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(en) Book Review from Rebel Worker Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network Vol.34 No.2 (226) July-Aug. 2016

Date Tue, 2 Aug 2016 17:09:00 +0300

Unruly Equality: US Anarchism in the 20th Century by Andrew Cornell, Published by University of California Press. ---- “The Crisis in the IWA & The Sect Phenomena” ---- The current turmoil and split developing in the International Workers Association (IWA), which links up a few smallish syndicalist unions (allegedly favouring ultra democratic processes, direct action in its various forms and the workers’ control project) and mostly sectlets and cults, spotlights the continuing problem of the sect phenomena within the syndicalist milieu in the Anglo World and elsewhere. (1) It represents an important obstacle to the pursuit of the long range serious industrial organising which can achieve genuine mass syndicalist industrial unionism internationally. The current crisis highlights the absurdity of tiny groups consisting of mostly students and workers with high levels of autonomy in their work often associated with the university milieu seeing themselves as the nucleus of mass syndicalist union movements.

There have never been any historical precedents supporting such an eventuality. Whilst when the IWA initially formed in 1922 it consisted almost completely of syndicalist mass unions with tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of members. The historical evidence also points to these formations stemming from complex processes in a radically different international context to today. Particularly a major upsurge in the international class struggle and syndicalist tendencies in the socialist and anarchist movements of these days. Radically different from the Stalinist legacy influenced leftist milieus of the Anglo World and elsewhere today. Whilst, other factors were also critical to the emergence of syndicalist union movements such as competition between the early social democratic and Republican movements for working class electoral support and even State sponsorship of labour exchanges and syndicalist movements to counter balance socialist/communist union movements. (2)

“From Tiny Acorns – Mass Syndicalist Union Oaks Do not Grow!”

Today’s IWA cults and sects find wasting their very limited resources massaging the macro bureaucracy of the IWA as somehow glamorise and obviously much easier than the gruelling hard yards of serious long range industrial work they should be doing. They get drawn into all manner of stunts and the manufacture of “papier-mache” unions or unions which are completely imaginary or meet in largish phone booths as union halls, to impress overseas gullible members of the IWA. Where they do win “victories”, it is normally of a “microscopic” significance or from acting as pseudo social workers/lobbyists for groups of workers in peripheral sectors. The same sort of stuff the corporate/bureaucratic unions on occasion achieve. These sectlets are heavily informed by the Stalinist legacy and middle class/student based left subculture, and associated with all manner of organisational navel gazing, support for identity politics, etc.

Whilst the larger sections such as the Spanish CNT (National Confederation of Labour) with currently 4,000 members certainly can’t be characterised as sects. However, these sections seem to be taking the historical trajectory of “minority” syndicalist movements. Involving adopting the features of the much larger corporate unions such as working within the framework of the industrial relations racket in their respective country, rather than emphasising direct action on the job. In the case of the CNT according to latest information it seems to rely extensively on “clever” lawyers and quirks of the Spanish IR legislation to win victories and expand membership. (3) These sections give the impression of becoming micro democratic versions of the corporate unions and are moving from the syndicalist orientation. A major contribution to this trajectory is the lack of a base in strategic industrial sectors necessary to defy repressive IR legislation, wipe out the base of the Corporate Unions, launch strike waves across industry and build an expanding Syndicalist movement. As well the associated low level of morale of workers in these sectors and unwillingness to take solidarity action to assist fellow workers is a major consideration. It’s absolutely vital that serious long range work in these key sectors is pursued to establish the transitional steps leading to the crystallisation of mass syndicalist union movements in various countries which can eventually coordinate their activities globally to tackle capitalist globalisation, and its strategies. These more substantial work place based groupings and definitely the lesser ones would be better off dissolving into networks and just concentrating on this serious long range work and dropping the micro bureaucratic baggage and absurd pretentions that they are fully fledged union confederations or will become one eventually.

