Community and Industrial Unity for One Big Union of the working class

First, I would like to commend FW Martinez on their reply to FW Nappalos’ Locality and Shop Inside Revolutionary Unions, it is a great example of the type of positions FWs should be putting forward to each other so as to collectively debate important issues of the day between revolutionary unionists. I find myself split about 50-50 between agreeing with both FWs, but since this is intended as a reply to FW Martinez I will mostly focus on my agreement and disagreements with their piece and my own perspectives.

Refusing to wait

“We cannot wait to act until popular political viewpoints recognize revolutionary anti-capitalism as a valid and legitimate political position. If the political landscape is going to be altered radically, it is going to be altered by the self-directed activity of the working class. As militants, our role is to actively build an organization, a movement, a concept, that encourages and allows this class activity to flourish.”

The historical strength of anarcho-syndicalism, and in recent history of the IWW, has been recognizing that as a working class movement we can struggle for immediate gains now, in a revolutionary way (via direct action and control of such struggles by those directly affected from below), while still maintaining our maximum program, abolition of the wage system, the state and capital. Unlike many left communists, autonomist Marxists, and even some class struggle anarchists (platformists come to mind), revolutionary unionists and anarcho-syndicalists have always asserted that mass workers’ associations can organize in a revolutionary way outside of revolutionary periods, in fact we must take up this task now more than ever, as FW Martinez points out:

“…the class-collaborationist unions – are falling increasingly out of favor. Working people are searching for alternatives now seemingly more than ever.”

From union initiatives to unions in practice

“If there are fifteen IWW members in a city, it simply makes no sense to divide them up into three groups of 5 people based on the industry in which they work. We can maximize the capabilities of this small group if we put them all together and enable them to work on the same campaign.”

This quote illustrates how FW Martinez agrees with FW Nappalos on this point, but I believe overlooks the qualitative leap in local organization that the latter is seeking to make. No serious organizer in the IWW wants GMBs to be leftist political organizations or Joe Hill Clubs. By introducing the concepts of locality and shop organization, FW Nappalos highlighted the historical functions most revolutionary unionist and anarcho-syndicalist union movements have taken on. Furthermore they argue that the campaign of such a local based organizing initiative should be to organize in a syndicalist way around working class life under capitalism.

The FAUD in Germany was organized around Industrial Federations and local Workers’ Communities, similarly the CGT around Bourse du Travail (local labor councils) and industrial syndicates, the CNT have had Sindicatos de Officios Varios as well as setting up local ateneos or social centers and tenant unions, the FORA with local resistance societies as well as workers associations organized by shop/trade. Today groups like Solidarity Federation in their book Fighting for Ourselves, describe how they organize a revolutionary union initiative by local groups and industrial as well as community networks (like efforts around student organizing with their student network).

As FW Martinez says “gathering militants is a means to building the union.” This is the real role that GMBs as locality based groups should take on. I feel this is what FW Nappalos means when they conclude that:

“Maybe we can make better use of what we have by recognizing the function of a locality based organization to address the totality of life under capitalism alongside committees and structures of workplace networks of militants like shop committees, industrial organizing committees, and eventually workplace branches.”

Community and industrial unity

Finally I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my criticisms with FW Martinez and others. I think unfortunately and unintentionally their reply has a straw man like logic to its’ argument, that what FW Nappalos is calling for is for GMBs to take on the character of a political organization.

“I feel the discrepancy here is that unions are not merely associations of working people, but associations of working people organized by workplace and industry, dedicated to building power for workers in those workplaces and industries. Unions are not political organizations that arbitrarily restrict their membership to workers.”

As I hinted at in the previous passage I agree with FW Nappalos that a local based group should not be a political organization, but an organizing initiative for starting small fights within our capacity around life under capitalism in order to build to the point that justifies a division of labor into more community or industrial forms of organization whether they be separate organizing committees, branches, networks, or eventually unions, and so on.

Perhaps an example from a sister class struggle and anarcho-syndicalist inspired organization would better highlight this dilemma we often face as revolutionary unionists. The Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol for short) started as an organizing initiative of about 5 wobblies who a bunch of organizing experience but little luck sustaining longer term collective campaigns in workplaces. From the get go they decided to focus on fighting struggles around life under capitalism, such as against wage theft from bosses, deposit theft from landlords, horrendous banking practices, and in some cases sexism and racism. The goal has been as working class people come to SeaSol, win, and hopefully stay committed members of the organizations’ main organizing committee SeaSol would eventually be able to take on bigger and bigger fights, including collective fights like organizing inside shops and tenant unionization in apartment complexes, etc. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the founders of SeaSol when they presented to IWWs and members of the Boston Solidarity Network, and learned that they have now split off some of their work into a new second committee (C2 short for committee 2) for investigating, mapping and charting and planning for such new more collective fights.

As FW Martinez puts forward eventually such a committee of workers or tenants according to the federalist principle should probably “break off” and form its own organization, but in my honest opinion this should only be done when it becomes a practical necessity to do so.

When FW Martinez insists that because we are an industrial union, aspiring organizers should just be assisted by the appropriate industrial body, I feel they also under estimate the need for local community support for workplace organizing. Many IWWs are self-starters like the FW correctly points out and I see this often lead to thinking that we can just build in our workplaces while being in touch with the rest of the union, but in my experience it is useful to have an organizing committee of committed Wobblies on the outside helping you. Not only can your FWs hold you to task, but their real networks of friends, relatives, and coworkers are a vital resource to rely upon in case of the need of solidarity in workplace campaigns.

Finally I take issue with FW Martinez’s insistence that we are necessarily “an industrial union, not a neighborhood- or city-based group of workers.” To me there is no denying the fact that for the time being most wobblies will be organized into GMBs which are essentially networks of militants across industries and communities, geographically organized. The role of these groups like the FW says should be to facilitate new unionist organizing. However to demarcate that the IWW should only concern itself with workplace organizing to me is vulgar workerism. I feel like the history of the revolutionary unionist and anarcho-syndicalist movements shows not only has there been attempts at community unionism, but that it is a vital necessity to engage in such organizing as part of the long term objectives of the class struggle.

FW Martinez is right we should strive not to have people ask us “How can I get involved with the IWW in my city?” but put ourselves into a position where people ask us “How can I organize a union in my community, school or workplace,” and have a plan and vision to guide them there, and hopefully become lifelong revolutionary union organizers.

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Nestor Makhno: A Theoretician of Anarcho-Syndicalism?

To this day many class struggle anarchists, syndicalists, and leftists of varying traditions gloss over, purposefully or naively Nestor Makhno’s and the historical platformists’ affinity for anarchist unionism or anarcho-syndicalism. Spurred on by recent news that comrades in the Chicago local of Black Rose Anarchist Federation are doing a study group on the Platform, my own recent studies of early 20th century Russian anarcho-syndicalism (the section entitled The Syndicalists in Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists is a must read), and recent interest in a practice of unitary political economic community-workers unionism, I thought it maybe opportune to reflect on the Platform’s section entitled Anarchism and Syndicalism. Below you will find my notes on these matters.

“We consider the tendency to oppose libertarian communism to syndicalism and vice versa to be artificial, and devoid of all foundation and meaning.

The ideas of anarchism and syndicalism belong on two different planes. Whereas communism, that is to say a society of free workers, is the goal of the anarchist struggle – syndicalism, that is the movement of revolutionary workers in their occupations, is only one of the forms of revolutionary class struggle. In uniting workers on a basis of production, revolutionary syndicalism, like all groups based on professions, has no determining theory, it does not have a conception of the world which answers all the complicated social and political questions of contemporary reality. It always reflects the ideologies of diverse political groupings notably of those who work most intensely in its ranks.”

