200+ camps being set up across the globe.

Internally the 1% Network was never seen as an alternative to the United Front or indeed as something that could become it. Rather it was simply a way of mobilising more then our limited numbers to get out the core 1% / 99% message while we identified organisations and individuals who could initiate a United Front. The network was quite successful at what it set out to do, getting a good bit of media coverage of the core message and bringing increasing numbers out culminating in as many as 700 people marching with the 1% Network at the massive ICTU demonstration in December.

Unfortunately we were unable to build on this as this was also the period in which the bubbling crisis in the WSM dragged the organisation into paralysis. My request that we put an article in the paper arguing for the United Front was not acted on. Much to my surprize Workers Solidarity 116 instead published that July what read like a thinly disguised critique based around the misunderstanding of the Anti-Capitalist Bloc under the title ‘Thinking About Anarchism: Storming the Dáil’ complete with a picture of the bloc.

The 1% Network like the SSN before it only lasted a few months – its last activity being the large bloc mobilised for the ICTU march in December. There were a few reasons for this, but principally the WSM saw a spate of resignations, including those of ‘the minority’ that prompted months of internal soul searching and reconstruction and eirigi switched tack back to a very traditional nationalism of trying to build opposition to the visit of the British Queen that May. This was also the period in which the Croke Park agreement was debated and voted for in the unions, really the moment at which the faint flicker of the possibility of mass resistance was extinguished. In the context of the emergence of Occupy around half a year later there is a ‘what if’ that hangs in the air here which again points to an organisational failure of being not innovative enough than the reverse.

VI. Mass struggle in a small space – Shell to Sea

Let us now move on to James’s discussion of the WSM and ‘Direct Action’ . This whole section seems dominated by James arguing against his own misunderstandings. Here he takes problems that exist in the anarchist movement elsewhere and assumes that because some things that happened in Ireland have some resemblance to those problems that therefore they are those problems reproduced by the WSM in Ireland. In particular the idea that ‘direct action’ means tiny groups of activists performing stunts.

This is encapsulated in the sentence “The most minor stunt (holding a banner on the roof of Shell’s headquarters; chaining oneself to a stairs in a government ministry) was interpreted as direct action.” To unpick this bit by bit. Firstly the two examples he chooses are not as presented by James typical but rather two isolated stunts separated by a few years. Both were in connection with the same struggle – that around Oil & Gas Exploration and the imposition of the pipeline on the community at Rossport. This was a major area of activity for the WSM for several years from 2005/6 and an area that James and other members of the ‘minority’ were never very keen on. Interested readers in a balanced picture of what has actually happened in that struggle can consult the vast archive (120 articles) of WSM analysis and reportage.

The problem here is that in this fragment James both misrepresents how these particular protests were reported on by the WSM and by implication suggests they were typical of the broader Shell to Sea campaign. Neither of these protests were seen as ‘Direct Actions’ but rather as stunts designed to draw press attention. These are not just errors of detail but show a fundamental misunderstanding of both the internal dynamics of a campaign that was central to WSM activity and even stranger a failure to recognise an implementation of WSM strategy in relation to that campaign.

The first of the referred to stunts was the brief occupation of Corrib House carried out early in 2007 involving WSM & eirigi members. It was designed to publicise what came to be called ‘The Great Oil & Gas Giveaway’. Our reportage at the time didn’t even use the term Direct Action once. This particular example in fact shows the opposite of what James presents. It was aimed at making the Shell to Sea struggle more popular with the general population by expanding the issue from the injustices being imposed on the small community in Rossport to the loss of 100’s of billions in oil & gas revenue that could have been used to fund all our health and education.

The second event James refers to happened over three years later in October of 2010 and was again not referred to as a ‘Direct Action’ anywhere in our report. It was a small Shell to Sea stunt designed to get media coverage of the 100th day local fisherman Pat O’Donnell was spending in prison. It achieved that objective but its a very strange minor event to single out for mention.

In terms of the larger narrative of wishing to prepare for yesterdays wars rather than tomorrow he also ignores the important role PR stunts have come to play in shaping popular consciousness & overcoming standard mass media barriers. Whether or not you like that reality small group stunts that transform public opinion have become a central part of what changes mass consciousness whether that be Greenpeace anti-whaling voyages, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi that kicked off revolt in Tunisia or indeed an initially small group of activists camping out in Tahir square.

Of the three only Greenpeace anti-whaling has a remote resemblance to genuine direct action – and only remote because while the Rainbow Warrior could limit the operation of a single whaling vessel all the others could work. It is best understood instead as part of the process of transforming the public image of whales from the feared beast of Moby Dick to something you’d bring your children out in a small whale watching boat in the hope of getting alongside. A transformation between such extremes is no small feat.

James presentation of these two consciousness shaping events as false ‘direct actions’ is all the stranger when you consider the history of WSM argument within the Shell to Sea campaign on just this issue. We went into it fully aware of the dangers of small groups of activists substituting themselves for a mass campaign through pulling stunts and calling them direct actions. We successfully argued against just such an approach from the start of our involvement. We argued instead that the role of activists was to encourage the community to take mass direct action and to aid them in doing so.

This is another argument that was won – the numbers of people living in the area is small but the road blockades etc we actually reported on as direct action as the struggle peaked in 2007 involved a large percentage of people from the local community. It was really only much later, after prolonged repression had beaten most of the local community down, that the tendency to substitute small scale solidarity activist direct actions for mass ones came to the fore. This was probably inevitable in the circumstances but it is entirely false to claim the WSM advocated such a strategy from the start when in fact we argued against it.

The long, complex and not yet concluded Shell to Sea campaign can not be covered in detail here. There were certainly mistakes made and things that could be done better. But in this section James is entirely unjust to the WSM members who put considerable efforts into arguing the exact opposite of what he claims and who successfully convinced people of those arguments. For seven years WSM members in the campaign have been found promoting mass direct action and emphasising mass communication through exposing the Great Oil & Gas Giveaway in order to convince the broader population. Again I don’t think James is being dishonest here. He was never very keen on Shell to Sea and as elsewhere this translates into not paying attention to what WSM members were actually doing and saying.

But he is doing a massive disservice to the WSM and individual WSM members with the inaccurate picture he presents. He writes for instance that “What was notably absent from our aims in of these campaigns was the desire to win over large numbers of people, or at least the willingness to do the type types of things that might make such an aim remotely likely.” Here he not only misunderstands the roles of stunts in doing just this he also ignores the central role we played in arguing for and helping do the work of creating the 120,000 plus copies of 4 page leaflets that described in detail what the Oil & Gas Giveaway was and which have been distributed by Shell to Sea activists all over Ireland. If that is not “the type of thing” which “might make such an aim remotely likely” it is hard to think what is but it is entirely absent from his account. Instead two minor stunts are given a prominence that in any objective history of the campaign might not even be footnoted. And without any realisation of the positive role such stunts play in the current & future wars where a single image going viral on Facebook can reach vast numbers of people that a leaflet would not.

The Shell to Sea campaign is drawing towards a close and it will be important that the WSM produce a detailed analysis of that that struggle and our role in it. But that analysis will only be useful if based on what was actually done and what was actually argued. It is far more useful to examine why the right approaches on the direct action and mass communication work may not have delivered quite what was hoped than to pretend they were never attempted in the first place. And as with the previous examples there is perhaps an argument that we were being too ‘last war’ in what we were arguing.

VII. Beyond the call for the general strike

James opens his section on the unions by suggesting the WSM union activity in the 2008-2010 period consisted of “criticising the union leadership or putting up posters calling for a general strike”. As elsewhere this is a very selective picture that might be good for polemic but does not reflect reality. The “posters calling for a general strike” were presumably either the ‘Organise Your Workplace: Strike to win’ posters produced ahead of the March 30th demonstration or the single one off sticker run done in advance of the mass ICTU demonstration in December. The first was a run off less than 200 stapled up around poles (a couple of hours work), the second was the night before the demonstration when all of 400 stickers were put up. Half of them read “ICTU WON’T WORKERS MUST! Organise for a general strike” the other half reading “General Strike Now”.

About an hours work by three members was required for either of these activities, probably less than 1/10th of time that was spent in any month by Dublin WSM member at local union meetings in this period. The context for the use of that slogan was the political understanding that the depth of cuts that were coming could only be fought (at the very least) by a general strike. This was identified as one useful concept that a group with 40 or so active members could try and inject into the demonstrations of 60-140,000 of that period – a way of making an argument reaching beyond their immediate local union meetings but hardly as a substitute for those meetings. As is clear from the slogan (ICTU won’t etc) it certainly wasn’t a demand directed at the union leadership – rather we argued that workers themselves needed to ‘organise your workplace’.

So its simply not good enough to suggest that saying that workers would need to organise a general strike to defeat austerity was either our main activity with regard to the unions or even our strategy. In reality the poster & sticker were both more in the realm of making an argument than organising at all – hence the general method of distribution. This general message that a general strike would be required to stop austerity but that workers would have to organise this through the unions rather than calling on ICTU to do so was repeated in numerous articles in Workers Solidarity and on leaflets.

To make the mischaracterisation of activity worse James then writes of the ‘minority’ that “Following Alan MacSimoin, we certainly didn’t think that the union base was radical nor that the union leadership were selling them out”. This sentence is clearly intended to suggest this rather obvious position was not the position of the ‘majority’.

Yet in fact this was and is the position of the WSM as a whole and has been for as long as I’ve been a member! We have never had a position that the leadership of the unions were holding back a membership constantly keen to take militant action. In general we recognise that most of the time the leadership are to the left of the membership – a membership that after all mostly voted for Fianna Fail. Of course this is a simplification, the radicalism of the leadership is the radicalism of singing Joe Hill after a few pints have been downed. And the conservatism of the membership may well be swept aside by the reality of entering into struggle. A full exploration of those contradictions is beyond the scope of this piece.

Critiques of the leadership were necessary for the opposite reason. They were needed because the membership tended to assume that the leadership were going to be too militant and lead them out on pointless strikes. This might run against standard left rhetoric but given how little contact most members had with their unions before the crisis and the way most of the media portrays unions it is not perhaps so surprizing. Locally I remember our branch official at our first union mass assembly of this period going to considerable lengths to reassure the membership that the leadership were not going to call a strike on a whim – that they could be trusted to be sensible.

The reality was that ICTU was desperately trying to get any deal that could see a return to partnership. This unfortunately was all most union members also hope for – the November 24th strike was unpopular in many workplaces because of the loss of a days pay. This was of course a very short sighted attitude considering that the pay cuts already imposed at that point in time amounted to the equivalent of 18+ days pay a year for most members – but still it was an attitude we constantly ran up against. Criticisms expressed of the union leadership by union members were almost never that they were too cautious, rather it was that their negotiation or PR skills were not up to scratch,

The portrayal of WSM union activity and what we advocated reflects none of the depth of our experiences in this period. A casual reader could be forgiven for coming away from James’s account with the idea that our activity consisted of most of us going around shouting in the streets about a general strike while Alan and Gregor alone were involved in branch activity. In the period under question this is a very, very long way from reality.

The crisis meant that from late 2008 until the voting through of the Croke Park Agreement in early 2010 a brief window opened in the public sector. The collapse of partnership and the depth of the cuts meant that in many places the grassroots of the unions were forced back into life by these circumstances. In Dublin this space allowed at least another 6 members to play significant local roles in that burst of activity. At least 4 of those 6 ended up on branch committees, and in one case that involved the recall of the entire previous branch committee and its almost complete replacement. In other cases inactive branches had to be first brought back to life. Croke Park put the cap back on the bottle but even so we saw a number of members reach positions of local influence. It’s no exaggeration to say this was true of pretty much every active WSM member who was a public sector worker in Dublin.

There are many interesting lessons to be learned about what we actually did in that period, what worked, what didn’t work and where the gaps were in our preparation. For instance it is often assumed that influence in a workplace can only be earned through a long hard slog of routine work over years. But actually lack of activity at the base of the unions meant that many union members assumed those with positions had the same line as the leadership – even when they were in fact far left militants who did not. But James doesn’t even attempt to pull together such lessons, he just presents the ‘majority v minority’ position described above that seems to owe more to lazy sterotypes of ‘typical lefties’ then our actual.

Towards the end of the period under discussion I tried to pull together the lessons as I saw them in the article “Capitalist crisis and union resistance in Ireland” published in the 1st issue of the Irish Anarchist review. That piece is pretty self critical of our actual preparation pre crisis without resorting to the same level of parody. The argument about the advantages & disadvantages of a ‘long march through the unions’ in times of quiet as preparation for such times of crisis is something I want to return to. Retrospectively I think that piece is too conservative and guilty of arguing the case for better trenches, it is only in researching this that I’ve gained a fuller understanding of how much progress was made in the brief period available. Our problem was much more the problem of our small numbers, and the small numbers of the radical left in general, meaning that this influence was gained in far too few union branches to have any real hope of influencing the direction of the union movement as a whole.

A final note. Entirely absent from James’s account is any mention of the Independent Workers Union (IWU). This despite the fact that for much of the period covered it has been a major focus for the WSM with members playing central roles in the organising of the IWU nationally, in Cork and in Dublin. I don’t go into the detail of that here as my involvement was minimal to non-existent but that work has involved hundreds if not thousands of hours, certainly very more than that brief poster & sticker run James presented as typical.

VIII. Tests of Membership

James’ presentation of the recruitment debate is another example of how he seems to have assumed in advance what the counter arguments would be and as a result didn’t pay that much attention to what was actually said. The core of my objection had no connection with a fear of a “more old-fashioned interpretation of Platformism” – I’m not even sure what that might mean. Rather it was that the issues James put forward as the key tests for suitability for membership were all ones based around an intellectual understanding of obscure historical events and theory.

Aileen, myself and others felt that the ability to implement organisational methods internally and in external campaigns should be given a high value if we were to avoid the obvious trap of only recruiting geeky intellectuals with a strong interest in arguing aspects of the Spanish revolution or Russian revolution. As those with such interests are disproportionately university educated males our concerns were in part based on a fear of making the organisation less reflective of the working class.

So we wanted any test of membership suitability to account for practical organisational experience. Such experience is every bit as valuable for an anarchist organisation but can indeed be better understanding how anarchist processes work and what the dangers of authoritarian processes are. Perhaps most importantly of all people whose experience is gained in this manner rather than mostly through book learning will often have the skills to do a much better job at convincing others of the reasons to use anti-authoritarian methods in struggles.