The book under review throws considerable light on the background to the current anarchist and syndicalist “sect” phenomena and the associated leftist sub culture, which contributes to it in the USA, the general Anglo World and elsewhere today. An important back drop to the publishing of this book was the Anti-Globalist movements which commenced with the 1999 WTO Seattle protests and concluded with the Occupy movement of 2011-12. Various commentators have alleged these movements have something to do with anarchism. As they practice ultra democratic and participatory democracy processes. However, these movements never developed a clear revolutionary objective and program of work. They were easily snuffed out by state repression and through internal confusion and contradictions. Whilst in some parts of the US, the local bourgeois state has ultra democratic features, does that make it “anarchist”? This confusion and the ultra liberal conception of anarchism as a means to perfect dimensions of bourgeois society and the associated absurd notion that we could all have the opportunity to rise up in a peaceful and environmentally sustainable capitalist set up heavily informs the author’s screwed up views on anarchism and the content of the volume.

“The Zenith of US Anarchism”

In discussing the “heyday” of anarchism in the US, the author looks at the movement in the early 20th Century when it was a significant force in the US labour movement and certainly not an exotic leftist sub culture composed largely of navel gazing middle class and student swell headed activoid super hero elements. He sketches its important role in the organising drives of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and syndicalist influence in certain AFL (American Federation of Labour) affiliates particularly in the needle trades amongst Jewish workers.

“Decline of the Movement”

The author makes the interesting point that apart from the savage repression of the anarchist and syndicalist milieu and particularly the IWW during and after WWI, another more important reason for the decline of anarchist activity and influence in the workers movement was changes to Federal immigration legislation which prevented the immigration of anarchist workers to recoup losses due to state repression.

Another significant reason for the side tracking and decline in anarchist influence/syndicalism in the labour movement was infatuation amongst particularly Jewish anarchist workers in co-operative colonies, such as the Stelton and Mohegan colonies. However a more critical obstacle to the anarchist movement regaining its industrial influence and in other spheres was the emergence of mass Stalinism and associated Communist Parties as satellites of the Soviet party via the Comintern (International Communist Party organisation controlled by Moscow). Even the Vanguard group - one of the most important anarchist groups discussed in the volume formed in 1932 and publishers of the outstanding “Vanguard: A Libertarian Communist Journal” which sought to rebuild a syndicalist tradition among US anarchists was affected by its influence. Particularly via the influence of the panorama of expanding international Stalinism and its initiatives on its key militant Mark Schmidt, a veteran of the Russian Revolution of 1917. (4)

“The Middle Class Leftist Hijacking and the McCarthy Era”

The author sees the 1940’s being the period when anarchist milieu moved away from class struggle and a working class social base and was drawn into a middle class/student sub cultural and protest politics phenomena.
Associated with this trajectory the “Libertarian League” formed in 1954. Despite having a formally syndicalist orientation, the author shows had a social base similar to other anarchist groups of the period among middle class elements with a few important exceptions such as Sam Dolgoff. Due to the McCarthy era there were few opportunities for serious industrial work in the AFL-CIO unions, whilst by the late 1950’s the IWW had been reduced to the status of a small sect of aging members. Consequently its major activities lacked an industrial orientation and included international solidarity work for victims of state repression, publication of its journal “Views and Comments” and the holding of regular forums.

