The following article appeared in the first issue of ACG magazine, Virus in the Body Politic, which was published last year. If you would like to read other articles from the magazine, a pdf of issue 1 can be downloaded by clicking HERE
ORGANISING TO WIN
The ACG held Libertarian Communism 2018 last November. During the workshop ‘Organising to Win’ participants reviewed a number of examples of organisational forms and developed some ideas on what makes for effective organisation. This article is based on that discussion. Thank you to all who participated.
The working class is on the defensive in all areas. Bosses have kept wages low and working conditions are in many ways getting worse, with longer hours and an increase in job insecurity. Meanwhile, landlords and corporations benefit as we suffer increases in the cost of living in the basic necessities of housing and food. We have a generally poor quality of life with our time dominated by work and survival. With gentrification there has been a loss of social networks and community. Our environment is also under threat- as a result of both climate change and development pressures.
A main problem is the divisions within the working class. Instead of uniting and organising to resist effectively, we find ourselves in a situation of sharp divisions with the rise of reactionary and racist and sexist ideas. Gentrification has contributed to the fracturing of the working class. Slum clearances in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which improved the lives of many thousands started the process of transforming the human geography of the working class. Additionally, the traditional organisations of the working class – the trade unions – have shrunk and collective organisation has been greatly absent from the lives of working class people. The rare examples of working class engagement in any culture of resistance are few and far between. The struggle against the Poll Tax is now more than a quarter of a century away. Since then the struggles against the Job Seekers Allowance and the Bedroom Tax failed to mobilise significant numbers; whilst the changes made were detrimental to many, they did not affect enough people directly.
Whilst there are examples of people fighting back, there are also limitations. The struggles of communities fighting estate demolition and fracking have attracted many local people who are directly affected as well as activists, but have been painfully isolated. The victories of base unions such as the United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have been very inspiring and have shown what can be done in very specific circumstances with a particular demographic. However, they have not spread outside those very specific circumstances and are little known, even within the broader trade union movement. So though there may be some small victories, it is like a gnat biting a lion- the system can easily accommodate a few defeats.
So what’s wrong? What can we do to be more effective?
“Organisation, far from creating authority, is the only cure for it and the only means whereby each of us will get used to taking an active and conscious part in collective work, and cease being passive instruments in the hands of leaders.” Malatesta
As Malatesta argues, we will only be able to change society effectively if we are organised. He explains why those fighting the system must organise collectively:
“It is natural that they should agree among themselves, join forces, share out the tasks and take all those steps which they think will lead to the achievement of those objectives. To remain isolated, each individual acting or seeking to act on their own without coordination, without preparation, without their modest efforts to a strong group, means condemning oneself to impotence, wasting one’s efforts in small ineffectual action, and to lose faith very soon in one’s aims and possibly being reduced to complete inactivity.”
Organisation can be defined as:
Coming together in some kind of structured relationship in order to work towards common aims.
For many in the anarchist movement the idea of ‘organisation’ is a dirty word. This tells us something about anarchism, something about the nature of British anarchism, and something about the kind of people attracted to British anarchism. Firstly, anarchism is such a wide collection of disparate ideas that it is almost useless as a categorisation that brings any semblance of clarity. Secondly, British anarchism remains dominated by individualism, localism and what we might call anarchy-ism, a vague set of ideas (probably better described as attitudes) that glorify spontaneity, temporary autonomous zones and lifestyle policing. Finally, British anarchism is like catnip for egotists and dilettantes.
The unwillingness or the inability of people to come together in some form of organisation is one of the main reasons we are so ineffective. For some, they believe that action will happen spontaneously. They may point to events that have been very militant and effective that seem to have come out of nowhere. But they don’t see all the organisational work that has been done beforehand. In many cases a particular action is unplanned. However, this does not mean that there has not been organisation that led up to the ‘spontaneous’ actions.
