What is anarcho-syndicalism: forging community consciousness
The fifth part of a series exploring anarcho-syndicalism, its aims and principles, and the practicalities of enacting them in the real world.
One of the first things that I pointed out in this series was that anarcho-syndicalism is more than just syndicalism. That is, it is not just concerned with the workplace and with class struggle within industry. After all, we do not cease to be working class when we clock off for the day any more than we do if we become unemployed, and the disparities and injustices of the class system affect us in all other facets of our life at least as much as they do in work.
However, whilst anarcho-syndicalism is often taken as a largely or exclusively industrial movement, there is a failure to engage with and organise among local communities across the left quite broadly.
Even when campaigns and issues are political rather than economic, such as the present one against government austerity, they rarely involve people who are not either seasoned activists and politicians or enthusiastic newcomers who have gone out of their way to get involved. And those who don’t fall into either category are often a small minority who are drawn into and quickly drop out of any given movement. Engagement with communities at a grassroots level has been all but lost.
Therefore, before we can discuss how best to organise communities and mobilise a great mass of people into action, we need to look at rebuilding that most basic link. How can we return to the point where activism is not the preserve of a small group of people claiming to speak for the working class, but of the working class themselves?
Before I go on, a small caveat.
The word “community” is arguably overused these days. At the least, it is used to mean various things based on the speaker and their point, so I should clarify what in the hell I’m talking about.
But there is no deeper political or sociological meaning behind my use of the term. I quite simply mean the people who share any particular locale – neighbours in a defined geographical area, usually no bigger than a borough.
Such people may be friends, or enemies, or have no knowledge of each other even existing. They may be roughly similar in terms of demographic questions such as race, religion, sexuality, etc, or they may be very diverse. But they more often than not share the same class interests. And the same group of people, locally, that they have to appeal to, argue with, and struggle against should they wish to assert those interests in a meaningful way.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that such communities are a vital basis for the kind of world that we wish to create. In a self-organised society, it is at this kind of local level that we would see real societal self-organisation take place. Those within said communities would be the ones controlling resources locally, directly making the decisions about how their community is run, and how they interact or federate with other locales. You cannot have community self-organisation and autonomy if you do not have communities.
But how do we reach that point?
In a workplace, organisation occurs because the shared interests of the workers are blindly obvious. Whether an outside union official signs people up, or the staff combine of their own accord, it is a relatively straightforward affair.
In a local area, this is not the case. Shared interests do not rear their heads until a big issue emerges that incenses or excites everyone. Until then, it is easy to go on without thinking of your neighbours even as people, let alone as sharing your interests. With so many more people renting their homes than owning them now, and moving from one area to another based on affordability, jobs, and other factors, this problem has only become more acute.
Though there are still many places where that is the case, the days when everybody knew their neighbours and knew what was going on all around their street are a memory. Capitalism has atomised us, rendered us as isolated individuals floating through a stream of other individuals, rather than individuals forming together as a community.
We have a long way to go before we talk of communities being organised to block off their streets to keep fascists or bailiffs out, occupying schools to keep them open, or pulling together to support those short on the rent, or out on a long-term strike.
In an article on the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), John Shute makes the following point;
Any serious critique of the Independent Working Class Association ought to accept that the fundamental premise of the IWCA is correct. The left has, as they state, abandoned the working class, and any effective resistance to capital can only be established on the basis of rebuilding a militant current within the working class.
Any other strategy will commence from the position of isolation established by the left, and repeat its mistakes. What is necessary is the reforging of a current of working class resistance, which takes as its starting point-given the weakness of the organised working class in the workplace-a community-based politics of, as the IWCA put it, working class rule in working class areas.
There are fundamental criticisms of the path the IWCA took. Not least the fact that the had members elected as councillors, and that “the problem with spending time as a local councillor is that you come to see the local state as part of the solution, not as the problem.” Thus, there is the risk that “working class rule in working class areas gets reduced to a local authority strategy document,” losing all of its potency.
