Towards an anarcho-syndicalist strategy for Africa

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Oct 2 2007 22:37
Towards an anarcho-syndicalist strategy for Africa


Between 28th April and 1st of May 2007 about 250 militants from five different continents came together in Paris, France for the CNT-F organised International Syndicalist Conference i07, a follow-up to the industrial Syndicalist Conferences held in San Francisco, USA, in 1999, called i99, and that held in Essen, Germany in 2002, called i02.

The goal of the meetings was to share experiences, debate and to start rebuilding links between different organisations and uniting workers of different countries, to appropriate the means of information, struggle and action by organising international solidarity against capitalist domination and exploitation. The weekend included discussions, workshops and debates dealing with syndicalist issues (co-operatives, repression, representativity, the European Union, casualised and unprotected labour, and relocation...) as well as social issues (anti-sexism, the campaign against Coca-Cola, migrant workers, anti-fascism, housing struggles, anti-imperialism and neo-colonialism...). Branch meetings (metallurgy, education, construction, postal services, health, culture, archeology...) and meetings devoted to geographical regions (Palestine, Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Mediterranean zone) also took place. The conference ended with an anarchist/ anarcho-syndicalist/ syndicalist bloc of about 5,000 participants from every corner of the globe at the May 1st demonstration in Paris.

What is particularly interesting to us, and the focus of this article, is that, for the first time, the Industrial Syndicalist Conference had a significant African presence this year, with delegates representing trade unions from Algeria (Snapap), Morocco (UMT, CDT, ANDCN, poor peasants, FDR-UDT), Tunisia (CGTT), Guinea (CNTG, CEK, SLEG), Ivory Coast (CGT-CI), Djibouti (UDT), Congo DRC (LO), Mali (Cocidirail, Sytrail), Benin (FNEB, UNSTB, AIPR), Burkina Faso (UGEB, CGT-B, AEBF) and Madagascar (Fisemare).

The politics of the workers’ CGT-B and the students’ UGEB from Burkina Faso are described by the CNT-F as “class struggle, revolutionary syndicalism from a Marxist point of view”. In a similar way the Madagascan Fisemare is described as an independent Marxist revolutionary union, while the Algerian Snapap is independent but not revolutionary, although it is of interest because it opposes what used to be the only union in the country, the UGTA. The Guinean CNTG is the biggest union in the country, affiliated to the mainstream International Trade Union Confederation, and won a big strike this year. A representative from a Guinean students’ union-in-exile was also present at i07 and the CNT-F has said that the Cocidirail and Sytrail railway unions in Mali, affiliated to the main Mali union the UNTM, are very solid comrades. The UNSTB in Benin used to be a Marxist union linked to the state during the socialist period of that country and as a result is rather reformist. There was also a “very strange union” from the DRC Congo, Lutte Ouvrière, which the CNT-F says they needed to see “on the field” to assess their politics properly. The Congolese do, however, have links on their website to the CNT-F and fellow syndicalist unions the Spanish CGT and Swedish SAC. The CGT-Liberte and the public sector CSP from Cameroon were unable to attend because of visa problems, but they are “very interesting” according, once again, to the CNT-F.

As seen by the preceding breakdown the African delegates present, entirely paid for by the CNT, seemed all to have come from a range of independent and radical unions influenced by Marxism, and it is interesting to consider what might have attracted them to attend an anarcho-syndicalist conference, and what this means for creating an opening for spreading libertarian socialist ideas in Africa. One cynical participant commented that they got the feeling that a lot of these people where present because the CNT wanted to have a big impressive event, and that they invited organisations to participate which they would otherwise have been a lot more wary of had they been from Europe. I don’t think that that is quite the case however – that the CNT was doing it for show – and either way, it is crucially important for militants from a libertarian socialist tradition to engage with organisers from Africa coming from an authoritarian socialist (Marxist or otherwise) tradition. The reason being that one needs to consider the context in which their political identity would have developed, bearing in mind that there is very little libertarian socialist tradition in Africa as a whole, and that many people on the continent with Leftist inclinations would invariably have been attracted to authoritarian/ statist models of socialism and Marxist ideas or, for example, the type of “African socialism”, as practiced notably in Tanzania and that was explicitly anti-Marxist, as that was all that most were exposed to.

It is also important to note that “African Socialism” has been tried and found wanting, and that radical Leftists in Africa might be becoming disillusioned with mainstream state socialism and be looking around for alternatives. Perhaps this is what attracted the African delegates to i07? Perhaps they feel so isolated and in such a desperate situation that activists from a statist orientation are willing to try anything to garner some support from the international community. Or perhaps they were all, as with the delegate from Burkina Faso, just there to learn.

Whichever the case may be, it is a sound strategy for the French CNT to be in contact with these groups as it helps to facilitate a dialogue about forms of organisation, visions of the type of society we want to create and it allows for the building of solidarity struggles between groups in the so-called first and third worlds. Hopefully those delegates who attended from Africa would have learnt something and have been inspired by the anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist movements they encountered. I strongly feel that the CNT-F has taken an initiative that I would love to see being followed by the other more developed and stronger anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groupings and movements, with the capacity to do so, from the former colonial regimes.

There is also, encouragingly, another similar initiative to i07, the “International conference on the coordination of base unionism and social connection in Europe and the Maghreb” being organised by the Spanish CGT, due take place in Malaga on 28, 29 and 30 September 2007. According to the CGT “a network of relations, information and solidarity actions has been developing between organisations on the northern and southern sides of the Mediterranean…” and these meetings will have the “objective of opposing the current neo-liberal politics […]The principal objective is not to share long expositions on the different problems, but to achieve a consensus to establish some minimum agreements that will allow us to develop actions in a way that shows a clear and organised response to neo-liberalism”.