From the very birth of the mass anarchist workers’ movements in the late 19th century this has been a schism with false foundations. Many of the first anarchist inspired workers’ organizations in Spain that eventually inspired organizations like the FORA in Argentina adopted an anarchist communist program, but saw the need to agitate in general throughout the workers’ movement and win over workers’ early resistance societies to free communism.

The early Russian revolutionary anarchists in groups such as the anarchist communist Bread and Freedom close to Kropotkin and Novimirsky’s South Russian Group of Anarcho-syndicalists and later the Russian anarchist diaspora in the USA such as the Union of Russian Workers used the terms interchangeably. Bread and Freedom adopted and promoted social insertion within the trade union movement to create new revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist unions. Novimirsky who had written an early Anarchist Communist Manifesto was the main ideological force behind a similar orientation of working within the non-party dominated trade unions to create a revolutionary syndicalist current and winning them over to anarchist communism, or the creation outright of new anarchist unions. This historical movement later on kept the movement alive after the failed revolution of 1905 when the Russian immigrants of the Union of Russian Workers incubated such ideas and methods of struggle around syndicalist and anarchist communist lines until Voline and Maximoff returned to Russia in 1917 and formed the Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda.

Before the writing of the Platform the International Workers’ Association formed on the basis of a revolutionary syndicalist and free communist program. Later on the CNT famously adopted libertarian communism as the historical mission of their revolutionary syndicalist union movement. Despite minor semantic quibbles it is clear that the revolutionary syndicalist movement and free socialist aims of what has been interchangeably labeled anarchist communism to libertarian socialism is not in contradiction. Through struggle the aims and methods of anarchism and syndicalism as a mass movement became complementary to one another, two sides of the same coin.

For mass anarchists today the argument that syndicalism only represents one of the methods of the class struggle to be used is laughable. Which revolutionary class struggle anarchist pro-organizational currents today uphold insurrectionist voluntarist putschism or alternativist communalism? None, individuals maybe, but such strains have long been superseded as credible alternatives by serious mass anarchists. As a contending force there are no Galleanists or Proudhonists in the ranks of such organizations. At least I do not see any from my vantage point. This leaves the mass self-organization and management of struggle, syndicalist methods, as the strategy of most serious anarchists seeking a revolutionary transformation to libertarian communism.

“Our attitude to revolutionary syndicalism derives from what is about to be said. Without trying here to resolve in advance the question of the role of the revolutionary syndicates after the revolution, whether they will be the organisers of all new production, or whether they will leave this role to workers’ soviets or factory committees – we judge that anarchists must take part in revolutionary syndicalism as one of the forms of the revolutionary workers’ movement.

However, the question which is posed today is not whether anarchists should or should not participate in revolutionary syndicalism, but rather how and to what end they must take part.

We consider the period up to the present day, when anarchists entered the syndicalist movement as individuals and propagandists, as a period of artisan relationships towards the professional workers movement.”

Contrary to what many might say the Platformists clearly called for anarchists to partake in the revolutionary syndicalist movement. They stay away from debates like “building the new world in the shell of the old” or if society should be organized via workers’ councils and committees, but they make perfectly clear their position that anarchists should not just relate like Monattists, as if being individuals and propagandists within the syndicalist movement was enough, but that anarchists should be an actual anarchizing force within the workers’ movement. Not if participation is needed, but how and towards what ends. The platform does not merely call to build the syndicalist and workers’ movement with apolitical aims but to win it over to anarchism. In fact the Nestor Makhno and the authors of the Platform praise anarcho-syndicalism for attempting to anarchize the workers’ movement, and criticize it for not trying to go far enough by uniting the worker’s unionism with the efforts of anarchists in community struggles around similar lines.

“Anarcho-syndicalism, trying to forcefully introduce libertarian ideas into the left wing of revolutionary syndicalism as a means of creating anarchist-type unions, represents a step forward, but it does not, as yet, go beyond the empirical method, for anarcho-syndicalism does not necessarily interweave the ‘anarchisation’ of the trade union movement with that of the anarchists organised outside the movement. For it is only on this basis, of such a liaison, that revolutionary trade unionism could be ‘anarchised’ and prevented from moving towards opportunism and reformism.”

As we see here the Platformists actually praise the anarcho-syndicalist movement as a significant step forward, in introducing libertarian ideas into the syndicalist movement by creating anarchist unions. As mentioned earlier their critique is that this anarchization of the union movement should be united with the social movements outside the sphere of workplace struggles, into a unitary struggle, via a general organization of anarchist workers. Much contemporary anarcho-syndicalist theory has accounted for this deficiency. Syndicalist methods later were applied to struggles of tenants by the CNT and today around struggles for free education via student unionism. Modern day solidarity networks are a unique mix of community and workers’ syndicalism.

“In regarding syndicalism only as a professional body of workers without a coherent social and political theory, and consequently, being powerless to resolve the social question on its own, we consider that the tasks of anarchists in the ranks of the movement consist of developing libertarian theory, and point it in a libertarian direction, in order to transform it into an active arm of the social revolution. It is necessary to never forget that if trade unionism does not find in anarchist theory a support in opportune times it will turn, whether we like it or not, to the ideology of a political statist party.”

Contemporary neo-platformists would do themselves a favor to re-read the above paragraph. Many today call for anarchists to simply build the unions or social movements. That such organizations and movements should be left to have a non-political character. This overlooks the historical context that much of this theory was developed in where there truly existed grassroots worker led non-party labor unions and social movements, that could be anarchized via a practice of social insertion. Makhno and the Platformists give grave warning that as such organizations and movements will never be an abstract political vacuum and that anarchists should struggle for their ideas and methods of struggle to become adopted, otherwise statist political trends will win such groups over, instead of them becoming spaces for a mass anarchist movement.

“The tasks of anarchists in the ranks of the revolutionary workers’ movement could only be fulfilled on conditions that their work was closely interwoven and linked with the activity of the anarchist organisation outside the union. In other words, we must enter into revolutionary trade unions as an organised force, responsible to accomplish work in the union before the general anarchist organisation and orientated by the latter.

Without restricting ourselves to the creation of anarchist unions, we must seek to exercise our theoretical influence on all trade unions, and in all its forms (the IWW, Russian TU’s). We can only achieve this end by working in rigorously organised anarchist collectives; but never in small empirical groups, having between them neither organisational liaison nor theoretical agreement.

Groups of anarchists in companies, factories and workshops, preoccupied in creating anarchist unions, leading the struggle in revolutionary unions for the domination of libertarian ideas in unionism, groups organised in their action by a general anarchist organisation: these are the ways and means of anarchists’ attitudes vis à vis trade unionism.”

The last three paragraphs of this section of the platform clearly aim towards the creation of such a unitary mass anarchist workers’ organization uniting the struggle in the companies, factories and workshops with that in the community as now historically accounted for within anarcho-syndicalist/ mass anarchist theory. It also takes the clearly obvious pluralist strategic position that had existed since the early stages of the anarchist workers’ movement to both work towards anarchist unions, as well as working within all trade unions whether the IWW, or more limited trade unions for the spread of anarchist influence and adoption of anarchist goals and methods. Furthermore it should be clear today that we need to foster not just organizations for the battle of ideas, propaganda groups, but revolutionary social organizations (general and unitary), promoting syndicalist means tied to anarchist aims. We should strive to unite, tie together, and move coherently towards bridging workers’ and community struggles making clear our social revolutionary goals.

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On Wobblyism: Some brief thoughts towards Revolutionary Unionism

Overall I really like this new piece and it is a breath of fresh air considering it is coming from more left communist / autonomist Marxist worker organizers in the union. It’s a breath of fresh air to me for a few reasons, unlike many Marxists of the more Leninist variety in the union it completely rejects what they call Radical Service Unionism, as well as the less fortunate aspects of Solidarity Unionism, as they say:

“Without additional components of leadership development and political co-education along revolutionary Wobbly lines, we will not be able to push the virtues of SU into a higher stage of Wobbly organizing.”

