Article from Black Flag #213 1998 by James Hutchings (Sydney, Australia)
Much of the class struggle anarchist movement concentrates on campaigns: trying to mobilise people to force the government and the ruling class to grant concessions, by demonstrations etc.
Anarcho-syndicalism, on the other hand, concentrates on industrial organisation. This article argues that neither strategy is doing as well as it could, and discusses a different approach. What if we concentrated on projects which gave working class people immediate benefits - for example, housing advice, food distribution, community centres etc?
Anarcho-syndicalism aims to offer this kind of practical benefit. The idea is that working class people will put a lot more energy into unions than any other kind of political activity. Unions are, at least potentially, run by and for working class people, able to win on a regular basis, etc. As far as it goes, this is undeniable.
Look at the average demonstration in your city. Is it workers or is it students? Is it democratic or is it run by (self-elected) stewards? Does anyone even think it's going to win anything, or are they just making themselves feel better? Even if it did win, would it have an obvious benefit for the average working class person? And even then, who would take credit - politicians, Trots, self-appointed leaders? Is there any point to it at all, except to give the Trots a new crop of recruits? Can you imagine anyone with a job, a family, not enough time and too many worries giving any time at all to the average campaign? Even with the union movement in its present sorry state, anyone can see that unionism is much more attractive than traditional campaigning to any worker in their right mind.
However, anarcho-syndicalist groups are supposed to offer real benefits, not just theory. But unionism needs a lot of people to work. Anarcho-syndicalist groups, at least in the English-speaking world, are all pretty small: too small to start a meaningful union or to change the direction of an existing union. So they can't do anything until they get bigger. So they offer theory not real benefits!
Food Not Bombs distributes free vegan food to the homeless. A lot of FNB groups are totally independent, but there are problems. As the name would suggest, FNB concentrates on pacifism. The original aim seems to be to overcome "the violence within". This implies blaming ordinary people - if only working class people were pacifists, there'd be no nuclear weapons.
The second problem is one of charity. There's a definite split between the people who dole out the food and the people who take it. There's not an emphasis on self-organisation.
I think we can combine the best of both worlds: the anarcho-syndicalists' emphasis on benefiting working class people, and the aim of eventually forming unions for revolution. And FNB's emphasis on projects which are public, immediately beneficial, and can be carried out by small groups. Some arguments against this approach are:
1. We need bigger groups. It's a bit much to expect a group of three people to start a food distribution project. However, there's no need for that. For example, one idea is to gather all the information you can on housing, unemployment rights etc, and distribute it through existing anarchist publications. Where I live, there are heaps of places which give this information out for free. However, they don't always get to all the people who can use it. So there are projects which don't need many people.
2. You can't involve the whole community and be specifically anarchist -so you have to be either a charity, a non-anarchist group, or a front group. This seems to be common sense. But I think there's a way out. My idea is for anarchist groups to start openly anarchist projects. However, we also help local communities set up their own projects and have an input into ensuring they are democratic, not a charity, not a Trot front etc. A few people will probably want to join us, but most won't (for a few years anyway). If Trots or Christians try and take these groups over, we have the experience to spot this and hopefully advise on how to stop them. So, we can keep groups specifically anarchist and spread our ideas, and yet involve the maximum number of people in a genuinely democratic way.
3. Campaigns can achieve more. It's true that a successful campaign will achieve more than a single piece of mutual aid. But it isn't a fair comparison. For example, Melbourne Food Not Bombs has five events per week. How many groups can run five successful campaigns even in a year? And guarantee that they'll be successful, that no one will steal the credit, and that their gains won't be legislated away when they publicity dies down? None. Even successful campaigns, like against the Poll Tax in Britain, don't seem to have really helped the anarchist movement in the long run.
4. You'd be abandoning class struggle. If a mutual aid project was fairly successful, three things might happen. The state might ignore it, in which case we can spread our ideas as well as build up respect. Or the state might shut it down. The state can break up a demonstration and claim the demonstrators were 'violent', 'out of control' etc. If they did that to a child-minding service, do you think people would believe them? Or, they could try and shut it down and fail - the best of both worlds. Successful mutual aid projects could generate campaigns -campaigns where people would have a stake in the anarchists winning.
5. You'd be giving governments an excuse to cut services. The government isn't going to let anarchists take over providing services. The state does not want anarchists giving advice on workers' rights, how to take your landlord to the cleaners, how to avoid government work schemes etc. They don't wnat creches run without social workers, food distros dicsouraging consumerism or social spaces where no boss profits from beer sales. Mutual aid projects show that communities can survive without governments.
I'd love to lose this debate. I'd like someone to say 'mutual aid might be better than what we have now, but such-and-such is much better'. But something's got to change. Isn't 100 years long enough to test a theory? The conditions are right for anarchism - Leninism's collapsed, capitalism can't deliver, and we have groups all over the world that are small, but big enough to put these ideas into practice. We can do it now, or we can wait another century.
James Hutchings (Sydney, Australia) email:[email protected] (email me for information about the new practical anarchism email list).