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Fighting for ourselves - anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle


“Against the offensive of capital and politicians of all hues, all the revolutionary workers of the world must build a real International Association of Workers, in which, each member will know that the emancipation of the working class will only be possible when the workers themselves, in their capacities as producers, manage to prepare themselves in their economic organisations to take possession of the land and the factories and enable themselves to administer them jointly, in such a way that they will be able to continue production and social life.”
- Statutes of the International Workers Association (IWA-AIT)1

“One must try to increase as much as possible the theoretical content of all our activities, but without the 'dry and shrivelled doctrinalism' which could destroy in part the great constructive action which our comrades are carrying forward in the relentless fight between the haves and the have nots. Our people stand for action on the march. It is while going forward that we overtake. Don't hold them back, even to teach them ‘the most beautiful theories’...” - Francisco Ascaso2

“The spirit of anarcho-syndicalism (...) is characterised by independence of action around a basic set of core principles; centred on freedom and solidarity. Anarcho-syndicalism has grown and developed through people taking action, having experiences, and learning from them (...) the idea is to contribute to new and more effective action, from which we can collectively bring about a better society more quickly. That is the spirit of anarcho-syndicalism.”
- Self Education Collective3

As we write this in 2012, capitalism is experiencing one of its periodic crises. In Britain, the depression is now longer than the so called Great Depression of the 1930s. The state is seizing the opportunity to tear up past working class gains across the board, from healthcare provision and reproductive rights, to unemployment, disability welfare and access to higher education, from job security to wages. This has provoked brief moments of intense, defensive struggles. In the winter of 2010 students took to the streets across the country against a tripling of tuition fees to £9,000 per year. The movement erupted in November with the trashing of the ruling Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, as thousands broke away from the official National Union of Students march. That spirit continued throughout the following few months, with rowdy demonstrations across the country. The state response was brutal, with riot police suppressing the protests and ‘kettling’ thousands for hours in freezing conditions. The rioting in central London was, at the time, the worst in a generation. But more was to come.

Meanwhile, the public sector unions slowly moved into action, calling a series of one day strikes. Unity lasted for just two days of action before unions started dropping out and signing deals with the government, and the tangible feeling of power and possibility has been steadily demobilised into one of inevitable defeat as workers are divided by those supposed to represent their interests. 
In August 2011, riots once again broke out across the country. This time, they followed the police shooting, and subsequent cover up, of an unarmed man in Tottenham, north London. Hatred of the police proved a common bond. Rival gangs declared truces and over four days rioting and looting spread first across the capital, and then across the country. Rioters voiced anger at police brutality and harassment, political corruption and the rich, only for the government, media and much of the left to dismiss them as apolitical. The riots died down, but much of the underlying tension remains.

So then, we are living in times of unprecedented attacks on our living conditions on all fronts, of rising social tension and sometimes violent eruptions of class conflict. And yet if anything, the surprise is not that there have been riots and the odd strike, but that there have been so few. How are we to make sense of this? How are we to fight back, to take the initiative? Against this society, what do we want to put in its place? The 20th century discredited state socialism, and rightly so. But with it, a whole history of international class struggle, of revolutions and counter revolutions, victories and defeats, spontaneous uprisings and vast workers’ organisations has been eclipsed too. This pamphlet aims to recover some of that lost history, in order to set out a revolutionary strategy for the present conditions. We focus on the forgotten side of the historic workers’ movement, not in search of blueprints but inspiration. We draw that inspiration from those tendencies which focussed not on capturing state power through elections or insurrection in order to impose ‘socialism’ from above, but which took seriously the idea that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves’, posing working class direct action against the double yoke of capital and the state.

We focus on anarcho-syndicalism, the tradition we come from, but touch on numerous other lesser known radical currents along the way. We certainly don’t think we have all the answers, but we do think we’re at least asking the right kind of questions. How can we organise ourselves to both defend and advance our conditions? How can we oppose the attacks of both capital and the state, when dominant liberal and leftist approaches see the state as the protector of our ‘rights’ and push for participation in the parliamentary process? What kind of society are we fighting for, if not one ruled by the impersonal forces of capital and the violence and hierarchy of the state?

We see revolutionary theory as an aid to organising workers struggle and not, as is so often the case, as a means of dominating and controlling it, or of producing dense and enigmatic tomes to establish one’s credentials as a ‘thinker’. As capitalism is dynamic so must be the methods we use as workers to fight it. It is only through our collective immersion in day-to-day struggles that we can adapt and change tactics to meet changing conditions. And as our tactics change and develop so must our ideas. Doing and thinking are but moments of the same process of organisation. It is through our involvement in our daily struggles that, as an anarcho-syndicalist union initiative, we are able to ensure that revolutionary theory keeps pace with practical realities and remains relevant to the workers’ movement and to our everyday lives.

