Audio: Anarchist Communism: A History of Struggle.
The following is a presentation given at the Sheffield Anarchist Book Fair covering the basic principles of anarchist communism as shown through two key historical episodes: the life of Bakunin and the Makhnovist uprising in Ukraine. The presentation brings these ideas up to the contemporary period to discuss contemporary debates between organisationalist and so-called lifestyle anarchism. It is followed by a discussion on the historical themes of anarchism and the ideas of Collective Action.
Audio: Anarchist Communism: A History of Struggle.
Fighting For Ourselves: Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Class Struggle (from this point on referred to as FFO) is an important contribution to existing introductory anarchist works and an essential read for those aiming to familiarise themselves with both historical and contemporary anarcho-syndicalist thought and practice. The book stands as a testament to the seriousness with which the authors treat their ideas and it is to their credit that the text is available both so cheaply as well as orientated towards all levels of readership. The book far outstrips, also quite dated now, comparable works, for example, Rocker’s classic Anarcho-Syndicalism: theory and practice which crucially due to its date of publication is unable to draw lessons from anarcho-syndicalism’s seminal episode – the CNT during the Spanish civil war. FFO, however, as a work of anarchist theory falls short of expectations and misses a number of opportunities to answer more robustly the challenges facing revolutionary organisations in the 21st century as well as longstanding criticisms of the authors’ own tradition.
The book does succeed in its aims to “recover” a unique, international history of class struggle. Sections concerning the syndicalist, councilist and anarcho-syndicalist traditions of France, US, UK, Spain, Germany and Argentina are lively and engaging. These form a solid introduction to common ideas, methods and lessons that are otherwise scattered or misrepresented in more conventional texts. Part of this history includes the events of France, May 1968 and Italy 1969 which is refreshingly not filtered via the narratives of any particular ideology as is so often the case with these heavily contested episodes (this presents certain issues as well to be discussed further below). Here the authors take the more constructive approach of outlining key events from the perspective of the participants who made them so important – the wildcat actions of autonomous workers - as well as emphasising the critical role of the trade unions played in de-mobilising this section of the movement.
Many of the studies are brought up to the present period and in respect to this it would also have been useful to have seen a bit more reflection on the existing IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), particularly in respect to its place as the other contemporary syndicalist tendency operating within the British labour movement. It is possible to infer a certain standpoint from the authors’ criticism of “apolitical” or neutral syndicalism but this is not made explicit through these passages. The revisiting of the writings of Pouget is also particularly insightful and a valuable opportunity to encounter what is an often neglected figure of this tradition within the English-speaking world.
The history of the Labour party builds on the already sound analysis of “Labouring in Vain” (published by the Manchester-based libertarian communist journal Subversion) complimented by a critical account of the development of the welfare state, which as Adam Ford notes in his review for the Commune (<http://thecommune.co.uk/2012/12/29/fighting-for-ourselves/>), has the strength of emphasising the consensus across political party lines within the post-war government for reform. The way that social reforms have been used to de-mobilise and effectively curb the aspirations of working class movements in the UK is a critical point and should be made more often. In fact the key elements of the social democratic consensus are covered well throughout the book. A little more consideration could have been given to how “spatial fixes” for worker militancy extended into alternative management regimes outside of capitalism’s economic centres and the way these are instrumentally used to stabilise global economic accumulation. Irrespective of this, the case of the partial, transitory and temporal nature of the Keynesian/social democratic project – spanning 25 years in only a small part of the world - is well made.
Equally well-crafted is the “myth-busting” approach to the neoliberal counter-revolution, particularly in debunking the notion that neoliberalism is necessarily anti-union. As the authors note the object of neoliberal policy is to ensure workplace order and this can be achieved by a variety of means including successful co-option of the trade union movement. This is as well as outlining the strategic fashion in which this new political and economic consensus was formed and drawing the important conclusion that, “neoliberalism constitutes class collaboration on an individual basis”; a conclusion which opens up a number of opportunities for further analysis in light of the conditions of the ongoing crisis and the disappearance, as the authors also note, of the economic basis of this individualised class collaboration (in the form of accessible home ownership and the extension of easy credit).
Our criticisms of the book relate, in many ways to the particular peculiarities of the Anglophone tradition of anarchism. While many of the more valuable sections of the book build from a carefully considered, often quite innovative socioeconomic analysis, the sections concerning theory are generally representative of a certain superficial attitude towards the tradition itself (with the exception, perhaps, of the treatment of Pouget). The strategic conclusions that are drawn by the authors in the concluding chapter and the kind of challenges and lessons outlined prior to this are not drawn together in a way that makes these strategic choices speak to the most important aspects of the analysis. Overall the book gives the impression of anarcho-syndicalism as an almost contingent theory of struggle – based on continuing experiments in workers’ self-organisation not the conscious theorisation of militants – rather than a theory and practice ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Important changes within the tradition itself – such as the authors’ endorsement of “minority unionism” – are often discussed unsatisfactorily and leave a number of traditional criticisms of anarcho-syndicalism partially or inadequately addressed.
We also have to take issue with the way that certain ideas outside of the anarcho-syndicalist tradition are represented throughout the book, particularly anarchist communism but also workerism and (the non-representation of) autonomism and the situationists. These are accounts often supported by distortions of the source texts or exaggerations of certain unfavourable aspects of their history. This is as well as questioning the particular way that the histories of some movements are treated, most notably that of the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FOR A) – the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation.
Overall we have to criticise the authors’ choice of methodology in terms of how they treat their recovered history. The authors’ view of anarcho-syndicalism as “trial and error around a political economic core” may be true in a broad sense but doesn’t really do justice to the level of theorisation and strategies practised by members of these movements themselves. This treatment gives the impression, as is discussed in more particular detail below, of a series of cultural and historical factors that shaped the experiments of an international movement, often seemingly predestined to fail in light of the influence of these conditions. This is a method far more reminiscent of the historical determinism of Marxist history than of libertarian writings.
Finally while the authors introduce an important theoretical tool in the identification of the “associational” and “representational” role of the trade unions we feel that this needs to be augmented by a fuller analysis of the role of unions within capitalism. This would at least be partially remedied by a more thorough discussion of the structures of capitalism and the state that also condition the sale and purchase of labour power, this is however unfortunately largely absent within the book.
The “associational” and the “representational”
Central themes that are returned to throughout the book are the “associational” and “representational” functions of unions. This later develops into a broader criticism of the way the political and economic functions are separated out in representational unions and leads into the authors’ argument for the benefits of an associational, political-economic union. The “associational” aspects of unions are defined as the following,
“That of an association of workers, joining together for a common purpose (whatever that may be). In other words, the union is the means by which workers relate to one another. That relationship may be horizontal or hierarchical, usually voluntary but, as in the case of ‘closed shops’ where workers have to join the union, sometimes compulsory. Their association may be long-lasting as in today’s trade unionism, or more transient as in the early, pre-amalgamation unions.” (FFO, p.12-3)
This is separated from the “representative” functions of unions in relation to capital;
“This usually means management, but sometimes includes politicians and the state, should they decide to intervene in a dispute ... The representative function carries with it certain assumptions. Firstly, it is premised on the legitimacy of the existence of social classes. Secondly, in order to gain the right to negotiate on workers’ behalves, representative unions tend to jettison any explicit politics which could turn off potential members, since size becomes an important factor in determining their place in the TUC pecking order.” (FFO, p.13)
The authors make clear that, “both of these functions become closely intertwined in the course of the historical development of the trade union movement” (FFO, p.13).
The associational and representational categories offer a good means to systematise our understanding of what communists find both desirable and problematic within existing workers’ organisations. Trade unions are, for example, for the most part spaces that bring together workers on the basis of a shared interest and, therefore, a possible means of also bringing about a political convergence on class issues. However by focusing too strongly on this dynamic alone the authors risk simplifying the character of unions and, at worst, giving the impression of unions as a halfway house between revolution and reform.
As Marx highlights in his analysis of the struggles over the working day (Capital, Vol. 1, chapter 10) the association of workers can follow as much the logic of capitalist competition as it does point to a world beyond it. A union, for example, is a pretty sound economic investment for workers on the basis of their need to preserve their sole commodity – labour power – from diminishing via the extreme rates of exploitation of capitalists. This is entirely consistent with the social logics which follow from the circuits of capital and doesn’t necessarily imply any communistic ideas or practices on the part of workers. The ability for workers to bring labour power to the market is essential to their continued survival. Association can present a means for ensuring this particular interest of workers is defended – their ability to continue to sell their labour power in the future, against, for example, unsafe working practices which will damage or shorten their working life – without ever necessarily challenging the class system that compels workers to sell their labour in the first place. These are the far deeper contradictions which communists have to tackle in respect to trade unions. While association may allow for a space for tendencies toward communism to flourish – usually as workers start to realise the internal limits of their demands within capitalism – its intermediate function is ultimately to facilitate the sale and purchase of labour power.
It is true that both the associational and representational functions exist as contradictory forces within unions. Also that a union’s “associational” functions are those most closely associated with the pre-conditions of communist practice, i.e. free association, non-hierarchy, equality. It is also true that there is a constant tendency within capitalism for unions to adopt representational functions due to their compatibility with the needs of capitalist management. Nonetheless even associational means of negotiating within capitalism are still just that – the negotiation of terms within capitalism. In other words, even horizontal, ideologically anti-capitalist unions have to conform to the logic of capitalism and operate by the law of surplus value. It may be difficult, to use the example in the text, for the boss to negotiate with a stadium of workers but when pushed to extremes capitalism will do just that. This is not, of course, to reject the day-to-day struggle of workers as hopelessly reformist or conservative. Rather it is to point to a particular set of contradictions that all communists have to navigate irrespective of the union’s form. As stated above the issue is about locating within these where the tendencies towards communist practice can develop.
The point here is to suggest a wider analysis - in terms of the role of the essential function of trade unions within capitalism as means of negotiating the sale of labour power - that goes beyond the associational and representational functions. Such a perspective helps to clarify both what is at stake between these two organisational forms as well as the ultimate limitations of both as models of working class organisation within capitalism.
In the absence of such an analysis, ‘association vs. representation’, and the case of political-economic organisation over political and economic organisation, risks taking the form of an ahistorical maxim presented as a catch-all answer to why all prior organisations have failed. This is also not aided by the inadequate way in which hierarchy, political authority and the state are treated throughout the book. There are a few largely unqualified references to the role of the state in text, for example, that “the state serves capitalism and cannot be served to serve the interests of the proletariat” and that winning the prize of political power means “getting to manage capitalism”. However the role of the state as, for example, the representative of the interests of collective capital or even the socioeconomic basis of political authority is inadequately qualified. Assertions such as “when you capture the state, the state also captures you” risk presenting a rhetorical objection to authority reminiscent of our tradition in immaturity as opposed to the more systematic, historical materialist analysis provided by Kropotkin, Bookchin and others.
What results is a formalist conception of revolutionary practice that in spite of the richness of the social and economic analysis throughout the book (and even crucial insights relating to the influence of social and economic conditions on the shape of movements) ultimately boils down to the need for a single “correct” formula of revolutionary organisation. The theme of the political-economic organisation does go some way to addressing the issue of both the form and content of organisations. In other words, that organisation does not just require an associational structure but also needs to promote specific ideas. The missing issue, however, is how these should relate to changing levels of class consciousness. In other words how organisation forms a dynamic relationship to changing social and material conditions within the class. A fairly straightforward case is made in the closing chapter of the radicalising effect of struggle and that through this the workers will be brought closer to the politics of the anarcho-syndicalist union. This is, however, pretty unidirectional and there is not much consideration of what the function of the union should be should struggles ebb or subside. Other than that it should look to initiate new ones.
Looking specifically at the nature of class consciousness gives clearer answers of why the contradictions which the authors identify – of the dominance of representation over association and the separation of the economic and political – continue to recur beyond the explanations given of the cultural, historical lineages and organisational errors associated with certain movements. The authors fail to answer in a comprehensive fashion why we witness the separation of economic and political functions, representation over association as recurrent phenomenon within working class organisations (Marxist, anarchist and reformist) over the past century.
For example in the case of explaining the CNT’s participation in the republican government the authors put forward a convincing case of the critical importance of the strategic choices available to CNT activists on the eve of the revolution, the contradictory nature of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism and limitations imposed by geographical isolation and fear of foreign intervention. There are a number of further issues that could have also been taken up here. Nevertheless a central purpose of this analysis is to counter the criticisms of Malatesta (discussed in greater detail below) that mass membership of unions will generally lead to a reformist slide of the politics of the union. Malatesta’s criticisms are rightfully identified as an important reference point for the distinction between anarchist communists and anarcho-syndicalists and recur in the commentary throughout the book. The authors correctly argue that it was actually the rank-and-file, mass membership that was, more often than not, the more radical force during the revolutionary period. This would appear to invalidate the criticism that formal openness necessarily brings about reformist unions. The political-economic and revolutionary character of the CNT is favourably compared to the purely economic nature of the, for example, reformist CGT.
It is accurate to state that CNT militants at the rank-and-file played a leading role in the fight for collectivisations and against the politics of the Popular Front over this period. Yet their action would have been insignificant were it not for the fact that the ranks of the organisation were also swelled over this period by millions of radicalised peasants and workers. The most inspiring practices of the revolution, in short, arose as the result of the collaboration of revolutionary currents within the CNT and the constructive actions of thousands of peasants and workers. How then to unpick the puzzle of the critical influence of this largely new section of the membership?
The answer is provided not just by looking to the programme and actions of the CNT but also close study of the growing composition and class consciousness of the Spanish working class. It was this which proved to be decisive in shaping the fate of the revolution in the period leading up to and during the revolution. It also provides a better account of why – with the working class faced with the de-mobilisation of the republic as well as the limits placed on collectivisations by the CNT itself – the civil war stopped having a social revolutionary character before the military defeat of the CNT. The revolutionary character of the CNT’s mass membership over this period was entirely contingent on the heightened state of consciousness of the working class. The CNT both extended and placed limits on the growing consciousness of the class over this time but it was the action and mentality of the workers which was decisive.
The question, in sum, is not solely an issue of representation vs. association or the economic vs. the political-economic but how these functions form a dynamic relationship to the changing aspirations and consciousness of the class. It was the positive correlation of all three of these things which put the CNT in such a fortuitous position on the eve of the revolution, an important conclusion that can likewise be drawn in terms of the success of the Bolsheviks twenty years earlier.
Representation of anarchist communism
There are two issues in respect to the representation of the anarchist communist tradition within FFO. The first is in the portrayal of anarchist communist ideas as being infused with a “humanist” concern, and as a result the (erroneous) claim that, “the tradition put a varying emphasis on the class struggle as either a progressive or regressive force” (FFO, p.30). This informs how the ideas are represented throughout. The second is how Malatesta’s particular views on syndicalism are treated throughout the book.
The primary source for the “humanist bent” of anarchist communism is a rather cursory remark made by the social historian Damier cited from his introduction to anarcho-syndicalism. While Damier has provided an invaluable and sweeping study of anarcho-syndicalism over the 20th century his knowledge of anarchist communism is comparably lacking and it is misplaced to draw such a strong view from a work that is not principally concerned with anarchist communism. Identifying a humanist tendency within a much broader, history of libertarian socialist thought may be fair, if this was to include for example early utopians such as Morris. The tradition most clearly understood as anarchist communist however (also that which corresponds to the figures in the text) are those ideas developed from the experience of the First International. Here the characterisation of a “humanist bent” and a shifting position on class is entirely misplaced.
In support of this interpretation the authors provide a quote from Malatesta, taken from his speech at The International Anarchist Congress (Amsterdam, 1907), in which he appears to refute the existence of classes and class interests. This is however both a misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Malatesta’s views. His particular choice of words withstanding, the meaning of his position has to be properly contextualised in terms of the debate in which it formed a part. His statement that, “there are therefore no classes in the proper sense of the term” is made to challenge the economicism of Monatte and Monatte’s belief that the class struggle was a sufficiently politicising force in itself. He is not claiming that there are no social classes or class interests, this would be contrary to almost all his views up to this point, but of the non-existence of class as a distinct political grouping within capitalist society (what Marx would identify as the contrast between the class “in itself” and “for itself”). In fact, if you return the passages from the original quote that the authors chose to remove the correct meaning is fairly clear (I have italicised the returned sentences);
The basic error of Monatte and of all revolutionary syndicalists, in my opinion, derives from an overly simplistic conception of the class struggle. It is a conception whereby the economic interests of all workers – of the working class – are held to be equal, whereby it is enough for workers to set about defending their own particular interests in order for the interests of the whole proletariat against the bosses to be defended. The reality is very different, in my view. The workers, like the bourgeoisie, like everyone, are subject to the law of universal competition that derives from the system of private property and that will only be extinguished together with that system. There are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working “class”, just as there does among the bourgeoisie. (Malatesta quoted in Antonelli, 1907: 123)
It is possible to challenge Malatesta on the basis that perhaps he bends the stick too far here in terms of not acknowledging the possibility of a positive, sociological class identity within capitalism, but this would be entirely different from bringing the class basis of his analysis into dispute.
Kropotkin is likewise subjected to the quite lazy and common misrepresentation that it was his evolutionary theories that motivated his anarchism and not his activities within the popular classes. This is a view that is, unfortunately, repeated quite frequently within the anarchist movement and needs to be tackled more decisively. It is necessary to stress that this is completely at odds with Kropotkin’s actual activity during his lifetime. He had an incredible impact on the rise of revolutionary anarchism, not least in terms of being a central figure in winning the movement away from collectivism and mutualism to the ideas of libertarian communism. Incidentally this also included, despite initial reservations and views eventually very close to Malatesta, an enthusiastic endorsement of the burgeoning syndicalist movement later in his life;
For Kropotkin, revolutionary syndicalism represented a revival of the great movement of the Anti-authoritarian International which the Marxists were effectively trying to destroy at the congresses of the Second International by directing it into parliamentary channels just as they had done at the Congress of Basle in 1872 ... In his message to a meeting in London of delegates from British and French unions in 1901 he called for 'an International Federation of all Trade Unions all over the world' where workers would 'support each other irrespective of political opinions and nationality in the direct struggle of labour against capital’. (Cahm, 1989: 268)
During this period he also laid the groundwork for the principles of a “maximalist” revolutionary syndicalism, ideas very close to that which were later taken up by the FORA (Cahm, 1989: 241).
Such a view also doesn’t really correspond to the legacy he left in terms of his writings. Reference to Kropotkin’s seminal work – Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution – come at the expense of sidelining the more rigorous, historical studies present in The State: Its Historic Role, The Conquest of Bread and Ethics among others. They also misunderstand the purpose of the work. Mutual Aid is often cited as a key reference point for a liberal, humanistic anarchism. Kropotkin’s intention, however, was not to lay some naturalistic basis for anarchist ideas but to put forward an anarchist critique of the social Darwinism prevalent during his lifetime. Both its character, and common misreadings, are actually very close to those associated with Marx’s Capital. For while Marx’s intention to form an internal critique of the dominant ideas of bourgeois political economy spawned its own “worldview Marxism”, replete with its own absolute laws, Kropotkin’s critique has spawned its own (admittedly far less pernicious) “ethical anarchism”.
Ultimately it also does disservice to both the ideas and reputation of both Malatesta and Kropotkin to suggest they had such wavering views on issues that earned them both periods of imprisonment and exile.
This is not to say that some of the particular characteristics identified by the authors of the early anarchist communist movement are altogether inaccurate. In its infancy the tradition did at times move at odds to the wider labour movement. Part of this related to the difficulties of developing means for influencing workers actions beyond those areas already monopolised by the statists and reformists. The avocation and practice of terrorism also, although more the responsibility of individual groups than those associated with the traditions of the International, had a further effect in isolating the movement. This was sometimes initiated in response to state suppression but not exclusively so. Even then this was generally not at the expense of focus on more communal and collective forms of agitation. Nonetheless the lessons to be drawn from the turn to insurrectionalism are important and are sadly lacking in the authors’ account which erroneously attributes the failure to gather mass support from a disinterest in organised labour.
It would be more accurate to say that where disagreements concerning the unions did occur it was more in relation to whether syndicalism was a sufficient organisational force or in need of something more. Whether syndicalism was simply a means or a means to an end; this was and still is a central point of differentiation with respect to the anarchist communist and anarcho-syndicalist tradition.
This was also a central issue upon which the debate between Malatesta and Monatte hinged. The authors correctly attribute the importance to Malatesta’s views here and they recur throughout the analysis in the book. The examples of the organisational evolution of the FAUD and the CNT (covered above) are also cited as counter-examples to his thesis that open, mass unions will tend towards reformism. Both these are not quite fair to Malatesta’s original case as, particularly in the instance of the FAUD, these unions took on a radically different function quite distinct from the particular examples that his views were related to. For example in the case of the FAUD the authors cite that its continuing success related more in its ability to act as a minority force catalysing other struggles than as a formally open union per se. Irrespective of this the authors’ commentary gives the perception that these criticisms relate to some desire to maintain “anarchist purity”. This is not exactly representative of – what we would characterise as - the “organisational dualist” or specifist position Malatesta expounded.