The Spanish Revolution is a good example of something that might appear to have just sprung out of nowhere. In fact, anarchists had been organising for decades, creating structures, networks and practises that they were able to call upon when the situation was ripe for revolution.
Another example is the various actions of the American Indian Movement (AIM). In the 1970s the AIM marched on Washington and ended up occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), causing major disruption and panicking bureaucrats and politicians. According to Mary Crow Dog in Lakota Woman, this action was taken because the accommodation they had been given was rat-infested and completely unsuitable, especially with a number of children. Someone said: “what about the BIA office? After all, it is meant to be ours!” So off they went! However, this could only have happened because they had organised for a number of different tribes to come to Washington in the first place. And for this to happen, years of organisation had gone into bringing the different tribes together.
The lack of commitment to long-term organising often leads to groups/campaigns being unable to achieve their stated aim. People may show up to one meeting, start planning something, and then not come to another, or else come months later expecting something to have been done. Not enough people want to do the basic admin or commit to the group.
People may come together to organise a particular event such as a book fair, conference or protest. These events are useful in bringing people together. Much work and co-ordination is involved. This events can spark off interest in creating more long-term structures, eg the XR protests led to local groups being set up. But often nothing more comes of it. The event might have been very inspirational but does not lead to more lasting organisational structures.
Others may believe in organisation, but only on a limited level, eg one issue, in one locality. There is no sense of linking up to build a united movement against capitalism or the State. For example, there are myriad groups working on housing issues. However, they rarely link up with other people who are working on saving a community garden in the same area. Similarly, there are different radical base unions, but they do not generally work together. Each of these may be effective in their own right and achieve important gains, but how much more could be achieved if there was more collaboration- more structured interaction between them? And, the idea of coming together across the country and internationally as part of a long-term organisational project often meets with outright hostility amongst many anarchists.
Building effective organisations
In addition to committing to the idea of organisation, these organisations need to be effective, ones that can actually advance the struggles of the working class towards anarchist communism.
Effectiveness depends on the aims. On a very basic level, the aims are to win a particular demand or resist an attack. These are important. However, for anarchist communists, the ultimate aim is revolution and the creation of a new society. Our aims, therefore, are directed to this end. They include:
- Building up community, mutual aid and solidarity within the working class
- Setting up effective networks in the workplace and geographical locations
- Building up a movement that goes beyond the activist or anarchist ghetto
- Reduce the power of the bosses and the State such that we are in a better position to overthrow them
- Share ideas and experience
- Spread anarchist communist ideas through a wide variety of mediums
- Achieve practical outcomes that increase the confidence of the working class and encourage increased combativity
- Gain experience in running society
Different organisational forms might be relevant depending on the aims. However, there are some forms that are an obstacle to achieving our aims or even actively undermine them.
Reformist Social Democratic Parties, eg the Labour Party
Social democratic parties across the world have often been associated with a kinder, gentler neo-liberalism. The rightwards direction of politics globally has seen social democracy move right, adopting not just privatisation but anti-immigration rhetoric. So, when the Labour Party elected Corbyn there was much losing of heads by all. Not just the usual suspects such as the Trotskyists and the socialist left who were nominally outside the Labour fold (Left Unity for example) but amongst some ostensible anarchist communists outside the AF/ACG and particularly amongst the people who have coalesced around the Plan C project (‘anti-authoritarian communists’). This is to be expected with a new generation of militants whose only knowledge of the Labour Party is, at best, Blairism and the immediate pre-Corbyn era. Something like Momentum has drawn in many young people with radical ideas and energy alongside the mouldy old Trotsam and Jetsam.
There is no doubt that these reformist parties can mobilise resources. The reformist parties have money and are embedded in decision-making structures, eg in the local council. People think they can achieve results as they have the power. For example, this means that credit is given to the Labour Party for achievements, such as the NHS or the saving of a particular school, despite the fact that these were won through struggle. There is continuity of membership and shared history that means it has a continual presence in society and in people’s consciousness. The reformist parties work in a co-ordinated manner and offer direction to people looking for something to belong to.
One major disadvantage of these forms of organisation is that despite all of these advantages, they actually rarely achieve anything positive for the working class. In reality, rather than according to their rhetoric, they are anti-working class as seen in policy after policy once in government. So the main disadvantage is the fact that their aims are in contradiction with our aims. However, there are other disadvantages in the form of organisation itself. Though they have the potential to mobilise resources, they rarely do except during election periods. The rest of the time their members remain passive, letting their leaders get on with their work in Parliament. So in fact, this hierarchical structure demobilises people and discourages them from doing for themselves. In addition, the party itself is full of inner conflict as various leaders and factions compete for power. Despite the illusion of party unity, it is a vehicle for fulfilling individualistic ambitions.
This analysis would be disputed by many in the current Labour Party. With the election of Corbyn as party leader, effort has been put into developing other structures and activities such as Momentum and the The World Transformed (a big event that takes place at the same time as the Labour Party Conference. However, despite some grass roots activity, both of these are geared to getting Corbyn elected, not really focusing on building a mass movement no matter what the government is.
So whilst it would be great to have so many resources and members, reformist political parties are not the way forward.
The Leninist left have shrunk in recent years. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is a shadow of its former self and the Socialist Party seems to have just about sustained itself. The Scottish Socialist Party, great hope of the left north of the border, limps on, but has been a rump for a decade whilst the leftist electoral projects that have been launched have garnered pitiful results (RISE in Scotland, TUSC UK-wide). But, the Leninists haven’t gone away. Despite much of the libertarian scene bestowing pariah status upon the SWP following the Comrade X case and the general bleeding (Counterfire, RS21 and in Scotland the ISG) of what was the most active and highest profile Leninist party in the UK, the SWP still recruits, still manipulates and attempts to dominate any and all social movements. There has even been some growth in Stalinist groups such as the Revolutionary Communist Group and the Young Communist League. Many anarchists get annoyed with the SWP and the rest being everywhere they turn but the SWP and the rest are cadre organisations and most anarchists can’t match their level of commitment.
Similar to the reformist parties, the Leninists appear to have immense resources at their disposal. They have up-to-date websites, their own papers and hold regular public meetings. They are able to swamp demos with their placards and publications. Their centralised structure means that they are able to channel their resources, including their members, into co-ordinated actions. They have an effective street presence when they decide to focus on something. For example, after Grenfell, when many others were concerned to let the survivors and local community take the lead, the SWP galvanised their forces and were able both recruit and influence the campaign. In east London, members of the Revolutionary Communist Group committed themselves to long-term work on housing and gentrification issues and have managed to build up a strong presence in the area through Focus E15. This commitment of members is a real strength when aiming to have an influence in working class struggles.
This efficiency comes at a cost, however. As in the Russian Revolution, having centralised structures leads to a lack of internal democracy and a general culture of passivity, conformity, and unequal power relations. In the end, the outcome of achieving your goals through such means is counter-productive; the worst aspects of the old society are replicated. In the Soviet Union and other so-called communist countries, the result was a disaster. Despite calling their structure democratic centralism, anyone who has passed through these organisations will testify that they are immensely authoritarian, making it extremely difficult for people to dissent from the decisions of the centre. It is hard to stand up and disagree amid a cultish atmosphere that ostracises and belittles dissidence. This often means that abusive and sexist behaviours get swept under the carpet. The history of these Leninist groups is that they use people in as ‘cannon fodder’. Though some may rise through the ranks to become part of the leadership but many others get worn out and disillusioned.
We also question the supposed effectiveness of these parties. Though there are some examples of long-term work, most of the interventions of the Leninist parties last as long as something is in the news and they can profit from their investment. These interventions are often very artificial- done for their own interests, to recruit, and not in order to help people win. When there is no longer anything to be gained, they pull out their forces and move on to something else. This does not mean that individuals are not be sincere, but strategy and tactics come from the centre and not from those on the ground. Also, their involvement can literally kill off a campaign. Their behaviour puts people off as they come with their own agenda, and don’t want to be just another supporter of the campaign. They often propose actions that will enable them to promote themselves, such as demonstrations, which may not be the most effective campaign method.
There can be no short-cut to constructing a libertarian communist movement that will create the kind of society we actually want to live in. The structures we create now need to mirror as much as possible the kind of structures we hope to have. If we don’t do that, the end result will not be libertarian communism, but yet another authoritarian regime.
Single issue campaigns
There is a wide variety of such campaigns ranging from specific ones such as scrapping universal credit, to broad ones against climate change. They also can take many forms such as big campaigns with hierarchical structures, to grassroots campaigns that have much more participation from the supporters. Here we focus on grass roots campaigns which are an important part of our activity as revolutionaries.
The obvious advantage is that resources are not spread too thinly and there is a clear focus on an issue or the needs of a particular oppressed group. It can be very motivating to get involved in campaigning around an issue that you care about and that in some cases seems winnable. People become very knowledgeable on the issue and are therefore more effective in winning arguments. Gaining experience of grass roots organising which brings working class people together to fight an aspect of capitalism or oppression is an important part of building a movement for a revolution.
There are dangers, however, with these campaigns if people lose sight of the broader goals. With the focus is on this one issue or one group of people, they may fail to see the link to the wider capitalist context or even other very similar issues, and therefore not be as effective in organising a strategy, eg they might rely too much on gaining the support of politicians or not mobilise all potential support. These campaigns are by definition reformist, in that they aim to achieve a reform in the current system. Therefore there is always a risk that the more limited goal of the campaign becomes the only goal rather than seeing the campaign as a way of building a much bigger movement.
Such campaigns can be incredibly time-consuming. As it is often more political people, with their ideas and experience, who end up doing a lot of the work, their input is lost to more revolutionary struggles. There are thousands of people involved in a variety of worthwhile campaigns, but they rarely join forces to fight for what in fact are common goals. For example, there are hundreds of campaigns around some aspect of gentrification but the different campaigns remain separate from each other.
It is the weaknesses of single issue campaigns that can be to a certain extent overcome by local anarchist groups and by networks.
Local anarchist groups
These may take many forms. Some may be explicitly called anarchist whilst others may operate on anarchist principles but not use the term.
Local anarchist groups have many advantages. Firstly, unlike political parties, reformist or Leninist, their goal is to create a society without capitalism, States or hierarchies. Each group has absolute autonomy and is only accountable to their own members and the local situation. There is usual a social/friendship element which gives these groups a sense of community and solidarity. This helps to keep the group together and can encourage participation. The level of agreement is fairly broad within basic anarchist principles, such as solidarity, mutual aid, and horizontal decision-making. This means that it can attract a wide range of people from the area, making the group more effective. They are able to link single issues, eg anti-gentrification, workplace and universal credit, helping to unite different struggles. Their local knowledge is useful for producing informed propaganda and they will be fully grounded in local campaigns.
There have been a variety of local anarchist groups and therefore some will be better than others. The less effective ones can have a clubby, cliquey feel, putting off people who don’t fit the particular group’s culture. They can be unstructured, fearful of seeming to be too organised and thus may obsess with internal issues. If they have no real set of clear principles, they may not have enough agreement to act. Some groups may lose themselves in a single issue, rather than having a role in linking struggles. If the group is too informal then the members may come and go. In places like London, where people move around a lot, it may be difficult to maintain continuity in one local area. One of the major weaknesses of all local groups is that they have a tendency to focus so much on the local that they do not have a sense of co-ordinating beyond their own area, thus not gaining from the experience of others or helping to build a much bigger movement.
