“Fighting For Ourselves ” – lots to learn, a few things to criticize

Wednesday 2 January 2013

This review of “Fighting For Ourselves” was first posted as a blog  piece on Libcom.org.

“Fighting For Ourselves”, a new book by which SolFed explains it s view on anarchosyndicalism, deserves to be widely read. In what follows, I try to review the book, both highlighting its strengths and pointing to a few problems I encountered on the way.

“Fighting For Ourselves” , a new book in which Solidarity Federation (SolFed) explains its views on how to struggle against the bosses and the state, why anarchosyndicalism makes sense in that respect, and what anarchosyndicalist strategy could look like in the twenty first century, is a challenge to read and to think about. I spent a few grey December days reading the whole thing on Libcom , and it made the days a little bit less grey. The thing should be widely read, thought about and talked about, preferably also outside the small circles of usual suspects.

This is no easy propaganda piece. It methodically goes through the rise and dynamics of what it calls the mainstream workers’ movement, different revolutionary traditions arising in opposition to both the system and the mainstream workers’ movement, before going deep into anarchosyndicalism, the revolutionary tradition in which SolFed stands and which it wants to build in Britain. Finally, we get a view on what such anarchosyndicalism could mean in practice, and how this practice can build to revolution through which to fight for libertarian communism. That is a very short summary, and I will not pretend to do the argument full justice. A few things, however, deserve to be highlighted.

What I found most useful is the analysis of union movenents’ two contradictory dynamics: what the book calls the associational dynamic, as opposed to its representative dynamic. The associational role of union movements points towards its ringing workers together for common interests, a common fight against the boss. It is, simply said, the workers united. The representative role is the union talking on behalf of workers, speaking in their name, becoming a negotiating partner of bosses and state, and impicitly accepting these opponents’ legitimacy. Connected with this representational role is the distance developing between the union as an organization, and the workers within that union. Bureaucratic leadership, both representing the workers and disciplining them as agreements with the bosses demand, flows from this representational dimension: “a consequence of representing workers to capital is that you must also represent capital to workers, becoming a barrier to militant rank and file initiative.” How this representation works out in practice, can be seen in the development of both the traditional trade union movement and the Labour Party and similar parties, a development that, in its British variant, gets thorough treatment in the book. The idea that revolutionaries should somehow capture the state through either elections or insurrection, also gets short shrift. “Party politics aims at capturing the state, but when you capture the state, the state also captures you.” Both the Bolshevik taking of power in the Russian revolution and its aftermath, and the history of the Labour Party, provide examples around which the argument is build to great effect.

The alternative lies in building upon the associational dimension of workers’ organizing themselves for, in and through struggle. The book explains different traditions which try to do so. There is anarchism, simply described as “socialism without the state”; there is syndicalism, simply described as “unions without bureaucrats”; there is council communism, simply described as “Marxism without a party”. The traditions are related in their rejection of top-down power, bureaucratic leadership, and in their stress on direct workers’ action from below. Yet, they are not the same, and I found the explanation especially of what separates council communism from the later fusion between anarchism an syndicalism that became anarchosyndicalism, very valuable. Where councilists stress the spontaneous nature of workers’strugge, and its spontaneous and temporary organizational forms (committees, councils), anarchosyndicalists stress the methodical building of much more permanent working class organization, revolutionary unions and groups that propagate the need for such unions, i.e., SolFed, and SolFed-like organizations. Different ways of operating, but clearly working towards the same goal and building around a similar dynamic.