This is important ground because it is left Marxists coming out in favor of revolutionary unionism, much like the council communists, and so this could prove for a fruitful alliance with anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist communist revolutionary unionists in the IWW.

After that though I do think their summary of what brings us closer to Revolutionary Unionism could be tied in more with the better features of Solidarity Unionism and Direct Unionism as the basic core to build off of. I do think they pay respects to this, but I think it could more cohesively fill it out so I’d do something more like:

Wobblyism 1.5: Characteristic Features required for moving towards a model of Revolutionary Unionism

1. Organizing aim and method based on a revolutionary trajectory and workers’ self-activity
2. Target-based network of militants based in Wobbly workplace committees
3. Collective direct action yields class consciousness
4. Industrial unionism / cross sector/ supply chain organizational strategy
5. Contracts are Contractualism (Reject both as one and the same)
6. Integration of leadership development (“reproducing the organizer”) and political co-education into everyday workplace struggle

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Some lingering thoughts on the orientation of revolutionary minorities as organizing intiatives

The revolutionary workers’ organization should seek to be a catalyst agitating for organs of workers’ autonomy such as assemblies and struggle committees. It is important to recognize this as to avoid substitutionism, but also to recognize that the role of the revolutionary workers’ organization is to take the initiative towards such ends. The revolutionary organization should be more than just a social and philosophical association, a club, or talking shop.

We need to move from individualized work in social struggles as militants towards conceiving ways towards the development of collective subjectivities both at the revolutionary level and within the everyday struggle. After many years of revolutionary minorities becoming more and more sect like, it should not be a taboo question for revolutionary organizations to catalyze and or initiate struggles mass struggles when strategically appropriate. If anything there is an alienation from such mass political work, that is continued by keeping analysis, study, and thought separate from action, struggle, and capacitation of class militants.

Thus in my opinion the goal of every revolutionary minority in this period should be to move to being more than just a study/propaganda/networking circle (though certainly recognize such limited capacities as often a reality). The revolutionary organization can be the initiative to start collective long term workplace and community organizing, handle fights over grievances and against repression using direct action, on top of this it can do it’s political and popular education through study circles and local social centers. Based on experiences now, we can see this is often the state we are already left in, but without a focused cohesive project for bringing such endeavors together.

This perspective may be seen to be substitutionist, or too ideologically pure anarcho-syndicalist, trying to force the revolutionary party to be also a revolutionary union, or somewhere half way or in between, but these old distinctions of the Old Left are no longer relevant. Social movements are not whole organizations. The One Big Industrial Union or the AFL-CIO regrouping all trade unions as the One Big Trade Union is not a social movement of the laboring masses, they are specfic minorities, with specific to more heterogeneous political content. Today, and even more quite recently we’ve seen in North America (via Occupy) that when a social movement pops up that really gets to a point of rupturing with the current state of things it takes on the forms of assemblyist movement and autonomous action committees, calls for strikes (even if perhaps without the capacity to always win them), etc. Along with various class and cross class minorities these are the organic vehicles of the modern popular struggle. These are the spaces most fruitful for our endeavors, where our ideas can gain resonance, and where we must take initiative against all other actors that would like to steer struggle towards settling with the system. We need class gains, reforms that we can win without turning towards reformism.

And like we have seen with the movement CLASSE in the student struggle in Canada and the Pop-Up Union model from the UK, and in general Occupy revolutionary minorities can be instrumental in initiating the drive and organizing of such structures to handle the struggle. Even more importantly is there is a concrete role for such minorities as particular memories of the class to orient the movement to the best of their ability to the general interests of the class. These bodies thus become open to all members, often across sectors, and other boundaries that the more limited mass organs do not.

This is not an argument to abandon direct struggle work in such more limited mass organs that accept the existence of capitalism, but the goal of revolutionary militants should always be to work towards direct, autonomous, and combative vs indirect struggle, or working through such structures as the vehicle to fight for gains. For anarchists we long ago dropped the electoral struggle within the parliamentary system, boring from within to engage in electoral struggles within the major unions which have for the most part been integrated into the capitalist system, and by their function have a general staff that must mediate between the bosses and the workers, is simply after many years a dead end. In short I think we should take a second and think about what it means when the most progressive of such unions like UNITE HERE’s watchword is “build the committee, build the committee, build the committee” and don’t fight for NLRB elections, but for forcing recognition. The question for revolutionaries is, with which means and towards which ends?

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Thoughts on SolFed’s anarcho-syndicalism for the 21st century and Especifismo

If you’ve been following debates in class struggle anarchism the last few years you’ve most likely encountered the writings of the Solidarity Federation (UK) who’ve put out excellent pamphlets on anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice with the hope of updating it for the 21st century. The first of these Strategy & Struggle was released by the Brighton local of SolFed in 2009 and created much of a buzz for the organization, especially around the website This is why many anticipated eagerly the release the groups’ elaboration and improvement upon many of the ideas in that pamphlet, Fighting for Ourselves, released around this time last year in 2012.

One of the key debates that broke out around these theories were about the relationship and role of revolutionary minorities to mass movements and the broad working class. In Strategy & Struggle the Brighton local laid out a theory of permanent minority organizations like propaganda groups and networks of militants, minority non-permanent organizations put up by the needs of the struggle, and mass non-permanent organizations. For this Brighton SolFed got accused of councilism and left-communism, but while their distinctions on the relationship of revolutionary minority to the class might have been underdeveloped the content on the role and internal functioning of the revolutionary minority has been less seriously looked into, and in my honest opinion the real innovation that all sincere revolutionaries should not overlook.

This same debate left me for a few years grappling within the question of if SolFed’s theory was one of championing mono organization (one big organization like a mass party) over dual organization (seeing distinct roles for a political minorty and economic mass organization). However I’ve been increasingly convinced this is not the case. Rather SolFed is reaffirming for the 21st century anarcho-syndicalism’s core principle and method of not seperating the political and the economic in how we engage in our social work as revolutionaries. In Strategy & Struggle they laid out how they would rather take a pluralist approach to organization, and so they do not see the need for “a platformist ‘general union of anarchists’ or left communist ‘single proletarian party’” and that instead of being united only around ideas and program, revolutionary organizations should be internally organized around their function and role in the social-economic struggle.

No where in SolFed’s theory does the organization reject social insertion or anarcho-syndicalist work in organizations other than their own, a common fallacy directed at anarcho-syndicalism that it just wants to form one big organization to encapsulates all of the struggle. In fact their strategy papers state that where there is a trade union or community organization already in a members’ life they should engage in anarcho-syndicalist work within that context arguing for anarcho-syndicalist ideas and actions. They have no problem dual carding and regrouping rank and file militants around an organized minority within such contexts. However where they break ground is how we can internally organize the division of labor within revolutionary minority organizations so as to build towards the massification of not only the organization itself but the struggle in turn.

SolFed’s innovation here is the coupling of local community based propaganda groups with the dual structure of networks of militants whether industrially (such as their Education Workers Network) or based on other social distinctions such as being a student or unwaged (their new Student Network and Unwaged Workers Network). To often we see revolutionary minorities just take on the first of these functions as propaganda groups, with occasional networking between individuals, a discussion and reading group here or there. But shouldn’t our revolutionary organizations also be equiped and ready to engage internally as to be organized in their intervention in the social-economic struggle? Might this lack of coordination speak to why often such political groups are inadequately prepared for when ruptures with the normal low state of struggle occur, when like the movements against austerity and Occupy popped up?

