Anarcho-syndicalism in the 21st century
In this final chapter, we set out our vision of anarcho-syndicalism today. We discuss how to move from being a simple political propaganda organisation to a revolutionary union capable of taking the initiative in organising and catalysing class struggles in the economic and social spheres. Central to this strategy is the potential for direct action to build confidence, capacity and self-organisation amongst the working class, and thus for struggle to serve as ‘the school of socialism’. We argue that a revolutionary union is an essential component of a revolutionary workers’ movement. Not only for organising and catalysing struggles, but providing both a physical and organisational infrastructure for the working class, and a point of departure for numerous anti-oppression, self-education and cultural initiatives, both inside and beyond its ranks. We set out how this kind of political economic organisation can help the re-emergence of a militant and revolutionary workers’ movement, and the necessity for this to seek to unite all the revolutionary workers of the world. Finally, we will sketch what a social revolution might look like on a world scale, and the role that revolutionary unions should play in this process.
From propaganda group to revolutionary union
In many ways it is easiest to start from what not to do. History furnishes us with ample cautionary examples. Certainly, anarcho-syndicalists do not want to function as a political organisation of anarchists. Political organisation leaves the organising of struggles either to reformist organisations (such as the trade unions), or to spontaneous action by workers. If we leave it to reformist unions or other organisations, the methods they will use will be representative, disempowering ones. This short circuits the power of direct action to serve not just as a means to achieve results but a school of social change. The main thing we learn from struggles organised along reformist lines is how to be marched out on strike and back in again, feeling thoroughly demoralised when union leaders snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We certainly don’t experience self-organisation, control of our own struggles and the confidence and exhilaration of forcing concessions directly through collective action.
On the other hand, we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers’ resistance. Conditions may shape struggle; they do not guarantee it. For us the key determinant in workers’ resistance is organisation; the greater the organisation, the more resistance, the greater the chance of success. It is notable that when council communists like Pannekoek (for whom “organisation springs up spontaneously, immediately”171) championed workers ‘spontaneously’ organising strike committees in Germany and elsewhere, they did so from the base of highly organised union shops. So when the union bureaucracy didn’t back their actions they were in a position to launch wildcat strikes, form strike committees and so on. A similar pattern has been seen in the UK in recent years, with unofficial action concentrated amongst highly organised workers such as in the postal service, refuse collection, and rank and file electricians. In the absence of such organisation (and even many unionised workplaces are not organised, as we set out in Chapter 1) capitalist offensives far more often result in resignation, demoralisation and defeat, as has overwhelmingly been the case in Britain since the neoliberal counter offensive from the 1980s. As this culture of defeat sets in, it becomes ever more entrenched, until it becomes impossible to imagine doing things differently as the neoliberal mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ takes root.
So we can neither leave the organisation of class conflicts in the hands of reformists, nor wait for struggles to emerge spontaneously. We need to organise struggles ourselves along direct action lines. And if we’re not capable of doing so at present, we need to aspire to that capability; we need to move from being a political propaganda group to being a revolutionary union. The Solidarity Federation describes itself as a revolutionary union initiative to signify this intent. So far, the struggles we have initiated have been small scale and often focussed on individual grievances. But that merely reflects the limits of our present capacities, capacities we are always seeking to expand. Specific political organisation is not sufficient to this task. We seek to become an organisation which is at once political and economic.
We can also reject the fanciful notion of reforming the bureaucratic unions, commonplace amongst socialists and not unheard of amongst anarchists either. Bureaucratisation is a one way process. Or rather, while it could theoretically be reversed by a strong enough rank and file movement, it would be a misdirection of energy to pursue union reform at the expense of direct action (a mistake that helped co-opt British syndicalism, as we saw in Chapter 2). Whatever energy and self-organisation it would take to dislodge entrenched bureaucracies, backed by the state, would be far better spent organising struggles directly, and regrouping workers into organisations based on the principles we espouse – revolutionary unions. This does not mean we should tear up our trade union cards, but rather abandon any pretensions to reforming the existing union structures, and regardless of trade union membership seek to pursue an anarcho-syndicalist strategy.