However, beyond this we see the group doing something that the rest of the left is not. That is, talking to working class people, asking them what their interests are, and organising on the basis of those answers. Hence, according to the group itself, its activities “included fighting council corruption in Hertfordshire, confronting a mugging epidemic in Birmingham, the privatisation of council housing in Islington, exposing the small print in the New Deal provisions in Hackney, highlighting the dangers of mobile phone masts in Manchester, sparking occupations against council closures in Glasgow, taking up the fight against antisocial crime in Havering, and confronting drug-dealing in Oxford.”
Its programme is something which we can certainly take a leaf from, from dealing effectively with anti-social behaviour whilst rejecting the “cultural witch-hunt of working class youth” to an anti-racism rooted in class politics.
Much of this is already a part of the anarcho-syndicalist philosophy, and has been put into practice effectively by the CNT during the Spanish Revolution, the Polish ZSP organising acts of resistance such as rent-strikes, and others across the globe. What the IWCA offers – taking away the things which deserve critiquing such as electoralism and advocacy of the state and police as part of the solution – is a blueprint for doing that in a climate where the working class has been utterly demobilised and atomised, as well as abandoned by the left.
Thus, the anarchist alternative;
Those libertarians in the IWCA are correct to argue that anarchists should work in their local communities. However, anarchists have done and are doing just that and are being very successful as well. The difference is that anarchists should be building self-managed community organisations rather than taking part in the capitalist state. That way we build a real alternative to the existing system while fighting for improvements in the here and now.
That can only be done by direct action and anti-parliamentarian organisation. Through direct action, people manage their own struggles, it is they who conduct it, organise it. They do not hand over to others their own acts and task of self-liberation. That way, we become accustomed to managing our own affairs, creating alternative, libertarian, forms of social organisation which can become a force to resist the state, win reforms and become the framework of a free society.
This form of community activity can be called “community syndicalism.” It means the building of community assemblies which can address the issues of their members and propose means of directly tackling them. It would mean federating these assemblies into a wider organisation. If it sounds familiar that is not surprising as something similar was done during the campaign against the poll-tax.
The idea of community assemblies has a long history. Kropotkin, for example, pointed to the sections and districts of the French Revolution, arguing that there the masses were “accustoming themselves to act without receiving orders from the national representatives, were practising what was to be described later as Direct Self-Government.” He concluded that “the principles of anarchism . . . already dated from 1789, and that they had their origin, not in theoretical speculations, but in the deeds of the Great French Revolution” and that “the libertarians would no doubt do the same to-day.” (The Great French Revolution, vol. 1, p. 203, p. 204 and p. 206)
A similar concern for community organising and struggle was expressed in Spain. While the collectives during the revolution are well known, the CNT had long organised in the community and around non-workplace issues. As well as defence committees in various working class communities to organise and co-ordinate struggles and insurrections, the CNT organised various community based struggles. The most famous example of this must be the CNT organised rent strikes during the early 1930s in Barcelona. In 1931, the CNT’s Construction Union organised a “Economic Defence Commission” to study working class expenses such as rent. The basic demand was for a 40% rent decrease, but also addressed unemployment and the cost of food. The campaign was launched by a mass meeting on May 1st, 1931. Three days later, an unemployed family was re-installed into the home they had been evicted from. This was followed by other examples across the city. By August, Barcelona had 100,000 rent strikers (see Nick Rider, “The Practice of Direct Action: the Barcelona rent strike of 1931” in For Anarchism, edited by David Goodway)
In Gijon, the CNT “reinforced its populist image by . . . its direct consumer campaigns. Some of these were organised through the federation’s Anti-Unemployment Committee, which sponsored numerous rallies and marches in favour of ‘bread and work.’ While they focused on the issue of jobs, they also addressed more general concerns about the cost of living for poor families. In a May 1933 rally, for example, demonstrators asked that families of unemployed workers not be evicted from their homes, even if they fell behind on the rent.” The “organisers made the connections between home and work and tried to draw the entire family into the struggle.” However, the CNT’s “most concerted attempt to bring in the larger community was the formation of a new syndicate, in the spring of 1932, for the Defence of Public Interests (SDIP). In contrast to a conventional union, which comprised groups of workers, the SDIP was organised through neighbourhood committees. Its specific purpose was to enforce a generous renters’ rights law of December 1931 that had not been vigorously implemented. Following anarchosyndicalist strategy, the SDIP utilised various forms of direct action, from rent strikes, to mass demonstrations, to the reversal of evictions.” This last action involved the local SDIP group going to a home, breaking the judge’s official eviction seal and carrying the furniture back in from the street. They left their own sign: “opened by order of the CNT.” The CNT’s direct action strategies “helped keep political discourse in the street, and encouraged people to pursue the same extra-legal channels of activism that they had developed under the monarchy.” (Pamela Beth Radcliff, From mobilization to civil war : the politics of polarization in the Spanish city of Gijon, 1900-1937, pp. 287-288, p. 289)
More recently, in Southern Italy, anarchists have organised a very successful Municipal Federation of the Base (FMB) in Spezzano Albanese. This organisation is “an alternative to the power of the town hall” and provides a “glimpse of what a future libertarian society could be” (in the words of one activist). The aim of the Federation is “the bringing together of all interests within the district. In intervening at a municipal level, we become involved not only in the world of work but also the life of the community. . . the FMB make counter proposals [to Town Hall decisions], which aren’t presented to the Council but proposed for discussion in the area to raise people’s level of consciousness. Whether they like it or not the Town Hall is obliged to take account of these proposals.” (“Community Organising in Southern Italy”, pp. 16-19, Black Flag no. 210)
In this way, local people take part in deciding what effects them and their community and create a self-managed “dual power” to the local, and national, state. They also, by taking part in self-managed community assemblies, develop their ability to participate and manage their own affairs, so showing that the state is unnecessary and harmful to their interests. In addition, the FMB also supports co-operatives within it, so creating a communalised, self-managed economic sector within capitalism.
The long, hard work of the CNT in Spain resulted in mass village assemblies being created in the Puerto Real area, near Cadiz in the late 1980s. These community assemblies came about to support an industrial struggle by shipyard workers. As one CNT member explains, “every Thursday of every week, in the towns and villages in the area, we had all-village assemblies where anyone connected with the particular issue [of the rationalisation of the shipyards], whether they were actually workers in the shipyard itself, or women or children or grandparents, could go along. . . and actually vote and take part in the decision making process of what was going to take place.” With such popular input and support, the shipyard workers won their struggle. However, the assembly continued after the strike and “managed to link together twelve different organisations within the local area that are all interested in fighting. . . various aspects [of capitalism]” including health, taxation, economic, ecological and cultural issues. Moreover, the struggle “created a structure which was very different from the kind of structure of political parties, where the decisions are made at the top and they filter down. What we managed to do in Puerto Real was make decisions at the base and take them upwards.” (Anarcho-Syndicalism in Puerto Real: from shipyard resistance to direct democracy and community control, p. 6)
Even more recently, the Argentina revolt saw community assemblies develop. Like the sections of the French Revolution, they were directly democracy and played a key role in pushing the revolt forward (see “From Riot to Revolution”, Black Flag, no. 221). Unsurprisingly, the politicians were aghast at the people actually wanting to make their own decisions — even going so far as to label them “undemocratic.” Faced with real democracy, the politicians quickly tried to concoct a general election to place the focus of events away from the mass of the population and back onto a few politicians working in capitalist institutions. And, of course, the left went along with this farce, helping the bourgeoisie disempower the grassroots organisations created in and for direct struggle.
There are already some groups in Britain formed along this basis, the primary examples being the Haringey Solidarity Group and the Hackney Solidarity Network. But the point has to be to build upon this and for anarcho-syndicalists to take the lead on organising within their own communities.
This last point is one that cannot be over-emphasised, either. We are not simply talking about organising communities as though they are some separate, almost alien entity. They are the places we live, and we are a part of them. Community organisation must be done by the people who live within them, rather than by a professional activist parachuted in from elsewhere.
But before we look at how we can do that, the tactics and structures that make up such organisation, and what they can achieve, we need to take the first step to make such things possible. That is, to talk to people, and engage with them on the issues that affect them and that they are concerned about.
It’s simple enough. But at the moment there are too few people doing it.