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(en) From Freedom, Fortnightly Anarchist Newspaper 7th February 2004 - There is power in a union!

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 9 Feb 2004 11:55:46 +0100 (CET)

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The current period is marked by an increase in workers' anger and
action. Trade unions have started to reassert themselves. Strikes,
while increasing, are nowhere near the levels of 20 and 30 years ago.
However, it is still early days. What happens next depends on what
direction trade union militants decide to take.
Currently, the various parties of the left, led by the SWP in
England/Wales and the SSP in Scotland, are trying to get the more
militant unions to break their financial links to New Labour.
Anarchists cannot help but agree. Why fund your oppressors? Yet while
agreeing on this, we radically object to the suggestion that unions
should tie themselves to a new, "more leftwing," party. To do so will
simply repeat the mistakes of the last 100 years when the union
bureaucracies created the Labour party.

Instead anarchists argue that the unions should be independent from all
political parties. They should use their members contributions not to
fund a new set of would-be politicians but rather to campaign for their
members' interests directly. We suggest far more than just this.
Anarchists argue that the labour movement is currently deeply flawed
and that is the source of many of our current problems. Moreover, we
have a practical alternative which would make politicians irrelevant.

However, give how distorted the anarchist position on unions are, it is
necessary to first recap the general anarchist position on the workers'

Anarchism and trade unionism
For anarchists, there is power in a union. Anarchists have long seen
the importance of workers organising themselves. As Max Stirner pointed
out the "labourers have the most enormous power in their hands, and, if
they once become thoroughly conscious of it and used it, nothing could
withstand them; they would only have to stop labour, regard the product
of labour as theirs, and enjoy it. This is the sense of the labour
disturbances which show themselves here and there." The question is how
best to organise and use it.

For Bakunin, like all revolutionary anarchists, there is, "between the
proletariat and the bourgeoisie, an irreconcilable antagonism which
results inevitably from their respective stations in life." He stressed
"war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is unavoidable" and
would only end with the "abolition of the bourgeoisie as a distinct
class." Collective struggle is the key. Strikes, for example, are "the
beginnings of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie
. . . Strikes are a valuable instrument from two points of view.
Firstly, they electrify the masses . . . awaken in them the feeling of
the deep antagonism which exists between their interests and those of
the bourgeoisie . . . secondly they help immensely to provoke and
establish between the workers of all trades, localities and countries
the consciousness and very fact of solidarity: a twofold action . . .
which tends to constitute directly the new world of the proletariat,
opposing it almost in an absolute way to the bourgeois world." They
train workers for the social revolution as they "create, organise, and
form a workers' army, an army which is bound to break down the power of
the bourgeoisie and the State, and lay the ground for a new world." The
working class had "but a single path, that of emancipation through
practical action which meant "workers' solidarity in their struggle
against the bosses" by "trades-unions, organisation, and the federation
of resistance funds."

Kropotkin built upon Bakunin's arguments and, like him, based his
politics on collective working class struggle and organisation. For
Kropotkin "the syndicalist and trade union movements, which permit the
workingmen to realise their solidarity and to feel the community of
their interests better than any election, prepare the way for these
[anarchist] conceptions." His support for anarchist participation in
the labour movement was strong, considering it a key method of
preparing for a revolution and spreading anarchist ideas amongst the
working classes. As he put it: "The syndicat is absolutely necessary.
It is the sole force of the workers which continues the direct struggle
against capital without turning to parliamentarism."

This, for Kropotkin, was part of a general revolutionary strategy. In
order "to make the revolution, the mass of workers will have to
organise themselves. Resistance and the strike are excellent means of
organisation for doing this." He argued that it was "a question of
organising societies of resistance for all trades in each town, of
creating resistance funds against the exploiters, of giving more
solidarity to the workers' organisations of each town and of putting
them in contact with those of other towns, of federating them . . .
Workers' solidarity must no longer be an empty word by practised each
day between all trades and all nations."

The current unions
Anarchists have little time for the way the current trades unions are
organised and act. They are bureaucratic and top-down. Berkman just
pointed out the obvious, when he wrote that the "rank and file have
little say. They have delegated their power to leaders, and these have
become the boss. . . Once you do that, the power you have delegated
will be used against you and your interests every time." The unions are
hopelessly sectionalist. While we have one boss, we are divided into
many different unions. The members of one union often cross the picket
lines of their fellow workers simply because they go on strike at
different times. They do the bosses job for us by dividing our forces.
Assuming, of course, the union bureaucracy actually decides to support
effect action rather than giving up at the first hurdle.