An argument commonly raised against revolutionary unionism is the numbers game. Unions, it is said, are ‘mass organisations’, which far exceed the scale of what it’s possible to organise along revolutionary lines. Thus, we are told, you can be revolutionary, or you can be a union, but never the twain shall meet. This gives rise to a reformist argument masquerading as ‘pragmatism’, that we must drop our ‘ideological’ opposition to reformist methods – works councils, full time officials, representative functions, state funds, compliance with the law and so on – in order to grow into such a ‘mass organisation’. This may be the way to ‘build’, but build what? We have no interest in building new bureaucracies, which is the sure fire result of building a union on anything other than clear anti-capitalist and anti-state principles. In the ‘post-political’ neoliberal world, we should be wary of anyone denying ideological motivations. The denial itself is the surest sign of ideology! Reformist ideology always presents itself as post-ideological ‘pragmatism’, as if this somehow makes its embrace of class collaboration any less ideological. Sure, revolutionary unionists are starting out as a tiny minority of the working class. That doesn’t mean we can’t organise class conflicts beyond our limited numbers, and win workers over to revolutionary unionism through the victories we win in the school of struggle.
In any event, a closer look at the trade unions should dispel the simplistic notion that they are ‘mass organisations’ in any meaningful way. It is true that in this country, the trade unions together maintain a membership numbering millions, with several of the largest topping a million members each. But what does this mean in practice? On a day to day basis, the union is run by a bureaucracy of paid officials and a minority of lay reps. These reps – shop stewards, health and safety reps and so on – are often the most militant workers in their workplaces. It’s not at all uncommon that less militant workplaces don’t even have a rep, or regular members’ meetings. When members’ meetings are held, and we sometimes encounter opposition from the bureaucracy to doing even this, typically only a tiny minority of the paper membership attends. This only changes in the course of a big dispute, when meetings may swell to most or all of the membership, and new members may even sign up to participate. So in practice, in the workplace the trade unions are organisations of worker activists which, in the course of disputes, organise mass meetings of the workforce. The strategy we are setting out merely recognises this reality of what a union is.
The trade unions are centralised, bureaucratic and hierarchical organisations, and so they don’t link worker activists horizontally with one another. Rather, workplaces are only linked to one another via the branch or the region, often staffed by full time officials or lay reps with an eye to becoming full time officials, and not infrequently by ‘revolutionary socialists’ with their eye on a trade union career path. Consequently, they work against the circulation and co-ordination of self-organised struggles. Worker activists such as shop stewards in different areas or departments are limited to communicating with one another through ‘the proper channels’. This gives the union apparatus the chance to mediate, diffuse and control the rank and file should they get any ideas above their station (such as carrying on a strike which has been called off by head office despite strong rank and file support, a fairly frequent occurrence in recent British industrial relations). This leads many on the left to advocate some form of rank and filism, i.e. a networking of rank and file activists independently of the union structure.
Our predecessor, the Direct Action Movement, was involved in such rank and file networks, but came to the conclusion that the very nature of these groups, and of the politics of those who have tried to organise them, has meant that they were doomed to failure. Since World War II we have seen various political groups try to set up rank and file networks, from those set up by the Communist Party (CP) in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Flashlight and the Building Workers’ Charter, through to the SWP dominated rank and files of the 1970s and, of course, the Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party) dominated Broad Lefts. Needless to say, such Marxist groups were not slow to manipulate rank and files for their own ends, even if this was to the detriment of those rank and files and the workers involved. For instance, Building Workers’ Charter, which had widespread support in the building industry, failed to appear in the massive and bitter building workers’ strike in the early 1970s due to the manoeuvring of the CP. Thus, they not only failed to provide an alternative lead to the reformist unions in a crucial strike, but so demoralised supporters of Building Workers’ Charter that it led to its eventual collapse. Again in 1973, when the International Socialists (IS; now the SWP), tried to set up a national rank and file movement, the CP dominated rank and files boycotted the conference organised to launch the movement, with the Morning Star newspaper denouncing the whole event as an IS plot. We saw it once again with the 2011 implosion of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), when the Socialist Party made its long anticipated move to try and turn it into an anti-cuts front, and most of the anarchist, syndicalist and independent activists walked out.
It would be a mistake, however, to put the lack of politics down simply to malign Marxist influence. Instead, we should look at the nature of rank and file groups themselves. They are not made up of masses of ordinary workers but trade union activists (often members of political groups), sinking their political differences to the lowest common denominator – militant trade unionism. Perhaps a quote from the paper of one of the more successful rank and files of the 1970s, the NALGO Action Group, will illustrate this. An editorial stated: “the future development of NALGO Action Group remains as it always has, in the hands of its supporters whose political persuasions are less important than their common desire to work for greater democracy and militancy within NALGO and [the] larger trade union movement.”172 Here, the problems are similar to those of ‘neutral’ syndicalism. The result is not the desired horizontal networking of workplace activists, but lowest common denominator trade unionism. This means many well meaning militants and revolutionaries end up being foot soldiers for leftist agendas, such as reforming the union or party political adventures (this was certainly the experience of DAM). This is not to say rank and file initiatives cannot also be a vehicle for workers to begin to take struggles into their own hands. The recent victories for the ‘Sparks’ electricians are a clear example of this potential, notably organising around a specific grievance (pay cuts) rather than a union reform agenda. But for anarcho-syndicalists, rank and filism, much like trade unionism as a whole, is no substitute for revolutionary unionism.
