The WSM & fighting the last war-a reply to James O’Brien

The left is fond of military analogies so I want to open this piece with the observation that poor generals plan for the last war rather than the next one. Those militaries that planned for World War Two by perfecting the trench systems that dominated World War One had their powerful & expensive fortifications quickly overwhelmed in the opening weeks of the war through blitzkrieg. And in turn by 1943 Blizkrieg was defeated though defence in depth at Kursk.

The left is fond of military analogies so I want to open this piece with the observation that poor generals plan for the last war rather than the next one. Those militaries that planned for World War Two by perfecting the trench systems that dominated World War One had their powerful & expensive fortifications quickly overwhelmed in the opening weeks of the war through blitzkrieg. And in turn by 1943 Blizkrieg was defeated though defence in depth at Kursk.

Generals who stuck to a set of tactics that were the best at one moment in history are defeated by those using new tactics made possible through technological improvements and changed circumstances. There is no ‘right answer’ that remains fixed throughout time. There is no ‘right answer’ that allows for the specific circumstances in which you operate to be discounted.

For most of the left in Europe the 1917 Russian Revolutions and in particular the October revolution remains the winning tactic that must be studied to win future victories. That revolution, from the era when trench warfare ruled, sets a tactical guide that is every bit as outdated as the digging of complex trench systems to contain an invading army would be today. This is not simply an analogy, trench warfare was characterised by rigid top down discipline in the implementation of complex plans that remains broadly similar to the way Leninist & other organisations of the left organisations model themselves and see as the ideal.

For anarchists the situation is a little more complex. We are still prone to look back to the methods of the 1910’s but for us the Russian Revolution ended in a rapid defeat - one internal to the revolution as the Bolshevik party liquidated workers democracy completely by early 1921. We are far more prone to take our lessons from a later defeat, that of the Spanish revolution in the 1930’s, but actually although military and political / organisational tactics had advanced that revolution is also long past and really not much of a guide for the present.

The changed terrain

Capitalism has advanced massively in terms of how it imposes control and as significantly creating consensus since either of those revolutions. Mass economically based workers unions, even as in Spain with a revolutionary tinge, have been long contained by a range of weapons from social partnership to Human Resource manipulation. The space for radical newspapers has been swamped by mass media outlets using cynical but populist methods to limit the imaginations of the masses or as with the Sun, Daily Mail or Fox to channel their anger into entirely counter-productive terrain. For western workers Popular Education with its radical base has been largely swamped by state & private funded ‘education for life’ designed to only shoe horn us better into workplace needs.

These provided three of the key building methodologies for the left, including the anarchist movement, in the early 20th century. Union membership, the radical press and popular education were the entry point into the workers movement and into revolutionary organisations. All three are largely closed off yet far left organisations remain wedded to them, constantly trying to imagine a better horse drawn buggy as they are sprayed with mud by passing motor cars.

For revolutionaries in the current generation, sometimes as in Ireland facing the demoralisation of five years of crisis and the roll back of working class organisations, where are we to find the equivalents that will enable us to form a rearguard for this battle and win the next? On the European level we have no victories or even bitter defeats (where substantial resistance was overcome) in recent decades. The end of the military dictatorships of Spain, Portugal & Greece in the 70’s or the Italian ‘red years’ that closed same decade being the most useful. But these are over 30 years old and in any case contained by the neo-liberial direction that capitalism took at the end of the 70’s. Digging through the historical relics of Lenin’s State & Revolution or Trotsky’s ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ is as relevant (and as counter productive) as studying up on whatever Haig wrote about trench warfare tactics.

This means when it comes to the challenge of building revolutionary organisation that can win today most of our effort must be to examine in detail the small struggles of our time, the defeats that were easily contained, the movements that failed to develop, for whatever lessons can be gleaned. Well not quite all our efforts, I’ve been careful above to refer to the European left, while what I say would also be mostly true of the North American left this is not true elsewhere. There is much we can learn from the struggles of Southern America, including Mexico and those of north Africa, in particular Egypt. But that is not what this article is about, rather its a response to a partial history of a small organisation of which I happen to be a member.

