Red and Black Revolution

An archive of Red & Black Revolution, an Irish anarchist magazine published by the Workers Solidarity Movement from 1994-2009. Red and Black Revolution was later replaced by another publication, the Irish Anarchist Review, published from 2010-2015.

Submitted by R Totale on December 30, 2021


R Totale

2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R Totale on December 30, 2021

By the way, it looks like the full text of each article is available at the WSM page for each issue, it'd be good to add each individual article if anyone has the time but think that's a bit beyond me at the moment.


2 years 4 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on January 17, 2022

R Totale

By the way, it looks like the full text of each article is available at the WSM page for each issue, it'd be good to add each individual article if anyone has the time but think that's a bit beyond me at the moment.

yes, very understandable, but amazing work, thanks

Red and Black Revolution 01 - 1994

Submitted by R Totale on December 30, 2021


Some starting Comment from Issue 1

Ashes to Phoenix

It has become something of a cliche is say the left is dead. But few have explained this supposed death. New organisations have arisen in recent years that claim to be avoiding the mistakes of the past. How true is this claim? Andrew Flood examines the evidence and comes up with some disturbing conclusions.

Time to be constructive!

The left to-day, demoralised by its collapse is without focus or direction. Anarchism given its anti-authoritarian tradition should be able to offer a way forward. But many are reluctant to take up anarchism, Andrew Flood looks at some of the reasons why this is so and suggests the key organisational ideas needed for a new anarchist movement.

Lessons of Trade Union Fightback

Following the vote on the Programme for Competitiveness and Work at the end of March, the Trade Union Fightback (TUF) campaign was wound up. Here Gregor Kerr, an INTO member who was secretary of TUF, looks at the history and lessons of the campaign.

Freedom & Revolution

Does the end justify the means? Many on the left belive so. Aileen O'Carroll argues that the means used play a part in creating the end that is achieved. The best example of this is the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Marx & the State

Some Marxists claim Marx was a libertarian, and Leninism and social democracy are not really Marxist. But in doing so they ignore the anarchist critique of Marx's political ideas on the state, the party and the organisation of a socialist revolution. Conor Mc Loughlin looks at the contradictions within Marx's political writings. This article was accompanied by Did Bakunin advocate a secret dictatorship

Syndicalism its strengths and weaknesses

The main organisational form in libertarian politics today is syndicalism. Alan MacSimon a delegate to Dublin Council of Trade Unions who has also attended a European gathering of revolutionary unions looks at the potential, and limits, of syndicalism.

Review: Grassroots democracy

Democracy has broken out in a range of countries in recent years - Guatemala, S. Korea and Argentina to name but a few. But, what is the reality? Kevin Doyle looks at a book that takes a more critical eye.


On New Years Day of 1994 people awoke to the news that four towns in the south-eastern state of Chiapas had been taken over by a group calling itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Dermot Sreenan, who recently presented a talk on the EZLN and organised a picket of the Mexican embassy in January '94, looks at the politics and history of the EZLN.


rbr1.pdf (1.39 MB)


Syndicalism: Its strengths & weaknesses

The main organisational form in libertarian politics in 1994 was syndicalism. Alan MacSimon, a delegate to Dublin Council of Trade Unions who has also attended a European gathering of revolutionary unions looked at the potential, and limits, of syndicalism.

Submitted by R Totale on January 17, 2022

SYNDICALISM is the largest organised tendency in the libertarian movement today. It has built large workers' unions, led major struggles, been the popular expression of anarchism in many countries. To understand the anarchist-communist view of syndicalism we have to look at its roots, its core beliefs and its record.

In the 1860s the modern socialist movement was beginning to take shape. The International Working Mens' Association, better known as the First International, was becoming a pole of attraction for militant workers. As the movement grew, points of agreement and of disagreement between the Marxists and the Anarchists about what socialism meant and how to achieve it were becoming clear. This led to the Marxists using less than democratic means to expel the anarchists.

In 1871 the Paris Commune came into being when the workers of Paris seized their city. When they were finally defeated seven thousand Communards were dead or about to be executed. A reign of terror against the Left swept Europe. The anarchists were driven underground in country after country. This did not auger well for a rapid growth of the movement. In response to the terror of the bosses, their shooting down of strikers and protesting peasants and their suppression of the anarchist movement a minority launched an armed campaign, known as propaganda by deed, and killed several kings, queens, aristocrats and senior politicians.

Though very understandable, this drove a further wedge between the bulk of the working class and the movement. Clandestine work became the norm in many countries. Mass work became increasingly difficult. The image of the madman with a bomb under his arm was born. The movement was making no significant gains.

By the turn of the century many anarchists were convinced that a new approach was needed. They called for a return to open and public militant activity among workers. The strategy they developed was syndicalism.


Its basic ideas revolve around organising all workers into the one big union, keeping control in the hands of the rank & file, and opposing all attempts to create a bureaucracy of unaccountable full-time officials. Unlike other unions their belief is that the union can be used not only to win reforms from the bosses but also to overthrow the capitalist system. They hold that most workers are not revolutionaries because the structure of their unions is such that it takes the initiative away from the rank & file. Their alternative is to organise all workers into the one big union in preparation for a revolutionary general strike.

They established their own international organisation with the founding of the International Workers Association in Berlin in 1922. Present at that conference were the Argentine Workers Regional Organisation FORA representing 200,000 members, the Industrial Workers of the World in Chile representing 20,000, the Union for Syndicalist Propaganda in Denmark with 600, the Free Workers Union of Germany FAUD with 120,000, National Workers Secretariat of the Netherlands representing 22,500, the Italian Syndicalist Union with 500,000, the General Confederation of Workers in Portugal with 150,000, the Swedish Workers Central Organisation SAC with 32,000, the Committee for the Defence of Revolutionary Syndicalism in France [a breakaway from the CGT] with 100,000, the Federation du Battiment from Paris representing 32,000. The Spanish CNT was unable to send delegates due to the fierce class struggle being waged in their country under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. They did, however, join the following year.

During the 1920s the IWA expanded. More unions and propaganda groups entered into dialogue with the IWA secretariat. They were from Mexico, Uruguay, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Paraguay and North Africa.

Syndicalist unions outside the IWA also existed in many countries such as the Brazilian Workers Regional Organisation and the Industrial Workers of the World in the USA (which soon spread to Canada, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, and Britain1 ). The influence of its methods, if not necessarily of its anarchist origins, was even seen in Ireland where the ITGWU throughout its existence, until it merged into SIPTU a few years ago, carried the letters OBU on its badge. This OBU refers to the IWW slogan of One Big Union. And let us not forget that both Connolly and Larkin were influenced by the IWW. Connolly was an organiser for their building workers union in New York state and Larkin delivered the oration at Joe Hill's funeral.


The success of the Bolsheviks did great harm to the workers movement outside Russia. Many were impressed by what was happening in Russia, Communist Parties sprang up almost everywhere. The Bolshevik model appeared successful. Many sought to copy it. This was before the reality of the Soviet dictatorship became widely known.

Nevertheless the syndicalist movement still held on to most of its support. The real danger was the rise of fascism. With the rule of Mussolini, the Italian USI, the largest syndicalist union in the world, was driven underground and then out of existence. The German FAUD, Portuguese CGT, Dutch NSV, French CDSR and many more in Eastern Europe and Latin America were not able to survive the fascism and military dictatorships of the 1930s and 40s.2

It was at the same time that the Spanish revolution unfolded, which was to represent both the highest and lowest points of syndicalism3 . More about this below.

The Polish syndicalist union with 130,000 workers, the ZZZ, was on the verge of applying for membership of the IWA when it was crushed by the Nazi invasion. But, as with syndicalists elsewhere, they did not go down without a fight. The Polish ZZZ along with the Polish Syndicalist Association took up arms against the nazis and in 1944 even managed to publish a paper called Syndicalista. In 1938, despite their country being under the Salazar dictatorship since the 1920s, the Portuguese CGT could still claim 50,000 members in their now completely illegal and underground union. In Germany, trials for high treason were carried out against militants of the FAUD. There were mass trials of members, many of whom didn't survive the concentration camps.

One point worthy of mention about the Spanish CNT shows the hypocrisy of the British government which called itself anti-fascist. Not only were Italian anti-fascist exiles interned on the Isle of Man but CNT members whose underground movement assisted British airmen, Jews and anti-fascists to escape through Spain to Britain were repaid at the end of the war when their names were handed over to Franco's secret police.


By the end of WWII, the European syndicalist movement and the IWA was almost destroyed. The CNT was now an exile organisation. In 1951 the IWA held their first post-war congress in Toulouse. This time they were a much smaller organisation than the great movement which existed at their first congress. Nevertheless they still represented something. Delegates attended, though mostly representing very small organisations, from Cuba, Argentina, Spain, Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Britain, Bulgaria and Portugal. A message of support was received from Uruguay.

Things were not looking good for the re-emergence of anarcho-syndicalism. In Eastern Europe the Stalinists allowed no free discussion, strikes or free trade unions. Certainly not anarchist ones! In the West massive subsidies from the US and the Catholic church went to tame unions controlled by Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Meanwhile Russia did the same for their allies who controlled the French CGT, the Italian CGIL and others. The IWA, in its weakened state couldn't compete for influence. In the late 1950s the Swedish SAC withdrew from the IWA. There was now not a single functioning union in its ranks.

It staggered on as a collection of small propaganda groups and exile organisations like the Spanish and Bulgarian CNTs. Some wondered would it live much longer. But suddenly in 1977 Franco died and his regime fell. The CNT blossomed. Within a matter of months its membership leaped from a few hundred activists to 150,000. [Problems later developed within the CNT and a split occurred which left us with two unions whose combined membership today probably does not reach 30,000, though this is still a significant number.] The growth of the CNT put syndicalism back on the anarchist agenda. The IWA now claims organisations which function at least partly as unions (in Italy, France and Spain) and propaganda groups in about another dozen countries.

Outside the IWA are syndicalist unions and organisations like the 16,000 strong SAC in Sweden, the OVB in the Netherlands, the Spanish CGT, the Solidarity-Unity-Democracy4 union in the French post office, the CRT in Switzerland, and others. Some are less anarchist and more reformist than others. Say what we will about them we must recognise that syndicalism is today the largest organised current in the international anarchist movement. This means it is especially important to understand them.


Anarchist-Communists do have criticisms of their politics, or more accurately lack of politics. Judging from their own statements, methods and propaganda the syndicalists see the biggest problem in the structure of the existing unions rather than in the ideas that tie workers to authoritarian, capitalist views of the world.

Syndicalists do not create revolutionary political organisations. They want to create industrial unions. Their strategy is apolitical, in the sense that they argue that all that's essential to make the revolution is for workers to seize the factories and the land. After that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the working class must take political power. For them all power has to be immediately abolished on day one of the revolution.

Because the syndicalist organisation is the union, it organises all workers regardless of their politics. Historically many workers have joined, not because they were anarchists, but because the syndicalist union was the most militant and got the best results. Because of this tendencies always appeared that were reformist. This raises the question of the conflict between being a trade union or a revolutionary anarchist organisation.

Syndicalists are quite correct to emphasise the centrality of organising workers in the workplace. Critics who reject syndicalism on the grounds that it cannot organise those outside the workplace are wrong. Taking the example of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain it is clear that they could and did organise throughout the entire working class as was evidenced by the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, the 'Mujeres Libres' (Free Women), and the neighbourhood organisations.


The weakness of syndicalism is rooted in its view of why workers are tied to capitalism, and its view of what is necessary to make the revolution. Spain in 1936/7 represented the highest point in anarcho-syndicalist organisation and achievement. Because of their a-politicism they were unable to develop a programme for workers' power, to wage a political battle against other currents in the workers' movement (such as reformism and Stalinism). Indeed syndicalists seem to ignore other ideas more often than combating them. In Spain they were unable to give a lead to the entire class by fighting for complete workers' power.

Instead they got sucked into support for the Popular Front government, which in turn led to their silence and complicity when the Republican state moved against the collectives and militias. The minority in the CNT, organised around the Friends of Durruti, was expelled when they issued a proclamation calling for the workers to take absolute power (ie that they should refuse to share power with the bosses or the authoritarian parties).

The CNT believed that when the workers took over the means of production and distribution this would lead to "the liquidation of the bourgeois state which would die of asphyxiation." History teaches us a different lesson. In a situation of dual power it is very necessary to smash the state. No ruling class ever leaves the stage of history voluntarily.

In contrast to this the Friends of Durruti were clear that, and this is a quote from their programme 'Towards a Fresh Revolution', "to beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist allies. The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power depending on rank & file committees. Apolitical anarchism has failed." The political confusion of the CNT leadership was such that they attacked the idea of the workers siezing power as "evil" and leading to an "anarchist dictatorship."

The syndicalist movement, organised in the International Workers Association and outside it, still refuses to admit the CNT was wrong to postpone the revolution and enter the government. They attempt to explain away this whole episode as being due to "exceptional circumstances" that "will not occur again". Because they refuse to admit that a mistake of historic proportions was made, there is no reason to suppose that they would not repeat it (should they get a chance).

Despite our criticisms we should recognise that the syndicalist unions, where they still exist, are far more progressive than any other union. Not only do they create democratic unions and create an atmosphere where anarchist ideas are listened to with respect but they also organise and fight in a way that breaks down the divisions into leaders and led, doers and watchers. On its own this is very good but not good enough. The missing element is an organisation winning support for anarchist ideas and anarchist methods both within revolutionary unions and everywhere else workers are brought together. That is the task of the anarchist-communists.

Alan MacSimóin

  • 1It was known as the Industrial Workers of Great Britain.
  • 2Some, like the Italian USI and German FAU, have been refounded but exist only as relatively small propaganda groups. Sometimes they are able to take on union functions in particular localities.
  • 3A good introduction to this period is Eddie Conlon's The Spanish Civil War: Anarchism in Action.
  • 4In workplace elections in Spring 1994 their vote in the post office rose from 4% to 18%, and in Telecom from 2.5% to 7.5%.



2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Joakim on January 18, 2022

Anarchist-communists of the above type --- so called platformists --- often claim that (anarcho)syndicalism isn't ideologically clear enough, not enough anti-state in its strategy. The proof is the Spanish CTN collaboration with government 1936-39. Here, many platformists, assume that we have learned nothing since then.

This is simply false. Who, today, denies that the point made by the Friends of Durruti and more fellow workers was valid? No one, to my knowledge.

Platformist groups often portray themselves as THE guarantee that the working class will pursue a succesful path and not get lost in reformism etc. Allow me to laugh. Such groups can make valuable contributions, I don't deny that. But THE guarantee? Nay :D


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on January 18, 2022

Tom Wetzel wrote" A Reply to Syndicalism: Its Strengths and Weaknesses" that no longer appears on line. i have a HTML version of it.

R Totale

2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R Totale on January 18, 2022

Could be worth adding here? It doesn't seem like the WSM ever replied to it from the stuff I've seen/posted.


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on January 18, 2022

A Reply to Syndicalism: Its Strengths and Weaknesses by Tom Wetzel Workers Solidarity Alliance [Edit; see link to Wetzel article below]


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by akai on January 19, 2022

The part about Poland is historically inaccurate. ZZZ was dissolved in 1939. They should have referred to ZSP during the occupation. Later on, SOWA was also formed as a second syndicalist organization.

R Totale

2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R Totale on January 19, 2022

Took a fair while to sort the formatting out, but have now added the Wetzel reply as its own article: I guess the reply must have been written a fair while later, since the WSM article is from 1994, but the Wetzel one mentions Enron and Bush?


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by comradeEmma on January 19, 2022

Platformist groups often portray themselves as THE guarantee that the working class will pursue a succesful path and not get lost in reformism etc. Allow me to laugh. Such groups can make valuable contributions, I don't deny that. But THE guarantee? Nay grin

It would be interesting to hear your take on SACs reformist departures through out its history, its turn away from revolution? SAC in its form today is not really like a mass-union either. SAC today is after all not anarcho-syndicalist and has been criticized by CNT internationally for having an A-kassa.


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on January 19, 2022

R Totale

Took a fair while to sort the formatting out, but have now added the Wetzel reply as its own article: I guess the reply must have been written a fair while later, since the WSM article is from 1994, but the Wetzel one mentions Enron and Bush?

Thanks for doing the work.

In regard to the reply to the original, yes, it was a few years later. If I recall correctly, TW may been on a hiatus when Alan first wrote it. Or something like that.


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Joakim on January 20, 2022


It would be interesting to hear your take on SACs reformist departures through out its history, its turn away from revolution? SAC in its form today is not really like a mass-union either. SAC today is after all not anarcho-syndicalist and has been criticized by CNT internationally for having an A-kassa.

SAC was founded in 1910. In the 1950s SAC adopted a new Declaration of principles. In that document the revolutionary goal was gone or very diffuse. A new Declaration of principles was adopted in the 1970s and a new in 2009.

Most Swedish syndicalists seem to regard the popular movement union / open class organisation as the best resource and tool for workers, both in the struggle for immediate improvements and in order to move beyond capitalism and the state. See a fresh article here:

The article is based on a short forthcomming book on Swedish syndicalism, free download here:

The Swedish unemployment funds / A-kassan, what about them?

The anarcho-syndicalist IWA is founded on the 1922 Principles of revolutionary syndicalism. SAC was among the founders. In Swedish, the SAC labels itself "syndikalistisk". That means syndicalism with a revolutionary goal.

More on Swedish syndicalism here:


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Joakim on January 20, 2022

Above, the signature "syndicalist" posted Tom Wetzels reply as a wall of text. Perhaps delete that now? Since the article in question has been added on Libcom in a more reader friendly format.


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by comradeEmma on January 20, 2022

The Swedish unemployment funds / A-kassan, what about them?

Organisations like CNT have criticized SAC having an A-kassa since it is state-funded.


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Joakim on January 20, 2022


Organisations like CNT have criticized SAC having an A-kassa since it is state-funded.

I don't know much about the history of the Unemployment fund, but today it is an entity separate from the union. It is practically a state authority governed by detailed legislation. SAC has no A-kassa.


2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on January 20, 2022

I was going to, but someone decided they could alter my comment for me


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by bendunn on July 21, 2022

Could the original publication dates be added to the tops of the MacSimon article and Wetzel's response? The MacSimon piece mentions the year, but it isn't clear that's the pub date. I don't see any date for Wetzel's piece.

R Totale

1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by R Totale on July 21, 2022

The MacSimon piece is definitely from 1994, it was first published as part of this magazine:
As discussed in this thread, not sure when Wetzel's was written but it seems to be some time in the 2000s?

A Reply to Syndicalism: Its Strengths and Weaknesses

A response from Tom Wetzel of the Workers Solidarity Alliance to Alan MacSimóin's article on syndicalism.

Submitted by R Totale on January 19, 2022

The working class is a subjugated and exploited group within capitalism. As class struggle anti-authoritarians, both Workers Solidarity Movement and Workers Solidarity Alliance believe that the working class has the potential to emancipate itself from class oppression, and in doing so it creates a new social structure without a division into classes. Despite Alain MacSimoin's rejection of syndicalism, there are in fact broad areas of agreement between the WSA and the WSM. In exploring this I'll look, first, at how I understand class, and, then, how I understand the path by which the working class can emancipate itself.

Two Classes or Three?

A class is a group differentiated by power relations in social production. There can be different structures in society that can provide power that is the basis of a class. First, there is ownership of land, buildings, and other means of production by a minority capitalist class. The rest of us are thus forced to sell our time to the owners in order to live. Marx held that ownership is the only basis of class division. From this he inferred that capitalism has two main classes, workers and capitalists.
The WSM adheres to this two-class theory: "Classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production; their relationship to the factories, machinery, natural resources, etc. with which the wealth of society is created. Although there are groups such as the self-employed and the small farmers, the main classes are the workers and the bosses. It is the labour of the working class that creates the wealth. The bosses, through their ownership and control of the means of production, have legal ownership of this wealth and decide how it is to be distributed."
But this is an inaccurate picture of advanced capitalism. Ownership is indeed the basis of the vastly powerful capitalist class. And the smaller assets of the small business class is the basis of what power they have. But modern capitalism created huge corporate hierarchies to control the labor process, and also required a huge expansion in the state, with similar hierarchies running various government operations. In the process, capitalism created a third main class, which I call the techno-managerial class.
This class includes managers, and top experts who advise managers and owners, such as finance officers, lawyers, architects, doctors, engineers and so on. These are the people who make up the chain-of-command hierarchies in the corporations and the state. The bosses who working people deal with day to day are mostly the techno-managerial class. The members of this class may have some small capital holdings but mostly they live by their work. The basis of their prospects in society are things like university educations, credentials, connections, accumulated expertise. The power of this class resides in a relative monopolization of expertise and the levers of decision-making.
This class was created through the way capitalist development changed the labor process and the division of labor. Redesigning jobs and work processes, to remove conceptualization and autonomy from the workers and putting control into the hands of a managerial hierarchy, enables firms to enhance their control over what workers do on the job, minimize training costs, and reduce the wages they must pay for scarce skills.
The techno-managerial class participates to some extent in the exploitation of the working class but also has conflicts with the owners: the recent cases of bosses looting corporations like Enron are an example. There is a conflict of interest between managers and owners, and periodic struggle between them.
An important feature of the techno-managerial class is that it has the potential to become a ruling class. This is the historical meaning of the various Marxist-Leninist revolutions. Those revolutions eliminated the capitalist class, created economies based on public ownership, but, nonetheless, the working class continued to be subjugated and exploited. Each of the Marxist-Leninist revolutions consolidated a techno-managerial ruling class.
The potential for a new ruling class of this type to emerge was hinted in a prescient remark of Bakunin. Bakunin warned that Marx's proposal for a party of "scientific socialism" taking power through a state "would be the rule of scientific intellect, the most autocratic, the most despotic, the most arrogant and the most contemptuous of all regimes. This will be a new class, a new hierarchy of sham savants, and the world will be divided into a dominant minority in the name of science, and an immense ignorant minority."1
Despite Bakunin's insight, traditional anarchism never developed a theory of the techno-managerial class. This led anarchists to misdescribe the Soviet Union as "state capitalist." Workers Solidarity Movement says:
"Since the early 1920s, anarchists have recognised that the Russian economy is capitalist because it maintains the separation of producers from their means of production and undervalues their labour to extract surplus value for a ruling class as in all Capitalist countries."
The "separation of the workers from their means of production" refers only to the ownership relation. Thus they fail to recognize that monopolization of the levers of decision-making and expertise can also be a distinct basis of class power.
And further: "Absence of private property in the Soviet Union is often put forward as evidence that Stalinist countries are not Capitalist but some new 'Post-Capitalist' property form." Note that they assume here that it is the property ownership relation that determines the class nature of the system. If we want to avoid the consolidation of a techno-managerial ruling class in a future revolution, we need a theory of what gives this class power and a program for dissolving the power of this class.2
The nature of any new social formation that emerges from major social conflicts, will be determined by the character of the main social forces at work in that process. The only way that we can ensure that a society that is self-managing emerges as the result of such a social process is if the main movements that are working for change have a self-managing character and practice, so that people have developed the egalitarian and democratic practices and habits required for society itself to be self-managed. The way in which people organize themselves for change is important in shaping what the outcome will be down the road.
How do we ensure that social forces in a revolutionary process do not contain within themselves the seeds of a new techno-managerial class emerging, as has happened in the various "Communist" revolutions? To avoid this outcome we need mass organizations that avoid corporate-style hierarchies, or practices that concentrate the expertise, knowledge, and decision-making in a few.
Traits like articulateness, self-confidence, effectiveness as a speaker can be developed through practice, but some people come to social movements with these advantages due to superior education or other advantages. Movements need to develop practices and organizations that can nurture self-education, develop the skills and knowledge of ordinary people who become active in the movement, so that they acquire the ability to be more effective in charting their own course.

What Syndicalism Is

Syndicalism is a strategy for the emancipation of the working class from class oppression; that is, it is a revolutionary strategy. It sees the class struggle as the process out of which a movement is developed that can free humanity from the oppressive structures of capitalism. Syndicalists hold that, in the words of Flora Tristan, "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."
We hold that this struggle provides a motivation for workers to organize together and engage in collective action against the bosses; it provides a field of action in which workers can use their force of numbers to increase their social power. This field of struggle also provides a school of life, in which workers learn about the nature of the system that oppresses them.
The basic idea of syndicalism is that by developing mass organizations that are self-managed by their participants, particularly organizations rooted in the struggle at the point of production, the working class develops the self-activity, self-confidence, unity, and self-organization that would enable it to emancipate itself from subjugation to an exploiting class. The self-management of the movement itself foreshadows and prefigures self-management of production by the workforce, and the direct self-governance of the society by the people.
To create a society in which the mass of the population are directly empowered, directly in control, this process of self-management must first emerge and become entrenched in practices of self-management of struggles within capitalism, to break habits of deference or resignation to forms of hierarchical control. Traditionally syndicalism was defined in terms of the development of movements in the workplaces, movements for workers control, organizations for the self-management of the struggle with the bosses. But the strategy of developing self-managed mass organizations of struggle can also be applied to other struggles that arise in working class communities, such as struggles over housing, or struggles of public transit riders.