So, for anarchists, the unions waste the only real power we, as
workers, have -- our economic power, our ability to use direct action
to defend and further our interests where we work and are exploited.
For these reasons we argue for a different form of workplace
organisation, one run by and for its members.

Workers Self-organisation
The key issue for anarchists is one of power: who has it. Are the rank
and file in charge of their own struggles or is power concentrated in a
few hands at the top? Anarchists want workplace organisations which are
run directly by their members. This anarchist opposition to union
bureaucracy dates back over a century. As does how anarchists think
trade unionists should combat it.

Talking about the Geneva unions, Bakunin noted that the construction
workers' section "simply left all decision-making to their committees .
. . In this manner power gravitated to the committees, and by a species
of fiction characteristic of all governments the committees substituted
their own will and their own ideas for that of the membership." In
opposition to this, he urged what would now be called a "rank and file
movement" to combat the bureaucracy. The workers "could only defend
their rights and their autonomy in only one way: the workers called
general membership meetings. Nothing arouses the antipathy of the
committees more than these popular assemblies. . . In these great
meetings of the sections, the items on the agenda was amply discussed
and the most progressive opinion prevailed."

This is the key to anarchism in the workplace -- the active
participation of members in their organisations, of strikers in their
strikes. It is the basis of building a rank-and-file movement inside
and outside the current trade unions, one which aims to empower the
worker at the expense of the boss and the bureaucrat.

>From the bottom-up
This shows how anarchists think the labour movement should be
organised, from the bottom-up. The basis of the union should be the
mass meeting of workers assembled at their place of work. This meeting
elects its factory committee and delegates. It is for the workers
affected to decision when and what kind of action to take, not distant
bureaucrats. To co-ordinate common struggles, anarchists advocate
federalism. The workplace union is federated to all other such
committees in the locality, each locality federates and so upwards.
This promotes class solidarity. In addition, unions within the same
industry federate together. The IT workplace is affiliated to a
district IT federation. In district federation is affiliated to the
national federation.

The decision making process flows from the union meeting upwards. The
committees are not vested with power to abuse. The members of union
committees should not be representatives like MPs who air their own
views and ignore the people. Rather they are delegates who carry the
message of the workers who elect them. If they try to tell the workers
what to do, then they are replaced as every delegates is subject to
instant recall by the persons who elected them. Rather than being
highly paid, the aim would be for as few as possible to receive wages
as delegates and if they do then it should be the average wage of the
workers at the base of the union.

Thus the anarchist vision is for a fighting workplace organisation
where the members control the organisation - not the bureaucrats
controlling the members. In a trade union the higher up the pyramid a
person is the more power they wields; in a real union the higher they
are the less power they has.

Don't vote, organise!
Over a hundred years of left-wing participation in electioneering has
proven anarchism correct. Rather than push the struggle for socialism
forward, it has simply gutted it of any real radical practice and
theory. Instead of constructive organisation and struggle at the
grassroots, energy and resources are wasted trying to elect politicians
who will not betray us or the ideals of socialism. Sometimes the
parties involved do not even need to get elected for this to happen.
The current shenanigans of the SWP in regards to the "Respect" proposal
comes as no surprise. With socialist principles and class politics
happily forgotten for the chance to sell some more papers and get a few
comrades elected, the question surely is how long will the rank and
file members who have some principles remain within it?

Instead of the dead-end of electioneering, socialists should be
stressing working class self-activity and control over the class
struggle. Workers, Bakunin argued, must "count no longer on anyone but
yourselves. . . Abstain from all participation in bourgeois Radicalism
and organise outside of it the forces of the proletariat. The bases of
this organisation are already completely given: they are the workshops
and the federation of workshops, the creation of fighting funds,
instruments of struggle against the bourgeoisie, and their federation,
not only national, but international." The British labour movement has
still to learn this.

Such direct action had a politicising effect far stronger than any
election campaign. It was only "through practice and collective
experience . . . [and] the progressive expansion and development of the
economic struggle [that] will bring [the worker] more to recognise his
[or her] true enemies: the privileged classes . . .and the State, which
exists only to safeguard all the privileges of those classes."