So while it is always necessary to organise with as many workers as possible on a class basis, the unions we seek to build cannot afford to water down their principles to the lowest common denominator. Nor should we content ourselves with tailgating the struggles organised by the mainstream unions which, under neoliberalism, normally means defeat sold as victory. Rather, we should be seeking to build a revolutionary workers’ organisation based on clear anti-capitalist and anti-state principles which can take the initiative in organising struggles. This is what the Solidarity Federation means when it describes itself as a revolutionary union initiative. Having recognised that the existing unions are but minority organisations of activists, and dispensed with the fallacy that “politics begins with millions”, we can recognise that everyday struggles are political. The question becomes a practical one – how to organise collective direct action for ourselves?
We unite the political and the economic because it reflects the realities under capitalism. The working class is at one and the same time oppressed and exploited. If we are ever to be truly free, we must challenge both capitalist exploitation and the power capitalism and the state have over us. The coming together of exploitation and oppression can be clearly seen in the smallest of workplace or community actions. When workers organise they challenge the management’s ‘right’ to manage. When tenants organise they challenge the Iandlord’s ‘right’ to their private property. It matters little whether this takes the form of a fight for increased wages, or reduced rents, or a fight to resist attempts to impose new working or residency conditions. In fighting one we fight the other; the economic and the political cannot be separated. Should the workers win a strike for increased wages, their power to win better conditions improves and vice versa. The revolutionary union unites the political and the economic, seeking to organise collective direct action in the here and now, not waiting to follow the lead of reformists or for struggles to arise spontaneously.
The role of the revolutionary union in the everyday class struggle
What we are describing is sometimes called ‘minority unionism’, but this is somewhat misleading on two counts. First, as we have argued above, even million strong trade unions are in practice, in terms of their presence in the workplace, minority organisations. It is not uncommon for there to be no workplace activists in a given ‘unionised’ workplace. Even when there is, it’s most commonly one or two shop stewards for a whole department or employer. It’s rare for a trade union to have a large density of workplace activists in a single workplace. So all unions, in terms of everyday activity, are as Emile Pouget said, “an active minority.”173 Secondly, we are not a minority out of aspiration, but out of recognition of reality. We, of course, seek the widest possible adoption of anarcho-syndicalist ideas and methods throughout the working class. It’s just that we see no reason to wait until then to organise. We need to use what capacity we have to organise what struggles we can in the here and now.
When we talk of organising direct action, what most immediately springs to mind is the strike. But in truth, a strike requires significant organisation to pull off, and often we may find ourselves setting our sights on other forms of action. Generally speaking, the fewer the number of participants, the less direct economic pressure we can bring to bear, and thus the more we rely on moral pressure. This could be as simple as shunning the boss, such as the members of a team refusing all non-essential communication, perhaps all verbal communication full stop, until their concerns are addressed. This type of action can certainly be organised by individuals, and any propaganda organisation capable of bringing out a newspaper can surely orient itself to such practical activity as well as, or indeed instead of, propaganda activities. Doing so and shouting about it has been, in our experience, a way to attract more militants of a similar persuasion.
Conversely, the greater the number of participants, the more economic pressure we can bring to bear and the less we need rely on moral pressure. At this end of the spectrum is the insurrectionary general strike. We will discuss this more in the following section, which discusses the role of the revolutionary union in the revolutionary process. Needless to say, such an action requires the ability to mobilise millions of workers, and thus a serious level of organisation far beyond anything existing today. We are not saying we can grow into such an organisation by sheer force of will. Such a revolutionary union could be formed by many possible means, and probably through some combination of all of them: simple membership growth, radicalised breakaways from other unions, recruitment from wider waves of struggles, mergers between existing and new organisations along anarcho-syndicalist lines… What we are saying is that by organising class conflicts along anarcho-syndicalist lines in the here and now we can, via the school of struggle, develop both an organisation and wider culture of solidarity and direct action within the working class greater than that which exists at present. The exact path between here and the revolutionary process remains to be trodden. The important thing is that we begin to walk it. What role does the revolutionary union have to play in this process?
