Another Review of Fighting for Ourselves

Review of Fighting for Ourselves
By Nate Hawthorne

In October you should get a copy of a new pamphlet called Fighting for ourselves: anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle by the UK revolutionary organization Solidarity Federation or SolFed for short. SolFed gave us permission to post some excerpts of the pamphlet and reviews. All radicals should read it, particularly IWW members and people in anarchist political organizations.

Part one: Read the pamphlet.

Seriously, read this pamphlet. If you can, make other people read it and discuss it with you. You can get it on paper in North America from Thoughtcrime Ink. The pamphlet provides an excellent overview of material relevant to radicals today and provides suggestions for further reading for people who want to follow any of the threads further. All the ideas covered come out of serious experiences of struggle and are worth engaging with in a sustained way. Likewise, all the historical moments the pamphlet covers are important. It’s useful and important to have a sense of memory of our political ancestors. Even those of us who aren’t direct political descendants of these experiences benefit by learning about them, and knowing that people in the past fought for a better world, and knowing what they tried and how, and what they thought.

The first chapter of the pamphlet goes over the history of unions and political parties which haven’t sought to end capitalism, and a few that were socialist but/and ended up contributing to limit working class people’s lives. As the pamphlet points out, a lot of these same forces are around on the left and in the labor movement today, so this history has contemporary relevance.

The second chapter goes over some radical currents that proposed a new society while also not falling into the statist (and, I would argue, still capitalist) trap of the socialist countries. The chapter talks about some anarchist, marxist, and union-centered (that is, syndicalist) political traditions. I appreciate the diversity of traditions represented in this chapter. SolFed are anarcho-syndicalists and proud of their tradition, but this pamphlet doesn’t try to keep people away from other traditions. It encourages engagement with currents SolFed disagree with, and shows how SolFed draw from and learn from other currents.

The next chapter focuses on anarcho-syndicalism, where SolFed are at home ideologically. The chapter presents the history of anarchist unions in several countries, looking at these organizations’ experiences and their ideas, including groups that are still around today like the CNT in Spain. I especially liked how this chapter presented anarchosyndicalism as made up of disagreements and different experiments, rather than as just one flat thing. Instead of “anarchosyndicalists everywhere are always like…” the chapter presents a variety of anarchosyndicalist organizations’ ideas and actions in different places.

The fourth chapter talks about some inspiring time periods in France and Italy when people in those countries rose up and really challenged capitalism and the state, but the chapter really focuses on the UK, which makes sense for a UK group. The chapter covers developments from World War II up to the present, aiming to understand the current political moment by showing the historical developments leading to the current moment. I’ve personally learned a lot from discussion with some friends in SolFed about some of the history and analysis that the pamphlet covers in much more detail. (Some of that discussion has had a big influence on stuff I’ve been writing about in terms of prospects for political reforms to demobilize social movements.)

The last chapter focuses on SolFed’s politics: what they aim to do in the short term and what they hope will unfold more long term and at a larger scale. It’s hard to summarize this, but the chapter argues for taking on realistic fights that build organization and spread radical ideas among the working class, with the eventual aim of seizing control of the economy and society. This included workers taking over their workplaces without compensating capitalists, and beginning to form a new kind of society.

IWW members in particular ought to read this. We emphasize working class struggle in waged workplaces. SolFed have a similar orientation, so we should learn from reading their views. Furthermore, their orientation toward how to struggle is similar to the approach favored by many of us in the IWW. The history provided is relevant as well, emphasizing people who have worked on working class struggles in waged workplaces. Some are people we have affinity with, especially the revolutionary unionists, and some are people we criticize, but all of them are worth IWW members knowing about.

