A Reply to ‘One Big Union? The IWW in Australia’

A Reply to ‘One Big Union? The IWW in Australia’

In this article Ben D x368045 replies to a discussion and critique of the Australian IWW that appeared on the website of the Socialist Alternative organisation in April.

In April, an edited transcript of a talk given by Daniel Lopez at Marxism 2012 entitled ‘One Big Union? The IWW in Australia’ appeared on the Socialist Alternative website. This article, in offering a discussion and critique of the IWW and of syndicalism more generally, appeared to present the historical Industrial Workers of the World primarily as a syndicalist response to attempts to reform class society that took its cues primarily from Marxism. However, just as the IWW ‘remembered Marx’s advice: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,”’ Lopez contended, so too were they ‘at pains to distinguish themselves from the Australian anarchist scene, which existed on the far fringes of society, and was highly individualistic.’

As such, Lopez argued, the Wobblies were ‘trail-blazers’ who ‘were also fighting to work out a revolutionary working class strategy before the experience of the Russian Revolution, the German Revolution and subsequent 20th century revolutions had decisively resolved most of the questions they were struggling with.’ In order however to ‘to save the effort of thousands of dedicated revolutionaries from historical waste, it was also necessary to understand their limitations—and, paradoxically perhaps given that they were ‘trail-blazers,’ the folly of their syndicalist ways. This appeared to be revealed in the state repression inflicted on the Wobblies, who, in not having ‘perspective for building a party’ that could ‘anticipate and cope with periods of illegality’ inevitably found themselves unable to recover.

While the issue of state repression is certainly a pertinent one to consider given the history of its use against the IWW in Australia, whether this of necessity negates revolutionary or anarcho-syndicalist strategies and forms of organisation as such is arguably much less clear-cut than Daniel Lopez would have us believe. The fact that Lopez’s argument against the IWW’s approach to class struggle appears to centre on the issue of responses to state repression would also appear to put the cart before the horse in terms of the kinds of basic democratic assumptions that function to defend the freedom of the individual against the workings of arbitrary, coercive power structures.

What we are talking about here of course is putting the onus on power structures to justify themselves to the individual rather than the other way around; where we place the onus on power structures to justify themselves to the individual, we can arguably be said to be defending the cause of freedom, but where we place the onus on the individual (or on organisations such as the IWW that seek to defend the freedom of the individual against, in this instance, the autocratic hierarchies inherent to capitalist relations of production) to justify their opposition to power, we can in contradistinction arguably be said to be defending oppressive power structures at the expense of the freedom of all individuals. It is the argument of the present text that this is very much manifest in the article by Daniel Lopez.

Thus we find in Lopez’s article no mention of the basic rationales informing the development of revolutionary or anarcho-syndicalism, though these are readily available. The same is also true of the historical evidence supporting arguments against the traditional vanguardist modes of organisation upon which organisations such as Socialist Alternative operate. It would appear to be worth noting that Lopez’s critique of the syndicalism of the IWW appears to take for granted the legitimacy of the vanguardist model. In not even holding the concept of vanguardism open to comparison or scrutiny would appear to beg the question as to what the author fears from presenting both sides of the debate honestly and straightforwardly and allowing his readers to make up their own mind. This would in turn seem to support the observation made above to the effect that putting the onus on individuals to justify their opposition to power tends to support oppressive power structures at the expense of individuals insofar as it reflects a desire to make people’s minds up for them, which would appear to be a facet of the kind of things it would be nice to rid ourselves of in pursuit of a basically sane and just society.

