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Review of Fighting for Ourselves: Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Class Struggle

Klas Batalo Pic

By Klas Batalo

Fighting for Ourselves: Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Class Struggle tries to move in the direction of providing a framework and questions that can help the contemporary class struggle anarchist movement move past its’ current impasses, and fight back against the austerity crisis, as well as take the initiative against state capitalism. It sets out to share strategy suggestions for our present conditions by the Solidarity Federation, SolFed for short, the UK section of the International Workers’ Association (IWA). Below will be some of my own comments on the text, with the hope of providing a comradely critique as well as general summary of what I feel is important to bring out in their arguments.


One of the first major frameworks they put forward is that unionism usually serves a mix of two particular functions, one associative, that is an association of workers to defend mutual and class interests, and another representative, that is to provide a vehicle for workers’ representation in the economic/social sphere, much like a typical political party would through parliament.


SolFed make the case that revolutionary anarchists should organize within the spirit of the first function as much as possible, and that is what separates anarcho-syndicalism from the other forms of prefixed unionism, trade unionism, craft unionism, industrial unionism, etc. Forms of unionism that they point out often have bad or other connotations within the workers’ movement. In an interesting self-contradiction they put forward that they prefer the term anarcho-syndicalism over plain “unionist” because it has nationalist connotations with the UK context, but throughout the small book they often refer to needing a revolutionary unionist approach, and that they are a revolutionary union initiative. They use this later term to denote that they are currently actively moving away from being just a political propaganda group towards being more of a revolutionary workers’ association or organization of struggle. Considering most of book makes excellent arguments against the need for the majority of what the mainstream workers’ movement as well as radical workers’ movement has known as parties or approaches to union struggle, I am left wondering why they chose such language, considering the connotations? Not to dwell too long on semantics though, I assume this is mostly because of the tradition they find themselves coming from, and it is the content more than the label that matters.


These preliminaries all said SolFed, lays out quite a compelling argument for the forms and content of a contemporary anarcho-syndicalist they and practice, as well as dispelling some of the more common myths. They make a substantial effort towards the explanation of a revolutionary alternative form of “unionism” that can be anti-capitalist and anti-state without neglecting to organize with all workers, and participate in the larger labor movement, while maintaining a political as well as economic core set of ideas and methods.


The first chapter delves into the mainstream workers’ movement and SolFed’s argument against the separation of the political and economic hindering it. The traditional workers’ movement whether through trade unions, so called revolutionary workers or labor parties, most often made a distinction between the two, advocating for and thus creating representation within the economic sphere of the workplace, and leaving politics and concerns of the social sphere to politicians. The early unions went from being small organizations that would fight around class conflicts to a service oriented strategy that recruited more workers but neglected the daily class struggle and moved in the direction of representation between the workers themselves and capital (bosses’ management, state bureaucrats, etc). They argue this makes perfect sense in the absence of a revolutionary perspective, if you can’t imagine a world without capitalism, you can only argue for a better seat at the table within it. In this critique of the old workers’ movement they make many astute observations, especially that this applies not only within the space of the labor movement but also with the lack of an explicitly anti-parliamentary perspective. History has shown us a movement that instead of defending class interests bargained away our class’ demands to have social needs met, with the promise of labor peace for the capitalists, and mere recognition for our representatives efforts.


A few astute observations SolFed makes are that often workers’ join such organizations or become members of such parties exactly for such representation. They also argue convincingly that even if we as revolutionaries find ourselves as we often do in the position to become such representatives ourselves we should be careful to avoid the many pitfalls of such an approach. Becoming stewards or small rep/delegate positions within the unions often gives us more room to organize, but we also need to have a clear anarchist strategy for workers’ self-organization, using the unions more like a host body to launch initiatives in the actual interest of the workers. They also point out that most unions today are not even that much of a “massive” movement rooted directly in workplaces. Local branch meetings often consist of a minority of workers, staff, and deal with internal union business not applicable to the shop floor. Often if there even are regular meetings they are filled with members who don’t even know each other, and are instead of being democratic are lectured to on the next activist endeavor cooked up by union officials or leftists. In this they argue that in reality most union activity contrary to popular belief exists outside of workplace related situations.