Andrew Flood of Workers Solidarity Movement has recently said as much. Recently there has been much debate around that organization about it’s trials and tribulations relating to their intervention in the crisis. That debate is too long and elaborate to get into here but before the crisis he and others had put forward a 10 year plan that included the desire to create libertarian industrial networks and neighborhood community centers, that echo much of what SolFed details as their approach. Andrew Flood laments in a piece on his blog that they never really were able to get such networks going. This is especially interesting considering Andrew also at his blog recognizes also that with the advent of the internet many of the traditional political roles of revolutionary minorities has been transforming. More history, literature, and “memory of the class” is availble than ever. Sites like and allow individual members accross groups and geography to discuss and have debates as never seen before, when the only way to engage with others in this way was to join a group that put out a paper and studied the few works they could all get their hands on.

This is not to say that only anarcho-syndicalism has come to these conclusions. The FARJ of Brazil in their Social Anarchism & Organization and elsewhere elaborate not only on concentric circles of engagement (a theory long practiced within the anti-capitalist movement, though theirs is a particularly libertarian theorization from below and internal to the class movement) but also argues for internal organization of the specific revolutionary organization into social and economic fronts. Typically for most leftist groups these have been focused either in industry, community, and students/education, but the FARJ have themselves organized around Urban Social Movements, a Community Front, and Argiculture and Nature.

However SoFed’s thorough theorization of this way of operating is the first I’ve seen actually implemented fairly successfully in the global North/West. For far too long class struggle anarchist movement and the left in general has only set itself up to fight the “battle of ideas” regulating class struggle only to organizations outside themselves. Organizations like SolFed and FARJ show us how we can organize for the struggle as well.

Finally, SolFed’s Fighting for Ourselves lays out a more refined theory on how active minorities organized around politics as such propaganda groups could transform themselves via encorporating such social-economic networks of militants internally to become a real force and tendency towards massification. This theory is particularly elaborated in the 5th chapter of their book on how they seek to become a revolutionary mass minority, or revolutionary union. What is new to this theory is seeing such an organic relationship and role between active minorities becoming mass minorities, and hopefully revolutionary mass militant minorities able to make class struggle wins on a larger scale.

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What in the hell are Juan Conatz’ ideas on Organization?

Recently a draft on organization by Juan Conatz a member of the Twin Cities IWW and former member of the Workers Solidarity Alliance and Wild Rose Collective appeared on his new wordpress blog dedicated to unfinished drafts and assorted thought fragments, a blog much like this one.

The piece is called “Liquidationism” and is some what of a sister piece to his earlier released “Fragmented thoughts on political organization”. The prolific Scott Nappalos has already written a reply here.

As can be seen on the piece at I had previously already engaged much with these ideas. I haven’t re-read my comments on the threads there, but what I do remember was my frustration on how a lot of things were presented, mostly that the pieces seemed written out of frustration and burn out (for all Juan’s ranting about political organization/dual organization being taken from high periods of struggle, the concept of “liquidating” revolutionary minorities (political groups, revolutionary unions) into the general class movement (councils, etc) like the AAUD-E and many others Juan was inspired by at the time, is also an expression of a high period of struggle, so the rhetoric always came off a little hypocritical to me.) Despite all that I think there is a lot of clarity that came out of Juan’s agitated state around these issues, much I agree with and think should be and can be adopted by contemporary revolutionaries thinking about these questions.

Most of Juan’s thoughts on these matters were made into lists of separate theses style points of contention or reflection, so I will respond and reflect in turn to these.

1) Contemporary political organization in the United States in large part came out of the post-Seattle 1999 resurgence of anarchism and the subsequent disagreements with primitivists, post-leftists, counter-institution types, and insurrectionaries.

This assessment from what I can tell from my own study of history is rather correct. Prior to the late 90s early 00s most anarchists were either of the later type, or in political organizations like Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation and/or class struggle/anarcho-syndicalist influenced organizations like the Workers Solidarity Alliance and the IWW. Around the end of the previous century mostly younger activists reflecting on their experiences in previous efforts or lack of anarchist organizations (by this period the WSA was down to only a few members) caught the platformism and then later especifismo bug.

2)So for a long while (and to a certain extent today), the purpose and main appeal if political organization was in part because of defining themselves against other anarchists. This is no longer an acceptable purpose.

I would generally agree with Juan here, mostly because as we have learned from the last decade or more is that because of the low state of class struggle and the influence from bourgeois/petit-bourgeois ideas within the left, many wingnut and alternativist ideas are going to remain mainstays. I also agree because at least since the crisis opened up clearly post-08, many within the anarchist movement have become more and more class struggle, many insurrectionists made a turn to Marx and the ultra-left and started reading Capital. Compared to a decade ago I think the general anarchist movement is more open to concepts of class war, and even compared to 2008 and 2009 the term is used more interchangeably with old fashionable ones like social war. Especially since Occupy all that was old is new again and there has been so much rediscovery of previous generations ideas by the new activists entering the anti-capitalist movement that many of the old distinctions have been obliterated on the ground.

3)Political organization has a tendency to take the types of conversations that should be happening in the wider class and instead places them primarily in closed groups between a very small amount of people. This is encouraged by advocating that a strict separation of the political and the economic must be maintained. However, it assumes that existing economic organizations are not already political and it is rarely gives an adequate explanation on how this differs from Lenin’s ‘trade union consciousness’, which anarchists and libertarian communists have always rejected.

I do not necessarily think that revolutionary minorities always 100% conform to taking conversations that should be happening in the wider class and separating them in small closed off groups. There is much more intermingling than I think Juan lead on to here, and this problem still exists for minorities trying to bring political education, development, and reflection into the IWW through projects like Recomposition, not everyone reads it and there is still much more work to be done via projects like it or by folks like the Wobblyist Working Group.

However there has at least historically and continues today to be a major trend within the platformist space that speaks of a need for an abstract separation of the political and economic. I think Juan is correct to point this out, and I do think that in North America and Europe (the West) this is mainly reflective of such groups and individuals thinking in these groups being influenced heavily by the historical Left (Old and New) and Leninist political spaces. In recent years much has been made about the concentric circles formulation of organizing, which while useful and even used in the IWW OT 101 (Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union), might not be the only way to see how revolutionary minorities should relate to other revolutionary and/or working class organizations. A comrade of mine who recently visited South America when talking to Chilean especifistas shared with me diagrams written by a comrade there that elaborated on a model much like a libertarian social alliance of revolutionary political groups, cultural associations, social organizations, and intermediate groups, that was represented by 4 spheres that all interact and mutually benefit each other on a horizontal basis. This was counter posted to a model closer to the concentric circles approach that is dominant on much of the Chilean left uses that saw a basically transmission belt hierarchical relationship between political groups, their front organizations, and mass/popular organizations. This same tendency dominant on much of the Chilean left I believe is so, because in general I think it is dominant on much of the Western left, platformism and was not immune to this conception, even if has seen it from a more bottom up within the class perspective. Tom Wetzel has been going on about the need for such bottom up social alliances or united fronts from below for quite sometime, similar to what I saw in the sketches by the Chilean comrade and I think there should be more experimentation with these ideas.

4)There has yet to be a serious and comprehensive assessment of the political organization experience since Seattle ’99. This includes successes/failures as well as current and now defunct groups.

I would agree that this has yet to be done. For instance a book on NEFAC never came out, and with the amount of turn over and burn out over the years it may be hard to do this properly, but I do hope some veterans of the movement would be willing to take the time to make some of these assessments (I’m looking at you Mike Harris, Flint, Truck Dee, and so on.)

5)Despite their rejection of building anarchist or radical left mass organizations ‘from scratch’, the strategy of social insertion (a type of boring-from-within) doesn’t seem to take into account the hundreds, if not thousands of leftist groups who have entered mass organizations in order to radicalize them1.