In contrast to the claims Lopez makes about the Wobblies’ rejection of anarchism as ‘individualistic’ (an odd claim considering the oft-sectarian behaviour of many members of Socialist Alternative), we find that the syndicalism of the IWW evolved in the first place from the conjoining of classical liberal critiques of arbitrary statist autocracy, particularly in terms of their negative effects on the dignity of the individual, and Marxist critiques of the aforementioned autocratic hierarchies defining capitalist relations of production, to produce a libertarian socialist critique of the state as a class institution whose primary function, to borrow from James Madison, is to ‘protect the minority of the opulent from the majority.’ The appearance of revolutionary or anarcho-syndicalism in particular came about as individuals such as the French anarchist and unionists Fernand Pelloutier recognised in the unions a means of developing a ‘practical school of socialism’ and ‘the seeds of the future society’ based on an economically democratic regime of workers’ control wherein production and distribution were run through unions based on collective decision-making and industrial federations and confederations within which decision-making power flowed from the bottom up.

Through these ‘facts of the future,’ syndicalists such as Pelloutier argued, workers could build on their day-to-day experience at the point of production to build solidarity and organise on the basis of libertarian strategies that acknowledged the axiomatic importance of maintaining a basic harmony between mean and ends, given the fact that the means we employ tend to determine our outcomes. The basic justification for syndicalism thus resulted from the need to avoid perpetuating in the workers organisations precisely those hierarchical and autocratic constraints on the freedom of the individual that appeared to necessitate their formation in the first place. In seeking to avoid replicating the forms of oppression that they sought to overcome the aim of revolutionary syndicalists such as Pelloutier was of course to avoid becoming what they claimed to oppose, and thereby to realise Marx’s maxim that ‘the emancipation of the working class will be carried out by the workers themselves’—in this case directly, by actual wage workers, and not by professional revolutionaries who claimed to speak in their name while apparently having little or no involvement in the process of production.

This brings us back again to the issue of placing the onus on power to justify itself to the individual, particularly where the issue of the vanguard model of organisation is concerned. While Lopez argues that the IWW failed by virtue of the fact that we were delayed in our project of resistance to the injustice and general insanity of class society thanks to the state repression inflicted on the historical Wobblies, thereby apparently demonstrating the validity of the vanguardist model, he ignores many of the more obvious historical examples that would seem to demonstrate the much greater failures of vanguardism. One need only think about for example the way Stalin used the assassination of Sergei Kirov by what many historians now agree were agents of the NKVD as a pretext to crack down on the last of the internal opposition to his despotism within the Russian Communist Party in the name of defending the workers’ revolution from counter-revolutionary terrorists, petit-bourgeois Trotskyist elements, etc.

Here the grave potential for abuse implicit in the vanguardist argument in favour of the need for a workers’ state to defend the gains of the workers’ revolution from counter-revolutionary elements seemed fairly clear; as Stalin’s actions demonstrated it was no difficult task to demonise anyone who failed to worship the ground he walked on with the requisite level of awe by accusing them of plotting to overthrow the revolutionary workers’ state and restore capitalism. In this way it appeared to be no difficult task at all for Stalin to blame the victims of the Red Terror for his unconscionable power grab, just as it was no difficult task at all for him to play the victim of sinister outside forces said to be threatening the Revolutionary Socialist way of life in a manner that should ring alarm bells for anyone who lived through the Terror Scare of 2001 or is perhaps otherwise familiar with such things as the Red Scares of the 20th Century, the Nazi treatment of German Jews, the Israeli treatment of Palestinians (attempting to overcome the historical legacy of fascism by adoping it, etc.) the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages or Arthur Miller’s fantastic stage play The Crucible. There are of course other notorious historical examples associated with the Russian Revolution (eg. the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion) that would seem to raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the vanguardist model of organisation, but they are surely too familiar to anyone likely to read this article to merit discussion.