Their critique of revolutionary workers’ parties is also quite interesting and hopefully informative for anyone who has ever had to debate a Leninist on the nature of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Often later day Leninists argue that Lenin’s State and Revolution shows that Marx and Marxists argue for smashing the bourgeois state and for forming in its’ place via the workers’ councils some form of semi- or non-state. The anarchist and SolFed’s argument against this is that Lenin and Marxists just shift the plane of politics from a bourgeois parliament to trying to forge the direct expression of the workers in their workplace committees and city wide community councils to becoming sort of constituent assemblies as a workers’ government, political competition and all, instead of the direct self-management of a libertarian and free communist society. This completely strips the concept of workers’ councils from their revolutionary political-economic content, and instead proposes them as an alternative forum that mirrors bourgeois politics. The argument can be made that this is just a bunch of complaining and that regardless of our visions or road maps different parties and interest groups will vie for power anyways, but the main issue at stake is we need a stronger culture of solidarity, direct action, and culture that can counter such efforts away from workers’ self-management and the social transformation towards a freely communist society.


The second chapter delves into more radical currents in the workers’ movement, mainly anarchism, syndicalism, and council communism. In its section on anarchism it overviews two various traditions of dual organizational anarchism, the arguments for specific political organization by synthesist Malatesta against Monatte, and the similar arguments for a more united revolutionary organization by the Platformists. Instead of making much of a critique of the need for united revolutionary organizations, SolFed argues against the strategies argued for by both these camps. The main of their argument throughout the book is aimed at Malatesta’s separation of the political and the economic. In his famous debate with revolutionary syndicalist Monatte, Malatesta argued for the need not only for a revolutionary and apolitical syndicalism, but also for a specifically anarchist political organization. Their main difference is not their desire for apolitical revolutionary syndicalism regrouping most workers, but in exactly the need for separate political organization. On a contrary basis the Platformists SolFed argue, worked closer towards an anarcho-syndicalist method of trying to “anarchize” the unions instead of just leaving them to apoliticism or reformism. Instead of like many anarchists they do not condemn the Platformists as “anarcho-Bolsheviks” which they feel is unfair, but that such a strategy is inadequate for the current day situation. SolFed argue our efforts would be better spent organizing direct struggle via a dual unionist approach within the unions when we find ourselves there using anarcho-syndicalist methods of self-organization or possibly forging revolutionary breakaways, instead of reforming the existing unions for anarchism, an approach similar to “boring from within” which they reject as extremely unrealistic.


Their critique above also contributing implicitly to their critique of traditional apolitical revolutionary unionism, with a few exceptions of great tactical/strategic leaps made by the IWW’s historical forms of minority unionism, left me most interested in SolFed’s critique of council communism. They argue that it is not the advocating of the council form which makes the council communists unique among Marxists but their anti-parliamentary and at most extreme anti-party perspective. For the council communists the main question relevant to the needed development of Marxist theory is who should operate the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the revolutionary party or the united strength of the working class in their councils. SolFed give a short overview of the history of the council communist current within the communist left that would be very instructive for anyone unfamiliar with it. They point out that the KAPD the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany was a distinctly anti-parliamentary party and that it saw itself as the political arm to the AAUD, General Workers Union of Germany which it was members of. The AAUD itself was founded mainly in inspiration from the heavily Marxist influenced revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW. SolFed’s main critique of this pairing is similar to their one of Malatesta’s separation of the political and economic.


Instead SolFed have more praise for the AAUD-E (General Workers Union of Germany – Unitary [Organization]) of Otto Rühle and co. This comrade was expelled from the KAPD and separated from the main AAUD, and moved the closest in the direction of anarcho-syndicalism, rejecting the need for a separation between “party” and “union” forms. SolFed’s critique of the AAUD-E and council communism in general amounts to their rejection of everyday struggles, though within acknowledging that they were involved in a revolutionary situation where continuing reform struggles would have been counter revolutionary. It is debatable in my perspective if such organizations would have moved back to traditional Marxist formations, i.e. separation between political and economic or necessarily reject day to day struggles, most later day council communist offshoots like the KAUD, Communist Workers’ Union of Germany didn’t (and were a political-economic minority organization), or like the GIKH, Group of International Communists of Holland were too small to tell, with a variety of activity split between action and discussion groups. The rest of their critique of the council communists revolves around latent spontaneity from an overly determinist analysis of capitalist crisis/decline, and a rejection of a tendency towards workerism that I feel is warranted considering their inspiration from the IWW, though SolFed goes on to describe some of the efforts by the IWW towards an early anti-racist praxis, it is unclear if struggles outside the workplace were tackled by council communists, and Otto Rühle is quoted as saying outside the factory the proletarian is bourgeois.