Uneven Consciousness

Although we believe that the working class can develop the capacity to emancipate itself from class oppression, the working class alive today has not, at the present moment, developed this capacity. Why not? Some anarchists seem to imagine the destruction of the system of oppression as a spontaneous rebellion, something that could happen right now. The assumption is that the working class right now has the capacity to toss off its subjugation, as a spontaneous act. The problem with such a view is that it cannot explain why this revolution has not already happened.
Social systems of oppression reproduce themselves over time by the social structures, like class position or patriarchy, having an impact in the psyches and habits and expectations and behaviors of everyone. That is why a revolution that can overcome oppression, and not just replicate a new form of oppression, requires a more or less lengthy process of change in the working class itself, a change in people. To have the capacity to take over the running of the society, the working class needs to develop the self-confidence, leadership skills, self-organization, cohesion, and the vision and values that provide both the power and the aspiration to challenge the bosses for control of the society.
As the working class develops in this way, it poses its own "counter-hegemony" (in the words of Antonio Gramsci) to the prevailing culture, politics, and institutions of the capitalist social order. How far do workers understand the system that oppresses them? What is their sense of power to make changes? How far do they aspire to make changes? These things all vary between individuals, and within the class as a whole - over time, and between different places.
"Consciousness" is uneven, and capable of development, in both individuals and the class as a whole. People learn about the structure of power that dominates them by fighting it. When people become committed to struggle, they acquire the motivation to learn more and acquire the skills needed to make their struggle more effective. If people don't see people willing to stand up for others, if they don't see much opposition to the bosses, they will not tend to think in terms of collective action as a way to deal with the society around them. They will have a sense that "you're on your own."
The development of larger-scale movements begins to give the people involved more power, and this then alters the perceptions of ordinary folks because now they see that there is perhaps the power to change things. And the degree of change that people begin to see as possible will be shaped by their perception of the willingness of others to fight, and to support each other.
The WSM says that the working class is not revolutionary because of "ideas" that "tie the working class to capitalism." Obviously there is an element of truth to this. But lack of exposure to "ideas" propagated by anarchist activists (and other critics of the prevailing capitalist system) is not a complete explanation for why the working class is not revolutionary. If working people have a sense of inefficacy, that "you can't fight city hall," they will be skeptical about our claims that they have the power to vastly change society.
In the absence of a sense of their own power, workers will view your anarchist ideas as "nice but unrealistic," not something to take seriously and act on. In other words, you must also explain why working people are often uninterested in finding out more about even the revolutionary ideas they do run into.
Many ordinary workers in the U.S. today tend to be highly skeptical about their ability to change things. A fatalistic attitude of "You can't fight city hall" is widespread. This doesn't happen because of lack of discontent. Harsh life prospects and deteriorating wage and other conditions, worse job prospects, over the past three decades in the U.S. has generated a lot of discontent and anger.
The skepticism and fatalism derive from a lack of recent experience with successful collective action and the absence of forms of organization that working people feel are "theirs."3 The hierarchical structure of the unions contributes to this. The national unions and large amalgamated locals in the U.S. tend to be dominated by "professionals of representation," a hierarchy of paid officials and staff, who control bargaining with employers, the handling of grievances, and tend to have a social service relationship to the rank and file.
Local unions that pursue a more independent, militant stance against employers are likely to run up against roadblocks of officials to effective action. To take an example, a campaign of self-organization by 600 immigrant baggage screeners at San Francisco International Airport was moving towards a strike to fight the Bush gang's threat to replace them with U.S. citizens. The strike would have shut down the airport. This move was short-circuited by an official of the SEIU, on the grounds that the union might be sued for an illegal strike. The 600 screeners then lost their jobs without a fight.
In other cases, when locals are deemed too militant, national unions of the AFL-CIO use their power to impose a dictatorship called a trusteeship - tossing out their elected officers and seizing control of the local with appointees of the bureaucrats. To have an organization that is "theirs," that can be a vehicle of a self-organized fight, of militant collective action, workers need to develop industrial organizations that they directly control. This is why the proposal for self-managed unionism is central to the program of the Workers Solidarity Alliance.
Organizations directly controlled by workers provides them the opportunity to gain confidence by controlling something themselves, and encourages the development of collective action. These things are indispensable to changes in working class consciousness in the U.S.
Some anarchists and syndicalists call for the formation of highly ideological unions that are committed to a 100% anti-capitalist program. An historical example of a large union that was built on this basis was the Argentine Regional Workers Federation (FORA), which viewed itself as fully committed to an anarchist-communist program. It saw no need for separate political and union organizations. This is sometimes called the theory of unitary organization, and in South America it is sometimes called forismo.
It is true that many of these syndicalists do not see any point to forming separate political organizations of revolutionary activists, apart from the unions. But MacSimoin is mistaken in thinking that all syndicalists historically, or at present, hold this view. The WSA has always rejected the theory of unitary organization. The WSA does not view itself as a union or proto-union but as a political organization of anti-authoritarian activists.
To take an historical example, the Turin Libertarian Group was a political group, a group of anarcho-syndicalist activists, in the Turin labor movement at the end of World War I. They worked with Gramsci and some of the other Socialist Party activists in developing the Turin shop stewards council movement in the factories. This was a grassroots rank and file movement, opposed to the social-democratic bureaucracy of the FIOM - the main Italian metalworkers union. It was a movement to unite the workers across union and ideological divisions, and with overtly revolutionary aims, of workers control of production.
When the rank and file council movement seized control of the large FIOM local in Turin, and restructured it under rank-and-file control, the ranks elected a member of the Turin Libertarian Group, Pietro Ferrero, as the secretary of the newly revamped union. They did so in part due to Ferrero's commitment to rank-and-file self-management.4 In this case the Turin anarcho-sydicalists did not try to separate themselves into a small, ideologically anarchist union, but worked in a larger rank and file opposition movement to restructure the official union. They also maintained their political organization to give voice to their own perspectives. The strategy of forming small, ideological "revolutionary unions" with a 100% revolutionary, anti-capitalist program really begs the question: How do workers come to agree with a revolutionary direction for the class?5
Moreover, what is the strategy for the workers who still exist in the AFL-CIO unions? A strategy for the development of working class struggle is incomplete if it doesn't have anything to say about the large numbers of workers who are organized in the hierarchical AFL-CIO unions. A process of self-development within the class must take place. The level of collective action is important to changing consciousness.
As people see more people willing to take action in solidarity with each other, and see examples of actions they could envision themselves doing, this will encourage them to think in terms of collective action as a way to improve their situation. The development of the power of the class directly shapes the understanding among working people of just how far they can go in challenging the present system. Practices of solidarity, of widening links between workers, are thus another key factor that shapes class consciousness.
Because this is a process of development, it means we cannot expect that people will start from a 100% revolutionary understanding at the outset. This is why we do not agree with the idea of forming small ideological unions committed to a 100% revolutionary program at the outset. There may be some activists who have a developed vision of a 100% alternative to capitalism who are present but many will not share this vision. In time, radicalization of the labor movement may generate a commitment to a revolutionary, anti-capitalist perspective in large numbers of people.
Self-managed unionism - mass organizations controlled by rank-and-file participants - is a transitional program for the class in the sense that organization of this kind provides workers with a venue where they control the struggle; they can feel that it is "theirs". They can thus develop self-confidence, learn to run something democratically themselves, and learn about the nature of the capitalist power structure they are fighting. There is thus a possibility (not a certainty) of deepening their radical critique of the system around them.
In some cases it may be possible for workers in AFL-CIO unions to revamp them into self-managing local unions. In other cases they may find it necessary to rebel, and break away from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, to create organizations they directly control. For workers in workplaces where AFL-CIO unions are not entrenched, there is the possibility of developing new, self-managing unions that are independent of the AFL-CIO.
At some point we could envision a number of radical, self-managing unions coming together to form a new, self-managing labor federation. In the U.S. unionism has only made significant advances during periods of major upheaval, with widespread strikes and new forms of action and new forms of organization emerging. In such a period, when workers are seeking ways to organize a more effective fight against the bosses, there is an opening for self-managed forms of organization to become more widespread.6
However, the WSM refuses to countenance breakaways from the hierarchical unions. "Breakaway unions offer no alternative in the long run as the problems that led to their formation will develop in the new union,"7 they say. It is certainly true that the forces that lead to bureaucratization of the unions can and do work on new unions that workers form. It is not certain that such forces will always win out since this depends upon the larger trajectory of society. As we see it, it is a mistake to infer that workers should not be working to develop self-managed mass organizations that are directly controlled by the rank and file. Breaking out of the AFL-CIO national unions is a tactic that can allow workers to do this. It isn't clear to us what alternative the WSM offers for creating mass workplace organizations that would enable the rank and file to control their struggle with the bosses.
For the working class to emancipate itself from class oppression, it must develop its own mass organizations through which it can chart a course of social change and create the new social order in which self-management prevails. Self-managed unionism is the transitional program that the WSA puts forward, towards this aim. Self-management of the struggle is not the whole of the story, however. The degree of solidarity between different groups of workers, success at navigating the shoals of racism, and success at maintaining independence of the companies, the government and the politicians are additional factors that affect the development of the class into a more effective oppositional force.
Racism is a structural feature of American society. It isn't just a set of "ideas" but exists in a set of social practices, engrained in the culture. Struggles against racism are necessary to fight it. Capitalism is a complex system of oppressions, along lines of race and gender as well as class, and struggles develop along a series of fault lines. Struggles of working people can emerge not only at work but in other areas of their lives, such as struggles of tenants against landlords, or of public transit riders against the government transit agencies.
The syndicalist concept can be expanded to apply in other areas besides the workplace; that is, the basic idea is the formation of mass organizations of struggle that are self-managed by their participants, prefiguring the self-management of society. As groups of workers seek alliances to strengthen their struggle, we can expect workers coming together into formations that transcend a particular sector, community or area of struggle. This coming together is needed to address problems that affect the working class as a whole, to develop consensus around a class-wide program, and to develop solidarity.
What is not clear in the WSM documents is how they propose that the class develop the means to control its own struggles and the mass organizations it will need to fundamentally challenge the capitalist system and build an alternative social order in which it is empowered. The WSM talks about workers forming industrial networks in industry. This is good but what are these networks to do? Workers en mass need to have vehicles of struggle, to advance their collective interests. If workers are to develop a movement to revolutionize society in the direction of self-management, they need to develop mass organizations that are themselves self-managing. Does the WSM agree with this?

Political Organization

Because the mass organizations of working people, in the workplaces and in the communities, are not likely to have a 100% revolutionary, anti-capitalist commitment at the present time, we believe it is necessary to have a separate organization of the anti-authoritarian activists who do have a vision for how the working class can create a self-managed society. In other words, the uneven consciousness in the class means that those who do see the need and possibility of replacing capitalism with a self-managed society are a minority. We agree with the WSM that it is necessary for anti-authoritarian activists to organize themselves, in order to "win the arguments about ideas" within the working class, to make our alternative vision more visible, and enhance our influence in social movements. As we've said: "An organization of anti-authoritarian activists can provide a comprehensive anti-capitalist vision which we are not as likely to get from mass organizations like unions, which tend to focus on immediate struggles and typically bring together people with a variety of viewpoints."8
The fact that few workers have any faith in a future that goes beyond the capitalism that they see around them undermines resistance to the present system. A credible vision of a self-managed society, a society beyond the various forms of oppression that now exist, and of a strategy for getting there, is important to inspiring commitment and action. The capacity to envision a future beyond what exists today, to articulate this to other people, and to point out a real-life path to make this a reality - this is one of the most valuable of leadership skills. This is the sort of "leadership" that a revolutionary minority could offer. There is no reason why a democratic, disciplined organization of anti-authoritarian activists cannot be advocates of a syndicalist strategy for revolution. MacSimoin is wrong in thinking that there is a contradiction between syndicalism and revolutionary political organization.
The Leninists believe that the minority who hold revolutionary, anti-capitalist views - the "vanguard" - should organize itself to take power within movements, to impose itself as the management hierarchy of the movement for social change. Its aim is to put itself in the position of using the mass movement to seize state power in a period of social crisis. It then aims to use state power to implement its program top-down through the state hierarchy. This conception implies a relationship between the "vanguard party" and the mass of working people that is, in essence, a techno-managerial class power relationship. It is no accident that the Marxist-Leninist revolutions consolidated a techno-managerialist mode of production.
In our view, the role of the anti-authoritarian activist minority is to help organize self-managed mass organizations, and nurture initiative and development of leadership skills among rank-and-file workers. The idea is not to monopolize movement expertise and decision-making, to accrue our own power over the movement, but to work against hierarchical trends in movements. The long-run aim is not for the revolutionary minority to "take power" on behalf of the class but for the mass of the populace to take power themselves, through institutions of mass self-management that they control.
As the class moves towards revolution, and develops itself into a counter-hegemonic force, the difference between "vanguard" and mass should tend to dissolve, as more of the rank and file develop the capacity and will to be an active factor in the process.

Political Power

When the working class, through its various mass organizations, moves to consolidate its control over the society, and to reconfigure the economic system and the rules of society, it cannot complete this process without creating a grassroots structure through which the society as a whole directly governs itself. The society requires institutions for setting and enforcing the basic rules, adjudicating disputes, and defeating any armed challenge. Any structure through which society sets and enforces the basic rules, and governs itself, is what I call a polity.
The state is a form of polity but it is not the only possible form of polity. The state is organized as a chain-of-command hierarchy analogous to private corporations. The state has at its disposal hierarchically controlled bodies of armed people to enforce its rules. This hierarchical structure separates the state from effective control by the mass of the population. This separation is needed for the state to perform its role in defending and promoting the interests of the dominant classes. The state's performance of this role explains why the state has been continually re-created through many changes in class society.
A society based on economic and social self-management requires an appropriate sort of polity to protect it. Such a polity would have to be based on direct, participatory democracy. For the working class to reconfigure the society, and gain direct empowerment for the mass of the population, political power must be seized. Thus I think it clear that a successful workers revolution requires that the mass of the population dismantle the existing state, and create new institutions of direct self-governance. Otherwise, how could the mass of the population control the society and protect the revolution?
It's true that Marxists talk of "taking power." But the Marxist concept usually means the hoisting of political party leaders into control of a state. Just because we reject that proposal this should not blind us to the alternative of the mass of the population gaining political power through their own grassroots institutions. Syndicalist strategy, says MacSimoin, "is apolitical, in the sense that they argue that all that is essential to make the revolution is for workers to seize the factories and the land. After that it believes that the state and all the other institutions of the ruling class will come toppling down. They do not accept that the working class must take political power."
I don't think syndicalism is committed to being against political organization or against the taking of political power by the mass of the people in a revolutionary process. Historian Richard Hyman offers a somewhat different characterization of traditional syndicalism as an emphasis on "spontaneous self-activity, local autonomy and independence from parties. Such independence did not, as was the case with 'non-political' unionism in many countries, imply a rejection of political objectives. Rather, revolutionary syndicalism implied a confidence in the insurrectionary potential of direct industrial action, a hostility to statist conceptions of socialism, and a suspicion that the stratagems and compromises of politicians would betray the revolutionary elan of militant trade unionists."9
Opposition to political parties, an electoral strategy, and of contesting for control of the state, is not the same thing as saying that no polity, no structure of society-wide governance, is needed to replace the state. However, it's true that "apoliticism" was interpreted by some people in the way that MacSimoin suggests (see below). I am not saying that we should simply ape traditional syndicalism; we should learn from mistakes of the past. However, this presupposes we have an accurate picture of what that past was.
Where we can agree with the WSM is that a confusion about power contributed to the defeat of the Spanish revolution. I see this as rooted in traditional anarchism. Anarchists have not always been consistent in recognizing that emancipation from oppression requires a structure of political power. Anarchists have sometimes put forward the idea that there could be a society without any society-wide institutions of self-rule or self-governance.10

Defeat in Spain

Since MacSimoin relies on the Spanish case, let us take a closer look. In July of 1936 the workers of the syndicalist CNT union federation defeated the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona (with significant help from the police). In the weeks following that victory they built their own self-managing union army and seized the means of production. They were thus in a position to consolidate the revolution by overthrowing the regional government in Catalonia.
After the end of the street-fighting in Barcelona, on July 21st, Mariano Vazquez, the regional secretary of the CNT, called a union conference to decide what to do. Apparently, Vazquez already favored accepting the offer of the province's president, Luis Companys, to set up an "Anti-fascist Militia Central Committee", to coordinate all the militias fighting the Spanish army. Such an action would accept the continued existence of the government. Revolutionary anarchists in the CNT were often in the practice of avoiding election to administrative positions. Their attitude was that they had constructed a union where the mass assemblies were the main decision-making body; why should it be important who holds the administrative posts?
But this is a mistake because, in a critical situation, the administration can skew decision-making. This is what happened in this case. Because the well-known anarchist activists didn't want the post of regional secretary, it was given to Mariano Vazquez, after he was recommended by Federica Montseny. Montseny was a writer; her father, Juan Montseny, had founded a large publishing cooperative, Ediciones Revista Blanca, which employed both Federica and another participant at the key July CNT meeting, Sinesio Garcia (who wrote under the pseudonym Abad Diego de Santillan).
Stuart Christie suggests that Vazquez invited his cronies in the Montseny circle, so these free-floating intellectuals were over-represented in the meeting that would decide how to respond to the offer from Companys. In his memoirs Juan Garcia Oliver refers to Montseny and her circle as "anti-syndicalist anarchists."11 At that meeting, some syndicalists within the CNT proposed to "push ahead with the social revolution, in a set of circumstances that had never seemed so promising." This group, which included Juan Garcia Oliver and the delegation from Bajo Llobregat - a blue-collar industrial area south of Barcelona - proposed to replace the regional government with a regional Defense Council, answerable to all the unions of the region, to defend the new social order and run a unified labor militia.
Clearly, they were proposing to create the beginnings of a new polity, controlled by the working class. They believed that an opening had been created for carrying forward the CNT's libertarian communist program. That program had been adopted by the CNT just two months before, at its Zaragosa Congress. It described the basic building blocks of a self-managed society as consisting of assemblies of workers in workplaces - workers councils - and assemblies in the neighborhoods and federations of these throughout cities and over regions and over the country as a whole.
The community assemblies would be the mechanism for consumer input and industries would be self-managed by industrial federations. Grassroots congresses at the regional and national level would set the basic rules. A framework that provides for the making of society-wide rules, imposes a particular economic structure, and provides an armed militia to defend that social order is clearly a polity. To create this political and economic structure would mean that the mass of the people would be taking power in society.
In those debates in the CNT in Barcelona in July of 1936, Federica Montseny and her circle argued against replacing the government with a defense council on the grounds that this would be an "anarchist dictatorship", and, unfortunately, they won that debate. The "anti-powerism" of the Montseny circle is rooted in the confusions of traditional anarchism. The CNT enrolled a majority of the workers of Catalonia and a Defense Council would have also given representation to the other unions.
So how is this a "dictatorship"? No doubt it would be necessary to "dictate" to the bosses what their fate would be. That's what a proletarian revolution does. The working class cannot emancipate itself from oppression if it doesn't take over the running of the society - and that means taking power. This was not the only argument that influenced the CNT decision to not overthrow the government.
Abad Diego de Santillan argued that they should leave a semblance of the official government in place so as to trick the Popular Front government into channeling some of Spain's gold reserves to Catalonia to support their militia columns. De Santillan appealed to fear and timidity, referring to potential intervention by the British fleet off the coast. In reality, De Santillan's stance was naive. The leaders in Madrid were well aware that the anarchists were the power behind the throne and refused the request for gold.
By failing to create a grassroots structure to unite the working class apart from the state in the heavily industrial region of Catalonia where they had the most power, the anarchists made their capitulation to the Republican state inevitable. The mass membership of the CNT union federation would insist on unity with the socialist unions in a life and death struggle against the fascist army. Was that going to be a unity of leaders through the Republican state as the Popular Front parties advocated, or worker unity through new grassroots institutions of self-governance?
By failing to replace the government with new institutions of worker political power in Catalonia, the anarchists would find themselves with no way to counter the tremendous pressure to go along with the Popular Front strategy. The debate over "taking power" or collaborating with the Popular Front government was hashed out again at a regional assembly of the anarcho-syndicalist unions of Catalonia at the end of August, 1936. Here again, Juan Garcia Oliver pressed for abolishing the regional government, replacing it with a workers council in which political parties would not be represented, only the mass union organizations. The choice for the unions was posed starkly, Collaborate with the government or take power, replacing the government?
A CNT historian, reporting on this debate, noted: "in fact, there was no question of a reversion to the old apolitical tradition, to the acracista (anti-power) ideas, which had been 'completely overwhelmed and overtaken by events, but which certain folk doggedly championed'".12
How would the defense council proposal have differed from the Bolshevik seizure of state power in Russia in October, 1917? In the Russian case, political party leaders ran a government cabinet that was not directly accountable to the mass workplace organizations. They had at their disposal an army and political police (Cheka) that were run in a top-down way, accountable to the leadership at the top. They appointed their own managers to run various industries.
On the other hand, the Defense Council proposal in Spain would have created a body that was supposed to be accountable to the mass workers organizations and delegate assemblies of these. Its armed force was a self-managing workers militia, run by elected committees and assemblies, created by and for the unions. The industries had been seized by the unions and were being self-managed by organizations the workers themselves had created. And, in any event, it was not proposed that the Defense Council would manage the economy.
Nonetheless, at the August union meeting the decision to not overthrow the government which had been made in July was re-affirmed by the CNT. At a national CNT conference during the summer of 1936, while the CNT of Catalonia was pursuing its course of government collaboration, the national CNT approved the idea of replacing the regional governments in Spain with regional Defense Councils, and proposed replacing the Popular Front government with a National Defense Council, made up of CNT and UGT representatives.
In order to be consistent with anti-authoritarian principles, the Defense Council would have had to be directly accountable to some sort of grassroots congress of local delegates. At the time, Largo Caballero, head of the UGT, vetoed this proposal. However, the CNT did build one regional Defense Council, in the rural region of Aragon. But failing to set up a regional workers council in Catalonia, where the revolution was strongest, greatly weakened the CNT's bargaining position. If they had overthrown the government in Catalonia, this would have put tremendous pressure on the socialist UGT union to go along with a similar strategy for the whole of Spain.
As it is, Caballero nearly decided to implement the CNT-UGT National Defense Council idea in February, 1937, to head off Stalinist power grabs. Later on in the Civil War, the Friends of Durruti group revived the call for a National Defense Council. The WSM presents this Friends of Durruti proposal as if it were a deviation from all that had gone before, a "learning from mistakes of the past", whereas in fact the Friends were calling for a return to original syndicalist principles and aims. They were reviving the perspective that Juan Garcia-Oliver and the CNT of Bajo Llobregat had articulated in July of 1936.
MacSimoin is of course right that we should learn from mistakes of the past. Traditional anarchism and syndicalism are not fully adequate guides; they had limits that we need to transcend. The confused idea that the taking of power by the mass organizations of the working class of Catalonia would have been a "dictatorship" is an example of such a mistake.
But what is worthy of being retained from syndicalism is the core insight that the working class needs to develop its own self-managing mass organizations to develop its own power within this society, to have a means to challenge the bosses for the control of the society. To create a society in which the mass of the population are directly empowered, directly in control, this process of self-management must first emerge and become entrenched in practices of self-management of struggles within capitalism.
A society without classes can only be constructed through the direct work of working people themselves, and this presupposes that they have developed their own self-managing movements.


We agree with the WSM that it is necessary for anti-authoritarian activists to organize themselves to "win the debates within the working class." The WSA is itself a political activist organization. We disagree with certain syndicalists who think unions are sufficient for social change.
On the other hand, I think that by over-emphasizing ideas, the WSM under-estimates the importance of collective action, widening solidarity, and self-organization in the development of working class consciousness. Although we would agree with the WSM in rejecting "apoliticism" as MacSimoin defines it, we believe that syndicalism need not be "apolitical" in that sense.
Second, I agree with the WSM that the failure of the CNT to overthrow the government of Catalonia when they had the opportunity was a major error that contributed to the defeat of the revolution. However, I do not believe that this failure was inherent to syndicalism. It is more accurate to say this came from the confusions of traditional anarchism about political power.
I think that the failure of the CNT of Catalonia to overthrow the government was partly due to the influence of certain intellectual "anti-power" anarchists as well as inadequate preparation - why had they not foreseen the need to form regional Defense Councils to unite the unions at their Zaragosa Congress just two months earlier? There were syndicalists present in the Spanish movement who understood the importance of taking power.
Third, although union bureaucracy is a roadblock to the development of class consciousness insofar as it gets in the way of collective action, syndicalism is not committed to saying this is the only factor. Another factor is the sectoralism of the American labor movement - the tendency for each union to consider narrowly the conditions in its own workplaces and not look to a broader alliance and program to deal with social issues that affect the working class in general.
Yet another factor is racism. The absence of a visible anti-capitalist political culture - alternative ideas - is part of the explanation as well.
Fourth, although I agree with the WSM that ideas that "tie workers to capitalism" are certainly an important part of the problem, I'd ask the question, Why do workers have ideas that "tie them to capitalism"? MacSimoin doesn't offer an adequate explanation of this fact. I suggest that the sense of power that workers have at a given point in time partly explains the salience that radical ideas will have for them. And this sense of power depends upon what is actually going on around them, including the level of solidarity and collective action, and the existence of organizations that workers can feel are theirs.

  • 1Quoted in Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 93
  • 2I believe that participatory economics offers a program for dissolving the power of the techno-managerial class. See my article "Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class". This is my own view; WSA does not necessarily endorse participatory economics.
  • 3Dan Croteau's recent book Politics and the Class Divide provides a good look at this through the eyes of workers at a large mail facility where he works.
  • 4See my article The Italian Factory Occupations of 1920.
  • 5In the U.S.Anarcho-Syndicalist Review is a syndicalist group who advocate a program of forming "revolutionary unions," with a 100% anti-capitalist vision, in the U.S. right now. WSA's disagreement with that strategy is part of the long-standing disagreement between WSA and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review group.
  • 6Declining wages, breaking of unions and lengthening hours all have contributed to an increased level of discontent in the working class in the U.S. today. A number of labor activists think conditions are ripe for a new explosion of labor rebellion. See New Upsurge? by Dan Clausen.
  • 7See the WSM position paper on trade unions.
  • 8Frequently Asked Questions about Workers Solidarity Alliance.
  • 9Richard Hyman, Understanding European Trade Unionism, p. 23.
  • 10For example, Michael Taylor, Community, Anarchy, and Liberty.
  • 11Stuart Christie, We, the Anarchists, p. 104
  • 12Quoted in A. Skirda, Facing the Enemy, p. 157.



1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 30, 2022

"Syndicalists hold that, in the words of Flora Tristan, "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."

Always wondered who was the first to articulate this stance, anyone know which of her works this is from?

R Totale

1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by R Totale on July 30, 2022

Good question, googling around a bit finds another Wetzel article:
When Marx drew up the statutes of the first International Workers Association in 1864, he included Flora Tristan’s slogan: “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves.”
And again, another Wetzel article saying that Tristan used it in 1843:

And a third repeating the same claim:

And a review of a book about the Mexican revolution:
that mentions "Magon, employing Flora Tristan’s oft-cited adage (invariably misattributed to Karl Marx)"

Anarkismo has a short article about her from the Chilean anarchist press: but that just says "she was the first to say that the proletariat must unite as a class and free itself, that is to say, rely on its own strength. It was an idea that Marx would later incorporate in the famous slogan of the First International: "the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves""
None of them directly cite anything by Tristan?


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on July 30, 2022

R Totale wrote: None of them directly cite anything by Tristan?

I think the reference might be to Tristan's 1843 The Workers' Union. There's an English edition of the work here. I haven't read it, but pages 37-38 seem to reference workers' self-emancipation: "Now the day has come when one must act, and it is up to you and only you to act in the interest of your own cause." It's sort of funny/annoying how authors repeat claims in their works without ever actually referencing the original source. Or authors will just reference each other without ever bothering to cite the original document. I'm not sure why Wetzel and others don't provide proper citations for stuff like this (which is kind of helpful any time one quotes/paraphrases someone else),

Wetzel wrote: Syndicalists hold that, in the words of Flora Tristan, "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."

I'd also be interested in who first employed the phrase, but then again it's not all that clever or politically interesting of an idea. Engels expressed the same idea of workers emancipating themselves prior to 1843. Among other sources, see for example Engels' article "The Internal Crises" appearing in the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842. In it he argues how English workers were being driven to revolution by their poverty. He also writes, "By its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England, and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when it becomes conscious of this fact." Is this not essentially expressing the same idea of workers liberating themselves?

Tristan was also not an anarchist, so it is sort of strange many anarchists like to invoke her (without properly citing her) with the sole purpose it seems of downplaying the contributions of Marx and Engels.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by adri on July 30, 2022

Hm, after scanning the document a bit more, it doesn't seem there is much similarity between Tristan and the 1864 "Rules of the International." The closest Tristan comes to saying anything like the introductory words to the "Rules," with its references to the self-emancipation of the working class, is in places like I quoted above. Engels again said variations of the same thing prior to 1843, such as in the article appearing in the Rheinische Zeitung I mentioned above.

Not to diminish the significance of Tristan's work (e.g. in speaking on women's issues and women's emancipation), but I think one should also keep in mind that Tristan's appeal for workers' self-liberation was not for socialist/communist/anarchist ends. Take this passage from the translator, Beverly Livingston, in the introduction (xxiii):

Livingston wrote: Her challenge did not attempt to subvert private enterprise or deny the manufacturer's right to compete for profits, and she did not call for the total dismantling of the economic order; she simply and soundly demanded a fair share for the laboring poor.


1 year 10 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 31, 2022

He also writes, "By its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England, and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when it becomes conscious of this fact." Is this not essentially expressing the same idea of workers liberating themselves?

Well that's one way of reading it, though if so we'd have to give the crown to Shelley since his poem about Peterloo says the same thing decades earlier.

It's also the common lament of the TUC.


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 4, 2022

The AFAQ makes the same claim here,

AFAQ wrote: Marx’s use of the famous expression — “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself” — dates from 1865, 17 years after Proudhon’s comment that “the proletariat must emancipate itself.” Moreover, as Libertarian Marxist Paul Mattick pointed out, Marx was not even the first person to use the expression “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself” as Flora Tristan used it in 1843. [Marx and Keynes, p. 333]

Besides giving the incorrect date for the 1864 "Rules of the International," what the author probably meant was that Tristan wrote (in French) something similar to the "Rules" in her 1843 The Workers' Union; she did not use the exact same expression found in the "Rules" regarding workers' self-emancipation. The author omits any discussion of what Tristan might have actually meant when writing about workers acting in their own interests. Quotation marks are also usually reserved for capturing things people actually said, rather than things one wishes they had said (the same goes for Wetzel, who even went as far as saying "in the words of Flora Tristan"). In any case, the AFAQ cites Paul Mattick's 1971 Marx and Keynes. Mattick in his work is just quoting Max Rubel's "Reflections on Utopia and Revolution" in the anthology Socialist Humanism and doesn't even comment on Tristan herself. Rubel writes (216),

Rubel wrote: What Marx—and before him, in 1843, Flora Tristan—thus formulated in one single proposition, namely, that 'The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself,' remains the implicit postulate of all genuine socialist thought.

Nowhere in the quote does Rubel say that Tristan employed the expression found in the 1864 "Rules."

Rubel wrote more extensively on Tristan and Marx in a 1946 article appearing in the magazine La Nef entitled "Flora Tristan et Karl Marx." He expands on Tristan's actual thought in that text, but he again never claims that Tristan used the expression found in the 1864 "Rules." Rubel's actual argument is that Tristan was the first to argue for workers' self-emancipation and to formulate the idea of a universal workers' union/organization prior to the International Workingmen's Association (neither of which I agree with). It's a pretty strange argument that Tristan somehow "came up" with the idea of workers emancipating themselves. It also ignores what Tristan actually meant when writing about workers acting in their own interests, which was in no sense anti-capitalist as we see from the Livingston quote above.


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by syndicalist on August 5, 2022

Tom's new blog...... ......... and his new book "Overcoming Capitalism - Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century"........


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 6, 2022

It's a pretty strange argument that Tristan somehow "came up" with the idea of workers emancipating themselves.

An argument that doesn't appear to exist. From what Wetzel's said and what you keep digging up Tristan is credited with being the first socialist to make a statement, and some have pointed out that this quotation is often attributed to the wrong person.

As regards your rules confusion, I don't understand where you're getting this from. I can see no one claiming a connection to the rules beyond the incorporation of the idea first promoted by Tristan, except for yourself in order to argue against it.


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 6, 2022

Reddebrek wrote: From what Wetzel's said and what you keep digging up Tristan is credited with being the first socialist to make a statement, and some have pointed out that this quotation is often attributed to the wrong person.

What quotation is attributed to the wrong person? Are you again suggesting that the phrase in the 1864 “Rules” is misattributed to Marx when Tristan in fact said it first? Ok, then produce the exact source where Tristan says what is being attributed to her (whether a translation or otherwise). Wetzel, the AFAQ, and others can’t just say stuff like “in the words of Flora Tristan” or “Flora Tristan’s expression” without properly citing her or pointing to the place where she actually says what is being ascribed to her; that’s intellectually dishonest behavior and is not how quoting people works (and Dr Wetzel should know better). Would you not agree?

I also wouldn’t have said Rubel argued that Tristan “came up” with the idea of workers emancipating themselves if he hadn’t in fact argued just that. It’s a claim others have repeated with the added vulgarization that Tristan also supposedly said exactly what is in the 1864 “Rules” regarding the self-emancipation of the working class. Here’s a rough (Google) translation of the first sentence of Rubel’s “Flora Tristan et Karl Marx,”

Rubel wrote: The self-emancipation of the modern proletariat—a central theme of the teaching of Marx and Engels—was first proclaimed a hundred years ago in the form of a new gospel by a woman whose name is today ignored by the vast majority of all those who claim to militate for the same cause.

Rubel is clearly arguing throughout his text exactly what I said he was, and as I said it’s slightly strange to argue that Tristan (or Proudhon, as the AFAQ alludes to) “came up” with the idea of workers emancipating themselves. It is also unfortunate that nobody is interested in Tristan’s thought itself (except Rubel to some extent) or what she might have actually meant when she said, “it is up to you [workers] and only you to act in the interest of your own cause” (37-38). People seem more concerned with using Tristan merely as a means of trivializing the contributions of Marx and Engels, when there is nothing particularly interesting or original about the introductory words to the “Rules" to begin with (you could indeed point to the much earlier writings of Shelley or Engels).


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 6, 2022

As far as I can tell you're the one who brought Rubel and have done so after you went down this strange blind alley.

As for the quote, why don't you read the workers union? The text repeatedly argues that concept at multiple points its the key message of the work.

And will you please give this conspiracy theory a rest. Why on earth are you so offended that people give proper credit to people outside of your personal canon?

Ffs Marx and Engels acknowledged they were aware of her work in Holy Family and the IWMA was founded by the French trade union movement who were avid readers of her work.