Another key group of the 1960’s discussed in the volume formed by radical students was the Solidarity Bookshop of Chicago established in 1964 and the paper “The Rebel Worker”. Members of the group joined the IWW and were involved in an unsuccessful farm workers organising drive in South West Michigan. Subsequently the paper and group became drawn into Surrealism and collaboration with other ultra left groups such as “Facing Reality”.
Another grouping of the 1960’s discussed which went on to have tens of thousands of members at its peak was SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). It claimed to favour participatory democracy, but imploded at its 1969 National Convention, resulting in a series of different split offs informed by Marxism Leninism. These new organisations included, the Radical Youth Movement which seeded the New Communist Movement and the Maoist Progressive Labour Party, which spawned the Urban Guerrilla “Weather Underground”. Subsequently Maoism became the most important current to the left of the Democratic Party with the New Communist Movement formations having an estimated core combined membership of 10,000 nationally and much wider influence in the early 1970’s.(5) The author examines the emergence of the Radical Decentralisation Project, whose key figure was “Murray Bookchin” as an allegedly anarchist faction in the SDS. Whilst emphasising ultra democratic processes it also peddled “lifestylism” (the nonsense of trying to live an anarchist lifestyle in capitalist society and “dropping out” to live on a “hippie commune”) and “environmentalism”. It imploded following the dissolution of the SDS and failed to crystallise into a sect in the student milieu.

Another key grouping discussed which commenced in the 1980’s is “Food Not Bombs” which was a spinoff from the anti-nuke movement, an essentially charity style outfit based on a social worker/activoid superhero orientation.

“Let a Thousand Exotic Weeds Bloom!”

The epilogue to the volume catalogues the various ephemeral “poisonous weeds” informed by identity politics and lifestylism with some notable exceptions which compose the so called anarchist movement wing of the left subculture “hot house” in the US from the 1970s to the Occupy movement. The author ignores the key role of agencies of US capitalism in facilitating this confusion such as the CIA and various foundations and the tertiary education system via encouraging identity politics and drug sub cultures.(6) The author also fails to take account of the Stalinist legacy upon these hot house growths, which is interwoven with adherence to aspects of identity politics and middle class leftist “oppression mongering” in the shape of aspects of identity politics being beyond debate and discussion and the wide acceptance of the hypocritical navel gazing “safe spaces policies” in this milieu. These “politics” of course preclude any serious coordinated strategic industrial organising by genuine anarchist/syndicalist groupings. Whilst causing the more “serious” anarcho outfits to either consciously or unconsciously ape the antics of the Marxist Leninist lineage micro parties with the proliferation of the morally and ethically depraved “politicos”.

It was the serious industrial work conducted by the Paterson based “Right to Existence” Group which played such a key pioneering role in the emergence of a syndicalist faction in the WMF (Western Miners Federation) in the early 20th Century which contributed significantly to the formation of the IWW in 1905. It also played a key role in later important IWW organising drives in the Eastern USA. This group was certainly not engrossed in all the grotesque organisational navel gazing and disgusting oppression mongering and guilt tripping of the current so called “more serious” anarchist outfits.(7)

In conclusion, the book under review provides some important insights into why in the contemporary US and elsewhere the so called anarchist movement is largely a sub cultural phenomena and encourages a sect orientation in the more serious supposedly class struggle groups such as important sections of the IWW and the few allegedly class struggle anarchist groups. However, the volume spreads plenty of misinformation about what constitutes anarchism in the USA, confusing it with aspects of “ultra liberalism” and middle class protest politics. Another important problem with the volume is the author’s grossly inadequate discussion of the impact of the Stalinist/Trotskyist/Maoist legacies on the US Leftist milieu and the so called anarchist one. Whilst the author fails to take account of the hidden and not so hidden hands of agencies of US capitalism in facilitating the impotence and sub cultural nature of the much of the general leftist and anarchist milieus.

Mark McGuire


1.See discussion on Libcom.org “CNT Proposes reorganisation of the IWA”
2.See “Democracy, Trade Unions and Political Violence in Spain: The Valencian Anarchist Movement 1918-1936 by Richard Purkiss.
4.See “Fragments: A Memoir by Sam Dolgoff
5.See “Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to: Lenin, Mao and Che” By Max Elbaum.
6. See “Gloria Steinem, the Women’s Movement and the CIA” on the internet and “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond” by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain.
7. See “Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World” by Salvatore Salerno.

From Rebel Worker www.rebelworker.org
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