Whenever I get into a political discussion these days I find myself accused of ‘dogma’, ‘ideological blinkers’, ‘detached ultra-left purism’ and so on. Now maybe that’s true.
But the accompanying charge is usually one of ‘doing nothing’ and thus not subjecting my ‘sterile’ ideas to the test of practice. That's a bit annoying on two counts; firstly because it's irrelevant since any given practice is no better for the failings of its critics, and secondly because it's factually incorrect since over the last 12 months my SolFed local has probably been one of the most active anarchist groups in the UK. But I’m not blogging about stuff we've been up to, I'm interested in how it is that political principles so frequently come to be dismissed as dogma.
According to Wikipedia
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.
Who then is not a pragmatist? Who could possibly insist on the impractical? Myself apparently. Let’s examine two recent examples in my debate with Iain McKay over co-ops and arguments with some platformists over trade unionism (on facebook and in person, so no links I’m afraid).
Kay suggests that “often raised as a sort of intermediate, ‘realistic’ demand short of revolution” (…) I plead guilty to the first charge, although I stress that my suggestion was an attempt to bring a revolution closer
In place of advocating workers’ co-ops I argued that if we are in a position to expropriate the boss’ capital and keep it then we’re certainly in a position to demand better redundancy terms or retraining. Whatever the merits of workers’ co-operatives, it’s simply wrong to say that forcefully expropriating the boss’ capital and turning around “firms [that] are about to go bust” to successful, self-managed businesses is more realistic than using direct action such as occupations as leverage to concessions from the boss.
The other example is the argument over trade unionism, where I’ve been accused of having a “'the unions' V 'the workers'” analysis. Of course nothing I’ve ever written was produced to support this, and if you look at what my organisation SolFed says on the matter it is miles away: “trade union organisation around traditional bread and butter issues is not enough on its own, although it is vital.” A recent leaflet compiled by my SolFed local added that “in place of the representation of workers in the trade unions, what is needed is self-organisation by workers exercising their collective power directly” – which I think is basically the classic anarcho-syndicalist criticism of ‘reformist unions.’
So if this is the blinkered and unrealistic position, what do my critics offer up as an alternative? The interlocutors on this occasion were members of the WSM, whose position paper on Trade Unions first sets out the organisation’s pragmatic credentials:
A problem which, from time to time, has manifested itself in other countries is the view that workers should leave the unions and destroy them; that no permanent organisation of workers under capitalism can avoid becoming totally integrated into the state and a tool in the hands of the bosses. The people who promote this nonsense claim that the unions are holding workers back from making a revolution ...now! This analysis is little more than wishful thinking that hopes to avoid the difficult struggle to win the mass of workers to revolutionary politics. It is of little use to an organisation that seeks to involve itself in the actual struggles of our class, warts and all. It also ignores the day to day need of workers to collectively defend themselves.
The most anti-union group I’m aware of is the ICC, and they don’t even argue for workers to leave the unions and destroy them, so this appears to be a straw man. I can only assume this is a reference to Wildcat's 'Outside and against the unions', but even that archetypal exposition of 'the ultra-left position' (of which i have numerous criticisms) argues more for revolutionaries to network independently of the unions to prepare the ground for extra-union action when mass struggles arise than for workers to 'leave the unions and destroy them'. In any case, in opposition to this position the WSM’s pragmatic strategy includes the following:
We encourage 100% union membership and all WSM members are members of their appropriate trade union. When members take up employment in non-union jobs, they are expected to join an appropriate trade union. (…)
We fight to change the role of the full-time officials - not to change the individuals who occupy the positions. Their decision-making powers have to be removed and returned to the rank & file membership. They should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the people they represent. They should only serve for a fixed period of no more than five years after which they return to ordinary work. The unions will have to win the demand for jobs to be kept open in order for this to be realistic. (…)
Where revolutionaries can gain enough support to win election to national officerships in large unions, or indeed small ones, this support should not be used to merely elect a candidate. Instead it should be used to fundamentally change the structure of the union in such a way as to return power to the membership and turn the officers into administrators and resource people rather than decision makers.
I don’t think it’s unfair to characterise that as a strategy of entering the trade unions and reforming them into syndicalist-type ones. It is possible that the Irish unions are a completely different beast to the UK TUC ones (although comrades tell me they’re worse if anything), but by what stretch of the imagination could a strategy to turn Unison into the CNT possibly be termed ‘realistic’?
I think what we have here is an example of the denial of ideology forming an ideology par excellence. The rejection of ‘dogmatic principles’ becomes the dogmatic principle, and any criticism or alternative strategy can therefore be dismissed as abstract theorising, regardless of its practical merits. I think the crux of this is the false opposition of “what works” to “unbending principles” (borrowing the terminology from Liberty & Solidarity). Why is this opposition a false one? Because principles are derived precisely from what works. Political principles do not fall from the sky, they are distilled from the lessons of past struggles. I don’t oppose a strategy of workers’ co-ops because I have a little black and red book of principles I must unswervingly follow, but on the contrary because I look at the reality of workers’ co-ops rather than advocating them in the abstract.
Likewise, I do not reject a strategy of reforming the trade unions to make them into vehicles for revolutionary anarchism out of dogma, but a desire not to repeat the errors of the past. For example the French CGT started out dominated by revolutionary anarchists but developed on a fast track into a bureaucratic organ of class collaboration. It didn’t do this because it lacked democratic structures, rather its democratic structures were subverted by its structural role as a representative of labour power. Revolutionaries cannot force the opposite development in today’s bureaucratic, class collaborating unions since the problem is not caused by their lack of revolutionary ideas - an idealist analysis – but their structural role – a materialist one. There’s nothing dogmatic about rigorous materialist analysis (the AF’s is one of the clearest, although it inaccurately conflates syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism imho).
I should make absolutely clear nothing I’ve written here is intended as an attack on any person or organisation. I am criticising political ideas, positions and strategies. I am completely committed to pragmatism – trying things, discarding what doesn’t work and thus improving our practice. It is precisely for this reason that I oppose pragmatism as ideology, for it leads to the repetition of historically failed strategies on the name of rejecting dogma. Principles without pragmatism are but nice ideas, pragmatism without principles guarantees an ahistorical repetition of past mistakes. The two are not opposites, they presuppose one another.