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(en) Debate on Australian Anarcho-Syndicalism

Date Thu, 15 Jun 2006 16:58:24 +0300

From Rebel Worker – Paper of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network Vol. 25 No.2 (192)
June – July 2006 Web Page www.rebelworker.org PO Box 92 Broadway 2007 NSW Australia
This article is based on a talk given by Greg of the Melbourne Anarchist
Communist Group (MACG) during a recent tour of Britain sponsored by the
Anarchist Federation and the following discussion.
The struggle of the workers is the number one issue in Australia at the
moment. But it is crucially defined by and at the moment contained
within the framework of parliamentary politics. Australia has a written
constitution, a federal government and bicameral parliament with the
lower house (like the House of Commons) having the primary
responsibility for holding the cabinet and government responsible.
Politics is a two-horse race with the Liberal (i.e. Tory) Party and its
ally the rural National Party versus the Australian Labour Party, with
each alternating in government. Things are complicated by a declining
Democratic Party and a rising Green Party, filling the political vacuum
on the Left with other leftist groups in a ‘socialist alliance’.

The Liberals took control of both houses in the recent elections and now
finds it much easier to drive forward a reactionary agenda, primarily
the breaking of the social contract which has governed post-war
political, social and industrial relations. This agenda has been greatly
facilitated by the collapse of the Australian Communist Party,
politically and organisationally. The working class has been effectively
disarmed by this collapse, rates of union membership and recognition
have fallen dramatically and rank-and-file activism has declined.

The Liberal government is reactionary but also has been tactically
astute by following the outlook of the times and only pushing for
‘reforms’ that are popular or it can win. These ‘reforms’ enable them to
create a rightwing atmosphere. Any unified response has been patchy and
the unions have played a limited role in facilitating and linking
resistances. There are lots of slogans but only limited action.

ID Cards are a big issue in Britain at the moment: what’s the situation
in Australia?

This is a relatively new issue that the government has floated but which
they may not go ahead with. The MACG’s response has been limited due to
a lack of resources but it would certainly advocate and get involved in
resistance to ID cards and identity registers.

Rank-and-file leadership

Traditionally there has always been a strong syndicalist current within
working class struggles during the last 100 years and this has meant
union bureaucrats have had to be far more receptive to the views of
rank-and-file members, despite conflicts within the unions. But more
recently the bureaucrats have strengthened their grip on the members
through the formation of ‘super unions’ and by tightening membership
rules and procedures. The Liberals introduced ‘enterprise bargaining’ in
1996, which outlawed industry-wide collective bargaining and agreements
and pitted company against company, worker against worker. This
weakening of bargaining power caused a massive decline in union
membership, from 50% of the national workforce to only 25%, to which the
traditional unions and bureaucracies had no answer. In contrast,
Left-led unions have won successes through ‘pattern bargaining’, running
industry-wide campaigns which can then be applied to individual companies.

What are the concrete reasons for the decline in unionisation?

Firstly, a decline in class-consciousness. Secondly, unions have been
ineffective in defending wages and other terms and conditions. Thirdly,
traditionally industries where unions were strong have suffered from
massive restructuring; newer industries has lower levels of
unionisation. Fourthly, restructuring has led to downsizing of big
companies (where unions were more tolerated) in favour of smaller
companies and casual work forces. Finally the 1983 accord between the
ACTU and the Australian Labour Party created a framework for
restructuring while at the same time the Communist Party of Australia
abandoned the working class, leaving it largely defenceless.

The globalisation of poverty wages

The Liberal government is pushing for further industrial law reform,
intent on ham-stringing the unions: abolishing unfair dismissal
protection in small companies, getting rid of collective agreements and
terms in favour of individual contracts and bargaining, appointing new
pay tribunals with a neo-capitalist remit to drive down minimum pay
levels and making legal strikes virtually impossible through
restrictions and levying penalties on individual strikers as well as
unions. This last policy is aimed particularly at stamping out
unofficial strikes and industrial action that has been the most
effective tactic due to the weakness of the official unions. In
Australia legislation would make wildcat action illegal and would punish
workers directly - unlike Britain - so the only response is mass
defiance. The reality is that no boss would sue their workers, they
would use the laws as an excuse to sack workers. Just the threat of
action will severely impact on the likelihood of strikes and this in
turn will let union bureaucrats (who previously had no choice but to
endorse and support strike action) off the hook. Finally, special laws
are to be introduced in the construction industry establishing special
commissions to investigate and break strikes and the unions, including
abolishing the right to silence: if you don’t inform on fellow strikers
and organisers you could face heavy penalties.