Malatesta’s views were far closer in spirit to that of Bakunin’s ‘International Brotherhood’ and the Intimité Internationale – a proposed and later, real clandestine network of dedicated revolutionaries, the latter of which ending up exercising considerable ideological influence on the Anti-Authoritarian International (Black International). Whatever one should think of the necessity of the clandestine basis of such an organisation, its purpose was not to exercise or enforce an “anarchist purity” but to draw together the best lessons and practices of the tradition amongst revolutionaries. This was not an exercise in ideological doctrine but conceived as a tool for intervention within ongoing struggles. This acknowledged the necessity of propagating a libertarian communist programme while also understanding that setting the conditions of membership of the workers’ organisations as ideologically anarchist was also to drastically limit their appeal. The specifist organisation was an attempt to introduce those workers radicalised by struggle in the intermediate organisations (unions and fraternal societies) to the ideas of anarchist communism. This was in contrast to the views of Monatte, who viewed syndicalism as sufficiently anarchist in itself, and the anarcho-syndicalists, who argued that the intermediate organisations themselves should be infused with an anarchist programme.
Representation of workerism
Italian Marxist currents of the 1960s (commonly collectively referred to as workerism or Operaismo) are subject to a similarly poor representation in the book. The authors’ account, as stated above, of the events of Italy 1968 themselves is reasonably comprehensive. This has the novelty of also drawing in both the internal (in terms of the influence of reformism and limited scope of tactics) and external (in terms of the actual gains available within capitalism over this period) limits that came to shape the form of the labour movement over this period. Hence we get a clearer sense why in Britain – where there was a traditional dominance of partnership trade unionism and radicals operated a “dual-card” or “boring from within” strategy – this period of heightened militancy culminated in the “Winter of Discontent” whereas in Italy and France workers practised more imaginative actions.
There is fair discussion of the restricted scope of workerist ideas within the continued legacy of Leninist ideology. The treatment considering the current’s decline, however, is unfair and the passage quoted from Wright (FFO, p.82-3), in particular, stresses the re-emerging influence of the trade unions as much as an ideological turn towards the armed struggle in terms of attributing cause to the decline in workplace influence. Citing Wright to support a broader claim of workerism’s link to the rise of the urban guerrilla groups is completely unrepresentative of the research presented his book. It simplifies the more complex picture that he presents of a diversity of groups, individuals and tactics and the context of the turn to the armed struggle in terms of an increasingly violent campaign of repression pursued against workers by the Italian state as well as the expectation of a fascist coup (Wright, 2002: 150). It also fails to acknowledge the often suspicious relationship between Potere Operaio and the first generation of Brigatte Rosse, that the workerist endorsement of “militarisation” was almost entirely ideological in nature and even then carried with it strong criticisms of the “subjectivism” practised by the urban guerrillas (Wright, 2002: 151). Likewise that it was the ability of the state to exploit just such confusion between the practices of the urban guerrilla groups and the workerist’s endorsement of “mass armed struggle” which allowed key figures such as Negri to be charged and publicly vilified as “mastermind” of the Aldo Moro kidnapping in spite of the fact that, according to the testimony of a Brigatte Rosse leader, “he had nothing to do with the Red Brigades”.
Such a simplistic account of the decline of workerism similarly pays no acknowledgement to the evolution of these ideas into the mid-1970s and the birth of autonomism and the “area of autonomy”. This misses the important lessons drawn from the translation of direct action in the workplace into the community in the practice, for example, of “self-reduction” (the collective refusal to pay heightened utility or transport bills) – a movement which was able to mobilise 180,000 families in the Piedmont region of northern Italy and enjoyed practical support from the Comitati Autonomi Operai (Workers’ Autonomous Committees) at the state-controlled electricity commission who were able to restore power to those disconnected for defying rate rises (Wright, 2002: 158). Out of the “area of autonomy” also came a growing network of “free radios” which formed a counter-propaganda network to the growing mass media of the corporations and state. These movements are important to consider because they suggest the opening up of new areas of resistance within the reconfigurations of advanced capitalism as well as pointing to areas of mobilisation beyond the more limited scope of the shop floor. It likewise reflects poorly on the authors’ conclusion that the legacy of this period was mostly the “politicisation” (recuperation) of militants.
This failure to exploit the excellent opportunity that the history of this movement gives to re-assess and expand the framework that the workerists provide – particularly in respect to what it could tell us how syndicalist methods could relate to the community – is only worsened by all but cursory references, e.g. taking “control of the streets” (FFO, p.107), to community organisation throughout the book. Such a focus not only reproduces ableist and patriarchal blind-spots, in neglecting those terrains of struggle that do not occur primarily on the shop floor, but also lends itself to a familiar criticism of anarcho-syndicalism as an ultimately narrower vision of social anarchism unwilling to acknowledge the debt that it owes to its own “communal dimension” (see Bookchin, 1993).
The conclusion to the sections devoted to the episodes of May 1968 and Italy 1969 are, ultimately, quite fatalistic. This is a historical methodology in evidence throughout the book. Having established that a mass, revolutionary union movement could not have emerged out of the turmoil and social democratic compromise following World War II the authors argue that its failures can be attributed to the absence of just such a revolutionary union movement during these episodes. In light of this one is forced to be drawn to the conclusion of the impossibility of revolution at this time. Especially considering how it is hard to see how the prescribed political tasks;
“to generalise strike movements, to counter the efforts of the trade unions and political parties to return to normal, and to spread militancy between and beyond workplaces into wider society.” (FFO, p.84-5)
were really that far beyond what anarchists, workerists, situationists (another ignored current in the book) and other revolutionary elements were both advocating and doing at the time. Ultimately we are given no indication of how a revolutionary union would have fared better – in spite of the fact that it couldn’t have existed - in these circumstances under the same conditions.
There is a continued repetition of such fatalistic judgments. The survey of anarcho-syndicalist movements that occurs through chapter 3, for example, gives the impression of both a diverse as well as reasonably consistent (in terms of general operating principles) international tradition. What is especially absent, however, is a consistent commentary on what particular lessons can be drawn from the specific choices that militants made within the context of these movements. Militants, after all, were concerned with questions of ideology, strategy, composition and structure as much as at the movement’s inception as in its decline (as, amongst other things, the debate between Malatesta and Monatte demonstrates). Instead of representing these choices, however, the authors present an almost contingent vision of their own tradition, predominantly shaped by particular national cultures of labour organisation – “a practice of trial and error around a political economic core” (FFO, p.71). The failures of the French CGT or the CNT appear pre-figured in the legacies of their domestic labour traditions.
The FORA, in particular, as the apparent synthesis of both syndicalist and specifist approaches appears to be an immensely important case study for contemporary organisation. This unique model of the “anarchist organisation of workers” is, however, discussed only briefly and only then in term of its apparent success. There is no source cited for the claim of a membership of 100,000 but it is likely that the authors may have confused this with the (reformist split) FORA IX. The (anarchist communist) FORA V claimed a membership of only 10,000 at its peak (Thompson, 1990: 173-4); an issue which itself is complicated by the unreliable figures concerning membership of both sections as well as the context of intensive strike activity within Argentine society. This is followed by analysis of Arango’s (a prominent FORA theorist) rejection of society as not led by “inexorable economic laws” but “ideas and ethical concepts” which is subsequently attributed as the cause of the growth of “anti-industrialism” within the union and the 1915 split (FFO, p.52). This is a quite convoluted claim giving that at the heart of the 1915 split was the effective renunciation of anarchist communism and the move to neutral syndicalism. It is also problematic in the context of our broader tradition which has always rejected economic determinism (most commonly associated with Marxism) in favour of a view of history that emphasises the influence of both ideas and subjectivity while still having class analysis at its base (see Van Der Walt and Schmidt, 2009: 83- 114).
The fatalistic conclusions drawn by the authors are at least partially rectified by their discussion of the contemporary context of partnership with the trade unions and the response, by sections of the IWA, to the practice of “minority unionism”. This, however, does raise a number of further issues. Although the authors are keen to stress anarcho-syndicalism is still able to “seek or achieve mass appeal” (FFO, p.70) their case relating to the specific conditions that gave rise to mass syndicalist unions is pretty comprehensively made and ultimately leads back to the perseverance of those factors which determined the tradition’s decline. Minority unionism also appears (the authors may disagree) to be a quite radical reformulation of the traditional strategies and tactics of anarcho-syndicalism. Pouget’s original vision of an “active minority” (FFO, p. 50) and the experience of the FAUD and the French CGT may suggest the acceptance of a minority role as an operating reality (although not really an aspiration). Nonetheless the tactic of calling open, cross-organisational assemblies appears to be a quite innovative and fluid strategy compared to, for example, the dual power role ascribed to the union, to draw on two prominent figures, by Pouget and Rocker.
It would have been good to see more considered analysis of the contemporary conditions that contextualise this turn beyond the pragmatic ones given of declining trade union density and a divided labour movement (the latter of which is hardly a uniquely contemporary phenomenon). It would have likewise been good to have some reflection on how this presents an alternative strategy to anarcho-syndicalist unions that have attempted to retain their mass appeal – SAC, CNT-F and the Spanish CGT.
The extent to which this strategy does present a turn back to the model of free assemblies or soviets originally rejected by the CNT (FFO, p.59) is acknowledged - although the authors do point out that a “system of free councils” is also enshrined in the statutes of the IWA - but not really answered satisfactorily. The authors correctly point out that concern for the political weakness of structures has to be ultimately resolved beyond the particular characteristics of the organs themselves - in the consciousness of the workers and in the ability of revolutionary minorities to exercise a leadership of ideas. These are, however, the limits of the observations and, ultimately, in the final chapter are re-articulated in terms of simply the need for a revolutionary union movement.
Anarcho-syndicalism in the 21st century
The book rounds off with discussion of the nature of workplace organisation in the 21st century and a presentation of the Solidarity Federation’s vision for a revolutionary union movement. The authors emphasise key challenges associated with the neoliberal counter-revolution in Western Europe – de-industrialisation, service unionism, a continued collapse of independent working class space, dislocation of class identity and a de-politicisation of society in general (something that has both positive and negative connotations). There is an opportunity here to connect to a wider body of theory building on similar themes in terms of the communisation writers. This would, however, have possibly been superfluous to the text and generally the points are well made without the need to bring in deeper concepts such as subsumption.