The aim of the anarcho-syndicalist union is to act as an organisational force in the daily lives of the working class. We seek to organise workplace and community resistance, and to constantly link this to the need to overthrow the double yoke of capital and the state. We seek the overthrow of capitalism, and for it to be replaced by the self-managed libertarian communist society. Though the physical organisation of resistance is central to our ideas, we do not reject revolutionary theory. But for anarcho-syndicalists, theory grows out of practice and as such, should be seen as an aid to organising workers struggle and not, as so often is the case, a means of dominating and controlling it. And as capitalism is dynamic with conditions constantly changing, so must the methods used by workers to fight it. Engaged in this daily struggle we are best placed to ensure our theory keeps pace.
As anarcho-syndicalists, we oppose all forms of political parties. We reject the notion that governments act in the interest of the working class. They may bring forward minor improvements in order to make electoral gains, but fundamental change can only come about through the power of organised labour. We also reject the so called ‘revolutionary’ parties, on the grounds that, like all political parties, they seek state power. Our aim is the democratically controlled, self-managed libertarian communist society, not one in which the capitalist parties are simply replaced with a Marxist dictatorship. We argue that the workers must take control of their own struggles, as opposed to relying on politicians. We argue for, and seek to organise, direct action both as a means by which workers can democratically control their struggles, and as the most effective weapon in the fight against capitalism. As opposed to voting every few years for some useless politician, we argue that people must organise and confront capitalism and the state head on.
For anarcho-syndicalists, direct action is much more than a tactic to be employed against capitalism. Through the use of direct action, we seek to build a culture of solidarity and mutual aid in direct opposition to the dominant capitalist culture, based on narrow self-interest and greed. Through direct action, the working class can develop the skills, confidence, and understanding of the nature of society needed to administer the future libertarian society. Direct action doesn’t just meet our immediate demands, but frees us from the stultifying reliance on political leaders and the state. Through direct action, the working class can forge the bonds of solidarity that will form the ethos that will underpin the future libertarian communist society. Through direct action, workers can begin to build the foundations of the future libertarian communist society now.
The aim of anarcho-syndicalism is to build militant workers’ organisation, but from a clear revolutionary perspective. It fully realises that conditions in society may vary, and accordingly so will the possibility of organising class struggle. But no matter what the conditions, anarcho-syndicalists argue that militant workers’ organisation cannot be achieved by a political group organising outside of the workplace. Organisation in the workplace will have to be built by the revolutionary union that involves itself in the day to day struggle of workers. But the aim of anarcho-syndicalism is not to enrol every worker into the revolutionary union, but rather to organise mass meetings at which the union argues for militant action. ‘Mass’ does not necessarily mean ‘massive’. If a team consists of five people, then a meeting of four is a mass meeting. Obviously, at the other end of the spectrum, these could include hundreds of workers. But such large meetings can stifle opportunities to participate, and so splitting into smaller meetings, co-ordinated by a delegate council may be more appropriate. The precise forms employed by the revolutionary union are dictated by the needs of the struggle and not by theory. And the revolutionary union does not limit itself to the workplace. Class struggle also takes place against landlords, property developers, the benefits regime, letting agencies, temp agencies, the tax authorities, the prison regime, and other representatives of capital and state.
But neither should the anarcho-syndicalist union be seen as a monolithic organisation that seeks to organise every aspect of human activity. Our aim is to build a revolutionary culture within the working class that will form the basis of the future libertarian communist society. And this revolutionary culture will be as rich and diverse as humanity itself. It will comprise of countless groups and interests, formal and informal, that will operate both in and outside of the union. The role of the union is to bring this diversity together on the basis of class in opposition to capitalism and the state. At the heart of the anarcho-syndicalist union is the Local, which aims to be at the centre of community and workplace struggle in the surrounding area. But the role of the Local goes beyond that. It provides the physical space where a diverse range of groups, such as oppressed, cultural, and education groups can organise. The Local acts as the social, political, and economic centre for working class struggle in a given area. It is the physical embodiment of our beliefs and methods, the means by which workers become anarcho-syndicalist not just on the basis of ideas but activity.