Unions in retreat, workers press forward

During its nine year life the unions have been resisting the
government’s plans. The Maritime Strike of 1998 was able to establish
strong picket lines with support from the local community and other
workers (especially in Melbourne) that finally defeated the bosses.
Australia’s TUC, the ACTU, has played a negative role, regularly
conceding whatever government and the bosses want; despite it, some
defensive struggles have been won but only at the cost of unions being
exhausted and weakened by the struggle. ACTU is waging a political
campaign, hoping for the return of a Labour government, but in Victoria,
unions have begun a different kind of campaign, involving a wide range
of often illegal tactics. This change has been led by the rank-and-file
and union delegates (shop stewards) not the bureaucrats and opposition
to the Liberal government is deepening and strengthening as a result. In
March 2005, a mass meeting of union delegates adopted a policy of
defiance and mass action against the government’s proposals. The ACTU
was forced to endorse the call for a national day of action in June but
was unable to contain and channel popular anger and the development of
more industrial action. 100,000 marched and took action in Melbourne and
200,000 in Sydney. A follow up delegate’s meeting in September proposed
a further day of action this November (which was held) and is struggling
to prevent the campaign being taken over by the ACTU. Additionally, many
union bureaucrats have been forced to go along but there is a fear they
are merely playing lip service to rank-and-file demands and preparing to
sell out the campaign. This is because the rank-and-file movement is not
fully independent but still being largely organised and channelled at
the local level. Action is carried out by the local officials, a change
from the historical pattern of such events where protests and action are
self organised.

Leftism vs Anarchism

Left groups have tried to launch rank-and-file groups but sectarian
competition and infighting have destroyed any hope of a unified
independent movement. Sadly the anarchist movement has not been able to
intervene decisively because, it, too is divided. There are three
anarcho-syndicalist groups in Australia: the Anarcho-Syndicalist
Federation, aligned to the IWA (International Workers Association) , but
largely inactive; the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which is
wholly anarchist in membership and orientation but which has collapsed;
and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network, largely Sydney and transport based
and which has been quite effective, mounting unofficial actions though
generally small-scale. It has not progressed because it has failed to
take on social struggles, which has limited its appeal and reach.

Are you a “platformist” organization, believing in a single, unified
organization and strategy?

The MACG opposes the formation of an “anarchist party” as suggested in
the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists. We are
opposed to any “confederation” of anarchists and anarchist groups on the
basis of a unified political platform. We are pro-syndicalist while
remaining staunchly in favour of revolutionary anarchism and an
anarcho-communist society. The working class needs anarcho-syndicalism
to liberate itself. We believe that if resistance deepens and spreads,
it will give rise to anarcho-syndicalist unions.

There are also, of course, many non-aligned anarchist bookshops, zines
and groups such as the Libertarian Workers and the MACG itself. Unlike
most other groups, the MACG has a strong class struggle analysis and
orientation and has thrown itself into the various struggles, talking to
working class militants in their own language, demanding that the
rank-and-file take control of the campaigns as part of developing their
understanding and experience of direct action and democracy. Edited.

Thanks to “Organise” No.65


I would like to comment on some of the points raised in the above
article by Greg. In his discussion of the Communist Party and its role
in the Australian labour movement and Anti-Capitalist milieus, he fails
to adequately discuss its contradictory aspects and legacy. Whilst, the
Communist Party in its heyday via its grass roots activists played an
important role in assisting grass roots activity on the job in many
industries (1), it was also a key transmitter of many unwholesome
Machiavellian practices, particularly during its Stalinist phase from
the late 20’s to the mid 60’s.


It entailed vanguardist style stacking and manipulating of meetings via
clandestine cells to secure power for the party in various arenas and
organisations, psychological manipulation of its members, ballot rigging
in unions, restricting debate at meetings, slander campaigns, etc. These
practices have particularly influenced the various factions of the ALP
such as the Rightwing Faction in N.S.W. and via Trotskyist groupings
which mushroomed like toad stools in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s
have blighted the Leftist milieu and most graphically in campus
politics. As these unwholesome practices have become all pervasive and
“acceptable”, affecting groups of different stripes.