James O’Brien’s history of internal debate within the Workers Solidarity Movement in the first decade of the millennium is a detailed example of a look at a movement that were easily contained. It’s a substantive piece of work that is largely free of the bitter snipping that similar pieces by ex-members of organisations they have left / been expelled from tend to be dominated by. But it is also just one person’s memories and interpretations of what were often complex and nuanced debates. Memory often plays tricks on people, in particular when it is memory of fragments of a larger whole and where the writer has a very strong point of view that inevitably effects what they most remember.

Although what is covered in his account of the WSM is so minor in the scheme of global revolution as to seem irrelevant there are perhaps still general lessons that can be understood from the interventions by one small anarchist organisation in the minor struggles on a small island off the west coast of Europe in the first decade of the 3rd millennium. In any case it’s a set of lessons I can talk about as ‘I was there too’ and as we shall see my perspective and the lessons I drew are often at odds with those James presents.

I’m not defending any sort of orthodoxy in this piece. James’s break with the anarchism as practised by the WSM led him to the heresy of electoralism, the ULA and most interestingly looking back to Kautsky and the mass party. My own journey is following a different path towards a different destination but also based around a sense of the left as we know it having run its course. He tried to bring WSM with him and failed, I’m still trying because that offers a collective process and core around which a new left, which we are only beginning to imagine, can be built. I say this here because as will probably become apparent my vision of that new left lies almost at polar opposites to his even if we both claim to base it in part on the same experiences in the same tiny organisation.

The limits of what follows

I joined the WSM in 1991 and remain a member today in 2013. I was absent for a year in 2007/8 as I was living in and touring North America but otherwise I went through the same debates and discussions that James did. He mentions me often in his text, most commonly as the loudest voice of what he perceived as the opposite pole (‘the majority’) of a series of disagreements. In this reply I want to do two things.
A) Correct factual errors in some of the key interventions & debates that James details or in other cases provide more balanced examples than the extremes James has presented as typical.
B) Offer a very different interpretation of how this decade of experience should be interpreted and what lessons are to be drawn from it.

In terms of building revolutionary organisation in the modern age it is the second section that is key. But it is hard to ignore what I consider errors of fact & interpretation in the text and it would be next to impossible to build an alternative analysis leaving such errors unchallenged. Therefore the first section of this piece will be a somewhat tedious but I hope useful counter-narrative to James versions of WSM activity & debates. In many cases I will build around not just my memory but a re-examination of internal documents, in particular minutes and debate pieces from the period in question. In other cases I’ve simply linked to material published at the time and in a couple of cases, as part of the process of preparing this piece, I have sought out my abandoned drafts of particular histories and finished them off in order to allow considerably more detail that what would be suitable in this article to be more generally available.

But from the start lets be clear this is not written as a history of the WSM and not even a history of the WSM in the period James covers. For better or worse this text arose as a reply to his piece and so for the most part covers the areas of activity he choose to cover and even within those areas concentrates on the aspects he considers most relevant. Substantial areas of activity are missing from his account (e.g. our pro-choice work) and haven’t been added here, you will find some material on the WSM web site covering this and other areas. If I was to start from scratch I’d probably write something quite different to what is here, this piece is really more about polemic than history even if I hope the combination of both pieces offers something of a step towards a history where none other exists.

This version of the piece has taken a considerable time to prepare but should be viewed as a first draft. I point to factual errors in James piece, it is entirely possible there are some in mine, despite my best efforts to check against what documentation exists. It’s also very possible that in sections of what follows I assume far too much from the reader and thus fail to explain aspects that are obvious to me because of decades of immersion. So I’m going to publish this version of the reply in sections over a week or two on Anarchist Writers - my archive & blogging site - and use your feedback in the comments section to prepare an improved version for the WSM site. This version and comments made will be left up as a record of that process.

At this point you might want to bookmark this article and make a mental note to check back from time to time for my additions. I will announce new sections as they are added on the Anarchist Writers Facebook page and through my own @Andrew Flood Twitter account.