It also fails to account for the fact that many of the theories and the practice of the especifismo groups in South America have been developed after starting many new social, cultural, and popular level organizations on a libertarian / radical left wing basis in competition with larger social forces. This does not mean that they haven’t also involved themselves in pre-existing union federations and so on, but this complete oversight by many in the platformist/especifista milieu in North America and beyond I believe is a blind spot. Organizations that do mass work and mix libertarian or radical left politics are going to pop up and exist, refusing to relate to them on an abstract basis because of pragmatism or their impurity within your theoretical framework seems short sighted to me. There is also a note here basically about how this is boring from within, and how these political groups have had staff members or union officials in them. In my experience that has been more the exception than the rule, and so I think the note is a bit snarky.

6)The issue of formal VS informal as some sort of flagship identifier is nearly a false dichotomy, with some political organizations mostly being a listserv you pay dues to be on that occasionally sends out short statements of solidarity. Dwelling on whether something is ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ doesn’t take into account if the something is worth doing at all.

This is an old one, but I think Juan is pretty much on the ball here, except there has been increasing realization that there really is a need for emotional and political support for organizing. This has increasingly been a desperate cry from the less formalized space as it has encountered more and more repression over the last few years with comrades getting jail sentences or having to go into hiding, never mind basic support for sustaining momentum and organizers. The key difference though is over organizing or not organizing, less formal organization or informal organization. Informal and formal practices will help keep up the initiative to organize, formal revolutionary minorities should take head and try to adapt to be more flexible and reduce useless bureaucracy. This is as much true for the IWW (possibly even more so) than the political organizations which often tend to be much more informal. In many places the IWW is also paying to be on a listserv just to be privy to flame wars and leftist spam. I am also surprised with this sentiment of not getting what one paid for, and it comes off as a very service minded impulse, i.e. that the union or political group didn’t do enough for Juan. Perhaps that is true enough in his case, but I think as revolutionary unionists it makes sense to abide by the principle “you are the union” more often than we think is necessary. That is sort of the informal drive and practices that we need to continue to foster, beyond formal accountability.

7)Despite talk of ‘theoretical and tactical unity’, the actual projects members are involved in as a main activity includes the internal functions of the political organization itself, mainstream unions, the IWW, solidarity networks, Occupy, what amounts to internal reading groups, workers centers, co-operative projects, Food Not Bombs, etc. or…an extremely wide range for a relatively small group of people.

Low blow with the FNB, jk. I mean it’s true that various comrades have had a plethora of various political activist or organizing commitments. What I think this misses is that it is not clear always (especially from the outside) what is considered to be the political work and focus of organizations. I do think it would behoove revolutionary minorities to publicly and internally spell this out more in their strategy documents. I have often seen this sentiment come from people getting disillusioned with platformism, that is something along the lines of “where the hell do you get off with not having tactical unity, I thought I was joining a platformist organization.” Assessments of common work have regularly been done over the years, but they probably do not happen enough, and reflection on common political work, never mind strategic prioritization of such work, in common spaces (like conferences, organizing summits, etc) is certainly sorely lacking. At this point I think we can only recognize the problem and try to strive for better.

8)Branching off the lack of assessment on the experience of contemporary political organization, there is no formalized resource for passing down skills and knowledge. There are no trainings or documents that help members do the activity the groups say they exist for, nor any effort to make sure members get to trainings or have resources that do exist in other groups.

I believe this is reflective of Juan’s experience with such organizations, and I believe I said as much in the previous thread over a year ago. Part of this is a big reason for my push for the little city based local organizations to regroup so to have more capacity and enter into more dialogue with the larger organizations like Common Struggle or WSA. However lack of capacity and abled minds and bodies has hamstrung such efforts towards development and prioritization of training new militants often in the larger organizations as well (we’re not talking much larger, more like a few dozen people compared to under 10). However though WSA has had a rocky experience with this over the years, I’ve had a great experience with this because of Common Struggle. Comrades really did take the time to point me in the direct of trainings, and making it financially possible for me to go to them, and encounter spaces of political development. Until I joined political organizations, I didn’t even come into contact with many thinking about political education and organizing development within the IWW. I had to find these people, and especially many of the people around projects like Recomposition because I joined the political groups, and they came from that space. Scott Nappalos touches on this briefly in his piece when he says:

In our relatively recent experience we’ve come to see the need for deepening the politics of the IWW, and finding a way to do politics more explicitly in our day-to-day work. I think that’s a move towards anarchosyndicalism and within the tradition. In practice though I think it’s fair to say that the people who have experimented the most with that are people more in the political organizational world. In fact some of the wobs, who can speak for themselves, who started doing political work in the workplaces were drawing from some of those traditions and experiments directly. I know my own advocacy of those positions came from engaging with anarchist and marxist experiences in latin america that questioned education as instruction, and that within the CSAC millieu those perspectives led to a number of experiments along those lines. Not much to show for it, but the thinking and practices did expand, and the IWW has benefited, even if indirectly.

Anyway it is clear that this continues to be a dire objective for all revolutionary minorities to fulfill and continue experimentation with.

9)As there is no formalized way to pass down skills and knowledge, there is a huge gulf between older, more established individuals (mostly in major metro areas) and newer, younger and less established people (many in smaller cities, towns and isolated rural areas).

The IWW and most mainstream unions are also not immune from this dynamic, and it can be seen across the country within the left. We need to have more of a federalist impulse to focus outwards instead of focus inwards towards political centers. When we have actively done this we’ve seen growth in places that beforehand did not have organization, we have to constantly remind comrades in the bigger political centers to put in more effort into focusing at least part of their operations on sustaining at large and more rural or on the periphery local groups.

10)Often dominating the dialogue, agenda and concentration of the political organizations are those who speak mainly of theory and ‘internal education’. The need for developing organizing skills and experience is secondary. This begs the question of what is a political organization VS what is a reading and discussion group.

This point though it has validity I do not think is totally dominant. Whereas some groups may have tended more towards discussion circles, I’ve had the experience of groups at least moderately functioning as spaces for networking and pointing members in the direct of developing their mass work and organizing skills. In the end run this boils down to needing to assess the purpose of such activity and it’s importance (and/or personal reflections by individuals why they are engaging in such activity). I have seen people also leave revolutionary organizations (including IWW), not because they were not pointing people towards organizing, but because they did not do enough new theoretical development. So certainly the tendency is there, (there is always going to be theory nerds, especially disgruntled ones) but I do not think it is a majority characteristic of such organizations.

So far my exploration of Juan’s ideas has focused primarily on his first piece (a year after re-reading it) but I am most excited about his new piece on “Liquidationism” where he assesses that it is either “…time to get actually serious.’ or ‘Formal political organization isn’t useful’.” He states and as the title implies that he is more in favor of the latter, though he does share with the readers enough humble doubt about whether these things are inherent to political organizations as such (at the time of his writing) that I give him mad respect for at least having a some humility about these ideas. However again, the thrust of the piece is “a critique of formal political organization as a useful project for anarchists and communists in the United States right now.

First it is important to realize why Juan thought it was needed to write such a piece:

Some of this has been directed at groupings or currents seen as too disorganized, undisciplined or too ‘ultraleft, whether that means insurrectionary anarchists, primitivists, anarcho-syndicalists or whatever variety of communist. Very rarely has there been much of a worthwhile response. Mostly any response comes as sniping comments on a website or from the formerly more common‘post-leftist’ perspective.

In addition, those of us from the milieu who may have a critique that speaks the language of the formal political organizations mostly keep silent and don’t write them out of a fear of making people they respect become mad or offended. The defensiveness is understandable if one remembers the uncomradely and hostile tone from certain camps during the formation of NEFAC in the early 2000s. It’s understandable, but unfortunate.

I think this is admirable, and I appreciate his honesty in wanting to put forward a more substantial critique, even if I do think it’s a bit late in reply to the organization (formality [red]) vs anti-organization (informality [green/post-left]) flame war era of the last decade. It is probably useful though as a reflection without having to deal with the young vitriol from those early days, and a useful counter-point to new generations to try to be more considerate and open minded to critique. Now on to Juan’s points from “Liquidationism”:

-The need and usefulness of political organization is directly tied to the existence of fighting organs of the class. If they do not exist, it is the task of ‘pro-revolutionaries’ to build them. But build what kind?

