By Sachio Ko-yin
In October of 2017, our comrade and my mother, Adrianna Ko, passed away in NJ.
She raised me with anarchist ideals, and after 5th grade took me out of formal classes to start her own anarchist schoolhouse. Anarchist education was always her passion.
I’ve been going through her papers, and making an archive of her movement writings. The other day I found her notes on early French syndicalist Fernand Pelloutier (1861-1901) from a talk she gave in the early 90s for our local Anarchist League, located in North Jersey. Later she gathered the notes in a separate folder before we attended the 1994 WSA National Convention in NYC, as she had an idea to write them out in article form to distribute there. While the article was never realized, these notes had further life in 2004 when our comrade Clarissa Rogers was doing research on anarchist pedagogy. My mother was excited about Clarissa’s work, and prepared the notes to send to Clarissa in case they would be helpful.
I want to write about my mother’s talk and these notes for several reasons. Not only is it important to her ideas about anarchist schools, but it also reflects how we at the Anarchist League in the early 90s understood the anarchist syndicalist tradition. It struck me that it would be worth revisiting these ideas and writing the article that eluded my mother during her lifetime, as it may aid our discussions about how to interpret our syndicalist history.
Our NJ Anarchist League was never officially syndicalist. But the social anarchists among us saw anarchist communism and syndicalism as the tendencies that most spoke to us. We were a diverse group, and my mother was not a social anarchist but more of a mutualist, or even at times, a ‘compassionate’ Stirner-ite. She distrusted large organizations, but as we learned as a group about syndicalism, she took a specific interest. She had childhood memories of her father teaching her the old labor songs as he had been a member of the Socialist Party of America, and an active supporter of labor rights. In her 20s, my mother went further than democratic socialism by embracing anarchism. Years later at the Anarchist League, her new interest in syndicalism was a way to connect labor with her with radical education ideas. Even though she preferred small community organizations, she wanted to share ideas about schools with the syndicalist movement, almost in an advisory role, as someone sympathetic from the outside.
Her talk about Pelloutier started out with a summary of how we understood the role of the syndicates (local unions), the bourse du travail (labor exchange, a worker’s municipality and education center), and a national committee where all decisions flow from the bottom up, a coordinating body without political power. And above that, the International, the global organization of workers of every country.
At that time the social anarchists among us were interested in syndicalism because it seemed to be the most constructive variety of anarchism. One of our mentors, an old war resister in Chicago, once said to us, “The theory of anarchism is air tight. The problem is how to get from here to there!” My mother quoted him because she felt that syndicalism had insights into this problem.
She recounted how, as a group, our introduction to Pelloutier was from an illustrated booklet called “The Anarchists, The Men Who Shocked An Era.” This publication, when it spoke of Pelloutier’s ideas on education, emphasized that the idea of the bourses du travail would not only be organizations for fighting capitalism and building the ultimate general strike, but would also be a workers’ university of self-education.
Her notes reflect a third part of our understanding at that time, that this structure of syndicates and bourses du travail, before the social transformation, would be centers for democracy and debate. And after the social transformation, these same structures would continue as centers for not only making decisions together, but for the distribution of needs to the community.
Her summary of syndicalism is interesting now, because this emphasis on these three roles of syndicates and bourses du travail, what she called ‘threefold,’ is not emphasized in the mainstream syndicalist movement. Anarchist syndicalism is much more likely to emphasize labor tactics broadly as a means to the libertarian society, and be skeptical of blueprints for the future society. But there, in that social space of North Jersey in the early 90s, in our monthly discussions at various peoples’ homes, an older and more structured view of syndicalism was alive and well.
As she presented on the life and writings of Pelloutier, another member pointed out that one of the revolutionary principles of the First International was the workers’ right to equal education.
This fit exactly into her ideas of anarchist schools. She advocated the forming of new libertarian schools for children, along the lines of the modern school of Francisco Ferrer and Paul Goodman. This would be a way of raising children with values of critical thinking and freedom to explore their innate creativity, and would ultimately be a death blow to capitalism and the state. These children would grow and see the exploitation inherent in the system. With her new understanding of the local syndicate united in a bourse du travail, she seized this idea of working people creating from syndicates the centers for workers’ self-education. At the end of her talk, her oratory took off:
“These local syndicates can form together into great centers for social justice, for rhetorical debate and group process. The political arts. These vibrant centers can be centers for democracy. Community minded, we can strategize, and outmaneuver the business union officials, the managers, and the owners of the corporations.”
“Just by studying our own industries, we can learn political arts with our industry as the main subject. …We can teach ourselves philosophy, economics, sociology and all that. Also history, yes– each industry has a history, and workers like us exist in all countries, existed in previous societies. And workers and bosses all…share ancestors… for example, the early factory owners and the boss, they come down from the medieval clerk and laborer, and these both have a common ancestry in the medieval rural peasant who moved to the early cities. In these universities of the workers, taking up our own industry as a subject, we can trace all world history together, with rich debate and group process.”
“Rhetoric oratory debate and group process can flourish. Together, by learning the way economics really work, we can shed light on exactly how and where the exploitation happens, and how it is happening now. A clear conscience cannot countenance this. Exploitation happens because society hides this from us. The syndicates and the bourses du travail, these can be the centers of light.”
“Capitalist industries can become as seedbeds of workers’ syndicates, which would, by self-education, fighting for labor rights, and rigorous group process, this can lead to that all-encompassing general strike , transforming industries into great engines of working class democracy and communal distribution.”