On Todd‘s suggestion I read this discussion document by some members of SolFed. I had a strongly negative first reaction, which Todd tells me is because lately I’m ‘on an anti-ultraleftist war path’ which has led me to make an uncharitable mistake. Namely, he tells me (and I think he’s right, after a phone conversation) that I’m taking possible bad views/practices which could conceivably fit under some of the document’s points as if that was what the document was advocating and as if that’s all that could fit. In other words, I’m reacting to the weakest/worst possible version of the document’s ideas rather than the strongest/best – a failure of imagination that means I’m not making of this what could be made of it. That’s all quite reasonable and I’m going to revisit this when I get time. I’ve also asked Todd and ND to type up what positive things they take away from the piece, since they both liked it and I generally agree with them on nearly everything. That will probly help me get more out of this. For now though here are my admittedly overly negative notes.

” unlike the IWW on the one hand, and Marxists and social democrats on the other, anarcho-syndicalists rejected the separation of economic (trade union) and political (party) struggles.”

I’m being petty but this seems to me questionable on historical grounds. Many of the core IWW members early on were Marxists. What’s more, I think IWW members conceptions of the relationships between economic/union and political/party struggle varied across the membership and over time. Little hangs on the point, really, but I feel compelled to make it because it doesn’t fit w/ what I’ve read about/by early IWW people.

Particularly if ‘political’ is understood in these terms:

“workers themselves should unite to fight for their interests whether at the point of production or elsewhere, not leave such struggles to the specialists of political parties or union officials or still less neglect political goals such as the overthrow of capital and the state in favour of purely economic organisation around wages and working hours.”

in that understanding, I don’t see where it makes sense to say the IWW separated politics and economics.

About anarchosyndicalists –

“The goal of these unions – as suggested in the Rudolph Rocker quote above – was to expropriate the means of production and manage them democratically without bosses. As such, the dominant tendency saw building the union as ‘building the new society in the shell of the old.’ The same directly democratic structures created to fight the bosses would form the basic structure of a new society once the bosses were successfully expropriated.

This makes the historical point about the IWW a bit weird, since the quoted bit about the shell of the old is from the IWW preamble and the last sentence is a pretty clear statement of one early IWW ideology.

Historical questions aside, I’m very sympathetic to the position that the document is questioning here, but I think the questions are right – it’s not clear to me that this view I like – unions as the structures of future postcapitalist society’s collective self-management – actually holds up under scrutiny.

As a result of this view, they write, for many early syndicalists ” building the union was seen as one and the same as building both the new society and the social revolution that would bring it about. Class struggle became not just a question of (self-)organisation, but of building the organisation.”

I’m not sure what to make of this. I think this is an accurate description of the views they’re criticizing, but the criticism seems a bit … well, it seems like a theoretical rather than a historical criticism. That’s abstract, which is ironic because abstract is what I’m trying to say is the problem in this quote. I guess I’d like to see an example of this mistake in action then an example of how this mistake was avoided in another context, or a hypothetical example of how it could have been avoided.

“In contrast to classical anarcho-syndicalism, contemporary platformism seeks not to build mass organisations, but to insert into them and influence them in an anarchist direction.”

That seems pretty accurate to me and I agree with their rejection of it.

“For Rosa Luxemburg, anarcho-syndicalists had an undialectical view of revolution where they could build up their organisation, the one big union, set the date for the revolutionary general strike and that would be it. There was no space for spontaneity, or for learning from struggle and adapting the forms accordingly; the anarcho-syndicalist union was taken as a given.”

Again on the historical piece I’m not sure this applies to the IWW, I’d like to see an example of people holding this view. I’m not willing to take Luxemburg’s word for it. Parrallel to what I said above, I’d also like to see an example of this mistake in action, and an example or a hypothetical of this mistake being avoided in action.

The document quotes Dauve: “You can’t destroy a society by using the organs which are there to preserve it”

This sounds to me like more heat than light. What defines an organ and what defines an organ ‘being there to’ perform some function? I mean, depending on these terms are defined, the dominant tendency under capitalism is for human labor power to be used to preserve capitalism, to preserve the commodification of labor power. It does not follow from this that labor power can only do this. Dauve’s argument implies it would.