The Local aims to be a hive of working class self-activity in the area, inside and outside the union, a catalyst for workers’ self-activity, an infrastructure and tool of struggle for the working class. It’s a base not only to organise against capital and state, but for all sorts of marginalised and oppressed groups to organise. If we’re serious about prefiguring a libertarian communist society, we must challenge patriarchy, racism, and bigotry of all forms within society and, when necessary, within our own ranks too. So long as we don’t have our own premises, we can use drop in sessions in whatever venues are available, we can use picket lines, or hold regular stalls, to discuss organising with workers. And out of these we’re likely to find fights to pick with capital and the state. In the early days, these fights are likely to be small, attempts to collectivise individual grievances. We can only bite off what we can chew. But by taking on instances of wage theft, stolen deposits, and the other everyday little attacks, we can both win concrete demands but also start to build a culture of direct action, and normalise the idea of standing up for our interests, of fighting for ourselves.
Casualisation is often said to be a new phenomenon which undermines the possibility of organised labour. But this is only partly true. Short term contracts and temp jobs will mean building up a permanent organisation on the job will likely prove difficult to impossible. But this simply calls for different tactics and forms of struggle, in which the Local can play a central role. The Local is the place for casual workers to meet, discuss and develop tactics adequate to their conditions. Remember the casual workers who formed the militant backbone of the early French CGT, and recall the IWW’s itinerant agitator organisers with branches in their satchels. Capital will always seek to break down our areas of strength. But this only forces us to develop new tactics. If we are lucky, we can turn our weaknesses into strengths. Workers may move between jobs too frequently to build up lasting collective organisation on the job, but they’ll often remain in the same sector. So, for instance, restaurant workers belonging to a Local could share ideas and knowledge about employers, and draw on the Local to organise pickets to enforce demands. The flipside to casualisation is, if you’re not going to be in the job long anyway, the threat of losing your job for standing up for yourself is much reduced. For those in more permanent positions, building up solid workplace organisation which could resist victimisation would likely be a better approach.
The typical vanguardist position is that consciousness precedes action. This is, after all, why the vanguard party, bearer of ‘revolutionary consciousnesses,’ must lead the working class. This attitude is explicit in Leninist Marxism but implicit in many other political organisations, even when they seek only to be ‘the leadership of ideas.’ For anarcho-syndicalists, it is the other way around. Workers may not all share our goals of overthrowing capitalism and the state, but we’re not asking them to sign up to that as a precondition of organising. We’re simply asking them to take direct action with us in their own interests. If, in this process, anarcho-syndicalism begins to make more sense to them, then the union gains another member. It should be explained that this is not any old union, concerned only with bread and butter issues, but a revolutionary one also pursuing radical social transformation. This isn’t a question of identifying as an anarcho-syndicalist, but rather of identifying with our methods and goals, whatever your preferred political label (or lack of). It doesn’t do us any good to be recruiting workers who don’t share our aims and methods, nor does it do workers any good to be joining a union whose aims and methods they don’t share. But we should not be afraid to actively recruit through activity either, as this is the only way to expand beyond the existing pool of politicised militants. Revolutionary union activity can expand the pool.
Workplace organisations may be militant but that does not automatically make them revolutionary. We cannot just limit ourselves to organising workplace meetings and hoping they will, as if by magic, gain a revolutionary perspective. Many a militant struggle has demanded union recognition, won it, and then settled down into the normal routine of mediated industrial relations. Our aim is to organise militancy as a stepping stone to revolutionary thinking. The revolutionary union can play a catalytic role in creating such a culture of solidarity and direct action amongst the working class, recruiting those who share our aims and goals into our ranks. As well as raising issues and, where possible, organising action, we should be putting out regular propaganda, attempting to organise workplace meetings, and generally attempting to draw people into SF. In the long term, the aim would be to increase the organisation to the point where workplace meetings will slowly transform, from being simply militant, or primarily economic, meetings to being meetings of revolutionary workers. In effect, the workplace meeting would become the foundation of the anarcho-syndicalist union branch in a given workplace. A similar process can take place in the local area through the Local, which is especially important for casual, unemployed, domestic or retired workers.
We sometimes hear the argument that, by negotiating within capitalism, we risk becoming part of it. But this does not stand the reality test. This is to equate negotiation with class collaboration. But as every demand short of revolution is a negotiation, this approach would in effect brand every organisation that did not demand revolution in every situation as reformist. This is nonsense and pure posturing. Negotiations are simply meetings between workers and the enemy, whether management, the letting agent, or whoever. The factor that determines the nature of negotiations is who is doing the negotiating. Our approach to negotiations is to see them as part of class struggle. Negotiations should be done en masse, or by delegates mandated by all the workers taking action. The revolutionary union does not negotiate on behalf of workers, workers negotiate for themselves, but we don’t shy away from being delegated. We don’t seek negotiations looking for a “just” or “fair” result, but rather to demand as much as possible in any given circumstance. If an action has management on the run, then we do not limit ourselves to the original demand but rather, we seek to press home our advantage and make as many gains as possible. Revolutionary practice consists of the relationship between means and ends. It is the use of direct action to win immediate demands in such a way that builds the confidence, solidarity, and culture needed for further struggles, and ultimately, revolution itself. Revolution is a matter of deeds not words, in our everyday struggles as well as the future upheaval.