The authors make the case of the need for an independent and organised revolutionary union against spontaneist and anti-organisational theories of struggle as well as the rank-and-file, “boring from within” strategies pursued by the Left in respect to the TUC unions. They refute the case that revolutionary unions orientated towards open membership have to be reformist. This is fair on the basis of the arguments that are made – that revolutionary unions will attract class conscious workers – but doesn’t really address what is more central to the specifist criticism in terms of the ebbs and flows of struggle. The state of the trade unions is analysed and their credentials as “mass organisations” is subject to criticism.
There follows some practical/theoretical discussion on direct action and the revolutionary process as well as a review of the general operating principles and practices of revolutionary unionism, largely in contrast to statist and reformist ideas. The basis of “building the new world in the shell of the old”, the effectiveness of direct action and the need both organisation and solidarity is all outlined (what we would probably characterise as cultures and organisations of counter-power). These are, however, established largely independent, or at least not principally in response to, the challenges outlined in the previous chapter (those of the neo-liberal counterrevolution). There is some reference to the continuity of the same methods and terrains of struggle in spite of the fact that, “conditions in society may vary” (FFO, p.101). This is a fair point. There is also some discussion of casualisation and how this requires “different tactics and forms of struggle” (FFO, p.103). Although it is also argued that this is a phenomenon not specifically associated with neoliberalism. More pressing issues such as decomposition and collapse of class identity are not addressed.
Overall the extent to which anarcho-syndicalism answers the particular challenges of the 21st century is not clear. This is especially so in terms of those continuing aspects of capitalist-state management that so effectively collapsed the anarcho-syndicalist traditions of the 20th century. While the book finishes with a worthwhile and thoughtful discussion of the nature of contemporary revolutionary transformation the case hasn’t really been made that anarcho-syndicalism is especially well placed to face the challenges associated with this task.
FFO is a step forward in terms of the general absence of a sustained culture of historical reflection within the British anarchist milieu. While the authors do make some errors in their representations and we are forced to question their methodological choices, the fact that they have presented their tradition forward in this way – an exercise so often dismissed as “academic” or “navel-gazing” within the milieu – is certainly to their credit. FFO is also a marked improvement on the incredibly dated introductions that will still often form the basis of the inquisitive reader’s first impressions of our movement.
Ultimately, however, the limitations of the book are reflected in the limitations of scope within many aspects of anarchist practice in the UK. It’s time to move beyond this type of book. We are in dire need of an honest appraisal of our tradition that draws in not just the historical but theoretical lineage of our tradition. Anarchists forsake their theory at their peril. We believe it is time to start forming that methodology and applying it in practice. This is above all what anarchists need – a methodology for the 21st century that allows us to locate a meaningful political programme within our constructive work within the class. Only then will social anarchism appear once more as a natural complement to the struggles of the exploited and a beacon of hope in the face of the neoliberal onslaught.
- Collective Action
Bookchin, M. (1993). "The Ghost of Anarcho-syndicalism". Anarchist
Studies, Vol. 1, Number 1.
Cahm, C. (1989) Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872 – 1886. Cambridge University Press. <http://libcom.org/files/cahm-kropotkin_and_the_rise_of_revolutionary_anarchism_1872-1886.pdf>
Maurizio A. [ed.] (1907) The International Anarchist Congress, Amsterdam, 1907, translated by Nestor McNab. Black Cat Press (2009). <http://www.fdca.it/fdcaen/press/pamphlets/sla-5/sla-5.pdf>
Schmidt, M. and van der Walt, L. (2009) Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism. AK Press
Thompson, R. (1984) "The Limitations of Ideology in the Early Argentine Labour Movement: Anarchism in the Trade Unions, 1890-1920". Journal of Latin American Studies 16 (1): 81–99.
Wright, S. (2002) Storming Heaven: Class Composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. Pluto Press. <http://libcom.org/files/Wright%20S%20-%20Storming%20Heaven%20-%20Class%20Composition%20and%20Struggle%20in%20Italian%20Autonomist%20Marxism%20OCR.pdf>
 V. Damier’s (2009) Anarcho-Syndicalism in the 20th Century. Black Cat Press, for example, which is also referenced throughout, presents a more comprehensive study of the traditions in question but more academic focus and length may be off-putting to some readers.
 The FARJ - Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro – prefer to use the terminology of “centre-periphery” to express a critical relationship to the language of “development”, which express essentially imperialistic and colonial relations. The author’s continued uses of terms such as “developed state” are a little problematic in this respect.
 We discuss the contradictions related to this in greater detail in our commentary on the trade unions - Collective Action (2012) Worker autonomy: debate on the trade unions. Ninth Symphony Press. <http://libcom.org/blog/worker-autonomy-debate-trade-unions-15112012>
 Consider, for example, the continuation of market competition, wages and patriarchal social organisation within many of the workers’ and peasants’ collectives during the Spanish civil war. See: Subversion (1996) ‘Spain 1936, the end of anarchist syndicalism?’ Subversion #18 <http://libcom.org/book/export/html/28636>
 For example, whether the reluctance of the CNT to take power was rooted in deeper issues concerning the possibility to transcend (Aufheben) proletarian identity as the communisation writers argue, for example, Gilles Dauvé (1998) ‘When Insurrections Die ’ Quand Meurent les Insurrections. ADEL, Paris. <http://endnotes.org.uk/texts/endnotes_1/when-insurrections-die.xhtml>
For example, Schmidt and van der Walt’s (2009) Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism. AK Press.
 “The conclusion arrived at by Monatte is that syndicalism is a necessary and sufficient means for social revolution. In other words, Monatte has declared that syndicalism is sufficient unto itself. And this is, in my opinion, a radically erroneous doctrine. The aim of my speech is to counter this doctrine.[emphasis in the original]” (Malatesta quoted in Antonelli, 1907: 121)
 For a complete overview see: Cahm, C. (1989) Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, 1872 – 1886. Cambridge University Press. <http://libcom.org/files/cahm-kropotkin_and_the_rise_of_revolutionary_anarchism_1872-1886.pdf> Also Morris, B. (2003) Kropotkin: The Politics of Community. Humanity Books. And Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (2009) Tangled Threads of Revolution: Reflections on the FdCA's “Anarchist Communists: a Question of Class”. Zabalaza Books. <http://www.anarkismo.net/article/13342>
 “It needs another element about which Malatesta spoke and Bakunin always practised.” Kropotkin, P. (1914) Letter to Bertoni, 2 March 1914. Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam.
 Whether certain “anarchists” have mistakenly taken up these ideas is a slightly different issue.
 See Heinrich, M. (2004) An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. Monthly Review Press. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/106428248/Michael-Heinrich-Alex-Locascio-An-Introduction-to-the-Three-Volumes-of-Karl-Marx-s-Capital-Monthly-Review-Press-U-S-2012>
 “For Malatesta, therefore, any concession or negotiation under capitalism was reformist, and so it was important for anarchists to remain ‘pure’, leaving the dirty business to others.” FFO, p.32
 “This association has its origin in the conviction that revolutions are never made by individuals or even by secret societies. They make themselves; they are produced by the force of circumstances, the movement of facts and events. They receive a long preparation in the deep, instinctive consciousness of the masses, then they burst forth, often seemingly triggered by trivial causes. All that a well-organized society can do is, first, to assist at the birth of a revolution by spreading among the masses ideas which give expression to their instincts, and to organize, not the army of the Revolution – the people alone should always be that army – but a sort of revolutionary general staff, composed of dedicated, energetic, intelligent individuals, sincere friends of the people above all, men neither vain nor ambitious, but capable of serving as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the instincts of the people.”
Bakunin, M. (1869) “The Program of the International Brotherhood.” In: Dolgoff, S. (1971) Bakunin on Anarchism. Black Rose Books.
 A factor that the authors likewise identify as a critical blow against their own tradition.
 'The working class is the only subject which interests us. Every other form of subjectivism is only an attempt to supplant the working class ... the problem of militarisation therefore is completely subordinate to the development of mass struggle and must be directed, even in its technical aspects, by the current form of the party (the mass organisms under working-class direction) ... The military 'specific' is such only if it refers to mass struggle. To think of the militarisation of the mass movement in terms of von Clausewitz is worthy of fascists. (Potere Operaio quoted in Wright, 2002: 151)
 See, for example, “Negri’s Interrogation” In: Lotringer, S. And Marazzi, C. (2007) Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. Intervention Series 1. Semiotext(e).
 There is some discussion on how Solidarity Federation “locals” are formed to address these issues:
“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.” (FFO, p.102)
As well as reference to historical commitments to anti-racism and women’s liberation but very little on the actual struggles themselves or how they intersect with the socio-economic analysis outlined, e.g. how neo-liberalism has changed the terms of social reproduction.
 The FORA V experienced a short revival following the failed strikes of 1917 but was in general decline following the 1915 split.
 The CGT having been reasonably successful at this with a membership of roughly 60,000 people and representing around 2 million workers through industrial committees.
 Although the authors do not use the term this is the basic process they describe as the, “anarcho-syndicalist union’s anti-capitalist and anti-state perspective are shown to make sense” in light of the struggle. (FFO. P.67)
 A more comprehensive outline is given by us here – Collective Action (2012) Specifism explained: the social and political level, organisational dualism and the anarchist organisation. <http://libcom.org/blog/specifism-explained-social-political-level-organisational-dualism-anarchist-organisation-09>
Collective Action analyses the experience and draws lessons from the Occupy movement almost a year after the establishment of the first Occupy camps in the UK.
The global Occupy movement (often referred to as #Occupy) has been popularly presented as the beginnings of an organised, popular resistance to austerity. Although all but dissolved in organisational terms in the UK, the rhetoric of the “99%” still retains strong resonance within both corporate and social media as representative of the conditions of proletarianised workers, students and sections of the middle strata faced with the increasingly brutal logics of capitalist accumulation and the social disparity between themselves and the “1%” (more controversially largely represented as the CEOs and big financial firms continuing to benefit from the crisis). While for our counterparts in the US, Occupy still appears to have some mobilising potential, in spite of continuing contradictions of the organisational model (at least that is our perception as outsiders), in the UK Occupy was a largely geographically and temporally fixed phenomenon – being largely represented in a few cities over a time-scale of approximately late 2011 to early 2012.
In spite of this, the experience of Occupy UK illustrates a number of critical concerns for British anti-capitalists. Strategic conclusions can be drawn from analysis of the camps themselves, there are questions left open by the general lack of a sustained anarchist presence (and the subsequent drift of already quite politically plural camps into wholly liberal reformist positions) or whether it is possible to “camp” popular opposition to austerity (all of which are addressed below). Occupy UK, or to put it more concretely the failure to actualise of the popular anti-austerity movement that Occupy UK was premised upon, also raises a broader concern for us – what, if any, will the shape of popular resistance to capitalism take in the UK in the 21st Century? Occupy UK indicates a two-fold failure in this respect – failure to mobilise a popular movement around anti-austerity positions (and win a broader public debate concerning austerity) by Occupy itself and a failure of anti-capitalist intervention to expunge anti-austerity positions of the illusions of liberal reformism or to offer meaningful analysis and orientation of the barriers experienced in building that movement (in terms of a class-based approach to social change).
