What is anarcho-syndicalism: a radical vision of community organisation
The sixth part of a series exploring anarcho-syndicalism, its aims and principles, and the practicalities of enacting them in the real world.
In part five of this series, I examined how to rebuild the community consciousness and sense of solidarity that once defined the working class. Here, I want to look at building upon that consciousness and how best to organise and mobilise people locally.
Community organising is not an idea exclusive to anarcho-syndicalism, or even to anarchism more broadly. It can be embraced by a broad variety of political tendencies – not to mention religious ones, in the case of faith-based community organising. As a consequences, many of the actions that work well in galvanising communities are truisms across the political spectrum.
However, anarcho-syndicalist organising is distinguished not only by the unique perspective that it offers, but also by the radical tradition in which it is couched. As such, whilst there will be some similarities on a superficial level, there is also a world of difference in strategy, focus, and structure. Not to mention in the types of actions being pursued. for example church organisers, whether progressive or fundamentalist in nature, are unlikely to include blockades, sit-ins, or rent strikes as part of their methodology.
It is this radicalism, along with the libertarian principles which determine how such movements are structured, which sets anarcho-syndicalist community organising apart. In my opinion, it is what makes it infinitely more popular and successful when applied properly.
The first principle, as in all things anarchic, is building from below. We reject the idea that the working class needs to be led, or that all things tend to chaos without somebody “in charge.”
Instead, we argue that all leaders do is act as a dead-weight to those who follow them. Caught within the web of officialdom, and identified as head of a movement which could potentially be a threat to the existing order, the pressure is on them to moderate the behaviour of their organisation, to “play nice” and not rock the boat. And this is without the self-interest or the corrupting influence of power which sees a seat at the top table as an end in itself. In short, with leaders, compromise and sell-out becomes inevitable.
Having explained this concept in relation to trade union leaders, I feel no compulsion to repeat myself. But it is worth noting that where, industrially, the problem is bureaucrats, in the community arena it is not always so. Self-appointed, often reactionary, “community leaders” are a particular problem for ghettoised ethnic minorities – particularly in relation to the policy of multiculturalism. More broadly, religious figureheads pose a problem in some areas, as well as councillors and mainstream political campaigners who refer to “their” community, and conservative or reformist organisations such as Neighbourhood Watch.
The difference in approach of each requires a diversity of responses, most of which will be determined by the individual circumstances of various areas. For example, in the Tower Hamlets area of London, Bengali and Muslim residents faced with a threat from the fascist EDL used the opportunity to denounce the Islamic Forum of Europe, who claim to “act as the sole representatives of ordinary Muslims” but in fact “represent a virulent form of political Islam that is fascistic in nature.” Elsewhere, such figures have been marginalised by people acting in their own defence and of their own volition. But what works in any given situation is for those facing it to decide.
What remains constant is what we replace that model with. As Anarcho-Syndicalism 101 puts it;
The idea that “everyone is important, nobody is necessary” helps to remind those attempting to put anarcho-syndicalist principles into practise of the nature of anarcho-syndicalist organisation; that is to say, that the opinions of every member are no less or no more important than those of any other. Just as importantly, it reminds us that we are all responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the organisation, as well as the action that the union as a whole carries out within the workplace and community. It reminds us continually of the collective and libertarian nature of the union based on anarcho-syndicalist principles, that we operate without leaders, idols or gurus, and that there are no hierarchies, political, intellectual or otherwise.
In effect, this phrase reminds us that we are equally important within our organisations as individual human beings, but that no one individual can carry so much weight within an anarcho-syndicalist union that it ceases to function if they, for some reason, can no longer participate in its day-to-day maintenance. Where this is so, some members much of necessity be in a state of dependence and deference. This is not what we want for a movement whose primary goal is to facilitate the development of individual skills and capacities related which help us to think and act for ourselves. When functioning properly the anarcho-syndicalist union is not a harbinger of new forms of oppression and deference, but rather an association of free individuals developing a culture and practise of freedom, equality and solidarity.
The principle that we organise as equals without hierarchy – formal or informal – holds true in the community as much as in the workplace.
The alternative to electoral politics
The other significant difference in anarchist community organising is that, where other groups see their actions as a supplement to electoral politics and the parliamentary process (or vice versa) in a democratic system, we see ours as an alternative to those things.
That is why you will never see anarcho-syndicalists aiming to “rock the vote” or “lobby” politicians as part of our campaigning. If people really wish to do those things, then they do not need radical organisation for it. But if people sign up to be part of a movement grounded in the power of ordinary people to take control over their own lives, they can reasonably expect that said movement will avoid precisely the actions which return control to political masters and beg them to solve our problems for us.