Anarchists in North America should read the pamphlet too. A lot of anarchists have no real interest in workplace organizing and little understanding of class. This pamphlet will provide them with a good account of radical currents that emphasize the working class and waged workplaces. People who don’t see that as important should read this as a challenge to their views. Other anarchists who believe in the need for formal anarchist political organizations separate from unions and similar organizations will find a different sort of challenge in this pamphlet. Namely, it suggests that we don’t need political organizations separate from radical fighting organizations like unions. All fighting organizations have some political perspective, with a lot of variation in what those politics are. From the perspective advanced in this pamphlet, it is possible and actively desirable for unions and similar fighting organizations of the working class to have a revolutionary vision.

I could imagine some people saying “Reading?! There’s a crisis on! We need to hit the streets!” Sure, but we need to be equipped with an analysis of how capitalism and the state operate, and with a social vision to help us talk about what we want instead, and why. What people want shapes how much and how hard and how long they will fight, and when they’ll go home. Karl Marx famously posed a distinction between the slogans “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” expresses a vision of achieving some kind of supposedly livable capitalism, and “abolish the wage system,” calling for the end of capitalism and the beginning of a new society. If we don’t have arguments about our political perspectives, we’re going to have a hard time convincing other people not to go home when they get offered a deal that seems relatively fair to them as an individual or for their section of the working class. If people only imagine a better capitalism then they’ll go home instead of stay and fight once the capitalists offer them that slightly better deal. Of course radical analysis don’t magically solve all problems, but they do matter. That’s one area where I wish the pamphlet said more, in that I wish the pamphlet had a bit more on SolFed’s understanding of capitalism, and perhaps if it had an opening that was designed to make a pitch for the pamphlet’s radical ideas to people who aren’t already radicals.

Part two: Association and Representation

In this part I engage with one of the threads of the pamphlet, which analyzes some general dynamics within unions. They identify “two distinct meanings bound up in the term ‘union’” which they call the associational function and the representative function. The associational function is a way to talk about a union as “an association of workers, joining together for some common purpose (whatever that may be). In other words, the union is the means by which workers relate to one another. That relationship may be horizontal or hierarchical, usually voluntary but, as in the case of ‘closed shops’ where workers have to join the union, sometimes compulsory. Their association may be long-lasting as in today’s trade unionism, or more transient as in the early, pre-amalgamation unions. The purpose of their association may be simply economic – ‘bread and butter issues’ – or encompass wider social or political goals.” The associational function of unions is part of workers response to some basic facts of “life under capitalism. Individually, workers are powerless. Collectively we have power. Workers needed to defend themselves against the opposing interests of the bosses and have historically organised themselves into combinations such as trade unions in order to do this, realising that workers’ strength lay in their association.”

The representative function refers to workers having some way to speak to management and the state, in order to negotiate and to be recognized as a legitimate thing to be taken seriously. This function is bound up with the fact that union meetings tend to take place far away from the workplace and to deal with a lot of business that is not workplace centered. People with workplace organizing experience might compare the differences between the content of organizing committee/shop committee/job branch meetings and that of branch meetings. SolFed write that “union meetings are (…) dominated, not by workplace matters, but internal union business. The staple diet of such meetings is endless correspondence, various motions, countless elections and nominations for committees, conferences and union positions.” Furthermore, “these decisions are taken by a tiny minority of members. As decisions are taken further up the union ladder, tens of people acting for hundreds eventually becomes hundreds acting for millions. The culmination of this charade is the block vote where union leaders cast votes on behalf of hundreds of thousands of members on policies, and for people, that the overwhelming majority of members will never have heard of let alone voted for. The trade unions may still have millions of members between them, but in day to day union business it is a minority of officials and activists that speaks for them.” These officials and activists carry out a lot of the activity of the representative function. Union structures that pull workers off the shopfloor and into the life of the union encourage these dynamics. As SolFed write, “in many unions branch secretaries are required to be on full time release, and so never see the workplace. And even when they are not officially full time, they can end up sitting on so many committees and holding so many positions they do not have the time for something as mundane as work.” Stan Weir wrote against this tendency in a piece called Unions With Leaders Who Stay On The Job. Sometimes radicals “who are active in the union but have no base in the workplace” will rely on the representative function or even encourage its growth. They “will argue for all sorts of motions to be passed from ‘troops out’ to freeing Palestine, but do little to organise in the workplace.”