While looking for her other works I discovered the english translations are done by marxists keen to stress her relevance.

Give it a rest and find yourself some new windmills to tilt at.


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 6, 2022

As for the quote, why don't you read the workers union? The text repeatedly argues that concept at multiple points its the key message of the work.

Right, but it is not an issue of Tristan arguing for workers acting in their own interests, but of people claiming she said something that she actually didn't (i.e. the introductory words to the 1864 "Rules"). You and others are also ignoring what Tristan actually meant when she wrote about workers acting in their own interests, which as the Livingston quote above shows has little in common with socialist/communist/anarchist objectives. If you don't think it is an issue that people say things like "in the words of Flora Tristan" without ever actually citing her, then there isn't much more to discuss/shout about here. I thought at least a "thank you" would have been in order for finding the source you were inquiring about, but I guess not!


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by Khawaga on August 9, 2022

Marx heavily borrowed from everyone, that he also borrowed that quote wouldn't be surprising. But discussing whether Marx said or someone else before is sort of like the scholastics debating how many angels could fit on on a pinhead: it's kinda pointless.


1 year 9 months ago

Submitted by adri on August 10, 2022

The self-emancipation phrase in the 1864 "Rules" is not much of a noteworthy quote to begin with; people only seem to be fond of invoking Tristan (without ever actually reading her works or properly citing her—it's mostly just people repeating each other or a vulgarized version of Rubel) if they want to trivialize the contributions of Marx and Engels. That is not to suggest that Marx and Engels did not borrow from others (of course they did—Marx borrowed his ideas on reproduction from the French Physiocrats, etc.), but in the case of Marx "stealing a phrase from Tristan," this is simply not supported by any of the sources. The closest Tristan comes to saying anything like the introductory words to the 1864 "Rules" is here (37-38):

Tristan wrote: Only one thing remains to be done: to act by virtue of the rights inscribed in the Charter [Constitutional Charter of 1814].

Now the day has come when one must act, and it is up to you and only you to act in the interest of your own cause."

What Tristan actually meant by workers "acting in the interest of their own cause" was contributing to the construction of her "Workers' Union palaces." Tristan's workers' palaces were partly inspired by the ideas of the utopian socialist Fourier, and particularly his ideas of a phalanstery (a community of workers living together). Tristan's workers' palaces were to serve as shelters for children, the injured/sick, and elderly (39):

Tristan wrote: I come to you [workers] to propose a general union among working men and women, regardless of trade, who reside in the same region—a union which would have as its goal the consolidation of the working class and the construction of several establishments (Workers' Union palaces), distributed evenly throughout France. Children of both sexes six to eighteen would be raised there; and sick or disabled workers as well as the elderly would be admitted.

Tristan herself was not a revolutionary socialist/communist/anarchist (you could call her a utopian socialist if you want) and was more concerned with issues such as the "dignity of labor" and guaranteed work than a society oriented towards production for need; she was a reformer, or Christian humanitarian, who saw herself as the Christ-like savior of the working class (as evidenced by her journal entries while touring France to promote her book among workers; see Livingston's introduction p. xv-xvi). One could still appreciate Tristan's sympathy for workers and her concern for women, but her ideas do not really have much in common with workers' emancipation, especially in the sense of people who tend to invoke her. I'm not sure if medieval theologians ever debated angels on pinheads, but correcting others' misconceptions, such that Marx stole Tristan's expression (or that Tristan was ever interested in workers' self-emancipation from the yoke of capital), does seem kind of useful.

Direct Action Movement becomes Solidarity Federation

An article from 1994 responding to the Direct Action Movement's change of name to the Solidarity Federation, published in the Workers Solidarity Movement magazine Red and Black Revolution.

Submitted by R Totale on January 17, 2022

THE BRITISH section of the International Workers Association, the Direct Action Movement, is no more. In its place stands the Solidarity Federation. This is far more than just a change of name, they see it as the second step on the road to becoming a revolutionary union.

Step one was explaining the anarcho-syndicalist idea within the anarchist movement and getting a couple of hundred people together in the DAM. Now they have set up three 'industrial networks' in transport, education and the public sector. These are seen as the precursors of revolutionary unions.

These are open to any worker who wants to join - as long as he/she is not in another political organisation. Their bulletins carry reports of grievances and struggles in their industries. There are few mentions of anarchism, and possible members don't have to agree with it, or even know anything about it.

The 'who are we' piece in each issue of the Public Sector Workers' Network bulletin sums up their basic approach.

Network is published by a group of militant public service workers to promote the idea of workers self-management and revolutionary change in society. It is also an open forum for all public service workers to share, discuss and analyse our experiences, and to develop solutions to the problems we face.

...We are also seeking to network as widely as possible with like-minded workers. We see no point in wasting time and energy in trying to reform the existing unions or trying to elect more left-wing leaders. We want to see workers' organisation which is not divided by union affiliations, bureaucracy or political parties, and which embrace all public service workers... on the basis of practical solidarity.

In an article 'Why we need political unions' in the summer 1994 issue of Transport Worker their plan is explained in a little more detail.

Transport Worker Network believes we have to build an alternative to the present trade unions. An alternative openly committed to a revolutionary transformation of society, educating workers and raising class consciousness not only through militant industrial action to gain concrete improvements in pay and conditions, but also constantly raising and debating the failure of the current system and organising ways to implement a new society.

While initially some would be attracted to such unions simply on the basis of effective action, it is our aim to convince them of the urgent need and genuine possibility of building a new society.

The new Solidarity Federation is not an 'anarchist organisation' in the sense that one must agree with anarchism before joining. It does not explain anarchism in its network bulletins or in its Direct Action paper. How are new members to learn about the ideas? Will it be left to informal approaches by other members, will it be left to a few people producing pamphlets and holding educational meetings? Will they end up with some sort of well-meaning elite running everything important lest it fall under the influence of members who don't fully understand or accept anarchist ideas?


Red and Black Revolution 02 - 1996

Issue 2 of Red and Black Revolution from 1996.

Submitted by R Totale on December 30, 2021


Incorporation...the spoonful of sugar

Why is it that many single issue campaigns and community groups which start out with a radical program soon end up as little more than service groups? Conor Mc Loughlin, an activist of the now defunct Portobello Unemployed Action Group investigates.

The two souls of the trade unions

Union activists are facing new management attacks but the trade union leadership speaks only of partnership with the bosses. Des Derwin, member of the Executive of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions and of the Dublin Private Sector Regional Executive Committee of SIPTU gives his personal view on the two souls of the unions.

The road to revolution

A complete transformation of society, revolution, is the goal of anarchism. Ray Cunningham looks at what is meant when anarchists talk about revolution, and what can be done to bring it closer.
Dermot Sreenan looks at how the Barcelona rent strike of 1931 prepared the ground for the revolution of 1936.

Chomsky on Anarchism

Noam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S. foreign policy, and for his work as a linguist. In a special interview with Red and Black Revolution, Chomsky gives his views on anarchism and marxism, and the prospects for socialism now.

Travellers fighting back

Patricia McCarthy examines the history of Irish Travellers' struggle for civil rights and ethnic recognition. Their struggles have much in common with those of Indigenous people worldwide and with the struggles of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals and also with the struggles of Gypsies, Travellers and nomads against racism and oppression.

Russian Anarchism: After the fall

Although many classical anarchist theorists and figures came from Russia, the advent of the Soviet State effectively crushed the movement. Now anarchism is reborn in Russia. Laure Akai and Mikhail Tsovma write from Moscow to tell us a little about the trials and tribulations of the new Russian anarchist movement.

Rebels at Ruesta

In August 1995 an international gathering of libertarian communists took place in Ruesta, Spain. A week of discussions took place and at the end a declaration was drawn up. We present here extracts from the WSM delegates' report on the week and the agreed declaration.

The IRA cease-fire and republican politics

The 'Irish peace process' is now well into its second year. It has brought respectability for Sinn Féin but little of consequence for the Irish working class - North or South. Gregor Kerr a member of the National Committee of the Irish Anti Extradition Committee in the late 1980s, looks at events leading up to the cease-fire and Sinn Féin's pan-nationalist strategy.


rbr2.pdf (2.08 MB)


Red and Black Revolution 03 - 1998

Issue 3 of Red and Black Revolution, first published in 1998.

Submitted by R Totale on December 30, 2021


Winning the Water War

Last year the domestic water charge was abolished. In 'Winning the Water War', Dermot Sreenan, an activist in the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns examines the campaign and the demonstration of people power that brought about the downfall of this charge.

Italian Anarchism...Get back to where you once belonged

Italy is one of the historical strongholds of the anarchist movement. Donato Romito, the international secretary of the Italian Federation of Anarchist Communists (Fd.C.A), provides an overview of the anarchist movement in Italy today, the organisations and publications that comprise it and the direction it should take in the future.

Organising against Capitalism

Many revolutionaries in recent years have been engrossed in analysing the mistakes of the past and the changing nature of capitalism. Andrew N. Flood a participant in the "Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and against neo-liberalism" argues it is time to start moving on to the constructive work of building a new movement.

The Emergence Of Modern Irish Socialism 1885-87

Fintan Lane is a historian and left-wing activist. He is the author of The Origins of Modern Irish Socialism, 1881-1896 which will be published by Cork University Press on 1 May.

Anarchists and the trade unions - Be active - be involved

Trade Unions are important organs of the working-class. Gregor Kerr - a member of the Irish National Teachers Organisation who has been involved in campaigns against "social partnership" and in many strike support groups - argues that trade union involvement should form a central part of the political activity of all anarchists.

Review: Constructive Anarchism

Despite its relevance, The Organisation Platform of the Libertarian Communists is as controversial as ever. Kevin Doyle reviews Constructive Anarchism, a new pamphlet from Monty Miller Press in Australia that has collected The Platform and some of the early responses to its proposals into one useful edition.

Review: The Labour Movement and the Internet

The internet - viewed by some as the highway to the future, dismissed by others as an over - hyped toy with little practical value. Conor Mc Loughlin reviews a new book on the internet and its use by the labour movement.

After Apartheid: Anarchism and the 'new' South Africa

Just three years after the famous elections that ended apartheid in April 1994, South Africa's reforms are in crisis and dissatisfaction is rising. In a wide ranging interview we ask the Workers Solidarity Federation for their views on what has happened since the end of apartheid. Interview by Kevin Doyle.

Introduction to issue 3

Welcome to issue three of "Red and Black Revolution". Apologies for the fact that we are about six months behind schedule but we hope that you will forgive us for using the old cliche 'better late than never'. We hope to be back on schedule with Issue 4 which should be on the shelves in October '98.

In this issue we look at Anarchism past and present, at home and abroad. Anarchism is a political current with little historical basis in Ireland (at least little historical basis that is generally known about). Fintan Lane's article in this issue shows that anarchists were active in Ireland over 100 years ago.

We look also at what is happening in Anarchist circles and organisations in Italy - where Anarchism is enjoying something of a re-birth, and in South Africa - another country whose Anarchist history is little known but where great strides have been made by the movement in recent times.

The need for organisation, the idea that capitalism won't fall by itself, is a theme which is central to the politics of the WSM. We return to this theme in an article which challenges anarchists to face up to the necessity for organisation, and which sets out to discuss some of the challenges involved in such organisation.

Finally, on the good news front. It is rare in these times to be able to report on campaigns which successfully involve large numbers of people in challenging the state and which emerge victorious. However, just such a campaign has been run in Ireland, and especially in Dublin, over the past three years. The successful campaign against water charges was a tremendous victory for people power. It was a campaign with which the WSM was proud to be associated and our heartiest congratulations go to all involved. The significance of victories in single-issue campaigns such as this should never be under-estimated. All of those involved - whether centrally or peripherally - played an important role in forcing the government to back down. Solidarity did indeed prove to be strength, and this message must be carried forward to the next battle.


RBR3.pdf (3.3 MB)


Italian Anarchism...get back to where you once belonged

Italy is one of the historical strongholds of the anarchist movement. In this article from 1998, Donato Romito, the international secretary of the Italian Federation of Anarchist Communists (Fd.C.A), provides an overview of the anarchist movement in Italy at the time, the organisations and publications that comprise it and the direction it should take in the future.

Submitted by R Totale on January 17, 2022

The present Italian anarchist movement is passing through a crisis which it will only be able to get over if it finds a new political project. This crisis comes not only from the choices made in the '50s (a slow and unrelenting self-exclusion from the Italian political and trade union life), but also from more recent causes: due to difficulties in reading the current situation and in not having a political project since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

Italian anarchists are often active in many struggles and support many different campaigns and initiatives, though this is mostly at a local level, which is preferred both out of choice and out of lack of wider political action. There are rare attempts to organise regional or national co-ordinations, but these almost immediately have to face a single fact: the existence of various tendencies inside anarchism. This diversity could be a richness if each tendency shared in making a common project, but it is a grave source of weakness if sectarianism and "crossed vetoes" prevail.

I will give a brief account of the different tendencies in the movement today.


At present there are two national federations. The first and largest is the F.A.I.1 . It was founded in 1945, and has passed though different political periods: enthusiasm after the end of the WWII and after the great contribution that anarchists made to the Resistance; next the renunciation of the class-struggle for all of the '50s and the '60s; the disaffiliation of the individualist tendencies at the end of the '60s; the expulsion of the "Platformist" groups at the beginning of the '70s; the subsequent rediscovery of social struggles. The FAI issues the weekly paper Umanita Nova, which is the most widely circulated paper in the movement, dealing with news and topics written for anarchists but which often fails to reach the people. FAI is an organisation composed of various tendencies, which, while enriching the debate, may block the congress resolutions, as each branch has large autonomy. FAI branches are often very active at a local level, but nationally FAI doesn't seem to have any official or public political line. The last congress launched the idea of building an "anarchist strategy for social transformation", but it's not easy to strike a balance. The second and smaller federation is Fd.C.A2 . This was founded in 1986 and is the latest organised expression of Italian anarchist-communism, after the O.R.A.3 . Fd.C.A. has branches and comrades in some regions in the centre and north of Italy and issues the quarterly bulletin Alternativa Libertaria, that reflects the activity and the positions of the federation. It's an organisation based on theoretical and strategic unity for all the members and on tactical experimentation. Its members are active in the unions, in the social centres and in local single-issues movements. At present FdCA is trying to develop a "minimal program" for political and social intervention today. The 2 federations don't have stable relations at national level, but they sometimes collaborate at local level. Each federation has international contacts with similar organisations: FAI is inside I.A.F.4 ; and the FdCA has promising new relations with A.L.5 , O.S.L.6 , W.S.M., C.G.T.7 .


There are tens of non-federated groups and circles. They are very active at local level about local issues or about national echo campaigns. They often make anarchism known in little towns and this is very important work. Their political life is tied to the ups and downs in their members' lives. Among these groups we have to mention Cane Nero8 . Their positions are inspired by insurrectionalism (in the name of anarchy). Their "military" actions are decided in secrecy and often provoke police repression against all anarchists who more often than not know nothing about Cane Nero's actions. These comrades are then asked by Cane Nero to support it. Yet when the dust eventually settles, the name of anarchy has been ruined and around anarchism there is only a desert!!

There are many magazines, papers and fanzines at local and national level. It would be impossible to mention all of them here. But I will mention A-Rivista Anarchia9 , which is very widely circulated and concentrates on cultural, philosophical and historical topics. It has always been very distant from class-anarchism. It is issued in Milan. A-Rivista Anarchia is paying a lot of attention to questions such as municipalism, self-management, anarcho-capitalism, influencing the debate and the fashions within the movement. Very close to A-Rivista Anarchia is Volonta10 , a magazine-publisher about the State, Education, Utopia. Comunismo Libertario11 deals with social, political and union problems and is interesting for the class-anarchist tendencies: welfare, unions strategy, economy. It is issued in Livorno. Germinal is a paper from the north-east; it deals with ex-Yugoslavian problems, anti militarism, social centres. It is issued in Trieste. Close to Germinal is Senzapatria12 . It is about antimilitarism. Collagamenti/Wobbly is a good magazine concerning theoretical reflections about current struggles caused by the present change in industry. It is issued in Turin. Ombre Rosse13 is something like a strategical reflection and analysis bulletin. It is issued by libertarian-communists in Genoa. Rivista Storica Dell'Anarchismo14 deals with historic questions and it's an attempt at collaboration among historians of different anarchist tendencies. It is issued in Carrara. Eleuthera is a good publisher and does interesting books about social and historical topics. Close to A-Rivista Anarchia. There are many other little publishers within the movement and on the edge, whose work is very useful.


These are the only chances to collaborate.

Anti-Clerical meeting: held in Fano for 13 years, it has been a successful way to dust off the old anticlericalism against Church power, but with a modern approach. Not an anti-religious meeting, but anticlerical: i.e. how the Catholic Church, and all the fundamentalist churches, control our social and private lives (family planning, sexuality, education, abortion, Vatican Bank, religion-tax) and how to fight against it/them. This is an example where anarchists have been able to involve many non-anarchists in the issue.

Self management Fair: it's a touring meeting (this year's is the 3rd) presenting experiences and debate concerning self management. It tries to respond to the new needs emerging from the movement: how to begin and develop experiences based on self management - education, farming, libraries, bookshops, services, self-productions (videos, CDs, infos- net.). Some people think that this is the way to smash capitalism, whereas others believe that it is just a way to "secede" from capitalism. Some think that these experiences belong only to those who are directly involved while others think that this may be the beginning of an alternative network for all the people and not only for anarchists or libertarians. Since welfare is under attack, the debate has been growing around the two positions. To briefly describe this debate: On the one hand the workers' movement tries to defend the dying welfare-state and links itself to the reformist parties and reformist unions that continually negotiate welfare cuts, thus reinforcing the state and the government. At the same time welfare can't be in the hands of private agencies so the anarchist minority must reject State-welfare and Market-welfare and help to build self managed welfare. On the other hand you can hear people say that to defend welfare does not mean to defend the state but the workers' immediate interests: health, education, social security aren't options, but rights to defend along with wages. Therefore a great mass movement is needed to fight against neo-liberalism and welfare cuts; at the same time anarchists and libertarians have the right to experiment with new social models, beginning from themselves but going towards all the people. The debate is open. . . .

Spain: in 1996 the movement campaigned about Spain '36 with videos, conferences, debates. "Tierra y Liberated" helped a lot. But only the Trotskyist Socialismo Rivoluzionario was able to organise a six-day camping about the Spanish revolution!

Americans in north-east: a new campaign is beginning against the American troops in the north-east of Italy. Anarchists are in the front line.

Ship to Bosnia: this was a very important initiative involving part of the movement in material solidarity to multi-ethnic Tuzla. It was a mass campaign both inside and outside the movement. All the various tendencies lost their holy importance. . . . and many workers subscribed.

Political Problems: Unions, social centres. . . . Despite all this activity, the Italian anarchist movement is practically "clandestine", far from the public political eye. This is often deliberate, but more often due to media indifference. . . . . though what is also true is the movement is not able to reach the tens of thousands of people as in the '20s, or just after WW2. Maybe only co-ordination among the several groups and national campaigns can restore visibility and credibility to the movement. Maybe?

Union: The anarchist workers are split up between different unions. And this seems to be a good thing. We can find anarchists inside CGIL15 as part of the left opposition inside the greatest Italian union, organising rank-and-file activity in the workplace for full control over bargaining, delegates and struggles. There are anarchists inside CUB16 , a new alternative union that gathers some thousands of workers from industry and the public sector. The anarchists have been put in the minority by a centralised management of the CUB. The CUB is based in Milan. There are anarchists inside UNICOBAS (a new alternative union which grew out of the 'cobas' struggles in the '80s: schools, airports public sector) that tries to be a mass-union giving importance to the workers' interests along with struggles against social cuts, unemployment and traditional union power in national bargaining. Based in Rome. There are anarchists inside U.S.I.17 , re-born at the end of the '70s from the ashes of the glorious pre-fascism USI. Unfortunately USI split into 2 parts before summer. The reason for this partition are very complex: a different point of view about which role the union has to play and a different attitude to the ARCA18 . One USI bases itself on libertarian-socialism as conditions for building the revolutionary union and a revolutionary project, and believes that joining ARCA is a negation of the original USI project. Roughly, but briefly, we can say that they put more emphasis on ideological aspects. The other USI bases itself on trying to be a mass-organisation with no ideological influences; it is active in bargaining in the workplace and has been recognised as a "representative union" in different sectors. It is part of ARCA, which is a confederation of 4 unions (UNICOBAS, USI, SdB, CNL), with 25,000 members and aims to get full union representation at national and local level. The two USIs have branches all over the country and issue two papers with the same name: Lotta di Classe19 . A third USI is in Milan (very active in Health) and till now hasn't sided with either of the two former USIs. There is a similar situation in France with CNT-F.

Social Centres: In Italy, the self managed social centres (different from those created by local administrations and controlled by the parties) are an important part of the opposition movement. Where they are set up they often become a sort of land-mark in the towns: young and not-so-young people can meet there, organise concerts, debates, watch and produce videos, listen to and produce music, support social struggles and international campaigns (Chiapas, Cuba, ex-Yugoslavia). Anarchists tend to set up their own self managed social centres and they generally leave or ignore social centres build by other political groups. But sometimes you can find co-operation among different tendencies of the Italian revolutionary left. Anarchists should avoid the marginalisation of the social centres from the surrounding community: between ghetto and no-man's land we should always choose solidarity and co-operation. This is the way to beat Leninist tendencies inside the social centres.


If Italian anarchism succeeds in breaking the 'splendid isolation' where it currently lives and goes back to the people, to workers, and to the social movements it may become a new force for change, for social transformation towards a better life, and, step by step, towards libertarian-communism: this is revolutionary gradualism. Those who have already taken this path have the responsibility to reach out, to contact, to relate with all the others willing to leave the ivory tower in order to organise, to collaborate, to create a network linking the libertarian left and the possible alternative.

  • 1F.A.I. is the Italian Anarchist Federation
  • 2Fd.C.A. is Federation of the Anarchist-Communists
  • 3O.R.A. was the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists similar to French and English ORA
  • 4I.A.F. is the International of Anarchist Federations
  • 5A.L. is Alternative Libertaire in France
  • 6O.S.L. is Libertarian Socialist Organisation in Switzerland
  • 7C.G.T. is the Union Confederacion General
    del Trabajo in Spain
  • 8Cane Nero means Black Dog
  • 9A-Rivista Anarchia is A-anarchist magazine
  • 10Volonta is Will
  • 11Comunismo Libertario comes from FdCA experience. Now it’s an independent magazine.
  • 12Senza Patria means Without Country
  • 13Ombre Rosse means Red Shadows
  • 14Historical magazine of Anarchism
  • 15CGIL means Italian General Confederation of Labour
  • 16CUB means Unitary Base Confederation
  • 17USI was/is the Italian Syndicalist Union
  • 18ARCA means Association of the Self
    managed Confederated Representations
  • 19Lotta di classe means Class Struggle


Winning The Water War: Defeating the Water Tax in Dublin in the 1990s

In 1997, the Irish domestic water charge was abolished. In 'Winning The Water War', Dermot Sreenan, an activist in the Federation of Dublin Anti Water Charges Campaigns examines the campaign and the demonstration of people power that brought about the downfall of this charge.

Submitted by R Totale on January 17, 2022

Ireland is famous for being a place where you can get all four seasons in the passing of one day. The predominant season here is the rainy season which extends through spring, summer, autumn and winter . The one thing we are not short of on this island is water. But then, since when did our 'leaders' or the authorities let the facts get in the way of further exploitation. Over the last three years in Dublin a battle has raged between the councils, trying to implement a charge for the supply of water and the people opposed to this policy. This is the story of the campaign against the imposition of this double tax.

When the domestic rates were abolished in 1977 following the general election an increase took place in income tax and Value Added Tax. The money made from these increases was to be used to fund the local authorities, who had previously relied on the domestic rates for their funding. Central government was to pay a rate support grant to Local Authorities. This rate support grant increased until 1983 when the then Fine Gael and Labour government decided to cut this grant and brought in legislation to allow the councils to levy service charges.

So though people were effectively paying more taxes, less of this money made its way to local councils, so they were asked to pay more money in the guise of 'service charges'. Eighty seven per cent of all the tax paid in this country is by the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) worker. This is a massive amount of money especially when contrasted to the fact that many multi-national companies are attracted to this country for exactly the opposite reasons, because they have to pay relatively small amounts of tax. Put plain and simply the beleaguered tax-payer in Ireland has been getting screwed not once but twice. This is what made this campaign so important.

The Son of Rates

In the 1980's resistance in Dublin led to the scrapping of the first attempt to introduce a water tax in Dublin. Other successful campaigns took place in Limerick and Waterford. In Waterford also, around the Paddy Browne Road a gang of contractors who were cutting off non-payers were held hostage by residents and Waterford Glass workers.

In other counties the charges continued and by 1993 the amount expected to be paid by a household varied from one county to another. The service charge for Kilkenny was £70 per annum plus extra money for refuse collection while in the County of Cavan you had to pay £180 to the local council. In 1995 the service charges continued to rise with Mayo commanding an annual charge of between £205 and £235.

The Water-Charge is Born

The writing was on the wall that a new charge was about to be levied on the people of Dublin when on January 1st 1994 Dublin County was divided into three new County Council areas. Fingal, South Dublin, and Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown were created and they all had to strike a rate which they would then be charged to each household for the water service. The existence of three new areas made it easier to administer the charge on each household.

All the councillors had been elected on the basis that they opposed this charge. In 1985 the Fianna Fáil manifesto for the local elections stated "Fianna Fáil are totally opposed to the new system of local charges and on return to office will abolish these charges and repeal the legislation under which they are imposed ." However when the time came to show their opposition they stalled before striking a rate. In South County it was £70, in Fingal it was £85, in Dun Laoighaire/Rathdown it varied from £50 to £93.

The sorry excuse that arose on the occasion of all these politicians proving themselves to be liars was that they were forced to strike a water charge rate or else the government would dissolve the council. Councillor Don Tipping of Democratic Left later wrote his excuse in the Tallaght Echo "We (Democratic Left) faced down a threat to abolish the council in 1994 by Fíanna Faíl Minister Smith, who insisted that we must have the water charges." The way Mr Tipping and his fellow councillors 'faced down' this threat was to concede totally to the government wishes. It is on such weak reasons that politicians' promises are broken. This whole episode also speaks volumes about how our 'democracy' works. The government pushes for Water Charges and the councillors bluster but fail to oppose it in any meaningful way. Instead they set the charge and set about the business of collecting it. In just a short space of time nearly all the elected councillors went from opposing water charges to imposing water charges.

Opposition blooms

In the spring 1994 issue of Workers Solidarity (paper of the Workers Solidarity Movement) Gregor Kerr wrote "Householders and residents in Dublin should immediately prepare to resist these charges. If nobody pays, they will be impossible to collect." Over the summer of 1994 political opposition to these water charges was drummed up as many public meetings were held all over the county. Members of Militant Labour (now known as the Socialist Party) and the Workers Solidarity Movement and many non-aligned activists worked at leafleting information about the forthcoming charge. We showed what had happened when similar charges were imposed in the other cities, towns and county areas. The water charges had soon developed into a service charge and now households were facing annual bills from their local councils in excess of £100. We knew this first charge was the thin end of the wedge and we went about getting that information into as many houses as possible.

Long hours were spent going around housing estates dropping in leaflets talking to people on the doorsteps. I remember spending evenings walking around one particular suburb with comrades leafleting for a meeting which we had organised in a local pub. After distributing thousands of leaflets two people turned up for the meeting, one from the local newspaper and one a worker in the council. In Templeogue people had not been involved in campaigns and there was little history of community based struggle. A sense of community appeared absent as each person looked after their own interests. But this area became more organised later on in the campaign and more people became involved as the council began to drag people to court. The hard work done a year earlier was rewarded as the campaign blossomed in the area.

The response was different in other areas of the city. In Firhouse 70 people showed up for the initial meeting. The activists organised a survey as a good means to develop contacts and as a means to argue against the charges. Persistent work by activists helped raise the awareness of the issue. As people became aware of the campaign more and more became involved.

On September 24th a conference was held and this gave rise to the Federation of Dublin Anti-Water Charges Campaigns. Councillor Joe Higgins (Militant Labour) was elected Chairperson of the campaign. Gregor Kerr, a member of the WSM, was elected secretary of the campaign. We prepared and built for a march which took place in November 1994. Local meetings were held thoughout Dublin and they were generally well attended. A march took place in the city centre and over 500 people protested at the implementation of this double taxation. The campaign was by now well and truly alive and we were building all the time by raising the issue where we could. Over the course of late 1994/early 1995 nearly every house in Fingal and South Dublin had received a leaflet from the campaign.

Ambush in the Night

By early December '94, South Dublin County Council had had enough of our campaign. People weren't paying the bill fast enough for their liking so they decided to up the ante and declared that if people didn't pay their outstanding bills within a certain number of days cut-offs would commence. The councils were now resorting to the tactics of the school yard bully by their use of threatening language in letters and ultimately with the threat of cutting off people's water supply.

All the activists raced into action. There were stake-outs at the water inspectors' houses. We would follow them around to ensure that they didn't attempt any cut off under the cover of the night. Clondalkin people organised their own cars to patrol around that area. CB radios were installed in the cars so that we were in constant communication with each other as we monitored the movements of the men who would try to cut people's water off. One house in Tallaght was turned into a virtual Head Quarters for the campaign. The phone calls kept flooding in. Communities learned to be vigilant of the blue Dublin Water Works vans and were very wary when they came into the estates. Children playing football on the park were told to knock on the doors when they saw such vans in the area. Indeed one van ventured into an estate in Clondalkin village and when the kids alerted everyone to their presence they hopped back into their van and drove away rapidly!

I remember freezing one night in a not so new car with a comrade from Militant Labour and waiting on one water inspector to move. I got out of the car to answer the call of mother nature behind a bush and I heard a huge roar from the car. Our man was on the move at 5.00am in the morning, a little early to be starting work we thought. He was aware that he was being followed so he gave up and went back home via Crumlin Garda station where he moaned about our close attention.

