I recently read a document by the Brighton branch of the Solidarity Federation as well as a privately circulated response to it. I posted my notes on the document before and have had some correspondence on it, mostly trying to lay out questions. After conversations with my friends Nick and Todd and Pete I’ve decided to give this another go. I wrote some more, condensing my notes into nots. Some of this follows on from the discussion on Hamerquist’s Lenin piece and for me ties to questions about organization and organizing that I’ve been wrestling with (fumbling over in the dark) recently. I don’t have my blog well enough organized right now to tie those posts together, maybe I will someday.

Anyhow –

Analysis is not strategy. Marx’s understanding of capitalism is vital but it is not sufficient. Knowing how exploitation operates does not tell us how to abolish exploitation. To put this awkwardly analysis underdetermines strategy. Analysis provides a map, but maps don’t decide what destinations we choose, or what routes we take to get there.

The Brighton Solidarity Federation (from here I will say “SolFed” for the sake of brevity, though I recognize that this piece is minority view within the Solidarity Federation) analysis of the mainstream labor movement does not provide a strategy of what to do with regard to the mainstream labor movement. The strategic orientation in the piece is away from the mainstream labor movement. The bulk of the piece emphasizes pushing our orientation away, most of the lessons and conclusions are negative. I agree with most of this, but I think there is something missing in the analysis of the mainstream labor movement. This something missing is at the level of analysis, I think this is missing in part because the piece mixes strategy and analysis and its primary stakes are in choosing a direction — the piece is about choosing destinations and laying possible routes to those destinations — more than in drawing a map. I think the piece could be taken to imply an only partially accurate map, though. I am not at all clear what the strategic consequence would be of this point I am trying to make; I’m not sure if it even has any strategic consequence.

What I mean is… I agree with pretty much all the criticisms that most people I know have of the mainstream labor movement. At the same time, I know people who have been radicalized by experiences in the mainstream labor movement – being a worker at a place that was organized by a union, being a worker at a place where people went on strike due to contract negotiations. One of the key people who started my local organization got radicalized by going out on strike as a member of a mainstream union during contract negotiations. This experience ended up helping cause my organization to be formed. It seems to me that whatever else we say about mainstream unions and the system of industrial relations, we have to admit that some of the time workers get radicalized by conflicts in that arena.

Strategy is not tactics.
As I said above, the piece primarily emphasizes a move away from the strategic priority of the mainstream labor movement. The piece seems to me to mainly be motivated by wanting other people to make this move. Not only from the mainstream labor movement but from replicating practices found in the mainstream labor movement. Here too I think I mostly agree, despite my sense that the implied analysis, the implicit map, is inaccurate or has some holes in it.

One disconnect I have is simply that I have friends and comrades who live in areas that are off this analysis, their homes are in the holes in the map. I can’t help but wonder what they ought to do with this piece. That’s somewhat unfair, as the piece does say that they advocate people joining mainstream unions in the places where they exist. The practices they recommend that go along with this are unclear.

It seems to me there are multiple tactics that could fit – or at least could be mistakenly understood to fit – under its strategic framework. As I’ve said repeatedly, the primary force of the piece is negative: don’t strategically prioritize the mainstream labor movement! Don’t try to replicate unions in new contexts because you’ll end up with more of the same! I agree with both of these in broad strokes, the second point is particularly relevant for the sorts of things I’m tied to.

On the other hand… two things. First, I think the piece needs more on how this strategy relates to tactical situations where people are all ready in motion in relation to the mainstream labor movement and/or practices and organizational forms typical of normal industrial relations. As Hamerquist has pointed out, there are tactical reasons to be involved in things we might strategically avoid most of the time. We require situational flexibility at the level of tactics. In some cases, the approaches which this piece (rightly) aims to orient us away from are still practices that make sense. That is, in some contexts within the limits of our abilities – including the limits of our ability to persuade people around us – it may be that involvement with the mainstream labor movement is our best option. I think this is particularly true with regard to new organizing. When a unionization effort happens in our workplaces, we should be involved in it.