As far as we were concerned any membership suitability tests had to measure a range of skills that were useful to the WSM and the more abstract intellectual stuff should be part of a post-membership eduction program rather then a pre-membership requirement. It’s useful for an organisation like the WSM to contain members able to argue the intricate details of the 1921 Kronstadt insurrection or the 1937 Maydays in Barcelona with others on the left. But such detailed knowledge is not something that should be a requirement for joining. In effect it would have moved us back towards being a small cadre organisation directed at making arguments to the existing left.

It also has to be said that unless carefully guarded against historical knowledge will tend to strongly produce a ‘planning for the last war’ attitude. Everyone tends to read things along their lines of expertise. The tactics of the next war will almost certainly be clearer for someone involved in the small skirmishes of today than someone with an exhaustive knowledge of how the CNT of 1936 was created. Detailed knowledge of old battles can encourage the tendency to apply outdated arguments in new situations. In reality full realisation of what is needed for the future requires a rather skillful combination of both the major but dated lessons of the past and the best practise of the present. Brought together in a way that is almost certainly only possible though a collective discussion of a large and varied enough set of people to encompass the knowledge and experiences required.

Another female member was very concerned that the proposed process (something that sounded more or less like a job interview) would strongly select for people who were less intimidated by such a selection process – again a tilt towards university educated males. I’ve no memory of James ever making any attempt to address these concerns people had about the effects implementation of his proposal would have on the make up of the WSM. Instead supporters of his proposed changes focused on anecdotes about members they considered unsuitable. Two of the three examples they used had left WSM by the time of this debate but it was noticeable that while only 15% of our membership at that point in time was female 66% of these supposedly unsuitable members were women. Confirming not some sexism of those making the arguments but a possible end result of valuing some skills more than others.

What does the word socialism mean?

James actually repeats one of these anecdotes about the one of these three who remains a member today when he writes “one member notoriously snorted “We’re socialists?” at a branch meeting.” In reality this was simply another example of what happens when you don’t try and understand why people are saying something and just assume knowledge based on history. In this case the member wasn’t using the term ‘socialist’ in the way James assumes, that is to mean the broad body of the left that anarchism was part of from the 1860’s, but rather in the more narrow but not uncommon use of the term today to mean the likes of the old left Labour, Communist and Trotskyist parties. Such usage is not that uncommon amongst activists who have come to anarchism though paths other than the left parties or reading anarchist history.

It is true that there was also nervousness about the idea of a single gate keeper who would judge all such prospective members. But here too this nervousness was based on the realisation that most people are good at communicating with those that are similar to them and not so good at communicating with those that are different. A single gatekeeper would have the result of selecting people who were like the gatekeeper as being suitable for membership and rejecting those that were not.

Most of all though many of us thought the existing membership system wasn’t broken, and that even with the anecdotes there was only a genuine problem in one of the three stories – which was in any case rapidly dealt with. In the period we are talking of around 100 people joined the WSM, one mistake is not a significant problem. Trying to create a system that is water tight in every single case will almost always introduce negative consequences that are considerably worse in impact then the occasional unsuitable person becoming a member for a brief period.

Some time after James had resigned the changes he had introduced were scrapped (leading to the return to the WSM of another member who had resigned on their adoption) and an entirely new departure taken on the entire membership question. Retrospectively not only do I feel James' position was wrong but that it was answering the wrong set of problems / question. In effect it sought to return us to the undeclared cadre organisation of the 1990’s and preparation for the last war. What is needed is something significantly different.

IX Planning for the future?

So if the answer is not the equivalent of a ‘build better trenches’ preparation for the last war what is it? I’ve been exploring that question since the mid 1990’s, most often on the basis of looking at what seemed to be the most significant experiments currently available. In the mid 1990’s that was the Zapatista’s, from 2000 to 2004 it was the networks that emerged around the summit protests. In the early years of the crisis to 2009/10 it was a return to more traditional union organisation and the attempt to generate a general strike, by 2011 it was the emergence of the new politics of camp based street protest in the period from Tahir to Occupy. As I have already suggested understanding these moments may be more important in preparing for the future than an understanding of the minute detail of the Russian or Spanish Revolutions. Which is not to dismiss the importance of those, just to recognise that they happened a long long time away in conditions very different from those we face today.

Apart from the articles I’ve written on the topic of revolutionary organisation over the years I’ve also pushed a number of initiatives internal to the WSM – some of which either have or had the potential to transform our practise. The reality of such schemes is that they are easy to formulate in the abstract but far harder to make concrete and in particular to move from the situation where you can win a vote at conference for their implementation to where you also have sufficient ‘buy in’ from the membership to implement. The nature of our organisation is that most of the time there is far more potentially useful work to by done than we have the time to do it which means we tend to over commit and in such circumstances individuals are more inclined to first perform the familiar tasks they know they can do well.

In 2008 one of these proposals was passed at conference as a new section of the Our Perspectives policy to be titled ‘10 year goals’. James, in a sentence that almost seems designed to make it sound ludicrous, mis-summarises these as “It was proposed by Andrew and adopted with some debate at our Summer Conference in 2005 and entailed a series of ambitious goals to be achieved by 2010, including the establishment of some 80 WSM branches(!), many libertarian social centres, libertarian union networks and more.”

There are a couple of important factual errors here, the motion was passed in 2008 and not 2005. And it was a 10 year goal looking forward to 2018 rather than a five year one ending in 2010. At the time in 2008 we had five branches so the idea that we could double that number every 30 months seemed like an ambitious rather than crazy goal. Today after five years of the crisis things look rather different but that is the nature of all organisation – you surge forward for a while and then get knocked back and have to build anew.

The first error probably arose as I’d been making the argument for setting such goals for some time, back in 2005 I raised the idea as part of an educational at one of the Dublin branch meetings and explained why in a follow up post that read in part “We need a five year plan because we need a collectively agreed document that we can then judge all our political work against. Pushing papers through doors makes a lot more sense if it is part of a collective plan to build a branch in an area, a plan that also includes local meetings and activity. And if that is the first step in a wider collective plan to establish a number of such branches then it makes more sense still. What’s more you also have some sort of measure that means at the end of a year or two we can collectively step back and ask ‘well did that actually work – was it worthwhile?”

What was actually passed in late 2008 carried the concept of goal setting (I still consider this useful for the reasons outlined above) but very much in the context of trying to understand and begin experiments with the new network forms of organisation as applied to the workplace and to the neighborhood. Note I deliberately used the geographic terms neighborhood rather than the more familiar but imprecise term ‘community’.

Retrospectively its a pity we didn’t adopt these at the end of the summit protest period in 2004 as it appears quite likely if we had pursued them we would have established the first workplace networks and neighborhood centres by the time the crisis appeared in 2008. We would now have some evidence as to whether or not such methods would have shifted the balance in either the unions (where an education sector network was probably realisible) or a little later with regard to the household tax in neighboorhoods. As it was without this preparation we found ourselves relatively powerless to influence the direction of struggle outside our own union branches beyond putting out the ‘ICTU Won’t, Workers Must Call a General Strike’ calls that James focused on in his discussion of our union activity.

Rightly or wrongly the collective decision that was taken in the aftermath of being able to do little about the crisis was to scrap the entire short term section of our perspective and replace it with a description of what had happened – which means the concepts of the goals will now need to be re-debated. We also however agreed a new membership structure and methodology of engaging with our broad periphery although once more with this there is a significant gap between getting something passed and getting enough ’buy-in’ for its implementation. That sort of shift is however one of the radical changes we need to make in breaking with the traditional way the left approaches organisation.

X. Some internal details

Mass organisation or platformist minority

I think James mischaracterises the proposals around the 10 year plan and informal shifts in practise because he is looking at them through his ‘last war’ lens and sees poles labelled ‘mass organisation’ and what he terms a ‘Bakunist strategy/Platformism’. As an aside I think he misunderstands Bakunin’s views on that organisational question. I would present this shift as a reality of the networked world which has so transformed that polarity that it no longer describes what it once did and its hard to debate using those old terms without confusion.

The new reality is a long discussion I’ve explored elsewhere but in brief I think the new form of revolutionary organisation will be one that continues to have a smallish core of militants but very much more porous barriers between members, supporters and contacts. You might call that ‘Platformism for the 21st Century’ and you can argue it is actually quite compatible with the organisation methods Bakunin argued in the 19th. But I’m not sure of the value of involving ourself in the argument in that manner as opposed to making the case from current experience and first principles.

Using the old terminology for a moment though I’m not aware of any WSM member who suggested that the WSM should or could become a mass organisation – that is a trade union or federation of community organisations. Nor did anyone even suggest that we should simply become some sort of libertarian network, the sort of transitional organisation even Bakunin advocated should exist to allow the small anarchist nuclues an influence multiplier in the mass organisations of the class. Despite having quite a long section asserting this to be the case James provides no actual examples of that argument being made.

I suspect his misunderstanding must flow from his concept of what made a ‘good member’ that we have already discussed above. That is James views the core of militants as being ideologically determined through study and so saw the concept of including those whose views had primarily been formed through struggle as a shift towards wanting to turn the WSM into a mass organisation. In practise though we have seen those whose ideology was formed through study far more likely to shift away from anarchism (and we are about to see why) while those whose anarchism was more experiential have tended to both remain anarchists and WSM members.

But as above I’m not sure how useful it is to conduct a defence of the WSM based on these old organisational terms – terms whose time has at least to some extent passed. Not am I 100% confident that it makes more sense to try and retain the WSM as an organisation while transforming our methodology to the new methods. We could instead decide to use our resources to bring together those already using these methods to launch something new that will reform a core based only in a small part around our existing collective skills. The WSM has a proud history but the organisation is not an end in itself. We could decide, as other organisations have in the past, that a process of dissolution and reformation makes more sense than keeping this particular brand alive.

Delegate Council

James starts his discussion on what he saw as the problems with WSM delegate council right after he explains why he had resigned from the WSM. This makes a lot of sense in that his argument in this section is not so much that DC didn’t do what the WSM as an anarchist organisation wanted it to but more that it didn’t do what he thought it should. He wanted it to be a sort of officer board setting the political direction of the organisation. We saw it more as an administration body supervising what he terms “trifling administration issues” and also being the point at which decisions that needed to be made between conferences could be made on the basis of mandated and recallable delegates.

I’m not claiming that DC works perfectly and it certainly took some time to get going but really it continues to fulfill the role we desire of it – oversight and short term decision making. Beyond that I’m not at all convinced that the old concept of centralised decision making across all topics and areas of activity in a single body makes sense in today’s world but lets return to that later.

In my opinion, and he may well agree, the real source of James’s frustration was that he was on a political trajectory that was taking him away from anarchism and the vast majority of the rest of the organisation were not interested in following him. That trajectory becomes clearest in this section, no where clearer than where he talks about who was a DC delegate and says “many did not have a particularly good capacity for considering questions of general political strategy abstracted from day-to-day concerns and issues that were particularly emotive for them .. Some people just weren’t as good at thinking politically as others .. the intellectual quality of the delegates wasn’t supposed to matter all that much. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it did matter.”

It’s almost impossible not to read into this an intellectual acceptance of the division of people into order givers and order takers that lies at the heart of class society. Which in its left form leads to authoritarian organisation on behalf of the ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ who, as here, are supposedly incapable of political decision making. It’s perhaps no surprise that in the final couple of paragraphs that follow this James proceeds to write off anarchism. This attitude after all is exactly what divides anarchism from the rest of the left.


I – Surf's up Dude

Revolutionary organisations can shape the direction of class struggle but for the most part that do not create it. There is not some flat terrain on which the arguments within and between revolutionary organisations play out until eventually one discovers the right answer and moves forward. Events are not the back drop against which these arguments are played out, rather what arguments occur and which win out are largely determined by events.

At this point I want to pivot away from the error correction and alternative interpretation portion of this text. It was necessary to write that section as otherwise James’s account is liable to be treated as a history of the WSM from 2000-2010 rather than his subjective recall and interpretation. As part of that it gives a lot of space to very minor initiatives and no mention of major ones. The SSN receives a lot of space, the IWU none. If we ever get around to producing a history of the WSM I doubt the SSN would receive much more than a passing mention.

There is a second and more fundamental problem that is fundamental in understanding what I want to move on too. That is that James’s account is quite ahistoric. The events of the period from 2000-2010 are no more than a backdrop against which James has the various actors deliver their lines. It is the lines that determine the history of the WSM, this alone makes possible the central aspect of the SSN as a pivot around which his story is made to turn.

This is I think the wrong approach. In my opinion our history is understood better by moving the history of the period itself to the foreground. Rather than being a history determined by ‘who said what’ it is a history that opens with the summit protests in Prague, Genoa and elsewhere, protests that like it or not that shaped a new generation of activists. It is a period which a closes with the crisis and (lack of) resistance that saw many of that generation drop out of consistent involvement in struggle or in a minority of cases rapidly shift their political and organisational views. The main story of 2009 is not the sideshow of the SSN but the build up to the 24th November strike and the subsequent retreat in 2010 to the Croke Park Agreement.

If we think of struggle as waves approaching a shore line then we can say struggle, like the waves is always there but also that it varies considerably and is not particularly predictable. There are of course calm days and there are storms but even on a calm day some waves may be considerably greater than others. Storms can’t generally be predicted years in advance even if we strive to understand the conditions that give rise to them. And sometimes massive storms can blow up suddenly, seemingly from no where.

The revolutionary organisation has a resemblance to a new surfer who finds themselves unable to resist the call of the sea. In the periods of calm they have to make the best use of the small waves that they can, aiming to choose the biggest of them to launch on, building up to the skills needed to stand for at least a few moments and to be carried as far into the shore as possible. The game in those times is choosing which of the waves to try, not because you think one of those tiny waves will suddenly grow into a monster but because that is the only way to move from theory to practise, to gain the sense of balance and timing that will be essential for success in a heavy sea. You can’t learn to surf through reading on the beach, you have to experience being tossed around by the waves.

On such a calm day the observer on the breach will probably see the surfer and not the sea as the spectacle. The attempts to stand on such small waves, perhaps followed quite soon by a fall, will be the point of interest in the scene. Our surfer may well appear something of a pathetic figure, all togged out with wet-suit and board on waves that a nine year old child might well jump through. People strolling the beach might well point and laugh at a character who appears to be taking themselves far too seriously. But whatever they try our surfer cannot simply wish big waves into existence, they can only work with what is there, hoping that the skills honed will have some relevance once the swell transforms.