II - Before 2000
My involvement in the WSM started in 1991 although the group of us who effectively refounded the organisation that year had contact with the two remaining members (Alan & Kevin) for a couple of years previously. We had formed a small but hyper active student group on discovering each other in the student struggles of the late 1980s, struggles which were characterised by their relatively extreme militancy. The Anarchist-Communist Group as we called ourself drew its experiences from student occupations, pro-choice activism, anti-fascism and, from the summer we worked and lived together in London, anti-imperialism, squatting and anti-Poll tax organising.

We published one issue of a magazine, Anarcho-Communism in Dublin, and a ‘Troops Out’ leaflet while we were working in London. As we were young students we were targetted for recruitment by a number of the existing left organisations and so had debates with the Socialist Workers Movement and the Irish Workers Group in Ireland and (more informally) the Spartacist League in London. Also while in London we attended 3 or 4 internal meetings of the then Anarchist Communist Federation (now the Anarchist Federation).

It’s useful to understand these origins in understanding our first decade of involvement in the WSM as these experiences were quite intense both physically and intellectually and therefore created a strong bond of solidarity and a high expectation of what an anarchist militant should be. Our activity started in the closing years of the republican military struggle in Ireland which meant regular contact with people who had served significant prison sentences for their political activity and almost immediate contact with the Irish secret police (Special Branch) who were quick to question anyone new on the scene. All of this tended towards taking ourselves very seriously despite a reality of being a handful of people barely out of their teens with hopelessly marginal ideas.

We were delighted to discover the WSM and after a couple of formal meetings decided to short cut the ongoing discussions by offering to dissolve the ACG and join the WSM. In refounding WSM (although this was not the term used at the time) a document drawn up summarising the first three years of the WSM was extremely influential.

There is perhaps a minor inaccuracy in James text at this point at he claims the first wave (pre 1990) of WSM grew to a “few dozen” whereas I understand it peaked at around 15. This is of some small importance as my understanding of subsequent internal organisational history is based on the struggle we had to break beyond 15 to reach “a few dozen” a number only achieved in the early 2000’s. Much of the discussion about the role of Delegate Council is relevant to that specific problem.

The early 1990’s of the WSM were characterised by the de facto formation of a cadre organisation although formally we rejected that particular term. Cadre is another military term the left is fond of borrowing and basically refers to the disciplined core around which a mass army is built. In our context cadre formation meant that a huge part of our effort went on internal education & debate. Despite, for a good part of that period, there only being 5 of us in Dublin we managed to prepare an educational almost every week without fail, something the organisation proved incapable of doing with 6 times that number a decade later. We more or less expected members to put the organisation first in their lives - although we would have denied doing so - and we placed almost no priority on recruitment. In fact the few people who did join in that period pretty much had to stalk us to do so and were all recruited in the basis of 100’s of hours of contact with WSM members.

This attitude along with our exemplary involvement in key struggles like the X-case demonstrations and the Water Tax campaign gave us an impact and visibility way beyond our tiny numbers. The effort we put into publication added to this and in particular with our very early use of the internet quickly gave us an international reach and reputation that was completely out of scale with what was our reality. While all this can be seen positively it is also true that this is frequently the receipe for the foundation of small, rigid and sectarian sects that are so impressed by their own wisdom they fail to notice that no one outside the tiny circles of the radical left even notices them. This at least partially applies here so nostalgia for those days of coherency need to be balanced against the reality of having no influence outside the tiny circle of left activists paying close attention to us.

A further note is needed here on the cadre organisation concept. At this point in time much of our international contact was with the Anarchist Workers Group in Britain - we attended their conferences and they attended ours as well as exchanging internal bulletins. They openly proclaimed they sought to build a cadre organisation and after their disintegration Kevin Doyle published an analysis arguing that their Cadre Organisation policy document lead “to the demise of the AWG as an anarchist organisation.”

You can read this, my analysis of their collapse and several of the AWG articles but what is of interest here is that in accepting Kevin’s analysis (which is accurate enough in terms of an analysis of the AWG version of a cadre organisation) we made the mistake of making it harder to understand the aspects of cadre organising we also had in reality adopted. Unlike the AWG we saw mass struggle and addressing arguments outside of the existing left as important. But a huge amount of the time we spent on self eduction was on the minute detail of anarchist and left history and only makes sense in the context of an organisation very much directed at arguments within the existing left. It’s also relevant because I think James concluding arguments are very much for a cadre organisation.