We should be honest about this balance sheet. There has been a tendency within the wider anarchist movement, and we were witness to this at the recent international gathering at St. Imier, to champion Occupy as a demonstration of the “victory” for anarchist ideas. Not only does this show a misunderstanding of the content and composition of Occupy itself, as well as being misplaced in terms of the general absence of clear anarchist involvement and influence, but shows an unwillingness to really take stock of the genuine position of disorientation that many libertarians find themselves in the current context. The state is determined to plunge the working class into ever deeper conditions of poverty and insecurity, and this is a situation replicated across Europe. In the face of this escalating onslaught resistance does not appear to be forthcoming. In the wake of the burning passion and creativity of the student occupation movement we have been offered only the disorientating and muted action of the Occupy camps on the one hand, and the disconnected and tired politics of (trade union led) anti-cuts coalitions on the other. More importantly the ultimate ineffectiveness of Occupy UK is not something we should wish to claim as a mantle for our tradition. Such a position only bolsters the arguments of the authoritarian Left who locate the weaknesses of the movement in its commitments to autonomy and self-organisation and the absence of a centralised leadership – elements that we ultimately celebrate.
The questions to which we turn in this article and the analysis developed from them are the product of collective and self-critical discussions between Collective Action militants as well as drawn from our own experiences of the camps as participants in this movement.
Occupy UK: origins and aims
On October 15th 2011, the first incarnation of the then international “Occupy movement” established itself in the UK when a coalition of activists and organisers occupied the forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The original intention, following the Occupy Wall Street model, was to create a visible presence of anti-capitalist activity within the economic heart of the capital; in the case of London, the Stock Exchange and the “Square Mile” where the majority of international financial and banking services are based. Like its American cousin in Zuccotti park, Occupy the London Stock Exchange (“Occupy LSX”), initially fell short of “reclaiming space” directly from financial institutions (attempts to occupy Paternoster Square were quickly thwarted by the police) and was instead based at St. Paul’s Cathedral nearby.
This was a decision, perhaps unforeseen at the time, which was to later cause a great deal of difficulty in terms of clarifying the message of the camp with a particularly zealous campaign by the right-wing press to “clear the Cathedral” and the majority of the initial negotiation for the space taking place in relation to the Canon of St. Paul’s. That is not to say that action against religious institutions is necessarily an exercise detached from campaigns for social justice – in Sheffield it was joked that the Occupy camp closing the Cathedral may have been the only perceivable victory the camp there could claim – but in terms of building an explicit anti-austerity message it certainly contributed to the camp failing to make substantial gains as the debates it sought to provoke were often overshadowed by arguments about the camp’s location and disruption to the Cathedral. It also immediately threw up some difficult issues for organisers to grapple with in terms of religious tolerance and co-operation with the church.
In spite of this, Occupy LSX did coalesce around a specific set of aims, to be followed in the months after by camps set up across the UK. On October 16th, a gathering of over 500 Occupy London protesters collectively agreed upon and issued the following 'Initial Statement':
1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.
2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.
4. We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.
5. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.
6. We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.
7. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
8. The present economic system pollutes land, sea and air, is causing massive loss of natural species and environments, and is accelerating humanity towards irreversible climate change. We call for a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations.
9. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.
This was later synthesised by Occupy LSX to:
“Reclaiming space in the face of the financial system and using it to voice ideas for how we can work towards a better future. A future free from austerity, growing inequality, unemployment, tax injustice and a political elite that ignores its citizens, and work towards concrete demands to be met.”
It is fair to say that a great deal of what Occupy claims, or claimed, to be about lies in its processes – movement-building, participation, direct democracy, collective living, etc – and as a result it is perhaps unfair to judge it on the basis of its objectives alone. It was also very clear that many participants considered objectives to be secondary to a far more inclusive process of uniting progressives under the banner of anti-austerity (a commitment which will be discussed in more detail later). Nonetheless, in spite of this the camps clearly did, initially at least, have a driving rationale, and however embryonic in practice this may have been after a little over the year since the occupations, media coverage and public attention, it is necessary to reflect on these aims, their viability as means of struggle and whether future incarnations can be successful. It should also be emphasised that even in an embryonic state the content of these initial aims had immediate practical effects in terms of the processes themselves. Many, for example, cite the errors of a failure to include a more concrete “safer spaces” policy (a commitment to create spaces free from discrimination and prejudice) within the Occupy platform as a contributing factor to the incidents of sexism and rape reported at certain camps.
Occupy UK: a balance sheet
As already stated the actions of the police, along with the fact that Paternoster Square is private property and, therefore, was easily granted a High Court injunction, meant that Occupy LSX was not able to follow its initial plans of a camp in the centre of the financial district. This was later, at least partially, rectified by the “public repossession” of disused offices owned by UBS and their conversion into the “Bank of Ideas,” which hosted teach-ins, seminars, film screenings and, probably most widely covered by the media, a free gig from the bands Radiohead and Massive Attack (the site was evicted January 30th 2012). The picture across the UK, however, was much the same as the London camp with Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and many more cities and towns failing to occupy a financial space and being based in public squares and parks instead. Following the religious building trend, Occupy Sheffield squatted the “Citadel of Hope”, an empty Salvation Army Citadel, for the Occupy National Conference, but this ceased to be operational after the event and is now only used by a circus training group.
Of course many pointed to the successes of Tahrir Square as a precedent for public occupations that did not rely on such a direct, physical confrontation with the “spaces” of power. However, sentiments to “Take the Square” - aiming to recreate the scenes in Egypt - marginalised the significance of wider social mobilisations present in these events, for example the April 6th Youth Movement which supported striking workers. More profound ideological changes such as the newly found solidarity and confidence within the Egyptian working class was absent from spectacular media coverage and this led to the emphasis on the form, as opposed to the content, being reproduced in many of the copycat protests that followed.
Confrontation with financial and political institutions, leaving aside the role of the church, actually largely occurred on a terrain in which activists were weakest – through the courts. This was where the City of London Corporation was able to secure a forcible eviction of occupiers in a move that was replicated by councils and local authorities across the country. It also forced Occupy into a position in which it had to adopt bourgeois legalism – freedom to assemble, freedom of speech – to justify its activity.
What then of the politics?
In many ways it is difficult to judge the goals of Occupy here even on its own terms. Certain positions are barely distinguishable, particularly in terms of the call for “a positive, sustainable economic system that benefits present and future generations”, from the language of Westminster (this may have been appropriate given the presence of MPs such as Caroline Lucas and John McDonnell within the London camp) and, therefore, makes it difficult to gauge what objectives are actually being proposed here. It would be fair to say that Occupy did not necessarily talk about “an” alternative but of the need for alternatives. So to what extent was it successful at building and mobilising others towards a political spectrum of progressive currents against austerity?
It is impossible to create a complete picture of every camp across the UK here but it is our aggregate experience, particularly outside London, that praxis was largely limited to creating a campsite and creating a community within it. These are the immediate practical tasks which arise from forming an ad-hoc community with very loose over-arching values, in often quite adverse conditions (exacerbated by poor weather and anti-social elements). In all cases the priorities of refining and developing political positions were secondary to the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of the camp as a whole – the lowest common denominator being a liberal pluralist position of hoping to keep everyone happy at the expense of following any specific initiative in a sustained way. The camp environment also threw up other issues in this respect. The longevity of the campsite is unclear, making long-term plans uncertain. Such an environment may be familiar territory for activists but may alienate other members of the working class. Many camps did hold public assemblies as a means of opening up the processes and forming a more inclusive space for those unable to camp, but when the principle agenda items are the practicalities arising from camp life it would be easy to question what relevance such a gathering has to the wider public. In light of this it is necessary to reflect on whether camping is compatible with the original Occupy aim of mobilising alternatives to austerity (if alternatives can be said to exist in the Occupy platform).
In this respect the British Occupy movement could perhaps learn from aspects of the North American Occupy. Under strong influence from revolutionaries in organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the movement has made tangible links to the working class and local communities. For example, they joined in on the struggle against the foreclosure of homes, made common cause with labour struggles, while in Oakland they shut down the docks there. Like Occupy in the UK these were ultimately limited in both duration and scale, although less so, but they were important added dynamics in two senses. First that it showed the potential of Occupy as a tool for broadening social struggle in terms of using the model to build and solidify links within and between otherwise stratified or partially stratified sections of the class. Secondly, it set the course for moving the occupation tactic away from spectacular assemblies and public protest to occupation in the true sense - seizures and appropriations. These are tactics that are not only more economically disruptive in practical terms (and therefore a stronger and more sensible basis for promoting the use of Occupy as a means of fighting austerity) but also orientate strategy towards the true location of social power – collective struggle driven by class unity.
It is hard to say as outsiders what the key to Occupy US’s increased size and radicalism was. It could be speculated that a) the US camps contained more united elements than the UK’s loosely networked and multiple anti-cuts groups, b) that there existed a degree of self-reflection and criticism lacking in the UK, c) that Occupy US was more successful in reaching out beyond the physical camps; or a combination of all these things. Perhaps the experience of Occupy UK simply stands as an indictment against the willingness of British anti-capitalists to fight for their ideas in a comparable way to their US counter-parts. Whatever the weaknesses of the camp model, elements within the North American occupiers have at least acknowledged that to be effective anti-capitalists you have to disrupt the flow of capital. Hence the moves towards the “General Strike” as the principle demand there. In the UK no such connection has been made on any organisational level. Occupy can barely be described as anti-capitalist in most UK incarnations with many campers displaying open hostility to anti-capitalist ideas and practices. In the case of Glasgow, for example, statements were issued on behalf of the camp that argued for more “ethical” capitalism.
Likewise no direct, explicit link was made to the student movement, even at a time when student militancy was reaching escalating levels and the state was employing massive repression against them. In London, Occupy also failed to make any strong connection in the sparks’ struggle, as electricians shook off the inadequacy of union bureaucrats to take workplace grievances into their own hands – an ample opportunity for Occupy to provide support and assistance. More importantly Occupy didn’t really offer anything substantial to these struggles in terms of their ability to escalate resistance or offer alternative means of widening or broadening methods of struggle, other than just a wider constituency of potential supporters. In spite of the diversity of the camps the actual repertoires of action offered by Occupy was surprisingly limited – camping and the occasional squatting of buildings – a poor record to even the “Climate Camps” and summit camps of recent history, which although also limited in different ways were at least geared towards facilitating action and interventions beyond the gathering of activists.
Occupy: critical reflections
As the practice of a tactic Occupy is unusual in that traditionally occupations are an advanced organisational expression of the escalating resistance of social movements. While the more immediate public memory of occupations is of Tahrir Square and the (seemingly) spontaneous mobilisations of the Arab Spring, it would be more consistent to think to the actions of the striking teachers of Oaxaca in 2006 and the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) as well as the occupations of town halls and municipal buildings during the 2008 Greek riots as better contemporary representations of the practice. In both cases occupations were not a starting point but emerged both out of concrete necessity of the struggle and as a practical consequence of the solidification of communities in resistance. In Greece, occupations provided a base for activity that replaced the spontaneous communities of insurgents in the streets, as well as reflecting the ideological evolution of the struggle, e.g. the occupation of trade union offices against the class collaborationist position of the trade unions. In Oaxaca the public square occupation was a hub for solidarity with striking teachers bringing together all manner of social movements against the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Barricades in this sense were indications of the emergence of community bonds and networks of solidarity through the struggle while acting as a very practical defence of the violence of the state against militants. In both cases, although ultimately facing some limitations, occupations posed a direct threat to the resumption of social order on both an economic and political level.
By contrast, occupy camps in the UK emerged as a mild and not very disruptive social or economic force. Neither did they emerge from a specific struggle but rather a more general ideological climate of pro-austerity ideas and policies. This is not to say that there have not been material struggles arising from cuts to public services and declining living standards, it is just that these particularities are unrelated to the formation of Occupy camps. The reality is that camps have acted more as "publicity bureaus" or public forums for anti-austerity organising – where this practice has been successful. This is not necessarily a negative thing in itself, but the limitation of the form, political maturity and the lack of self-awareness have meant a failure to capitalise on this as a specific tactic. Tailoring Occupy more concretely to the need to build anti-austerity alternatives could shed new light on the tactics that are used, e.g. is camping the most effective tactic which can be used? Are there other means of intervention/outreach that can be explored? Could Occupy be transformed, for example, to form something along the lines of the Zapatista Consulta, e.g. radicals doing outreach within and amongst communities?
Material struggles carry within them a potential trajectory for a) generalisation and b) systemic critique (anti-capitalism) by virtue of the terrain in which they are situated (confrontation within capital along class lines) and, more importantly, the social location of their participants – their class. While it is almost always the case that class struggle finds some form of accommodation within the system, e.g. a pay rise, more welfare, or is simply defeated, it also carries within it at least the potential for supersession in respect to the conflict between capital and the class. There is a logic contained within class struggles that ultimately leads to the constitution of class as a negation of capital. Occupy was based more on the need for "alternatives" as a reaction to the pervasiveness of the all-consuming austerity narrative. It is of no surprise in this sense that unity often devolved to the very practical tasks of maintaining camps (and in the worst cases an insider vs. outsider mentality amongst some campers). With the absence of a material condition that brought campers together, e.g. as students fighting cuts or workers on strike, and the absence of a clear political programme; being an occupier represented anything from an anti-capitalist anarchist to a reformist liberal or conspira-loon. This absence of basic shared values meant huge obstacles for the next step of a radicalising process - assigning the means and methods by which we collectively tackle the austerity narrative. As opposed to representing a spectrum of radical ideas, this pluralism simply delivered the base assumptions of the camps – that campers are against austerity – while delivering no practical means to actually act on these assumptions.
Occupy is far more continuous in respect to existing protest activity than is often acknowledged. It expressed a model of militancy essentially voluntaristic in character, not especially distinct from the existing composition and practices of Leftist groups. Crucially, Occupy offered no sustained or integrated way of introducing anti-austerity activity into working life. Camping is simply not a viable practice for the majority of workers, so what to do when you cannot camp? Occupy was largely built and mobilised by the unemployed, students, the homeless and those off work. This did not necessarily have to be a point of weakness. If Occupy was to give rise to a movement of the jobless sections of our class this would be a positive achievement. But a lack of self-criticism and particularly the need to be seen to be being “representative” of a wider constituency - under the rubric of representing the "99%" - meant missing opportunities to develop the strategy and tactics of camps into a definitive programme suited to the needs of those involved.
The problem with the 99%
As popular and as useful as the slogan of the “99%” may have been in propagandistic terms, from a communist perspective a number of issues arise from the analysis associated with this slogan. Many of these criticisms have been covered extensively elsewhere, and some raised in the context of the movement itself, so here we believe it is sufficient to only provide a summary of key issues as an extension of our critique of Occupy’s inability to mobilise or extend resistance against austerity. As anarchist communists it is our position that austerity is only one facet of the management of capitalism and that it should be understood as a particular manifestation of systemic structures rooted in the existence of social classes. As a result we argue that the only means of creating a society based on social justice is through challenging these fundamental structures via revolutionary confrontation with the state and the capitalist class. The slogan of the “99%” is therefore problematic to us for a number of reasons.
The “99%” overlooks important stratifications that exist within and between members of our class. Those who are, for example, not millionaires and city bankers but still benefit from capitalism or play a part in its administration, e.g. the managerial strata, the police, bailiffs, border agency staff. The confusions associated with this analysis led some Occupiers to claim the police, the likes of the English Defence League and other reactionary elements as part of the “99%”. Technically they are correct, but this exposes exactly the problem with this analysis. Inequality is not simply about ownership and wealth but relations of power. Class relations often manifest themselves in and between communities in spite of a very similar economic context, e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia. In fact these stratifications are exactly the divisions that capitalists periodically stoke up to ensure that workers are competing against each other and perceive each other as a threat rather than the power of the bosses. Likewise with the adoption of liberal policies, the capitalist class has found that providing a little privilege and power to certain sections of workers, effectively stratifying the class and providing the illusion of ‘social mobility’, allows capitalists to stabilise social order through the creation of a strata of middle-managers who do not appear so removed from the workers themselves. The police and the border agencies similarly play critical roles in maintaining class relations and carrying out the institutional violence that keeps workers in their place. These forces will inevitably come into conflict with movements that attempt to challenge the social structures that underpin our society. Confusion on these issues creates obvious organisational problems some of which were clearly apparent in the camps, e.g. co-operation with the police, lack of a safe-spaces policy and incidents of sexual violence against women.
The 99% analysis represents the problem of austerity as an issue of unconstrained finance. Finance, however, is only a part of the circuit of capital whose influence is, in contemporary terms, predicated by a number of more fundamental structural changes in the management of capitalism, including the declining profitability of the “real” economy. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis of this here but this does include the increasing internationalisation of capital, the move away from Fordism (and with it social democratic corporatism) into neoliberalism and increasing reliance on debt to maintain standards of living. A more complete criticism should be tied to the organisation of capitalism as a whole and how finance is simply one aspect of class control that is exercised by the capitalist class. Critics may point to the way that finance has played a particularly prominent role in undermining (bourgeois) democratic values and subverting state accountability. Our critiques of capitalism are, however, far more fundamental than this. Even a “democratised” capitalism (should this ever be possible) would be reprehensible to us given the coercive nature of the system itself – a system whereby workers are forced to work to survive and where the full product of our labour is stolen from us through our work. What is required is not a levelling of the system, raising up the 99%, but a humanisation of the values which structure the economy away from the motivation to accumulate profit to one based on human need, where products are fundamentally social in character (and not present as spectacular commodities) and where time away from necessary labour is maximised.
The extent to which the “99%” slogan has seeped into public discourse is impressive and an indication of how well it speaks to a common feeling of injustice, but as the above indicates, it also very comfortably lends itself to reformist ideology – injustices are seen to need to be rectified. The mobilisation of the Greek movement “We Won’t Pay” might be an interesting comparative example here in terms of a popular movement organised in response to austerity. “We Won’t Pay”, as its title suggests, is an organisation that uses direct action to disrupt what it considers to be unfair or exploitative levies on public services. This has included raising barriers on the toll booths on private roads, encouraging mass rides of public transport, sabotaging of ticket booths, sharing the skills to allow people access to free electricity as well as community-based work that organises the distribution of free food and clothing to those who need it. Like the “99%”, the “We Won’t Pay” slogan is expressed as a statement of outrage and injustice – we won’t pay for a crisis we claim no responsibility for! It is also, more importantly, a discourse of expropriation, of seizure of those necessities that communities depend upon, all of which is facilitated by direct action. “We Won’t Pay” gives a clearer sense of the immediate confrontations that are involved in social struggle, e.g. security staff who protect toll booths, fascists thugs who roam public transport, while also sowing no illusions in the state’s ability to mediate the injustices visited upon working people. It provides a more forthright assertion of the strength and objectives of collective action as well as a positive vision of the autonomy of communities in struggle, i.e. “these things are necessary to my continued existence and I am entitled to them without your (the state/the boss/the security guard) interference”.
Wot, no resistance? Broader questions
A basic reality that we must face here in the UK, and the experience of Occupy broadens this perspective, is the collapse of mass-based challenges to capitalism. That is either in the form of popular, militant trade unionism or as mass workers’ parties, however inadequate these may have actually been in superseding the conditions imposed by capital. If we are to look to the role (or the absence, as was actually the case) of anarchists in respect to Occupy this is a perspective that needs to be adopted. Occupy was treading new ground in many ways in that fundamentally, as inadequate as its answers ultimately were, we do not know what concrete shape popular resistance to austerity will, if it indeed does, take in the current context. There have been ongoing localised struggles of both workplaces and communities against specific cuts and state policies. Both the student occupation movement of 2010 and the August riots of 2011, without drawing too strong an equivalence between the two, suggested at least the emergence of a new resistant subject against the austerity regime – the newly proletarianised youth. This was only to be subsumed by parliamentarism and state repression, in the case of the former, and the absence of any basis for coalescence and the criminality in the case of the latter. The sparks likewise showed the propensity for the British organised working class to re-activate resistance, but this seemed to express more the resilience of a long-standing tradition of struggle, conditioned by black-listing and other cultures unique to the industry, as opposed to anything emerging against austerity per se. Since then the only general mobilisations have been in the form of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) “days of action”, themselves an exercise in the defeatism of the trade union bureaucracy and their wholesale retreat from workplace action. These have only served to reinforce the existing schisms evident during the riots, resulting from the 26th March 2011“March for the Alternative” when thousands marched to listen to Ed Miliband’s (leader of the opposing Labour Party for international readers) address in Hyde Park while just a few hundred radicalised youth rioted through the heart of the city.
In respect to Occupy in particular it was necessary to recognise the continuities, in the form of cross-class umbrella organising, something very familiar within the context of the workers' movement, and discontinuities – the dimensions of Occupy that were "demand-less", sought to transfer consensus on austerity into an attack on private space and debt and build popular opposition to austerity – present within the embryonic movement. This required an awareness of the underlying structural problems the Occupy project highlighted (at this point we really don't know the current social basis for any fight back against austerity, if indeed there is one), while also arguing those positions on which we, as anti-capitalists, are certain of: resistance has to be rooted in working class unity and emerging from the politics of everyday life. The management system of capitalism may have changed but its essential logic - and the transformative role of the proletariat - remains the same.
This is where anarchists perhaps squandered an opportunity to use the, albeit often quite limited and even politically hostile, space that Occupy opened to argue for this orientation and really investigate what mass resistance can and cannot look like in the current context. As it stands we really didn't learn anything other than those self-fulfilling prophecies with which we were already aware - that a cross-class movement with no root in material struggles and premised on a manufactured community of resistance was likely to collapse into reformism, peter out or get crushed by the state (or often all three simultaneously). This is while, ironically, many anarchists were claiming the mantle of Occupy as a vindication of anarchist methods and ideas. Undoubtedly there was a lot of resistance to genuine anti-capitalist positions among campers, and we experienced these ourselves, but this was compounded by the failure of anarchists to effectively intervene. Both factors together allowed the anti-capitalist position to be easily characterised as extremist, when the intention was actually the opposite in terms of bringing Occupy as a meaningful thing to the class, and allowed pacifistic and activist methods to dominate. In London, the camp descended into in-fighting after some campers erected a “Capitalism is Crisis” banner, with liberal and pacifistic campers arguing that ‘capitalism isn’t the enemy, greed is’.
Anarchists advocate mass movements against the capitalist system. In the present condition, these are clearly lacking. The so-called ‘labour movement’ doesn’t do much ‘moving’ at all and the UK is as devoid of militant unions now as it has ever been. Anarchists uphold that mass movements have to be organic in order to create transformative social change. Why then did so many uphold Occupy as a vindication of anarchist ideas? Could it be that without any existing mass movements, and without any modern ideas of what form mass movements today should take, we were simply blinded by a romanticism that something was kicking off?
While it is possible to muse over whether the downfall of Occupy UK came from its failure to claim Paternoster Square, or to adopt a more anti-capitalist stance; it should be clear that even if Occupy had successfully taken the Square, and even if it had outright advocated ‘camping for communism’, substantive change cannot come about through camping. Yes we should welcome that libertarian modes of organising based on direct democracy are becoming more popular, however, as previously stated, we should also critique Occupy to the grounds of what it claims to be ‘about’. In this sense, Occupy failed to increase participation in anti-austerity struggles, and also failed to make links with ongoing struggles, such as the student movement, the sparks’ struggle and striking public sector workers. Beyond this, Occupy UK also failed to reflect on this and seek to remedy it. Here lies one area where anarchists could have intervened and attempted to take the well-meaning organisational sentiments of Occupy to ongoing and organic struggles in actual communities such as workplaces, neighbourhoods and educational institutions.
Occupy was successful in terms of its ability to express a commonly felt sense of injustice and outrage towards further shifts of wealth away from the class - e.g. cuts in public services and to benefits, erosions in living standards, declining wages - and into private hands. The speed and spread of the mobilisations, something that cannot be explained by the new role of social media alone, was a strong demonstration of this. However it lacked purpose and was plagued by many of the issues which continue to alienate activist cultures from wider communities. Occupy needed to provide more concrete answers, practical solutions and, most importantly, a more thorough critique of the social system. It needed to engage more strongly on the issues of practical necessity that are being thrown up by austerity politics showing how social solidarity is a viable and sensible alternative to the alienating and hope-less politics of Westminster. It could have done more to catalyse existing groups in struggle and speak to those groups at the harsher end of the austerity drive, embracing specificity over the woolly narrative of the “99 per centers”. It could also have spoken more about itself, both in terms of the discourse that emerged out of the camps but also the need to address how composition and experience relates to the kind of actions a movement can take.
This analysis can be situated in a wider social and political context; a context which helps to explain the immediate appeal of Occupy (and some of its failures). Principally, we find ourselves amidst a de-politicised political culture in which organised anti-capitalism is not a viable alternative to a more pervasive radicalised liberalism, such as that propounded by Occupy, where class identity has been dislocated by an onslaught of capitalist realism and where activists, where they are present, often lack the skills and experience to act as organisers mobilising and strengthening communities in struggle. Almost a year since the first camp it seems unlikely that Occupy will re-emerge as a continuing tool for anti-austerity struggle. What we should take from it, however, is the desire for an alternative to the present system. The only way to achieve this is through the self-organisation of the class in the communities of everyday life, and if we want libertarian communism to be that alternative, this is where we have to start.
See our Libcom blog for an opportunity for further discussion and debate on this article.
Award winning independent film-maker Brandon Jourdan interviews Paul Mattick Jr., author of "Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism" and son of influential council communist Paul Mattick, who explains the nature of capitalist crisis. For more films by Brandon Jourdan - http://vimeo.com/brandonjourdan
specifism explained: the social and political level, organisational dualism and the anarchist organisation
In discussing the platform of Collective Action some individuals have expressed confusion at our use of the label “specifism” to describe the tradition of social anarchism we associate with. The following is a short introduction to what we consider to be the most essential concepts within the specifist model. This text is an adaptation of a forthcoming interview with Shift Magazine on anti-capitalist regroupment.
"Specifism" refers to an organisationalist current within the anarchist tradition which, in contemporary terms, is principally elaborated by the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) but has its historical roots in the writings of Bakunin, Malatesta and Makhno (among others). Many associate these ideas solely with Makhno's "Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)" but they actually date from one of the first organisational documents of social anarchism - Bakunin's programme for the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy. At the core of the specifist framework is an understanding of the division of anarchist activity into the social and political level1. Specifists argue that a lot of the organisational errors of anarchist militants result from a confusion of the social and political level.
The social level is understood as those struggles that exist within the material and ideological framework of capitalism (bread-and-butter issues in layman terms). These will be heavily determined by the ideology of capitalist society and situated principally within the logic of capitalism, for example the demand for increased wages in exchange for labour or the desire for social reforms from the state. These will also be structured by a wider cultural, economic and political framework that will both shape their character, as well as causing their level of combativity and consciousness to ebb and flow, one example being the way in which the ongoing financial crisis has provoked an acceleration of working class resistance in certain sectors and geographical areas. Anarchists need to find a way of engaging with these struggles in a way that relates directly to the existing composition and level of consciousness present within the class. Successful engagement requires both a relationship of study, in terms of the need to understand and critically evaluate the existing composition and ideas of the class, and a relationship of intervention, to practically shape anarchist ideas and methods so they appear as sensible and useful tools for those engaged at the social level.
Anarchists also need to maintain their own coherent vision of an alternative society - anarchist communism. This is the political level. The political level represents the idea (theory) expressed by revolutionary minorities as visions for social transformation and alternative societies. This political line is obviously not static and exists relationally to the social level. The political level cannot be purely the expression of propaganda of the ideal. Anarchist communism is a tradition developed from the lessons drawn from the struggles of the popular classes. Work at the political level is cultivated through the study, self-criticism and organisational activity of anarchist communist militants and expressed through the unity and organisational discipline of the specific anarchist organisation (SAO). While the social level acts at as the “compass”, as Magon puts is, that steers the theory of revolutionary militants, the political level is also distinct from the social level in that the ideas here are held irrespective of the general social framework and therefore not subject to the mediations of capitalism and the state. The political level, therefore, while expressing clarity in revolutionary ideas does this in the form of minority organisations that are independent and not representative of those held by the class-as-a-whole.
What results from this understanding of the political and social levels is the practice of "organisational dualism". Specifically anarchist groups (hence the term "specifism") with well defined positions of principle and operating under conditions of political unity at the political level intervene, participate within or seek to build popular movements at the social level. The objective of this intervention is not to "capture" or establish anarchist fronts but to create the correct conditions, by arguing for anarchist methods and ideas, for the flourishing of working class autonomy. It is this autonomy that is the basis for working class counter-power and revolutionary change, as Malatesta (1897) famously stated, “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves”.
As the Federazione dei Comunisti Anarchici (FdCA) (2005) argue, work at the social level should not be a carbon copy of the organisations of the political level. Intervention at the social level has to arise within the context of the immediate needs of the proletariat and their current state of ideological and technical composition. In this sense work at the social level intervenes within and aims to accelerate the process of, as Marx expressed it, the class acting “in itself”, subject to a common condition under capitalism, towards a class-for-itself, a self-conscious grouping acting to its own material interests – communism.
Specifism is a praxis that seeks to strike the balance between a healthy relationship of influence within the class and an ideologically coherent communist organisation, while rejecting the vanguardist approaches of Leninist groups. Whereas Marxists will traditionally look to the fluctuating struggles of the social level and argue the need for a revolutionary leadership from without, specifists argue that anarchist communists fight by acting as a critical conscience from within.
For this reason specifism is fundamentally organisationalist in character rejecting the idea that anarchism can be developed purely through the propagandistic activity of discussion circles, groups or federations. Rather the SAO needs to form unified tactics and a strategy as the basis of its programme that it carries through in its activity within the class.
Specifism represents both an alternative to anarchist activism, which does not compose itself formally at the political level, and certain models of anarcho-syndicalism, which attempt to unify the practice of the social and political level in the formation of revolutionary unions.
In criticism of anarchist activism, specifists stress the need for an educated and self-critical practice at the political level to build sustainable long-term interventions at the social level. The alternative is sporadic, reactive political work that doesn’t incorporate a cycle of review and re-evaluation. Likewise, as Fabbri notes, the lack of “visible organisations” on the part of anarchist militants, i.e. clear and accessible lines of participation, creates space for the “establishment of arbitrary, less libertarian organisations”.
In response to anarcho-syndicalism, specifists argue that the formation of social-level organisations - unions - with revolutionary principles, does not resolve the problems created by capitalist mediation at the social level. Rather, as the FdCA argue, what result often is, “a strange mix of mass organisation and political organisation which is basically an organisation of anarchists who set themselves up to do union work”. This situation usually resolves either in the actual existence of a revolutionary minority within the union itself that seeks to preserve the line in the face of fluctuations at the social level, often being forced to act undemocratically or necessarily preserving a minority membership for the union, or a flexibility in anarchist principles which leaves open the question of where the radicalisation between the political and social level will occur. Likewise the FARJ make a historical point that the dissolution of anarchist activity into the social level has meant in many cases the complete loss of any political reference point following the collapse or repression of these organisations. The SAO, in this sense, can act as a vital line of continuity for anarchist communist ideas.
Collective Action argues that the lessons and guides derived from specifist theory are a critical tool in the process of anarchist regroupment. The only way there can be a future for anarchist politics in the UK in the 21st Century is in making anarchist communist ideas and methods a practical and coherent tool for organising workplaces, intervening in social struggles and empowering working class communities. Anarchism needs to recapture its traditional terrain of organising, what Bakunin referred to as, the "popular classes" and abandon the dead-end of activism. This means a fundamental re-assessment of what we do and what we hope to achieve. It also means returning, as Vaneigem would call it, to the politics of "everyday life". This means reorientation of our practice to both the social and political level and utilising the richness of our own political tradition to clarify and improve our own organising efforts.
- Collective Action
Federazione dei Communisti Anarchici (2005) Anarchist Communists: A Question of Class. Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: FdCA
Malatesta, E. (1897) “Anarchism and Organisation” Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/malatesta/1897/xx/anarchorg.htm
This year marks the 140 year anniversary of the first anarchist International held at St.Imier, Switzerland, in 1872. In celebration of the anniversary an international gathering was called in St.Imier in mid-August. A contingent of Collective Action militants attended the gathering along with thousands of other anarchists from around the world to discuss politics, create new international ties and, of course, have some fun.
From August 8th to the 12th, the small Swiss town was taken over by anarchists attending the gathering. It was hard to calculate the exact number of attendees as the venues and sleeping sites was spread across the entire town and there was a constant flow of people leaving and joining the gathering throughout the week, but estimates have ranged from 2,000 to 4,000. Needless to say with such huge numbers of attendees, and an international gathering of this magnitude being so rare for the current generation of anarchists, the organisation of the event held up in many areas but also had it shortcomings.
The accommodation for the attendees consisted of three camp sites and a sports hall hired by the organisers, and many more attendees hiring out hotel rooms and houses. The two biggest camp sites were located on top of Mount Soleil, and for a small fee of 10 Swiss Francs transport from St. Imier to Mount Soleil was provided for the duration of the gathering via a funicular. The Collective Action militants were staying in one of these camp sites on Mount Soleil and the facilities provided were very good. There was an adequate amount of toilets and hot showers available all day and night. A kitchen was present to provide breakfast every morning and then double up as a bar to provide alcohol in the evening. The camp sites were big enough for everyone’s tents and allowed enough room for fires in the evening that provided a good environment to drink and get to socialise with comrades from around the world. Despite the chilling nights and one alcohol induced violent situation the accommodation was well organised and made as comfortable as camping can be.
The food throughout the gathering was fantastic! There were three kitchens in all organised by three different food collectives. One kitchen already mentioned was located in the Mount Soleil camp sites that only provided breakfast. The other two kitchens were located in St. Imier, one by the book fair and the second in the middle of the town conveniently located between the venues. The two kitchens in St. Imier provided breakfast, lunch and dinner, and tea, coffee and water throughout the day. Considering the huge amount of people the kitchens had to provide food for, all the meals well cooked, tasty and well proportioned. The kitchens were well organised and based on co-operation allowing people outside of the kitchen collectives to prepare and serve food. There was a recommended daily donation of 10 Swiss Francs per day for the meals and unfortunately it appears that not everyone respected this because on the last day the kitchens were stressing that they were currently down 3,000 Swiss Francs.
All the daily activities took place in St. Imier, and the social centre, ‘Espace Noir’, was the main hub. There were another 7 venues spread across the town that were holding talks, round-tables, gigs and movie showings throughout the week, and the local ice rink was drained for the week long book fair. Unfortunately the spaces, organisation and content of the talks had many shortcomings.
The format to the talks was too open and at times frustratingly disorganised. Minus a few talks there was no system in place for translations which lead to many talks opening by asking if someone was able/willing to translate x language into y and z. It wasted a lot of time that could have been used to talk about more topics in greater detail and, at its worst, lead to arguments and vital details being lost in translation.
The content for many of the talks and round tables also lacked depth. A lot of them felt like introductions to topics, which is fine if talks are provided for the more seasoned anarchist as well, which in this case were not. Anarchists from all over the world were present and not enough effort was made to allow the experiences faced by anarchists in different regions of the world to be shared. Moreover the talks were frustratingly retrospective, which again is not a bad thing if they are balanced out with talks on praxis, or used to highlight problems we face today, but this was not the case. Historic internationals have debated both the social ills of the day as well as attempting to find unity on the relevant praxis to create a coherent anarchist response but this was missing from many of the presentations. There is by no means a shortage of topics in this area - from new social movements (like Occupy and anti-austerity coalitions) to the emergence of new tactics in struggle ( like direct unionism or insurrrectionary riots). Instead references to these things were either cursory or needlessly triumphalist, for example, uncritically citing the Occupy movement as a "gain" for anarchist ideas. Areas of essential interest, such as the situation in Greece, were presented by outside observers and raised disputes from Greek activists in attendance. The plenary was also marred by a similar incoherence of political vision with interventions ranging from the essential adoption of Esperanto to the need for the formation of a parliamentary party!
We were also forced to question as to why in a congress held in the middle of an economic crisis, and presented publicly to the press as "an anarchist response to debt", was only one round-table devoted to the subject. This meeting, billed as 'the Crisis and the PIIGS', also raised critical questions on the interpretation and cause of the crisis, particularly the views of the IAF-IFA representative that it could be largely attributed to the activity of a select core of financial institutions and banks. However aside from the intervention of a member of the CGA (Coordantion des Groupes Anarchistes) and the excellent presentation by Paul Bowman of the Workers Solidarity Movement (the technicalities of which I suspect were largely lost in translation) no space for debate and criticism was permitted on this topic in the limited time available. This should have been a central theme of the congress.
There was also a lack of gender and colour politics, no safe space from the beginning and next to zero accessibility for the disabled. As a movement we need to be tackling problems of inclusiveness and accessibility, and creating a safe environment for everyone to express their opinions, concerns and struggles so we can learn to counteract these areas of struggle. Unfortunately, this seems to be a problem still prevalent within the international anarchist movement.
The general organisation of the event was carried out by a small collective that spent most of its time isolated in a room in Espace Noir. If another international gathering is called in the future it would be great to see anarchist principles of co-operation and shared responsibility at the forefront of the organising. If this were the case we probably would see a lot of the highlighted problems remedied. In spite of the negatives we would like to congratulate the organisers of the gathering as the amount of hours put in to organising such an event must be astronomical, but we should learn not to make the same mistakes twice.
During the gathering the CA militants were able to build new international contacts and further forward some debates within our own theory. The Anarkismo tent and delegates had the biggest influence on us, showed the highest level of organisation as well as, in spite of a more limited programme, the clearest political content. This included an excellent presentation by the FARJ (Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro) on the history and lessons to be drawn from the First International, something again that was conspicuously missing from the main programme. It was also one of the few disabled accessible spaces.
One stand-out talk we attended was by a Zimbabwean comrade known as Biko - connected to the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) - on the historical and contemporary political and economic situation in Zimbabwe. The talk was comprehensive, eye opening and the start of a new friendship for us. It gave us an opportunity to hear about the situation in Zimbabwe from the other side of the news coverage. This was presented as an anarchist communist perspective but also incorporated the experiences and problems faced by everyday workers and trade unionists when trying to organise against the regime. Despite huge repression Biko and his comrades have organised around four fronts consisting of a political studies circle, an arts collective, an Indymedia collective and a permaculture collective that provides herbal remedies for HIV sufferers in communities where medical treatment is inaccessible. The ‘Uhuru Network’ has managed to set up a commune where the four fronts can live collectively. Biko supplied us with CDs made by the network to sell here in the UK - they will be up on our website shortly - and CA will be putting on benefit gigs for these comrades to help supply them with literature and printing equipment for the political studies circle, and recording equipment for the arts collective.
Our meeting with Anarkismo delegates was a high point of the gathering for us, and we would like to send our thanks to them for providing such an informed, stimulating debate. It felt encouraging to be talking and debating comrades that share our passion for political education and critical thinking. It was uplifting to know that some were using an international forum to exchange and debate theories and praxis to better understand how anarchists today need to organise. The breadth of experience was truly astounding and it was great to conduct discussions with like-minded people from across the globe. This was in contrast to other parts of the gathering where it felt that Swiss, French and German (perhaps understandably) anarchists were over-represented.
In all, for the CA militants attending, the gathering was highly enjoyable. As in all big meetings it is often the conversations and debates conducted outside of the official meetings that prove must useful and it was great to be around so many funny, caring and interesting people. We didn’t feel like the shortcomings were big enough to make the gathering unsuccessful but they gave us lessons to take forward to any future international gatherings.
Collective Action offer some initial and cursory remarks on David Cameron's speech today in which he announced his party's intention to make further massive cuts in welfare and to scrap housing benefit for the under-25s. These comments are to be followed by a more substantial look at what these cuts mean to the working class.
1. The high proportional cost of housing benefit relates less to the value of the existing (and depleted) social housing stock and more to the over-inflated rates of private tenancy. Any kind of state regulation in this sphere, however, would be political suicide considering the millions that all parties (but especially the Tories) receive from wealthy property developers and the economic impact this would have on the sector.
2. Cameron's comments on the "unfairness" of benefits rising with the rate of inflation, while wages drop, re-affirms the disciplining role of unemployment and the unemployed to the workforce. In essence; claimants are poor, but not as poor as they should be.
3. The proposed scrapping of housing benefit for the under-25s should not only be recognised as a further attack on a lost generation but an attempt by the state to shift the responsibilities concerning the reproduction of labour power. This is a dynamic that can be seen also in the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance, workfare placements and spiralling rates of student debt. All of which disproportionately affect young people but also modify the material conditions (and "self-investment" needed) for entering the workforce.
4. In scrapping housing benefit the state wants to go further by shifting the burden of housing young proletarians back on to their parents, perhaps in the hope that they might learn a thing or two from this "bought" generation - those who are the products of Thatcher's social engineering, who are getting poorer but are predominantly property-"owners" (mortgaged) and relatively economically stable. In this sense Cameron hopes to rely on past compositional changes in the working class - in the original sell-off of the social housing stock - to both stabilise and discipline an increasingly precarious young workforce. A young workforce which both trashed his party headquarters and burnt and looted the capital in August. This attempt to move reproduction back into the private sphere is something that can be likewise seen in the (less popularly covered) attacks on disability allowance. This is what the rhetoric of the "Big Society" denotes, that proletarians have to now accept the burden of social reproduction (something which was previously paid via taxes and guaranteed through welfare). It should therefore be understood not as further attacks on minority sections of the class (the young, the unemployed) but a generalised attack on the conditions of all workers.