All our efforts did not go unnoticed. One South County Dublin councillor called us "political pygmies." The Evening Herald entitled us the "water bandits." But the final result from the reports the campaign received was that 12 houses were disconnected and they were duly reconnected. The campaign had won the first battle and no house would be without water for that Christmas.

Little Changes except the Government

Things now suddenly changed because a different game was being played in the Dáil. The Brendan Smith affair1 caused the collapse of the Fianna Fáil and Labour government.

A new government was formed. It still had Labour in it, but this time their partners in government were Fíne Gael and Democratic Left. With the change in government came a change in the tactics used to try to extract the double tax of the water charge. In the Dáil the Minister for the Environment announced that the power of the local authorities to disconnect water was to be 'delimited'. When pursued on this issue he said "The Government will delimit their power to ensure that water supply is not cut off as a quick reaction but where somebody has the capacity to pay and refuses to do so the ability to disconnect water supply will remain with the local authority." 2 As you can see statements like this did little to clarify the matter for us.

We continued to apply political pressure. We held a picket outside the Democratic Left conference which was held in Liberty Hall. The Labour party conference in Limerick was picketed by a number of activists. Labour members continued to be smug as they passed our picket and they paid little attention to us but disliked the slogan "You didn't axe the double tax, now watch your vote collapse." On that picket we were joined by anti-water charge activists from Limerick and Galway.

Over the next couple of months nearly a hundred thousand leaflets were produced and distributed calling on people to maintain a non-payment policy and explaining the government's pathetic tax-free allowance scheme. It proposed that if you paid your water charge on time then you were entitled to claim a tax rebate at 27%. So if your tax was £150 you were entitled to a maximum rebate of £40.50. In South County Dublin with the Water Charge at £70 you were entitled to a maximum rebate of £18.90. If you lived in Cavan you could claim back £40.50, but you'd already paid £210 for your service charge.

A Law made to be Broken

On 31st March an announcement was made that the councils would have to bring people to court to obtain an order prior to being able to disconnect the water. This was what the newspeak word "delimit" meant in real terms. This was the major concession that was won by Democratic Left in their negotiations in government! A press conference was held by the campaign outlining a strategy for dealing with the threats of court action. All cases would be legally defended in Court but whatever the outcome, pickets and protests would ensure that nobody's water was disconnected.

A conference was held in the ATGWU hall in Dublin on May 13th. It was decided then that during the coming Summer the FDAWCC would launch a membership drive at £2 per household to help fund the legal costs which would no doubt be incurred when the councils finally got around to summonsing people. For the moment they contented themselves with sending out more threatening letters. The rate of non-payment remained strong. Over £23 million remained outstanding from 1994. Successful meetings were held in many areas with 150 people showing up for one meeting in Tallaght.

Late into the summer final warning notices began to appear threatening court action. This was the final stage before the real summonses would appear. The membership campaign was growing quite rapidly and over 2,500 householders had contributed. The Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union very kindly provided the campaign with an office. An All Dublin Activists Meeting was held in September with the campaign working on a three pronged attack of non-payment, defence of non-payers in court, and maximising political pressure.

The first court cases were scheduled for Rathfarnham court on November 13th 1995. The activists made a large attendance at this case a priority and on the day over 500 people turned up. They voiced their support for those people fighting in court and made clear their opposition to the charges. There were people from all over Dublin, as well as from other cities and towns thoughout the country. Various union banners were present. People sang and were in good spirits as the judge decided to adjourn the cases to the next week.

We never expected justice in court. So the next week we returned to the court house. That day in Rathfarnham finished with a 500 strong march through the village after the judge threw the council's cases out of court. RTE (national broadcasting service) finally decided that the campaign warranted some coverage and the picket appeared on the afternoon news. Both Joe Higgins and Gregor Kerr were amongst some of the many people interviewed on the Gay Byrne morning radio show. After two years in existence the media finally began to take notice of us.

The local authorities continued to pursue people though the courts. The council had many legal representatives such as a solicitor, a barrister and sometimes a senior barrister, as well as various council officials. They pursued the cases tirelessly but the campaign's solicitors (F.H. O'Reilly & Co.) contested them on several grounds. Despite this some disconnections were ordered but the campaign's tactic of appealing these decisions to the circuit court ensured that no disconnections could take place. Larry Doran (a pensioner from the Greenhills area of south Dublin) made an eloquent speech from the dock of this courtroom in February 1996 when he highlighted the injustice of this state which grants tax amnesties to the rich while pursuing pensioners for water charges though the courts. He said "if the wealthy paid their due taxes, PAYE taxpayers would not be asked to pay double and I would not be before this court." The Judge ordered the court to be cleared after the cheering and clapping that Mr. Doran's speech received. Larry, with the support of his local campaign, decided not to appeal but instead challenged the council to come and try to cut his water off. A demonstration was organised outside his house to show the council who they would have to deal with if they attempted to cut Larry's water off. The council decided not to take Larry up on his challenge.

The Councils of Fingal and Dun Laoghaire / Rathdown brought people to court as well. All members of the campaign were represented. After 6 months of trials up to May 18th 1996, involving 25 appearances by councils, only 25 disconnection orders were issued against campaign members. One judge in Swords even invoked the Public Order Act to deal with a protest outside his courthouse. As William Morris said back in 1887 "The ruling class seem to want people to use the streets only to go back and forth to work, making profits for them." In 1996 the judge was still not too keen on the idea of the streets being used for much else, especially protests.

Death & opportunity

When Brian Lenihan, the Fianna Fail TD for Dublin West died it became obvious that his seat would be contested and Councillor Joe Higgins was going to run for the vacant seat as a Militant Labour Candidate. Joe had always spoken strongly against the water charges and campaigned tirelessly against them. On 13th January an All Dublin Activists Meeting was held at which Joe sought the endorsement of the campaign for his candidacy in the forthcoming by-election.

Members of the WSM present at this meeting spoke strongly against this proposal. We said that we would much prefer to see the charge defeated by the working class organising on the streets to show their opposition. We believe that people have to seize back control over their own lives and this is not done by electing some official to fight your corner. Empowerment would come from defeating the combined forces of the state, the government, and the local authorities, by organising together and fighting against the imposition of this charge. Now that we were winning, we just had to keep on pushing forward with our demands to have this charge abolished. Electing Joe to sit in the Dáil to argue our case was never going to be empowering. Joe would have been ignored just as on the local council his opposition to the charge was ignored. While our arguments were well received and considered, the decision of the meeting was to endorse Joe's candidacy.

In the end Councillor Joe Higgins nearly became Joe Higgins TD but for a few hundred votes. In the end however, Irish politics didn't vary from the mean and the son Brian Lenihan Junior was elected to the seat his father had died in.

The Federation of Dublin Anti Water Charges Campaigns held a conference in May of 1996. Many people were jubilant by the good showing of Joe Higgins in the Dublin West by-election. For many activists this was the most media coverage the campaign had received since its inception. But on the various prongs of attack we were doing well. Not one member had been disconnected despite the flurry of court activity and the huge resources spent by the councils chasing non-payers. The Campaign was still solvent and over 10,000 households had contributed £2 each to it. We decided to continue to maximise political pressure and the majority of people were in favour of the campaign running a slate of candidates in the next general election in order to 'put the frighteners on the politicians.' Once again we argued against this tactic. The Campaign was already on winning ground. The courts couldn't operate. Resistance to payment was still very high with over 50% of the houses not paying. The Councils were heading into their third year of setting a rate that would not be paid by the majority of people in the area. When a campaign of working class resistance to this injustice is so strong the last thing you need to do is to elect more politicians whose voices will be lost , soon to be followed by their principles. Mass resistance had got the campaign into this winning position and mass resistance would be the murder weapon of the water charges.

In November and December of 1996 the Campaign increased the pressure on the local councillors. All sorts of incentive schemes had been introduced to try and make people pay this double tax and all of them had failed. The non-payment of water charges had increased and the councillors knew the imposition of this tax was becoming impossible. The prospect of a General Election in the Summer of 1997 had all the political parties running for cover. They were running scared in the face of the massive unpopularity of this form of local funding. The last turn of the screw came in the shape of Civil Process cases. In this instance the councils took people to a civil process court where they would try and get the judge to rule for them and where they would be entitled to seize assets to the value of the money owed. This new tactic, which they are continuing to persevere with, has met with as little success as the previous ones. Again, people turned up in their hundreds to defend their fellow citizens from this persecution, and a combination of court protests and legal defence continues to make life very difficult for the councils.

The water charges were effectively dead in the water (pun intended). They had become uncontrollable and largely uncollectable. Further demonstrations were held outside local council meetings where they tried to strike an estimate for the following year of how much they would seek from the people. A march was held in the city centre which attracted a good attendance. The message was to stand firm and we would definitely see victory. Protest phone calls bombarded the local councillors. Massive public meetings were held. 500 people attended such a meeting in Baldoyle in late November. Finally, on December 19th 1996 the Minister for the Environment announced that the Water Charge was going to be replaced by a new system whereby the road tax collected in each area would be the source for local council funding. Of course he neglected to mention that his hand was forced in this change of policy.

The working class people of Dublin had organised, rallied and won an important victory. Double taxation was over and this is due to the policy of mass resistance, organisation and direct action. The political establishment had once again thought they could exploit the working class for yet more money. But this time they had their noses bloodied. The fight is not over but the victory is certainly ours. In time to come we should remember this victory and how it was won because the politicians will not be long before they come up with a new method to exploit us while they leave the rich to get richer. We must remember that direct action and mass resistance destroyed their best laid plan this time and be ready to employ these tactics again when they unveil their new tricks.

  • 1The Brendan Smith affair brought about the collapse of this Government. The Attorney General’s office took an exceedingly long time to get extradition papers prepared so that Father Brendan Smith could be extradited and prosecuted for child abuse. It led to the resignation of Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach and the formation of a new government (without an election).
  • 2Quote taken from minutes of the Dáil as Minister Howlin answered a question.


Red and Black Revolution 04 - 1998

Issue 4 of Red & Black Revolution from 1998.

Submitted by R Totale on December 31, 2021


Anarchism with a future - The Czech Republic

Kevin Doyle talks to Vadim Barák of the Solidarita organisation in the Czech Republic about the problems and possibilities facing anarchists in the process of rebuilding a revolutionary movement.

Anarchism & Environmental Survival

Anarchism is often seen as being broadly linked with the radical wing of the Environmental movement. Ray Cunningham in reviewing 'Anarchism and Environmental Survival' considers these links and the influence of these movements on each other.

- Meat 'n' Veg 'n' Microlivestock
- Cities of the future?

Racism: Where it comes from, How we should fight it?

With racism on the rise in Ireland, it has become more important than ever for anti-racist activists to examine where such ideas come from and how they can be fought. In this article, the South African anarchist organisation, the WSF, puts forward its view that the fight against racism and the class-struggle are inextricably linked.

The Life, Times & Confessions of Victor Serge

One time anarchist Victor Serge joined the Bolsheviks in 1918 and is often quoted by Leninists today to justify their repression of the left. Dermot Sreenan looks at his later writings and finds a Serge unhappy with many aspects of Bolshevik rule but unable to break with them because of the apparent success of the Russian Revolution.

The 1798 Rebellion

In June of 1795 several Irish Protestants gathered on top of Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast. They swore " never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence". Three years later 100,000 rose against Britain in the first Irish republican insurrection. Andrew Flood examines what they were fighting for and how they influenced modern Irish nationalism. [In Spanish] [As a PDF file]

Letters on Cane Nero

Readers views on some controversy generated with the last issue

The Friends of Durruti

The Friends of Durruti organisation, which arose from the ranks of anarchist militants during the Spanish Civil War, condemned the CNT and FAI members who joined the anti-Franco government. For their pains they were accused of wanting to establish an "anarchist dictatorship". Alan MacSimóin reviews the first English language book about them, and looks at the lessons to be learnt from Spain.

The Platform

So you want to change the world? What next? Unsurprisingly this simple question has provoked much discussion among anarchists. Aileen O'Carroll and Alan MacSimóin look at the answer provided by some Russians.

- The Platform: What's in it?
- Platformist groups today

Hobson's choice: The "Good Friday Agreement" & the Irish Left

The "Good Friday Agreement" was passed by an overwhelming majority of voters North and South. The agreement presented something of a Hobson's Choice for the Irish working-class - which route to an entrenchment of sectarianism do you want to take? Here Gregor Kerr looks at the reactions to the agreement of the Irish left.


rbr4.pdf (2.15 MB)


Platformist groups in the year 2000

An overview of the platformist tradition from the year 2000.

Submitted by R Totale on January 17, 2022

Anarchist organisations that have been influenced by the Platform are well aware that it is no Bible full of absolute truths. There is no grouping anywhere that would be so stupid to treat it as one. Anarchists have no need of such things. It is just one of the signposts pointing us in what we believe is the direction of making anarchism the most realistic and desirable alternative to both the present set-up and the authoritarian alternatives served up by most of the left. Its ideas have been developed and modified in the light of experience over the years. Two other relatively well known documents are Towards A Fresh Revolution by the Friends of Durruti (which arose from the experience of the Spanish revolution) and the Manifesto of Libertarian Communism by Georges Fontenis (which arose from French experiences in the post-World War II years). The WSM stands in this tradition because it is the best one we have found, but it is a continually developing, modifying and growing one. We have no tablets carved in stone, and we don't want or need any.

Organisations which are influenced, to varying degrees, by this tradition can be found in countries where anarchism has sunk deep roots, like France (Libertarian Alternative), Switzerland (Libertarian Socialist Organisation) and Italy (Federation of Anarchist Communists); and also in countries where anarchism is a fairly new force, like the Lebanon (Al Badil al Taharouri) and South Africa (Workers Solidarity Federation). In the last year new translations of the Platform have appeared in Polish and Turkish.

In the English speaking world, however, many anarchists are either unaware of what is in the Platform, or are hostile to it. Why? The authors drew a distinction between real federalism, the free agreement to work together in a spirit of free debate for agreed goals; and what they describe as "the right, above all, to manifest one's 'ego', without obligation to account for duties as regards the organisation". As they point out, there is no point making decisions if members will not carry them out.

However, when they went on to talk about a General Union of Anarchists they found themselves under attack from prominent anarchists such as Voline, Fabbri, Malatesta and Camilo Berneri who accused them of trying to "Bolshevise anarchism". I believe that this criticism was wrong. On one hand Voline and his fellow thinkers were opposed because they saw no problem with organisations which were a pick 'n' mix of anarcho-syndicalism, anarchist-communism and individualism with all the incoherence and ineffectiveness that implies. On the other hand many anarchists saw the proposed General Union of Anarchists as some sort of monopoly organisation that would incorporate all anarchists. It is a fault of the authors that they did not say explicitly that the General Union would, as all anarchists should, work with others when it is in the interests of the class struggle.

Neither did they spell out that all the decisions, the policies and the direction of the organisation would be taken by the members after full and free debate. It should not have had to be spelled out when addressing other anarchists but seemingly it did, and the 'Platform' was misunderstood by many as a result of this omission. Further signs of authoritarianism were seen in the proposal for an executive committee. Maybe if they had called it a working collective or something similar the same threat would not have been seen.

The tasks of this executive committee were listed as

"the execution of decisions taken by the Union with which it is entrusted, the theoretical and organisational orientation of isolated organisations consistent with the theoretical positions and general tactical line of the Union, the monitoring of the general state of the movement, the maintenance of working and organisational links between all the organisations in the union, and with other organisations. The rights, responsibilities and practical tasks of the executive committee are fixed by the congress of the Union".

The last sentence of the document talks about the aim of the Union to become the "organised vanguard of the emancipating process". It appears that what is being talked about is winning the best militants, the most class conscious and revolutionary workers to the Union. But it is not clearly spelled out. A doubt could exist. Did they mean a more Leninist type of vanguard? When read as part of the entire pamphlet I don't think so, but even if this is not the case it still does not invalidate the rest of the work. It would be very stupid to throw away the whole document because of one less than clear sentence.

Two arguments get used again and again against the Platform. Firstly we are told that it is Arshinov's 'Platform' as if the other four authors were just dupes, but then it would be far less credible to throw the same accusation at Nestor Makhno. It is done because in 1934 Arshinov returned to Russia, where three years later he was murdered in Stalin's purges. What Arshinov did eight years after helping to write the 'Platform' surely does no more to invalidate what was written in 1926 any more than Kropotkin's support for Allied imperialism in the First World War invalidated all his previous anarchist writings.

The other reason is the experience in Britain where the Anarchist Workers Association in the 1970s and the Anarchist Workers Group of the early 1990s both claimed the 'Platform' as an inspiration. Both groups - after very promising starts - declined, degenerated, died and then saw their remnants disappear into the Leninist milieu. This has been held up as some sort of proof that the basic ideas of the Platform inevitably lead to an abandonment of anarchism.

Of course, even the briefest look at the movement beyond the shores of Britain shows that this is clearly not the case at all. But what did go wrong with both the AWA and the AWG? After all, mistakes that are not understood can easily be repeated.

One factor shared by both organisations was that they were formed by people who were already anarchists and who saw the need for an alternative to the loose organisation and lack of theoretical clarity so prevalent in British anarchism. Or to put it simply: they saw a movement with great ideas but a very poor ability to promote them. They started off by concentrating too much on what was wrong with the movement; they lost sight of all that is sensible and inspiring, and increasingly only saw the problems.

In so far as there was regular internal education and discussion it tended to be about strategies and tactics. New members were recruited on the basis of activity in strikes and campaigns, and often had little understanding of basic anarchist ideas. These people had, however, come from a background where anarchists were presented as a group of clowns without two ideas to rub together or as dropouts, incapable of dealing with modern society and wishing for a return to living on the land. There were no formal educationals on the anarchist tradition but a fair few slagging off other anarchists.

At the last conference of the AWG one observer was shocked to discover that someone who had been in that organisation for over a year knew, by his own admission, virtually nothing about the biggest ever practical anarchist experiment - the Spanish revolution. Not surprisingly many of these new members came to believe that the AWG must be a radical departure from anarchism for it seemed radically different from what they had been told anarchism was. This, in turn, strengthened a feeling that there was little to learn from the anarchist tradition.

The result of this was that, as the anarchists got demoralised and drifted away, the remaining members felt they had to move 'beyond anarchism'. In both cases the surviving rumps ended up moving into authoritarian politics. We cannot be surprised when organisations where the majority of members have little understanding of anarchist ideas cease to be anarchist organisations. To expect anything else would be crazy.

The ideas of the Platform can aid anarchists to organise more effectively, but this is meaningless if we have not first ensured that those in the anarchist organisations have a good grasp of anarchist ideas, are confident enough to disagree and debate, and are united by the common cause of making anarchism a reality.



2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Battlescarred on January 18, 2022

This is just plain wrong. The rump of the AWA didn't join a Leninist group , it became the Libertarian Communist Group, which then later joined Big Flame. There might have been people in there who described themselves as Leninist but there were many libertarians in it the organisation self-described as libertarian socialist.

The Platform: What's in it?

A guide to 'The Organisational Platform of the libertarian communists'.

Submitted by R Totale on January 17, 2022

The introduction is brief, it describes the poor state of the anarchist movement and explains why they felt it necessary to formulate a new approach to organisation. The authors then describe the following two sections as the "minimum to which it is necessary and urgent to rally all the militants of the anarchist movement". These are the basic issues on which they believe it is important to have agreement, in order to have an organisation which can co-operate and work together in practice.

General Section

This section outlines what they saw as the basic anarchist beliefs. They look at what is meant by class struggle, what is meant by anarchism and libertarian communism. They explain why they oppose the state and centralised authority. The role of the masses and of anarchists in the social struggle and social revolution is also explained. They criticise the Bolshevik strategy of obtaining control of the state. Finally they look at the relationship between anarchism and the trade unions.

The Constructive Section

This outlines how a future anarchist society would be organised, they look at how the factories would operate and how food would be produced. They warn that the revolution will have to be defended, and talk a little about how this might be done.

The Organisational Section

This is the shortest and most contentious section of The Platform. Here the authors sketch their idea of how an anarchist organisation should be structured. They call this the General Union of Anarchists.

By this they seem to mean one umbrella organistion, which is made up of different groups and individuals. Here we would disagree with them. We don't believe there will ever be one organisation which encompasses everything, neither do we see it as necessary. Instead we envisage the existence of a number of organisations, each internally unified, each co-operating with each other where possible. This is what we call the Anarchist movement, it is a much more amorphous and fluid entity than a General Union of Anarchists.

However, what we do agree on are the fundamental principles by which any anarchist organisation should operate.

- Theoretical Unity, that there is a commitment to come to agreement on theory. By theory they don't mean abstract musings on the meaning of life. By theory they mean the knowledge we have about how the world operates. Theory answers the question 'why?', for example 'why is there poverty?' 'why haven't Labour Parties provided a fairer society?' and so on and so on. By theoretical unity they mean that members of the organisation must agree on a certain number of basics. There isn't much an organisation can do if half their members believe in class struggle and the other half in making polite appeals to politicians, or one in which some people believe union struggles are important and others think they are a waste of time. Of course, not everybody is going to agree with everybody else on every single point. If there was total agreement there would be no debate, and our politics would grow stale and sterile. Accepting this however, there is a common recognition that it is important to reach as much agreement as possible, and to translate this agreement into action, to work together, which brings us to ...
- Tactical Unity, that the members of the organisation agree to struggle together as an organisation, rather than struggle as individuals in opposition to each other. So for example in Ireland, the WSM identified the anti-water charges campaign (see R&BR3 for more details) as an issue of great importance. Once it was prioritised, all of our members committed themselves to work for the campaign, where possible. The tactics and potential of the campaign were discussed at length at our meetings. It became the major focus of our activity.
- Collective Responsibility, by this they mean that each member will support the decisions made by the collective, and each member will be part of the collective decision making process. Without this, any decisions made will be paper decisions only. Through this the strength of all the individuals that make up the group is magnified and collectively applied. The Platform doesn't go into detail about how collective responsibility works in practice. There are issues it leaves untouched such as the question of people who oppose the majority view. We would argue that obviously people who oppose the view of the majority have a right to express their own views, however in doing so they must make clear that they don't represent the view of the organisation. If a group of people within the organisation oppose the majority decision they have the right to organise and distribute information so that their arguments can be heard within the organisation as a whole. Part of our anarchism is the belief that debate and disagreement, freedom and openness strengthens both the individual and the group to which she or he belongs.
- Federalism, which they define as "the free agreement of individuals and organisations to work collectively towards common objectives".


Red and Black Revolution 05 - May 2001

Issue 5 of Red & Black Revolution, from May 2001.

Submitted by R Totale on December 31, 2021

Biotechnology, Fear, Confusion and Protest

Over the past few years developments in biotechnology such as cloning and genetic modification of food have led to wide scale confusion, fear and protest. In this article Conor Mc Loughlin explains some of these technologies and asks are they safe? Have they any benefits? Should they be rejected or could they be used for the benefit of an anarchist society

Peadar O'Donnell and the Spanish Revolution

Donal Ó Drisceoil, historian and author of a forthcoming biography of Peadar O'Donnell, looks at Salud! An Irishman in Spain, a little known account by O'Donnell of his encounter with the revolution in Spain in 1936..

Anarchism and Elections

Anarchism is the only political movement which consistently urges a boycott of parliamentary elections, and which refuses to partake in the sham of parliamentary 'democracy'. Too often the anarchist argument on elections is written off as just a fad or an attempt to 'appear' radical. In this article Gregor Kerr looks at the concrete political arguments behind the slogan 'If elections changed anything, they'd make them illegal'.

Review - No Logo

The publication of No Logo was perfectly, if unintentionally, timed. Just as the N30 demonstrations in Seattle made headlines around the world, No Logo arrived to explain some of the reasons for that movement

Review: Globalise this

Globalise This! is one of the more important and informative books to come out of the Battle of Seattle. The thrust of the book from the very beginning is towards the activist and 'the citizen' interested in doing something about what is wrong on this planet.

Revolutionary Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement

The 'anti-globalisation' movement of recent years has been a subject of great controversy within the anarchist movement. Lucien van der Walt, a South African anarchist active in anti-privatisation struggles, argues that the movement must not let this immensely important anti-capitalist struggle slip between our fingers. [This article in Italian]


rbr5.pdf (1.39 MB)


Red and Black Revolution 06 - Winter 2002

Submitted by R Totale on December 31, 2021

Crime and community policing

The term 'community policing' has been much abused in recent times, most particularly in the North of Ireland where it has become shorthand for vicious punishment beatings and shootings. In this article Gregor Kerr takes a look at the issue of community policing - what it is and more importantly what it isn't. The question of what levels of real community policing would actually be possible or allowed under capitalism is looked at, and the debate about crime, anti-social behaviour and reactions to it in an anarchist society is touched on.

Bakunin's ideas on revolutionary organisation

The Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin is often presented as the 'founding father' of anarchism. He was a larger than life figure whose disputes with Marx in the 1st international form an essential role in the clarification of the role of the vanguard and of the state in the revolutionary process. Yet his concrete ideas on anarchist organisation are not so well known. Andrew N. Flood takes a closer look at them.

Bashing the Black Bloc?

In the wake of the G8 protests in Genoa, Ray Cunningham, who took part in the demonstrations there, looks at the future for the Black Bloc and the 'anti-globalisation' movement.

Max Stirner

Max Stirner was an obscure prophet of individualism living in nineteenth century Germany. many anarchists today including anarcho communists also consider themselves Stirnerists and a Stirnerist tradition lives on in places like Glasgow. Conor Mc Loughlin examines some of Stirner's ideas.

The media and the war

Terry Clancy, of the Free Earth website, examines the 'free' press to find out why we shouldn't expect them to provide neutral or impartial coverage, especially during a war.

Opening comments

Welcome to the sixth issue of Red and Black Revolution, the second to be produced since we switched to this shorter and more frequent format. Although the gaps between each issue are still substantial, we hope that one of the effects of more regular publication will be to encourage our readers to use this magazine as a forum for debate. Most of the articles will, of course, reflect the positions of the Workers Solidarity Movement, since we produce the magazine, but we continue to print articles from outside the organization, and would like to see other anarchists responding to some of the arguments made in these pages.

In this issue we look at two of the earliest anarchists, two men who represent very different traditions within the movement. Bakunin is perhaps the most famous of anarchists, a man who travelled Europe preaching revolution, clashed with Marx, and whose politics ranged from early Slav nationalism to anarchism. While Bakunin was a man of action, Stirner was an intellectual and an academic, known mainly for 'The Ego and its Own', reviewed here. Both have been controversial, and though often enough there are misquotations and deliberate misunderstandings at the roots of some of those controversies, the differences between the two men, and between the visions of anarchism they represent, are real enough.

Though Bakunin may have had the better arguments, Marx was always the more respectable revolutionary, and often since the 19th century it has seemed that anarchism was the poor relation of authoritarian socialism. In recent years anarchism has been making a comeback, partly because of the final collapse of the soviet union and the last vestiges of 'actually existing socialism', and partly because of the role non-hierarchical, directly democratic and essentially anarchist ideas have played in the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement. Within that movement, the Black Bloc has been seen as the personification of anarchism, but what future does it have?

The Black Bloc, the summit protests, and many of the modern protest movements have often emphasized the role of the media, their part in creating images and in blocking or transmitting information. It's crucially important, then, to understand the make-up of the media, and to know how we can expect them to deal with political issues. This is all the more necessary in a time of war, when information is so important, and access to that information so controlled.

Our first article in this issue is also about conflict, and control. The question of community policing raises pressing human rights problems especially in Northern Ireland, a situation where poverty and sectarianism combine in a cycle of crime and punishment. When our ideas are tested, in our own communities, what solutions can anarchists propose?


RBR6.pdf (797.8 KB)


Crime, Punishment, and Community Policing

The term 'community policing' has been much abused in recent times, most particularly in the North of Ireland where it has become shorthand for vicious punishment beatings and shootings. In this article Gregor Kerr takes a look at the issue of community policing - what it is and more importantly what it isn't.

Submitted by R Totale on December 31, 2021

An audio version of this article can be found here.

Crime, Punishment & Community policing

".....the man who is called 'criminal' is simply unfortunate;....the remedy is not to flog him, to chain him up, or to kill him on the scaffold or in prison, but to help him by the most brotherly care, by treatment based on equality........" 1

The issue of crime and anti-social behaviour and society's responses to it is possibly one of the most pressing issues facing many people - especially those in working class communities. While it is true to say that the mainstream media and some politicians often - for reasons of sensationalism and for their own political ends - over-hype the "crime problem", it is also a fact that in many of the poorer and more deprived housing estates in urban areas North and South many people do live in something near a state of siege2 . Housebreaking, vandalism, joyriding, alcohol and drug abuse and even physical attacks (including muggings, rape and stabbings) are far too often a regular feature of life in many areas.

In this context, the implementation of the 'Good Friday Agreement' in the 6-Counties has seen the issue of policing become one of the most contentious areas of disagreement between the political parties. Long hours of negotiation have taken place in an attempt to establish a police force which will be 'acceptable to both communities'. While there is no doubt whatsoever that the RUC is a totally discredited (something which will hardly be changed by changing its name!) and sectarian police force and while the issues of the continued use of plastic bullets and the failure to face up to past human rights abuses are important, surely the debate about its replacement should have involved more than what symbols would be worn on the caps of the new police force and what flags would fly over their barracks.

