An open letter from a member of the Malmö local of the SAC to members of the IWA about their relations as well as anarcho-syndicalism more generally.
An open letter to all members of the IWA.
The 1997 Spring issue of Black Flag (BF) carried an ambitious article written under the pseudonym "Peter Principle" (PP) titled "What is anarcho-syndicalism?". One of the main threads running through the piece was the threats to anarcho-syndicalism posed by what he termed anarchist vanguardism on the one hand and libertarian reformism on the other. It also contained an in depth analysis and criticism of the IWA and of certain decisions of it's 20th congress held in Madrid December 1996. The effort to deal critically with the subject deserves much respect and praise. Although BF is not a house journal of the IWA or any of its sections there are obvious close couplings as shown in the text and it is the nearest thing to open in-house criticism, by that I mean the greater house where IWA, like the SAC, is also a dweller. It must be mentioned that syndicalism in Sweden is synonymous with revolutionary syndicalism. There are few who deny that our roots share the same soil as anarchism, which in itself is at face value deceptively simple and difficult to define.
The article also contained judgements and sweeping conclusions regarding the SAC that I felt needed to be clarified. But I also felt that it wasn't enough just to refute misconceptions about the SAC but what was, and still is, needed is an effort to start a dialogue that will hopefully lead to an end of tensions and the beginning of co-operation between all syndicalist organisations, both inside and outside the IWA.
Peter Principle's article can serve as a starting point and I hope this contribution will carry it forward despite my present personal frustration with our collective legacy.
But first some thoughts on black Flag itself. I remember BF as a spitting, irreverent, puerile rag. An anarchist paper "with an attitude", smug, muckraking and a spreader of malicious gossip and lies about the SAC and anybody else who fell foul of it's editors. BF itself was part of the seemingly eternal problem of rampant sectarianism.
I had moved to Sweden early in the 80's, joined the Malmö LS (Lokala Samorganisation) of SAC and, years later, met with two members of BF at the SAC's 1990 international meeting "Without Borders" in Stockholm. I had recently become more involved in international questions and together with comrades in the Southern District of SAC had started our own international committee. The legacy of SAC-IWA problems was something we saw as crucial to resolve if syndicalism was to grow internationally. One of the BF observers (who was also an active member in DAM) was invited to the podium. What he had to say had a subtle but significant effect on many of us in the SAC, not least those of us from the south. He started by offering an apology, not for the shit that BF used to spread but for the fact that he had come loaded with prejudice and preconceptions that he sought to verify. His apology was met with honest applause and he confessed if not to a change of attitude but at least to a nuanced picture of the SAC. In light of the concern we had for the future of international syndicalism we felt it was a quiet but non the less significant change that presented itself. Afterwards in the coffee-break I fell into conversation with an elderly Englishman who also started to apologise for having said things that he now regretted. Bewildered I had to ask him who he was, Albert Meltzer was the reply and the penny dropped. Here he was, the man behind the poisoned pen. Our conversation finished with him promising to set the record straight in the next issue of BF. This I felt was concrete progress and that now there was some hope of moving international relations forward. Nothing ever came of it though as BF's next issue came three years later. I suppose though Albert did make some amends in his autobiography where he has favourable things to say about us.
A door opens....and closes
Another opportunity to bridge the gap was when the SAC received a letter from Pepe Jiminez, the IWA secretary, early in 1994. Here, in my opinion, the SAC fumbled the ball. The letter came to SAC's international committee asking them to explain the form of SAC's involvement with the unemployment benefit scheme, if we employed "officials" and our view of the background when SAC and IWA parted ways in the 50's.
The committee was puzzled and even suspicious as they had answered time and time again those same questions from the Spanish camp and wondered if it was yet another stage of a slander campaign. I felt more inclined to interpret his letter as an effort to raise the (IWA's) discussion on the SAC to a factual and objective level and that this offered an opportunity to move things forward. I had been elected as International secretary at our 1994 congress and by the time I, as international secretary, answered his letter and signalled our wish to bridge the gap the moment had passed. Pepe was no longer in the arena and the new people were rabid anti-SAC. (Although I never received an acknowledgement of my reply some individuals in the SF later referred to it, terming it "inadequate", but then nothing short of sackcloth and ashes would do for some).
During my work as international secretary in the SAC (late summer 94 to summer 98) I have written to counteract some of the wildest possible allegations published the CNT paper, some so absurd that I was even embarrassed on their behalf. Not one of my letters was ever even acknowledged let alone published. A formal greeting to the IWA Madrid congress was never mentioned, this contained a clear wish that the IWA congress should drop the prohibition against contact with the SAC and that we were open to deal with any and all issues of contention with any appointed body of the IWA congress. I strongly suspect the CNT and the IWA have a special wastepaper basket with our logo on it.
As I understand it though the IWA congress decided to appoint a commission to "investigate" the SAC. Well no matter what the wording it would offer an opportunity to create some forum for dialogue. An invitation to the SAC's congress (June 1998) offered the chance to come and see us at work, talk to SAC activists and get a first hand impression but again it seems that this is not a high priority.
