A brief and incomplete account of the evolution of ‘Brighton SolFed thought’, so if you don’t get what we’re on about you might have some context.
Right, this seems completely narcissistic, but a lot of the discussions on libcom tend to swing quickly into abstract, theoretical discussions, often prone to go in circles with people talking past each other etc. This has definitely been true of stuff I’ve said, but also other stuff from SolFed individuals and collectively written things. Assuming good faith (which for the most part I think you can), there’s a communication problem.
I think it’s partly the nature of internet discussion itself, but also that since the discussion focuses on theory there’s very little context to any of it, very little sense of where it’s coming from and very little sense of what’s at stake. So, I thought I’d write a brief and incomplete account of the evolution of ‘Brighton SolFed thought’, so if you don’t get what we’re on about you might have some context. Personal capacity etc etc.
When we founded the local about 5 years ago most of the members were pretty young and inexperienced in ‘doing politics’, mostly with a background in activism that they’d moved away from. We joined SolFed because we wanted to be part of a proper organisation, a couple of founding members had links to SF and the A&Ps/strategy looked pretty good. We had no real idea of what a SolFed local should actually do, and at this point SolFed nationally was pretty dysfunctional – there was no induction, no introductory literature etc, so we were pretty much on our own.
So we started doing various ‘class struggle’ things. Going along to picket lines. Writing propaganda about class struggles. Leafletting. We actually had a platformist member at one point who suggested doing a local newsletter and delivering it door-to-door in our areas. We did one issue and abandoned it. We weren’t really happy with the activity of the group, but couldn’t put our finger on why. It felt a lot like activism, only with ‘class struggle’ substituted for GM crops or the arms trade.
Fundamentally, although we were theoretically committed to a ‘politics of everyday life’, our politics had nothing to do with our everyday lives! Class struggle was something that happened to other people. Going down to a picket line at 5am to distro a leaflet was barely any different to going to get on the roof of an arms company or trash a field of GM crops. So we started thinking about whether it could be done better, or whether being in a political group was basically just activism for people with better politics.
A few things started happening around the same time. Some of us had problems at work, and were trying to think how to apply the SF industrial strategy of organising mass meetings – which seemed a big jump from being one isolated ‘revolutionary’. The composition of the group had shifted to more workers and less students, which meant we had more stability, and consequently started thinking further ahead and more strategically. At this point there was no formal sharing of skills and experiences within SolFed, so we were working stuff out as we went as mostly young workers with little organising experience (if we’d had someone with experience of workplace organising, maybe things would have developed differently).
By this point SolFed nationally had started to get its act together and had organised a weekend school, a big part of which was strategy discussions. We read-up on SolFed’s strategy and DAM’s ‘Winning the Class War’. These really got us thinking, everyone seemed to agree on stuff but hypothetical revolutionary unions didn’t help us stop being just a political propaganda group – which was feeling a lot like activism to us (maybe we were doing it wrong?).
Two main stories influenced our thinking: one of our members had previously been in the IWW, and got screwed over when organising ‘as a union’ since they didn’t actually have the power to force any concessions. As it was told, they just all got together, said they were a union and then – got fucked. This got us thinking there was more to functioning as a union than just ‘mass’ (i.e. apolitical) recruitment. The other story was from an SF member who’d organised a federation of neighbourhood associations in his town with an anarcho-syndicalist constitution – but which ended up being used for reactionary purposes. This got us thinking that anarcho-syndicalist ‘form’ without class struggle content was a dead-end, or even counter-productive.
So we wrote a pamphlet. We got a lot of details wrong, the history was sloppily sourced and superficial and the writing style was overly abstract, as you might expect when a bunch of university educated people aren’t quite sure what it is they’re trying to express. But our fundamental argument was basically that ditching revolutionary principles in favour of ‘mass’ growth was not a viable strategy (we perceived the IWW as doing this), which left two options: remain a propaganda group or function as a ‘network of militants’ – defined less ideologically but in terms of practice. I don’t think anyone really got this, which is probably our fault for the way we expressed it. Most people seemed to put a label on it (‘council communism’ was a common one) and then be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the pamphlet in its entirety rather than engaging with the arguments.
An SF comrade from Manchester wrote a lengthy critique, which we found ourselves largely agreeing with – thinking we were trying to say the same thing in a different vocabulary. This kicked off all sorts of internal discussions, initially of a more theoretical nature but which evolved into more practical and strategic questions of how we move away from being a propaganda group without ditching revolutionary principles. One result was a Brighton-penned leaflet, incorpoating many of the criticisms, which was reproduced by many locals and adopted as a national leaflet. Strategy discussions are ongoing, although various things have been put in place like an organiser training programme, improving support for new members etc…
An upshot of those discussions was the development of a shared political vocabulary. So we began to think about propaganda groups as one example of ‘political organisations’, while groups which sidelined politics like the IWW or mainstream unions as ‘economic organisations’. What we want to do was move towards being a political-economic organisation, i.e. one which takes on organising as workers, but does so from a clear revolutionary perspective (we didn’t invent this terminology however).
I think all that gets lost in abstract theoretical discussions, where it may seem like we’re pulling concepts out of thin air, arguing over angels on pinheads or at best from spending too much time in the library pouring over historical texts (guilty on that one). I dunno if this helps clear things up, but we're really not arguing about this stuff because we like political theory, it comes from and is intended to clarify and improve real-world activity. “the idea springs from the act and returns to it.”