Moreover, as well as undermining capitalist normalcy, workers'
organisations also create the framework of socialism. The "organisation
of the trade sections," Bakunin argued, " their federation in the
International, and their representation by Chambers of Labour, . . .
[allow] the workers . . . [to] combin[e] theory and practice . . .
[and] bear in themselves the living germs of the social order, which is
to replace the bourgeois world. They are creating not only the ideas
but also the facts of the future itself." Such workers' collective
organisation and struggle were essential, as Kropotkin also stressed.
To free humanity "a decisive blow will have to be administered to
private property: from the beginning, the workers will have to proceed
to take over all social wealth so as to put it into common ownership.
This revolution can only be carried out by the workers themselves." The
"great mass of workers will not only have to constitute itself outside
the bourgeoisie . . . it will have to take action of its own during the
period which will precede the revolution . . . and this sort of action
can only be carried out when a strong workers' organisation exists."

Getting there...
Clearly such a movement does not exist and it will not appear
overnight. It will require anarchists to work together to spread our
ideas to our fellow workers. It will require, as Kropotkin put it,
"Revolutionary Anarchist Communist propaganda within the Labour
Unions." Like Bakunin, he stressed that "the Anarchists have always
advised taking an active part in those workers' organisations which
carry on the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its
protector -- the State." This was because such struggle, "better than
any other indirect means, permits the worker to obtain some temporary
improvements in the present conditions of work, while it opens his eyes
to the evil done by Capitalism and the State that supports it, and
wakes up his thoughts concerning the possibility of organising
consumption, production, and exchange without the intervention of the
capitalist and the State." Anarchists "have endeavoured to promote
their ideas directly amongst the labour organisations and to induce
those unions to a direct struggle against capital, without placing
their faith in parliamentary legislation."

The role of anarchists as anarchists is essential. The nature of the
current unions proves Malatesta when he argued that "all movements
founded on material and immediate interests (and a mass working class
movement cannot be founded on anything else), if the ferment, the drive
and the unremitting efforts of men [and women] of ideas struggling and
making sacrifices for an ideal future are lacking, tend to adapt
themselves to circumstances, foster a conservative spirit, and fear of
change in those who manage to improve their conditions, and often end
up by creating new privileged classes and serving to support and
consolidate the system one would want to destroy." Thus "the Trade
Unions are, by their very nature reformist and never revolutionary. The
revolutionary spirit must be introduced, developed and maintained by
the constant actions of revolutionaries who work from within their
ranks as well as from outside, but it cannot be the normal, natural
definition of the Trade Unions function."

We need to think about how we can work within the labour movement (at
the rank and file level, of course) is essential to gain influence for
anarchist ideas, just as working with unorganised workers is also
important. It means rejecting the "one size fits all" approach on the
trades unions that has become sadly dominant in certain parts of our
movement. When sensible we should be working with the rank and file of
the labour movement while keeping our own identity as anarchists and
organising as anarchists. In other cases, it may make more sense to
form a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (for example) or
create an informal grouping like the McDonalds' Workers Resistance. No
matter the actual concentrate activity, we should be working with the
rank and file and trying to create autonomous workplace organisations,
independent of the trade union bureaucracy and organised in a
libertarian way and using libertarian tactics. This is the aim of the
Anarchists Workers Network.

What now?
All revolutionary anarchists support the ideas of workplace
organisation and struggle, of direct action, of solidarity and so on.
Some anarchists, however, refuse to call these workplace organisations
"unions" and instead call them "workers' councils" or "strike
committees." The name does not matter, the principles are the same. The
key difference dividing some anarchists (mostly, but not exclusively,
anarcho-syndicalists) from others (mostly anarcho-communists) is on
whether such rank-and-file managed bodies should become permanent
organisations or not. However, this is a question that is best left to
a future date when libertarian ideas have become better known and
practised within the class struggle. We are far from being in a
position when such a debate will have relevance.

What we should be concentrating on now is working together and
spreading basic anarchist ideas amongst our fellow workers, unionised
or not. This is the rationale of the AWN. It aims to group anarchists
who want to influence the class struggle together. It does not aim to
become a new federation (SolFed or the AF). Rather it seeks to
complement those bodies and be a tool to co-ordinate activity of all
anarchists interested in workplace struggle. We aim to give a focus
around which anarchists can work together within their unions, for
example, to raise anarchist ideas of workers' autonomy and direct

The AWN has just started. We produced a poster supporting the posties
wildcats last year. We are leafleting the Convention of the Trade Union
Left to show that there is an alternative to supporting would-be
politicians with our dues. We have produced articles for Freedom. We
aim to do a leaflet for this years May Day march and organise a "red
and black" bloc for the London one.

Ultimately, what we do depends on who gets involved and what they want
to do. If no one gets involved, the AWN will not exist. It is as simple
as that. If you are interested in getting involved then please contact
us. We have a world to win!

By a member of the AWN

An edited version appeared in
Fortnightly Anarchist Newspaper
7th February 2004

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