The real issues have, in effect, been ignored by the mainstream players - by the politicians and commentators who have been setting the agenda. Interestingly, some of those on the fringes of the debate have actually put forward a somewhat deeper analysis. Speaking in a personal capacity at the 'Voice of the Lark' discussion forum in Conway Mill, Belfast on April 3rd 2001, Billy Mitchell of the Progressive Unionist Party (political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force) stated:

"A new and effective policing service will only be achieved through a new and effective philosophy on policing....that rejects the traditional model of 'justice' that is rooted and grounded in retribution.... An effective philosophy on policing must include an effective philosophy on justice....So long as justice is regarded as 'just desserts' rather than 'just relationships' no amount of tinkering with the police service will serve the interests of justice...."3

Punishment beatings

Unfortunately, considered opinions such as these are few and far between in the context of the Northern debate on policing. And what has been happening on the ground in working class communities is not alone worrying but frightening. In the name of 'community policing' - and under the cover of there not being a police force 'acceptable to both communities' - the number of punishment beatings and shootings has continued to increase. Figures quoted by the "Irish Times" earlier this year claimed a 40% increase in punishment shootings and a 30% increase in beatings in the North over the first five months of the year.4

What this means in reality is that from January 1st to May 20th 2001, 144 people - an average of approximately one person per day - were either beaten or shot for 'anti-social behaviour'. Even more frighteningly, more recent figures show that a growing number of those so targetted - by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries - are teenagers. A report prepared by Professor Liam Kennedy of Queen's University Belfast and published in August 20015

Furthermore Adams has expressed his worry that his party would lose votes if they weren't seen to be doing enough to combat anti-social behaviour. Yet we don't see or hear from him or his colleagues any considered analysis of the causes or reasons for anti-social behaviour, but instead see a tacit - and indeed direct - acceptance of the authoritarian behaviour of the paramilitaries.

A deafening silence

The silence of the Irish left in general on this issue is deafening. If the RUC or the Gardai were systematically beating up working class kids, there would be an outcry from the left and from liberal and civil rights' groups. If the government - either North or South - were to introduce legislation allowing for kneecapping or the breaking of elbows as the sanction for stealing a car, they would rightly be condemned and opposed every step of the way. Why then do so many stand by and refuse to condemn loudly and vociferously people who call themselves socialists and yet have effectively introduced such laws in what they see as 'their' communities? And let there be no doubt about it, part of the agenda at play here - maybe even the greater part - is the marking out of territory as belonging to either the orange or green bullyboys.

To call such behaviour 'community policing' is a complete misnomer. 'Community policing' implies - in fact demands - that there be fair, open and democratic procedures which would involve the community putting in place a system of fair public trials where evidence would be given and the defendant/accused person would be given the chance to defend him/herself. A most important element of this would be that suspects would be tried by properly elected representatives of the community - not by self-appointed 'representatives'. A system of 'community policing' would also surely involve the putting in place of procedures which would aim more at ensuring that someone guilty of anti-social behaviour would make reparations of some sort to the community or to the victim of his/her crime. Surely punishment is less important than rehabilitation and compensation?

Obviously a system of community policing would involve something a little more developed than this, but the above paragraph gives an outline which shows just how far we currently are from such an ideal . The question which then arises is whether or not it is possible to put in place a proper fair and democratic system of community policing without fundamentally altering the class nature of society. Indeed, before this question can even be properly answered, it leads us to ask what is crime and what are the true causes of crime?

Social deprivation

The Governor of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, John Lonergan, has pointed out on more than one occasion that the people sentenced to his prison come overwhelmingly from a few areas of social deprivation. Most recently, speaking at the Patrick McGill Summer School in Co. Donegal on the theme of Drugs and Alcohol in Irish society, Mr. Lonergan quoted the results of research carried out in Mountjoy which found that 75 percent of Dublin prisoners came from six clearly identifiable areas, or - as he described them - "pockets of disadvantage....infested with heroin". The percentage of prisoners who had a heroin addiction history, he pointed out, had grown from 31 percent in 1986 to 67 percent in 1996. He went on in the same speech to point out that heroin addiction is a "social class addiction" and that as a society we continue to develop communities where only "certain classes of people are housed" and where the message given to these people by the broader society is that they are "inferior".

To people who look at political issues on a class basis, what Lonergan is saying is not radical or new. What is quite extraordinary in terms of Irish society is that it is the governor of a prison - and not the trade union movement or even the social democrats or the liberals - who is making this analysis. It is yet another legacy of the so-called 'social partnership' between the trade union movement, government, employers and most of the 'voluntary sector' - the usual expected 'voices of dissent' have been silenced, bought off by the pretence of 'partnership'.

It is a reflection of the Irish 'Celtic Tiger' and the supposed economic good times that the number of women in prison in the 26-County State rose to its highest in recent decades in April 2001. Again the only voice to be heard questioning what was happening was that of John Lonergan:

"At a time when people would be talking about a whole lot of advantages and improvements in society, this is an indication of something - that in 2001 we have a phenomenally high number of women in prison....[the increase in numbers is]....connected into feelings of isolation and loneliness and being totally disconnected to mainstream society...."6

Again this might not be extremely new or radical thinking, but at least Lonergan's analysis attempts to look at the causes of crime rather than taking the simplistic attitude of beating up offenders. It says something that a prison governor can be described as more liberal than people who claim to be socialists! What he is doing is looking beyond the act of stealing a car or breaking into a house and asking a simple question - why? This has got to be the starting point for anyone who wants to develop a realistic and humane response to crime and anti-social behaviour - Why do some people feel so disconnected from society that their response is to engage in behaviour which is damaging both to themselves and to their neighbours? Or to return to the question as posed earlier in the article - what are the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour?


The answer must be that the true cause of a lot of the crime in our current society is actually poverty. This of course leads also to the question of what is crime because it is interesting to note just what capitalist society defines as crime and - perhaps more importantly - just what is not defined as crime. For example, in August 2000, a march of 1,000 building workers took place in Dublin protesting about recent building site fatalities. Since the beginning of that year, 13 people had died in the 26-Counties as a result of construction industry accidents. But the deaths of building workers do not appear to be taken seriously and fines levied on building contractors for breaches of safety regulations amount to little more than pocket money. Addressing the protestors, Eric Fleming, SIPTU7 branch secretary said that two-thirds of builders found guilty of serious breaches of the safety regulations "walk away from court with fines of £500 and £1,000........If there were as many gardai being killed each year, or teachers or nurses, the Government would build a special prison for the killers."8

If someone pulls a knife on someone else in a drunken row it is (rightly) called murder. If someone kills someone else as a result of forcing them to work in unsafe conditions it isn't!

This is just one of the many contradictions thrown up in the way society defines crime. Over the past few years the Irish political system has seen a rash of 'tribunal-itis'. Investigations have been carried out into fraud and corruption in the planning and political process. Evidence has emerged of large scale fraud in the planning process, in political funding, in the awarding of radio licences. Huge amounts of tax evasion by the wealthy and big business (stealing from the rest of us!!) have been exposed. Yet no one has spent a day in jail as a result of these findings9 . On the other hand Cork Corporation has jailed 6 members of the Householders Against Service Charges Campaign for campaigning against double tax bin charges.10

These are just two examples of the contradictions in definition of what constitutes criminal behaviour. In the 1890s, the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim wrote "What confers a criminal character on an act is not the nature of the act but the definition given it by society. We do not reprove certain behaviour because it is criminal; it is criminal because we reprove it." In other words, what society deems a crime is a crime.

Anarchist analyses

Historically, many anarchists have put forward analyses of crime and punishment, and have looked to suggest remedies both for the current circumstances and for a future anarchist society.

"The constant refrain of the anarchist song is that the system of government and law in modern States is often the cause of, rather than the remedy for, disorder. Most laws in Western democracies protect private property and economic inequality rather than civil rights. An authoritarian society with a repressive morality encourages the psychological disorders which lead to rape, murder and assault. And punishment by its very nature tends to alienate and embitter rather than reform or deter."11

Over one hundred years ago, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin suggested that crime can be divided into three categories: - property related crime, government related crime and crimes against the person. In putting forward this analysis he was arguing that if you remove property and government - in other words if you base society on freedom, socialism and democracy - you remove two of the biggest causes of crime. It could also be argued that a large number of crimes against the person (people injured in muggings, for example) have their root in crimes against property.

This article does not intend to look in any more detail at the nature of criminality. There is much which could be written about the daylight robbery, for example, inherent in the very running of the system - the legal robbery which takes place when large amounts of wealth are diverted from much needed spending on health, education etc. to give tax breaks to big business, the fact that a workers' wages represent only a fraction of the value of his/her labour - with the remainder siphoned off by the boss. This area would demand an article in and of itself. Instead what I want to look at here is whether or not it is possible to have any real form of community policing under capitalism and what if any forms of policing would be needed in an anarchist society.

Is it possible?

Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI) is an organisation which has done extensive work in the area of community response to anti-social behaviour, and has projects based in Belfast, Derry and Armagh. According to their website12

"The ultimate goal of restorative justice is not to punish people but to reduce the incidence of socially harmful activity, to promote victim-offender reconciliation and to help create safer communities."

The work and research done by CRJI is very interesting in the context of looking at the possibilities for alternative systems of community policing. In an article in the Summer 2001 issue of "Spark" (a magazine produced by Ogra Sinn Fein13 ), Paddy Molloy of CRJI outlined the method by which it operates

"We believe that when a crime is committed, there is a breach of a three cornered relationship, between the offender, the victim and the community. Our aim is not to punish people but to heal the breach and ensure that no further harm occurs."

To achieve this outcome, CRJI has put in place a clearly defined process. When a case is referred to them (either by a victim or by someone else), full details are recorded by a caseworker. The case is then assigned to two workers who liaise with all concerned in an attempt to establish the facts, as far as possible. This part of the process helps to identify the needs of all involved and to come up with proposals as to the type of support that may be necessary, what type of mediation is possible etc. The process would then go on - depending on the circumstances of the individual case - to indirect mediation, formal mediation or victim-offender conferencing.

CRJI's mission statement "Through a process of empowerment to build a restorative community that is tolerant, responsive and inclusive" certainly does point to a possible way forward. The central question remains however as to how effective such a system can be while society continues to be organised in a hierarchical manner. To what extent does this remain a laudable objective, or does it have any real basis? Is the real local democracy that is necessary for such a system to operate properly possible under capitalism?

The answer has to be that it is not. It is only if it operates as a constituent part of the state's 'justice' system that it will be tolerated. The facts of the matter are that the state cannot and will not allow any parallel system of justice to operate, no state will tolerate its monopoly on power being challenged by its citizens.

State power

In the 1980s many working class Dublin communities were ravaged by the effects of heroin abuse and the consequent anti-social crime, with addicts needing hundreds of pounds a week to feed their habits and wreaking havoc on their neighbourhoods - the poorest and most deprived areas of the city. In response to what was a desperate situation, communities began to fight back through Concerned Parents Against Drugs (CPAD).

The CPAD movement initially met with huge success and very soon had active groups throughout the city. The movement that emerged was also initially open and democratic. Public meetings in the community - open to everyone - would be held at which suspected dealers were named. Those accused of dealing would be given the opportunity to defend themselves. If found guilty, dealers would be ordered to cease their activities or leave the area. Those who refused to comply were forcibly evicted through community marches on their homes.

CPAD however before long came under pressure from two sources. Firstly, the state (the cops) moved in to dismantle what they saw as a threat to their power base. The sight of communities organising and bypassing the official structures frightened the life out of the powers that be, so they moved to crush the developing movement. Secondly, the temptation to allow the 'hard men' to sort out those who wouldn't co-operate became too great, and the movement tended to descend into vigilantism.

Ultimately, however, the principal reason why CPAD - and other similar anti-drug movements in the 1990s - failed was because of its political limitations. While focussing on driving anti-social elements out of the community, the bigger picture was missed - ie looking at the causes of drug abuse. While focussing on marches on the homes of small-time pushers living within the communities, the big drug barons were left untouched. Also the focus on forcing the state - health board and other agencies - to put facilities and treatment for addicts in place was missed. Ultimately the CPAD imploded - as a result of both its political limitations and the state's crackdown on it - and within a short period of time, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour was back to its previous levels.

This is not to say that the community activists who got involved and attempted to rescue their communities were wrong, but to say that in the absence of an overall political strategy which aims to change the authoritarian nature of society, such initiatives are inevitably doomed to failure. It is in fact difficult to envisage a situation in which any real degree of community policing could operate under capitalism. A system of community justice must - if it is to be successful - involve such a level of democracy and local organisation that - as already pointed out - the state will simply not allow it to happen.

The absence of just such a political strategy is patently obvious in the North, where - as stated earlier in the article - the very phrase 'community policing' is much abused. What is currently being witnessed on the ground in working class communities in the North is certainly not community policing. Nor could it even be said to be moving in that direction. The people involved in implementing what they describe as community justice are not in the least bit interested in looking at the causes of crime. Indeed their political allies are in many cases sitting in government, propping up a system which perpetuates economic inequality, thus ensuring that real community policing can never become a reality. As long as these people remain more interested in making friends in high places - be that with the Dublin, London or Washington establishments - than in challenging the basis of capitalism, we cannot move any closer to a society in which the idea of communities being self-managed and self-policed could become a reality.

After the revolution

So what about after the revolution? Firstly, there is no doubt but that in a free, democratic society which meets everybody's basic needs the vast majority of crime against property will immediately be done away with. In a society in which everybody has his/her basic needs met - and where indeed there will be many shared luxuries - there will quite obviously be less occasion for crimes against property. But there will still be those who - for whatever reason - want to give society the two fingers. There will still be 'crimes of passion' and there will still be people with mental illness who will have to be removed from society for their own protection and that of others.

This in turn implies that there will have to be some form of community forum to deal with these problems. This will however have nothing in common with the current police force. Firstly, the 'laws' which are being implemented will be decided upon in a democratic manner. A free and democratic society will have very few 'laws' as such as these won't be necessary. The vast majority of people - given the opportunity to do so - are quite capable of living together in a peaceful and neighbourly way without having laws and rules to tell them what to do. People, for example, don't need police to tell them to drive on the correct side of the road or to stop at red traffic lights - common sense is enough.

Secondly, the community justice system (or whatever title will be put on it) will itself be under democratic control. It is of course impossible to state precisely what will happen, because the system will be created by the people living in that society, not according to blueprints that we draw up in advance, and may in any case vary from time to time and from place to place. Suffice to say that - as with all other aspects of decision making - maximum democracy will be the hallmark of the anarchist society and thus no individual or group will be given the power to make decisions relating to 'law enforcement' by themselves.

Perhaps, for example, people will be elected as investigators when specific anti-social behaviour needs to be investigated. In some cases it will be necessary to have people with particular expertise such as in forensics. But these people will be given no particular positions of power as a result of this expertise - their function will remain purely administrative.

The idea of 'prosecuting' an offender will be done away with. Instead - where necessary - evidence will be presented before a democratically elected community forum, weighed up in an open manner with the 'accused' given every opportunity to question it (either personally or through a representative of his/her own choosing - there won't be any fancy lawyers or judges in silly wigs).

In addition, the idea of revenge or punishment will have no place in the justice system but it will be more about restitution and compensation for the victim. The aim will be to ensure that the perpetrator of the 'crime' makes some form of recompense to the victim, and that the behaviour is not repeated.

As has been said, we do not have a crystal ball and therefore cannot predict with any certainty exactly what will happen in an anarchist society. We do not claim to have all the answers but hope that this article and others will lead to a discussion among anarchists about how a future society should deal with anti-social elements.

It is a complex area and the only thing which can be said with certainty is that the only solution can be through freedom and democracy.

  • 1Peter Kropotkin, 'Law and Authority', Quoted in 'Demanding The Impossible - A History of Anarchism' by Peter Marshall, Page 31
  • 2Ireland is of course by no means unique in this context
  • 3Text available on the web at
  • 4'Irish Times', Friday 25th May 2001
  • 5See 'Irish Times', Thursday August 23rd 2001[/fn[ claims that between 1990 and 2000, 372 teenagers were beaten and 207 shot by paramilitaries in so-called punishment attacks. The youngest victim of a punishment shooting was 13 years old while three other children under 14 were assaulted.

    So while Billy Mitchell's comments on policing as quoted above are welcome, it is unfortunate that those to whom he is close politically don't appear to be listening. Instead of developing an 'effective philosophy on justice', his political comrades are setting themselves up as judge, jury and executioner and doling out their own brand of 'justice' to members of their communities who they deem to be guilty of anti-social behaviour.

    Likewise we have to listen to the pathetic justifications of politicians such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. While both of them have in recent months said that punishment attacks 'don't work' and are 'counter productive', Adams has been quoted as describing them as

    "the community responding in exasperation to the fact that there are elements who disregard any sort of acceptable norm and who simply prey upon other members of the community"'Irish Times' Thursday August 23rd 2001

  • 6'Irish Times' Friday April 20th 2001
  • 7Services Industrial Professional Technical Union - Ireland's largest trade union
  • 8quoted in 'Irish Times' Thursday August 30th 2001
  • 9One Fianna Fail TD, Liam Lawlor did serve a week of a 3-month sentence for failing to supply the Tribunal with full details of his financial affairs.
  • 10The excuse of the Litter Act has been used. At the time of writing 6 activists have had to serve sentences of three days. More information at
  • 11Peter Marshall: 'Demanding The Impossible - A History of Anarchism' Page 648
  • 12
  • 13The youth wing of Sinn Fein


Red and Black Revolution 07 - Winter 2003

Issue 7 of Red & Black Revolution from 2003.

Submitted by R Totale on January 1, 2022

Has the Black Block tactic reached the end of its usefulness? by Severino (Barricada Collective)

As class struggle anarchists who recognize the importance of a diversity of tactics in order to attack Capital, the State, and oppression in an effective manner, we see the black bloc as an important tool of struggle. Only one tool among many, but an important one nonetheless.

Where to Now? Anti-capitalist protest - global and local by Gregor Kerr

It is certainly hard to avoid the conclusion that anti-globalisation protests that avoid direct action will kill off the movement, or at least greatly reduce participation in it.

Repressing Abortion in Ireland by Mary Favier (Doctors For Choice)

The Republic of Ireland has one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world. At present abortion may only be performed where continuation of pregnancy poses a 'real and substantial' risk to a pregnant woman's life - about 5 cases per year of 50,000 pregnancies.

Direct Action against the war in Ireland by Andrew N. Flood

In every country after February 15th the anti-war movement was thus faced with the question of what to do next. In Ireland almost all of the direct action protests were targeted on Shannon airport. More than half dozen successful actions took place, ranging from a large scale breach of the fence in October, to physical attacks on planes as the build up to war escalated.

The IAWM's dismal leadership: A critique of the politics of Trotskyism by Dec McCarthy

After months of regularly attending the Irish Anti-War Movement's marches and particularly after months of listening to the speeches of the leading lights of the IAWM my head is buzzing with cant and rhetoric and I have that dejected feeling you get when you know you have just lost a chance that won't be coming around again for a long time.

Industrial Collectivisation during the Spanish Revolution by Deirdre Hogan

Within hours of the start of the Spanish revolution workers had seized control of 3000 enterprises. This included all public transportation services, shipping, electric and power companies, gas and water works, engineering and automobile assembly plants, mines, cement works, textile mills and paper factories, electrical and chemical concerns, glass bottle factories and perfumeries, food processing plants and breweries.

If you want to create Socialism - it must be based on Freedom by James O'Brien

Anarchists also seek to create communism. But for us freedom plays a central role, not only in the future society, but in how we try to get there. That is why, when we talk of communism, we talk of libertarian communism

Open Borders: The case against immigration controls reviewed by Conor McLoughlin

Most mainstream groups eventually come down clearly in favour of immigration controls and deportations, though arguing for "generosity." This book takes a position that so far has only won over a small but growing minority and argues for the immediate ending of all border controls.

The trouble with Islam by Andrew N. Flood

The September 11 attacks, the Afghan war that followed from it and the ongoing war in Israel/Palestine have once again raised the issue of Islam in the minds of many anarchists in Ireland and Britain. Not just because of the role Islam has in shaping those conflicts but also because militant Islam has become a far more noticeable presence on solidarity demonstrations.


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Red and Black Revolution 08 - Winter 2004

Issue 8 of Red and Black Revolution from 2004.

Submitted by R Totale on January 1, 2022

After the Dust Settles - Lessons from the Summit Protests

Despite the very real problems associated with the idea of 'summit hopping' and spectacular protest these manifestations have provided a public face of anarchism and at least as importantly have given anarchists an opportunity to work together

Summit protests and networks

The major advantage of the network form of organisation is that it allowed the rapid development and growth of a movement of tens of thousands from a tiny base without significant resources But no single form of organisation, unless it is one that involves the majority of workers, will ever be able to take it on in a straight fight

Media Mayhem - Anarchists and the Mass Media

This article examines the mainstream media and looks at the various factors which ensure that it effectively works as a propaganda tool for the powerful. It looks at ways in which anarchists can deal with this situation, by creating our own media, but also by challenging the hostility that they habitually encounter from the mainstream. It is mostly based on the experience of the 2004 Mayday protests in Dublin.

Playing the Media Game

Perhaps the two biggest problems in dealing with the media are firstly that the media can, through the questions they ask and the pressures they bring, begin to set the political agenda of the group. Secondly servicing the media machine can take up all a group's time and energy (to the detriment of the other activity).

The ideas of James Connolly

James Connolly is probably the single most important figure in the history of the Irish left. He was an organiser in the IWW in the USA but in Ireland is best known for his role in building the syndicalist phase of Irish union movement and for involving the armed defence body of that union, the Irish Citizens' Army in the 1916 nationalist insurrection. This left a legacy claimed at one time or another not only by all the Irish left parties but also by the nationalists of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.

Workers Without Bosses - Workers' Self-Management in Argentina

The original battle cry of Argentinean people "Que se vayan todos" - We want all of them out - that expressed the will to break with the corrupt bureaucracies, with the political class, turned out with all of them staying in the end. These experiences also highlight many of the problems anarchists elsewhere face in the wake of popular risings and they show us that the building of a libertarian society is not a matter of repeating clichés and slogans.

Review: No Global - The People of Ireland Versus the multinationals

No Global appears at a vital time. Anyone who wants to see how the bigger picture has unfolded to date can read in detail about the numerous struggles. But No Global is less clear and less persuasive when it comes to dissecting the political ideas within the environmental movement and the problems these caused


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Red and Black Revolution 09 - Summer 2005

Issue 9 of Red and Black Revolution from 2005.

Submitted by R Totale on January 1, 2022

The nomad, the displaced and the settler: Work in the 21st Century

A number of issues are being discussed. Firstly has the workplace changed fundamentally such that people increasingly are in temporary work rather than permanent work? Secondly is the division between work time and non-work time dissolving, are we spending more of our lives 'in work'? Thirdly are the non-work aspects of life becoming increasingly insecure?

Work in Ireland

Chainworkers means the 'workers in malls, shopping centres, hypermarkets, and in the myriad of jobs of logistics and selling in the metropolis'. Brainworkers means the knowledge workers, the programmers, the creatives and the freelancers. How do these categories pan out in the Irish labour market? Originally a box in the article The nomad, the displaced and the settler: Work in the 21st Century

After Nationalism

An analysis of why many on the left joined Sinn Fein and what their options are now. I joined Sinn Féin in the mid eighties with many others on the back of what we saw as a radical shift to the left and a commitment to build a 32 county Democartic Socialist Republic. I find myself outside that movement now, thoroughly disillusioned with it and its shift to a left nationalist and social democratic electoralist future.

The Ghost of Mayday Past

History of the Dublin 2004 EU Summit protests. Compared to many other European countries May Day demonstrations have always been small in Ireland. By the mid-1990's, May Day had become a fairly underwhelming event. So, given this dismal tradition why were the explicitly libertarian May Day events in 2004, comparatively speaking, such a success?

Learning from May Day: Anti-Capitalist Strategy direct action, militancy and building the movement

The experience of May Day brings up us back to some of the perennial questions thrown up by counter-summits protests: how do we broaden our movement and what role do direct action and confrontational tactics have in that process

Learning from May Day: Organisational Problems

Without a proper convergence centre in which to debate and discuss issues related to the protests many of the international activists. Legal and defendant support work was more piecemeal than it should have been. These problems were not just oversights, they are serious political problems

Book Review: To Live

The 'civil war' within the Civil War that occurred in Spain between 1936-39 is a difficult business to understand. Mick Parkin has succeeded admirably in his short novel To Live.

Book Review: Parecon: life after capitalism

Anarchists, in common with all radical proponents of social change are continually asked what their vision of a new society/economy is. The book outlines a radical vision of social and economic reconstruction whose core principles and values, Solidarity, Equity, Diversity and Self-Management, are very familiar to anarchists

Creating Solidarity in the Slums of Santiago

An interview with a comrade from the OCL, a Chilean anarcho-communist (platformist) organisation with a presence in the biggest cities of that country - Santiago, Valpara’so and Concepcion. This organisation has a policy of building up the movement amongst the popular rank and file, organising Frentes (Fronts or Networks) among the traditional popular factors in revolutionary struggle in Chile: workers, students and neighbours from the slums of the cities.


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Red and Black Revolution 10 - Autumn 2005

Submitted by R Totale on January 2, 2022

Interview: Looking Back On The Battle of The Bins and Lessons Learnt

The campaign against the bin charges was one of the largest organised mass movements of resistance to the state in recent years. Local organising groups popped up across the city. It climaxed in the winter of 2003, with the jailings of numerous activists in quick succession. Here we talk to Dermot Sreenan, a member of the WSM who has been a prominent activist in the campaign from the off.

Communism: What’s In A Word

This article discusses the meaning of communism as opposed to socialism that evolved in the late nineteenth century. Of course its not that important to get hung up on a name; for many people the concise definition of communism being something to do with Marx and the USSR is the one they know. For us the name of the post-capitalist society we aim to help construct is a detail, what matters is the content of the ideas.

Enviromentalism: Class and Community Struggle

The economic boom in Ireland and the construction boom that has come alongside it has led to a growth in the importance of environmental campaigns. There has frequently been a large gap between the environmentalists involved in such campaigns and the left - including anarchists. Sean, one of the 'Carrickminders' and now a member of the WSM gives his view on what can be learnt from the recent struggles.

Book Review: Anarchy’s Cossak; a review of the latest book on Makhno

This was a much awaited book. Published originally in French back in 1982, its English version finally saw the light of day, and the wait was well worth it. For those who are not familiar with the subject, the Makhnovists were a libertarian movement, deeply rooted in the traditions of anarchist-communism, that developed an experience of revolutionary changes in the economic and political structures of the backwarded Ukrainian society. To defend the gains of the Social Revolution, they launched a guerrilla warfare in Ukraine against a number of enemies: foreign troops, Nationalists, Whites, different warlords and Bolsheviks.

Situationism and Anarchism

The Situationist International formed in 1957 from two avant-garde groups. The Situationists are mostly known to anarchists as a group that had something to do with the May 1968 Paris Uprising. However, the Situationists played a relatively peripheral role in the disturbances. Although much of the graffiti that appeared around the city (some famous ones included : "Never Work" and "All Power to the Imagination") were taken from Situationist works, the group did not play a major role in initiating the revolt themselves.

A New Direction For The Zapatistas

Over the summer the Zapatistas announced a new strategy but what was it and what does it mean? On the global level the the rebellion in Chiapas was both an inspiration and organisational model for new a generations of anti-capitalist activists. Because of this the change in direction will have repercussions that stretch far beyond Mexico


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Red and Black Revolution 11 - October 2006

Issue 11 of Red and Black Revolution magazine, from October 2006.

Submitted by R Totale on January 2, 2022

Anarchism, insurrections and insurrectionalism

Insurrections - the armed rising of the people - has always been close to the heart of anarchism. The first programmatic documents of the anarchist movement were created by Bakunin and a group of European left-republican insurrectionists as they made the transition to anarchism in Italy in the 1860's. This was not a break with insurrectionism but with left-republicanism, shortly afterwards Bakunin was to take part in an insurrection in Lyon in 1870

The insurrection of Easter 1916

The Easter 1916 rising in Dublin is often portrayed simply as nationalist blood sacrifice but it can also be examined as an insurrection which was seriously planned to defeat the British army. It is credited with transforming political attitudes in Ireland, leading to the partially successful war of independence but nationalist histories tend to understate the other reasons why the situation was transformed and to completely ignore the wave of workers struggles that broke out during the war.

Privatisation – the rip-off of public resources

Throughout the world, public services have been under attack for the past twenty years. Forming a central plank of the capitalist globalisation agenda, ‘privatisation’ and ‘competition’ are the seemingly unchallenged dogma of modern capitalism. The levels of privatisation which have taken place worldwide are absolutely mindblowing. During the 1990s alone over $900 billion worth of public assets were transferred into private hands. Globally this agenda is pushed by the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The basic theory by which these bodies operate is that all decisions should be made on the basis of profitability alone.

Review: Caliban and the Witch - women, the body and primitive accumulation

Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch; Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation” does a fantastic job of taking the feminist analysis of the body and re-conceptualizing it within a class struggle understanding of history. She fills in the blanks that a traditional left analysis has missed, including the concepts of difference, women, race and the body. This work is very important, allowing feminists and socialists alike to realize that identity and class struggle are not polar opposite theoretical understandings

Focus on Precarity

Precarity: An introduction to a word

The term is used in particular to refer to the demise of the job-for-life and job security. In this sense it is closely linked to the process of casualisation

- Focus on precarity - Ireland

In Ireland, the WSM has so far been involved in two campaigns that can be linked to the issue; providing solidarity to a group of Polish temp workers in an attempt to highlight the exploitative use of agency staff by Tesco, and also in giving out information on workplace and union rights in the Get Up, Stand Up Campaign.

- Independent Workers Union

The Independent Workers Union (IWU) is a new small Irish trade union which stands outside the partnership consensus and is attempting to build a radical trade union.

- Focus on precarity - Change To Win (USA)

Last September saw a split in the USA’s Congress of Trade Unions, the AFL-CIO. The Change to Win Federation set out their plans: cut down on bureaucracy, devote a lot more resources to organising the unorganised, and start building industry-wide super-unions.

- Organising with the T&G, and beyond?

The Transport and General Workers Union (T & G), has sought to address falling union membership by adopting the model created by the American Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with its strategy of a national unit of professional ‘union organisers’ to target traditionally untouched areas of unionisation (precarious work in fragmented workplaces).


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Anarchism, insurrections and insurrectionalism

An article from the Workers Solidarity Movement examining the relation of anarchism to insurrection.

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

Insurrections - the armed rising of the people - has always been close to the heart of anarchism. The first programmatic documents of the anarchist movement were created by Bakunin and a group of European left-republican insurrectionists as they made the transition to anarchism in Italy in the 1860's. This was not a break with insurrectionism but with left-republicanism, shortly afterwards Bakunin was to take part in an insurrection in Lyon in 1870.