It has to be understood that direct action is economic war carried out at a distance. As such, it is always hard to assess what effect a dispute is having on the other side. The only time that the two sides come together is during negotiations. One of the primary aims of negotiations, therefore, is for one side to try to assess what effect the action is having on the other, while attempting to conceal any weaknesses of their own. Should it become clear that the effect of the action is having a greater effect than first thought, then obviously the demands made should increase. The anarcho-syndicalist goes into negotiations as a mandated delegate. But only an idiot would not ask for more if it becomes apparent that management are on the run. Negotiations also have a further role in that they can be used as part of the process of demoralising management. The anarcho-syndicalist union engages in class war, and as in any war, morale or alternately demoralisation plays an important role in the battle. The anarcho-syndicalist union seeks to instil in management a sense of fear, hatred and bewilderment. We want to get to a point where they’re tearing their hair out at our ‘unreasonable’ demands and are desperate to make it stop. On this note, one of our members was once involved in an action which forced the manager to go and buy everyone ice creams on a hot day. When the manager relented and offered to pay for ice creams, they insisted he went to buy them in person. This is the kind of ‘unreasonable’ and demoralising power we seek to have over management. And needless to say, ice cream does not equal reformism.
The anarcho-syndicalist approach is to pick fights we can win, and use these victories to attract more workers into our orbit and to demonstrate the validity of our anti-capitalist and anti-state approach. It is true that most workers don’t share our perspective at the present time. But this is not a fixed fact, but dependent on numerous variables, some of which we can control and others which we cannot. In practice, we have found that at least some of our fellow workers are open to our revolutionary ideas and methods, whereas reformism is most often pushed by politicos convinced that ‘ideology’ puts off ‘the workers’ (remember the Treintistas). And we should add, the distance between disillusionment in your job and party politics, attitudes which are widespread, and a revolutionary perspective is not as great as many specialists in ‘revolutionary theory’ like to insist. Many of us have traversed it, and there’s nothing special about us. Being against capitalism and the state in the abstract doesn’t make much sense. But when it’s expressed through direct action, asserting our independence from those we struggle against, it’s almost common sense. Through the process of struggle, we are confident our perspective will come to appear more and more self-evident, even as it evolves through these experiences.
For example, it is often difficult to conduct anything resembling direct action in the streets these days without coming into conflict with the police. Marching without prior permission, or leaving the route of a march (or sometimes for no apparent reason at all), is likely to attract police repression. Police repression vindicates our anti-state perspective. Many of our newest members have been politicised by the baton in the recent struggles over tuition fees and austerity. But the police are in a bind. If they don’t respond with repression, then we’re free to organise direct action, such as picketing temp agencies and organising economic or communications blockades. When these tactics get the goods, they vindicate our anti-capitalist, direct action ethos. If our understanding of the nature of society is broadly correct, then struggles should expose the fault lines between the working class on the one side and capital and the state on the other. Through waging the everyday class war, anarcho-syndicalist ideas can become a working class common sense. Deposit stolen? Picket, occupy, and blockade the bastards. Problems at work? Get some workmates together and get organised.
SF members in the same industry also form industrial networks. At present, these are small and function mostly as email lists for discussion and the production of propaganda. Unlike Locals, Networks are geographically dispersed and so lack the immediacy of face to face organisation, and are thus limited in what they can do, for now at least, with most practical activity being carried out through Locals. But as we grow, there is the potential to form industrial Locals, as well as workplace branches of SF, which linked together through the industrial networks, will form embryonic revolutionary industrial unions. We, of course, do not mean ‘industrial’ in the sense of smokestacks, but in the sense of ‘one workplace, one union’. So for instance on a university campus, porters, cleaners, teaching assistants and academic staff (assuming they were not bosses of some sort) would form a workplace branch, which in turn would form part of the Education Workers’ Network. For us, this is still in its early stages. For our sister-sections in Spain and Italy, workplace branches and industrial unions are far more advanced. British conditions, particularly with regard to trade union legislation, are somewhat different. But that only impacts the details, not the broad thrust of what we’re trying to do.