Surfing movies often climax with a scene where our hero tries to take on some impossibly big wave, something as big as a couple of houses that rushes towards a rock lined shore with impossible pent up energy and fury. Like our surfing hero the revolutionary organisation waits decades for the arrival of just such a wave. When it arrives it is a question of taking whatever skills have been picked up and trying like hell to gain the crest of the wave and stay on it as long as possible.

Or we might decide we are not yet ready to take on such a monster and paddle back to shore, disillusioned by the knowledge it will be a long long time, if ever, before we see a wave so big again. We may be desperate and throw every skill we have learnt and every ounce of energy we have built up into trying only to fail and get wiped out in the process. But we can’t choose when the big wave arrives, we can only keep on eye on the forecasts and aim to be ready when it does.

James’s account reduces the problem of how to be ready for that wave to who said what during a discussion on the beach about what the best board might be and what thickness of wet suit is required. The huge storm that hit with the collapse of Leman Brothers Sept 15 2008 and which sent out Tsunami level waves across the worlds ocean is a minor backdrop in his account rather than the main event. Those waves hit different parts of the world at different times, in many places ‘the big one’ arrived in 2011, and in some, at least for a while revolutionaries managed to surf them and huge changes happened. The disappointment of James’s account is the failure to make the pivot the arrival of the biggest wave in Ireland on November 24th and to instead focus on the various arguments on the beach prior to that point.

That is in terms of a good critical history of the WSM in the first decade of the 21st century the key question is how could the organisation have failed so badly as to almost not notice the size of the wave bearing down on it and worse still be distracted by trivial debates about ‘activism’ or ‘lifestylism’. Most members in 2009 were very resistant to the proposal that the organisation might need to move onto a war footing, just as most people at the 2008 Grassroots Gathering in Cork had been similarly resistant. The few voices that cried ‘shut up and look at the size of the fucking waves’ were ignored or perhaps quietly sniggered at.

In retrospect its clear that in any case neither the WSM nor anyone else on the Irish left was remotely approaching the level of preparedness needed to have a hope at successfully surfing that wave in to the beach. Almost certainly if we had made a serious attempt at doing so we would have been wiped out. Those of us who had taken to the water quietly paddled back to the beach once we had realised this.

The 10 year goals discussed in section 9 were intended as a training guide that could take the organisation from the level of skill & fitness with which we could competently surf the waves of a small swell to the monsters we would need to deal with when that ‘once in a lifetime’ storm of class struggle broke out. It was an early attempt to study the new emerging network forms of organisation and imagine how a revolutionary organisation like the WSM might study, interact with and prepare these for the moment when transformation becomes a possibility.

A year would never have been enough so even in terms of alternate realities it matter little at the end of the day that the 13 months before Nov 24 2009 didn’t really see the organisation seize on these goals and start to build towards them. In 2009 we face the same problem we would have faced in 1969, “If I was trying to go there I wouldn’t start from here.’ But nevertheless there is a lot to be gained from an analysis of why we were not ready, what weaknesses we suffered from and what, along with the successes elsewhere, this tells us about what a modern revolutionary organisation should look like.

That is the real challenge or James’s text. The errors in his account are sufficient to make any direct reading of his lessons suspect. The route out is not the neo-electoralist reformism of the ULA, which at best to my mind follows the ‘first time as tragedy, second time as farce’ route of the Scottish Socialist Party. The challenge is in the more fundamental underpinning of his text, the sense that our experiences demonstrate that the methods of the WSM and perhaps anarchism in general cannot achieve what we set out to. Here, in these most broad terms, he is I believe correct . If so far I have seemed to defend the actions of the past it is solely to establish an accurate base from which to critique those same actions – one that can be used to start to uncover the real outline of what a revolutionary organisation should look like in the modern networked age.

II – A return to the cadre?

Looking back to a supposed golden years of the WSM in the 1990’s when a small undeclared cadre was able to have an impact way beyond its numbers on the left in Ireland, in social struggles and on the international anarchist movement has, as we have seen, the problem of missing the negative side of that organisational structure. Which is why I’d reject any idea of the WSM in its current form seeking a route back to that unstated cadre form of organisation.

But the shift from a form of organisation based on a requirement of a deep understanding of anarchism and the platformist tradition prior to membership and a considerable commitment to a constant and intense level of activity and self organisation after membership came with significant costs. It is quite probable that a WSM that continued on that older organisational model would have offered a very much more coherent reaction to the crisis. It is unlikely it would have been any more effective in getting this taken up, in all probability it would have been less effective because its reach would have been every more limited. As I have argued here and elsewhere it was our lack of reach beyond a handful of union branches that made us ineffective more than any other factor.

The post 1994 structure of the WSM was one that went through a period of transformation as a membership that was mostly recruited on the basis of that older informal cadre expectations increasingly became a minority in an organisation most of whose members had a much lower if still substantial level of commitment and knowledge about anarchism. Our collective major failing was that this was not something that was ever really formally tackled except in two ways
A. The idea that each new member should have an existing member as a mentor. This was only sporadically implemented, under theorised and in any could only ever have been a very partial solution.
B. That we should have some form of internal educational process for new members to enable them to acquire the basic but detailed knowledge required to fully operate as a militant. Although we agreed to do this on several occasions in practise these initiatives were very sporadic, characterised by a new people on the role of education officer having an initial burst of enthusiasm, organising one or two events and then lapsing into silence and inactivity.

Alongside this coherency of activity became more and more disrupted because there was no formal way of distinguishing between members who intended to have the sort of commitment of the pre-2000 WSM and those whose expectations were more formed by the post 2004 WSM. Previously when someone took on a task it was just about always done and if not they were present at the follow up meeting where the reasons why something hadn’t been done were discussed and the task either dropped as not practical or re-committed to. Post 2004 a growing problem was that a higher and higher percentage of tasks that were taken on were not completed and attendance at subsequent meetings was often not complete enough for it to be clear that something had not happened.

Complex operations require tasks to be split between several people and if one or more of those people fail to complete what they were allocated then the whole thing can well fall apart. If over time this becomes common then there are several negative effects
– Projects that require complex co-ordination never come to life, why propose what you know will fail.
– Those who care about a project start to find ways of self selecting who will be involved and if someone they think is flaky steps forward find ways to build around them from the start.
– Moral is badly damaged as members start to resent each other and in the absence of any formal mechanism start to use grumbling as a tool to try and introduce / enforce collective discipline.
– Members prone to flake out on tasks learn there are no formal negative consequences of doing so and so there is no feedback loop that results in them restricting either the quantity or quality of what they put themselves forward for
– As the same dynamics apply to the involvement of WSM members in external struggles the reputation of the WSM is negatively impacted and the tendency to see WSM members as acting as individuals rather than as members of a collective organisation is increased.

There are parallel problems with political education & discussion which result in a greater and greater collective divergence from the core agreed politics of the organisation. This in turn means that discussion and agreement of what those core politics are is increasingly seen as pointless, abstract and uninteresting. Members will tend to start voting for proposals out of misguided politeness and in a mirror image of this problem sink into protracted rows about issues that are minor in the overall scheme of things.

As of 2011 the process of dealing with these issues began with the division of membership into two types rather than a single one size fits all. Unfortunately the first attempt at this was too loose and overly complex. Membership was divided into Activists and Organisers, with the second category volunteering to have double the financial and time commitment of the first. In Dublin it was expected the while Organisers would attend every branch meeting in the month Activists would only be required to attend two, but would at least do this consistently.

In practise members found the work allocation system too complex, boring or alienating which meant it never contained enough useful information to be used to allocate work. And the distinction between branch meetings was never really implemented with the exception of the monthly supporters meeting. This may be part of the reason why Activist members failed to consistently attend the two Activist meeting a month but instead continued on the existing pattern of randomly attending one or more of the meetings each month.

Although in the first form this has not worked it is my opinion that it does suggest the right direction. That is an organisation with a core of highly committed and formally identified Organisers who will take on the essential tasks required to keep both the organisation and its external commitments effective. And a second layer of looser but still committed Activists who will take on less central tasks and whose activity will vary much more strongly according to their motivation and circumstances at any particular moment. Part of the role of the Organiser layer being to monitor, discuss and engage the work of the WSM and its supporters as a whole.

That is to formalise the actual mechanism that has kept the WSM running on a reasonably effective basis in the belief that by making this more formal and visible the motivation to engage and train members to the Organiser level will be found. This is a concept that the 1990’s WSM explicitly rejected but the experiments of the 2000-2010 suggests that this was a mistake. As with the ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’ a refusal to formally acknowledge that something exists does not do away with the problems caused by its existence. Quite the opposite, because those problems cannot be named or pointed to without risking a major falling out their impact over time grows.

In short as with other areas I don’t see a solution to these real problems coming from looking back to a period with problems of its own. On a more general level it is almost impossible to see how an organisation can grow beyond an active membership of 50 or more without both a highly committed core to build around and one or more full time workers to ensure the mundane but essential administration tasks are completed. That second point is something of a heresy for many anarchists arising from the obviously false myth that the 1930’s CNT only ever had one full time worker.

On the other hand we have the frankly disastrous experience of the trotskyist left where the political leadership and best organisers were given full time paid positions in the organisation. Combined with a ‘democratic’ centralism that gave this same group decision making power meant that organisational policy was decided by a group of people removed from the workplace whose future wages depended on the decisions they made. It is hardly surprizing that many of these organisations became little more than organisations that were very good a recruiting enough members to stay in existence but ensuring those members lacked the power to force major changes in direction (or more importantly staffing).

I think a strong dedicated core is essential but that there has to be a sharp divide between decision making and full time administration. The public face of the organisation and its internal policy motor must be comprised of people who, like those they seek to organise, are dependent on wages from outside the organisation. The few full timers that are required should have no say in decision making, formal or informal, beyond that of any member. Because of their position at the centre of operations they will develop knowledge and network connections that gives them informal power but on a collective level this must be organised against rather than welcomed and promoted as is the case in most left organisations.

All members should have an equal say in the decision making processes of the organisation but there is a need to have variation in the minimum level of commitment required. An organisation that is just composed of Organisers will lack the perspectives of those unable to make that level of commitment – I.e. it will be dominated by the young, childless and those either able to get by on nothing or with some sort of non-work income. Even leaving that aside the sort of people who think it a reasonable thing in normal times to dedicate a very large chunk of their lives to political activism are probably something of a psychological subset of the human spectrum. A subset that is probably essential to making a mostly volunteer organisation function it is true, but one in constant risk of losing its ability to communicate effectively with those outside its immediate ranks.

That membership as a whole then needs to develop ways of engaging with a very large number of people most of whom may never take on a membership commitment except in revolutionary situations. Back in the day before cable TV, Facebook and a million other distractions, back when we worked in mass workplaces and lived near those we worked with there were model of political organising based in large part around filling the needs for entertainment and distraction. It was said that a member of the German social democratic party could spend their whole (non-work) life in the party, in party walking groups, debating societies & choirs. It seems very probable that this is a model that is no longer workable.

Today who we hang out with, what we watch, even where we go on holidays is highly dispersed and it is likely will remain so. Political events need to compete with the X-Factor and a lot of the time they will lose that competition – our meetings are seldom that interesting outside of times of opportunity or anger. The challenge then is to develop and maintain engagement with very broad layers who may enter radical politics just briefly during one or the other high point in struggle.

The very technologies that created the dispersal have also brought about the means of engagement, eg Facebook, Twitter, email and SMS. But as yet our understanding of how to use those tools is very limited and most of the left continues to simply try and use them as bolt ons to traditional membership recruitment and press release circulation. It’s probably because we have been more experimental than most that the WSM Facebook is the largest of any political party that has been in government in southern Ireland and the 2nd biggest of every political organisation on the entire island. But so far we have not modelled ourselves around the realities of these new technologies in the way revolutionaries previously modelled themselves around the technologies of the printing press and the mass factory.

2. III – Seeking rupture

We have the goal of a global revolution that will transform economic & social relations on the planet and as a central part of that process destroy the accumulated detritus of centuries of racism & patriarchy. There have been previous revolutions – none have been so ambitious – none have remade what it is to be human on this planet as we intend to.

But how do we get from where we are now to where we want to get to? If we tried to think of a picture of that revolutionary moment what might it look like? For most of the left the answer to this is probably a still from Eisenstein’s Storming of the Winter Palace’ (above). There is a lesson there in itself as even that image is ‘from the last war’ of that time, an imagined mass frontal attack on a strong point that was in reality taken through infiltration by small groups into the cellars. The idea that thousands of revolutionaries charged & overwhelmed machine guns was a fantasy first created three years later when Lenin & 100’000 spectators watched a ‘re-enactment’ involving thousands of Red Guards.

Whatever about the fantasy version of the Russian Revolution today in the age of the helicopter gunship firing 10 x 30mm rounds per second we are not launching mass frontal attacks on any fortified position. When we think of military technology, war against imperialist armies today is all about the grimness imposed by asymmetrical warfare. Suicide bombers on the one hand and Predator drone attacks on the other as entire compounds are wiped out by robot aircraft controlled from thousands of km away. Saddam’s fantasy of pitting his mass centrally controlled conventional army in a pitched battle against US forces with vastly superior technology failed completely but that same US army took years to wear down insurgents whose most effective weapon was the IED, a homemade landmine.

But the development of military technology, of command and control as well as weapons is paralleled by the development of the technologies of human control. From Labour Courts to CCTV to Human Relations Management to Focus Group Politics dissent is hemmed in, controlled and channeled into the sand in a way that was unimaginable when the Winter Place fantasy was being acted out. Capitalism learnt that provoking head on confrontations with the working class was a dangerous game. Far more sensible was the deployment of specialists to poke & probe and to calculate the minimum required to pacify the masses. Conceding more if need be at high points of struggle like that of the late 60’s and 70’s and only later rolling back those gains as we have seen under neo-liberalism. The huge growth of the state since 1917 is partially the story of the growth of these mechanisms.

The current crisis underlines the fact that the crushing of raised expectations no longer spontaneously throws up militant mass movements as it did in the past. It is only where the structures of control were under developed or ossified as in Tunisia and Egypt, that we have seen the emergence of the sort of semi-spontaneous mass movements that once we would have expected everywhere in these conditions. Even in Greece dissent is being successfully channeled into the electoralism of Syriza while in the wings Golden Dawn is being prepared ‘just in case’.