European radical politics of the previous hundred years had been dominated by insurrections ever since the successful insurrection in France of 1789 had sparked off the process leading to the overthrow of the feudal order across the globe. The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 showed the power of the people in arms, this insurrectionary moment which changed the history of Europe probably involved only around one thousand people.

Insurrection and class politics

1789 also set a pattern where although the working people made up the mass of the insurrectionists it was the bourgeoisie who reaped the rewards - and suppressed the masses in the process of introducing their class rule. This lesson was not lost on those who saw freedom as something that had to involve the economic and social liberation of everyone, not the right of a new class to carry on 'democratic' exploitation of the masses.

In the republican insurrections that broke out in Europe in the century that followed, and in particular in 1848, the conflict between the republican capitalist and small capitalist classes and the republican masses became more and more pronounced. By the 1860's this conflict had led to the emergence of a specifically socialist movement that increasingly saw freedom for all as something that the republican bourgeoisie would fight against not for - alongside the old order if necessary. For Bakunin, it was the experience of the 1863 Polish insurrection where it became clear that the bourgeois republicans feared a peasant insurrection more than the Czar that conclusively proved this point. So now the fight for freedom would need to take place under a new flag - one that sought to organise the working masses in their interests alone.

The early anarchists embraced the new forms of workers’ organisation that were emerging, and in particular the International Workers Association or First International. But although they saw the power of the working class organised in unions, unlike the majority of the marxists they did not see this as meaning that capitalism could be reformed away. The anarchists insisted that insurrections would still be needed to bring down the old ruling class.

Early anarchist insurrections

Anarchist attempts at insurrection spread with the growing movement. In fact, even before the Lyon attempt the anarchist Chávez López was involved in an indigenous insurrectionary movement in Mexico which in April 1869 issued a manifesto calling for "the revered principle of autonomous village governments to replace the sovereignty of a national government viewed to be the corrupt collaborator of the hacendados".1 In Spain in the 1870s, where workers’ attempts to form unions were met with repression, the anarchists were involved in many insurrections, and in the case of some small industrial towns were locally successful during the 1873 uprisings. In Alcoy for instance after paper workers who had struck for an eight-hour day were repressed "The workers seized and burned the factories, killed the mayor and marched down the street with the heads of the policemen whom they had put to death."2 Spain was to see many, many anarchist led insurrections before the most successful - that which greeted and almost defeated the fascist coup of July 1936.

In Italy in 1877 Malatesta, Costa and Cafiero led an armed band into two villages in Campania. There they burned the tax registers and declared an end to Victor Emmanuel's reign - however their hope of sparking an insurrection failed and troops soon arrived. Bakunin had already been involved in an attempt to spark an insurrection in Bologna in 1874.

The limits of insurrections

Many of these early attempts at insurrection led to severe state repression. In Spain the movement was forced underground by the mid 1870's. This led into the 'Propaganda by Deed' period when some anarchists reacted to this repression by assassinating members of the ruling class, including a number of kings and presidents. The state in turn escalated the repression, after a bombing in Barcelona in 1892 some 400 people were taken to the dungeon at Montjuich where they were tortured. Fingernails were ripped out, men were hung from ceilings and had their genitals twisted and burned. Several died from torture before they were even brought to trial and five were later executed.

Arguably the fatal theoretical flaw of this period was the belief that the working people were everywhere willing to rise and that all the anarchist group had to do was light the touchpaper with an insurrection. This weakness was not limited to anarchism - as we have seen it was also the approach of radical republicanism, which meant sometimes, as in Spain or Cuba the anarchists and the republicans found themselves fighting together against state forces. Elsewhere the left sometimes slotted into this role - the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Ireland saw a military alliance between revolutionary syndicalists and nationalists.

However the original organisational approach of the anarchists around Bakunin was not limited to making attempts at insurrection, but also included the involvement of anarchists in the mass struggles of the working people. While some anarchists responded to circumstances by constructing an ideology of 'illegalism' the majority started to turn to these mass struggles and, in particular, entering or constructing mass unions on a revolutionary syndicalist base. In the opening years of the 20th century anarchists were involved in or simply built most of the revolutionary syndicalist unions that were to dominate radical politics up to the Russian revolution. Very often these unions were themselves then involved in insurrections, as in 1919 in both Argentina and Chile which included in Chile workers who "took possession of the Patagonian town of Puerto Natales, under the red flag and anarcho-syndicalist principles."3 Earlier, in 1911, the Mexican anarchists of the PLM, with the help of many IWW members from the USA, "organised battalions …in Baja California and took over the town of Mexicali and the surrounding areas".

Insurrections and anarchist communists

The anarchist communist organisational tradition within anarchism can be traced back to Bakunin and the first programmatic documents produced by the emerging anarchist movement in the 1860s. But these organisational ideas were not developed in any collective way again until the 1920s. Still there were individuals and groups that advocated the key features of organised anarchist communism; involvement in the mass struggle of the working people and the need for specific anarchist organisation and propaganda.

Anarchist communism was clarified in 1926 by a group of revolutionary exiles analysing why their efforts to date had failed. This resulted in the publication of the document known in English as the 'Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists' which we have analysed at length elsewhere.

Here the relevance is to note that, like their predecessors of the 1860s, this grouping of anarchist communists were trying to learn from the anarchist involvement in insurrections and revolution of the 1917-21 period. They include Nestor Makhno who had been the key figure of a massive anarchist led insurrection in the Western Ukraine. The Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine fought the Austro Hungarians, anti-semitic pogromists, various white armies and the Bolshevik controlled Red army over those years.

These platformists, as they have come to be known, wrote "The principle of enslavement and exploitation of the masses by violence constitutes the basis of modern society. All the manifestations of its existence: the economy, politics, social relations, rest on class violence, of which the servicing organs are: authority, the police, the army, the judiciary... The progress of modern society: the technical evolution of capital and the perfection of its political system, fortifies the power of the ruling classes, and makes the struggle against them more difficult… Analysis of modern society leads us to the conclusion that the only way to transform capitalist society into a society of free workers is the way of violent social revolution."4

The Spanish experience

The next development of anarchist communism once more involved those at the centre of an insurrection - this time the Friends of Durruti group who were active during the Barcelona insurrection of May 1937. The FoD "members and supporters were prominent comrades from the Gelsa battle-front".5

The FoD was composed of members of the CNT but was highly critical of the role the CNT had played in 1936 "The CNT did not know how to live up to its role. It did not want to push ahead with the revolution with all its consequences. They were frightened by the foreign fleets... Has any revolution ever been made without having to overcome countless difficulties? Is there any revolution in the world, of the advanced type, that has been able to avert foreign intervention? … Using fear as a springboard and letting oneself be swayed by timidity, one never succeeds. Only the bold, the resolute, men of courage may attain great victories. The timid have no right to lead the masses...The CNT ought to have leapt into the driver's seat in the country, delivering a severe coup de grace to all that is outmoded and archaic. In this way we would have won the war and saved the revolution... But it did the opposite… It breathed a lungful of oxygen into an anaemic, terror-stricken bourgeoisie."6

Across much of the world anarchism had been crushed in the period up to, during and after World War Two. Anarchists were involved in partisan movements across Europe during the war but in the aftermath were repressed by eastern 'communism' or western 'democracy'. In Uruguay, one of the few places where a sizeable anarchist communist movement survived, the FAU waged an underground armed struggle against the military dictatorship from the 1950's. Cuban anarcho-syndicalists, in particular tobacco workers, played a significant role in the Cuban revolution only to be repressed in its aftermath by the new regime.

The ideology of insurrectionalism

There is a long tradition within anarchism of constructing ideologies out of a tactic. The long and deep involvement of anarchists in insurrections has, not surprisingly, given rise to an anarchist ideology of insurrectionalism.

An early self-definition of insurrectionalism in English is found in this 1993 translation: "We consider the form of struggle best suited to the present state of class conflict in practically all situations is the insurrectional one, and this is particularly so in the Mediterranean area. By insurrectional practice we mean the revolutionary activity that intends to take the initiative in the struggle and does not limit itself to waiting or to simple defensive responses to attacks by the structures of power. Insurrectionalists do not subscribe to the quantitative practices typical of waiting, for example organisational projects whose first aim is to grow in numbers before intervening in struggles, and who during this waiting period limit themselves to proselytism and propaganda, or to the sterile as it is innocuous counter-information"7

As an ideology insurrectionalism originates in the peculiar conditions of post war Italy and Greece. Towards the end of World War Two there was a real possibility of revolution in both countries. In many areas the fascists were driven out by left partisans before the allied armies arrived. But because of the Yalta agreement Stalin instructed the official revolutionary left of the Communist Party to hold back the struggle. As a result, Greece was to suffer decades of military dictatorship while in Italy the Communist Party continued to hold back struggles. Insurrectionalism was one of a number of new socialist ideologies which arose to address these particular circumstances. However the development of insurrectionalism in these countries is beyond the scope of this article. Here we want to look at the development of an insurrectionalist ideology in the Anglo world.

Insurrectionalism in the anglo world

One insurrectionalist has described how the ideas spread from Italy "Insurrectionary anarchism has been developing in the English language anarchist movement since the 1980s, thanks to translations and writings by Jean Weir in her "Elephant Editions" and her magazine "Insurrection". .. In Vancouver, Canada, local comrades involved in the Anarchist Black Cross, the local anarchist social center, and the magazines "No Picnic" and "Endless Struggle" were influenced by Jean's projects, and this carried over into the always developing practice of insurrectionary anarchists in this region today ... The anarchist magazine "Demolition Derby" in Montreal also covered some insurrectionary anarchist news back in the day"8

That insurrectionalism should emerge as a more distinct trend in English language anarchism at this point in time should be no surprise. The massive boost anarchism received from the summit protest movement was in part due to the high visibility of black bloc style tactics. After the Prague summit protest of 2000, the state learned how to greatly reduce the effectiveness of such tactics. Soon after the disastrous experience of Genoa and a number of controlled blocs in the USA, arguments arose that emphasised greater militancy and more clandestine organisation on the one hand and a move away from the spectacle of summit protesting on the other.

Alongside this, many young people who were entering anarchist politics for the first time often made the incorrect assumption that the militant image that had first attracted their attention on the TV news was a product of insurrectionalism in particular. In fact, most varieties of class struggle anarchists, including anarchist communists and members of the syndicalist unions, had participated in black bloc style protests at the summits. As these all see actual insurrections as playing a significant role in achieving an anarchist society, there should be nothing surprising in them being involved in a little street fighting on the occasions when that tactic appears to make sense. By the time of Genoa, when the state had obviously greatly upped the level of repression it could deploy, anarchist communists were debating whether such tactics had a future in the columns of this magazine and other publications.

The ideas of insurrectionalism

It is probably useful to dispel a couple of myths about insurrectionalism at the start. Insurrectionalism is not limited to armed struggle, although it might include armed struggle, and most insurrectionalists are quite critical of the elitism of armed struggle vanguards. Nor does it mean continuously trying to start actual insurrections, most insurrectionalists are smart enough to realise that this maximum program is not always possible, even if they are also keen to condemn other anarchists for waiting.

So what is insurrectionalism? Do or Die 10 published a useful9 introduction with the title "Insurrectionary Anarchy: Organising for Attack!"10 . I use substantive quotes from this article in the discussion that follows.

The concept of 'attack' is at the heart of the insurrectionist ideology, this was explained as follows

"Attack is the refusal of mediation, pacification, sacrifice, accommodation, and compromise in struggle. It is through acting and learning to act, not propaganda, that we will open the path to insurrection, although analysis and discussion have a role in clarifying how to act. Waiting only teaches waiting; in acting one learns to act."

This essay drew from a number of previously published insurrectionalist works, one of these 'At Daggers Drawn' explained that

"The force of an insurrection is social, not military. Generalised rebellion is not measured by the armed clash but by the extent to which the economy is paralysed, the places of production and distribution taken over, the free giving that burns all calculation ... No guerrilla group, no matter how effective, can take the place of this grandiose movement of destruction and transformation."11

The insurrectionalist notion of attack is not one based on a vanguard achieving liberation for the working class. Instead they are clear that "what the system is afraid of is not these acts of sabotage in themselves, so much as their spreading socially."12 . In other words the direct actions of a small group can only be successful if they are taken up across the working class. This is a much more useful way to discuss direct action that the more conventional left debate that polarises extremes of 'Direct Action crews' who see their actions in themselves as achieving the objective versus revolutionary organizations that refuse to move beyond propagandising for mass action - and all too often actually argue against 'elitist' small group actions.

Riots and class struggle

Insurrectionalists often recognize class struggle where the reformist left refuse to, so writing of Britain in the early 1980's Jean Weir observed that "The struggles taking place in the inner city ghettos are often misunderstood as mindless violence. The young struggling against exclusion and boredom are advanced elements of the class clash. The ghetto walls must be broken down, not enclosed."13

The idea that such actions need to be taken up across the working class is also seen by insurrectionalists as an important answer to the argument that the state can simply repress small groups. It is pointed out that "It is materially impossible for the state and capital to police the whole social terrain"14 .

As might be imagined, individual desires are central to insurrectionalism but not as with the rugged individualism of the 'libertarian right'. Rather "The desire for individual self-determination and self-realization leads to the necessity of a class analysis and class struggle"15 .

Much of the insurrectionalist theory we have looked at so far presents no real problems in principle for anarchist communists. On the theoretical level, the problems arise with the organisational ideology that insurrectionists have constructed alongside this. Much of this has been constructed as an ideological critique of the rest of the anarchist movement.

The organiser

The insurrectionist criticism of 'the organiser', while a useful warning of the dangers that come with such a role, has expanded into an ideological position that presents such dangers as inevitable. We are told "It is the job of the organiser to transform the multitude into a controllable mass and to represent that mass to the media or state institutions" and "For the organiser... real action always takes a back seat to the maintenance of the media image".

Probably most of us are familiar with left campaigns run by a particular party where exactly this has happened. But our experience is that this is not inevitable. It is quite possible for individuals to help organise a struggle without this happening. A comrade has more time than anyone else so they take on a number of tasks that need to be done - are they not therefore an organiser?

The problem with the apparent blanket ban on 'organisers' is that it prevents analysis of why these problems arise and thus how they can be prevented.

In the case of media work there is no mystery. Anyone doing media work for a controversial struggle will be bombarded with questions about the likelihood of violence - in media terms this is a 'sexy' story. If they are getting this day after day, week after week then they will start to try to shape the struggle to follow this media agenda.

The solution is simple. This problem arises because the left tends to have their 'leader' who is doing the key organising of a protest also as the media contact for that protest. Our experience is that if you divorce the two roles so that the organisers of a specific event are not the people who speak to the media about it then the problem is greatly reduced if not eliminated. The actual organisers are isolated from the media but feed information to whoever is nominated as a media spokesperson. That media spokesperson however has no particular say about the organisation of the protest.

The media and popular opinion

This leads onto the insurrectionalist description of the media. "An opinion is not something first found among the public in general and then, afterwards, replayed through the media, as a simple reporting of the public opinion. An opinion exists in the media first. Secondly, the media then reproduces the opinion a million times over linking the opinion to a certain type of person (conservatives think x, liberals think y). Public opinion is produced as a series of simple choices or solutions ('I'm for globalization and free trade,' or 'I'm for more national control and protectionism'). We are all supposed to choose - as we choose our leaders or our burgers - instead of thinking for ourselves."

This all sounds pretty good - and there is considerable truth in it. But this blanket analysis again prevents a discussion about how these problems can be overcome. Until the time we have our own alternative media - and in that case some of the problems above would still apply - we would be crazy not to use those sections of the media through which we might be able to reach the millions of people that lack of resources otherwise cut us off from.

And while the media likes to simplify the story by reducing it to binary choices, this does not mean that everyone who gets information from the media accepts this division. Many if not all people have an understanding that the media is flawed and so tend not to accept its binary divisions.

Waiting for the revolution?

We are told the left in general and the rest of the anarchist movement in particular hold

"a critique of separation and representation that justifies waiting and accepts the role of the critic. With the pretext of not separating oneself from the 'social movement', one ends up denouncing any practice of attack as a 'flight forward' or mere 'armed propaganda'. Once again revolutionaries are called to 'unmask' the real conditions of the exploited, this time by their very inaction. No revolt is consequently possible other than in a visible social movement. So anyone who acts must necessarily want to take the place of the proletariat. The only patrimony to defend becomes 'radical critique', 'revolutionary lucidity'. Life is miserable, so one cannot do anything but theorise misery."16

Here we see the chief weakness of insurrectionalism - its lack of serious discussion of other anarchist tendencies. We are led to believe that other revolutionaries, including all other anarchists, favour waiting around and preaching about the evils of capitalism rather than also taking action. There are some very few groups for whom this is true, but the reality is that even amongst the non-anarchist revolutionary movement most organisations also engage in forms of direct action where they think this makes tactical sense. In reality this is also the judgement that insurrectionalists make - like everyone else they recognise the need to wait until they think the time is right. They recognise that tomorrow is not the day to storm the White House.

Critique of organisation

Another place to find fault with the ideology of insurrectionalism is where it comes to the question of organisation. Insurrectionalism declares itself against 'formal organisation' and for 'informal organisation'. Often quite what that means is unclear as 'formal' organization is simply used as a label for all the things that can go wrong with an organisation.

Insurrectionalists attempt to define formal organisation as "permanent organisations [which] synthesise all struggle within a single organisation, and organisations that mediate struggles with the institutions of domination. Permanent organisations tend to develop into institutions that stand above the struggling multitude. They tend to develop a formal or informal hierarchy and to disempower the multitude ... The hierarchical constitution of power-relations removes decision from the time such a decision is necessary and places it within the organisation ... permanent organisations tend to make decisions based not on the necessity of a specific goal or action, but on the needs of that organisation, especially its preservation. The organisation becomes an end in itself."

While this is quite a good critique of Leninism or Social Democratic forms of organisation, it doesn't really describe ongoing forms of anarchist organisation - in particular anarchist communism organisation. Anarchist communists don't, for instance, seek to "synthesise all struggle within a single organisation". Rather we think the specific anarchist organisation should involve itself in the struggles of the working class, and that these struggle should be self-managed by the class - not run by any organisation, anarchist or otherwise.

Solutions to the problems of organisation

Far from developing hierarchy, our constitutions not only forbid formal hierarchy but contain provisions designed to prevent the development of informal hierarchy as well. For instance considerable informal power can fall to someone who is the only one who can do a particular task and who manages to hold onto this role for many years. So the WSM constitution says no member can hold any particular position for more than three years. After that time they have to step down.

These sorts of formal mechanisms to prevent the development of informal hierarchy are common in anarchist communist organizations. In fact, it is an example of where formal organisation is a greater protection against hierarchy, our formal method of organisation also allows us to agree rules to prevent informal hierarchy developing. Insurrectionalism lacks any serious critique of informal hierarchy but, as anyone active in the anarchist movement in the anglo world knows, the lack of sizeable formal organisation means that problems of hierarchy within the movement are most often problems of informal hierarchy.

If you strip out the things that can go wrong with an organisation, then the insurrectionalist concept of 'formal' organisation boils down to an organisation that continues to exist between and across struggles. Although even here the distinction is clouded because insurrectionalists also see that sometimes informal organisation may be involved in more than one struggle or may move from one struggle to another.

From an anarchist communist perspective, the major point of an organisation is to help create communication, common purpose and unity across and between struggles. Not in the formal sense of all struggles being forced into the one program and under the one set of leaders. But in the informal sense of the anarchist communist organisation acting as one channel of communication, movement and debate between the struggles that allows for greater communication and increases the chance of victory.

The insurrectionalist alternative - Informal organisation

The method of organisation favoured by insurrectionists is guided by the principle that "The smallest amount of organisation necessary to achieve one’s aims is always the best to maximize our efforts." What this means is small groups of comrades who know each other well and have a lot of time to spend with each other discussing out issues and taking action - affinity groups.

We are told "to have an affinity with a comrade means to know them, to have deepened one's knowledge of them. As that knowledge grows, the affinity can increase to the point of making an action together possible.."17

Of course insurrectionalists know that small groups are often too small to achieve an objective on their own so in that case they say that groups can federate together on a temporary basis for that specific goal.

There have even been attempts to extend this to the international level.
"The Anti-authoritarian Insurrectionalist International is aimed at being an informal organisation... [It]is therefore based on a progressive deepening of reciprocal knowledge among all its adherents... To this end all those who adhere to it should send the documentation that they consider necessary to make their activity known... to the promoting group."18

Autonomous Base Nucleus

It is obvious that a successful libertarian revolution requires the mass of the people to be organised. Insurrectionalists recognise this and have attempted to construct models of mass organisation that fit within their ideological principles. Autonomous Base Nucleus, as they are called, were originally based on the Autonomous Movement of the Turin Railway Workers and the Self-managed leagues against the cruise missile base in Comiso.

Alfredo Bonanno in The Anarchist Tension described the Comiso experience
"A theoretical model of this kind was used in an attempt to prevent the construction of the American missile base in Comiso in the early '80s. The anarchists who intervened for two years built "self-managed leagues".19

He summarized them as follow "These groups should not be composed of anarchists alone, Anyone who intends to struggle to reach given objectives, even circumscribed ones, could participate so long as they take a number of essential conditions into account. First of all "permanent conflict” that is groups with the characteristic of attacking the reality in which they find themselves without waiting for orders from anywhere else. Then the characteristic of being "autonomous", that is of not depending on or having any relations at all with political parties or trade union organisations. Finally, the characteristic of facing problems one by one and not proposing platforms of generic claims that would inevitably transform themselves into administration along the lines of a mini-party or a small alternative trades union."20

For all that they have 'self-managed' in their title these leagues in fact look pretty much like the front organizations used for linking into and controlling social struggles by many Leninist organizations. Why so? Well the above definition is one of an organisation that while seeking to organise the masses does so along lines defined by the informal groups of anarchists. If it was truly self-managed, surely the League itself would define its method of operation and what issues it might like to struggle around? And from the start the leagues exclude not only all other competing organisations but even relations with political parties or trade union organisations. Again, any real self-managed struggle would make the decision of who to have relations with for itself and not simply follow the dictat of an organised ideological minority.

Another insurrectionalist, O.V., defined the leagues as "the element linking the specific informal anarchist organisation to social struggles" and said of them
"These attacks are organised by the nucleii in collaboration with specific anarchist structures which provide practical and theoretical support, developing the search for the means required for the action pointing out the structures and individuals responsible for repression, and offering a minimum of defence against attempts at political or ideological recuperation by power or against repression pure and simple."21

If anything this is worse - the specific anarchist structures are given the role of making pretty much every significant decision for the league. This makes a nonsense of any claim to self-management and would turn such a league into a creature to be manipulated by a self-selected cadre of true revolutionaries supposedly capable of grappling with the issues that its other members cannot. This seems to fly so much in the face of what insurrectionalists say elsewhere that we should stop and pause to wonder why do they end up with such a position.

The question of agreement

The reason lies in the fact that common action obviously requires a certain level of common agreement. The insurrectionalist approach to this is quite hard to get a grasp of and is the reason why such odd contradictions open up in the self-managed leagues they advocate. The problem is that reaching agreement requires decision making and in the making of decisions you open the possibility of a decision being made by the majority that the informal cadre think is a mistake.

The Do or Die article tries to define this obvious problem away as follows "Autonomy allows decisions to be made when they are necessary, instead of being pre-determined or delayed by the decision of a committee or meeting. This does not mean to say however that we shouldn't think strategically about the future and make agreements or plans. On the contrary, plans and agreements are useful and important. What is emphasised is a flexibility that allows people to discard plans when they become useless. Plans should be adaptable to events as they unfold."

This asks more questions then is answers - how can you plan without pre-determining something? If a group of people "think strategically about the future" is that group not a "committee or meeting" even if it chooses not to use that name. And who argues for plans that are not "adaptable to events as they unfold"?

From an anarchist communist perspective, the point of thinking strategically about the future is to use that thinking to plan for the future. Plans involve making decisions in advance - pre-determining them to at least an extent. And plans should be made and agreed formally, that certainly involves meetings and may well involve the meeting of a committee. Why deny any of this?


Like the more ideological anarcho-syndicalists, insurrectionalists take an ideological position against negotiations. "Compromise only makes the state and capital stronger" we are told. But this is a slogan that only works if you are a small group that has no influence on a struggle. Short of the revolution, it will be unusual to win a struggle outright so if our ideas are listened to we will again and again be faced with either a limited and therefore negotiated victory or snatching defeat from the jaws of victory because we advise fighting for more than we know can be won. Surely our aim should be to win everything that is possible, not to go down to glorious defeat?

Apparently not. One insurrectionalist favourably describes how "The workers who, during a wildcat strike, carried a banner saying, 'We are not asking for anything' understood that the defeat is in the claim itself."22 This obviously can only make sense when the workers concerned are already revolutionaries. If this is a social struggle for say a rent reduction or an increase in wages, such a banner is an insult to the needs of those in the struggle.

Short of the revolution, the issue should not be whether or not to negotiate but rather who negotiates, on what mandate and subject to what procedures before an agreement can be made. The reality is that if these questions are avoided, then that vacuum will be filled by authoritarians happy to negotiate on their terms in a way that minimises their accountability.

Repression and debate

Without going into the specifics of each controversy, a major problem in countries where insurrectionalists put their words into deeds is that this often means attacks that achieve little except on the one hand providing an excuse for state repression and on the other isolating all anarchists, not just those involved, from the broader social movement.

Insurrectionalists claim to be willing to debate tactics but the reality of state repression means that in practise any critique of such actions is presented as taking the side of the state. Nearly 30 years ago Bonanno attempted to define all those who thought such actions premature or counter productive as taking the side of the state when he wrote in 'Armed Joy' that

"When we say the time is not ripe for an armed attack on the State we are pushing open the doors of the mental asylum for the comrades who are carrying out such attacks; when we say it is not the time for revolution we are tightening the cords of the straight jacket; when we say these actions are objectively a provocation we don the white coats of the torturers."23

The reality is that many actions claimed by insurrectionalists are not above critique - and if workers are not allowed to critique such actions are they not simply reduced to passive spectators in a struggle between the state and the revolutionary minority? If, as Bonnano seems to imply, you can't even critique the most insane of actions then you can have no real discussion of tactics at all.

Towards an anarchist communist theory

Anarchist communists have adopted a different test to that of sanity when it comes to the question of militant action. That is if you are claiming to act on behalf of a particular group, then you first need to have demonstrated that the group agrees with the sort of tactics you propose to use. This question is far more important to anarchist practise than the question of what some group of anarchists might decide is an appropriate tactic.

As we have seen, anarchist communists have no principled objection to insurrections, our movement has been built out of the tradition of insurrections within anarchism and we draw inspiration from many of those involved in such insurrections. In the present, we continue to defy the limitations the state seeks to put on protest where ever doing so carries the struggle forward. Again that is not just a judgement for us to make - in cases where we claim to be acting in solidarity with a group (eg of striking workers) then it must be that group that dictates the limits of the tactics that can be used in their struggle.

Insurrectionalism offers a useful critique of much that is standard left practise. But it falsely tries to extend that critique to all forms of anarchist organisation. And in some cases the solutions it advocates to overcome real problems of organisation are worse than the problems it set out to address. Anarchist communists can certainly learn from insurrectionalist writings but solutions to the problems of revolutionary organisation will not be found there.

  • 1John M Hart's "Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class"
  • 2James Joll, The Anarchists, 229
  • 3Thanks to Pepe for information on these events in Argentina and Chile.
  • 4Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, Dielo Trouda (Workers' Cause), 1926 online at
  • 5Jaime Balius (secretary of the Friend of Durruti), Towards a Fresh Revolution, online at
  • 6Towards a Fresh Revolution
  • 7For an Anti-authoritarian Insurrectionist International-Proposal for a Debate, Anti-authoritarian Insurrectionalist International, (Promoting Group), Elephant Editions 1993 online at
  • 8Andy posting in respone to an early draft of this article on the anti-politics forum, see
  • 9It does however contain at least one basic error, it weirdly describe the synthesist Italian Anarchist Federation as a "platformist organisation" which suggests the authors made little or no attempt to understand what platformism is before moving to reject it.
  • 10Do or Die 10, 2003, online at
  • 11Anon., At Daggers Drawn with the Existent, its Defenders and its False Critics, Elephant Editions Online at
  • 12Do or Die 10 , "Insurrectionary Anarchism and the Organization of Attack".
  • 13J.W., Insurrection, online at
  • 14Do or Die 10 , "Insurrectionary Anarchism and the Organization of Attack".
  • 15Do or Die 10 , "Insurrectionary Anarchism and the Organization of Attack".
  • 16Anon., At Daggers Drawn with the Existent, its Defenders and its False Critics, Elephant Editions Online at
  • 17O.V.,Insurrection, online at
  • 18For An Anti-authoritarian Insurrectionalist International, Elephant Editions 1993 online at
  • 19Alfredo Bonanno, The Anarchist Tension, Original Title,La Tensione anarchica
    Translated by Jean Weir, 1996, online at
  • 20Alfredo Bonanno, The Anarchist Tension, Original Title,La Tensione anarchica
    Translated by Jean Weir, 1996, online at
  • 21O.V.,Insurrection, online at
  • 22Anon., At Daggers Drawn with the Existent, its Defenders and its False Critics, Elephant Editions Online at
  • 23Alfredo Bonanno , Armed Joy, Translated by Jean Weir, Original title ,La gioia armata, 1977 Edizioni Anarchismo, Catania, 1998 Elephant Editions, London online at


Red and Black Revolution 12 - Spring 2007

Submitted by R Totale on January 2, 2022

The politics and reality of the peak oil scare
by Andrew Flood & Chekov Feeney

Peak Oil Theory has been around since the 1970s. Some think we have already reached 'peak oil', others think it will happen with the next twenty-five years. The theory argues that when we reach 'peak oil' the rate at which we extract oil from the earth (measured in millions of barrels per day) will reach a maximum and thereafter will start to drop.

