Working Collectively: Organisation or spontaneity? - Mick Larkin

If it is true that a little experience is worth a lot of theory, then eighteen months in a miners' support group should teach a great deal about organising. On the basis of just such experience Mick Larkin offers his thoughts on self-organisation and some of its difficulties.

Submitted by Fozzie on November 12, 2021

The first meeting of County Durham Miners' Support Group after the strike began was quite an event. Faced with the question ‘how do we organise from now on?', an assembly of about a hundred people, mostly ordinary workers, unanimously decided to adopt the classic anarchist structure, a sovereign assembly which mandates a co-ordinating body without executive powers. Obviously, I was overjoyed; but sadly, there's been a lot of backsliding since then.

It does seem that the ideas we are trying to promote (such as participation and grass-roots control) are becoming popular, even taken for granted, but once they are put into practice it seems to bring out all sorts of contradictions which people aren't willing to deal with. For example, the question of delegates being subject to the mandate of the assembly seems simple enough; but in practice this comes down to someone having to say "Excuse me, Mary, I think that's out of line with what we decided last week/last month see it says in the minutes for March 23rd...", etc. It seems to me that this is out of keeping with the working-class traits we so rightly admire such as spontaneity and 'earthiness'; in other words, it all seems a bit cerebral.

Anyway, even if we could persuade people to adopt this approach to organisation, do we really want to live in a world where people are always referring to motions carried, alterations to paragraph three line six, and so on?

Now there are no doubt reasons people can come up with as to why this is not really a problem, but in my experience, to say that we can trust in spontaneous self-organisation doesn't take into account that well-known phenomenon, the tyranny of structurelessness. One example of this, which I've run up against a lot, goes like this. Imagine that someone suggests a new way of dealing with a situation (and we’re obviously going to need plenty of them). What often happens is that this suggestion throws people a bit and there’s a silence. The people who are content with the status quo, and who are usually quite articulate within it and respected by many people, don't bother to take up the suggestion and discuss it. Instead, they suggest a more familiar alternative, volunteer to carry it out, and then change the subject on the assumption that the lack of dissent means that this is what people want. It often is, but only because that's what they're familiar with.

The original suggestion is lost almost without anyone noticing, unless the person who raised it in the first place stops the meeting, which requires a certain amount of confidence, and asks to go back to it. Obviously this seems pedantic; 'spontaneity' has thus worked in favour of the articulate elite and the anarchist gets labelled 'bureaucratic'. 'Relying on people's spontaneous common sense' can thus result in a debased form of volunteerism where it's understood that certain people usually write the leaflets, the assembly's final approval becomes a formal 'rubber stamp', and the majority sink into passivity. To an outside observer, the action may seem to be a grass-roots decision; but I for one have now become very suspicious when I hear that a certain group has spontaneously developed an anarchist-type organisation. If you scratch the surface, you may find a leading militant behind it all.

Utopias and realities

All this seems quite a dilemma to me. We tend to think of a self-managed society as the kind of place where cleaners can argue the toss about developments in the third world, where the milkman has a say in town planning, and people generally think for themselves and get involved.

But could it be that this would all become ridiculously pedantic and boring? Have we been developing our utopias while ignoring the realities of human psychology, such as the fact that people have a limited attention span, find it difficult to be open in large groups, don’t want to be making choices all day, and have better things to do than decide what the graphic on a leaflet is to look like?

If we try to promote a simplistic conception of the 'sovereign assembly', where, for example, all one hundred people try to write a leaflet, this will quickly be seen as impractical and rejected. So instead, we have to develop a more subtle approach which relates to what people are really like. Rather than just identifying a problem and leaving it at that (something I find a bit annoying when I read other people's articles), I'm going to try to suggest some ways this might be achieved.

Possible solutions

I think it basically comes down to looking at things differently. It's a well-known fact that we abstract the infinite variations in the world around us and filter them through a particular, limited interpretation. This is inevitable, but sometimes it leads us to set up unnecessary dilemmas. For example, there are three basic ways to write a leaflet. The worst is to leave it to the experts. The most impractical is for a whole group to try to do it at the same time. The most usual (in groups where anarchist forms of organisation have developed) is to mandate someone to draw up a draft, then submit it to the group for possible alterations. This last is not bad so far as it goes, but it's very susceptible to degeneration if, for example, the usual people always get asked to do the draft. Many people are not confident enough to voice their opinions in a large meeting - the draft is often just read out and people are expected to make comments upon it off the cuff.

A big step forward in terms of participation would be achieved if it were realised that the involvement of the group is vital in the initial creative stage of the process if everyone is to feel it is 'their leaflet'. This is much easier to achieve if we realise that projects get formulated through different levels of detail. Although one hundred people cannot write one leaflet, they can sketch out the basic concepts they want included, then give it to delegates to draw up. If this kind of outlook were accepted, we would not get the situation which often now occurs, where people try to get into the detail of a leaflet en masse, realise it's not on, and leave it to a few people to draft; by which stage much boring time has been wasted and people are starting to get pissed off with the idea of participation.

Obviously people should be expected to share their skills and positions rotated to help people build up their confidence. Various people, especially feminists, have done a lot of work on breaking down meetings into smaller groups, so we need to consider what aspects of this are worth taking on.

Finally, we should try to promote the idea that a large number of copies are made of any draft leaflets, etc., and distributed before the meeting, so that people have a chance to formulate clearly what they want changed. So that's a start, maybe. No very earth-shattering concepts there, I'll agree, but I don't think that's really what we're in need of. What is required is a practical reworking of the structures that exist inside and outside, so that they are as efficient as possible for the new purposes we want to put them to.
This concept of anarchism may seem pedantic, and I'd be only too pleased if someone could persuade me that such rigour is all unnecessary, but experience suggests that there is a real need to develop effective forms of organisation which counter all kinds of elitism. Otherwise, 'spontaneity' becomes the tyranny of structurelessness and participation is about the most boring thing you can imagine.