Even if I’m wrong on all of this, this speaks again to gap in the piece, another way in which I another people I know have concerns and experiences that fall into a whole in the map. Or rather, to keep on with this extended and mixed metaphor, that lie in locations that are at best detours along the route that the piece sketches. I grew up in a rural area between two cities. Some of this piece reads to me like people in one city discussing how to best get to another. That’s fine, but for those of us who live a few miles from that route, we need to figure out how to get to the highway then how to take that highway onto the route laid out. Enough beating around the bush: it’s well and good to say we shouldn’t orient toward the mainstream labor movement and the practices customary under the dominant forms of industrial relations, but some of us are already in contexts where that negative lesson has little immediate or short term application. Or at least, the lessons to take away are hard to see, since the strategic perspective laid out doesn’t seem to start from any particular (and therefore tactical) context. I for one need a sense of how to act tactically in contexts that are less than perfect, in contexts where it’s hard to see this strategy applying, and to act in ways that help move toward a condition where this strategy is more immediately applicable. I am mainly thinking here about people like I mentioned above, who get/got radicalized by struggles in/waged by (saturated by?) mainstream unions, how to proceed from that point onward.

Second, even in contexts where people are not already bound up in a mainstream union or related stuff, I think the piece is vague on what it wants to see happen. One of the reasons why people fall into the dominant industrial relations models is that they’re fairly clear and understandable. Some of that clarity may be false and it may help induce a false sense of security (a friend told me a story about a labor board election where someone in the campaign used this line to get to a majority of card signers: “we’ve already got enough signatures to win but the more people that sign the more of a message it sends to management so the more we’ll get in negotiations”) but while false it’s still real in the sense that it’s alluring. By way of another metaphor, part of what Marx does in Capital is to show that there is a way in which the immense wealth of capitalist society is not fully or not always really wealth – not all that glitters is gold. Some forms of wealth are false, and masks real poverty (poverty it depends on). In a sense, the mainstream labor movement and the normal industrial relations models of organizing and organization are tactically wealthy, even if some of this wealth is false. That wealth of tactics makes it compelling: it is relatively easy to imagine how everything will work if one proceeds in that direction. It is much harder to imagine – we have much less of an apparent wealth of tactics – if we proceed (as we should!) in an alternative direction. The SolFed piece is, umm, of a piece with this. The positive contents of what it calls for (and the very few and very briefly presented examples it offers) are schematic, they’re thin. I for one am hungry for more tactical perspective on these matter than I am for strategic writings. I think this strategic perspective will be more attactive, more desirable, hell more practicable and imaginable if it comes after or in addition to way, way more details on tactics — on possible ranges of tactics, and preferably with examples from actual practices. And, tactics are not a militants. Perspectives are not (and do not build their own) constituencies. That is, the level of tactical detail I think we need should include what may seem like very basic points of practice and skills, about how to move from very small and often isolated grouplets into being slightly less small and still largely isolated grouplets, and from there to become slightly bigger and so on over time. That is: a network of militans needs militants to be built, which means a plan to find militants, and a means to gather the ones who exist. And that network will need enough tactical ability and experience to be able to implement strategies (and, I suspect, to have meaningful evaluations of strategy… as I’ve said before I think for a lot of people my age and younger, there’s a lack of experience which needs to be filled/made up for; I see this as largely a precondition for meaningfully implementing a real strategy — a subjective transitional program, a pre-program or proto-program, really).

Finally, militants are not given or static. Likewise for the non-militants who are implied by the term ‘network of militants’. We also know that people light up, step forward, stick around. Some level of this is likely ineliminable. I can’t imagine a condition where we have a zero rate of attrition and I can’t imagine a condition where no one ever comes around of their own accord. But we need to be deliberate – have discussions about, plan for – ways to deal with and reduce attrition. More than that, we need to be pro-active in making new militants. One way to do so is to win people from other perspectives – the people who will be convinced to re-orient themselves away from the mainstream unions and the organizational forms/practices normal to prevailing industrial relations. Another way, perhaps, and related I think to the previous point, is to propandize. A third way, one that in my view should take priority, is to attempt to get currently non- or less militant people to become militant through experiences of collective action. This comes back to a matter of tactics. The network of militants ought to organize in such a way that it provides experiences to people outside the network, experiences that are potentially transformative, and in such a way that it does its best to take advantage of this potential. What that really means, of course, is in the details, in the tactics, and not the strategy, and this needs to be elaborated further.