“mass assemblies open to all workers regardless of union membership, whilst arguing for the core anarcho-syndicalist principles of solidarity, direct action and rank-and-file control”

That’s great when workers are likely to be moved by those principles, but clearly we can’t just wait for these conditions. It also seems to me that the example here is fundamentally a reactive one: gov’t proposes cuts, workers fight to stop them. I think I’m actually agreeing with part of the document, though, that the organizations of the class are as radical as the class is. I’d like to see this laid out with more examples and local/situational specificity.

Workmates sounds interesting but I see little connection to the earlier parts of the essay and again it’s got a strong reactive element – privatization happened, workers responded.

Dauve: “Communist revolution is the creation of non-profit, non-mercantile, co-operative and fraternal social relations”

Again, more heat than light. Capitalism relies on these types of relationships, for one thing. Ditto the form content stuff, more heat than light.

“some forms sustain and expand the struggle while others strangle and suppress it”

Yes, but inherently or contextually?

“Since it is the class struggle that will create libertarian communism, we must always give it primacy over the needs of particular organisational forms.”

This too seems to me like an apparent insight with little real content. What does it mean to give the class struggle primacy over particular organizational forms? This at least sounds like there’s particular forms of class struggle and then there’s class struggle. Trying to be more charitable, I think what we actually do is make decisions for and against particular practices and organizations. There’s no prioritizing class struggle over form, class struggle exists only in its forms. There is a key point here, though, which is that sometimes we have to change our practices and organizations and strategies – we have to have 2nd order strategies, so to speak. (I got that term from this article on Lenin.)

Gomez: “decisions within this particular conflict were made by those people who were directly involved in the conflict”

This is only good if people make relatively good decisions, or if people come away better for having been involved in the decision making. Here I think I’m agreeing really, though it felt like an objection at first.

“we hold that not only are permanent mass organisations not revolutionary, but that in the final analysis they are counter-revolutionary institutions ”

Nonsense on stilts. In a discussion thread on libcom one of the authors (I think) specifies that they mean to offer up ideal types as tendencies. In that case, this is actually a super important point, but it seems to me that as posed here it’s so clumsy as to be potentially pernicious. Posed as a tendency, this is actually a key insight: all permanent mass organizations face pressures to make them become actively counter-revolutionary. Why I think it’s crucial that this be posed as a tendency rather than a foregone conclusion, though, is that this tendency can be pushed against at least in some circumstances. If it’s just conceded then people won’t fight the tendency.

“Permanent mass organisations such as trade unions exist as things which organise workers. By contrast, the revolutionary unions advocated by anarcho-syndicalists are an expression of a process of workers’ self-organisation at its higher points.”

This seems to me largely a straw-man. Trade unions that successfully organize, at least in my experience in the US, rely on the organizing activities of workers themselves.

“Mass, permanent organisations are by definition de-linked from the levels of militancy of their members and class struggle more broadly. Therefore, they are not expressions of the self-organisation of workers sought by anarcho-syndicalists, but for the representation of workers as workers.”

I don’t see where this definition is actually established. I’m not sure if I understand some of the point around this but I associate this with an argument I’ve run into that goes something like this, a sort of Scylla and Charybdis (sp?) for would-be radical mass organizations:

‘The actually existing working class is not radical. Therefore if you let just any worker join then if a bunch of workers join up you will either have an organization who is not radical because it reflects the politics of its members or you have an organization which is undemocratically run by radicals.’ That argument sounds well and good but it doesn’t fit with my experience and it leaves its hypothetical example really underexamined. That is: how and when and why do people actually join or would people actually join a mass organization? One answer is “they’d get some economic benefit from it.” In which case, the argument holds. Another answer is “in response to some shift in their outlook.” I’ve never seen this happen in large quantities but I have seen individuals participate in actions in workplaces which in turn change things: those individuals build relationships with radicals involved in those actions, those individuals come to understand their workplace and larger society somewhat differently, and they get plugged in to conversations about values and about understanding society. When joining an organization happens in that context, this Scylla/Charybdis paid is a lot less problematic. Part of where I think there are some stakes to this is that I think this argument could have negative consequences on our activities. I know it’s hard and in some particular moments not the right move but in the mid- to long-term we should aim to talk to all or almost all of our coworkers about why they should be involved in our collective efforts, and that includes frank discussions of values (in a way that tries to meet them where they’re at, to get them to move to our values by starting from theirs).

I also don’t see why mass organizations *must* represent workers, though most actually existing ones do. “If they cannot offer the promise of industrial peace, they are in no position to negotiate.” This is true of unions in general. It’s not true of mass organizations per se in the sense of being inherent, and is not at all true of mass organizations like tenants’ organizations. (That said, there *is* and important question here about labor peace, I’ve been meaning to post up some thoughts on this w/r/t noncontractual organizaing, I’ll do that next I suppose.)