In his account James sees a quite sudden departure from WSM’s early 1990’s direction around the year 2000 but as I recall it the shift was in fact gradual and ran over five years from 1994 to 2000. 2000 was when the key decision to turn Workers Solidarity into a free newspaper was made.

There were three key elements to this shift
A. Zapatista solidarity work - we had started covering the Zapatista rising shortly after its outbreak in 1994 and I had significant involvement with the Irish Mexico Group including visiting Chiapas in 1996 & 1997. This exposed us to a wide range of revolutionary ideas that were either libertarian or representing libertarian shifts within previously authoritarian organisations. The methodology of the Zapatista’s also proved to be an entry point to considering anarchism for a very large number of solidarity activists and very much laid the basis for the radical end of the alternative globalisation movement.

B. A study of modern revolutions that was the basis for talks and a dayschool in 1996 - see for instance my talk Modern Revolutions Or Is Revolution Still Possible? for an early version of the debate James presents as starting 6 years later in 2002. This section towards the end of my talk captures this in “The speed at which ideas now flow, exemplified perhaps by the speed of the reaction to the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico make change very likely to be quick…. A couple of truly significant victories internationally could change the mood here almost overnight. In this sense there is enormous opportunity ahead.
Having said this we are in a weak position to take advantage of it. Unless anarchist ideas are dominant it is likely a revolution will be turned down the dead ends of reformism or re-vamped Leninism… But we do not have the numbers to assert that dominance. That is why we need to take growth very seriously anarchists cannot afford to remain as tiny propaganda groups we must grow to organisations of thousands and tens of thousands.”

Some of the core ideas were in fact first publically argued in the first edition of Red & Black Revolution published 1994 in the articles on “Has Socialism A Future? The Left - Ashes To Phoenix Part 1” . And the creation of Red & Black Revolution in general involved collectively identifying an audience that went beyond the traditional left.

C. A break from traditional revolutionary organisational methods in recognition of the huge impact technology was having on the way ideas were being spread. This was a drawn out and often informal process but had two key components, our increasing use of the Internet for the publication of our ideas and then at the dawn of the milennium our abandonment of the standard model of ‘selling the revolutionary paper’ as an organising tool for the free and large scale distribution. Given the way ‘The Paper’ is put at the centre of most projects of revolutionary organisation, including the formative years of the WSM, this is much more significant that may be immediately obvious to some readers.

There is a significant difference with the narrative James presents which is one of a return to Platformist orthodoxy with the refoundation in 1991 for almost a full decade before some sort of break towards ‘activism’ took place under the pressure of disappointing results. My version doesn’t quite fit into the story James needs to tell to reach his conclusion but as shown above it does appear to better fit what we were saying in public in those years. Importantly we didn’t so much react to the alternative globalisation movement - rather we were a part in the story of its formation through the Zapatista encuentro’s. (see Where did the Anti Capitalist Movement come from) And the turn to ‘activism’ had existed from the start, in particular around our involvement around Dublin Abortion Information Campaign which is where the bulk of our recruits in the 1990’s actually came from.

III False divisions - Summit protests or unions?
In James account the collectively driven shift over time in outreach & recruitment of the 1990’s becomes instead an internal debate in 2000. He presents this shift as “Andrew was the leading supporter of increased co-operation with non-WSM libertarians who were emerging thanks to the influence of the Zapatistas, disillusionment with the Green Party, anti-globalisation and so forth, while Alan remained an advocate of the classic union-oriented Platformist strategy that had guided the organisation for two decades. Alan tied the fortunes of the WSM to the wider fortunes of the working class: in the absence of the radicalisation of of the class there was no prospect of the WSM of growing significantly. Nor could a tiny organisation like the WSM radicalise the class. If anything, Alan thought the idea absurd. Andrew viewed this as an anarchist version of Kautsky’s so-called “actionless waiting” and advocated increased attempts to engage with other non-Leninist anti-capitalists with the hope of developing a radical alternative”