Because most of the documents and groups the POs are influenced from were written at a time of intense struggle, with large mass movements or organizations already existing, the interpretation expresses itself as looking at already existing mass organizations and advocating involvement. However, besides spurts of movements here and there, there are little to speak of. The ones that do exist are so intertwined with the state, capital or non-profit industrial complex as to make them virtually immovable when it comes to pushing them be combative organs of the class with the potential for communist content.

I believe Juan is pretty much right in his assessment here (despite my previous small point that he also takes from high points). But overall what the current POs or traditional platformist view seems to misunderstand or has had to grapple with is this dilemma here. Even before the high points most of the organizations in the low points of struggle in the old workers’ movement were illegal and also had to be fighting organizations.

Like Juan points out most mass organizations of the name, though they may have mass numbers on paper, are usually not actively in motion, i.e. the space to move and create them into fighting organizations is very limited. Because of this I think the tendency to write off creating new libertarian or revolutionary organizations with a focus on and strategic prioritization of mass organizing, or propagandizing for such where we have little capacity is misguided. It is very clear that what the workers movement needs is new fighting mass organizations, and the current trade unions and NGOs are inadequate. This has basically been apparent since the 1920s/1930s, when we saw Leninists turn towards red unions, and council communists turn towards ‘workers unions’ not dissimilar to the revolutionary unionism of the anarcho-syndicalists. There is a need for new libertarian class wide and industrial focused strategy built on the embryo of creating new independent workers committees and worker controlled and self-managed organizations.

This isn’t a complete write off of intervention where it makes sense in the trade union or NGO space, but about strategic prioritization of developing new organizing that does not replicate the mistakes of the past major wave of struggle, by learning from it’s defeat.

-Political organization has not been shown to assist much with the building of these formations and when they do, the time and energy associated with being involved in a political organization interferes with participating in the building of these formations.

I think this is a bit of a chicken or the egg type of question. For instance the IWW at one point in the late 70s early 80s had about as many members as those forces that could have propagated the need for new independent anarcho-syndicalist style unions. Anarcho-syndicalists at that time were split between those who went on to become Anarcho-Syndicalist Review who favored building the IWW into a revolutionary union from it’s former state as an essentially wobbly propaganda group, and the comrades of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance. Through the 90s and even probably up to now the IWW has existed more as a revolutionary union initiative in most places (to steal a term from Solidarity Federation in the UK). Even for the last few decades Solidarity Federation and before that the Direct Action Movement and so on, had existed as an anarcho-syndicalist propaganda group focusing on the need to gather more people who were in support of creating revolutionary unions and doing mass organizing. If WSA had put itself in a similar sort of position to develop itself with a perspective of transforming into an anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary union initiative at some later date, we may have started to see more completely out anarcho-syndicalist unionism in the United States and beyond. The proletariat’s minorities were certainly not too afraid of the anarcho-syndicalist thrust groups like ASR and others (including many WSA members over the years) brought to the IWW.

My point is, we have to start somewhere, but I would agree the prioritization should be on trying to develop new organizing and going from being propaganda groups to opening up more possibility for what revolutionary minorities can do. Despite this there will always be a need in such organizations for making sure we develop our political thinking and capacity and trying to make sure it expands within the union and mass organizations, or as our organizations gain a more mass character. This is where one can see later on formation of groups like Recomposition or the Wobblyist Working Group as the more informal predecessors to dual organizational groups like the Friends of Durruti. In moving from making demarcations between political and economic to a political-economic perspective, we have to recognize that there is going to be an organic, and dialectical (possibly emergent?) relationship between politics and economics in the social struggle. If we start thinking in this way we can start superseding the who dual/mono organizationalist binary dichotomy.

-A sometimes stated purpose and function of political organizations is being the ‘memory of the class’. However, this can be accomplished with publications and blogs, which do not have attached to them large amounts of internal processes, structure, etc that can be a hindrance to building previously mentioned formations.

I agree with this, though it is sort of an odd argument against left political organizations, then when often that is all they have amounted to being, i.e. propaganda groups that put out a blog, magazine, newspaper. What is more on point is that there should be more flexibility and openness, i.e. less bureaucracy and crazy amount of internal process that makes even pro-organization folks start to question if they should become post-Left, especially if that is hindering the work of developing towards massification of our organizations and the struggle. Here the importance of social media has been key in showing how we can have a more two way relationship with those outside of our organizations, that will help us expand the reach of our ideas and thus transforming from minorities of revolutionary obsessives to becoming revolutionary mass minorities worthy of such a distinction.

-One of the primary tasks of anarchists and communists should be gaining organizing skills and experience, as theory should derive from practice. Political organization that does not absolutely prioritize this will tend to degenerate into an email list for people with time to argue on, that you pay to have access to. A political organization that does not prioritize their members gaining organizing skills and experience has a questionable purpose.

I largely agree with Juan here, though still think my critique of the service mentality to organization applies (it’s a minor criticism). I really think only propagating further these “new” theories and practices coming out of the anarcho-syndicalist experience will help us do this. I think it is mistaken to frame this as political organizations lacking this political impulse or theoretical understanding of the problem at hand. Dual organization in a serious original sense was always tied the emphasis put on connection and direct relationship to mass organizing. The problem is the weakness of left forces and the workers movement, and our commitment and capacity for a mass practice, not as much the theory gained from previous years.

-The IWW is not ‘apolitical’. It is an ultrapolitical expression of an ‘indigenous’ working class experience in North America. It has principles that guide its action and vagueness as an endgoal, similar to nearly all other organizations that claim a label like socialist, anarchist, etc.

Juan is basically on target here. The IWW is a revolutionary union, a minority of the class, and because we still have not had much experimentation except for the few high points of struggle starting to develop new ways of life, it’s vision is rather broad, probably as broad as the historical content that the IWA meant by free socialism or libertarian communism.

-One of the stated primary reasons for political organization has been along the lines of ‘gathering people who agree with each other for common work’. The ‘work’, more often than not, has been limited to the internal functions of the political organization itself, much of it having little to do with what is meant by ‘common work’.

This is hardly a new critique and is as old as Malatesta and others insistence that organization have a function. For this reason though, I think it is hardly inherent to political/revolutionary organization that it is forever doomed to being focused on internal process, otherwise like I said even the IWW would be doomed since it has much more bureaucracy than the smaller political organizations. Anarcho-syndicalist/anarchist communist work should look like striving to reduce this as much as possible internal to the organizations we participate in.

-If the dysfunctional nature of the political organizations are the fault of being spread too thin, it’s hard to see what can change this, other than fighting formations of the class arising.

While this is certainly true and there was a bump in capacity and membership during the Occupy period and a bit preceding it in the various organizations discussed, it has been noticed across the board that capacities are again lower. The only way to get pass this impasse though is to reject this councilist assertion here that we have to wait for fighting formations of the class arising spontaneously. We need to study more what makes and develops political and revolutionary actors, what sustains them. And we need to remember the old anarcho-syndicalist adage that we can build organization that fights now so we are prepared for when the higher periods of struggle break out so we can push them further. That said if such groupings in the USA refuse to build new organizations from scratch, it might amount to as much as a councilist interpretation of how to engage with struggle (we have to work in the trade unions for now because we are in a low period of struggle and revolutionary forms of organizing such as workers unions and councils will appear tautologically when a higher period of struggle erupts).

-The Friends of Durruti are often championed as one of the few shining examples of formal political organization. But they, unlike current FPO’s, did not see themselves as seperate from the CNT-AIT.