In particular one of the skills capitalist rule has developed is incorporating radicals of one generation and using them to pacify the struggles of the next generation. The anger with the political system in Ireland that showed some chance of erupting in late 2009 was contained when the trade union leaders sold the Croke Park Agreement to enough Public Sector Workers to finish off resistance from that quarter. This was then cemented in early 2011 with the election of a new government that included almost all of the TD’s who rose within the ranks of the Workers Party in the 1970s’, the largest left revolutionary organisation that Ireland has seen. A comedy version of the same process had been played out in the pervious government when the Green Party ditched everything it stood for in order to get its fingernails into power.

Many on the left have understood the power of these new methods of maintaining capitalist rule and made the colossal mistake that the answer is somehow to fight back with the same methods. So the likes of the Independent media group are to be countered with a paper funded perhaps by the unions, our messaging must be ‘focus grouped’ and carefully controlled to push the same psychological buttons as theirs and we must slowly and carefully develop a mass base though either electoralism, unions or community organisation. The ruling class will, we are told, make a mistake, we just have to wait for that moment.

Of course there is something in all these ideas but in their pure expression they lead to a politics that is both elitist and doomed. Elitist because the requirements for psychological button pushing and focus group dressing up of positions is that the masses don’t understand what it is you are trying to do to them. And doomed because it is playing a game that depends on vast quantities of resources (skills & more importantly finance) for a conventional between those of us of have little or no access to such things and a system that has almost unlimited access. As I finish this section off I noticed a George Monbiot article in the Guardian revealing that in the US the ultra rich have channelled 311 million dollars to two organisations who in turn have funded 480 climate denial fronts. Are the tiny resources of the left really capable of symmetrically replying to this. I’d argue that those who think so are guilty of the same sort of self-indulgent wishful thinking that led Saddam Hussen to draw lines in the sand before the invasion of Iraq.

To my mind what needs to be understood from this is the possibility and preparation for moments of potential rupture rather than which method of building mass organisation may work best. Mass organisations built during times of peace under modern capitalism just end up requiring the same transformative ruptures in crisis whatever the politics of those who built them. Indeed the evidence suggests that sending the best of the left of one generation into a long march through the institutions simply ensures that those controlling the next generation are far more skilled..

Revolutionaries must fight capital like insurgents and not as a regular army. We must avoid any symmetry in the class war, any attempt to match our resources against theirs. Our work in mass organisations is because it is there we find a potential audience and a space where ideas can be discussed and not because we imagine that we can come to control the levers of power. That approach has been done, the radical left led the British miners in the last 1970s and the state adjusted, focused on a set piece battle and first isolated the miners and then pulverised them in the1984 strike. There is no long march through the institutions that can lead to anything other than pulverising defeat or incorporation into a system we set out to fight.
Instead we build networks across the working class, in the broadest use of that term, using what possibilities exist in any particular moment. When capital or the state is slow to respond to crisis we insert ourselves into the gaps that develop to build in those moments but with the understanding that this is not a long term emplacement. Like an insurgent force our aim is to build widespread discontent and widespread experience of organisation so that each time a crisis arises more and more of the population have the skills and vision to push. This is not an argument for underground organisation, in almost all conditions outside of military conflict underground organisation is counter productive, its costs are many times greater than its benefits. It is an argument for valuing broad, loose and open networks over capturing institutions of power whether those institutions are council seats, union officerships or full time community staffer positions.

2. IV – We have been doing what we do for a while

I wrote what I recognise is a long and rambling piece over the six months between when James published his history and when on the 20th of February I am writing this conclusion. I wrote it in sections, some of which were published as I went along for the comment of WSM members on our internal site. And then I redrafted those sections for publication here on Anarchist Writers. My own opinions on revolutionary organisation have never been static and have probably undergone more change in the 2011-to current period than at any time before. I suspect this must be reflected by contradictions in this text but the answers I seek will not be found here or indeed yet.

Despite the feedback received this is very much an individual piece rather than the outcome of a collective process. This means it is weaker than it should be but this is inevitable in the circumstances – just as my opinions are in flux so too is the collective opinion of the WSM. It could be said to reflect my understanding of the internal discussions of the last 24 months but as much of part one is a criticism of the weakness of individual recollection consider yourself warned in that respect.

This makes a conclusion difficult to write. What I can offer though is perhaps the next best thing available. As I posted the last parts of the first section of this reply I also prepared a last minute discussion document for the WSM National Conference that took place Feb 9th. In it I was trying to steer the discussion session that traditionally opens up all our national conferences into a deeper consideration of where we might begin to discover our future in a collective fashion.

What follows is the document as submitted to conference without modification. It is only a single contribution to our internal debate but because of what the document is the reader can assume that it is an honest impression of exactly where we are and where we might go – or at least my honest perspective. You will notice that towards the end I ‘put the gun on the table’ in suggesting that one possible outcome – in the short term – is a decision to liquidate the WSM.

The greatest strength of the WSM has always been the maintenance of an internal culture where regularly, and sometimes it feels far too regularly, we realistically confront our failed expectations, take stock and adjust what we are doing. To observers coming from sections of the left where self criticism never occurs outside of a narrow leadership layer this is something of a shock, but a shock which has sometimes resulted in them deciding that the WSM is the organisation for them. It is precisely that record that leads me to conclude that the WSM is central to any collective discussions about what the new revolutionary movement will look like even if perhaps we are to be its midwife rather than that movement itself. For now though we offer the structures, experience and resources around which those who are determined to examine these questions while resisting capital can organise alongside us and join in our discussion, experimentation and mistake making.

Crisis of Capitalism – Crisis of the Left – Crisis of WSM – Contribution to the perspectives debate

Crisis is one of those words that the left overuses but today I’ve no problem saying we find ourselves trapped between two crisis. One of those is the crisis of capitalism, now dragging into its 6th year without any end in sight. The other the crisis of the traditional left, the parties, the unions and the formal anarchist movement that have found ourselves unable to respond in a meaningful manner to the capitalist crisis anywhere. Which has meant all left organisations, including our own, have plunged into internal crisis.

The predictable result of both crisis is demoralisation on the one hand as we seem to be able to do nothing to build a meaningful fightback leading to the loss of militants and on the other living in a society where the consequences of that failure become more frightening by the day. From the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece to the roll back of abortion rights in the US the inability of the left to organise against the crisis in capitalism is creating a world that will become grimmer year by year and not just because we have less money in our pockets.

Yet we have also seen revolutionary transformation sweep Tunisia & Egypt (where two years on mass protest and organisation continues). We have seen the almost spontaneous Occupy movement spread in weeks to 2200+ cities around the message that the problem was the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the 1%. But the traditional, organised left has been able to do almost nothing with such movements. The reason I think is because that left, our left is stuck in the methodologies & slogans of the early twentieth century – both developed at great cost in a world of limited communications, restricted travel and industrial workers that no longer exists.

I think its easy for us to lose sight of that big picture and instead only see the battles within the household tax campaign or the pro-choice organising around Savita’s death. I think its also easy to use the importance of that work to avoid us facing up to our own internal crisis and the fact that we are failing as an organisation to reproduce ourselves or to give newer members the skills that have been accumulated over decades by our more long term members. Momentum alone allows us to continue to exist as an organisation with regular meetings, an office, a bookshop, a newspaper. a magazine, a web site and the anarchist bookfair. But unless we address our internal crisis we will lose all of that as well as remaining incapable of aiding in the creation of the sort of mass movements that could take the fight to capitalism.

That is why at this conference I am arguing that for the next year we make the question of organisational restructuring including external engagement our central and main priority, For 6 years our priority has been to throw ourselves into every opening of the crisis to try and force wider gaps out of which mass movements might emerge. The cost of that has been the failure to address the internal crisis due to a lack of resources to do so. I’m not arguing that we should drop our existing external commitments but I am arguing that for every member for the next year the question of internal reorganisation and developing systems of external engagement should be our first priority.

– This means every member starting to implement our engagement process and looking at every activity as a way of engaging our contacts Properly applied this should mean our external work becomes very much more effective as rather than trying to carry out every task ourselves we instead organise contacts to carry out that work and more. This is also why we won’t be dropping external work – what we need to understand is not something that we can simply read about.

– This means us looking at every aspect of our current work and considering what would be the best way to achieve the aimed for result if we were to start today rather than adopting the passed down methodology we have inherited. In terms of the left in Ireland & internationally we have been innovative in adopting our practises to the modern world but that is not saying much and to an extent we have been old technologies onto new ones rather than redesigning from the ground. The first motor cars tended to look like horse buggies with an engine where the horse used to stand. Fear of the speed of motor vehicles meant in some places it was required that someone with a red flag walk in front of them. We have perhaps handled the possibility for online decision making in the same way.

– This means that the national officers we elect at this conference should be elected with a mandate of recreating a culture of internal discipline. A culture where to remain a member people get to the meetings they are required to and implement the tasks they have taken on to implement. This means encouraging those officers to track that information and to remind us, as often as necessary, of what we have committed to. And this needs not just to be a national process but also a branch process

– after conference branches should hold an AGM and ensure that their branch officers are also mandated to play this role.

That is the minor step because the root of our problem is not the lack of organisational discipline that has become increasingly visible. But we do need to do this to create a dynamic process that will drive us on and that won’t simply join the list of things we intend to get to when there is time.

We need to regenerate our internal culture not to restart the dead engine of the traditional left but because in the context of Ireland at least we represent a core of experiences, skills and resources around which we can start to collectively analyse and develop what a revolutionary organisation should be in the 21st century. The problem is that we are caught between the old world illustrated by the failure of the traditional left to generate resistance and the new world of the failure of the revolts of Egypt, Tunisia and Occupy to generate the new revolutionary organisations that can challenge capitalism.

Collectively is the key phrase above – there have been many individual attempts to do this but the changes are so complex that it is only through a process of collective discussion and experimentation that answers may be found. We need to develop our external engagement process both because time is not unlimited and also because there are many, many people currently outside the WSM who will have key inputs into answering that question. I’ll be honest – I think our existing model is so dated as to be possibly past recovery. This process we are entering might even see us deciding that the goal is best served by liquidating the WSM, its experiences and its resources into some new formation.

That is what I want us to focus on for the next year with the aim of developing the model of revolutionary organisation not just on the local level but also as an international example. When expressed like that a year sounds like a very short time but that would be to mistake the journey we need to start for the end point we aim to reach. Our goal is global revolution – a goal that is ambitious enough that spending a year producing the rough sketch of a map seem reasonable enough.

Submitted to WSM internal discussion forum – 8 Feb 2013


Sin é.

Feel free to post comments here or direct questions to my @Andrew Flood Twitter account.



11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by AndrewF on February 4, 2013

Your might want to replace this test copy & paste from Anarchist Writers with the source code as there are a good number of links to documents etc in the text that are missing here. Probably easiest to wait until its all published though or better still to wait for the final version on the WSM site.

Current working version is up at


11 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on June 5, 2013

Here's a reply to both authors by a long time Cork WSM member, Kevin:

R Totale

2 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R Totale on December 19, 2021

Added the parts that were missing and fully formatted the stuff that was already there, it'll take a while to properly format the rest of it though. Long article!

Anarchism, Ireland and the WSM

Kevin Doyle responds to James O'Brien and Andrew Flood on the Workers Solidarity Movement.

Submitted by R Totale on December 19, 2021

The current crisis in Irish society has taken many of us by surprise. The scale of the social and economic reversal is one thing, but the manner in which the establishment has turned what was an unpredictable economic meltdown into a serious position of advantage has also been disconcerting. Not surprisingly people have been throwing their hands in the air and wondering aloud about ‘what it will take’ before we all get up off our knees. The not inconsiderable demoralisation that has resulted has found expression in claims that the ‘left’ is in crisis.

The anarchist movement has not of course remained immune from any of this. The lack of any serious fight back has seriously undermined morale. Moreover the scale of this and the profound implications of what it indicates have exposed serious weaknesses in our own analysis and practice. While this is sobering and could be turned to some advantage, there is a developing sense also that there is no longer a clear understanding about how to move forward. I believe this, in part, is to do with the poor state of the WSM as we entered this crisis. It is one thing to face into a storm with a readied ship, it is another entirely to look up and see that your sails are in tatters.

The WSM, the main anarchist organisation in Ireland, then is at the heart of much of the paralysis. It continues to limp on in this difficult climate and it continues to do some things well – a fact that reflects hugely on the commitment of its members. But the recent Household and Water Tax Campaign has also shown that the organisation has become close to irrelevant in terms of its ability to influence the business end of radical politics. This is not a place where anyone of us ever expected to be. While some – for their own reasons – are careful to downplay the crisis, the prognosis, I believe, will not improve until the past is discussed, examined and faced up. To that end this contribution is added.


Two significant analyses on the state of the WSM have so far emerged. The WSM and Anarchism: A Political Analysis 1 (referred herein as the WSM and Anarchism) was written by JoB. Although containing some historical background, WSM and Anarchism is largely concerned with period of the 00s, and the experience and politics of the WSM in that time. Since it ends fairly precipitously with a rejection of anarchism – the author left the WSM prior to writing WSM and Anarchism – it has suffered the fate of many a heretical document and been cast aside quite quickly by some. Nevertheless it contains many valid points and has been vital in generating awareness of what the divisions that arose in the WSM in the 00s amounted to.

The WSM and Fighting The Last War 2 (herein Fighting The Last War) was written by AnF and is titled a reply to WSM and Anarchism. Extremely long, it is in part an item by item ‘this is why you are wrong and I was right’ exposition on the various points covered by WSM and Anarchism. It is not clear if Fighting The Last War was initially written as an official WSM response to WSM and Anarchism but to my knowledge it has not; that certainly is positive.

However it is important to note too that Fighting the Last War is more than a reply to the WSM and Anarchism. It moves on to address the general crisis now facing the left (anarchism in particular) suggesting that the current political basis for WSM activity (and for political activity in general) is no longer sound. As a result it concludes with an exhortation for the creation of a new model of revolutionary organisation.

A note before continuing on. It is not my intention here to attempt cover both documents in their totality. There is a huge amount in each and a lot of material is touched on that I believe is not necessarily central to the main debate any longer. So this will be, for the most part, a limited and personal assessment of what both these documents have to say regarding where we find ourselves now and where to go from here.


Political badges from campaigns in Ireland in 80s and 90s

Led to stagnation?

In the course of WSM and Anarchism, a number of observations are made about the development of the WSM. (In passing it should be noted that these observations largely relate to Dublin, where the WSM grew to a few branch in strength before shrinking again.) The author has set out his account in order to give context to his involvement with the WSM and his ultimate frustration with how it orientated itself – hence his decision to leave. But his account is nonetheless useful in that it attempts to understand the WSM in terms of the political influences that were active within it during this period and what they were saying. The main points of interest, it seems to me, as contended by the author, are as follows:

1 The Platformist basis of the WSM had got the anarchist movement so far. The organisation was coherent but a consequence of the strategy was that the WSM remained small in size. It is argued that by 2001 – the WSM was formed in 1984 – the organisation was stagnating.
2 With the new millennium (but with an uneven and unclear level of consciousness in the existing WSM membership) the organisation moved away from the previous Platformist/ tight model. Growth (in numbers) became more important and the level of political agreement (needed for membership) was gradually lowered.
3 The period 2001-2005 was one of high relative activity for the WSM. More people joined and the new process – Point 2 above – accelerated during this period. However the new members were not embedded into any level of trade union work – an identified priority for the WSM. Moreover, according to the account “it was doubtful if a single member was checked for their understanding of anarchism during this period”.
4 By 2009 coherency had diminished in the WSM organisation. Two poles of general emphasis existed in the Dublin WSM. One favoured a reorientation mainly back to the idea of building within the trade unions; the other favoured a continued orientation towards the ‘libertarian milieu’, which was to an extent the basis for a great deal of the activism engaged in during the 2001-5 period. This schism gradually widened and deepened as Ireland’s crisis unfolded.
5 By 2010, three factors were to the fore in the organisation. A move to adjust recruitment in the direction of ‘tighter’ criteria in order to improve effectiveness and affect a move away from the ‘libertarian milieu’ was proposed but defeated. Education work was proving to be ineffectual in terms of dealing with the different understandings of the role and purpose of the WSM. Thirdly, the role of the organisation itself was becoming unclear. Should it initiate and lead the way in the small number of skirmishes that were breaking out here and there as austerity took hold? Or was that a waste of time and should the organisation regroup around its original analysis of the central role of class influence, recognise the obvious and pull back to a more sustainable level of activity?
6 Matters as such didn’t come to a head as one might expect or as they often do in other organisations/ traditions. Instead the (politically) broad non-libertarian milieu/ class struggle angle fractured. A section wanted to refocus the anarchist agenda on an entirely new initiative. This would shift activism back towards mainstream politics via the creation of a new populist organisation stressing the need for democracy and the need to fight inequality. This section, arranged around ‘the Breaking The Anchor’ 3 document, did not muster enough support from its proposal and increasingly disenchanted with everyday activity, left or resigned in piecemeal. In time the small remaining class struggle/ Platformist section in Dublin also pulled away.


Fighting The Last War, as said above, is two separate though linked documents. Part 1 mainly deals with the WSM and Anarchism. As mentioned above, I do not intend to comb through all the arguments examined in this document. The central contended points, it seems to me, are as follows:

1 The suggestion that the WSM fracture along a class struggle v activism/ libertarian milieu divide is not true. False Division – Summit Protest or Unions (1-III) argues that there was collective consensus most of the time about the direction that the WSM took in the 00s and, also, that whatever was done in the direction of the libertarian milieu was easily counter-balanced by other organisational efforts focused on the class struggle. (A number of examples are given but one would be the WSM’s commitment to making its paper Workers Solidarity a free mass-distributed class-struggle paper.)
2 In section 1-III it is accepted though that there was a shift in the early 00s as follows within the WSM. (A modicum of agreement here, you might say.) Fighting The Last War explains though that this shift was on sound grounds since revolutionary organisations need “to adapt to the actual situation they find themselves in rather than acting as if there were somewhere else”. It continues: “… there was little or no significant workplace struggle and little or no activity at the base of the unions. But … thousands of mostly young people where being drawn to a broad anti-capitalist politics by international events, in particular the summit protests. Many of these people were either already self defining as anarchists or adopting broadly anarchist organisational methods – in short they were a willing audience for our ideas.”
3 Fighting The Last War goes on to contend (“misleading”, “skewed analysis”, “selective” in examples etc) that the WSM and Anarchism either wilfully misleads us or simple lacks an understanding of the politics ongoing in the WSM during this period and that this accounts for the interpretation it places on this period and what happened. Whereas in fact – according to Fighting The Last War – the activities in the 2001-5 period, gave very positive outcomes. Thus: “[Our] … success … was responsible for the large and sudden growth in numbers that took place at the end of this period. With person after person who joined the reason given for doing so was because they had been working alongside us and observed how we were able to collectively pull together to make sure that what needed to be argued and done to build the movement was carried through.”
4 Chronologically we now enter the period in which the WSM according to WSM and Anarchism, though raised in numbers, lacked any realistic plan or strategy for moving forward. There is some agreement between the two documents here with Fighting the Last War pointing out about this period: “But the tide had retreated and it was only a question of time before we would be stranded, our real failure, and perhaps in the circumstances it was inevitable, was [not – kd] to prepare those new members for the low period of routine activity that was to come.”
5 Initiatives that attempted to recreate some of the successes of the 2001-5 period were proposed and acted on in due course – the Social Solidarity Network being one. Fighting The Last War importantly maintains that even with this initiative the WSM still focused a great deal of its real energy on standard class struggle politics. Hence its claim that the divisions adduced in WSM and Anarchism are quite exaggerated.
6 Nevertheless there is commentary in Fighting The Last War on the tense atmosphere that had developed in the Dublin WSM when the following is said: “Organisationally we failed to deal with the awful dynamics in the branch until eventually it got to such a crisis point that the branch itself had to perform an intervention. It is probable that the failure to intervene earlier led to the resignation of at least one member from the WSM (who said she found the atmosphere too distressing) and at least 3 members of that branch invented excuses for why they had to transfer to other branches. Others stopped coming to meetings for a period. It’s really quite odd to see those dynamics held up as some sort of model.” So clear difficulties existed, but both documents – to a much lesser degree WSM and Anarchism – downgrade them almost to the category of personality-driven.
7 In I-VII of Fighting The Last War the controversial topic of membership and what it amounted to is addressed. Reading this section it is clear that quite substantially different positions now existed in the WSM. Though the significance of this is questioned by Fighting The Last War. Nevertheless it notes about the attempt to tighten up membership: “… in effect [this proposal]… would have moved us back towards being a small cadre organisation directed at making arguments to the existing left.” A view point better explained by this assessment further on: “Most of all though many of us thought the existing membership system wasn’t broken…. In the period we are talking of around 100 people joined the WSM, one mistake is not a significant problem. Trying to create a system that is water tight in every single case will almost always introduce negative consequences that are considerably worse in impact then the occasional unsuitable person becoming a member for a brief period.”

Cork WSM

Cork Shell 2 Sea activists blocade the Shell Depot in the Marina, Cork

Anarchists were prominent in Shell 2 Sea

It is worth noting at this point that the Cork Branch – which grew to a sizable number at one time also – showed a similar pattern of development over the same period. My recollection is that the internal discussions, albeit unevenly and irregularly, reflected some of the above, but there was no hardening into definite factions as – it would seem – occurred in time in Dublin. However Cork in the 00s (in line with the WSM as a whole) developed a strong activism leaning and also moved enthusiastically to a more open membership basis. A consequence was that many joined but a good number left again in time: the very real problem being the inability to find a tangible and realistic political activity which would full-fill the requirements of short and long terms goals. The IWU had potential but was not straight-forward, nor is it even now. Moreover a substantial part of the Cork membership came from among students and the libertarian quarter. Neither were necessarily adverse to class struggle – indeed many accepted that it was this that grounded the WSM as an organisation – but they were in reality once if not twice removed from it in terms of it having any relevant to their present political activity. Indeed the real issue to my mind – more obvious in Cork as it is a smaller place – was the inability to move outside the ghetto of the far left and small bubble that that creates for itself. Perhaps this would’ve come in time or with time, though it is hard to know.

One aspect of Cork WSM’s development was the active pursuit of the book shop idea (not an alternative space as such). There were many positives in this initiative, but ultimately even here the vision was unclear (or perhaps underdeveloped) in terms of how it exactly complemented the WSM’s priorities. It has remained an activity for the WSM but it has also assisted in Cork WSM avoiding the real problem in its politics which became quite evident in the important CAHWT campaign.


Returning to the two documents. If the WSM and Anarchism attempts to unpick the superficial unity of the WSM in the 00s in order to indicate that there were in actual fact significant political divisions in the organisation that widened with time, Fighting The Last War largely attempts to claim otherwise. Fighting The Last War is in fact an aggrieved polemic. Some of this is justified of course, but a good deal isn’t either. One of the slights that has arisen is the WSM and Anarchism’s assertion that a significant faction within the Dublin WSM in effect abandoned class-struggle politics for the sanctuary of the libertarian milieu. This of course is a harsh accusation and is unacceptable to many who supported initiatives such as the Social Solidarity Network. Fighting the Last War insists – rightly I think – that the WSM never formally endorsed (at conference) any such shifts and in any case, it argues, there was always plenty of focus on the class struggle side of things. But as we all know (and this is where WSM and Anarchism has a strong case) that with regard to much in life, the exact emphasis that is placed on a particular initiative can be everything. One can agree to partake in a project but is one’s heart in it? In other words a concrete choice may not be taken – as say was the case in Dublin WSM – but one can still end up going in one direction for the most part.

Did You Hear Me?

Between the two documents then, who is right? To some extent the answer is given emphatically by what has happened since – further decline and marginalisation has been the order of the day for the WSM. Also, for me, the WSM and Anarchism is simply a more plausible and believable account of the past than Fighting The Last War. Leaving aside the key arguments – real organisation orientation, membership criteria, hollowing out of the centrality of the Platform etc – WSM and Anarchism presents us with a framework around which we can understand better what has happened in the WSM. Whereas in Fighting The Last War we are told that the alleged differences (the minority/majority split) are exaggerated and that nothing as clear cut as is suggested ever actually happened in practice. It is even suggested in regard to some aspects also that the author of WSM and Anarchism is wilfully misleading us or that he doesn’t actually understand key aspects of what was going in the WSM when he was in it? Is that really plausible? For me it certainly isn’t.

WSM and Anarchism points to serious and real differences – exaggerated perhaps but significant nonetheless – developing in the WSM. To some extent the nature of these remained hidden because some of the significant defections from the WSM occurred quietly in the end. In other words there was never an open choice put to WSM members, nor was there a precise time at which one could opt to go one way or the other. The absence of any formal split – even though it was talked about – allowed the pretence at the heart of Fighting The Last War to persist.

For the WSM and Anarchism the way forward is a rejection of anarchism itself and the document ends with such a declaration. But what of Fighting The Last War? Note that this document in the main asserts that much of what was deemed to be problematic in the WSM in the 00s was not really so. In fact in some ways the WSM in this period was making a lot of the right decisions, it argues. Fighting The Last War, to me then, is also a defence of the WSM as it was in the period leading into the beginning of the economic meltdown. In effect it dismisses the main contentions of WSM and Anarchism:

- That the loosening of membership criteria to the point that it seriously affected cohesion was a mistake and ill-considered.
- That the emphasis towards the libertarian milieu and activism without end was also mistaken and ill-judged and contributed to a practical unwillingness in the WSM to re-analyse where it was in terms of the long term project.

But ultimately Fighting The Last War cannot hide from reality either. Something is wrong, it realises, and it alludes to this here and there in the course of its arguments (as set out in its Part 1). For Fighting The Last War the big test – when the penny dropped so to speak – was the period before and around the Occupy moment. (What moment, you may well ask?) It wonders, using a cumbersome surfing/tsunami analogy that I will not pursue here as to

“… how could the organisation [WSM] have failed so badly as to almost not notice the size of the wave bearing down on it and worse still be distracted by trivial debates about ‘activism’ or ‘lifestylism’. Most members in 2009 were very resistant to the proposal that the organisation might need to move onto a war footing, just as most people at the 2008 Grassroots Gathering in Cork had been similarly resistant. The few voices that cried ‘shut up and look at the size of the fucking waves’ were ignored or perhaps quietly sniggered at. In retrospect its (sic) clear that in any case neither the WSM nor anyone else on the Irish left was remotely approaching the level of preparedness needed to have a hope at successfully surfing that wave in to the beach.”

Free The Old Head Protest, Cork

In Vain?

Concluding on this in general, Fighting The Last War in a rare note of agreement with WSM and Anarchism actually states that:

“[There is] … the sense that our experiences demonstrate that the methods of the WSM and perhaps anarchism in general cannot achieve what we set out to. Here, in these most broad terms [WSM and Anarchism] is correct.”

Leading onto:

“If so far I have seemed to defend the actions of the past it is solely to establish an accurate base from which to critique those same actions – one that can be used to start to uncover the real outline of what a revolutionary organisation should look like in the modern networked age.”


So what is proposed by Fighting The Last War? The answer it seems has to do with the fact that we have for some time been entering – we could even be in without ever having known it – a new paradigm in politics. Chiapas, Anti-Capitalism, Occupy, Why It’s Not (meant – kd) Kicking Off Everywhere and the Internet all mark the boundaries of this new force field.

In 2013, efforts were still ongoing to recreacte the Occupy spirit.

Occupy Again

According to Fighting The Last War it is important to bear in mind that fundamentals have changed and there is no pointing hankering over any of that or this anymore. Some of what animates what is proposed in this section (2-III) is tied in with a thought process that now sees the ‘system’ having decisive control over society. The problem is that the ‘system’ can be just about anything. Thus we get:

“Even in Greece dissent is being successfully channelled into the electoralism of Syriza while in the wings Golden Dawn is being prepared ‘just in case’.”

There is nothing here about the ideas that people have or the belief systems that they hold. We are, it seems now, but passive vessels in the world. The system, Fighing The Last War goes on, is moving us about at will and even controls our potential liberators since:

“In particular one of the skills capitalist rule has developed is incorporating radicals of one generation and using them to pacify the struggles of the next generation.”

Politics itself may even have been incorporated into the project of control since:

“…the evidence suggests that sending the best of the left of one generation into a long march through the institutions simply ensures that those controlling the next generation are far more skilled...”