Rossport - A Community Fighting Back
by Sean Mallory

As we go to press (early January 2007) the campaign against Shell’s attempts to force a high-powered gas pipeline through the Rossport area of Co. Mayo continues. Here we speak to Sean Mallory, a WSM member who has spent a considerable amount of time at the camp, about his experiences.

Anarchism, Elections and all that
by Alan Mac Simoin

The Workers Solidarity Movement, along with anarchist organisations throughout the world, refuses to take part in parliamentary elections. Is it not downright weird, or even hypocritical, when anarchists claim to want more democracy than anyone else? Is this a rejection of democracy? Alan MacSimoin tries to answer some of the questions that arise again and again.

The Grassroots Gatherings - Networking a “movement of movements”
by Laurence Cox

In practice, the Grassroots Gatherings – and groups linked to them – have become the main (and the only continuous) networking of the “movement of movements” in Ireland. To date 10 gatherings have been held between 2001 and 2005. In keeping with the goal of autonomy and decentralisation, there has been no central committee; at the end of each gathering a group of activists has offered to host the next one in their own area and has got on with organising it in their own way, around an agenda set by themselves and with sometimes very different structures and themes.

Connolly - A life and a legacy

Review of James Connolly 'A full life' by Donal Nevin. This massive volume is obviously the legacy of a long labour of love and many years of research.

Direct Action Gets The Goods – But How??
by Gregor Kerr

This article sets out to examine what is meant by the concept of direct action and also to argue that it is impossible to combine electoralism and direct action, that by its nature electoralism is disempowering, and that real direct action and participation in elections are mutually exclusive.

Review of Ramor Ryan's book - "Clandestines..."

Clandestines consists of a series of stories and reflections culled from Ryan's experience of over twenty years of activism. The result is an entertaining and readable mixture of memoir, political essay, travelogue and literature.

Interview with Ana Lopez from the International Union of Sex Workers

In supporting this kind of initiative of sex workers organizing, you don’t necessarily have to agree with my view that sex work is a legitimate type of work, and that it’s not inherently exploitative.


rbr12.pdf (2.98 MB)


Red and Black Revolution 13 - Autumn 2007

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

A System in Need of a Cure

The healthcare system, upon which people in Ireland depend, is an apartheid system. Simply put, some lives are worth more than others. Rare attempts at reform have been stymied by historic, chronic underspending and vested interests. This legacy has forced the vast majority of working people to take out private health insurance and has laid the foundations for a neo-liberal push towards an American-style system of private medicine.

Turkey: Modernisation, Authoritarianism & Political Islam

Turkey has been under the spotlight this year, due to the threats of the Army against the possibility of an Islamist party taking the presidency. This move came to pose a number of questions to the European establishment, as Turkey has been negotiating its entry to the EU. The apparently uneasy two alternatives of government in Turkey are political Islam or the old fashioned authoritarian Kemalist secularism, which has the army as its vigilante sector of the ruling block.

Left Communism and its Ideology: Notes towards a critique

There has long been a close relationship between anarchism and left-communism, as left-communism took up many of the positions held by anarchists. The Dutch-German left developed positions that are indistinguishable from those that have long been found within the anarchist movement. While anarchism influenced left-communism in practice, left-communism and Marxist tendencies closely related to it have been a major theoretical influence on anarchism, in particular over the last thirty years.

Community Organising in Glasgow: A discussion with Praxis

We, as anarchists, need to be at the centre of working class social struggles. It is only thus that we can create a movement capable of abolishing class society. The recently launched Scottish platformist group 'Praxis' offers an example of this type of anarchist activism. They have been deeply involved in trying to develop working class community organistions in Glasgow. Here we ask one of their members a few questions about what they are up to.

Bolivia: Social Movements on Fire

A few years ago the Cochabamba water war coincided perfectly with the 2000 anti-globalisation peak to solidify many of that movement's arguments about neo-liberal rule in cold hard scenarios of struggle. An exciting new round of images depicting indigenous women confronting militarised police dotted left publications, while documentaries like 'The Corporation' used the revolt as a sharp anecdote in hacking off the avaricious tentacles of multinationals.


rbr13.pdf (5.81 MB)


Left communism and its ideology - Oisin Mac Giollamoir

An introduction and critique by a member of the Irish Workers Solidarity Movement of left communism.

Submitted by Steven. on December 21, 2007

Anarchism is today finally emerging out of its long held position as ‘the conscience of the workers’ movement’, as the eternal critic of Leninism and state centred politics. It long took the side of the working class against the Party, a position Lenin mocked when he wrote: “The mere presentation of the question—"dictatorship of the party or dictatorship of the class(1); dictatorship (party) of the leaders, or dictatorship (party) of the masses?"—testifies to most incredibly and hopelessly muddled contrast, in general, the dictatorship of the masses with a dictatorship of the leaders is ridiculously absurd, and stupid.”(2) Interestingly this was not written about anarchists, but rather about the position held by a Dutch-German Marxist tendency that was part of the Comintern. This tendency and others comprise what is known as ‘left-communism’.

There has long been a close relationship between anarchism and left-communism, as left-communism took up many of the positions held by anarchists. The Dutch-German left developed positions that are indistinguishable from those that have long been found within the anarchist movement. While anarchism influenced left-communism in practice(3), left-communism and Marxist tendencies closely related to it have been a major theoretical influence on anarchism, in particular over the last thirty years.

While left communist theories have indeed contributed greatly to the anarchist movement and to anarchist theory, a number of significant theoretical and tactical mistakes are evident in them. In this article I will trace the development of these theories and give an introduction to the history of the German Revolution of 1918-19 and the Biennio Rosso(4) of 1919-20 in Italy. I will also attempt to highlight the problems of these theories and insist on the need to develop an anarchist program for today based on the situation of our class today, as opposed to based on a-historical principles.

What is left communism?
Left communism is extremely difficult to define. There are various strands of left communism that emerged at different points in the period between 1917 and 1928. Aufheben(5) writes “The 'historic ultra-left'(6) refers to a number of such currents which emerged out of one of the most significant moments in the struggle against capitalism - the revolutionary wave that ended the First World War.”(7) Left communism is generally divided into two wings: the Dutch-German left and the Italian left.(8) Between the two groups there was no love lost. Gilles Dauvé, originally a Bordigist, writes: “Although both were attacked in Lenin's ‘Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder’, Pannekoek regarded Bordiga as a weird brand of Leninist, and Bordiga viewed Pannekoek as a distasteful mixture of marxism and anarcho-syndicalism. In fact, neither took any real interest in the other, and the "German" and "Italian" communist lefts largely ignored each other.”(9)

The Dutch-German and Italian lefts were tendencies within the Comintern that ultimately broke with the Comintern and critiqued it from the left. As such left communism, or ultra leftism, is often defined by its opposition to ‘leftism’.

Aufheben define leftism thus: “It can be thought of in terms of those practices which echo some of the language of communism but which in fact represent the movement of the left-wing of capital.”(10) In other words leftism describes those who are nominally communist but in fact are not. According to left communists, leftists are those who supported the Soviet Union in any manner, those who support or participate in Trade Unions, those who participate in parliament, those who support national liberation movements in any manner and those who participate in any type of political coalition with non communists. Left communists on the other hand are opposed to participation or support for any of these types of struggle because they are not communist or because they are anti working class. As such, left communists often define themselves negatively. They oppose themselves to those who do not hold ‘real’ communist positions. They spend a lot of effort denouncing those who don’t hold these communist positions of absolute and practical opposition to the USSR, the Trade Unions, parliament, national liberation movements, political coalitions etc.

In order to fully understand left communism and how and why it adopted these positions, we need to look at its development. In the revolutionary wave that followed the Russian revolution, Germany and Italy were the two places that were closest to having a successful communist revolution; they were also the two places with the largest left communist tendencies.

The Dutch-German Left
The German Revolution 1918-1919
In Germany in 1918 there was a wave of mass wildcat strikes that ultimately led to a revolution breaking out in November which ended World War One. Sailors mutinied and workers’ councils were set up across the country. The SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) a few years earlier was universally considered the world’s greatest revolutionary Marxist party, but had in 1914 supported the drive to war. It took part in this revolution despite opposing it. Thereby, it “managed to get a majority vote at the first National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in favour of elections to a constituent assembly and for dissolving the councils in favour of that parliament. At the same time the trade unions worked hand in hand with management to get revolutionary workers dismissed and to destroy independent council activity in the factories. Councils against parliament and trade unions became the watch word of revolutionaries.”(11)

At the turn of the year the KPD (German Communist Party) was founded. On the basis of their recent experiences, the majority of workers in the KPD developed a revolutionary critique of parliamentary activism and raised the slogan ‘All Power to the Workers’ Councils’. However, the leaders of the party, including Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, opposed this on the basis that it was anarchist(12). The anti-parliamentarian majority were also opposed to the ‘Trade Unions’ on the basis of their experience of the German social democratic trade unions opposing the revolutionary movement and actively trying to crush it. On this point the leadership also opposed the majority. Ultimately, in October 1919, these disagreements led to the leadership expelling over half of the party’s membership.(13)

These expelled members went on to form the left communist KAPD (German Communist Workers Party). The KAPD left the Comintern after the Third Congress in 1921 for reasons that anarchists would be very sympathetic towards. They believed that the revolution would not be made by a political party but could only be made by the working class itself organized in its own autonomous organisations. The organisation that the KAPD worked within was the AAUD(14) (General Workers Union of Germany); at its height this was an organisation of around 300,000 workers.(15) The AAUD emerged during the German Revolution in 1919. Jan Appel describes its formation: “We arrived at the conclusion that the unions were quite useless for the purposes of the revolutionary struggle, and at a conference of Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the formation of revolutionary factory organisations as the basis for Workers’ Councils was decided upon.”(16)

Council Communism
Based on their experiences, the left communists in Germany critiqued Lenin’s arguments in ‘Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder’ firstly on the basis that although the Bolshevik model of organisation made sense in Russia, as Germany was more industrially developed different forms of proletarian struggle were needed.(17) They argued that through self organisation in their factories workers laid the basis for setting up workers’ councils. They argued that this form of organisation was the single form of organisation suitable for a revolutionary struggle of the working class. As such, they argued against activity in Trade Unions(18), parliament and the primacy of the party.

The KAPD aimed not to represent or lead the working class, but rather to enlighten it(19), a similar project to the idea advanced by the Dyelo Truda group: “All assistance afforded to the masses in the realm of ideas must be consonant with the ideology of anarchism; otherwise it will not be anarchist assistance. ‘Ideologically assist’ simply means: influence from the ideas point of view, direct from the ideas point of view [a leadership of ideas].”(20) However, some left communists, such as Otto Rühle, felt even this was too much. They left the KAPD and AAUD and, objecting to the involvement of the KAPD in the AAUD, set up AAUD-E (General Workers Union of Germany – Unitary Organisation).

The majority of those who claim a legacy from the Dutch-German Left, those who call themselves council communists, tend to take the position of Rühle and the AAUD-E. For that reason they refuse to form political organisations. Dauvé explains the theory thus: “any revolutionary organisation coexisting with the organs created by the workers themselves, and trying to elaborate a coherent theory and political line, must in the end attempt to lead the workers. Therefore revolutionaries do not organise themselves outside the organs "spontaneously" created by the workers: they merely exchange and circulate information and establish contacts with other revolutionaries; they never try to define a general theory or strategy.”(21)

Pannekoek wrote in 1936 “The old labor movement is organised in parties. The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working class; therefore we avoid forming a new party—not because we are too few, but because a party is an organisation that aims to lead and control the working class. In opposition to this, we maintain that the working class can rise to victory only when it independently attacks its problems and decides its own fate. The workers should not blindly accept the slogans of others, nor of our own groups but must think, act, and decide for themselves. This conception is in sharp contradiction to the tradition of the party as the most important means of educating the proletariat. Therefore many, though repudiating the Socialist and Communist parties, resist and oppose us. This is partly due to their traditional concepts; after viewing the class struggle as a struggle of parties, it becomes difficult to consider it as purely the struggle of the working class, as a class struggle.”(22)

While the idea of working class struggle being ‘purely the struggle of the working class’ is essential, it hides major theoretical and practical problems. Firstly what does it mean to take the side of the class and as opposed to a party? What does the working class without a party look like? What does is mean to reject parties? If we take Dauvé’s understanding, that this rejection of partyism is a rejection of any attempt ‘to elaborate a coherent theory and political line’ then we face a problem(23). If any attempt to elaborate a coherent theory and political line is forbidden then how can the class develop a coherent theory and political line to guide itself through a revolution and to victory? How can the class think strategically if strategic thinking is banned lest it be oppressive or vanguardist?

In a revolution there will be a number of conflicting theories and political lines being put forward. To claim otherwise is highly naïve. If those of us who believe that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves’(24) don’t enter the revolution prepared with a program explaining how this can be achieved the revolution will, like all prior workers’ revolutions, fail.

It was precisely the lack of a program that spelled the failure of the anti-state position in Russia and in Spain(25).

The Dyelo Truda group explains the failure in Russia:

“We have fallen into the habit of ascribing the anarchist movement's failure in Russia in 1917-1919 to the Bolshevik Party's statist repression, which is a serious error. Bolshevik repression hampered the anarchist movement's spread during the revolution, but it was only one obstacle. Rather, it was the anarchist movement's own internal ineffectuality which was one of the chief causes of that failure, an ineffectuality emanating from the vagueness and indecisiveness that characterized its main policy statements on organization and tactics.

“Anarchism had no firm, hard and fast opinion regarding the main problems facing the social revolution, an opinion needed to satisfy the masses who were carrying out the revolution. Anarchists were calling for a seizure of the factories, but had no well-defined homogeneous notion of the new production and its structures. Anarchists championed the communist device "from each according to abilities, to each according to needs," but they never bothered to apply this precept to the real world…Anarchists talked a lot about the revolutionary activity of the workers themselves, but they were unable to direct the masses, even roughly, towards the forms that such activity might assume...They incited the masses to shrug off the yoke of authority, but they did not indicate how the gains of revolution might be consolidated and defended. They had no clear cut opinion and specific action policies with regard to lots of other problems. Which is what alienated them from the activities of the masses and condemned them to social and historical impotence.

“Upwards of twenty years of experience, revolutionary activity, twenty years of efforts in anarchist ranks, and of effort that met with nothing but failures by anarchism as an organizing movement: all of this has convinced us of the necessity of a new comprehensive anarchist party organisation rooted in one homogenous theory, policy and tactic.”(26)

While the German Left neglected the need for a program and denounced all parties as oppressive or at least as vanguardist, the Italian Left took a completely different angle.

The Italian Left
Bordiga and the Biennio rosso(27)
The Italian Left was in its early stages under the political tutelage of one man: Amadeo Bordiga. After joining the Youth Federation of the PSI (Italian Socialist Party) Bordiga quickly rose to prominence by aligning himself with the golden boy of that Federation; Benito Mussolini. The vitality of the Youth federation was the main reason for the PSI growing from 20,459 in 1912 to 47,724 in 1914. Ultimately, Bordiga broke with Mussolini on the question of supporting World War One. Bordiga asserted that supporting wars was a betrayal of Marxist ‘principles’. He was intransigent on points of principle and on the question of the communist program and defended a rigid textual analysis of Marx. He wrote: ‘By Marxism we understand the method laid down by Marx and many others, that …culminates in the diagnosis of the daily class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, constructing a prophecy and a program with a view to the proletarian triumph’(28) Bordiga’s orthodoxy set him firmly against the revisionism of the leaders of the PSI. He held that a fresh start bringing about a renewal of principle was needed within the party.

By 1918 the toll of World War One for Italy was over 680,000 dead and over a million wounded. The working class flocked to the PSI as it became more and more radicalised. By 1919 the PSI, which just 7 years previously had 20,459 members, had grown to over 200,000. In 1919 as workers returned home from the war they found themselves caught in a spiral of inflation and mass unemployment as the Italian economy struggled to adjust to the influx of returning workers.

Starting in April 1919 and continuing through to August there was widespread popular rioting. The government tried desperately to put down the insurgent workers, killing workers in Milan, Florence, Inola, Taranto, Genoa and other cities. In Turin at the end of August new shop stewards’ organisations were formed in the Fiat plant. These shop stewards organisations in turn formed a factory council. This new type of grassroots workers’ organisation spread quickly across the workplaces of Turin. Through the use of these factory councils on October 31st the workers adopted a program to restructure the unions turning them into organisations of workers’ democracy. This program stated its purpose was to “set in train a practical realisation of the communist society.”(29) At a meeting on December 14-15, the proponents of this new factory council system were able to win the endorsement of the entire Turin labour movement. By February 1920 over 150,000 workers in the Turin area alone were organised in the new council system. At a conference of the anarcho-syndicalist union the USI (Italian Syndicalist Union) in early 1920, the USI placed itself firmly on the side of these new organisations and agitated strongly for their development outside of Turin. This saw the USI grow from 300,000 in 1919 to 800,000 at the peak of the movement in September 1920.(30)

In response to these movements, at their Bologna congress in 1919 the PSI adopted a revolutionary program(31). The following month, on the back of this program, they received 1,800,000 votes making them the biggest party in the Italian parliament.(32) However, despite this program being adopted, the PSI was divided with some in the parliamentary party, such as Filippo Turati, fully opposing the program and actively trying to sabotage it. Turati stated that the PSI must not excite “the blind passions and fatal illusions of the crowd”. He claimed parliament was to workers’ councils as the city was to the barbaric horde. These sentiments resulted in Bordiga pushing hard for Turati’s expulsion from the party. Antonio Gramsci attacked Turati accusing him of having “the mocking skepticism of senility”.(33) Even Serrati, the party’s centrist leader, at this point was attacking Turati accusing his politics of being based on a ‘puerile illusion’. He wrote that is was “…painful that a socialist deputy, one of those in whom the masses most believed, should dedicate more obstinacy and energy to fighting Bolshevism than to opposing all the attempts at the mystification of socialism that are coming…from the bourgeoisie.”(34) However this was nothing but words from the party leader and Bordiga attacked Serrati for not expelling Turati. Bordiga also called for an end to the parliamentary party’s power (this would undercut Turati’s influence) and took up an abstentionist position. He wrote: “Elections, while the bourgeoisie have power and wealth in their hands, will never do anything but confirm this privilege.”(35)

The first four months of 1920 saw high levels of struggle in Italy, reaching their peak in April. At the Fiat plant in Turin a general assembly called for a sit-in strike to protest the dismissal of several shop stewards. In response the employers locked out 80,000 workers. In Piedmont, the region of Italy of which Turin is the capital, a general strike ensued involving 500,000 workers. There were also strikes around Genoa lead by the USI and in Milan workers’ councils like those in Turin emerged under the influence of the USI. In the rest of the country unions under anarcho-syndicalist influence, such as the independent railway unions and the maritime workers unions, came out in support. However, despite appeals from the Turin movement to the PSI and the PSI-led trade union the CGL (General Confederation of Labour) for the strike to be extended across Italy, the PSI and the CGL failed to act. Gramsci, who was working hard through his journal “l’Ordine Nouvo”(36) to support the council movement, commented bitterly on the PSI leadership: "They went on chattering about soviets and councils while in Piedmont and Turin half a million workers starved to defend the councils that already exist."(37) Ultimately the strike was defeated. Gramsci wrote: “The Turinese working class has been defeated. Among the conditions determining this defeat…was the limitedness of the minds of the leaders of the Italian working class movement. Among the second level conditions determining the defeat is thus the lack of revolutionary cohesion of the entire Italian proletariat, which cannot bring forth…a trade union hierarchy which reflects its interests and its revolutionary spirit.”(38) Gramsci blamed the failure of the movement simultaneously on the ineffectuality of the leadership of the PSI and the CGL and on the inability of the movement itself to throw up a new leadership, organic intellectuals, who would act as a new hierarchy.

While Gramsci felt the councils were the institutions through which the dictatorship of the proletariat could be exercised, Serrati claimed that the councils could not be used to initiate revolutionary action.(39) He argued that “The dictatorship of the proletariat is the conscious dictatorship of the Socialist Party.”(40) On this Bordiga was firmly on the side of Serrati. He argued that through exclusive emphasis on the economic sphere and on the stimulation of consciousness Gramsci had forgotten that the state would not simply disappear in a revolution.(41) Of course on this Bordiga was right, as anarchists learnt so tragically in Spain. He wrote: “It is rumoured that factory councils, where they were in existence, functioned by taking over the management of the workshops and carrying on the work. We would not like the working masses to get hold of the idea that all they need do to take over the factories and get rid or the capitalists is set up councils. This would indeed be a dangerous illusion. The factory will be conquered by the working class - and not only by the workforce employed in it, which would be too weak and non-communist - only after the working class as a whole has seized political power. Unless it has done so, the Royal Guards, military police, etc. - in other words, the mechanism of force and oppression that the bourgeoisie has at its disposal, its political power apparatus -will see to it that all illusions are dispelled.”(42)

On this Bordiga raises two significant issues. Firstly, as noted, until the revolutionary class has seized power, thereby removing all power from the hand of the bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie will use its state to crush the working class, even if it has to wait almost a full year to do this as happened in Spain. Secondly communism is not simply the seizing of control of the factory or the capitalist enterprise by those that work in it. Communism is not transforming workplaces into democratic co-operatives, as Bordiga notes: “revolution is not a question of the form of organization.”(43) Communism is when wage labour and the enterprise is abolished and all capital is captured by the working class as a whole and put to work for the benefit of the human community, not for profit. As Bordiga writes elsewhere: “Socialism resides entirely in the revolutionary negation of the capitalist ENTERPRISE, not in granting the enterprise to the factory workers”.(44) It is precisely this insistence on the importance of the content of communism, the abolition of wage labour and the market economy with the incumbent division of labour, that makes Bordiga of any interest. A major problem however is in Bordiga’s understanding of how the state is destroyed and how the content of communism is realized. He writes: “Only a communist party should and would be able to carry out such an undertaking.”(45)

Since 1915 Bordiga had been insisting on the need for a theoretically pure communist party. After a second revolutionary upsurge in September 1920 he got his way.

Lynn Williams describes this revolutionary upsurge: "Between the 1st and 4th of September metal workers occupied factories throughout the Italian peninsula...the occupations rolled forward not only in the industrial heartland around Milan, Turin and Genoa but in Rome, Florence, Naples and Palermo, in a forest of red and black flags and a fanfare of workers bands... Within three days 400,000 workers were in occupation. As the movement spread to other sectors, the total rose to over half a million. Everyone was stunned by the response."(46) Gramsci once again threw himself into the struggle, while Turati and the reformists went as far as to advise the government to use force against the occupiers of the factories.(47) Ultimately due to the complete betrayal by the PSI and the CGL of the working class, the revolutionary opportunity was missed. After this, Bordiga took his chance to push for a split and by threatening to go it alone, brought Gramsci with him. At the Livorno Congress of the PSI in January 1921, the party split. 14,965 voted for Turati and the reformists, 58,783 voted for the Communists (Bordiga and Gramsci) and for a split and 98,028 voted for Serrati and unity. So on the 21 January, the PCI (Italian Communist Party) was founded.

Bordiga and the Party
The party failed to take off. It fact many of the 58,783 that voted for it in the PSI left. Within a year the membership had fallen to 24,638.(48)

A major reason for this was that the Biennio Rosso of 1919-20 had ended. A revolutionary opportunity was missed and many simply ceased to be engaged in revolutionary class struggle. Bizarrely this did not bother Bordiga or the PCI. Bordiga wrote: “…the centre of the doctrine…is not the concept of the class struggle but that of its development into the dictatorship of the proletariat, exercised by the latter alone, in a single organization, excluding other classes, and with energetic coercive force, thus under the guidance of the party.” In other words, for Bordiga the issue was not class struggle but the purity of the communist program and the ability of the party to seize control of the state. Loren Goldner notes: “For Bordiga, program was everything, a gate-receipt notion of numbers was nothing. The role of the party in the period of ebb was to preserve the program and to carry on the agitational and propaganda work possible until the next turn of the tide, not to dilute it while chasing ephemeral popularity.”(49) Bordiga wrote: “When from the invariant doctrine we draw the conclusion that the revolutionary victory of the working class can only be achieved with the class party and its dictatorship”(50) Bordiga was fully comfortable with the party being small and isolated away from class struggle. What was important for him was that it was fully communist and defended the communist program from those who would dilute it or pervert it from its course, from its realization. Jacque Camatte explained this position in early 1961 in an article published in Bordiga’s journal 'Il programma comunista': “The proletariat abandons its programme in periods of defeat. This programme is only defended by a weak minority. Only the programme-party always emerges reinforced by the struggle. The struggle from 1926 to today proves that fully.”(51)

In all the parties of the Italian Left you find a similar insistence of their role as defenders of the invariant communist program of the proletariat. While they differ over what exactly the invariant doctrine/program of communism is(52) the insistence on the real existence of an invariant doctrine/program runs through all of them.

However as has been pointed out by many, communism “is not fundamentally about the adoption of a set of principles, lines and positions.”(53) As Marx writes: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”(54) Even Engels writes, “Communism is not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from facts. The Communists do not base themselves on this or that philosophy as their point of departure but on the whole course of previous history and specifically its actual results in the civilised countries at the present time….Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat.”(55)

Of course the simple fact that anarchism/communism is not an ideal to be realized or a set of principles but a real movement is so obvious it may seem strange to emphasis it. Anarchists have long realized this, the Dyelo Truda group writes: “Anarchism is no beautiful fantasy, no abstract notion of philosophy, but a social movement of the working masses.”(56)

But what is the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’? The answer of course is class struggle.

While the Italian Left insisted on the communist program that was to be realised by the party for the working class, the Dutch-German Left insisted that the class did not need a party or program; indeed they would be obstacles to the working class realising communism.

In the Italian Left we find the communist program separated from the working class. In the Dutch-German Left we find the exact same. The difference is that the Italian Left insists on defending the communist program from impurity while the German Left insists on defending the working class. The solution surely is to unite the two, the working class and communism, and say ‘The working class is the communist subject’. This is the position adopted by most left communists today.

However, the first problem with this position is that the working class is not a communist subject. Communism is not always already-realised in the working class. We must remember that the working class is not communist rather it is capable of producing communism. The working class does not interest us because of what it is, it interests us because of what it can do (and obviously because we are part of it).

Secondly, as Guy Debord noted: “history has no object distinct from what takes place within it”.(57) Communism arises today as a possibility not as a future to be realised. It is not a real future towards which we work. The communist project is not teleological. In simpler terms the idea that history develops towards a fixed end, communism, is completely wrong. Communism is something that emerges and develops out of struggle today. Communism is not something that can be discovered or defended rather it emerges from class struggle. Therefore, all we can do is engage in class struggle and try to push things forward, try to turn the class that has the potential to create communism into the class that does create communism.

The job of communists is not to defend the ‘interests’ (i.e. the communist program) of the working class from corruption, as so many left communists seem to believe. Firstly, because there is no communist program to be defended. Secondly, because the working class does not have any interests outside of struggle, i.e. it has not permanent interests which can be defended.

The job of communists is to get stuck down into the grim and grit of real struggle as it is happening with all the contradictions that are involved in it. We must be active in class struggle pushing hard for anarchist-communism. Wherever class antagonism emerges as revolutionaries we must be there advancing the revolutionary cause.

When Marx writes that communism is ‘the real movement’ not an ideal, when Engels writes that communism is an expression of ‘the proletariat in struggle’ and not a doctrine, when the Dyelo Truda group writes that anarchism is ‘a social movement’ not a philosophy, they mean it. We are interested in class struggle as it is, not as it is idealised.

In our analysis of history we look for class struggle, but we must not look for it as an independent trend: independent, separate or autonomous from capital and capitalist ideologies. It is always only as a trend within capitalism, and previous forms of class based society, that class struggle exists and interests us.

Class struggle arises from the contradiction of capital. If capital's effects can be found everywhere then likewise its contradictions can be found everywhere. Or put otherwise, the revolutionary subject emerges due to the contradiction between people’s needs and desires and the limits put on them under capitalism.

Our politics must begin always at this point; at the contradiction in our daily lives between our needs, our desires, what we see is possible and the constraints capital puts on us by operating according to an alien logic that forces us to abandon our needs, our desires, our dreams and work according to its dictates. Our revolutionary politics must always begin with working class resistance to this experience, it must be an intervention not to assert or defend 'communism' or 'the working class' as ideal forms against impurities, but rather to search for the quickest, speediest and most painless route from here to where we want to go.

1 The term dictatorship of the proletariat is used to refer essentially to the institutions through which the exploited and excluded bring about a revolutionary change in the structure of society. It does not necessarily refer to a party dictatorship.

2 Lenin, V.I. ‘Left-wing Communism an Infantile Disorder’

3 See the influence of the FAUD on the Dutch-German left and the IWW on the Italian Left.

4 The ‘missed’ Italian revolution of 1919-1920, in English: Two Red Years

5 Aufheben say that they recognise ‘the moment of truth in versions of class struggle anarchism, the German and Italian lefts and other tendencies.’

6 Ultra leftism is a derisive synonym for left communism. Although the term ultra leftism is normally used pejoratively, it is not in this case as Aufheben consider themselves to be, to some degree, part of this tendency.

7 Aufheben #11, ‘Communist Theory - Beyond the Ultra-Left?’

8 In most countries where there was a party aligned to the Third International there was a left communist tendency. Aside from the Dutch-German and Italian left, the most significant left communist tendencies were in Russia and Britain.

9 Dauvé, G. ‘Note on Pannekoek and Bordiga’

10 Aufheben #11, ‘From Operaismo to Autonomist Marxism’

11 Aufheben #8 ‘Left Communism and the Russian Revolution’

12 Dutch Group of International Communists (GIK), ‘Origins of the Movement for Workers' Councils in Germany’

13 Ibid.

14 The Dutch left communists drew a distinction between workplace organisations like the AAUD, the IWW and the British Shop Stewards movement and ‘Trade Unions’.

15 It is worth noting that simultaneous to this the anarcho-syndicalist union the FAUD (Free Workers' Union of Germany) had roughly 200,000 members. The membership of the AAUD and FAUD often overlapped. Ibid.

