Review of SolFed’s Fighting for Ourselves booklet

Before considering the historical precedents that have helped SolFed formulate its present perspectives, the book outlines its understanding of the nature of unionism itself, in the chapter ‘The Mainstream Workers Movement’. At the centre of this is the notion of a difference between a union as simply an ‘association of workers’, which can take many forms, and what they describe as its ‘representative’ function. They argue that these two possible roles have become merged in the form of mass trade unions, which act as mediators between the membership and capital. This, it is argued, has tended to mirror the consciousness of the membership, which is not anti-capitalist. Subsequently, the structure which proceeds from this representative role and which accepts the legitimacy of capitalism becomes a break on any potential rank and file initiative that should emerge. The bureaucratic and class collaborationist unions of the TUC are the result of this. The alternative offered is a union that maintains the associational form but does not involve itself in representation. In some senses, the SolFed idea of what constitutes this associational unionism has parallels with the Anarchist Federation’s espousal of Worker’s Resistance Groups.

The book subsequently deals with ‘radical currents’ within the historic workers’ movement that developed differing perspectives to the mainstream (social democratic or reformist) labour organisations: specifically anarchism, syndicalism and council communism. The discussion of anarchism, although relatively brief, is interesting and partially echoes the traditional anarcho-syndicalist criticisms of those anarchists who questioned the fusion of anarchism and syndicalism (the very meaning of anarcho-syndicalism, of course). Whilst considering the SolFed as within the anarchist or libertarian communist tradition, Fighting for Ourselves sees many faults within that tradition. Notable is a claimed ‘lack of focus primarily on the labour movement’ (p. 31) within the early anarchist communist movement. Presumably, this is a comment on the failure of anarchist communists such as Kropotkin to abandon the idea of the commune as the essential model of revolutionary transformation (see article elsewhere in this issue of Organise!) in favour of the workers’ unions, but as this is not made explicit we cannot be sure.

Malatesta’s well-known 1907 conflict with the revolutionary syndicalist Monatte is also discussed. In this, the former criticised the latter’s belief that a politically neutral syndicalism alone could bring about social revolution. Malatesta also argued against establishing purely anarchist unions but for the necessity of anarchist involvement in the labour movement. Although the authors dismiss this as an attempt to keep the anarchist movement ‘pure’, the international experience of those anarchists who do involve themselves in the labour movement without advocating the fusion of anarchism and unionism suggests their motivation is far from a fear of ‘dirty hands’.

This section also looks at the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, the sadly controversial document published in 1926 by exiled Russian and Ukrainian anarchists, which argues for a specific anarchist communist organisation based on theoretical and tactical unity. The Platform informs the practice of both ourselves in the Anarchist Federation and others in the international anarchist movement, such as those around the website/network Anarkismo. Interestingly, Fighting for Ourselves does not reject the essential political premise of the Platform. This is certainly a welcome development from SolFed, who have historically tended to regard Platformism as a form of anarcho-Leninism. The authors rather focus on the attitude of the Platform to syndicalism. The Platform did not reject anarchist unions per se but, written in a period where large syndicalist unions still played a significant part in the international labour movement, considered organised intervention in these as the priority for anarchists.

Fighting for Ourselves then turns to syndicalism itself, considering the first mass ‘revolutionary’ syndicalist union, the French CGT, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The formers rapid growth and the relatively conciliatory approach of the French state and capital in the 1910s are used as an explanation of its transformation, from an ostensibly revolutionary union into one that would support the First World War. However, although anarchists and others of the extreme left were indeed swamped by the influx of hundreds of thousands of new members, the call to defend the French nation was supported by a majority of the union’s militants – many anarchists included. The lesson that the book appears to take from the experience of the CGT is that its main failure was it ‘apolitical’ nature, which lead to its rapid growth and therefore reformism.

From its brief outline of the rise and fall of the IWW, it is obvious that the SolFed perceive limitations in the tendency of the ‘Wobblies’ to look to create One Big Union and thereby potentially dilute the revolutionary small p politics of its preamble. The IWW was (and indeed still is to some extent) eclectic in the makeup of its rank and file, with Marxists, anarchists, syndicalists and others working amongst a membership that was mostly politically unaligned and attracted to the union through its inclusive solidarity and effectiveness. However, it is also obvious that SolFed are influenced by the Solidarity and Direct Unionism of the present day IWW in the United States and Canada, which we shall look at later.

If Fighting for Ourselves pleasantly surprises on the Platform, then its engagement with the experience of Council Communism is revelatory. It is stated that Council Communism – a form of anti-Leninist Marxism that emerged from the revolutionary upheavals in Germany in the period 1918-1923 – arrived at ‘some similar political and organisational conclusions to anarchism and syndicalism’ (p.45), and empathy is expressed for the tendency within Council Communism that favoured a ‘unitary’ workers’ association that dispensed with any separate political organisation. However, whilst this seems to echo the anarcho-syndicalist idea of creating political-economic unions, the essential difference that Fighting for Ourselves claims is that the anarcho-syndicalist union is permanent and engages in workplace activity beyond the dissemination of propaganda, whereas Council Communist ‘unions’, of the 1920s and early 1930s, saw themselves as essentially temporary formations, bringing together convinced communists in workplaces for educational and propaganda purposes.

Finally in the historical section, the authors look at three anarcho-syndicalist antecedents they consider of particular importance to the development of their own vision of a ‘unitary’ or ‘political-economic’ unionism: the Regional Workers Federation of Argentina (FORA); the Free Workers Union of Germany (the FAUD) and the National Confederation of Labour of Spain (CNT). Whilst the authors state that they cannot ‘pluck’ any of those unions from history as a ‘ready-made blueprint’, they do see them providing models that modern anarcho-syndicalists can learn from and perhaps adapt to contemporary circumstances. Certainly the three unions demonstrate definite diversity amongst historical anarcho-syndicalists.

