What is anarcho-syndicalism: building the new world within the shell of the old
The seventh and final part of a series exploring anarcho-syndicalism, its aims and principles, and the practicalities of enacting them in the real world.
The basic foundation of anarcho-syndicalism is that ordinary people, through solidarity and direct action, have the power to improve our own lives. We do not need bosses, bureaucrats, or political parties to fight our corner. We promote solidarity in our workplaces and outside them, encouraging workers to organise independently in order to fight for our own interests as a class. Previous posts in this series have, hopefully, covered not only the principles behind this idea but also the practice.
But, of course, anarcho-syndicalism is not just a tactic. We are not just after concessions and improvements in the here-and-now. Our ultimate goal is a stateless, classless society based on the principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Anarcho-syndicalists are, by definition, also anarchist communists.
The question is how we reach such a society. In the post on revolutionary unionism, I talked about “the revolutionary potential of organising within the workplace” and how, done right, it can be “the key to dismantling capitalism from within. Detailing a radical vision of community organisation, I explained how “the idea of the rest of society asserting its own strength, its own interests, is far more terrifying [to the ruling class" than any individual concession. By combining these two strands, we have the potential for complete social and economic revolution.
But what will emerge in the wake of such a revolution is not just a concern for the future. It is something that we should be building towards now, and that organisation within workplaces and communities ought to reflect. Not in rigid, immovable blueprints to impose our design of society on future generations, nor in the coldness and abstraction of theory. The very structure of our movement is the basis for how any post-revolutionary society will look.
It was the IWW who coined the phrase I use for the title of this post. As the preamble to their constitution proclaims;
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
If, in the end, we want a self-managed society, this has to come from a self-organised movement. You cannot get it from a heavily stage-managed, top-down “democratic centralism” wherein The Party becomes the vanguard or revolutionary leadership of the working class. To believe that “a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” will tend towards true communism, and that the state will “wither away” is nothing short of delusion.
I expand on this point in more depth in Communism and the state.
Rather, our means must reflect our aims. Just as building a top-down revolutionary movement sets the stage for tyranny, so a movement without hierarchy is the neccesary starting point for a society without hierarchy.
As the Solidarity Federation explain in the leaflet What is anarcho-syndicalism? (PDF);
The role of anarcho-syndicalist networks and unions is not to try and recruit every worker, but to advocate and organise mass meetings of all workers involved in each struggle so that the workers involved retain control. Within these mass meetings anarcho-syndicalists argue for the principles of solidarity, direct action and self-organisation.
In this way anarcho-syndicalism is completely different to trade unionism, which seeks to represent our economic interests, and the so-called ‘workers parties’ which seek to represent our political interests. Instead, anarcho-syndicalism unites the political and the economic and opposes representation in favour of self-organisation.
By organising this way, we learn to act for ourselves, exercising our power without being led by union officials or political vanguards. This calls into question the way society is organised and prefiguring the world we want to create, without bosses or rulers: libertarian communism.
And it is not just our organisations which should reflect this horizontal structure, but the spaces we occupy as well.
On the smallest scale, this would apply to radical social centres;
Then and now social centre volunteers come from a range of backgrounds: community activism, animal rights, anti-war, climate-change, feminism, anarchism and more. We don’t agree about everything, nor do we need to, but what unites us is a shared desire for:
‘a fair, free and sustainable society – without hierarchy, discrimination or the exploitation of people, animals and the planet for profit.’
Creating the social centre as an autonomous, non-hierarchical, do-it-yourself space is part of trying to realise this. We don’t claim to or seek to represent anyone. Instead we look to provide resources for people to work for themselves, to increase their own self-confidence and to improve their own lives.
More broadly, we can put the same principle to work in our actions. An occupied workplace can become an example of anarchism in action, the management structure replaced with cooperation, consensus decision-making, and solidarity and mutual aid both internally and with activists on the outside. This applies whether the aim is to take over the workplace for the workers, or simply to force concessions out of the bosses.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a community union, a squat, a social centre, an occupied workplace, or a national federation. What matters is that the way you have organised reflects the way you want to see society organised. And if you’re an anarcho-syndicalist, that means on the basis of “solidarity, direct action, and self-organisation.”
There is no over-arching blueprint or formula for anarcho-syndicalism, either in the present or in a post-revolutionary world. Instead, we have a set of key principles, developed and strengthened through practice. We are not conducting an intellectual or philosophical exercise, and so practice is – ultimately – what counts.
Just as our principles today are born of the practice of the past, so our practice today is what defines where we end up in the future. We truly are building the new world in the shell of the old one.