The growth of the representative function, and the autonomy and leadership of those who carry out the work of the representative function, encourages the union to “act as a check on militancy, even at branch level. How often do angry workers turn to the branch for support and advice over incidents that have happened at work, only to have all that anger deflected away from taking effective action by branch officials promising to ‘get something done’ by contacting head office or bringing in a full timer?”

I find these concepts very clarifying for offering a short summary of tensions in the life of unions. The way that unions represent workers to employers and governments shapes the collective life of the organization – how the representative function plays out has an impact on how the associational function plays out. Representation involves institutions or individuals within workers organizations that meet with institutions or individuals outside workers organizations – bosses or their representatives, and agents of the state. As SolFed write, “tendencies towards bureaucracy and the development of institutional interests separate from the workers themselves are natural developments of the representative function. However, they are also increasingly enforced by law. (…) The problems with trade unions don’t start with the law, but union legislation has further crippled effective workplace organisation whilst strengthening the bureaucratic tendencies that had already developed.”

These concepts are especially clarifying personally, for work that some friends and I have written about labor law and contracts.[*1] Using these terms, I would say that over all I and several others have been writing about various ways that law encourages the representative function and the representative function encourages legalism. And I’d say that we’re all concerned with how this effects the associational aspect of our organizations and other unions. Law is an institution of repression but also one of representation, and not just collective bargaining. There are state-provided independent agencies of representation, in the sense of independent of the employer. And even when law is repressive it encourages recourse to representation: lawyers are a kind of representational specialist. Furthermore, law encourages the growth of a layer of people who are specialists in connecting the organization or individuals to the agencies of representation.

SolFed write that “desire for economic representation makes perfect sense in the absence of a revolutionary perspective, just as the desire for political representation – i.e. suffrage – makes sense in the absence of an anti-parliamentary perspective. If you are not opposed to the capitalist system, representation within it is the most you can ask for.” I want to point out two things about representation. Representation is in part a relationship between the members of the union and the parts of the union that are currently embodying the representative function, that is, the representatives. Representation is also a relationship between union representatives and employer and/or state representatives. Some of the tensions in unions are about how representatives’ relationships with bosses and their relationships with union members work. Many on the left are used to talking about union representatives as limits on workers struggles, but this is not always the case. In order for unions to represent workers to bosses or the state, the bosses and the state have to be willing to sit down at the negotiating table. They aren’t always willing to do so. When governments and employers are unwilling to negotiate (which is to say, in part, unwilling to accept workers’ representatives and meet with them) the relationship between the representative personnel of a union and the rest of the union can change. If bosses won’t negotiate this can make representative personnel more desperate in relation to union members, in order to justify their positions, and/or pushing the organization toward things like lobbying for legislative change, election recalls, and so on. At the same time, sometimes representative personnel can become oriented toward more militant struggle with bosses in order to bring the boss back to the table.

I’ve used a metaphor of a kerosene lamp to describe unions, I think it expresses some of the relationship between representation and association. A kerosene lamp has components that create fire, that sustain fire, that contain fire to keep it from getting above a certain temperature and from spreading or joining up with other fires. Unions create class conflict, sustain class conflict, manage class conflict to keep it from getting too hot, and prevent it from spreading around the class. Which of these activities unions engage in at any given moment has a lot to do with the strength of the representative function, employer and state willingness to negotiate, and the specifics of the union’s associational life.