The FORA was essentially a minority (though still mass) union of ideologically committed anti-industrialist anarchist communists engaged in a brutal struggle against semi-feudal bosses. The FAUD had been formed during the German revolution and constituted a small but vibrant part of both the libertarian left and the broader radical labour movement. The authors suggest that FAUD was greatly sustained during the decade following the final defeat of the German revolution through its cultural and political work, which if anything they underplay – as the union declined as an economic organisation it actually grew as a workers’ cultural-educational-social association – until its destruction under the Nazi regime.

Finally they turn to the most legendary of anarcho-syndicalist unions: the CNT, which the authors describe as a ‘contradictory amalgamation of syndicalist union and anarchist organisation’ (p. 55) – a situation which they argue led to the eventual compromises the union made with the bourgeois state under the Popular Front in 1936. They suggest that the union was simultaneously not syndicalist enough (i.e. not preventing a bureaucracy) and not anarchist enough (i.e. failing to ‘smash the state’ when it had the opportunity in Catalonia). This is certainly a controversial interpretation.

So what does the history lesson in anarcho-syndicalism bring to the theory and practice of the Solidarity Federation? This is not made very explicit but it can be guessed at: From the FOR A, they seem to take the idea that a union committed to an overtly anarchist communist perspective can still be a mass organisation given the right circumstances. From the FAUD, they perhaps conclude that a strong cultural-educational-social role is important, not least because it can sustain an organisation through difficult times. From the CNT, they suggest that a successful union requires an organic unification of the political (anarchism) and the economic (syndicalism), which requires a complete identification of the two.

Fighting for Ourselves brings us up to date with discussion of the period from the Second World War to the present, covering the post-war social democratic settlement and the brief period of relative social and industrial peace, broken internationally by the May 1968 events in France and the Hot Autumn of workers struggles in Italy the following year. At home, the Winter of Discontent is seen as the turning point where capitalism began to shed the niceties of social partnership with the trade unions and neoliberalism began to massively restructure whilst launching wave after wave of assaults on working class living standards, which have only intensified in the period of recession since 2008.

The final chapter, ‘Anarcho-syndicalism in the 21st century’, attempts to put forward SolFed’s vision for the here and now. This part of the book most closely resembles their Winning the Class War pamphlet. It might be useful to begin with what the authors actually reject as ways forward. These include attempts to reform the existing trade unions; to function as a ‘political organisation of anarchists’; involvement in union rank and file movements; recruiting workers into the revolutionary union as a priority; and seeing the anarcho-syndicalist union as a ‘monolithic organisation’. Let’s look at these individually to see where there may be a commonality between SolFed and ourselves.

With their argument that attempts to transform the existing trade unions into revolutionary workers organisations are a waste of time and energy, we are in full agreement. Neither organisation will be spending any time capturing leadership positions in the TUC unions or attempting to build reform caucuses when we could be building rank and file confidence and autonomy.

The Anarchist Federation believes that building a political organisation of anarchists is one of our central tasks; one that is active in all spheres of working class life, including the cultural and social, as well as ‘economic’. However, it is obvious that this is also what SolFed have themselves built, albeit with the desire to become something else. It is hard indeed, not to regard our SolFed comrades as anarchist communists in their working clothes. Whether they continue as a political organisation or transform into the political-economic association remains to be seen; although we are convinced of their sincerity in this aim.

Like the SolFed, we also have great reservations about the various predominantly Leninist dominated union rank and files and left caucuses, and see little point in putting energy into endless debates with left activists when we could be talking directly to other workers. That said, some rank and file initiatives that are not party fronts do have the involvement of both SolFed and Anarchist Federation militants (for example the Civil Service Rank and File); and we should perhaps consider how we can work together to encourage their continued vibrancy and autonomy.

Related to this is the continued engagement of SolFed members in the revolutionary unionist/syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, in which many Anarchist Federation members are also active. The model of unionism in the IWW in the UK may at times lean more towards the representative one, but the dominant model remains ‘Solidarity Unionism’ – a variety of which, known as Direct Unionism, has obviously been an influence upon SolFed.

The SolFed’s approach of not opening up their Industrial Networks to militants unwilling to join SolFed itself, which can be seen as an attempt to prevent the dilution of their politics, is on one level understandable. On the other hand, if the organisation is to make the desired transition from propaganda group to revolutionary union, outside of any large scale resurgence of class struggle, then its intention not to prioritise recruitment of workers into that union begs the question of how far they can go along the route from political to political-economic association.

SolFed’s acknowledgment that not all libertarian (nor indeed, working class) activity can take place within the confines of the anarcho-syndicalist union is welcome. Although other, broader struggles, are mentioned in Fighting for Ourselves, it is plain that their orientation is essentially towards the workplace. Despite that focus of struggle remaining pivotal, the fight against capitalism, the state and hierarchy does not end at the call centre car park.

Fighting for Ourselves has set out the vision of the Solidarity Federation, providing a substantial historical context, with a definite internal consistency. The question now is how this perspective will be applied in practice. The authors make clear that they see this as a case of trial and error, and that they are far from even organising workplace branches, never mind the insurrectionary general strike. As the revolutionary union movement that SolFed want to see emerge remains at the speculative stage, it prevents them (and us!) from ascertaining whether their particular model of non-representative unionism is realisable. What is certain is that their attempts to put the model into practice over the next years will be watched with supportive anticipation.