This is certainly true, and it seems sensible despite this that such projects internal to the mass movement and organizations of the class will be essential in future high periods, and that anarcho-syndicalist/anarchist communist work will be to sustain such critical projects.

But this is simply highlighting the facts, and how dual organization is theorized, worthy though it might be to inform some who may think of specifism as distinctly needing organizations separate and outside of the mass organizations. However unfortunately as Juan admits comrades have contested his “vague alternative indicated.” From this period of his writing I do not think he had one developed much further than these convictions that something was going really really wrong.

Our project now is to realize that in low periods of struggle there can be a use for such projects as publishing blogs, magazines much like Recomposition does, Anarcho-syndicalist Review and WSA continues to do with Ideas and Action, but these formations need to continue to find ways to move from being minority tendencies and transform towards massification through development, reflection, and hopefully actually doing organizing.

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Review of Prairie Struggle Organization’s Combative Unionism Position Paper (Draft)

Prairie Struggle Organization’s recent position paper on Combative Unionism is a welcome contribution to the contemporary discussion on what our intervention and political work should look like in the workers movement and unionism in general. Their argument they lay down is preceded by a humble sentiment that despite their various wins, losses, and so on they still find themselves questioning and experimenting. In this period of relatively low struggle especially within the workplace in North America this is a very open minded approach. I hope this openness to new ideas makes my further comments on their position paper accepted in good faith as a contribution towards clarifying the proposals and analysis they have put forward.

One thing I think could help clarify PSO’s position is making more of a clear distinction between the labor movement and the unions. They state that it is not a strategic issue of if they should support unions but “one of tactics and what can be done under these conditions to promote revolutionary change…not if we should be involved within the labor movement, but how.” As in this example they use these terms many times throughout the paper interchangeably. This is unfortunate since they do spend quite a good while defining different types of unions and workers organizations such as: Lobby Unions (for US readers these are yellow unions, or employers/vertical unions), Business Unions, Combative Unions, Revolutionary Unions, Workers’ Councils and Mobilization Committees. When they use the terms interchangeably it can become confusing, and since they clearly reject Lobby Unions and don’t think Revolutionary Unionism or Workers’ Councils are currently useful methods forward for the time being, the reader is left to assume that when PSO says we should intervene as “combative unionists” in the labor movement, they mean the Business Unions.

To me this just seems like a narrow definition, and it would be beneficial to see the entire workers’ movement along a spectrum from representational to associational organizations. I think in general the piece could benefit from more readability by adjusting for these considerations, or at least not to conflate the two, the labor movement & the unions, especially the business unions in this way. There are some other important reasons, even elaborated by Prairie Struggle themselves, that lead to why this should not be done, namely their analysis that the business unions exert bureaucratic control over working class power.

Prairie Struggle spends quite a lot of time delving into how revolutionary unions like the CGT and the anarcho-syndicalism of Rudolf Rocker lay the foundations for the basic principles of all unionism. These basic considerations are that unions should be: 1) Class organizations that are open to all workers and it is claimed should not be divided by politics, and 2) that they are the vehicle for preparing the complete emancipation of the workers and expropriation of the capitalist class, in short revolutionary gymnastics. From this somehow however they gather that: “Business unions and Combative unions are organizations based on the class interests of the workers. They come to existence by the need of workers to organize on class lines and advance their own interests in opposition to those of the bosses.” Unfortunately for me this does not seem to follow, especially from their own definitions later on, of what such organizations actually are.

For instance regarding Business Unions they say “Despite their rich history of often being sparked by syndicalist tendencies, these unions have now become complacent.” That is that they correctly analyze that these unions used to be workers’ organizations, but now they are not. Prairie Struggle actually make quite a thorough analysis of how the Business Unions are not only accept capitalism but have been integrated into the framework of the State. They state that business unions can be:

“…characterized by the principle of “le partage du gateau” or the sharing of the cake with the boss. They don’t develop class antagonisms, but they do offer services that represent workers and space to fight for better gains and protection in the workplace.”

Thus these organizations that were once controlled by workers have become service organizations that can incidentally benefit workers from time to time having found a business model that has secured “…their status through the development of specific laws mandating the conduct of unions in all matters, including the strike, dues deduction, organizing, and contract enforcement. This legal direction enveloped unions into the pro-capitalist and oppressive framework of the state, making both the bureaucratic centralism of the unions and the new political strategies they adopted permanent and the dominant paradigm.”

How then can can Prairie Struggle Organization see the Business Unions at the same time representative of the principles of workers’ organization put forward by the CGT and anarcho-syndicalism? If at all these tendencies have been drastically weakened over many decades to the point that these syndicalist principles are no longer universally characteristic of their nature. Their concept however of Combative Unionism gets closer to these principles.

According to Prairie Struggle, Combative Unionism, and idea they acquired from the Quebec student movement, is derived from the practice of four key principles: a working class orientation (class unionism), direct democracy (i.e. for the workers by the workers), combativity (direct militant struggle), and autonomy (rejection of reformist, statist, and partyist solutions). Whereas the business unions are bureaucratic, serviced oriented, and integrated into the State, Combative Unions are “based and regrouped on the parameters of class, these unions draw a clear line between themselves and the boss.” They state that the executive committees must be accountable to the general assemblies of these unions. That such an executive acts “merely as a tool to execute the decisions of the membership, and this is not to be stigmatized and opposed as many do. On the contrary, democratic leadership should be shared and held accountable.” However this hasn’t always been the case though it is certainly a prefered anarchist core principle. One example of this in the context of Combative Unionism has been the executive of CLASSE during the movement of 2012 facing a militant base often opposed to it’s decisions. This leaves me wondering what is more important to the concept of Combative Unionism the base or the leadership? Is such a leadership executive needed? Probably, but I fail to understand how keeping combative unionism apolitical, will help towards keeping these executives accountable. There needs to be a lively political culture within the rank and file to keep the political pressure and connection of the executives to the ideas of the membership.

A significant difference PSO says is that the combative unions in the student movement as compared to the workers’ movement in Canada have often abstained from party politics. Unfortunately I am unsure if this is necessarily so, and would seek clarification about autonomy from party politics within the student combative unions, because it is my understanding that much of the movement got side tracked towards the end of Summer 2012 with support for Quebec Solidaire and pushing for electoral victories for other parties. Prairie Struggle however does take the position that traditional “partisan engagement dilutes our struggle and therefore, we agree with the autonomy put forth by the student movement.” This is a good core anarchistic principle to put forward, and the traditional principle put forward by anarcho-syndicalists, revolutionary unionists, and anarchist communists. It is just unclear if it is as defining a characteristic of combative unionism as PSO seem to argue.

Prairie Struggle’s analysis of revolutionary unions also does not make much sense to me, considering what seems to be their association of the business unions as being the labor movement. For instance they say they recognize revolutionary unions as constituting a major amelioration of the current problems related to unions, and that they are allies with these organizations and “fight alongside them in the struggle for worker control.” Yet why then are these unions not also worth fighting and working within? Why abstain from participation in organizations that are helping develop the fight back? Their answer to this question:

“We disagree that the creation of such revolutionary unions from scratch in this current state of affairs of North America is the most effective direction. We share the need to establish a growing combative revolutionary union movement but disagree that this can happen outside the current labour movement and its unions. Our “ends” are the same but strategy is our point of disagreement.”
This seems to be contradictory in logic to me, why is it not strategic to support these now as one contributing force, to the recomposition of the workers movement? They put an emphasis that they think these unions alone can not be effective without them participating with the current labor movement, i.e. in their analysis the business unions. But which revolutionary unions in North America, certainly not the IWW, have positions against dual carding in unions other than revolutionary unions? Another criticism of revolutionary unionism is the prospect of starting such unions from scratch. This is perplexing to me, but I must admit I do not know the situation in the prairies/Canada, but it seems to me that PSO is arguing to start new combative unions where possible from scratch, while revolutionary unions already exist, like the IWW in Edmonton just north of the PSO comrades. Why not start with a fusion of a combative and revolutionary approach, that sees the need to dual card within the business unions when applicable?