Now all this is semi qualified with “reality is always messier than this neat little division. The tendency that considered an orientation towards unions as overwhelmingly important did not suggest non-co-operation with other Anarchists; the pro-anti-globalisation tendency didn’t advocate ignoring union activity.” I’d suggest however that the polarised debated presented by James above didn’t actually exist when he suggests it did. Rather his account is reading history backwards by imposing the divisions & debates of 2008-10 onto what was in reality a policy reached mostly through consensus in the period before 2000.

I would present our policy in that period in terms of a collective understanding being reached that at a time of massive economic expansion and social partnership the scope for activity in the unions for almost all of our members was very limited. This is because with everything but individual cases being dealt with through national negotiations there was very little reason for any local union activity in this period. My section which has around 700 members on paper met once a year at lunch time for an AGM throughout this period. Only 50 or so members attended and the AGM’s main business was making sure there would be a committee for monthly meeting with management the following year.

This wasn’t that new a development, it was more or less the situation that had existed from the first round of social partnership, which was why even in the early 1990’s with the exception of the water tax campaign the bulk of our activity had involved ‘activism’ around pro-choice struggles. A serious effort had been put into trying to build a network in SIPTU in the years 1997-2000 through our involvement in the SIPTU Fightback publication but by 2000 it had become clear that while up to a couple of hundred union reps were interested in consuming the publication there was little possibility of getting more active involvement.

Our collective understanding was that social partnership & the boom would end at some point end but that before that point we needed to find ways to build up a layer of militants who would be ready to take advantage of the crisis that would arise. The attempt to do this through the unions via SIPTU Fightback hadn’t born results, despite a very serious effort, and the complete lack of activity at the base of most unions meant that the opportunities to reach potential militants simply were not there.

We agreed a collective analysis of this in our position paper on the unions in the following section which was added as early as May 2006 (the exact date is unclear, that date is the earliest version of that position paper I found which includes the text).

“12.3.1 The long years of social partnership and the low level of struggle have devastated rank and file organisation in most unions. Branch meetings and AGM's are badly attended and rank and file positions from unions reps to branch committee are often given to whoever is willing to do the work rather than contested. In the private sector union membership has drastically declined with many new companies being effectively non-union. .. This means that very few of the new generation of political activists have any experience of union activity. Encouraging involvement in unions is no longer a simple question of encouraging people to attend meetings or stand for union rep. Done in isolation both of these experiences can be demoralising. And most young workers now find themselves in non-unionised workplaces. Advocating joining a union to this layer can seem like a pointless strategy when all they hear of is unions that are toothless and long drawn out recognition disputes that are seldom seriously fought by the union side and which end in defeat or Pyrrhic victories.”

To add a section to our existing papers it has be circulated to all members in a written form at least 4 weeks before conference giving them a chance to read it and suggest ammendments. There is then a debate slot at conference at which any member can speak and the proposal then only passes if 50%+1 of those present vote for it. I don’t remember any controversy about that section at all. There would have been differences in nuance between myself and Alan on the union questions but not really the sort of significant disagreement and debate suggested by James’s account.

Here I think James is also ‘preparing for the last war’ in a way that would have delivered less that the actual strategy we followed. Our understanding of the limitations the the new methodologies of Social Partnership imposed on opportunities for radical workplace organisation were with hindsight under rather than overstated. And while we were right to imagine Social Partnership would ‘end’ when a crisis hit, we were wrong to imagine that this would see the unions leaders forced to accept a return to struggle in which radical ideas would inevitably unfold at the base.

The second point here is that for revolutionary organisations to survive - never mind expand - they need to adapt to the actual situation they find themselves in rather than acting as if there were somewhere else. The 1999-2004 period in Ireland was one where there was little or no significant workplace struggle and little or no activity at the base of the unions. But it was one where thousands of mostly young people where being drawn to a broad anti-capitalist politics by international events, in particular the summit protests. Many of these people were either already self defining as anarchists or adopting broadly anarchist organisational methods - in short they were a willing audience for our ideas.

One measure of this being that increasingly we would describe ourselves as ‘anarchists’ on first contact with people rather than ‘libertarian socialists’ - previously it was the case that anarchist was either a meaningless term to people or one they associated with punk music rather than politics. So rather than chase a disinterested audience we had few mechanisms for reaching it made sense to engage those who were interested and self-identifying as being close to us and try and convince them of our politics and organisational methods.

Again in hindsight the under theorised and limited work done in this sphere was much better preparation for the reality of 2008-11 where the high points of radicalisation would not be old style mass strikes but rather the radical street movements of the ‘Arab Spring’ & Occupy. Only in the first case did mass strikes play any part in the emergence of the movement (although union support was important for Occupy). Sadly although our work in this period was interesting we failed to either develop the theoretical or tactical tools required to take full advantage of the Occupy moment, even if perhaps we were the most successful of those who tried on the Irish left.

At the same time we massively stepped up efforts to speak to the working class in general though shifting our newspaper from a 3-4 times a year sold format with a limited circulation that seldom reached past the left to a 6 times a year free format that was mostly delivered door to door where our members lived. In terms of time spent writing and distributing and in terms of financial resources our paper Workers Solidarity used by far the lines share of resources from 2000-2010. It’s hardly mentioned in James account at all, presumably because it really doesn’t tie into a narrative of an organisation that supposedly shifted focus away from trying to reach the mass of the population.

So the major problem with James’s account of this period is that the areas he selects to talk about doesn’t reflect the sum of what we were actually doing and trying to do. As another example the annual Dublin Anarchist Bookfair is also unmentioned but would be our second biggest expenditure per year after the newspaper. The bookfair is explicitly run to provide a easy entry point for finding out about anarchism to the general population and attracts up to 800 people.

Failure to at least examine a representative cross section of WSM activity in the period means his account if taken as representative can be quite misleading and so lead to a seriously skewed analysis. Not least because while organisationally we strived to maintain a careful balance between ‘activist’ orientated and ‘popular’ engagement that balance has entirely vanished in his account.

Ideas or terminology

Sections of his account suggest that James sometimes didn’t really fully grasp the nature of the work we were doing. In relation to the discussion on ‘activism’ central to his misunderstanding is the sentence reading “One of the arguments against old fashioned class struggle Anarchism was that it carries the alienating baggage of a century of socialism with it and the advantage of chucking that baggage overboard was a recurring theme over the next decade. ”

In 2000 it was not the actual ideas of socialism / communism that many activists found alienating, it was the rather stale traditional language and imagery that much of the left used to express them. The language was in fact such a barrier that people simply turned off and didn’t listen to the explanations of what we really meant by such terms and how it was different to what the Communist or Labour Party meant when they used similar language.

We recognised this when we began the process of forming the Grassroots Gathering and simply reformulated the traditional concepts of the libertarian left in language that did not immediately produce such a negative effect. In 2011 the emergence of Occupy saw a similar creation of a new terminology in order to describe class divisions & power because the old terminology was felt to be more ideological than explanatory. Very much earlier the dozen Grassroots Gatherings that were held over the first decade, and which probably over 1,000 people attended, were all based on agreement on the principles below.

“The Grassroots Gathering aims towards a network which would:
1. Be based on the principle that people should control their own lives and work together as equals, as part of how we work as well as what we are working towards.

2. Within the network this means rejecting top-down and state-centred forms of organisation (hierarchical, authoritarian, expert-based, Leninist etc.) We need a network that’s open, decentralised, and really democratic.

3. Call for solutions that involve ordinary people controlling their own lives and having the resources to do so: the abolition, not reform, of global bodies like the World Bank and WTO, and a challenge to underlying structures of power and inequality.

4. Organise for the control of the workplace by those who work there.

5. Call for the control of communities by the people who live there.

6. Argue for a sustainable environmental, economic and social system, agreed by the people of the planet.

7. Working together in ways which are accessible to ordinary people, particularly women and working-class people, rather than reproducing feelings of disempowerment and alienation within our own network.”