The legacy of Marxism and the Soviet Union is fading into history, and as a result, there is a vacuum of ideas in the African Left. At such a time it is crucial for anarchists to step in and try to fill this vacuum, at a point when people may be looking for alternatives and might be open to libertarian socialist ideas. Anarchists should not be sectarian about their engagement with the broader African Left as, without a doubt, if we fail to take the initiative and try to fill the vacuum of ideas with a libertarian socialist - or more specifically an anarchist communist alternative, the larger and still, regrettably, better organised authoritarian socialists will certainly seize the opportunity to provide material and ideological support to the African trade unions, social and anti-globalisation movements who, often desperate and uneducated as to the flaws of state socialism, will take whatever help they can get.

If, however, anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups abroad are going to try and develop contacts with unions in Africa, and try to spread anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist tactics and ideas, they would need to have a strategy for doing so. One key point to note however, when embarking on this strategy, is that every effort must be made to try to make contact with the rank-and-file workers, not the union bureaucrats, or to try and ensure that union leaders disseminate the information and ideas they receive from anarchists abroad at the base. They would need to make a commitment to persistence and patience in building such networks. It would also be advisable for delegates to be sent to Africa to make direct contacts with African organisers and in order to gauge the impact of their attempts, adjust and revise strategies where necessary, and measure the adequacy of the dissemination of their materials, via the union leaders or contact persons, at the base.

Another point worth noting for anyone keen to help spread anarchist ideas in Africa is that - given the small size of the African working class, high levels of unemployment and relative lack of industrialization - anarchist intervention from abroad in industrial struggles, and the cultivation of anarcho-syndicalist tendencies in Africa is not sufficiently going to help spread anarchist ideas on the continent, and special attention should also be paid to ways and means of carrying industrial struggles into communities. In order to effectively spread anarchist ideas across the continent, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists should not confine themselves to industrial struggles, but should try to find ways for taking up and supporting social and community struggles in the industrial arena, as well as encouraging workers who may become influenced by anarcho-syndicalist ideas to try and take these ideas back to their communities, and organise there too.

The CNT-F have already taken libertarian socialist debate on Africa significantly forward with the publication of what was intended to be Zabalaza’s sister journal, the French-language Africa-focused journal Afrique XXI, and I hope that measures are being taken to ensure that this publication finds a decent circulation in Africa and that it is not confined to the Francophone African immigrant communities in Europe (although its circulation there would also serve to spread libertarian socialist ideas amongst African immigrants to Europe who, in turn, could send such ideas back home). It should be noted, though, that this journal is not produced by the CNT-F alone, and that there are also some groups and organisations that do not come from the libertarian tradition, which might moderate its message to a degree – but which also ensure a wider readership than a purely anarchist journal would reach.

Given the scarcity of known libertarian socialist socio-political traditions in Africa, which were mainly confined to North and southern Africa and its small and thinly spread anarchist movement, the support and intervention of anarchists coming from regions with more developed anarchist traditions is vital for the spread of the anarchist idea on the continent. In particular the anarchists of the former colonial powers (who have the advantage of linguistic and cultural ties with Africa) should try to support the growth of anarchism in Africa. Also, sharing experiences of struggle and methods of anarchist organisation under similar socio-economic conditions, such as in Latin America or other parts of the developing world, would be very beneficial.

To this end we need to consider a few things:

1. How can anarchists abroad work with, and assist, existing anarchist groups and individuals in Africa?
2. How can they establish and maintain contacts with African trade unions, social movements and Left-wing groups?
3. What are the priorities when doing so: to spread anarchist awareness; to support existing struggles (materially, ideologically or through solidarity actions); or to counter authoritarian traditions?
4. How can they embark on joint international campaigns involving African groups?
5. How can they show practical solidarity with African struggles?
6. How can they work towards turning single-issue and reformist campaigns and struggles into revolutionary movements and promote horizontal, egalitarian, participatory democracy?

When engaging with African trade unions and trying to facilitate the establishment of an anarcho-syndicalist presence on the continent, it is wise to avoid or to set aside the sectarian infighting which has plagued certain sectors of the movement thus far. In the old debate of whether or not anarchists should bore-from-within existing unions, to organise inside or work alongside existing and probably reformist unions, what must be avoided in the African context is the “purist” line (which argues against this boring-from-within), which does not work except in very particular circumstances – which don’t obtain in Africa at present. The hard reality in Africa is that the purist position of trying to establish new, specifically anarchist unions will probably fail – until such time as there is a significant growth in the African anarchist movement itself. Until then, new anarcho-syndicalist formations are likely to remain isolated, numerically and strategically insignificant – if not totally ineffectual.

To conclude, there are two possible options that may contribute to spreading the ideas and methods of anarcho-syndicalism in Africa. The first is for Africa-based anarchists to agitate for anarcho-syndicalism either within existing unions or, possibly at a later stage, by trying to set-up new unions along anarcho-syndicalist lines from scratch. The second and more viable option – because of the insignificant number of organised anarchists in Africa and their relative lack of capacity – is for anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists from abroad to intervene and assist by trying to establish contacts and build pragmatic solidarity with any existing African unions – preferably independent and revolutionary ones where possible.