As we are presently a tiny minority of the working class, we will need to organise beyond our membership. Even if we were 10,000 times larger, this would still be the case; as we saw, it was even the case in Catalonia in 1936. Various organisational forms can be employed for this purpose: from workplace committees, mass meetings, neighbourhood assemblies, and strike committees, through to factory committees, delegate councils, or a fully fledged federation of workers councils. None of these forms are a panacea and all have their drawbacks as well as benefits. Rather, they are democratic means of organising which can be employed by the revolutionary union as the needs of the struggle dictate. The particular forms of organisation we employ reflect the content of the struggle. In Puerto Real, workplace and community mass meetings were a vital part of the struggle. But we have also attended ‘mass meetings’ organised by reformist unions, where a string of top table speakers mouth platitudes to a bored audience, or which simply serve to rubber stamp decisions already made elsewhere. In the case of the Workmates collective on the London Underground, the delegate council they set up was sidelined by action coming directly from the mass meetings. But if similar mass meetings were happening across multiple work sites, something like a delegate council could have proved indispensible in joining up the struggles. The content of the struggle must shape the forms we use. The role of the revolutionary union is to take the initiative in organising struggles in the first place.
The role of the revolutionary union in the revolutionary process
Just as the anarcho-syndicalist union cannot and does not wish to organise all aspects of human activity, nor does it seek to organise the revolution on behalf of the working class. For us, revolutions come about when the anger of the oppressed can no longer be contained by the power of the oppressors, leading to an explosion of anger that drives revolutionary change. Revolutions break out, they cannot be planned, they cannot be predicted, they cannot be organised. But if they are to succeed, revolutions have to move quickly from anger to decisive action. The revolution has to be advanced and defended, people have to eat, they need water and electricity, and these things have to be organised. The role of the anarcho-syndicalist union is to act as a catalyst and organising force within the revolution to ensure its success.
Within the revolutionary process, the anarcho-syndicalist union seeks to organise the insurrectionary general strike as the means by which the workers take control of the streets and the workplaces. This means that, amidst strike waves and street demonstrations, riots and political turmoil, the revolutionary union looks to generalise the strikes, to turn them from walkouts into expropriations, restarting production and distribution under self-management to meet social needs. The insurrectionary general strike marks the start of the process of building the libertarian communist society. The production and distribution of goods and services is taken over under workers’ democratic control and run on the basis of human need. The revolutionary union seeks to organise a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party, bar none. These organisations of the working class both administer production and distribution according to needs, and supplant the authority of the state. Militias are formed to defend the revolution from the external forces of capitalism and to shut down the forces of the state. The building blocks of the new society are put in place on top of the foundations laid by the preceding struggles.
In truth, the idea of revolution in one country always belonged to the bourgeois revolutionaries, who sought to seize control of the state and turn it into an instrument of capitalist development. The 20th century is a striking indictment of the notion that revolution in one country could ever result in anything remotely communist. Isolated and surrounded on all sides, even the most impeccable revolution would leave revolutionaries stranded on an island, facing the permanent threat of military intervention, and the necessity to source resources unavailable domestically from the world market. Whilst defensive forces can be organised in a non-statist manner through workers militias, it is hard to see how a permanent war footing in such an embattled revolutionary pocket could establish and maintain libertarian communist social relations. The necessities to engage with the world market and to maintain war production would undermine the reorganisation of society to meet human needs. The revolution we seek will be worldwide or it will not be at all.
Thus, the revolutionary process we have described should not be conceived of as a national one, or even a series of national revolutions one after the other. Indeed, there is no reason to think such waves of class struggle will respect national borders. The international wave of class struggles following World War I certainly did not, and nor did the wave of struggles from 1968. To be sure, national identity is a powerful force for many workers, but the daily work of the revolutionary union in its cultural and educational aspects, as well as practical international solidarity, should have helped to undermine its appeal in favour of working class internationalism. As Rudolf Rocker wrote of the First International, it “became the great school mistress of the socialist labour movement and confronted the capitalist world with the world of international labour, which was being ever more firmly welded together in the bonds of proletarian solidarity.”175
Language too is a material barrier to the international circulation of struggles. A true revolutionary international could only assist in this process of circulation and co-ordination. Here too, there is much work to be done. The IWA is mainly centred in Europe and South America. Many of our sections, including ourselves, are not (yet) functioning unions. We hope this text can help in the movement from propaganda groups towards revolutionary unions across the International. But even then, there is still work to do. It is now impossible to conceive of the kind of worldwide revolutionary wave we’re discussing, without the working class populations of China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and countless other countries playing a prominent part. Conditions for organising in many of these places are hostile to say the least. But yet they have seen massive waves of autonomous struggles outside the control of the official unions which dwarf the struggles in Europe in recent years. If we are serious that “all the revolutionary workers of the world must build a real International Association of Workers”, we must find ways to open a dialogue with such groups.