‘Anarcho-syndicalism’ is a term which trips awkwardly off the English speaking tongue, and tends to elicit either bafflement, or images of burly working men in some 19th century factory. In French, the term syndicat, in Spanish, sindicato, in Italian, sindacato, simply means ‘union’, an association of workers without any further connotations, which can be modified by adjectives, such as ‘anarcho’, much as we use adjectives to modify the word union in English – trade union, craft union, industrial union and so on. Perhaps a better translation would be ‘anarcho-unionism’. But again, in the context of the United Kingdom, ‘unionist’ has British nationalist connotations completely at odds with the working class internationalism of the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. So we stick with the term, and unless otherwise specified we will use it interchangeably with ‘revolutionary unionism’ throughout this pamphlet (there are other advocates of revolutionary unions which we will also encounter along the way).

This pamphlet aims to shed light on both the forms and content of anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice, and in the process to dispel some of the more common myths and misapprehensions. It will explore how anarcho-syndicalist ideas have differed and adapted to meet changing conditions; outline the relationship with other traditions and anarcho-syndicalist criticisms of them. We will then bring things up to date with analysis of the post-WWII world and the conditions for organising today. We will set out our view as an organisation of what a new revolutionary unionism would look like, and outline practical steps and strategies to make it a reality. With the continued defeats workers are experiencing through the trade unions, a revolutionary alternative is needed more than ever. Indeed, we should not be asking the question ‘how can a union be anti-capitalist and anti-state?’, but rather, how can any union that is not so advance our class interests?, when those interests are inimical to those of capital and state.

The structure of the pamphlet is as follows: Chapter 1 introduces the mainstream workers’ movement, specifically trade unions and workers’ parties, in both their Marxist/Leninist and Labour Party forms. While these have their origins in the 19th century, they continue to dominate the workers’ movement (such as it is) today. Therefore the analysis is not purely historical, but continues up to the present day. Chapter 2 then explores the radical currents in the 20th century workers’ movement, long forgotten to most but still a point of reference for many discontented with the limits of the mainstream. This section explores council communism, a dissident Marxist tradition that still forms an important point of reference for many of those critical of the existing trade unions, as well as Marxists breaking with party politics. It also looks at both anarchist and syndicalist traditions, providing the context for Chapter 3.

With the scene then set, Chapter 3 will introduce anarcho-syndicalism as a fusion of the anarchist and syndicalist currents. We will see how this fusion took different forms in different places in response to different conditions, and explore some of the internal debates within the movement which remain relevant to our time. We will also look at the Spanish Revolution of 1936, which was both a high and low point for anarcho-syndicalism, and reflect on what went wrong and the implications for anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice. Finally, this chapter will draw on the historical discussion so far to set out the theoretical and practical basis of anarcho-syndicalism and its relation to other traditions. We will see that anarcho-syndicalism is a practice of trial and error around a political-economic core, combining the ideas and goals of anarchism with the organised labour strategy of syndicalism.

Given that the anarcho-syndicalist movement was all but wiped out by the combination of fascism, repression and total war from 1939 onwards, Chapter 4 will explore the changes in post-WWII capitalism and assess their implications for anarcho-syndicalist organising. Specifically, we will look at the post-War social democratic settlement, which sought to counter the threat of revolution and marginalise radical currents by integrating the working class (via the trade unions) into capitalist society through a series of reforms. We will then look at how this settlement went into crisis from the end of the 1960s through the 1970s with a wave of workers’ struggles against capitalism, the state and the trade unions. But we will see how these struggles were ultimately defeated, and gave way to the neoliberal counter revolution from the late 1970s, which has dominated global capitalism ever since.

Finally, Chapter 5 will draw on this analysis of contemporary conditions to assess the relevance of anarcho-syndicalism today. We will look at how to move from small political propaganda groups towards functioning revolutionary unions, explore the role of the revolutionary union, and its means of organising class conflicts within the wider working class. We will also look at how the everyday activities of the revolutionary union relate to the revolutionary struggle for social transformation, and explore the significance of the insurrectionary general strike in the overthrow of capital and state and their replacement by worldwide libertarian communism: a stateless society based on the principle ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. Against the fashionable and market driven disdain for anything ‘old fashioned’, we will show how anarcho-syndicalism represents a simple yet sophisticated and adaptable weapon for the working class today, and thus why we are proud to nail our colours, red and black, to the mast of the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA).