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.