Union “do act as a limited expression of struggles precisely to secure their role as representatives.” Yes, often. But not always. I’d like to see some discussion of new organizing done by unions here. Without that, I think this an over-reach.

That said, this seems totally right to me: “as workers we think it makes sense to be union members in workplaces where a trade union is recognised. But as anarcho-syndicalists we hold no illusions in reforming them in accordance with our principles.”

“agitate to build the class struggle itself”

ditto my earlier comments re: second order strategy and how form is at best only partially a useful category here. There is no ‘class struggle itself’ to build. We build the class struggle in instances, organized activities. Here too I think there’s a really key point but I think it’s poorly expressed here. To be fair, I’m not sure how to phrase it better.

“we see the development of such networks as a concrete project for practical co-operation with other pro-revolutionary groups and non-aligned individuals who also see the need for them. The role of these networks would be to produce industrially specific propaganda and agitate industrially for direct action, solidarity and rank-and-file control. In the immediate term this means invisible, ‘faceless resistance’, but the goal is to foster open conflict controlled by mass meetings of all workers.”

“we share an economic position with fellow workers who may well be militant without sharing all our political ideas”

I’m for this project but it’s not clear to me what ‘militant’ means. Is the goal to gather together existing workers who are currently active/class conscious to some way? Or is it to move other workers who are not currently active/class conscious to become more so through moving them into participation in mass struggles? These are not incompatible options, but it seems to me that there’s a difference between ‘bring together who is around now’ and ‘make it so more people are around’. That is, where do militants come from and do we try to produce them?

I had some more thoughts afterward. One of the arguments in the peice, as I think I said,
is that mass organizations face problems that constitute pressure that are likely to shape the practices of the organization, which can operate in such a way/to such a degree that the mass organization itself can become a problem. I think I agree with that but I’m not sure to do with that, and I think the piece implies they agree – they say for instance “it does not follow that we reject membership or activity within the trade unions, as their ultimately counter-revolutionary nature does not mean revolution would break out tomorrow if they suddenly ceased to be.” They’re not saying, I think, that it’d be better if unions just went away or never existed.

I actually think a really important set of questions are opened up by this, my initial uncharitable reading made me miss this, though like I said I think it should be posed as a tendency. One of the things that my closest comrades and I have tried to think about and to some extent to practice is going outside the regular framework of industrial relations in workplace based organizations, I just posted a think piece on this that I wrote a while back, trying to get at some limits of noncontractual approaches. (In this think piece I think I do some of the stuff that I didn’t really like w/ this SolFed piece, to be fair.)

In some discussions with DH I remember a point something to the effect that we should be careful or be aware that the results of today’s struggles can be the obstacles for tomorrow’s struggles. I think there’s a similar sentiment involved in this SolFed piece. I think that sentiment is right, but I’m not sure what to do with that. It seems to me that we can also say that today’s unresolved obstacles can also be tomorrow’s obstacles. That is, one conclusion to this point could be to not be part of certain struggles today, sometimes that may well be the better conclusion but not always.

I’d like to see some of this or some analogy to this point about pressures that can lead to deformation of organizations (they might not accept that characterization) or organizations being counter-revolutionary be applied to other sorts of organizations — applied to political organizations, to propaganda groups, to networks. After thinking further about this w/r/t the SolFed piece I’d like try to think about this w/r/t the noncontractual organizing stuff in that thinkpiece I wrote. There are pressures and tendencies on this kind of organizing too – one of them leads to just plain dispersal. This is part of my objection about the permanent vs nonpermanent organizations piece, which is that calling forms non-permanent seems to me to give up on a goal of trying to be permanent. Dispersal is not a virtue and we shouldn’t take non-permanence as desirable or a foregone conclusion.

Note to self, come back to this later w/ some notes from conversation with ND re: hand dues etc and being willing to shrink if necessary but balancing that with fighting against shrinking (ie, necessary is a retroactive perspective, the point is not so much be willing to shrink as build in mechanisms to prevent growth/sustaining at the cost of moving right). He also suggested we just straight up ask these cats about this and other points, which is a good idea. Hopefully he’ll write up some thoughts on this too. (I tried to get him to agree to 500 words a week, we’ll see.)