I’ve been saying for a while now that we’re in a time when employers and government see less need to negotiate and that this creates more room for militancy on the part of social movements, and makes it more likely that radicals may become influential in movements. This point comes in large part out of some discussion with a comrade from SolFed and from reading an early draft of a portion of Fighting for Ourselves, specifically the discussion on the history of syndicalism. We might say that employer and government disinterest in negotiation discourages the growth and operation of the representative function in workers organizations. If workers fight more aggressively, however, we are likely to see a re-enlivening of employer willingness to negotiate, which is a condition that encourages the growth and operation of the representative function. When the bosses won’t negotiate, smarter and more sophisticated specialists in representation will encourage worker to fight hard to restore the conditions for representation to ‘work’. I think this point is important for two reasons. First, it suggests something to watch out for in the not-too-distant future, because if the employers and governments become more willing to negotiate this will further encourage the growth of specialists in the representative function within workers organizations, and encourages the channeling of workers struggles more toward working within and through representative channels. Second, it’s worth noting that the workings of the representative function of unions under capitalism can involve significant friction and conflict. This is true with the operations of capitalism generally: it often involves very serious conflict. We should not mistakes the intensity of conflict for an anticapitalist character of a struggle.

Changing gears, SolFed call for unions that are just made up of the associational function with no representative character. I don’t think it’s possible for unions to exist under capitalism without some kind of representative function. Even if workers hold an assembly and make decisions then present demands to the boss as a whole group, this a kind of representation, though a very minimal kind. I would say that what we are primarily after is being representative minimalists. I would say that what some of us have talked about as ‘direct unionism’ is in part an argument for representative minimalism. We may make tactical use of representative measures and institutions, but we should be aware that doing so can channel us in a direction that encourages problems. We don’t want the representative function in our organizations to grow, we want it to shrink as much as possible, so that if we resort to representation we should be careful that it doesn’t shape our organization in negative ways. This is easier to say than to do. There are real differences in experience and skill in our organizations, which can become inflexible divisions of labor or hierarchies, where some people are specialists in some kinds of work and become autonomous of/autonomous within the organization, breeding problems of (or a lot like) the representative function. One way that the representative function can become more important, and more of a problem, is with an impulse to grow at all costs. As SolFed write, “in order to gain the right to negotiate on workers’ behalves, representative unions tend to jettison any explicit politics which could put off potential members.” Some of the slogans that can go with this include “let’s get serious” (as if everyone else is just playing around) or “we need to fight to win” (as if everyone else is trying to lose), as a way to say “let’s not talk much about our long term social vision and analysis of society.” This is one reason why I’ve started to be less interested in the old slogan that “direct action gets the goods,” because I think that we want more than just goods, and we want goods because of our core values and moral vision. If an organization is primarily about getting satisfaction under capitalism, the organization has serious limits. This is why it’s important that we have a radical perspective. As SolFed rightly say, without a radical perspective, the best we can hope for and all we really want is representation under capitalism.

In this second part I’ve responded to and made use of some of the categories in Fighting for Ourselves, in large part because I think the categories are interesting and illuminating. I think they’re valuable on their own terms and that they help make sense of some discussions that some of us in the IWW have been having, in person and in writing in the Industrial Worker, here on Recomposition, and on I hope this discussion helps make you want to read the pamphlet. Definitely read it. People who read it are welcome to comment on it here, and to submit reviews. I’d really like to see as many people as possible in the IWW read it, and see it reviewed in the Industrial Worker. Fighting for Ourselves is an excellent contribution to helping people understand some important history and some insightful theory relevant to revolutionary unionism today. As such, it makes a good contribution to projects of building revolutionary unionism in practice. You can check out excerpts of Fighting for ourselves here and another review here. Go get a copy. 

I’m thinking of several pieces, including the ongoing discussion on so-called “direct unionism,” Juan Conatz on contracts and the IWW, Phinneas Gage on contracts, my stuff on the history of collective bargaining and the role of the state, Kevin’s article on IWW overuse of unfair labor practices and how some IWW campaigns defer too much to lawyers and some members become specialists in ULP proceedings, and my stuff on Occupy Homes and mortgages and specialists. That writing has felt relatively disparate to me before but I would now say it’s all about law, the representative function, and the associational function. (Return to text.)