fighting for ourselves

29 12 2012

By Adam Ford

This new Solidarity Federation pamphlet is a thorough, fascinating and inspirational introduction to the anarcho-syndicalist group’s perspective – taking in the past, present and projected future of workers’ struggles in the UK, Europe and the world. But while it presents a compelling argument for the necessity of SolFed’s tactical approach, Fighting For Ourselves does not make a strong case for SolFed itself being the primary locus of that fightback.

Perhaps the single most impressive thing about the work is the seriousness of the approach taken. Clearly a lot of thought, preparation and debate have gone into it. What’s more – the writers clearly perceive that: a) the current economic crisis presents both challenge and opportunity, and b) mass rank-and-file organisation is now self-evidently the most ‘realistic’ way forward.

Chapter one analyses “the mainstream workers’ movement”, charting from the full-blooded origins of trade unionism to today’s hollowed-out bureaucratic structures. In contemporary times, “The energy it would take to reform or dislodge such bureaucracies, not just the elected officials but the structures themselves, is many times that required to simply bypass the bureaucracy and take action outside it.” This history of this development is far from exhaustive, but does point out major milestones along the way. Particularly important is the shift from what is termed “associational” to “representative” models, with the latter meaning a paid bureaucracy has to kept in place, and therefore most have distinct material interests to those it is supposedly representing. The case study of early 20th century bureaucrat John Turner is particularly instructive in this regard – he considered himself an anarchist, but “By 1909 Turner was accused from one quarter of playing the ‘role of one of the most blatant reactionaries with which the Trades Union movement was ever cursed'”.
It then moves on to self-styled ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Marxist’ parties, and using the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ tars all Marxists with the brush of seeking state power over the working class. This is an error, which is even hinted at in the brief reference to Marx’s opinion of the 1871 Paris Commune. I hope it is an honest error, especially because the rest of the critique stands up to scrutiny, and is well aimed in its breakdown of the Bolsheviks, their immediate descendants, and those who falsely claim their mantle in the 21st century (the observation that “Revolutionary rhetoric serves as a mask for reformist practice” in modern fake left organisations is particularly pertinent).
All of which leads us inevitably to the Labour Party, and a superb blow by blow takedown of its reactionary record as defenders of ruling class privilege. Whereas left apologists often cite the achievements of the post-war Atlee government, SolFed correctly describe this is a response largely agreed on by all three bourgeois parties, including the Conservatives. As Tory MP Quintin Hogg surmised in 1943, the prevailing attitude was that “we must give them reform or they will give us revolution.” The social democratic settlement was therefore largely taken rather than merely given, because “without the tangible threat of working class unrest, that [elite] consensus would never have been acted on”.
With reformist unions, top-down “Marxist” groupings and the Labour Party dispatched, the next two chapters take in all shades of anarchists, syndicalists, and “dissident Marxist” currents which have attempted to organise amongst the working class down the years. There’s plenty to learn here, and the logic flows neatly from one idea to another, with each group apparently having learned from the failures of its predecessors.
It’s easy to see why this is a convenient device for the writers, because the reader quickly begins to suspect that SolFed will emerge as the perfect outcome and synthesis of all these different ideas! But history doesn’t work quite as simply as that. Certainly we should aim to learn from the past, but primarily it is material circumstances which shape ideas, which then drive people into action. This may seem a trivial – almost drily philosophical – point to make, but it does have real world repercussions, as evidenced in the concluding chapter.
Before we get there though, there is an excellent section on post-war class struggle. This draws quite heavily on macroeconomics, although you certainly don’t need a degree in it to get your head round the main thrust of the argument. SolFed contend – again rightly – that the post-war settlement meant “the institutionalisation of the working class as a collective entity”, which was managed in the interests of the ruling class in line with the Keynesian doctrine fashionable in elite circles at the time. In the late 60s and early 70s, this model was ruptured by economic crisis, and working people reached a major limitation in terms of what they could wring from the capitalist class without pushing on to revolution. SolFed admit that – from a capitalist perspective – there really was “no alternative” – as Thatcher put it – to the neoliberal counter-revolution launched more than three decades ago.
So following the imposition of this agenda by many successive prime ministers – and in the midst of widespread capitalist breakdown – the financial elite’s refusal to give an inch leaves no space for the bureaucracy to operate, and this means there really is no alternative to rank and file organisation of working class fightback.
It is at this point that Fighting For Ourselves presents its prescription: for workers to organise themselves in an anarcho-syndicalist union – i.e. SolFed, organise direct action for themselves based on the resources at their disposal, and by the power of example draw ever more people into the organisation. Eventually this will lead to mass insurrectionary general strikes around the world, which could quickly abolish the wage relation, and create a world of free access – full communism.
This is spelled out with luminous liveliness and self-belief, and this is the most emotionally powerful section of the pamphlet. I might quibble about some terms here and there, and I might predict that certain phases might take longer than SolFed envisage, but I agree about the fundamentals. At this stage of the battle – before mass non-hierarchical struggles against austerity have begun over much of the world – this should almost be enough.
Yet it is not quite. Despite a few caveats about SolFed not being the be all and end all, this is a SolFed-centric vision. This is maybe most evident in the passage about the SolFed Local:

“At the heart of the anarcho-syndicalist union is the Local, which aims to be at the centre of community and workplace struggle in the surrounding area. But the role of the Local goes beyond that. It provides the physical space where a diverse range of groups, such as oppressed, cultural, and education groups can organise. The Local acts as the social, political, and economic centre for working class struggle in a given area. It is the physical embodiment of our beliefs and methods, the means by which workers become anarcho-syndicalist not just on the basis of ideas but activity.”

Such bodies will need to exist. But if there is a particular reason why they should be part of – or mainly facilitated by – SolFed, it is not described within these pages. Thinking of Liverpool radical politics right now, I would love to be in such a group with the SolFed comrades, but I’d want AFed comrades there too, as well as the many unaligned comrades who make up the overwhelming majority of radical class struggle activists.
The hypothetical SolFed organisation of the future as painted so vividly at the end of Fighting For Ourselves is just that – a theoretical abstraction based on lessons learned from all the defeated mass struggles of the past. If – as seems likely – mass struggles break out worldwide in 2013, workers may well make use of SolFed. But why not AFed? Why not the IWW? Why not the platformist groups? But come to that, why won’t they forge their own tools with which to beat the boss class, based on their own lived experiences in their own class struggle classrooms? Surely, in this hyper-globalised, hyper-linked world, what works will spread memetically, in a way prefigured by the Occupy movement of 2011.
For all this pamphlet’s attacks on ‘vanguards’, its focus on building a specific organisation – i.e. by SolFed – when “we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers’ resistance”, still leaves us with a tiny minority trying to lead the immense global proletariat by example. I wish them all the best with that task.
You can buy hard copies of Fighting for ourselves for £6 (including p&p) from Freedom Press (UK – £5 in the shop), and for $10+p&p from Thoughtcrime Ink Books (North America). It can also be viewed or downloaded for free from the ‘Selfed’ website.

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8 responses

1 01 2013

Ultimately I guess Solfed comes out of the early 20th tradition of groups on the radical left that then got fossilized after WWII, be they anarcho-syndicalist, trotskyist, maoist, left communist or whatever label they go under. One thing they share is a remit to uphold their own organisational tradition and ideology – to keep the flag flying at all cost. In Solfed’s case this is the ‘flag’ of official anarcho-syndicalism as represented by the Spanish CNT and its international the AIT (all such groups from this tradition having of course an ‘international’).

I think this explains the problem outlined by the reviewer above of the huge gap between Solfed’s grand theoretical blueprint where their particular model is taken up by everyone, and the reality of what people are doing – including Solfed themselves. It also means all these groups have become defenders of their particular faiths, unable to see much beyond the particular particle of truth each one of them expresses.

Such groups from Solfed to the SWP will continue to attract a few working class activists because of the support structure they represent. What is tragic is that, in Britain at least, this takes precedence over any broader coming together of workplace militants, especially as the groups tend to insist on having control over such initiatives, leading for example to the ludicrous situation of several networks or caucuses existing simultaneously in a given sector or union

Lastly, Solfed themselves are something of a paradox because while being ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ they won’t actually set up a union, which is the one publicly visible, practical thing the CNT for example continue to do. This makes them pretty confusing to the outside eye, and for the few who get past that I think their attraction often rests on their historical association via the CNT with the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s and everything positive that represents. Likewise other groups each hold their own particular attraction, which ensures a trickle of student and worker recruits just large enough to stay afloat.

This is not to decry the positive work Solfed and other groups do around their chosen issues. For example Solfed have clearly made the Workfare issue their own. And as the review above implies, a lot of their material on fighting back and getting power on the job is very useful – their excellent health and safety pamphlet is one such example. But ultimately as long as they and the other ideological sects who all trace their lineage back to the pre-war period, are all flying their little flags, they are as much part of the problem as part of the solution.