A Garden of Leftist “Poisonous Weeds”

The combination of this “Stalinist Legacy” and the predominance of lower
middle class elements – professionals, academics, lower level union
officials, etc and students lacking much experience of the class
struggle but outraged by the various misdeeds of contemporary capitalism
and “worshiping” the bogus identity politics of “oppressed monolithic”
imaginary communities of women, indigenous, queer, etc and the bizarre
antics of “political correctness” – organisational navel gazing,
focusing on gender dynamics and balance in meetings and women’s spaces,
“indigenous welcomes” at conferences, etc, has encouraged the
proliferation of the sect phenomena in the anti-capitalist milieus in
Australia today.(2)

That is groupings which are largely “existential”. They exist for their
own sake providing “pseudo families/tribes” for those seeking to escape
the alienation of capitalist society and maintaining the elitist
activist lifestyles of party gurus via the recruitment of naive new
members on the basis of an ever changing merry go round of “campaigns”
on every issue under the sun. They are hostile to encouraging a climate
favourable to debate and research essential for the development of
strategies to facilitate the “workers’ control” project. It is more this
problem which precludes major assistance from leftist groups for grass
roots fight backs against the present Howard Government and Neo Liberal
offensive and the lame duck and traitorous role of the union hierarchy.
Not the “divisions” and different groupings, Greg complains about. After
all different groups could put out grass roots publications in important
industries in different states and regions to help out grass roots self
organization and direct action. Subsequently, they no doubt would become
more coordinated in their efforts. However, Leftist groups which wave
different flags are generally not pursuing such useful work today.

An exception to this sorry state is the work of the ASN which in
contrast to what Greg has to say, has contributed to “major” grass roots
successes. Particularly assisting militants defeat of a restructuring
for privatisation push in the N.S.W. railways in 1999, which would have
led, if successful to the privatisation of remaining Govt. owned
industry in N.S.W. and other significant initiatives (3).

Lately ASN activity to assist the grass roots has expanded in quite a
range of spheres such as Canberra buses, maritime transport and the fire
brigade. However, our priority is not “building the party” and the
recruitment of middle class/student elements through pandering to
various exotic fads and aimless activism. But assisting the grass roots
to establish a mass syndicalist union movement, which must mean
strategic organizational work.

“Strategic Organising”

Our focus on Transport, which Greg mentions extremely briefly , is
essential to this project. It’s not just some “single issue”, on a
“washing list of good causes”. Success in this sector will enable the
wiping out of the existing bureaucratic unionism via future syndicalist
organising drives in various industries assisted by syndicalist
transport workers and the general raising of the morale in the workers’
movement stemming from major victories won by the direct action of
transport workers. A raging torrent of an expanding syndicalist movement
will be unleashed.

This “outside the job” activity assisting “on the job” activity and
organization has always been a key aspect of syndicalist activity. It is
this sort of activity in contrast to Greg’s fascination with purely
“spontaneous” activity of workers which has led to sectors of the labour
movement taking on a syndicalist direction. An important example is of
course the N.S.W. BLF in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.The grassroots
movement which pushed the union in a syndicalist direction involving
grass roots control of union decision making, limited tenure of office
for officials, “workers’ control” actions, such as the “green bans”, etc
in these years didn’t just occur “spontaneously”. The Communist Party
played an important role in bringing militants together and producing
its journal the “Hoist” to establish a grass roots movement. Whilst
Communist Party militants who were BL’s were influenced by the “workers’
control” push influential in the party during its “destalinisation”
phase in t he late 60’s & early 70’s. (4)

Certainly, this sweeping talk of “spontaneity” by Greg, seems as an
excuse for the disregard of assisting on- the- job organisation in
industries and workplaces which would make sense as part of a strategy
to establish mass syndicalist unionism.

Such an approach would take account and assist militants in getting
around on-the- job obstacles to their activism e.g. intense speedups,
networks of “bosses stooges”, increased surveillance, long shifts, legal
difficulties, etc, involving long range serious work. Militants need
this kind of nitty gritty sustained assistance, not just abstract
“arguments” and “preaching from the outside”.



1. See “A Few Rough Reds” Ed. Hal Alexander & Phil Griffiths.

2. See “Feminism & Class Struggle - A Document is Distributed” by Peter
Siegl on the internet for an excellent analysis of this curious mixture
of Stalinism and Identity Politics amongst Leftist groups.

3. See “Anarcho-Syndicalism - Catalyst for Workers’ Self Organisation”
on our web page www.rebelworker.org for a analysis of some serious
syndicalist activity in Australia in recent years and today.

4. See “Tales of the BLF: Rolling The Right” by Paul True, which
examines the emergence of the rank & file movement in the BLF in NSW
during the 1950’s. For a discussion of some of the syndicalist features
of the NSW BLF in the late 60’s & early 70’s see “Green Bans/Red Union”
by V. & M. Burgmann”, unfortunately its warped by the “identity
politics” fashionable in the academic leftist milieu.
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