These (in particular 4 & 5) are not a rejection of the concepts of the libertarian left but a restatement of them. They also represent a revolutionary break with the reformism of the mainstream of the alternative globalisation movement on the one hand and a libertarian break with the top down methods of the trotskyists on the other. That second point is important because the Gatherings represented for the first time in Ireland an ongoing libertarian structure that was capable of reaching beyond the tiny handful of committed ideological anarchists and thus organising events that carried discussion of anarchism into the mainstream media.

The second issue with James’s presentation of this period is that in describing what were some problems with the Grassroots milieu he refuses to recognise that it is the role of a revolutionary organisation to address such problems. We are not going to magically find some section of the population comprised of close to perfect revolutionaries waiting to have anarchist ideas dropped into their heads. Different oppositional movements will have different problems but the point in particular here is that for much of the 2000’s there were no mass economic based opposition movements in which we might have hoped to find developed class politics. The one example of where there was (the anti-bin tax campaign of 2002/3) was one where at its peak we dropped almost all other activity to concentrate on just as today the campaign agains the household tax takes up the bulk of our organiser time.

There may have been a limited truth in the idea that many involved around the Gatherings were “fundamentally uninterested in winning over the population to radical left-wing ideas” but this can be said of any oppositional youth movement in conditions similar to the Celtic Tiger years. James skips over our success at countering that tendency and at winning the arguments to structure activities in ways that reached out to the general population. There are many examples that can be given but perhaps the single most demonstrative is convincing the Gathering in the build up to the Mayday 2004 summit protest that rather than put energy into attracting and providing accommodation for ‘international activists’ we should instead put the resources into trying to explain the issues to and mobilise the population of Dublin.

This was quite unusual (perhaps unique?) in the summit protest period globally and meant that a lot of effort was put into media work and more importantly the production and distribution of 50,000 leaflets door to door mostly in the areas of Dublin where our protests would take place. It’s worth quoting the conclusion of this leaflet as this makes clear it was very much about “winning over the population to radical left-wing ideas”

“What Sort of Europe do we want?
The groups and individuals involved in this Grassroots Network are united by a vision of a better future, one without bosses or governments, be they in Dublin or Brussels; one in which all local communities are directly run by the people living in them and all workplaces by the people working in them; a future in which everyone has control over their own lives and an equal say in the decisions that affect them.

We are talking not just about receiving an equal share of what is produced, but also transforming the quality of life, doing away with long working hours and increasing free time. We struggle for a genuinely sustainable economy and an end to environmental policies in which every 'solution' must be corporate-led and profit-driven.

People like you all over Europe are fighting for the same things. We are taking to the streets not only to build our resistance in Ireland but to forge links throughout Europe. Tens of thousands of people in Ireland have already been involved in resisting the race for wealth that is capitalism, which robs so many of us of our voice, our dreams and our aspirations.” Full text

Agreeing the text did involve convincing some grassroots activists that this was the right approach but the mass distribution despite state intimidation shows that this argument was won. It is also the case that at a time when similar movements elsewhere were refusing to talk to the mainstream media the Dublin Grassroots Network (formed out of the Gathering to work on the EU summit) did this so well that we got our spokesperson on the Late Late Show. All this considerable and effective work carried out by the DGN with the express purpose of communicating with the population are simply invisible in James account but in reality consumed the bulk of DGN’s collective time & funding.

In James account convincing Grassroots activists to carry out activity aimed at addressing the general population is assumed to be either impossible or perhaps not worth the effort. Our actual experience was that yes while we needed to make the argument it was not hard to convince the majority that this was the best way to proceed. And that in doing so we greatly expanded the reach for the arguments that were being made, the WSM at the time could neither have distributed 50,000 leaflets nor got onto the Late Late. After the Mayday 2004 protests we even recruited a some of those who had favoured the more traditional ‘international riot bloc’ approach but who were convinced by the success of the popular approach in bringing out 1000’s of people after the cops had announced a de facto ban on the march.