If the old ways are dead and buried (and you can kiss goodbye to your dream of storming up the steps of the Winter Palace too, it seems) then what are we to do? Fighting The Last War is not suggesting a specific programme but much can be deduced from the following:

“Revolutionaries must fight capital like insurgents and not as a regular army. We must avoid any symmetry in the class war, any attempt to match our resources against theirs….Instead we build networks across the working class, in the broadest use of that term, using what possibilities exist in any particular moment. When capital or the state is slow to respond to crisis we insert ourselves into the gaps that develop to build in those moments but with the understanding that this is not a long term emplacement. Like an insurgent force our aim is to build widespread discontent and widespread experience of organisation so that each time a crisis arises more and the population have the skills and vision to push on.”

Throughout this contribution I have resisted being facetious and I certainly don’t intend to fall near the last hurdle, but in heaven’s name what does any of that even mean? Perhaps it is words like ‘insurgents’ and phrases like ‘we insert ourselves’ and “using what possibilities exist”, but I am left wondering I must admit.

Thankfully Fighting The Last War points out almost immediately that “this is not an argument for an underground organisation”. It states that is emphatically opposed to a strategy that involves “a long march through the institutions that can lead to anything other than pulverising defeat or incorporation into a system we set out to fight.” (One wonders is this a comment on the WSM but I can’t imagine that it is.) Fighting The Last War then stands in the end:

“… for valuing broad, loose and open networks over capturing institutions of power whether those institutions are council seats, union officerships or full time community staffer positions.”

In a concluding section – added an addendum – the proposal is made that the WSM focus “for the next year with the aim of developing the model of revolutionary organisation not just on the local level but also as an international example.”

And there one has it.


One thing that is important to establish is that we are dealing with two significant problems, not one. These problems have overlapped and become enmeshed tightly in places but they are distinct at the end of the day. Solving them involves separate initiatives.

One set of problems is to do with the state of WSM as we entered the crisis. The other set is to do with the impact on (and implication for) our politics of the huge rollback evident in the period since the crisis/crash – particularly with capitalism now resurgent in the ideological and economic spheres.

In addressing the enmeshed picture both WSM and Anarchism and Fighting The Last War catastrophise the situation we face. For the WSM and Anarchism things are so bad that the only way out is to abandon anarchism and deem it an unmitigated failure. For Fighting The Last War, after spending a lot of time saying that things were moving along decently –right choices were being made and not that much was really broken – we suddenly find ourselves jumping (in the light of crisis) to an entirely new plain. Fighting The Last War suggests that the WSM (and even anarchism itself) may no longer be fit for purpose and then proposes what is plainly bizarre – some sort of politics of insurgency. [I am reminded of the scenario where a dysfunctional family, seeking to find the source of is distress, blames its condition on the amount of TV that everyone is watching. In other words neither rhyme nor reason appears to be at work in Fighting The Last War; there is some cogency at least in WSM and Anarchism.]


We started out in 1984 with very ambitious aims and those aims were re-affirmed again and again on numerous occasions by the WSM as an organisation. There is nothing wrong with ambition but it is worth bearing in mind that ambition is also blinding – to real obstacles, to innate weakness. In my time in the WSM, there have been three significant periods of movement forward that ended in very difficult head on crashes. These episodes have always shaken the organisation to the core and each one has had the potential to end the WSM for good. But the option is always there too to re-affirm what has been learned, regroup and get going again. This time we have hit more a difficult impasse – because it is composed of a significant internal division but also a significant external crisis too.

First and foremost I think we should reject the ‘catastrophe’ outlooks. What has happened is a wakeup call. We made wrong decisions. We were right to make decisions and to try new initiative but, as we with many decisions in life, there are intended consequences. But what exactly are and were those and what do we do about them? What were we right to do and what was not sound? Inevitably though there is no way out without consolidating around (1) a common agreed understanding of this past and (2) a core programme for the next period.

The suggestion has made that doing the above means taking the WSM back to the 90s. But that cannot happen. The organisation is quite different now, even the movement of anarchist ideas in this country, such as it is, is a lot different now. The organisation did make bad decision – in good faith – but it has learned a huge amount. Certainly, in the case of Cork, where I am more familiar with, this is obviously true; one cannot go back.

Where we have fallen down most clearly is in the hollowing out of the Platform as the basis for organisational activity and planning. As is evident from the shift in the WSM in 00s, there was never a black or white choice offered on this process or on the principle of it. There were sound reasons for attempting to find a new balance, given that we seemed to be overly rigid. But a shift became a slide. I recall at a Conference held in Cork (I think in 2009 but I am not certain). Bear in mind that those present were the most active at that time in the WSM. When polled about the Platform and its relevance to the WSM, a majority at that Conf said that it no longer saw it as key to the WSM. To not be able to join the dots here (as what was going on and the state of the organisation) is, for me, strange.

But there is ample other evidence and I will only briefly mention one of those here and only in general – the CAHWT. In this significant and vital campaign, our commitment was organisationally piecemeal. Individuals who are anarchists did a lot of work but as the WSM we appeared to be a third rate outfit. It was difficult at times to even know who was active in the Campaign in the WSM. And even when significant opportunities were placed in our lap – the grassroots democracy initiative – we were not sure how to take it forward. I know from Cork that there was a great deal of confusion. And I would maintain that CAHWT as it developed did for a period present anarchists with one of the most significant opportunities in a long time for getting its ideas out there and into a much more mainstream swathe of life. CAHWT brought together the most militant and active people opposed to austerity and a significant minority never wanted it to go down the electoralist route. We were (and are) one of the few political traditions with the politics and ability to address this and yet a significant number just didn’t seem to think it mattered.

What the CAHTW brought out most clearly was the slide inside the WSM. From a practical point of view now the organisation finds it difficult to implement politics anymore except where members – by voluntary activity on their own part – move to do this. So what happens is determined more and more by the drive or interest of particular individual or group of individuals. Increasingly then the organisation settles back into a zone where what happens is what is expected as a minimum to happen. So regular meetings occur, the internet presence say, is maintained, or the odd protest around the old reliables tends to happen. Such low level of work is fine if you are keeping a club together, but it just won’t cut when you have to face a formidable and readied opponent like the government.

I emphasise here that is not a commentary on any individual or myself even, it is a criticism of the state we have let the organisation slide into. The Cork WSM may have been in a healthier state than other sections of the WSM (I don’t know if it was) but in Cork we began to largely act like a collection of individuals after a while. Personally for me having driven a stake through the heart of the ‘Cork Anarchist Group’ vampire a number of times, it was bad karma indeed to see it return in its full glory again. Comrades, there are occasion when it is reasonable to trade (very carefully) coherency for numbers, but is this one of those times?


Both Fighting The Last War and WSM and Anarchism conclude with new recipes. The past, in both their views, has been duly analysed, a balanced sheet reconciled. It is time to move on. Both documents to different degrees however are deeply flawed in another important way. This is in the lip service that they pay to objective conditions.

Objective conditions greatly determine what we can do at any one time. In both Fighting The Last War and WSM and Anarchism objective conditions are mostly mentioned only with an eye to removing them from the equation. It is as if, by some feat of magic, that by merely mentioning your enemy you turn him or her to dust. A fine example of this in one of the documents is this statement: there was little or no significant workplace struggle and little or no activity at the base of the unions. But… And off goes said document on its merry way anyway never again really engaging with the reality of that simple observation. Is it seriously being suggested the anarchism can be moved forward when there are little or no significant struggle in the society about us; even worse when passivity is actually on the rise. Isn’t it struggle that provides the basis for breaking the hold of the ideas that hold people in check? I always thought so anyway.

If we are to understand the trajectory of this present crisis and understand what it says about the anarchist project then we need to better appreciate the real and substantial ideas that bind people to the Irish capitalist agenda. Contrary to claims that people are vessels or mere puppets that are moved about at will, I would argue that many, many people uphold and share values that are deeply opposed to where we want to go.

Since the previous economic crisis in the 1980s, the left (in its totality) has failed to build any new significant base of support for its ideas (its ideas I emphasise here) within the working class on this island. In fact as many of us know much of what is and was essential to working-class combativity – rank and file activity and networking – has actually atrophied. This isn’t only to do with the practical impact of ‘partnership’ – although this is and remains an important factor. Other factors are also active. Previous bouts of high unemployment and “the emigration experience” (arising for the 1980s/90s recession) have also taken their toll – and are doing so once again. In parallel, the more militant sectors of the Irish trade union life, as we should know, have seen their industries dismantled or radically overhauled, while the relatively active and influential milieu of ‘old Left’ trade unions activists has fallen by the wayside in part to do with the ideological collapse of Soviet Union model, which many held some truck with and which did provide succour of sorts. Similarly a hugely significant factor has been the revitalised capitalist project built around neo-liberalism. On an ideological front, this is now in the ascendancy – abetted by the media – in many significant area of social discourse.

Perennially weak aspects of the Irish economic situation – affecting the temper of class radicalism – have also had an important influence on where we now are, determining to an important degree what was and is possible. So the ideological reliance of the current economic platform in the Republic on FDI (the role of multinationals etc) and the marshalling of State resources (media and state investments) to defend this pillar of our ‘our economic wellbeing’, has resulted in a considerable level of public and working class support for our (supine) relationship with these same multinationals; you could even argue at a stretch that some of these multinationals rescued some of us from a precarious reliance on gombeen Irish capitalism (admittedly at an extortionate cost). A further important ideological factor has been the aggressive push in Irish society from the 80s on to impress on all (utilising the not so dormant spectre of Irish nationalism) that Ireland can only thrive in the harsh new world economy if we support ‘Brand Ireland’ whenever and wherever it shows it head. So from ‘Buy Irish’ to partnership, the corporatist model of Irish economic life (and not class division) has been to the fore and has been repeatedly re-enforced.

The above is worth emphasising in order to point out that they are actually a considerable number of reasons why we are where we are today – in retreat. Some people indeed are throwing their hands in the air and despairing but to me the outcome from this crash is the logically conclusion of the twenty or so years that proceeded it. Why should it be otherwise? What is the saying: if it looks like and it tastes like, it is….

The tendency in anarchism that suggests that the masses are ready at a moment notice to upturn the social order is a hard one to understand, for me anyway. Note too that it is an idea that permeates Fighting The Last War – yet another reason why it should be substantially rejected.


It is very clear now looking into short and middle distance of politics that we are in for a period of heightened conflict in society. This is a different period from what has gone on before – the period that was about the long reign (and fall from grace) of social democracy. [This is not to suggest for the moment that SD can’t or won’t be reinvented again – since it does answer a reasonable desire in society to avaoid social revolution]. But can we build on in this period and keep in there? Learn more, build more and fall back again? Those are the questions.

People will know of old that I have always maintained this business is a very long term project. One cannot predict the future but in the process of planning and working for the long term there is always the possibility that a perfect opportunity might come along. But you cannot operate on a Lotto eventuality either. Plans that do not base themselves on the long term are doomed in my view. Short terms scheme also attract people who engage in unsustainable levels of activity that are in themselves detrimental to pragmatic consistent engagement. And a consistent mode of engagement has to be the way forward since ultimately anarchism was, is and always will be about establishing and building human relations – solidarity in a word.

Much of what has stood to anarchism in the past has been its ability to establish and nurture such strong human bonds around a very hopeful vision of the future. I don’t think it will ever be any different in essence. That is why I don’t think there is any new paradigm. We may find new ways to put ideas about and we might find new ways to maximise numbers at protests but at the end – if anarchism is to prevail – it will because of what is established between human beings in workplace and communities.

The aim now should be to recognise that for the moment – given the current hegemony of capitalist values – that the long term has got longer; but we don’t know how long either. That is why I believe that the anarchist project on this island needs to be put back onto a sound and sustainable footing based around the centrality of the Platform and focused on class-politics. We need small localised effort – that fit within a national coherency – to keep our heads on the ground. We also need time and honesty to pick over the past so that we can take from it what we have learned and needed to be made realise.

There is no guarantee that we won’t hit another crisis again in the future but that is how it works. Learn more, build more and fall back, and then go on again. I can certainly see how far we have come since when I first got involved and it is a long, long way

  • 1The full corrected text is published at
  • 2The full version is
  • 3To my knowledge the Breaking The Anchor document is not available online.


Routes to freedom - the platform, its shortcomings and the WSM practise - does it remain relevant?

Submitted by R Totale on December 21, 2021

One of the key foundation documents for the Workers Solidarity Movement is the ‘Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft).’ This text was written in Paris in 1926 by a group that included exiled Russian and Ukrainian anarchists and was very influenced by the lessons they drew from the Russian Revolution. Three of the authors -- Nestor Makhno, Ida Mett, Piotr Archinov -- were then and now very well known anarchists, the remaining two -- Valevsky and Linsky -- I know relatively little about.

In this article I intend to examine whether this text has any relevance to anarchist organising today, some 90 years after it was drafted. In addition, what can we say about its shortcomings? Finally, I will look at some of the confusion the WSM ran into when trying to follow it.

The specific context of asking these questions is that of rebuilding one of the longest running platformist organisations, the WSM. The WSM only just survived the years of the crisis because of our failure to discover a revolutionary alternative to austerity capable of convincing any significant section of the masses that the risk of a revolutionary rupture was worthwhile. It’s only a small exaggeration to say almost 25 years of careful preparation crumbled under the pressure of a couple of years of real but very contained struggle. In such circumstances, it is tempting to simply ditch the past and start the process anew -- all the more so when faced with a foundational document that is anything but complete and also quite dated.

This piece you are reading began its life as the lead in for a Dublin WSM branch discussion this July on whether ‘The Platform’ remained relevant and, in places, draws on our experience of being a self-described Platformist group. My reflections on this suggest that we perhaps did not spend enough time working out a collective understanding of what implementation of the organisational principles of the platform meant.

The appeal of the ‘Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)’ to many anarchists today is found in its opening segment:

Despite the force and unquestionably positive character of anarchist ideas, despite the clarity and completeness of anarchist positions with regard to the social revolution, and despite the heroism and countless sacrifices of anarchists in the struggle for Anarchist Communism, it is very telling that in spite of all this, the anarchist movement has always remained weak and has most often featured in the history of working-class struggles, not as a determining factor, but rather as a fringe phenomenon.

This contrast between the positive substance and incontestable validity of anarchist ideas and the miserable state of the anarchist movement can be explained by a number of factors, the chief one being the absence in the anarchist world of organizational principles and organizational relations.

In every country the anarchist movement is represented by local organizations with contradictory theory and tactics with no forward planning or continuity in their work. They usually fold after a time, leaving little or no trace.”

These opening paragraphs of the Platform still speak to the experience of many anarchists today, even though they were written almost 90 years ago in 1926.

The Platform speaks to anarchists who have gone through informal organisation and seen that it can’t be a complete answer to the question of how do anarchist build a libertarian revolution and, in many cases, is not even a satisfactory partial answer. The WSM 1989 republication of the text along with our practise of the ideas it contained had considerable international influence in the Anglo sphere and, because English is widely understood as a second language, beyond even that. In the mid 2000’s this influence allowed us to spearhead an international regrouping of anarchism around, an international initiative of similar organisations that peaked with about 31 participating organisations in 26 or so countries. By then, the WSM also had about 65 members on paper and even though the number of active members was smaller, we were close to catching the other two significant organisations of the radical far left that existed in Ireland.

The Platform describes in broad terms what WSM tried to build in the 1990s and 2000s:

“We have vital need of an organization which, having attracted most of the participants in the anarchist movement, would establish a common tactical and political line for anarchism and thereby serve as a guide for the whole movement.”

“The only approach which can lead to a solution of the general organizational problem is, as we see it, the recruitment of anarchism’s active militants on the basis of specific theoretic, tactical and organizational positions, which is to say on the basis of a more or less perfected, homogeneous programme”

The WSM implementation

What this meant in practise for WSM was the development of detailed position papers through twice yearly conferences, our magazines Red & Black Revolution and later Irish Anarchist Review, and ongoing public lectures. Through these vehicles, our politics were debated, challenged, modified, and ultimately put down on paper. It was a process on which we must have collectively spent tens of thousands of hours. This informed a very much more substantial - in terms of time - practise of involvement in a wide range of struggles and organisations. And the lessons of that practise were in turn debated and recorded to be built on.

When the WSM went into crisis, at the same time and in part due to, the economic crisis reality started to diverge from what was expected from our positions. It became clear that our investment in political development didn’t guarantee organisational relevance or even the expected level of internal coherence. The sheer volume of some positions (in most cases developed a long time before most members had joined) could sometimes be a dead weight when identifying and taking action relevant to the immediate circumstances. A negative tendency developed among some long term members, where an abstract adherence to the platform was used to try and polarise the organisation along the test of adherence to a never defined ‘platformist’ orthodoxy. And on the other hand another segment of members departed to later become social democrats around their sense that the platform had not, in the end, answered the organisational problems of anarchism.

This was one weakness of the approach the platform encouraged. Another was what it failed to cover. There is no discussion of racism, sexism or other oppressions in the Platform. The excuse is offered that it is a document of its time but it’s still a curious oversight given that the authors’ own experiences included struggles in those spheres. In any case this does make its use as a foundational document problematic as that tends to encourage a tendency to see these struggles as secondary or less fundamental.

For the WSM that manifested in a relatively weak understanding of debates within anti-oppression movements as we sought collective guidance almost exclusively from the relatively impoverished historical practice of the Irish left and the European anarchist movement, the highpoint of which was perhaps Mujeres Libres during the Spanish revolution. On the one hand a lot of our practise for considerable periods was around anti-racist and pro-choice campaigning but the theoretical base of that practise was drawn from the increasingly distant peak of anarchism in the 1910s to 30s.

Post 2013 as WSM tried to understand how to create a revolutionary organisation in the networked age we didn’t break with the platform but rather started to elaborate the areas it failed to cover. Principally this was the question of how class politics intersected with anti-racism, feminism, LGBT/Queer struggles and anti-colonialism. Not just on the macro level of society but how these impacted on anarchist organisation in general and the WSM in particular. We also radically redrafted our ‘Role of An Anarchist Organisation’ position paper to reflect the new organisational challenges of the new period we found ourselves in. Did these changes, which were quite fundamental, mean we have broken with Platformism?

I’m going to try and answer that by returning to the text:


I. Class struggle, its role and its value
“In social terms, the whole of human history represents a continuous chain of struggles waged by the working masses in pursuit of their rights, freedom and a better life. At all times throughout the history of human societies, this class struggle has been the principal factor determining the form and structure of those societies.”

In broad terms this claim remains key to our understanding of the world even if we’d perhaps be less inclined to try to use class struggle to explain the Norman conquest of Ireland (for instance).

II. The necessity of violent social revolution

“the structure of present society automatically keeps the working masses in a state of ignorance and mental stagnation; it forcibly prevents their education and enlightenment so that they will be easier to control.”

This feels very dated as it doesn’t really describe how social control works under a modern capitalism that increasingly requires a highly educated workforce with significant amount of autonomy. In 1926 work was still overwhelmingly manual in nature and at the peak of the factory system often quite deskilled. Anything beyond basic education was reserved for the elite and a narrow section of clerical workers. Popular education was a central part of the anarchist movement in many countries as it was the only access to education for large swathes of the working class.

Modern capitalism with its need for educated workers uses much more sophisticated control mechanisms. For instance, it has seen the growth of enormous entertainment industries that can occupy our brains outside of work in a way that doesn’t tend to produce collective organisation or effort. Instead, such entertainment not only provides profit and distraction but even promotes division, competition and meaningless inter group rivalry around everything from X-Factor to Premier football. One of the big success stories for modern capitalism has been to largely succeed in turning the limited threat posed by electoralism into harmless rival identifications accompanied by a commentary that places form so far ahead of content that the system is shocked whenever a vaguely principled politician or party briefly escapes the mould.

The wording here is also overly insurrectionary in emphasis to our ears insisting “there is no other way to achieve a transformation of capitalist society into a society of free workers except through violent social revolution."

The Platform was of course coming from the experience of the Russian Revolution, but even in 1917 in the countryside and a lesser extent the cities that insurrectionary side of that that revolution was as much about defending land and factories that had already been occupied as an attack in order to create the conditions for such occupation. That distinction is important today in areas of the world where the masses are not in desperate conditions and thus really would have something to lose in the destruction that would accompany the failure of a violent revolution.

III. Anarchism and Anarchist Communism

Possibly my favourite line in the Platform remains:

“Anarchism's outstanding thinkers - Bakunin, Kropotkin, and others - did not invent the idea of anarchism, but, having discovered it among the masses, merely helped develop and propagate it through the power of their thought and knowledge.”

This stands in sharp contrast with most of the left which presents socialist theory as coming from the heads of intellectuals to then be implemented by the masses. Failure is often then excused as poor or incorrect implementation of that theory by the masses. In practise this means a strong tendency by many left organisations to approach involvement in struggles as a question of how to most effectively impose the party line on the struggle. Which will often be through seizing control of the decision making mechanisms or more cynically prevent them coming into being in the first place.

The Platform is distinctly communist in terms of the economy it proposes:

“This basis is common ownership in the form of the socialization of all of the means and instruments of production (industry, transport, land, raw materials, etc.) and the construction of national economic agencies on the basis of equality and the self-management of the working classes.

It is from this principle of the equal worth and equal rights of every individual, and also the fact that the value of the labour supplied by each individual person cannot be measured or established, that the underlying economic, social and juridical principle of Anarchist Communism follows: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs".

V. The negation of the state and authority

On the question of electoralism the platform describes quite well the limits exposed one more in the recent Syriza experience in Greece, that is;

“The conquest of power by the social democratic parties through parliamentary methods in the framework of the present system will not further the emancipation of labour one little bit for the simple reason that real power, and thus real authority, will remain with the bourgeoisie, which has full control of the country's economy and politics.”

The major difference being that in 1926 the domination of small economies by large economies was still mostly through imperial conquest, occupation and direct colonialism. Today these are the imperialist methods of last resort. Methods that only normally come into play when the international mechanism of capitalist globalisation are inadequate or are opposed. There was no need for Germany or France to invade Greece to assert their economic interests as the ECB and IMF acting through the Euro proved well able to bring Syriza to heel. The bourgeoisie who turned out to have full control of the Greek economy were only partially Greek in composition. As an aside this also returns us to one of the weaknesses of the Platform, the failure to address colonialism even if in practise the later ‘platformists’ have generally had amongst the best class struggle anarchist approaches to that question.

There is one point on which the platform touches on the question of relative privilege among the working class, broadly defined. This question has become one of the sharp dividing lines within the left today, what has the platform to say:

VI. The masses and the anarchists: the role of each in the social struggle and the social revolution
“The principal forces of social revolution are the urban working class, the peasantry and, partly, the working intelligentsia.
.. the working intelligentsia is comparatively more stratified than the workers and the peasants, thanks to the economic privileges which the bourgeoisie awards to certain of its members. That is why, in the early days of the social revolution, only the less well-off strata of the intelligentsia will take an active part in the revolution”

This brief mention of an understanding of relative privilege as a significant organisational question is a starting point in overcoming the lack of any other mention of how relative privilege and marginalisation play out in movements. It leaves the door open to the suggestion that the authors would not have ruled out a broader use of such understandings. As did their practise of autonomous Jewish military units and communes during the revolution in the Ukraine as a way of addressing the often murderous additional oppression of the Jewish population.

But the other aspect of this paragraph is the relatively simply stratification it presents where apart from the more complex ‘working intelligentsia’ there are only peasants and urban (presumably factory) workers. Did that really describe the global masses of their time or even the situation in Europe? It certainly isn’t a complete summary today, even before we reflect the huge relative increase in the ‘working intelligentsia’ category as the percentage of peasants has radically reduced and factory workers has reduced and geographically relocated considerably.

This isn’t nitpicking. On the organisational, strategic and tactical levels an understanding of the composition of society and the stratification of the masses is a central determining force that would need to be returned to again and again. The very simple class classification system outlined in the platform is only useful for the simplest of polemics. It is not a tool for building an understanding that can overcome the divisions created and maintained by the stratifications. Class unity cannot be brought into being through asserting it to already be the case, regardless of the divisions that exist. It has to be built in struggle, struggle that has overcoming division as a primary focus in order to avoid the dead end of creating relatively privileged and powerful fragments of the class around skilled (white, straight, cis-male, citizen, etc ) workers.

But returning to the question of organisation the following two sections again describe the intended practice of the WSM in terms of mass work:

“In the pre-revolutionary period, the basic task of the General Anarchist Union is to prepare the workers and peasants for the social revolution.”

“The anarchist education of the masses must be conducted in the spirit of class intransigence, anti-democratism and anti-statism and in the spirit of the ideals of Anarchist Communism, but education alone is not enough. A degree of anarchist organization of the masses is also required. If this is to be accomplished, we have to operate along two lines: on the one hand, by the selection and grouping of revolutionary worker and peasant forces on the basis of anarchist theory (explicitly anarchist organizations) and on the other, on the level of grouping revolutionary workers and peasants on the basis of production and consumption (revolutionary workers' and peasants' production organizations, free workers' and peasants' cooperatives, etc.).”

Anti-electoralism would be a better term for us to use than the confusing anti-democratism but otherwise and taking into account the shortcomings already highlighted this sketch remains valid. What is an interesting question for the modern Platformist movement is the relatively central focus on radical co-ops and the role they would have to play when we imagine a revolution that is not simply insurrectionary in construction. That is in terms of what we are to build in the shell of the old society that then makes a defensive revolution a reasonable proposal to working masses who often are not desperate or on the edge of starvation.

Constructive Part

This seems the most distant today because it talks of how to organise a post revolutionary society in terms that are broad but still based on the societies of the 1920’s when the peasantry made up most of the population of most countries. But the general identification of the three key areas is worth picking out as remaining relevant:

The three essential immediate tasks of the revolution are identified as
“To find an anarchist solution to the problem of the country's (industrial) production.
To resolve the agrarian question in the same manner.
To resolve the problem of consumption (food supplies).”

Again we see a more sophisticated understanding what what is need than the initial focus only on “violent social revolution”:

“Essentially, the revolution's mightiest defence is the successful resolution of the challenges facing it: the problems of production and consumption, and the land question. Once these matters have been correctly resolved, no counter-revolutionary force will be able to change or shake the workers’ free society. However, the workers will nonetheless have to face a bitter struggle against the enemies of the revolution in order to defend its physical existence.”

Revolution here is presented more as the process of solving the problems of a new (and communist) society. The armed revolutionary aspect is a necessity imposed by the need to defend that society rather than the suggested mechanism for reaching it.

The final area I want to touch on is the organisational section because once again this essentially sketches out the general WSM approach. However I want to be critical of how we understood it and particularly our tendency to collapse the four principles it outlined together without understanding what separated them from each other.

“The platform’s task is to assemble all of the healthy elements of the anarchist movement into a single active and continually operating organization, the General Union of Anarchists. All of anarchism's active militants must direct their resources into the creation of this organization.”

This sentence is probably among the most contested of the document, including quite often within WSM. The Platformist approach is sometimes misrepresented as being about just grouping together the best militants. That is grouping together a relatively small number from within the anarchist movement that will influence the movement in general through the power of their ideas. Elsewhere on the left and occasionally within Platformism that sort of ‘best militants’ grouping is sometimes called a cadre organisation. Cadre is a military term about the methodology of maintaining a small but highly trained force in peacetime that forms the officer layers of a very much bigger conscript army when war arrives.

Instead of war we are talking here about revolution. Those who in effect advocate a cadre organisation hold to the idea that this side of the revolution the revolutionary organisation can only group together a tiny minority and that this means the quality of that minority is all that is really important. I say ‘in effect’ because the obvious contradiction between the cadre form and anarchism has meant you have anarchists who advocate the form but oppose the use of the term cadre. Which introduces contradictions that prove damaging in the medium term as the form is adopted in a way that makes critique of it more difficult. You end up with a ‘that’s not what we are’ denial that then necessitates one of those frustrating debates about what words really mean.

In any case the language used in the Platform above is quite different, it excludes the cadre approach. It aims to group not the best anarchists but (almost) all anarchists. The solution advocated is not the identification and recruitment of a knowledgeable and skilled cadre but rather a methodology to bring together most anarchists in a manner that collectively generates and allows implementation of the best solutions they reach. Platformist groups that have ‘gone bad’ have been those groups that confused the first process for the second.

To repeat, the Platform argues for grouping together “all of anarchism's active militants” - the only anarchists it excludes are the implicit ‘unhealthy elements.’