16 Appell, J., ‘Autobiography of Jan Appel’

17 Gorter, H., ‘Open Letter to Comrade Lenin’, Antagonism Press, pp.16-26

18 It is important to note that the Dutch-German left did not reject workplace organization but rather the reformist unions that existed in Germany. Even of these Gorter wrote that “It is only at the beginning of the revolution, when the proletariat, from a member of capitalist society, is turned into the annihilator of this society, that the Trade Union finds itself in opposition to the proletariat” -Open Letter p.28

19 Dauvé, G. ‘Leninism and the Ultra Left’, in ‘Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement’, p.48

20 Dyelo Truda Group, ‘Reply to Anarchism’s Confusionists’ hp://

21 Dauvé, G. ‘Leninism and the Ultra Left’, in ‘Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement’, p.48

22 Pannekoek, A., ‘Party and Class’ in ‘Bordiga Vs. Pannekoek’, Antagonism Press, p.31

23 As Pannekoek defines the party as “a grouping according to views, conceptions”, Dauvé’s interpretation seems fair.

24 By this we mean the working class must emancipate itself through the use of its autonomous institution of social power [soviets, councils etc.] and not through the representational process of a party seizing control of the state ‘for’ the working class.

25 On the failure of the Spanish revolution, see ‘Towards a Fresh Revolution’ by the ‘Friends of Durruti’ Group and ‘The revolutionary message of the 'Friends of Durruti'’ by George Fontenis.

26 Dyelo Truda Group, ‘Reply to Anarchism’s Confusionists’ hp://

27 For an excellent account of the forgotten and ignored anarchist involvement in this period of Italian history see Dadà, ‘A. Class War, Reaction & the Italian Anarchists, Studies for a Libertarian Alternative.’

28 Davidson, A. ‘The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism: Vol. I’, Merlin Press p.78

29 Wetsel, T. ‘Italy 1920’, Zabalaza Books, p.6

30 Wetsel, T. ‘Italy 1920’, p.9

31 This program among other things made the PSI a member of the Comintern.

32 Davidson p.91

33 Davidson, A. ‘The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism: Vol. I’, p.92

34 Ibid

35 Ibid

36 It is worth noting that despite the oft repeated claim that “l’Ordine Nouvo” was the organ of the factory council movement, this is something of a crass simplification. Consider the fact that in 1920, while “l’Ordine Nouvo” was a weekly paper with a circulation of less than 5,000 the anarchist “Umanitá Nova” had a daily circulation of 50,000.

37 Wetsel, T. ‘Italy 1920’, p.10

38 Davidson, A. ‘The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism: Vol. I’, p.95

39 Davidson, A. ‘The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism: Vol. I’, p.95

40 Introduction to ‘Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks’, International Publishers, p.xxxiv

41 The anarchists of the UCAdI (Anarchist Communist Union of Italy) were also aware of this, stating in April 1919: “We must remember that the destruction of the capitalist and authoritarian society is only possible through revolutionary means and that the use of the general strike and the labour movement must not make us forget the more direct methods of struggle against state and bourgeois violence and extreme power.” Quoted in ‘Dadà, A. Class War, Reaction & the Italian Anarchist’, p.15.

42 Bordiga, A., ‘Seize power or seize the factory?’

43 Bordiga, A., ‘Party and Class’ in ‘Bordiga Vs. Pannekoek’, Antagonism Press, p. 43

44 Bordiga, A. ‘Proprieté et capital’. Quoted in ‘Lip and the Self-Managed Counter Revolution’ by Negation, Repressed Distribution, p. 50

45 Bordiga, A., ‘Seize power or seize the factory?’

46 Quoted in Wetsel, T. ‘Italy 1920’, pp.11-12

47 Davidson, A. ‘The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism: Vol. I’, p.96

48 Davidson, A. ‘The Theory and Practice of Italian Communism: Vol. I’, p.103

49 Goldner, L., ‘Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today’,

50 Bordiga, A. ‘Considerations on the party’s organic activity when the general situation is historically unfavourable’

51 Camatte, J., ‘Origin and Function of the Party Form’

52 In 1952 the Italian Left split with, on the one hand Bordiga and those around Il Programma Comunista, and Damen and those around Battaglia Comunista on the other. Damen opposed work in the trade unions while supporting parliamentary activity, he also opposed absolutely national liberation movements, while Bordiga took the other side of these debates. The four International Communist Parties all descend from Bordiga, while the International Communist Current and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party descend from the Damen side.

53 Aufheben #11, ‘Communist Theory - Beyond the Ultra-Left?’

54 Engels, F, & Marx, K. ‘German Ideology’ in ‘Collected Works: Vol. 5’, p.49

55 Engels, F. ‘The Communists and Karl Heinzen’, Second Article,

56 Dyelo Truda Group, ‘Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)’,

57 Debord, G, ‘Society of the spectacle’, Paragraph 74.
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16 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on December 21, 2007

Discussion of this on our forums here:

Red and Black Revolution 14 - Spring 2008

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

“No Justice, Just Us”

Interview with Larry Wheelock, brother of Terence, who was killed in police custody.

Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction

The first part of a series of articles investigating the capitalist financial markets from a critical perspective. This article looks at the financial markets, particularly focusing on the mechanics of some of the instruments that have led to a momentous transformation of the workings of global financial markets in the most recent decades.

How free can you be if you can’t even control your own body?

Ireland still has one of the most regressive anti-choice regimes in Europe. Alan MacSimóin looks back at twenty five years of pro-choice struggle and anarchist involvement in it.

Book Review: “Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On The Global Factory.”

Gregor Kerr reviews Miriam Ching Yoon Louie's Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take On The Global Factory.


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Red and Black Revolution 15 - Spring 2009

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

Capitalist Crisis

From the credit crunch to the stockmarket crash, all is explained. With the sub articles, The development of the crisis and Global Political Repercussions.

Radical Women of the IWW

Donal Fallon profiles some of the women who played a large part in the illustrious history of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Feminism in the Muslim World

Sevinc Karaca, a Turkish anarchist and feminist, describes the fine line that Muslim women must navigate between Islam and the West.

Imperial Finance

A history of capitalism since World War 2

Complex Systems & Anarchism

Analysing human societies as complex systems can provide an insight into historical processes and the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism

The Global Game

Imperialism Today and the Emergence of Regional Powers

Practical Anarchist Organising

This article describes and explains the internal organizational structure of the WSM as it was in 2008

Editorial Board: Chekov Feeney, Paul Bowman, Anthony Geoghan. Layout: Chekov Feeney
The Exchange, page 6-7, Nesster
IMF, page 9, Mathew Bradley,
Radical Muslim Feminist, page 5, Laggard,
At Tashkent market, page 35, N_Creatures,
Chavez and Lula, page 22, Agência Brasil Heejab, page 32, Please! Don’t Smile,
Muslim Women, page 34, Neil T,
Bank of China, page 5, Steve Webel,

Red And Black Revolution is a publication of the Workers Solidarity Movement, P.O. Box 1528, Dublin 8, Ireland. This was the final issue before the magazine was replaced by the Irish Anarchist Review.


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R Totale

2 years 4 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

Ah, once again I think I've finished archiving something only to find it was replaced by another publication - only 11 issues of the Irish Anarchist Review to get through, though.

Complex systems theory & anarchism

Analysing human societies as complex systems can provide an insight into historical processes and the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism.

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

Analysing human societies as complex systems can provide an insight into historical processes and the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism.

Complex systems theory is a scientific theory coming out of a tradition of catastrophe theory, chaos theory, control theory, and especially cybernetics. Complex systems theory arises as a rejection of the traditional programme of reductionist science. It rejects reductionism as being both unnecessary and intractable.

Traditional physics has attempted to find fundamental laws at the smallest granularity possible. However, it is now known that because of the nature of interactions at very detailed granularity, it can be computationally intractable to predict behaviour of aggregate systems. Water, for instance, is best described (under most conditions) with fluid flow equations which describe aggregate behaviour with relatively simple (non-linear) equations. Attempting to describe it as an aggregate wave function of 1026 interacting quantum particles is not computationally feasible. Instead complex systems theory attempts to describe systems at a natural granularity that allows for tractable prediction of behaviour.

One of the fundamental notions in complex systems is that of emergent behaviour. That is, from a system with a large number of actors with simple rules, can emerge complex behaviour. This is an echo of the notion of a metasystem transition which was expressed by the cyberneticists1 . Some of the earliest descriptions of emergent behaviour actually come out of the Austrian school of economics and can be seen in the writings of Ludwig von Mises, where he describes the aggregate behaviour of capitalism as a type of optimisation which arises as a result of the self-interest of the actors2 .

There are a number of rules-of-thumb that systems theory gives us as tools of analysis for understanding actors and the emergence of aggregate actors3 . If you have a simple system interacting with a complex environment, it will have a low probability of maintaining its identity, that is, its internal structural integrity. Complex systems can interact with a complex environment in such a way that they have a higher probability of survival. We see that simple organisms in nature often have a strategy of massive reproduction because of the low likelihood of survival, which is in contrast to the method used by humans.

Complex systems theory and society

In order to understand how societies can be modelled by systems theory it is instructive to look at some simple examples. In feudal Europe the organisation of society was exceptionally hierarchical. This is modeled in systems theory by a sort of control graph, which is a tree, with the lord at the top and his immediate vassals below him. In this structure it was possible to approximate, in many circumstances, control over a group of people with control over the leader of the hierarchy. This has a large number of consequences. If the behaviour of the system can be modeled by behaviour of the lord, then the system can not act in ways more complex than the lord. Because of this, the system remains simple. It also means that the system can easily act coherently. It is capable of leading armies, and interacting with other feudal states in simple ways.

In reality no perfect control hierarchies exist. There will always be lateral control links, various types of conspiratorial actions etc. However, for feudalism this model often remains a good approximation.As we move through history to early capitalism we start seeing a move towards more “hybrid” models of control, where many more lateral links exist and the system takes on the possibility of evolving more decentralised, more complex behaviours. In addition, it becomes less brittle. One might conjecture that feudalism was in some sense doomed when capitalism arose because the environment of interaction became too complex.

The modern world has moved to a highly interconnected network-model capitalism. This is almost the antithesis of feudalism within the framework of the connectivity of the model.It is important to note a few things about the network model. Networks can have vary different internal structure. A large amount of interconnectedness does not rule out particular internal patterns, in fact we know that many complex systems, including social networks, don’t have “random” graph structures. This internal structure can have big effects on emergent behaviour. All networks are not the same.

In addition, the emergent behaviour of the system is *strongly* dependent on the interaction paradigm of the actors. The current economic system is a result of the paradigm of capitalist social relations. There is nothing “naturalistic” about the emergence of capitalism from these social relationships. It’s a bi-product of person to person social institutions.The atomisation of actors is arbitrary. It is actually often the case that systems can be re- atomised into a different notion of actor or communication. A good example of this is class politics. The analytical framework of the state, the bourgeoisie and the working class reifies entities and their interactions in ways that are easier to analyse then the mass interactions. This gives a mechanism for feasible reasoning about economics. This is in stark contrast to the obliteration of class dynamics that occurs in the intellectual framework of neoclassical economics.

Structure and behaviour

The aggregate behaviour of systems in terms of their control behaviour is something which can be very instructive to anarchists when thinking about how anarchism relates to the rest of the social environment. Idealised hierarchies can be modeled by their controlling entity. These aggregates are capable of what is known as “coherent” activity. Armies provide a good example of these types of systems. They can move in orchestrated blocks. However, the notional *objectives* which can be achieved with coherent systems *must* admit simple descriptions. Genocide, for instance, can be simply described and would be a description that one can expect an army to carry out. “Set up democracy in Iraq” however is something which an army has no capacity to do.

Democratic states and large corporations often fit more closely into the realm of the hybrid model hierarchy. These systems are starting to show system behaviour more complex then that of an individual actor. The behaviour that they engage in is becoming less strongly “coherent” and more “correlated”. You can’t expect things to move in lock step, but the system will move with a general correlated direction. You can also expect that some hybrids will be able to cope with a more complex environment than even a single actor might be able to cope with.

Finally in a networked system, where there is little or no notion of hierarchy, there is a possibility for truly complex emergent behaviour. Some types of systems which exhibit this are the human organism and social networks.

Current political structures

The state, being a fairly hierarchical creature, would like to make things function coherently. However its greatest weakness is its incapacity to find solutions to problem descriptions of large complexity. As an example militaries and states are finding it increasingly impossible to deal with the emergence of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. The models of organisation used in these social structures are highly decentralised and highly non-hierarchical. In the end, the state has little chance of eradicating such movements. The state must find simple descriptions of objectives and is at a fundamental disadvantage because of the more limited capacity to deal with complexity.Capitalism and corporate globalisation however are fearsome beasts. The internal model is highly networked. These creatures move across state boundaries with great agility. They have emergent behaviour which is ridiculously complex. Nobody even understands how the stock market functions (or dysfunctions). Capitalism is also incredibly robust, being able to adapt to circumstances in ways that Marx would have never thought possible. The only chance of combating an enemy of this type is with one of at least equal complexity.

Revolution and structure

The global behaviour and properties of complex systems are dependent on the interaction regime of the individuals. With human interactions there is a possibility of a feedback cycle that actually drives fundamental changes at the level of actor communication. This means that extreme changes in global behaviour are possible. Revolution is the radical modification of the emergent properties through changes in the interaction dynamics4 .

A lesson to take away from complex systems is that there is no one-single-correct model of societal interaction. Even if we knew in detail the interaction paradigm, it was a fixed parameter (social interactions of the atomic actors did not change) and the world was in fact strictly deterministic, this would not give us a social theory where we can predict outcomes. There is no positivist or naturalist method with which to proclaim the inevitable “march of history”. It is both computationally and methodologically irrelevant.

So what then can we take from complex systems theory in terms of application to our thinking on human society and revolutionary change? We know from the areas of empirical research in the natural science, and from historical information that radical paradigmatic changes are actually a very natural behaviour even though they are largely unpredictable. Revolutions in social order have occurred repeatedly throughout history.

There are several critical factors involved in the manifestation of genuinely new social orders. In terms of the generative events that create these changes, they happen by a process of increasing disorganisation or decay of the old order. This usually involves the injection of large amounts of energy into the old system. When these energetic events dissipate we have a solidification into a new order.

Symmetry-breaking is a common systems behaviour which is particularly interesting in the context of paradigmatic changes. Symmetry-breaking occurs when a system falls into one of two choices of lower probability based on small local deviations. The choice of which emergent behaviours are chosen canappear arbitrary to an external observer. In fact it starts from small internal fluctuations in the behaviour of the system.

Anarchist communism, when expressed in relation to complex systems, is a description of both the emergent and the individual behaviour. It requires behaviour at the global level with communism and mutual-aid among communities, as well as cooperative and collective decisions and solutions on the scale of the problems that face us. At the same time it asks for the removal of hierarchy and coercive power relations down to the level of individual actors.In the framework of complex systems, anarchist communism actually looks like it has very good chances for survival. It posits a non-hierarchical network model as a starting point for human organisation. This means it has a theoretical capacity to display complex emergent behaviour.

Additionally the role of the revolutionary organisation can be seen to be critical to the preservation of the libertarian quality of the revolution. Small fluctuations in a revolutionary situation can have disproportionately large impacts. The kernel of the new society will exist in the tendency of the organisations whose characters lend themselves to the movement. It is therefore critical that the organisationaltendency have the structural integrity and replicable knowledge of interaction dynamics required to crystallise the broader movement into one with a libertarian communist character.
Tactically, the use of complex systems thinking for analysis leaves as many questions as it answers. From this perspective many sorts of emergent behaviour will not be calculable a priori, but must be decided from empirical study or the weaker method of attempting to find appropriate historical analogies. We are left with complicated problems. We must find solutions in which tactical methods best enable escalation of class struggle. Additionally we must find the internal structures that are most scalable and replicable such that they can quickly be effected during the heightened period of sensitivity that occurs in the revolutionary moment.

Intractable - Problems that can be solved in theory, but not fast enough for the solution to be usable on human time scales.
Reductionism - An approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler, more fundamental things
Neo-Classical economics - A general approach to economics focusing on the determination of prices, outputs, and income distributions in markets through supply and demand.

  • 1The Phenomenon of Science. Valentin Turchin
  • 2The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Sciences. Ludwig Von Mises
  • 3Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Human Civilization, a Complexity Profile. Yaneer Bar-Yam
  • 4Phase Shifts or Flip-flops in Complex Systems. Henry A Regier and James J Kay


Practical Anarchist Organising - the Workers Solidarity Movement as a case study

This article describes and explains the internal organizational structure of the Irish anarchist group, the Workers Solidarity Movement, (WSM) as it was in 2008.

Submitted by R Totale on January 3, 2022

Over the last few years, the Workers Solidarity Movement, the anarchist organisation that publishes this magazine, has grown considerably. We went from being an organisation with only a dozen members or so, to an organisation six times that size. As part of that growth we have had to reassess our internal workings and devise a range of new processes and structures for communicating, coordinating and democratic decision making. This article describes this process of change. It is hoped that it may serve as a useful case-study for other groups facing similar problems and as a small demonstration of the how anarchist organisational principles can be applied in practice.

Up until about 2002, the WSM never really consisted of more than a single branch in Dublin of about a dozen people and a couple of members in Cork, with a few sympathisers scattered around the country. As an anarchist organisation, even when we were only a handful, we were careful to ensure that we had structures and processes in place which would allow our members to have a full democratic input into our policies and activities. Our constitution specifies that our twice yearly conference, open to all members, was our supreme decision making forum. These conferences provide an opportunity for any member to propose a change to any of our policies. Being an organisation which strives to put our money where our mouth is, our actions are guided by our policies. Thus, our conferences serve as democratic decision making forums which enable our members to direct the organisation’s activity.

Even when we numbered less than a dozen, our conferences were highly formal affairs. In order to create new policies, or change existing ones, members had to submit motions in writing, weeks in advance. These motions, often accompanied by articles arguing their merits, were collated into an internal bulletin which was circulated to all members by post. Members then had a chance to submit written amendments to motions. The conference itself was devoted to debate and voting on motions. Tremendous care was taken to make sure that all points of view were heard, and the strictest democratic principles were followed, including providing private balloting and proxy voting.

When we numbered a dozen, the elaborate care that we devoted to internal democracy made our conferences occasionally tortuous. Even when less than ten members attended they could take two entire days, with attendees increasingly irritable as time passed and procedural debates came to the fore. Yet, despite the procedural frustrations, the conferences proved productive. The WSM developed a set of detailed policy documents, continually debated and amended over the years, which distilled the organisation’s wisdom and experience into guides for future action.

The coherence that these policies gave the organisation proved invaluable when the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements emerged, bringing with it a relatively large number of people who were sympathetic or at least open to anarchist ideas. Through a lot of hard work within broad and relatively informal anti-authoritarian groups such as Reclaim The Streets and the Grassroots Networks, we gained respect among activists, a higher profile for the organisation, and a wealth of practical experience of the problems associated with organising among larger groups with dispersed membership. Eventually, many of the anarchist activists who had worked alongside us inthese groups came to join the organisation. Many of those who worked within looser, less formal groups and campaigns, repeatedly ran into organisational problems concerning communications and decision making. The experience of working alongside the WSM gave them an appreciation of how useful formal structures and a capacity for coherent action can be – and that viable anarchist models can be built.

Thus, in the last five or six years, our organisation has experienced a steady influx of new members. Although our current membership of roughly 70 is hardly going to send the ruling class scuttling to their bunkers in fear of revolution, over the last few years our rate of growth has been such that we have doubled in size every two years or so. This steady growth has required us to continually re- examine our processes for communication and decision making across the organisation.

Happily, the formal processes which underpin our conferences have coped admirably with our expansion. What used to seem somewhat constricting and excessively formal, now seems to be an eminently sensible and valuable system which allows all of our members to have a genuine opportunity to change the organisation’s policy. Indeed, as we have grown, our conferences have actually become more efficient and inclusive decision making bodies. For example, at our conference in November 2007, some 30 motions, proposing some 80 amendments to our policy documents were proposed, debated and mostly passed, including the replacement of our entire position paper on the environment. Most of these changes were put forward by members who had been in the organisation for less than 2 years. To a considerable extent our conferences work better know than at any time in the past – the formal structures that we put in place have come into their own now that they are obviously needed. We have not had to change our conference structures at all in order to cope with larger numbers, simply formalise some of our standing orders. The success of our conference structures is largely due to the fact that they were originally borrowed from the democratic structures developed by anarcho- syndicalist trade unions, which are retained by modern trade-unions, albeit as a poor shadow of their former selves.Our conferences, as they stand, provide an excellent example of direct democracy in practice and they help to show new members exactly what our politics mean in practice. However, if we continue our recent rate of growth, within the next few years we will face new challenges as it becomes more difficult to fit everybody into a room together and the time available for debate and voting diminishes. Happily, however, we should be well prepared for this eventuality. By the start of the twentieth century, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions had already developed conference structures based on tightly-mandated delegates, which allowed vast numbers of members to have a direct say in policy changes. We therefore have a wealth of models available to us which should enable us to continue making directly democratic decisions at our conferences for the foreseeable future. However, delegate-based conferences are much less useful forums for debate – if the delegates are already mandated to vote in a certain way, they can’t be persuaded by argument, it is only if they have an open mandate that there is any point in hearing arguments. We already use the Internet to circulate debate pieces and arguments for and against proposed amendments in advance of conferences, and as our conferences become more delegate based, these debates and arguments will need to take on a greater role, and may need to be given more formal structures.

While our conferences have proved well suited to coping with a larger organisation, the rest of our structures were much less well prepared. Conferences basically define the organisation’s core policies. There is, however, never a formulaic way to translate general policies into concrete actions. That is to say, that no matter how thoroughly our policies describe our political positions, we constantly face decisions, sometimes requiring subtle judgement calls, as to how we apply them in practice. As a group of political activists, we face important tactical decisions all the time – which campaigns to join, which political groups to cooperate with, which demonstrations to go to, what leaflets to print and so on. We also face a whole host of day to day operational decisions – who will lay out our publications, write articles and leaflets, attend meetings, carry our banner on marches and so on. As we grew, we discovered that our structures were poorly suited to these types of decisions.

Once a group grows beyond a couple of dozen members, particularly when those members live in different regions, towns and neighbourhoods, it needs to change in character. In small groups with relatively steady membership over years, everybody can know everybody else reasonably well and much day to day decision making and the sharing out of responsibilities can rely upon informal communication channels. When you have over 50 members, this becomes impossible and informal arrangements become barriers to new members integrating into the organisation and can lead to the emergence of an informal leadership based upon knowledge of the various informal mechanisms that keep the organisation ticking over. Therefore, as we grew, we had to develop new, formal structures to coordinate our day to day decision making and communication and to ensure that the organisation worked in a transparent way where everybody had an equal chance to have an input into tactical and operational decisions.

The problem was not that we had not thought about such problems in advance – just that the measures for coordinating day to day activity that we had defined in our constitution weren’t capable of addressing all of our requirements. The constitution defined a National Committee, which had to meet at least once between each conference. However, due to our small size, the national committee was open to all members and due to the fact that we only had a single branch, it effectively amounted to our Dublin branch with an extra member from Cork in attendance. In these circumstances there was little need for the national committee to meet since it was much easier for the Dublin group to make most of the tactical decisions, occasionally telephoning our comrades in Cork for their opinions when needed. The constitution also defined Commissions, bodies designed to coordinate the organisation’s work in particular areas. However, once again, these commissions never really got off the ground. We had a single branch which met regularly and commissions would simply have amounted to a subset of these people having an extra meeting – extra work without any real advantage.Thus, when we started to experience sustained growth in the period since 2003, our structures for day to day coordination were rather theoretical and untested in nature. One of the first real practical problems that we encountered was how to divide up the organisation. This became pressing in late 2004, when our Dublin branch became too large to fit in our office’s meeting room. In addition to the cramped nature of meetings, with up to 20 people attending, we found debates and discussions becoming increasingly lengthy, cranky and frustrating – there were too many people present to give everybody a chance to express their opinions and anarchists are, if anything, full of opinions!

Therefore, we had to find a way to split our Dublin branch up. We had no formal mechanism for doing so, so we simply gathered all of our Dublin members together in a general meeting and, based on the arguments and proposals that were raised, we eventually divided ourselves up into groups based on two factors:
1. Where we lived.
2. When we could attend meetings.

It was generally envisaged that continued and sustained growth would require our branches to be increasingly tied to local community activism. Thus, the location of each member’s residence was considered to be important in allocating them to branches. However, the problem is that in modern cities, with their wide socio-economic spread, community identities tend towards the hyper- local. In practice, the various local issues that interest people can vary widely from estate to estate and neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Therefore, in order to have a real impact on a community, an activist group needs to have a lot of members living in the same neighbourhood. Furthermore, community activism is, by its nature, slow-burning, requiring steady work over years to have a real impact. As many of our members are relatively young and transient, moving around the city frequently and living in rented accommodation, they were not in a position to really implement a community- based strategy.
A year after our Dublin branch’s initial sub- division, we yet again found that our branches had grown too big. Again, we got together and re-divided ourselves, this time into three branches based on where each person lived and when they could make meetings. Once, again, despite our efforts, this did not work as well as we would have hoped and this is still a live issue in the organisation. Of our 3 Dublin branches, only one is mostly formed of people who are long term residents in the same area.By early 2005, we had 3 branches, 2 in Dublin, while our Cork membership had also grown to the point where it formed a stable branch. A year later this had grown to four, with the creation of a third Dublin branch. In 2008, a new Belfast branch was launched . As the number of branches grew, the problem of day to day coordination between them increased. As an organisation which prioritises theoretical and tactical unity, we had to come up with structures which allowed us to take decisions which would guide the whole organisation, even in cases where there were significant disagreements about the best course of action.

The way that most organisations deal with this problem, even those that are based around a democratic, policy-setting national conference, is to appoint an executive committee, responsible for implementing the organisation’s policy. Such arrangements, however, invariably degenerate over time. Even when everybody acts with the best of intentions, the fact that democratic decisions take longer than the decisions of an executive officer means that the officers tend to become more powerful over time. Alongside this tendency, the relatively privileged position that executive officers occupy, allows them great influence over the formation of policy. Before too long the conference has become a talking shop with policy being effectively controlled by a small leadership. One only needs to look at the conferences of the labour party, or many of the trade unions to see stark examples of this process in action. Furthermore, by limiting day to day decision making power to a tiny number of people, the organisation vastly under-utilises its collective intelligence. For all these reasons and more, an executive was not the solution that we wanted.We instead established a Delegate Council which would be responsible for coordination and decision making across the organisation. This body was established at our conference in Autumn 2006. Its structure has been refined twice in the period since then, after some inadequacies in its initial specification became clear. It meets once a month, with a different branch hosting each meeting – meaning that its location is rotated. Any member or branch can submit a motion to the council – asking the organisation to commit itself to a certain course of action. All the motions are circulated through our website and branches, sufficiently in advance so that each branch has a chance to discuss them at a meeting. Each branch then selects a number of delegates – one for every five members and these delegates attend the council.

Initially, our Delegate Council meetings were not particularly successful. Each motion would have been discussed and voted upon at eachbranch and the delegates would merely report how many votes each motion had received, for and against, from their branch. Although it allowed us to make decisions, the motions had already been voted upon and the delegates had no mandates to do anything but report those decisions. The meetings were really limited to a bit of informal discussion and the tallying of votes – something that could have been done by email or over the phone. The real benefit of face-to-face meetings is that they make it much easier for groups to make compromises. Written motions are often formulated in such a way that they do not include the proposer’s arguments and these may be then misunderstood by others who only see the wording of the formal motion. This can, for example, lead to situations where a motion is voted down, yet no solution to the problem that it was addressing is put in its place.

A face-to-face meeting gives each delegate the chance to explain the thinking behind their motions and any concerns their branches may have about other motions and to try to see if compromises can be reached which accommodate everybody’s desires. Thus, as these problems became apparent, although motions were still voted on in advance, delegates were often provided with mandates to seek compromises or amendments to motions. Since each delegate is only representing five members and has to report back to their branch, there is very limited space for these looser mandates to result in abuses. At our Autumn conference in 2008, we formalised this in a vote at our national conference.Although the Delegate Council has proved to be reasonably effective in coming up with tactical decisions, since it meets only once a month, there are occasionally situation where we have to make decisions to a tighter deadline. To enable this our constitution allows any branch, or group of members, to call an emergency Delegate Council meeting. This has been used on a couple of occasions when we faced important decisions and time was felt to be of the essence.

However, there are also frequently operational questions which need to be made at short notice – should we send a speaker to aparticular meeting, should we bring a banner to a demonstration called at short notice? In such cases, it is not realistic to convene a national meeting to make the decision. Therefore, at our most recent conference in November 2007, we instituted an Interim Decisions Committee, a body made up of 3 members, including the national secretary, which has the authority to make operational decisions at short notice. Its power is subordinate to Delegate Council, which is itself subordinate to national conference.

In it’s first year and a bit of operation, the IDC has been called on to make only a handful of decisions. Initially these were confined to routine matters - endorsing a demonstration that was in line with organisational policy and precedent, and turning down a request that was deemed outside of its mandate. However, in recent months, the IDC has been called on to make decisions on a couple of occasions over matters of some controversy. These decisions were disagreed with by some, but they were implemented without any problems. Nevertheless, the debates surrounding these decisions have revealed that there remains some unease throughout the organisation about this committee, both within the committee itself and across the rest of the organisation. The IDC remains very much a work in progress and it remains possible that it will be replaced with another mechanism which allows broader input.In summary, over the last few years the WSM has put in place a range of structures in order to allow the organisation to take common decisions. These structures are intended to maximise democracy, while still allowing snap decisions to be made in emergencies. The WSM’s steady growth over the last few years prompted these changes, and the shape of these structures is in constant evolution as new problems are encountered and overcome. Although the WSM remains a very small organisation, this example does show the viability of anarchist direct democratic decision making principles when applied to organisations that are geographically dispersed and have enough members so that not everybody knows everybody else.