It was our very success at making these arguments and leading on their implementation in the 1999-2004 period that was responsible for the large and sudden growth in numbers that took place at the end of this period. With person after person who joined the reason given for doing so was because they had been working alongside us and observed how we were able to collectively pull together to make sure that what needed to be argued and done to build the movement was carried through.

The real challenge - which is only clear in hindsight - is that the 1999-2003 period was a new situation were quite large numbers were radicalised by very radical politics in a time of prosperity and social partnership by international events. In most places this period ended in 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq - the very success at mobilising millions to march against the war just before it broke out served to demoralise the same millions when it turned out marching was ineffective at preventing war and that the leadership of the anti-war movements had no implementable alternative. The wave lasted another 14 or so months in Ireland because we were able to bring together a significant enough group of people to briefly provide a counter strategy for the anti-war movement around direct action at Shannon and then as that became marginalised to carry those people into one last effort around Mayday 2004. But the tide had retreated and it was only a question of time before we would be stranded, our real failure, and perhaps in the circumstances it was inevitable, was to prepare those new members for the low period of routine activity that was to come.

One, two many networks?

There is a second serious inaccuracy that needs to be challenged in James account at this point and this is that there were a sequence of projects that “flared up and faded away only to be resurrected under a different name.” This simply isn’t a correct understanding of what the projects were that James names and how they related to each other. Rather the Grassroots Gathering remained the main network from 2000 to 2006 (and still has an existence today - one was held in Galway in October 2012). The Gathering spun off different projects to deal with specific issues and events, this was the reality of what the Grassroots Network Against War (GNAW) was and the Dublin Grassroots Network (DGN).

GNAW was the national network which existed to organise action against the US military use of Shannon airport. DGN was limited to Dublin and existed to organise the 2004 Dublin Mayday protest and very briefly afterwards. Neither was a reincarantion of the other (indeed they actually over lapped in 2004) nor were either a reincarnation of the Grassroots Gathering itself which after all continued to meet and was the ‘parent’ network for both.

All these organisations were in fact a long running and somewhat successful experiment in the new form of organisation that more clearly emerged in the revolts of 2011, loose but broad networks. In terms of ‘preparing for the next war’ it was precisely that sort of organisational methodology that revolutionaries needed to be seeking to understand rather than the older more centralised forms that did exist in previous class wars but which had little influence in the 2011 revolts.

The argument can weakly be made that some four years later the Social Solidarity Network had some aspects of DGN but only if you ignore the time limited basis of what DGN was set up to achieve and the fact that the DGN was very successful in that limited goal. James also suggest the 1% Network belongs in that category but the 1% Network wasn’t set up to be libertarian at all but rather as a project between WSM and the left republican group eirigi. The only aspect of resurrection being perhaps that both the SSN and 1% Network also aimed at involving RAG & Seomra initially but they were such a minor component of the 1% Network that really its not a claim that holds. The idea that the 1% Network, the fourth organisations James named in this section can be described as the “the fourth or fifth iteration” of the same thing thus makes little sense when you pay any attention to the detail of the very different goals each had and the significant structural difference between the 1% Network and the rest.

Perhaps from the point of view of a less then interested outsider all these things looked similar enough to each other but that is to not understand what forces they involved and what purpose they had. When it comes to his failure to distinguish between the 1% Network, the SSN and DGN I think James is showing one of the major problems both of the text and his internal contributions at the time. The tendency to assume that he already understood what was being argued and to jump straight to offering a cogent but pretty irrelevant counter argument to his own misunderstanding. This becomes particularly visible when we examine the discussion of the 1% Network.

To be continued..

At this point you might want to bookmark this article and make a mental note to check back from time to time for my additions. I will announce new sections as they are added on the Anarchist Writers Facebook page and through my own@Andrew Flood Twitter account.

Posted By

Feb 1 2013 16:44


Attached files


Feb 4 2013 12:12

Your might want to replace this test copy & paste from Anarchist Writers with the source code as there are a good number of links to documents etc in the text that are missing here. Probably easiest to wait until its all published though or better still to wait for the final version on the WSM site.

Current working version is up at

Jun 5 2013 13:19

Here's a reply to both authors by a long time Cork WSM member, Kevin: