I’ve spent a while trying to work out what I think about revolutionary organisations, and the last month or so has seen quite a few pieces that’ve prompted me to think about the issue a bit more: over on this side of the UK, we’ve seen the launch of Collective Action, while recent articles from the US include some thoughts on political organisation from Juan Conatz and Gayge Operaista’s thoughts on exploitation, repression and self-organisation.
First things first: I am not “pro” or “anti” organisation. That would be as pointless as being “for” or “against” violence. Like violence, or pretty much any other tactic, formal organisations are useful for some things and not others: you probably won’t get very far if you avoid formal organisation as a point of principle, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good in itself.
One of the big realisations I’ve come to is that I don’t really believe in The Revolutionary Organisation. For anarchists, noting how the Bolsheviks and their followers defeated the working class while claiming to fight on their behalf is a pretty basic starting point; what’s a bit harder to deal with is the fact that the Spanish CNT and FAI, probably the best and most effective revolutionary anarchist organisations that have ever existed, ultimately served as a bond between the state and revolutionary workers, defusing instead of heightening the conflict between anarchists and our enemies. But it’d be wrong to conclude from this that all political organisations are bad: after all, the Friends of Durruti stayed true to revolutionary principles, and if they’d been stronger, I think that could only have improved the situation. But one of the major things holding them back was their loyalty to the CNT. I think the lesson I take from this is the importance of the classic anarchist principles of decentralisation and autonomy: different currents within the revolutionary movement should be as independent as possible from each other, so that when some of us end up crossing over to the side of our enemies, they don’t take the rest of us with them. This is one of the big points where I disagree with Adam Ford’s critique of Collective Action: rather than one big organisation, I think it’s healthier to have different groups testing out different strategies to see what works and what doesn’t.
My other big problem with the idea of having one big revolutionary organisation is that people who believe in this idea tend to want to start building it now. I’m really not sure that we can build proper revolutionary organisations outside of a revolutionary situation. It might seem a bit ridiculous to be talking about this stuff in Britain in 2012, but in a way that’s exactly my point: it is a bit ridiculous to expect that a group formed in a very specific set of circumstances will automatically know the right thing to do in a very different set of circumstances. Revolutionary groups often aim to act as “the memory of the class”, but this cuts both ways – it can be hard for those of us who remember years and years of working-class defeats to adjust to new situations. To make this a bit more concrete, sadly I wasn’t on the student demo where the Tory headquarters got trashed, but I can imagine that if I was there I would have been reluctant to charge in, because I’ve been on enough demos to know that most demonstrators usually aren’t up for kicking off, so when the small minority of demonstrators who are up for it try to start something, it usually doesn’t end well. The kids who trashed Millbank were mostly a bit younger than me, and they didn’t know what they were trying to do was impossible, so it became possible. Similarly, I think most of us were caught a bit off guard by the riots last summer. And that was just a few days of rioting, imagine how unprepared we’re going to be for the insurrection. When things do get to that level, I’m sure people who’ve been committed revolutionaries for a long time will have a useful role to play, but it’ll be the active involvement of everybody else that’ll decide how things go.
So, if we shouldn’t be trying to build The Revolutionary Organisation, what should we be doing? On this point I both agree and disagree with Collective Action. In their founding statement, they say “The models of activism that the Left rely upon are still tied to the mass struggles of the 1970s/80s – mass rallies, pamphleteering and paper sales, manoeuvring within political meetings. Yet years of Neo-Liberal reform since then have manufactured a working class that is de-politicised, de-mobilised and individualised. What is required in this instance is not intervention, but reconstruction. The Left are still seeking to lead and direct a mass of workers that, to put it simply, does not exist at this time. “ This is absolutely spot on. What I don’t understand is how they got from that starting point to the conclusion that what’s needed is a “specific anarchist organisation” – a political group made up of people united by a high level of shared theoretical agreement. I think that these kinds of political groups are quite well-suited to the task of intervening in mass movements to promote their ideas, but I don’t think they’re that suited to trying to construct mass movements from scratch in a situation where there aren’t really any.
At the moment, the old mass organisations that represented some sections of the working class have been almost entirely demolished, and nothing new’s really come along to replace them yet. This is both a problem and an opportunity – after all, the trade unions were always based on dividing and managing workers’ struggles, and so their decline means that there’s room for something better to replace them. But I can’t see the existing anarchist organisations playing that much of a role in helping found a new movement.
It’s notable that anarchists often talk a lot about basing our politics in our everyday lives, but we seem a bit more reluctant to actually use our everyday situations as the starting point for our organisations*. We have a group for anarchist communists, a group for anarchists who want to organise revolutionary unions**, a group for anarchist communists who believe in the specifist model of organisation, a group for communists who believe that neither anarchism nor Marxism have all the answers, a group for anarchists who don’t like the word anarchist, and a group for anarchists more or less in the populist tradition of Class War, but we don’t have a group for anarchists who are unemployed, anarchists who are temp workers, anarchists who experience sexism or anarchists who experience racism. To be honest, the people I’m most interested in organising with right now aren’t people who share my opinions on the Malatesta-Makhno debate, but people in the same material situation as me. If they have to face the same problems I face, and want to make organising against them their main priority, I’ll even work with people who like Bordiga better than Pannekoek. Industrial/workplace groups are a big part of what I’m talking about, but they’re not all of it – following on from what Gayge says about avoiding vulgar workerism, I think we need more than just workplace groups, or even workplace groups plus claimants groups and maybe a student group. The experience of being female, or being queer or an ethnic minority is just as much a part of life under capitalism as the experience of being a secretary or a shop assistant, and it makes as much sense to start from there as from anywhere else. I suppose the logic of what I’m saying is that I’d like to see workplace/industrial networks like the London Education Workers’ Group, plus something along the lines of the Revolutionary Anarchafeminist Group, something along the lines of Bash Back! and something along the lines of Anarchist People of Colour – although by saying that I’m definitely not endorsing the actual politics of Bash Back!, which I don’t know much about, or the politics of APOC, which often seem to be incredibly dodgy. Other issues, like whether disabled people need their own organisation or whether they should just be a part of general claimants’ groups, can be settled by the people involved.
While I think it makes sense for queer syndicalists to look for other militant queers instead of other syndicalists, or unemployed autonomists to look for other militant claimants instead of other autonomists, it obviously won’t be possible to avoid politics altogether. Apart from the basic starting point of recognising our shared class interest, so not being a scab or a racist, it’s probably necessary to start off with a rejection of the Labour Party, which still holds power in some areas and will attempt to co-opt any groups that get big enough, and an understanding that the old unions weren’t good enough and we don’t want to rebuild them. Anyone who wants to become a bureaucrat negotiating on our behalf should probably be excluded, and in places like Scotland and Northern Ireland where left-wing nationalism still exists it might be necessary to clearly state that we don’t identify with the interests of our nation. Another question that might be tricky is whether groups should follow the IWW/solidarity network model of being open to all militant workers, or the SolFed approach of only letting people who are revolutionaries join. But even with all those restrictions, I still think this kind of approach could allow revolutionaries to achieve a lot more than we’re doing at the moment.
This might come across as sounding like an attack on the existing anarchist groups. It’s not meant to be. Apart from anything else, it’s very possible that, if you’re a queer anarchist looking for other queer anarchists to work with, your best bet might be to join the Anarchist Federation to get in touch with their queer caucus, and if you’re an anarchist teacher or claimant joining the Solidarity Federation might be the best thing to do. More generally I think a lot of what I’m saying here comes close to what SolFed argue for, although their approach is a bit more exclusively workplace-focused. But while I recognise that there is a place for groups based around shared political ideas, I would argue against the assumption, which Collective Action seem to have gone in for, that a formal membership organisation is the best way of promoting your ideas. The Deterritorial Support Group were definitely based around a shared set of ideas, and managed to punch way above their weight despite only being a few people; I’m not sure that formally setting themselves up as the Ultra-Leftists Who Like Memes Federation would have helped them in any way. Likewise, although they’ve attracted a lot of criticism over the years, much of it justified, the libcom.org group have been very successful at promoting a certain set of ideas, despite the fact that the actual libcom collective is tiny. This isn’t saying that someone should set up another libcom, that’d be as pointless as having two IWWs, but it is a reminder that there are lots of ways to promote your politics, and it’s wrong to assume that having a formal membership organisation is necessarily the best way to go.
So, there you go. In the course of trying to work out what I think about organisation, I’ve said that we need different groups trying out different strategies separately and that revolutionaries from different traditions should be working together, said that we should be basing our politics on our own lives while not saying anything about my own life, and said that maybe political groups aren’t what we need right now, but maybe we should be setting up new political groups but ones that look like the DSG rather than traditional organisations. Whatever, as with all my ideas this is intended as a contribution to ongoing debates in the movement rather than some kind of absolute truth, and hopefully someone will take away something useful from this bundle of contradictions.
* And yes, I recognise the irony in saying this in an article that starts with a load of waffle about Spain in 1936 and a hypothetical future revolution, but doesn’t actually contain anything about my own personal situation.
** this is a tiny bit unfair to SolFed, cos I’m aware that they want to move from being a political group to being a federation of the kind of groups I’m about to talk about, but then they haven’t got there yet.