In placing the onus on power to justify itself to the individual in the manner appropriate to anyone who would defend individual freedom from state or economic autocracy (instead of attempting to save the latter from the former), serious questions might conceivably be raised then about the history of the vanguardist model that appears to be Daniel Lopez’s preferred alternative to the revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW. This being the case, it would seem somewhat anachronistic then to argue in favour of a vanguardist model of organisation in the name of defending the revolutionary movement from state repression if the end result is a purportedly revolutionary state that represses dissent and any other manifestations of independent thought and action in the name of defending the workers’ revolution from evil bogeymen in a manner that has already been demonstrated historically to be a device for establishing and perpetuating tyranny at the great expense of any attempts to resist the aforementioned injustices and general insanity characteristic of class society, if not to say the good name of the concept of socialism as such. If the means we employ determine our outcomes as was implicit in the notions of the early syndicalists, then organising on the basis of hierarchical vanguards in the name of saving the revolutionary movement from state repression would appear then to amount to its own certain defeat to the extent that the it reproduced that which it was attempting to overcome and in so doing became what it claimed to oppose.

This is of course not to suggest that the issue of how we respond to the certain state repression to come as soon as the threat of democracy begins to weigh on the minds of James Madison’s “opulent few” merits no further attention; quite the contrary. If history clearly illustrates the class nature of the state as it certainly does, then it also similarly demonstrates that the ‘minority of the opulent’ whom the state protects ‘from the majority’ will stop at nothing to protect their economic privileges and the lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed, no matter how socially, economically or environmentally unsustainable they may be, from any and all attempts to establish a classless society that involves any real measure of control over the course of their own destiny or material justice for human beings writ large.

Such reactions of the future will no doubt appear either in the form of further Terror Scares that seek to establish further pretexts for state terrorism and autocratic crackdowns on dissent and other manifestations of independent thought in the name of fighting non-state terrorism, or simply as some kind of corporatist police state invoked in the name of fighting terrorism and maintaining order while perpetuating state terror and laying the groundwork for social, economic, environmental and indeed psychological chaos. Anticipating these will of course necessitate developing appropriate organisational forms, though Daniel Lopez appears to provide no argument why these of necessity must follow the vanguardism that seems to the preferred model of Socialist Alternative. Indeed, if we take a cursory look at the history of syndicalism, we can find examples of libertarian organising against dictatorship and state repression from which syndicalists emerged relatively unscathed, such as the three months of martial law that the Spanish CNT was subjected to following the ‘Tragic Week’ of 1909, and the entire Primo De Rivera dictatorship of 1923-30. Here the affinity group model of the Federacion Anarquista Iberica (FAI) appeared to offer plenty of potential for combining organisation against state repression with libertarian strategies that maintained a basic harmony between means and ends and allowed for the resumption of union organising activities in periods of relative openness.

In critiquing the IWW on the basis of the argument that the historical Wobblies were unable to respond effectively to the state repression visited on them, and that this somehow apparently constitutes evidence for the supposed failure of syndicalism as such, Lopez refers only to the historical IWW and not the present IWW, which in experiencing a marked resurgence in the last year especially would appear to call into question the notion of our inability to recover. A similar failure to acknowledge the activities of the present IWW in the name of defending the vanguardist or party form of organisation also seems to inspire other fairly predictable objections to of our structure and strategies, primary amongst which being the old chestnut about the Wobblies being class reductionists who don’t care about non-economic issues such as fighting racism, sexism and homophobia and defending the natural environment. Nothing of course could be further from the truth, and in fact the present-day IWW is very proactive about recognising that a multitude of different forms of oppression exist and that the mentality that sees the worker primarily as an objectified resource whose value resides primarily in its exploitability is very much similar to and comes from much the same place as the mentality that sees women and the natural environment the same way.

Admittedly we haven’t yet regained the crowning heights of our former glory, much less to say formed anything much in the way of a credible threat to the pervasive injustices, general insanity and increasingly overt chaos of the class society that we are obliged to navigate, though by the same token this would not appear to be something that is unique to us. The fact that Daniel Lopez appears to feel the need to form such a critique at this time would appear to suggest a tacit acknowledgement of the resurgence of the Australian IWW, which in and of itself would seem to contradict its own basic assumptions.

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Jun 26 2012 08:52



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