The anarchists and workers’ societies - Errico Malatesta

Malatesta on anarchist roles in unions

Submitted by Method of Freedom on April 28, 2019

The Anarchists and Workers’ Societies

Our friend Carlo Gussoni of Paterson writes us:
I hope you will answer the following question:
What would be the attitude of organizationist anarchist socialists on the issue of workers’ craft and trade Unions?
I am asking because I have noticed that in cases where these Unions must exercise their influence on the masters, many of the organizationist anarchist socialists, although members of these Unions, are not present at the meetings in which questions most vital to the existence and purpose of the Unions are raised.
Here is our reply:
Anarchists who join labor Unions, and then take no active part in their lives, do a lot of harm; and it is up to the most active and most consistent to encourage the others and make them match their conduct with their ideas.
Workers’ societies do not help emancipate the workers, since their slavery depends on causes that cannot be destroyed unless the whole social system is transformed by revolution; and often they are of no service even with it comes to securing material improvements, even small and transitory ones, since broader economic factors, which the labor union is most of the time powerless to counteract, determine wage rates. But they can still help to educate, to morally uplift the working classes and to prepare and train them for the struggle.
However, to achieve this, it is necessary that the most advanced, most conscious elements contribute their ideas, their initiative, their combativeness. And wherever anarchists have done so—and we admit that to date they have generally done so rarely and erratically—wherever they have done so, they have achieved splendid results, thereby proving that anarchist ideas and spirit can very easily penetrate the masses, as long as the propaganda is brought to them and in ways accessible to their intelligence.
The big disadvantage of workers’ societies is that the vast majority of members do not take any part in their social life, beyond the appointment of leaders, and payment. Thus they are a small-scale reproduction of the system of government that afflicts us in wider political society. Everybody pays, and then allows themselves to be guided, exploited, betrayed… in addition with the illusion that they are the ones in charge, because they are the ones who vote.
Therefore the first task of anarchists within workers’ societies is to rip the members out of their passivity, excite their initiative, and see to it that they live and battle with the active endeavors of all, and thereby come to understand the uselessness and harm done by presidents and committees with authoritarian assignments and lavish stipends, and eliminate them. But how can anarchists ever induce others to play an active part in the business of their unions, if they are the first to lose interest, and do not even go to meetings?
Authority is not destroyed by talk, but by actions. When it is armed with rifles the fight requires gunfire; however when it is based on the acquiescence and apathy of those who are subjected to it, it is necessary—and there is no other method—to provoke a rebellion of consciousness and activity among all.
Organizing, and then not caring about the organization, is the same as doing nothing. Others will act on behalf of the inactive, and will use their union dues to impose their own ideas, often their own interests, just as if people were not organized.
And this happens, and must happen, not only within the labor unions, but everywhere, including inside anarchists’ own organizations.
Let this be taken to heart by those anarchists, who act as if they believe that the benefits of organization depend upon an almost miraculous virtue of the word, and that it is enough to register in a circle and pay some dues, for everything to go well.

“Gli anarchici e le società operaje,” La Questione Sociale (Paterson, New Jersey) 5, new series, no. 6 (October 14, 1899)