This isn’t to say that methods of raising support and building pressure – such as petitions – can never be used. They can be an effective way of galvanising people around any given issue, making them feel like they are taking part, and perhaps encouraging them to do so if more direct action becomes necessary.
But presenting a politician with a demand is very different from giving them a democratic mandate or endorsing the politics that they represent by casting a ballot.
Of course, if individuals choose to vote or not vote, that is entirely up to them. The anarchist argument that there is no significant positive impact of voting – since all parties represent the interests of the same ruling class, with various degrees of hawkishness – comes full circle in that, if you really want to vote, then there’s no real damage. It’s just that, for precisely the reasons stated, we tend not to out of principle.
But the maxim of “don’t vote, organise” isn’t really about whether or not any given individual chooses to mark an x in a box. It’s about the significant amount of energy and resources consumed on campaigns urging people to vote a particular way – or indeed to vote at all. Resources that could be used at a grassroots level, fighting on issues that really matter.
As Anton Pannekoek put it in Party and class;
The belief in parties is the main reason for the impotence of the working class; therefore we avoid forming a new party – not because we are too few, but because a party is an organization that aims to lead and control the working class. In opposition to this, we maintain that the working class can rise to victory only when it independently attacks its problems and decides its own fate. The workers should not blindly accept the slogans of others, nor of our own groups but must think, act, and decide for themselves.
And that is the alternative that anarcho-syndicalists advocate. That the working class think, act, and decide for ourselves. That we take control over our lives back from the politicians, bosses, and bureaucrats.
In order to do that, campaigns based around direct action are integral. Instead of asking that injustices are not heaped upon us, we need to refuse to accept them and to actively defy those at the top of the ladder. In the workplace, even under the mainstream unions, this sort of action exists in the form of strike, work-to-rules, etc, but in the wider community direct action also has a role to play.
In a pamphlet for the 2010 general election (PDF), the Anarchist Federation give several examples;
For example, when the local council threatened to close down a school in Lewisham, parents reacted by taking direct action: they occupied the school building and forced the council to back down. Another example of direct action is when people refuse to put up with unaffordable rents and decide to squat instead. Direct action can also be taken against high prices, such as in Italy in the 1970s when people in large groups would go into supermarkets, take what they wanted from the shelves, and pay what they considered to be a fair price instead of what the supermarket was asking. And one of the most famous examples of effective direct action on a massive scale here in the UK was when Thatcher’s poll tax was beaten in the 1990s. Many people at the time were claiming that the only way to stop the poll tax was to vote Labour, but it was scrapped years before Labour got in, thanks to a massive campaign based around people simply refusing to pay.
Another example of direct action along the same lines is the rent strike. LibCom tell the tale of the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike as an example of what such an action can achieve;
During the First World War, rent increases across Glasgow provoked massive working class opposition, mainly from women organised in tenants’ groups. Their struggle against profiteering landlords during extremely difficult circumstances is a valuable example of how collective action really gets results.
Starting in Govan that April, strikers paid only their normal rent, refusing the increase. Despite intimidation by rent collectors the strikers succeeded, and by June, the landlords had given in. News of the success spread to other parts of the city, where tenants organised agitation and propaganda against the landlords. The solidarity of the working class women was strong, so strong in fact, that it could not be broken by the rent collectors, who then had to apply to court to evict the tenants instead.
Sheriff officers were called in to serve the writs and carry out the evictions, but yet again the strikers took action, barring the path of any sheriff officers entering their communities. The rent strike reached its peak in October with 30,000 tenants taking part. Large scale demonstrations were held whenever an eviction notice was served.
In the face of such massive working class solidarity and action, the landlords changed their tactics, and attempted to pursue tenants thought the small claims court. That month 18 munitions workers were summoned to the court for non-payment. On the day of the hearing, 10,000 protesters from all over the city made their way to the court house to demand that the charges were dropped and that the rents be frozen at their original levels. If this was not done, they said, then a general strike was to be called for 22nd November.
The government was terrified by the rising working class radicalisation, and gave in to the demands of the strikers, ordering the sheriff to drop the charges. The Rent Restriction Act followed, which fixed rents at their pre-war level for the duration of the conflict and for six months after all over the UK.
Such actions don’t only demonstrate the collective power of the working class. They also help to forge and strengthen the bonds of solidarity that make such action possible.
There are already organisations which operate according to this idea. Solidarity networks and community unions offer that same sense of belonging and unity that unions in the workplace do. They also provide a space within which people can have their ability to shape their own future reaffirmed, beyond the structures of those in power, which dictate we must look to leaders to act on our behalf.
For the ruling class, that is the scariest part of the whole package. The idea of the rest of society asserting its own strength, its own interests, is far more terrifying than any individual concession. And that is another reason why it is absolutely vital.