The third chapter delves deep into the differences of context and organization mostly within the classical anarcho-syndicalist movement. In the introduction to this section I feel they overstate their emphasis on anarcho-syndicalism having “always rejected the division of the worker’s movement into economic and political wings, and rejected representation in favor of associations of direct action.” Their following accounts, especially in the case of the historical CNT reject this assertion, and clearly show how there were often reformist and revolutionary currents within these organizations, not that later day organizations and these contradictions did not pan out in splits, or unfortunately in some cases disaster. SolFed mainly analyzes the FORA of Argentina, the FAUD of Germany, and the historical fiasco within the CNT.


The FORA of Argentina probably came the closest to the council communists and is often contrasted with the CNT. They advocated a more ideological unionism based on regional federal organization over geographic territories uniting all workers, compared to a more traditional industrial organizational form. They took on a more specifically anarchist communist politics probably because most of their members were immigrants with no voting rights, and were thus more clear about the need for an anti-state struggle. Argentina was also late to industrialization and so many of the FORA’s members including main theorists were in favor of a more small scale agrarian and ecological free communism. It was also more concerned with political agitation for a direct struggle compared to building the new world within the shell of the old within themselves as the vehicle for struggle, instead seeing themselves more as a catalyst of struggle. In this approach I think SolFed takes liberally. They were self-styled as an “anarchist organization of workers” and did not concern themselves only with economic issues, but also ones of a pressing social or political nature. This strategy was impressively successful in securing the 6 hour work day in the 1920s. Eventually much like the CNT though there did end up being a reformist current within the organization, so it split in two with the original but smaller organization joining the IWA. Their main contribution to this day is organizing in a way to destroy capitalism and the state instead of imitating it.


The case of the FAUD of Germany was interesting mostly for its contribution towards organizing a day to day culture of solidarity, direct action, and resistance. It faced many of the same problems as their council communist cousins in Germany, and anarcho-syndicalists in Russia, in having to compete with opportunist social democrats and Bolsheviks within the councils who wanted to turn them not into bodies for self-management but for a new “worker’s state.” Unfortunately unlike their counterparts in the FORA they could have benefited from a propagandizing a more clear anti-parliamentary perspective. The major lesson drawn by SolFed is that preparation was one of their key assets making them one of the largest revolutionary organizations after the immediate revolution in Germany in 1918-1919, but that they might have been even more successful if they had a clearer critique of the pitfalls of the council form.


Most devastating is SolFed’s critique of the historical CNT. When given the opportunity to create a dual power situation, they abstained out of the fear of being substitutionist of creating an “anarchist dictatorship.” Even though in the workplaces and communities they had already been working in alliance with the UGT socialist forces, they had ruled out using a council system after watching the experience in of the Bolsheviks using it to their advantage in Russia. Instead they prepared much like the FAUD for building a culture that could replace the new world internally. In this they took on the desire to be the vehicle of struggle like many other forms of apolitical syndicalism, and thus feared that since most of the workers’ had still not yet joined the CNT, they would replicate the same problems they had seen with the Communist Party in Russia. As SolFed details they failed to be anarchist enough and smash the state when they had the chance because of these fears. In this way “building the new world in the shell of the old” was adapted more as “build the new world in the old.” If they had only came to similar conclusions as the FORA they may have seen their chance and take it. This is all the more unfortunate since rank and file groups within CNT, as seen by the FAI and the Friends of Durruti were proposing just such a dual power strategy of uniting with other forces like the UGT in the cities, as well as a revolutionary junta, and agrarian communes.