Same old attitude?
Peter Principle tones down at least the former "in you face" style that used to be the hallmark of the BF but the stripes are hard to wash out all he same.
While he doesn't define "libertarian reformism" in the beginning of the article he later states and I quote "....the SAC now firmly established as a reformist union dispensing welfare to workers of behalf of the state in the Swedish mould". He further states that"... SAC's pluralist political policy leads it to seek international relations with any union or political group who will deal with it and plead innocence when it causes offence". Such sweeping statements insinuates a refined and fiendish nature.
PP "strongly suspects" that if the SAC had offered assistance to only one side in the Spanish conflict i.e. those who eventually retained the initials CNT then "the original dispute would have been regarded as an irrelevance". This flatters neither the SAC or the CNT, as if the real problems can be resolved by the buying and selling of favours and graces. The problems are at bottom differences in ideological and applied syndicalist praxis and not a question of who is friends with who.
The SAC's position on the split in Spain is one of neutrality, we hold that they both should join together. In the present bitter circumstances this seems unlikely and from a quick perusal of "cnt" and "rojo y negro" it is the former that acts as the mud-slinger, based on simple observation.
When Franco left the scene and literally hundreds of thousands of potential members of CNT rallied in Barcelona the SAC was one of the first to take the entire contents of its Spanish solidarity fund down to Spain to aid in the reconstruction of the union, a fact conveniently forgotten.
When after the de-facto split we were approached for a loan to aid organisation in the workplace by the "renewers" it was granted after much discussion in the SAC. One of the provisos being that a loan would also be made available to the other group if the need arose. It didn't change our policy of neutrality. I will admit that it muddied the waters as PP states, no less than the actions of others in this whole sad story. PP's labelling CNT-R as the "the phoney, reformist organisation is equally ludicrous as the definition as the other group as being entirely "Leninists"
If you get close to dog-fight you invariably get bitten and there are few who haven't been scarred by these events.
The Spanish conflict casts it's shadow on syndicalism internationally as PP rightly points out but the negative effect is greatest on the domestic front. The split in the syndicalist movement into CGT-CNT followed by further breakaways and exclusions have caused tens upon tens of thousands of potential members to shun the arena altogether. The growth of the CGT must be ascribed to their pragmatism and organisation and not superciliously written off as "reformism and class collaboration". The diminishing numbers and shrinking workplace presence of the CNT cannot be continually blamed upon enemies, saboteurs, the police or alleged international conspiracies instigated by the SAC. Of course the Spanish establishment has no wish to see a strong syndicalist organisation in it's midst and it would be naive to ignore it's capacity and willingness to upset its' efforts to re-consolidate. But the CNT's/IWA's degree of fear, conspiracy theorising and what can only be termed as outright paranoia is out of all reasonable proportion and is in itself the greatest hindrance to organisational development.
Beep and Drive
It must be remembered that one of the bones of contention between the IWA and the SAC in the 50's was the ban on tactical freedom which the SAC did not accept and still holds to be an important element in any true con-federal agreement. The system of works councils are unknown here in Sweden (the reformist unions partake in compromising bodies though) and the SAC lacks a coherent analysis of this growing European phenomena. The Swedish establishment has it's own recipe to include and disarm or exclude and demonise militant workers. To counteract rank and file militancy in the 70's and the diminishing control the reformist unions had over it's membership new labour legislation was introduced, the classical bone to the hungry dog trick. The bosses were now obliged to inform before introducing major changes and hiring and firing procedures were regulated granting more job security to waged workers. The SAC were not alone in calling this the Beep and Drive legislation. Previously the bosses just drove over you now they had to beep the horn first. The introduction of legislation covering labour relations caused a shift in the role and work of the SAC officials, the so called ombudsmen, away from studies, agitation etc. to concentrate more on giving legal expertise.
Anyway what I am getting at is that the SAC by using negotiations and legal paragraphs to push for better wages, conditions can hardly be accused of class collaboration. It is an accusation that should be reserved for just class collaboration and not as a fancy slogan to sling around willy-nilly. Relying on legislation is often the only alternative when you are a single syndicalist on a work-place. Furthermore because of our numerical weakness and the lack of our own structures for mutual aid, the state often offers some defence against the arbitrariness of the bosses, this is for the whole of class. This is not said as a defence for the existence of the state apparatus, it remains the evil twin of capitalism. The preoccupation in some IWA circles of classical anarchist anti-state actions clouds the fact that it is capitalism at the workplace we as syndicalists have chosen first and foremost to combat. The abolition of the State as we know it will come about subsequently as we build our own institutions to distribute wealth and welfare
Goals and tactics, offence and defence
Quite simply is it not so that if we are numerically strong, well organised and motivated we can gain ground with or without legislation, based on our own strength. When we are weaker we are forced into defensive manoeuvres that are covered by a different set of rules.