Very valuable also is the historical overview of anarchosyndicalism itself. We read about the founders and men of ideas, especially Emile Pouget who is quoted extensively. We learn a lot about the big anarchosyndicalist movements, the CNT in Spain, but also the very much less well known FORA in Argentine. The paragraphs on the CNT in Spain, its strength and ultimate failure in the Spanish Revolution in 1936-37, are brilliant in my view. The book does not take the easy way of saying “the leaders joined the Popular Front and eventuallyjoined the government; in doing so, they stopped being anarchists; i. e. the CNT’s failure was not a failure of anarchism but of a lack of anarchism”, and leaving things there. For, while this way of saying is not wrong, it does not explain why the leaders took the steps they did, and what allowed them the space to do it. Were they just weak and/ or treacherous individuals? “Fighting For Ourselves” digs deeper than that, and tries to explain the process of bureaucratization that the CNT was already going through, with lots of workers being members on almost an ordinary trade union basis, and the role of safeguarding the revolutionary role of the CNT exercised by the FAI. This reproduced a kind of split between political and economic struggle, a split that is characteristic of exactly the traditional workers’ movement with its trade unions on one side and parties on the other. Anarchosyndicalism did not recognize this separation and was a way of overcoming it. After all, workers fighting bosses and state couldn’t permit those aspects to be so separated. The CNT-FAI-model, however, reproduced a similar political-versus-economic divide, and encouraged leadership roles more and more separate from the rank and file. This analysis – here probably very inadequately summarized by me – is not the last and final word on what went wrong in Spain 1936; but it contains essential insights which were new and very useful to me.

The book contains much, much more of value. Its summary of workers’ struggle in the Sixties and Seventies of last century in Britain, Italy and France is well word reading. Sometimes the argument there veers dangerously close to the notion “if only there was a sizable SolFed-like organization, a good and strong anarchosyndicalist union, things might have turned out better”. This reminds me a bit of my unlamented Trotskyist days: “if only there would have been an Rrrevolutionary Paaarrrty…” Maybe I am oversensitive here to anything that even remotely comes close to such organizational fetishism; and yes, bigger and stronger revolutionary networks do matter. Still, I am wary of anything that smells of organizational chauvinism directly or indirectly. However, the criticism that the book suffers from a “SolFed-centric vision” – something I read in the otherwise sensible review Adam Ford wrote for The Commune, is rather unfair, in my view. What is wrong with a SolFed book explaining why they thing Solfed has importance? What else would youo you expect? Having said that, I do not thing SoFed is pushed to the foreground too much in the book.

The whole book builds up to its closing chapter, “Anarchosyndicalism in the 21st century”. Here, important distincions are made, between what to aim for – a big anarchosyndicalist union – and what to do now – operating through an propaganda group that builds in that direction. SolFed rightly and modestly sees itself, not yet as a union, but as a revolutionary union initiative seeking practical roads toward such a union. But even such union should not aim for as many workers as possile irrespective of their views; it should be a revolutionary union, with encouraging mass- worker-controlled struggle through direct action as its goal. In the process workers will get convinced of the worth of anarchosyndicalist ideas and practices and, on that revolutionary basis, maybe join the aanarchosyndicalist organisation, union or whatever.

This is all well and good, and I agree with much of it. There are, however, two problems. First, the stress on organization as a precondition of effective struggle. As we already saw, here lies an important difference with the council communist tradition. But other from-below forms of working class radicalism – forms of anarchism, related forms of Left Communism, Situationist-influenced traditions – also have more room for spontaneous action and its role in the revolutionary process. When I read “we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers’resistance”, I do not at all wholeheartedly agree. For, sometimes those conditions exactly do lead to such resistance. The big revolts in the Stalinist states – East Germany 1953, Poland and Hungary 1956, Poland 1970-71 and 1976 – were not preceded by methodical building of working class organization. The beginnings of the Syrian revolt in spring 2011 – when it was still truly and predominantly a revolt from below – did not depend on previous building of organizational strength. The same appplies to the revolt in Burma in 1988. More examples could be added. Such building was rather impossible in fully totalitarian states like these. IF there was a role organization played beforehand it came from above, inadvertedly. For instance, the role of the Stalinist bosses orgnizing factory meetings to explain work norms etcetera from the Party/ managerial point of view, only to get shouted down by angry workers.