It is difficult to know where to start. This is a profoundly practical question beyond the scope of this text. It will require much discussion, and trial and error to move towards an answer. We raise it here simply to acknowledge the scale of the task we have set for ourselves. Perhaps this process could begin with making anarcho-syndicalist materials available in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Arabic, Farsi… and by seeking to initiate a dialogue around revolutionary unionist practices, translating any correspondence that results back into European tongues. Perhaps we could seek out and build contacts in parts of the world where the IWA lacks a presence, then seek to turn contacts into sections, small sections from propaganda groups into unions, and for union sections to begin to weave a culture of direct action into the daily life of the working class. Perhaps there are already radical workers’ groupings operating along similar lines and we simply are unaware of each others’ existence. Such working class internationalism represents a practical task of vital importance to the prospects of any global revolutionary wave that sweeps away capital and states to instantiate libertarian communism.
However a global revolutionary wave starts, somewhere goes first. Some factory or office or infrastructure is the first to be taken over. The drive for this is likely to be material necessity. People need to eat, people need electricity, people need water. If the revolutionary wave isn’t sparked by an economic crisis, it’s sure to provoke one. With a worldwide wave of strikes, occupations, demonstrations and riots, workers will begin to go hungry, while the capitalists, who have the deepest pockets, will be stockpiling reserves. Thus, within this process, the revolutionary union seeks to generalise the strike wave, across industries, localities, and national borders. And as it generalises, it seeks to organise for the strikes to become occupations. To expropriate the expropriators and seize back social production for human needs.
Everything we know about social revolutions suggests they are messy, contradictory processes, an open clash of opposing forces that sees advances and retreats, consolidations and capitulations. They proceed unevenly in fits and starts, ebbs and flows, and all the more so when we’re not talking about the overthrow of one state, but 200 or more! The rupture with capitalism is likely to follow this pattern, developing unevenly, with revolutionary surges battling counter revolutionary inertia and attempts to restore the sanctity of private property. Some of these clashes are likely to be armed. However, revolution is not principally a military question but a social one. Stripped of their capital by workplace occupations, and stripped of their states by the beating back of the police, and mutinies amongst the troops when ordered to fire on ‘their own’, the ruling class will represent a much diminished force. Still, they will likely unleash whatever violence they can via the state or mercenary forces to crush the revolution, and this will need to be met with violence, organised along libertarian lines through a militia system.
The libertarian communist revolution is a process. It is a movement. It will likely develop and blossom from strike waves to expropriations over a period of years. This isn’t a ‘transitional phase’, it is what the revolution is. We do not wake up one morning and find that libertarian communism has been proclaimed. We seize back society from capital and the state as much as we can, and push for libertarian communist social relations as much as possible. We aim for the abolition of wages and the distribution of goods and services according to need. We aim for the abolition of all state power and the destruction of all social hierarchies, whether based on gender, colour or anything else. Through direct action in our daily struggles, the working class forges the bonds of solidarity and forms the ethos that will underpin the future libertarian communist society. The foundations will have been laid by the preceding struggles. The idea of revolution as a glorious day was born on the threshold of the Bastille and embellished with the Bolshevik mythologising of the storming of the Winter Palace.177 We must let it go.
Any global revolution will have its dramatic days, but the idea of revolution as an instantaneous transition belongs to those who wish to seize power in a single state. It is utterly inadequate for the overthrow of an entire mode of production. Libertarian communism is not something to be established ‘after the revolution’. The revolutionary process is the process of creating libertarian communism, a process which is likely to build in rising waves, rather than be achieved on a single glorious day. As more and more workplaces are seized, and as the state forces are weakened and states begin to crumble, private property becomes a mere memory of a bygone era, like tithes and tributes before it. Expropriated workplaces do not relate to each other as isolated enterprises trading in a market. They federate together into a single entity, pooling resources on the basis of needs under self-management, and doing away with wage labour, as the necessities of life become available to the working class directly from our own efforts, without the mediation of the market.
The revolutionary union is vital to play both a preparatory role for these decisive struggles, and to generalise the libertarian communist movement within them towards the insurrectionary general strike when they erupt. Yes, the task is a great one. But of course, we only want the world.