This failure to smash the state and fill the power gap was not their only problem though. SolFed goes on to suggest that it was structural in that the CNT was conflicted and both adopted an apolitical traditional syndicalist approach to recruitment simultaneously with a libertarian communist program, leaving space for a separation between the political and economic, reformist and revolutionary forces both competing for leadership of the union. Overall this critique strikes me as more damning of apolitical unionism than one of dual organizationalism of the FAI or Friends of Durruti. Structurally it was the choice to be open to all workers that befell the CNT the most it seems, whereas the FAI and Friends of Durruti might have been strategically misguided or blind in their argument to anarchize and for a dual power strategy respectively regardless of how seemingly right that may have been on the surface. It left me wondering if SolFed would propose in such situations instead to split off and form more specifically revolutionary political-economic organization. Regarding smashing of the State, SolFed argue they should have without fear having been an organization that was leap years beyond the Russian Communist Party in how it was controlled from the assemblies at its base, and not all struggle needs to be contained within one organization, revolutionary pluralism can be a good thing. In total, SolFed argue that the CNT both tried to be “neutral syndicalist” as well as “revolutionary anarchist” without being enough of an anarchist or syndicalist synthesis.


The fourth chapter of the Fighting for Ourselves mostly goes into a contemporary analysis of post-WW2 movements and the neo-liberal counter revolution. As much as its analysis is dead on, there isn’t much new here in my perspective that couldn’t be read elsewhere. It delves into current class composition, casualization, offshoring, etc. The fifth chapter is where we really get into the nitty gritty of what SolFed proposes as a way forward for the 21st century. They borrow from Marcel van der Linden’s analysis of an ideological, organizational, and shop floor (I prefer community, social, or popular) levels that are all key requirements for a balanced revolutionary organization and perspective. On the shop floor or social level we must realize that struggles even around seemingly bread and butter issues are also political issues, exploitation and oppression overlap and are integrated into each other. That anti-racism and anti-sexism, etc., often intertwine with struggles around workplace or neighborhood issues. This is a pretty core anarchist observation. At the organizational level we should be prefigurative and follow principles of voluntary association over representation. At the ideological level an opposition to integration into the state, the management of capitalism, and being working towards communism.


Organizationally from the previous chapters we see that SolFed has learned from the more historical CNT that if we are facing a situation of a plural unionism we need to find a way to organize with others without dividing along union lines. They point to the struggles of the later day CNT in the shipyards of Puerto Real, where they actively pushed for mass assemblies of all workers to be the vehicle of struggle, and carried the struggle beyond that point even when that assembly movement died down. They point out such bodies have the same weakness as worker councils, but that is a weakness of being participatory, and if the workers do not want to use revolutionary methods little will do to convince them otherwise, but hopefully through struggle participants can be convinced of such a need. Overall they propose that the “revolutionary union seeks to organize class conflicts using direct action, in such a way as to prepare workers for revolutionary social change by experiencing self-organized struggles, practical solidarity and taste of victories won by our own efforts.”


By taking this more ideological approach SolFed do not propose abstention from participating like dual organizationalists advocate in other unions or movements but that anarchists participate in them on a principled class basis. Anarchists might respect a trade unions’ picket line, even though such a union might not respect theirs, however direct appeals can be made to workers. However SolFed assert that if we leave it to reformists to take the initiative they will organize in a reformist and disempowering way, leaving us tailing them, by abstaining from taking action ourselves. Regardless as mentioned earlier such organizations are rarely “massive” and often their daily activity is taken on by a minority of officials or in the case of many community struggles the staff of NGOs. Overall the more organization we have the more organized we will be when bigger ruptures happen but also recede. Past these suggestions SolFed largely proposes an organizing program similar to that developed in the discussion paper circulating around the current day IWW, called Direct Unionism, in fact a SolFed member who is from North America helped write it, so it is no surprise. Mostly it is a strategy of direct action, self-organization, building a culture of resistance via struggle committees, and mass assemblies that are cross sector and union affiliation when possible. Taking on small fights and larger collective ones when possible, not being afraid of being a minority but aspiring to be much more. In general, Fighting for Ourselves makes a convincing case for a reapplication of anarchist and syndicalist core values, enhanced with a review of past mistakes. Hopefully class struggle militants will continue to debate this important book.


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