PSO also say that historically the business unions belong to the workers and many of their members still see them that way. Yet on the other hand they state that these organizations are clearly not controlled by the workers, but by bureaucrats and have been integrated into the State. They argue that some members still see these unions as theirs, but I wonder if because of dual consciousness many workers also have an understanding that they really are not theirs and can see that there isn’t much leeway for taking back control. Certainly the comrades of the PSO see this, which is why they argue for combative unionism, but I can not see how this is an argument against forming revolutionary unions. PSO however is strong in insisting that it is through the struggle that these tensions will change with class antagonism and radicalization likely to develop.

Another point of confusion for me was their argument against so called Workers’ Councils. This argument seems to be in abstract, and possibly informed by local positions of contemporary self-described council communists that I am not as privy to. From their description of such organizations it seems to be a broad term to encompass such things as direct action grievance focused solidarity networks, various workers’ resistance committees, workers’ centers and so on, not the historical entities known as Soviets or Rate. My concerns with this section is that it does not describe very fully what the positions historically or contemporarily of such council communists are other than them seeing a need to organize precarious workers. Like with revolutionary unionism I do not understand why these types of organizations should not be considered a strategic place to be if possible as part of the fighting section of the workers movement that is experimenting with new ideas and methods.

In the end of the section of Combative Unionism explaining various forms of organization PSO that many revolutionary unionists and council communists already practice combative unionism, in trying to create a revolutionary labor movement out of the old labor institutions, but that their critiques are those who only practice these as “pure traditions.” To me this just seems really contradictory, with the implication being that there are abstentionist revolutionary unionists and council communists, while PSO argue only for combative unionism within the current business unions as the way forward. Why not practice combative and direct struggle throughout all the various organizations of the labor movement? Shouldn’t we organize where all workers are at?

Considering all of their criticisms of revolutionary unions and workers’ councils especially about starting organizations from scratch I got rather confused by their approach to Combative Unionism in places where it does not yet already exist. Their vehicle for organizing that they put forward is the workers’ mobilization committees. As they say “these mobilization committees organize outside the current union structures knowing fully that the business unions they face exist to oppose any radical change to business as usual.” Regarding the Business Unions they also say that they “now more frequently resemble social clubs and political parties than organizations that fight to defend student and worker rights.” This is again another example of how PSO recognize the business unions as institutions that protect the status quo, and why I do not understand how they can think these are workers’ organizations.

However it is very encouraging that PSO see the workers’ mobilization committees as what combative unionists should use to undermine the bureaucracy of the business unions and lobbyist unions. This is a position I certainly support and believe any other revolutionary unionist or council communist would also support. The workers’ struggle committees, or mobilization committees as PSO call them are certainly a very important organization to develop in any fight. However I do not understand how these are both outside and within the business unions, and how they lay the “basis for radical change within the unions” like PSO say. If these Business Unions are more like the Parties and both operate within the framework of the state, might it not be better to fully promote the autonomy of such workers’ mobilization committees and other mass organizations controlled by the base of the workers?

Prairie Struggle’s understanding of the role of these committees also seems little different from what revolutionary unionists and council communists propose for those who dual card or are in a situation where a Business Union is in a workplace, I’ll quote them at length:

“The mobilization committees attack union bureaucracy little by little. They mobilize the grassroots for general assemblies, putting in place an alternative media, proposing changes to the union constitutions in order to make the executives more accountable and mobilizing within non-combative unions along side the combative unions during strikes and actions. The mobilization committee is key in undermining the bureaucracy and moderates who has hold on the union. They wage a war upon the apparatus of disinformation and expose the corruption and co-option taking place. It prepares the terrain for an eventual takeover of the union by its membership.”

However on this last point I can not understand if again PSO contradict themselves. They seem to see not much hope for taking over Business Unions as seen here:

“In business unions with militants actively mobilizing towards combative strategies, this level of engagement is next to useless. The constitution and bylaws that give power to bureaucrats, reformists, and national/international affiliations are still in place, and they will use tools afforded to them to isolate radical executive members. This is why we only advocate fighting for leadership in an already combative union, to sustain its democratic nature. In business unions, some militants may advocate this strategy as an act of desperation. This isn’t necessarily a useless strategy. However, when these documents cannot be challenged from the membership level, and when a well organized, radicalized membership is being successfully oppressed by those wielding institutionalized power, the solution may be found with more ease in separating the radical membership from the union altogether, and building a new organization. This is where we see intersectionality between combative unionism, and revolutionary unionism.”

So for all the talk about working for a combative rank and file movement within the Business nions, they pretty much see the ability to take them over as futile, and that this is a place of intersection between their approach and revolutionary unionism. This begs the question for me again why they do not combine these principles into a combative revolutionary unionist approach?

I understand that so far most of this review has been critique and confusion with lack of clarity in PSO’s paper but I think most clearly they put forward their position in this line:

“By organizing outside the union structure, the active minority use these…principles to organize within the membership so that the rank and file can progressively gain control of their union, and defend the interest of the rank and file.”

It seems here then that they are not for capturing or working within the bureaucratic structures of the business unions, but outside them with the rank and file membership, to build independent and combative workers, via autonomous workers’ mobilization committees. They say boring within is not useless, but practically next to useless and if powerful enough these organizations should break off and become new combative or revolutionary unions.

So far I have only talked mostly about Combative Unionism’s position on the workplace. They however do address other struggles, which they consider “marginal” struggles. While a rejection of lifestylism seems appropriate there is an uneasy tension in discussing that we need to move beyond “marginal” struggles, i.e. organizing “marginal” sectors of the class, i.e. women, people of color, etc. They may constitute officially according to bourgeois norms as minorities, yet they are actually the majority of the class in North America. In fact the move to want to go beyond and organize those outside, comes off borderline class reductionist, and like PSO is saying we should organize white men. I doubt this is their intention but I’d like to suggest they find better ways to address these issues to not be misunderstood in this way.

Interestingly however PSO put forward that the principles they describe that characterize Combative Unionism could be used to organize other struggles, which is something I fully support. On this they say:

“Organizing under the principles of direct democracy, combativity, autonomy and solidarity bring about the necessary framework needed to lead battles within our respective communities. From antifascist organizations, cop watch’s, anti-gentrification committees, immigrant rights networks, neighborhood defense committees and many more, mobilization committees working under these principles can initiate struggles beyond the shop floors on issues that may not be related to labour at all.”

The important thing is to recognize that these are working class struggles. Their analysis of co-ops and self-management of alternative institutions also appears to me to be very strong:

“However, we stress that alone this [a strategy of developing alternative institutions] does not constitute a strategy for revolutionary change and the overthrow of capitalism. Its subjects do not substitute capitalism peacefully. It must be integrated within a program that holds the tools to fight recuperation, appeasement and repressions.”

Overall they sum up the basics of their total position here:

“As anarchists, we are an active minority within our workplaces, schools and neighborhoods. However, it is not enough that we as individuals put our efforts into legitimate social struggles. In order to be effective in the various areas of struggle, we see the organization as a place for anarchists to organize the active minority with the objective to radicalize mass movements and popular struggles where they exist, or agitate for the creation of such popular movements. In doing so we have the potential to combat authoritarianism and reformist tendencies giving way to the maximum political potential of revolutionary anarchist-communist ideas within the working class.”

For these reasons and those stated above through this review if this is their strategy I would like to know why they do not focus their efforts as an active minority to be one more specifically focused on becoming an revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist union initiative or anarchist communist workers organization. Such organizations have historically had a strategy of building autonomous and militant mobilization committees that work outside and inside the business unions to form an overall revolutionary combative union movement.

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