2 01 2013

There is some truth in what Jake says about the unfortunate steadfast attachment of most of todays tiny ‘revolutionary’ groups to their own inherited ideological traditions (frankly some are little more than political ‘rackets’ whilst others still make a useful contribution). Still I thought I detected in this latest production from the SolFed an attempt to move forward based on some self-critical assessment of past anarcho-syndicalist traditions, even if this had to be wrapped up in the familiar language of that tradition?

There can be scope for some wider organised co-operation by pro-revolutionaries around workplace and other ‘economic’ issues but that cannot necessarily cross the divide between the traditional left with it’s continued orientation towards social democracy and trade unionism and others who reject that orientation.

Unsuprisingly this review of the pamphlet has been linked to some wider discussion on the libcom website together with a number of other reviews that people here might find interesting.

3 01 2013
robraysfRob Ray

“Solfed’s grand theoretical blueprint where their particular model is taken up by everyone … the groups tend to insist on having control over such initiatives”

Not sure you actually got the intent of FFO if that’s what you took away from it. From chapter five: “Workers may not all share our goals of overthrowing capitalism and the state, but we’re not asking them to sign up to that as a precondition of organising. We’re simply asking them to take direct action with us in their own interests.”


“It doesn’t do us any good to be recruiting workers who don’t share our aims and methods, nor does it do workers any good to be joining a union whose aims and methods they don’t share.”

What this should point to is the idea that SolFed doesn’t want to take control of other people’s struggles – in fact that concept of people running their own struggles is core to both our constitution and industrial strategy. We do want to recruit and become a stronger organisation because we think we’re a good influence (of course we do, otherwise we’d all quit tomorrow) but that’s something we’d like to grow out of the much more important process of helping wherever possible to renew and further the confidence of working people to take action in their own interests.

“something of a paradox because while being ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ they won’t actually set up a union”

K to row back a bit, did you actually read the book? Or our website? Because we actually refer to ourselves both in FFO and on the first line of the front page of as a “union initiative” – ie, we aim to be a union (but recognise we’re nowhere near yet). What we’re not going to do is formally register with the state, which is a completely different kettle of fish and based on a judgement within the organisation that doing so comes with too high a price tag. Which you’re free to disagree with, our fellow travellers in the IWW are trying the other way and good luck to them, but it’s not the same argument.

3 01 2013
gata selvaje

Regarding being an actual union, the thing is in Spain the legal environment that the radical unions are operating in is very different. The procedures for calling strikes etc are much less of a stranglehold so there is much more point to having a formally recognised union.

3 01 2013

” they won’t actually set up a union, which is the one publicly visible, practical thing the CNT for example continue to do.”

OK well you’re as ignorant about Spain as you are the UK then. The CNT have been organising in earnest against the austerity measures in Spain, sometimes alongside other ‘minority’ unions such as CGT, SO, etc, but sometimes by themselves. Many small towns in Spain have more adherents to the CNT/CGT than CCOO & UGT, and with good reason!

This is just one of the more outstanding examples of current CNT organising. Read it and then climb down from your pedestal:

3 01 2013

Caiman, you’ve misread me, and I probably could have written that sentence better. I am saying the CNT are set up as and continue to function as a union. You give examples of that.

The reason that is not replicated in the UK is, according to gata selvaje, the legal obstacles to having a formally recognised union here. And the reason I say Solfed won’t set up a union is because it seems to me they have been saying they will for a very long time.

No, I haven’t read the booklet yet – I was responding to the review and bringing in some impressions of Solfed and other groups from what I have seen and read of them over the years. I think that’s allowed, and I shall have a look at the booklet too!

4 01 2013

“Won’t” implies we’re refusing to, which misunderstands our position.

We call ourselves a union initiative rather than a union simply because we recognise that to say otherwise would be misleading due to our lack of industrial density and resources. That’s not a refusal, it’s a simple acknowledgement of reality – I could declare an a-s union at work tomorrow but it’d be pretty meaningless.

Instead we aim as far as possible to act as an anarcho-syndicalist union given our limitations – solidarity protests for strikers, case work, helping people organise at their work etc. As we grow we get closer to the goal of having workplace branches of several or many people where we can make a serious positive impact on the outcome of disputes. When we reach that stage we’ll be happy to trumpet as loud as we possibly can that we’re a union, but not before.

23 01 2013

FWIW, I’m over here in the US …. but I always find it weird when folks try and
compare global anarchy-syndicalists/ism with the Spanish CNT. It’s a very
narrow view and one which does not take into account local conditions and initiatives. This sort of view adds nothing to a meaningful conversation in how to advance outside of a country that has more then 100 years of organized unionist a/s.


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