However, unlike the Synthesis counterproposal, the Platform doesn’t want to group all anarchists together ignoring political differences but rather insists that the major function of the grouping together of militants is to discuss and resolve those differences in a collective fashion and then implement what is agreed.

The question of unity

As the text continues it defines the four key organisational principles through which this is to be achieved:

1. Unity of theory
2. Unity of tactics or the collective method of action
3. Collective responsibility
4. Federalism
“Federalism means the free agreement of individuals and entire organizations upon collective endeavour, in order to achieve a common objective.”

The WSM had a strong focus on the first point, unity of theory, through the development and repeated modification of position papers. For the most part this worked at preserving a collective baseline that could be referenced in new situations but our methodology for generating it left a lot to be desired. We basically copied the methodology of much larger organisations like the unions and the traditional left. Which was one where motions were written by individuals and then debated and voted on by the WSM as a whole at twice yearly national conferences.

The problems here were that
a. the intellectual work of generating large blocks of text only suited a small minority of members. Probably less than 10% of members ever submitted a substantial motion to conference even though dozens of such motions were submitted over 25 years. There was little or no effort prior to 2011 to change that dynamic, in effect accepting the existence of a de facto internal cadre carrying out the most important intellectual work. Some of those who subsequently left not only embraced this but based their analysis of ‘what went wrong’ around the admittance of members they consider to lack sufficient intellectual understanding. A mea culpa here - probably as much as 50% of the text of our motions after 1990 was generated by me, it’s a form of thinking out an issue and codifying the results that comes very easly to me.

b. motions being generated by a small minority resulted in a lot of the members being quite passive with regard to the content of these motions, in particular where the content was not politically controversial. This had the biggest impact in areas of resource allocation as it meant that unless members strongly disagreed with a proposal they would vote for it. But that didn’t indicate a personal commitment to the work required to implement it.

In a certain sense there need not be a problem here. Often there will be tactical proposals that are compatible with other tactics and so the only question really is whether there are enough collective resources that people would allow a particular experiment to go ahead.

The problem arises when there is the expectation that the act of getting a motion passed is enough in itself to then expect all members will work to implement it in circumstances where the act of passing is really more of a ‘sure, give it a go’.

This is in part a discussion around what ‘tactical unity’ should be read to mean. And partly a discussion about understanding that implementing any project will always be a case not just of winning passive agreement but also generating ownership and ‘buy in’. That second factor was seldom understood in WSM, instead people tended to fall back to simply demanding that ‘Unity of tactics’ meant people had to implement their project once it had been voted for.

The challenge of resource allocation

That approach might work if the original decision making process is one in which the entire work of the organisations is weighed up and the votes take place in the context not of deciding whether something is a nice idea but rather on whether resources can be moved from some other area to that area. Obviously this would also have a huge impact on the likelihood of a motion being passed and required a very different decision making mechanism, one outside the tradition of unions and other organisations. It didn’t help that we were an all volunteer organisation while unions have a large staffs of full timers to administer and co-ordinate the allocation of resources. As the organisation becomes bigger the scale of trying to weigh all the demands on resources against new demands in motions become ever more complex. Indeed even at the level of an organisation with 50 members in 3 cities it’s close to impossible for every member to keep track of all the needed information.

Pre 2013 the WSM had no mechanism to weigh up competing demands for resource beyond members including ‘make a priority’ type phrases in their motions. But actually that simply displaced the problem as before long almost everything of importance to anyone was made a priority. In retrospect it seems remarkable that we never recognised that the developing friction that was causing required different methodology or a change in approach to what we meant by tactical unity.

But importantly the second issue here is around the idea that tactical unity should be translated into every member implementing every decision. WSM went through periods where that was attempted, normally in the context of genuine mass popular campaigns that involved a significant minority of the working class. The most recent example of that approach being organising against the Household Tax where there was considerable pressure on every member to make it the main focus of their activity. There was logic to that as at the time it was the biggest struggle in quite some years. But there were also problems beyond the obvious one that it is never a good idea to put all your eggs in the one basket. Those included;

a. Newer members in areas where they were the only member didn’t necessarily have the confidence, experience and skills to deal with the manipulative behaviour of the leninist groups.Most of our newer members who found themselves in this sort of situation quietly drifted out of WSM .
b. The campaign was a very basic class based one with limited economic demands. Making it the major focus of every member would have resulted in members who were active in other areas, in particular anti-oppression struggles having to reduce or temporarily abandon that activity.
c. The Household Tax campaign was eventually defeated in a way that was quite demoralising. With most of our members putting most of their effort into that struggle the result was widespread demoralisation in WSM in the final months that was not balanced by success elsewhere.

The wrong case for tactical unity

It’s often the case that when you argue with Leninists about the need for democracy they fall back on military examples where its only possible for a small number of people to make a decision that has to be made quickly or defeat is certain. Therefore they claim direct / assembly democracy is not essential and should be replaced by the representative forms of democratic centralism. Arguing for general patterns of behaviour based on extreme examples will seldom give good results. Yet platformists tend to do this with relation to tactical unity.

In the conditions of the revolution in the Ukraine you can certainly see why quite a tight tactical unity would be needed. It was important that everyone would implement a particular plan at the same moment in time. ‘We are going to attack that hill at dawn from three sides and we need you to attack the river crossing 5km away 30 minutes before hand as a diversion to draw away reinforcements.’ But as with the Leninists and democracy just because extreme examples exist where a very strict definition of tactical unity needs to be followed this doesn’t then mean that such a level should be the default position in most circumstances.

Instead I’d suggest that tactical unity should not be read as anything more than a requirement to implement the tactics that are agreed if they apply to the given area a member is active in. So in relation to the household tax campaign tactical unity would mean arguing for a boycott of the charge, if that was the work you were involved in, and not a requirement to get involved in that work in order to make that argument. Indeed that must have been the intended meaning of the Platform, why else list Tactical Unity separately from Collective Discipline? There could be times, preferably brief, where the organisation thought that the scale of opportunity that existed did require an exceptional level of tactical unity including an individual requirement for implementation. But that would need to be a clear cut decision rather than, as happened in our case, an assumption some members made and tried to require of others.

Which brings us to Collective Responsibility. This can be read as every individual being responsible for the implementation of every decision but that makes little sense. What makes more sense is if it is understood to operate on both the collective and individual level. On the collective level it is the requirement for the organisation to implement decisions made. If that is to be meaningful it means building into the decision making process a way of weighing up and parcelling out the competition for collective resources. Then on the individual level the implementation of tasks that the individual has taken on should be a requirement, as should the expectation of taking on some minimum volume of tasks. In other words at the individual level the expectation is not that everyone will do X but rather than the individual will take on tasks and implement those tasks as part of a collective process.

When you look at the way the Platform defines the last point, Federalism, we see exactly this expectation in the definition: “the federalist type of anarchist organization, while acknowledging the right of every member of the organization to independence, freedom of opinion, personal initiative and individual liberty, entrusts each member with specific organizational duties, requiring that these be duly performed and that decisions jointly made also be put into effect.”

The conclusion I would come to is that in these core aspects it can be argued that the post 2013 WSM have moved a lot closer to a practical understanding and implementation of the Platform. The pre 2009 WSM had a formal adherence to the Platform but we lacked a practical distinction between tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism of the sort worked through here. Instead we failed to distinguish between these. And coupled this with an inherited a set of contradictory practises from the unions, left and republicanism that were to some extent in contrast to these points and were administratively unworkable in an anarchist organisation. The end result was that the proclaimed (too intense) unity was seldom realised in practise and this became a source of frustration & friction.

National co-ordination

The platform also addresses head on the tricky question of how you co-ordinate the work of numerous branches or other sub-divisions, its answer is not dissimilar to the WSM Delegate Council (DC);

Executive Committee of the Union.
“The following functions will be ascribed to that Committee: implementation of decisions made by the Union, as entrusted; overseeing the activity and theoretical development of the individual organizations, in keeping with the overall theoretical and tactical line of the Union; monitoring the general state of the movement; maintaining functional organizational ties between all the member organizations of the Union, as well as with other organizations.”

However because of the administrative contradiction outlined above was an ongoing tension where WSM DC was expected to somehow solve the consequences of our failure to collectively understand the differences between the four points above. Those who later went on to become social democrats wanted DC to micro-manage the organisation’s work - at a level impossible without ‘full timers’ - and as part of this micro-management the requirement to pass on all sorts of decision making powers to DC.

The social democrats later interpreted their failure to make DC work in the manner wished as a failure of anarchism. In particular they came to adopt the idea that such decision making roles were only suitable for an elite of people with the right sort of brains. To be clear they were far from the first set of people for whom the Platform proved a transition out of anarchism to more elitist politics, to my mind this is because the Platform has often been implemented as a program for a cadre organisation.

Does any of this still matter in the age of the ‘networked individual’?

There is a final point, and that is to ask whether an organisational set of principles from the year when public telephones first appeared in Dublin train stations has relevance in the age when many of us have instant global video communication devices sitting in our pockets. The transformative opening up of ‘one to many’ communications in the last decade has radically changed the way oppositional movements emerge. The central part once played by the old left party system in monopolising ‘one to many’ communications in oppositional politics no longer exists. We are only beginning to see how that will transform the left but the question has to be asked whether this means the organisational principles of the Platform are about as relevant as designs for a horse and cart today.

I’d suggest that perhaps the Platform is more relevant than ever precisely because the communication monopolies that once made centralised, top down party structures seem natural no longer exist. Let’s rewrite the 3rd paragraph of the platform quoted at the start of this piece slightly to refer to more recent events. ‘In every country the Occupy movements were represented by local organizations with contradictory theory and tactics with no forward planning or continuity in their work. They folded after a time, leaving little or no trace.’ This suggests how the problems of informal anarchism of the 1910s have become more general movement problems today. But it also enables us to see how the negative costs of such disappearance are not what they used to be because online communications and archiving makes it much more possible to preserve both lessons and communications networks. Occupy and the other horizontalist movements didn’t simply vanish, they often seeded other movement’s.

An important qualifier is that the horizontalist movements may share organisational features with the informal anarchists of long ago but they did not define themselves as revolutionary organisations en route to overthrowing capitalism. From that point of view the way the Platform talks about the relationship between the Platformists and the mass semi-spontaneous movements of its day are informative: “We regard revolutionary syndicalism solely as a trade-union movement of the workers with no specific social and political ideology, and thus incapable by itself of resolving the social question; as such it is our opinion that the task of anarchists in the ranks of that movement consists of developing anarchist ideas within it and of steering it in an anarchist direction, so as to turn it into an active army of the social revolution. It is important to remember that if syndicalism is not given the support of anarchist theory in good time, it will be forced to rely on the ideology of some statist political party.”

The post 2011 period is precisely a period where ‘horizontalism not given the support of anarchist theory in good time, [was] forced to rely on the ideology of some statist political party’ in the forms of Syriza, Podemos and much less convincingly the old left of Sanders & Corbyn. This was a failure of the weakness and general disorganisation of anarchism in 2011 - it failed to provide a convincing alternative. Worse some made the mistake of reading the failures of Occupy as being failures of anarchism. Some of the informal anarchists in Greece, Spain and elsewhere ended up being sucked into becoming voters if not foot soldiers of those new statist political parties.

Resisting those tendencies would have required quite sizeable and well resourced formal anarchist organisations with the reputation and reach to successfully argue for other paths than the retreat to electoralism. Building those sort of organisations is not the work of weeks or months, nor can they rapidly emerge from nowhere. Rather we need to spend time building the required tight relationships and deep levels of skill and experience on a large enough basis to give us the needed reach when popular movements explode onto the scene. The Platform continues to provide a starting point to understanding how that is done.

Where does that leave the WSM today with regard to the Platform?

The ‘Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)’ remains a useful foundational document even if it's certainly not the text you would hand to someone explain what the WSM stands for. It’s particularly useful for anarchists who have become frustrated with practises of anarchism that are based around informality as a demonstration that informality is not fundamental to anarchism. The danger here is that for such people it is often also the last step before they break with anarchism, so the historical experience has been that hitting a barrier often results in just such a break. Critics then reverse cause and effect and portray the platform as some sort of exit text.

It’s useful as a tool of common identification with other anarchists internationally. In both cases its pedigree is important as those who drafted it were quite central figures in anarchism of the 1910s and 1920s. But that is quite a specialist usage that also has the downside of only working for those who have a rather detailed knowledge of what many consider to be an obscure corner of anarchist history. Out of necessity WSM has relied almost completely on such an approach to identify potential international allies, the exceptions being where direct individual contact generated the level of knowledge and mutual understanding that could bypass that.

As with all foundational texts it’s important to be hyper aware of the tendency to treat them as scripture or material for ‘appeal to expertise’ style of arguments. And the related danger of presuming that anything not touched on is not of major importance. As discussed already the huge shortcomings of the platform is not in what it says but what it doesn’t say, it had nothing to say about how other oppressions intersect class. Or, although this is a modern concern, the related questions of environmental crisis and growth requiring economics.

The Platform is not anything approaching a manual, quite the opposite it’s a sketch of some ideas that will only become useful as a guide when they are considerably fleshed out and built on. It’s central ongoing strength, perhaps unfortunately, is its description of the shortcomings of informal anarchism in the opening paragraphs and the sketch it provides of organisational structures and methods to overcome those shortcomings. Without those anarchism remains trapped as a critique of the left without the accompanying methods to aid the birth of a genuinely free society.

That at the end of the day is the relevance of the platform. We stand on the shoulders of a fight for freedom that is hundreds of years old and in certain respects thousands. That is a fight that has not been won and broadly we have lost for two reasons. The first because rebellion resulted on the promotion of new people into power, people who promised freedom but who at best simply modified the prison. And the second because we lacked the organisation to defeat the old regime. Most of the left tends to focus simply on that second problem, many in the anarchist movement fear the first to the extent it makes the second inevitable. The platform claimed to provide the route to freedom overcoming both.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter)

Thanks to everyone who contribtued to this draft either at the branch meeting or when I shared an early version for comments (and proof reading corrections).

Relevant further reading

You can read the modern translation of the platform from which quotations above are taken

WSM PP: Anarchism, Oppression and Exploitation -

WSM PP: Role of the Anarchist Organisation -

The WSM & fighting the last war - a reply to James O’Brien -

Making anarchist organisations work - Dunbar’s number, administration and care -

Solidarity, Engagement & the Revolutionary Organisation -