The SAC has an ultimate revolutionary goal, to change society through the workers take-over of the means of production. Or as it reads in our declaration of principles the "SAC, is a syndicalist workers movement whose goal is the realisation of libertarian socialism in which the means of production are the property of all, and are administered by the workers, thereby creating the conditions for a classless society". Noble, modest but clearly revolutionary.
We do not reject reforms as such and this stance cannot be construed so as to define the SAC as inherently reformist as PP argues. Rather we are inherently revolutionary but on the defensive. As soon as SAC sections establish themselves on a workplace they have constantly shown a degree of militancy and, even more important, a flair for imaginative combative actions, that often attract more timid work-mates to their ranks. I also challenge any section of the IWA to claim that they have a higher degree of democratic culture and transparency than the SAC, no matter what their size. All employees and elected functionaries enjoy the same wages and their roles and responsibilities are clearly mandated and all are answerable to the congress. We don't have any privileged garnishing, golden handshakes or informal hierarchies. In fact a mention of SAC activity in a job application is definitely no advantage. That said the SAC is not a perfect organisation, much always needs to be done, that is part and parcel of the project. This sounds unnecessarily self-righteous but is not meant as such, its just an ill concealed pride in an organisation that the world would be a poorer place if it didn't exist.
The growth from small propaganda groups to gaining a foothold in the workplace is the most important and long-awaited event for IWA sections in modern times. It is something to be welcomed. Glitches and teething problems need to be nurtured and helped along. The behaviour of the IWA regarding the CNT-F and USI-It. is unfathomable. PP would agree that the IWA is it's own worst enemy pure and simple. An internal atmosphere of fear that can only be called a form of McCarthyism is rampant and destroying the democratic processes and inner culture that is a prerequisite for any solidarity organisation. It is the greatest tragedy since the crushing of syndicalism by the Fascists. It is vital that the IWA sets its house in order and joins the upswing for revolutionary syndicalism where it is sorely needed and not locked up in some ivory tower.
The SAC itself has it's own set of problems, a passive membership or rather members that choose to be active in other ways other places in society, daily union chores that are far from the romantic utopia we all long for. Mauled by or excluded from the mainstream press and dogged by a slowly diminishing membership. This in itself increases the burdens on those who active.
Some relevant points
The terrain between the SAC and the IWA is littered with twisted theories that prevent us from coming to grasp with the real problems facing revolutionary syndicalism in a changing world.
Let me try and make clear SAC's position regarding the relationship to the IWA.
Firstly we do not seek to form a new International. This is reaffirmed time and time again at our congresses.
Secondly, the SAC does not lie still but actively seek co-operation with libertarian socialist, direct democratic or otherwise fighting trade unions which work independently of political parties, nothing at all odd in this, at best we serve a good example and this only strengthens syndicalism. We are especially concerned with having good relations with ideologically related organisations. There is no conspiracy behind this wish but a firm belief that if revolutionary syndicalism is to have a future we must all learn to deal with our problems and differences in an open and mature fashion. This is a precondition for all co-operation.
The SAC does not propose itself to be the perfect workers organisation and we continually seek to improve the democratic structure so that it might serve as a tool in the shaping of a future libertarian socialist society. We do not propose to dictate our way upon others nor do we engage in defaming our libertarian sister organisations.
There is the palpable risk that sooner or later the continued false allegations, like a self-fulfilling prophesy, will force the SAC membership to write off the IWA further paralysing the future of syndicalism. let us tackle the points at issue in an open fashion.
The vacuum between the IWA and the SAC serves as a hot bed for malicious rumours. This vacuum is our common and at present greatest enemy. It prevents dialogue and the mutual enrichment of all.
We all have a responsibility as individuals, as groups and as organisations, to actively work for some kind of normalisation in communications that will allow us to eliminate false conflicts and allow us to clearly define and deal with what just might be real differences.
There is no one true path, no single formula, dogma or model which limits our struggle for emancipation. The very idea of practical and direct action includes the possibility of wrong steps. The dynamism and pragmatism of revolutionary syndicalism leads to the possibility of learning from our mistakes and of course from our successes. Let us create a forum for dialogue and eliminate malicious rumours. Let us make a serious effort to resolve our more real and difficult problems and show that both we can meet the challenge and shake this stone from our backs and get on with the work of changing society. For this end I am always ready.
Yours in solidarity
member of Malmö LS of SAC
and formerly SAC's international secretary (1994-1998)
C/o Malmö LS, Box 175 75, 200 10 Malmö, Sweden.
Fax: +46-40- 30 61 76. e-mail: [email protected]
Running the risk of finishing on a sourer note it but would be less than honest of me to omit the following. I have noticed new allegations directed against the SAC from the IWA secretariat itself, not, as before, from some influential individual. The accusations concern a conference on something called municipal libertarianism (or Libertarian municipalism?) in Portugal. I have never heard of the term nor is the SAC involved in this initiative. The SAC has no position, neither positive nor negative on this matter. Why the IWA secretariat writes as it does in an accusatory fashion is beyond me. I leave the matter in your, the readers, hands. KC