Of course, there will have been informal networks. There always are. Of course, the lack of more stable revolutionary organization in an anarchist or anarchosyndicalist sense, mattered. But the idea that revolt without preceding organization does not exist is in its literal sense simply wrong. “Conditions may shape struggle; they do not guarantee it.” On the contrary, conditions WILL guarantee that struggle breaks out, the council communists and others who think along similar lines are right on this account, even if failure to build upon that insight, neglecting or refusing to build permanent organizations is wrongheaded; however, the conditions do not tell us in what way or form strugge will arise or develop. Anarchosyndicalist or similar organisation is important, not because without it no struggle can ensue, but because it can help such struggle reach its revolutionary potential, in helping the struggle forward, in preventing its recuperation through reformist and/ or Leninist organasations. No less. No more.

A related critical observation lies, as far as I am concerned, in how the idea of building SolFed and similar organizations is presented. Yes, it is a matter of building by example, encouraging direct workers’ action self-organized through workers’ assemblies with no representational structures, only delegates to build coordination but no representatives negotiating deals that tie the hands of workers and break or dilute their militancy. Yes, in that process, some workers will begin to see the point of anarchism and anarchosyndicalism, some of them may want to join an anarchosyndicalist grouping, SolFed, for instance, and such a grouping would be wise toe encourage such workers joining them. Still, one should be very careful how to operate, and how to present that process of workers-joining-SolFed (or similar groupings).

There are, however, things in this part of the book that make me very uneasy. For instance, after righly rejecting the idea of ‘recruiting’ people that are not in agreement with the revolutionary goals of (for instance) SolFed, I read: “Still, we should not be afraid of actively recruit through activity either, as this is the only way to expand beyond the existing pool of politicized militants.” Now, “actively recruit” is a very dangerous way of describing the process. It puts the ‘recruiters’ in an active role and it ignores the subjectivity, the agency, of the workers who are thusly ‘recruited’. I think the whole concept of ‘recruitment’ should be gotten rid of. Recruitment, as a word and a practice, is something the army does if it wants new soldiers; it is what companies do when they need personnell; it is what Leninist parties do when they want to build ‘cadre’ . It reflects hierarchy, business-as-usual (literally!), party-building. It is most emphatically NOT what radical, bottom-up, nonhierarchical organizations should be doing. Libertarian, antiauthoritarian revolutionaries – in short: revolutionaries – have no use for this concept. Let’s dump it.

Probably my rather allergic reaction to the whole idea of ‘recruitment’ stems from my Trotskyist past, a past in which ‘recruitment’ was the be-all and end-all of far too much activity I willingly – and wrongly, I now think – did. I understand that the SolFed comrades mean something different, something much better, that the usual Trotskyist recruitment style. Still, I think that there is a deeper problem with the whole idea of me recruiting you, you recruiting me. It is the separation of the doer from the one to whom something is done, the recruiting officer and the recruit. In reality, such separation does not exist: the one about to join SolFed plays a very active role in the proces, it is, after all, she or he that takes the essential step of joining. I trust that, in practice, this is how SolFed operates. It would, however, be better if the formulation better reflected this, in essence non-hierachical, practice. Otherwise, the practice may start to conform to the, in essence hierarchical, formula of “active recruitment”. The whole argument of the book would not lose one inch of its strength if this formula would be skipped utterly and totally, and replaced with sentences which simply present the need for SolFed ecouraging workers to join if they agree, without any idea of ‘recruiting’ them.

These are some specific criticisms of only a few paragraphs and sentences in a very good book. Anarchosyndicalism represents a very worthwhile tradition and set of concepts and ideas. We need that tradition, its concepts and ideas , if only to use them critically, to build upon, to engage with them. To familiarize oneself with this tradition, “Fighting For Ourselves” is very, verye helpful. I learned a lot from it. I hope many others will.

Peter Storm


  1. #1 by peter on 2013/01/09 - 03:54

    Vin ‘t wel een goed idee eigenlijk! Thanks.

  2. #2 by Tommy Ryan on 2013/01/08 - 18:18

    Ola compagnero,

    Is het niet wat om een tag of categorie te maken met ‘boekrecensie’? Of is dat iets dat je niet zo vaak doet?


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