Local anarchist groups are an important part of building a revolutionary movement for anarchist communism. We need to be grounded in our local area, in direct contact with the struggles and day-to-day lives of working class people. However, it is important that local groups have a broader perspective than just their local area. We need to seek to co-operate and come together at every opportunity. This can be seen in London with the Rebel City Collective. People from different national organisations such as the ACG have joined forces with local anarchist groups and individuals to produce a common paper for all of London. Ideally, this kind of experience would expand to encompass an even wider area. In addition, local groups need to have a clear set of principles in order to ensure that they are able to act effectively together.
This form of organisation has been used in a variety of contexts, eg Occupy, G8 summit protests, Faslane Peace Camp, climate change and anti-fracking. These are events that involve considerable preparation prior to the camp itself. Some are relatively short-term, others last longer.
Protest camps are usually held on or near the subject of protest. The aim is to take some form of direct action, with the camp providing the base. They are able to bring a variety of people together, from different countries, campaigns and networks, and therefore they offer opportunities for sharing experiences and building links. In addition, the sheer numbers are able to attract media attention and may have an effect on those with power. They can be very inspiring for those who attend and motivate people to go back to their locality and engage in struggle with renewed vigour. They are often a model of self-organisation, giving people the opportunity to develop useful skills and to experience other ways of organising the satisfaction of day-to-day needs. They are also a place for experiment in decision-making and getting along with a large group of people for a period of time, based on collective principles.
However, these camps take a huge amount of effort to organise and maintain. It is not evident that so many people spending so much energy on what is often internal processes and logistics, unrelated to the actual struggle, is an effective use of time. Camps tend to attract a particular kind of person, often young, not tied down to a job or family, with time to spend weeks or longer away from home. It is these camps have in part created an activist scene consisting of those who devote large amounts of time to their political activity- effectively a lifestyle. This kind of camp will exclude the majority of the working class. The best camps will make links with the local community but often there is a large gulf between the activists and the more conservative communities.
A network is defined by the fact that it consists of affiliated groups and individuals. They tend to be looser than a specific local group, though some networks have clear membership criteria. An example is the Radical Housing Network, made up of a number of different housing campaigns. Individuals may attend meetings but they do not have the same status.
Networks can bring together a wide range of groups and individuals so that there is a united front approach to campaigning, whilst still retaining the autonomy of the components. This enables more co-ordinated actions as well as helping local groups or single issue groups to focus on the wider issues. For example, the Radical Housing Network in London was able to organise actions directed at the property developers’ fair. The Land Justice Network brought together many different groups, eg community, housing and food campaigns to focus on the big issue of land reform. Formal networks tend to have regular meetings and some explicit structure, eg membership criteria and processes for making decisions. Extinction Rebellion is also an example of an effective network. Groups exist all over the country and are able to involve themselves in their local area as well as engage in co-ordinated big actions.
Unlike local groups, networks are able to mobilise greater resources as there are greater numbers. In fact, the bigger groups in the network can help support newer or small groups. The Radical Housing Network has managed to raise considerable sums through various grant applications. This money has been used to support requests from individual groups and campaigns. Extra resources enable the network to employ a co-ordinator who can take over some of the admin from members. A network can also accommodate a range of strategies and tactics.
As with local groups, there are many different networks and diverse ways of operating. Some have an unclear decision-making structure which can lead to lack of transparency and informal hierarchies. Decisions will be made through informal contact between ‘leading’ members. When a clear structure exists, such as in the Radical Housing Network, democracy relies on the different groups and campaigns actually attending meetings as well as those people representing the affiliated groups and campaigns canvassing for views from their group. In the end it is normally those who attend meetings who make decisions. There are so many different levels of commitment and participation as well as large turnover in who is active, that it may be difficult to maintain continuity. This has an impact on both the participatory nature of decision-making and the ability to organise on long-term projects.
Groups and campaigns often affiliate more for what they can get out of the network than with a view to contributing to the network as a whole. They will ask for support from others but not necessarily return that support. And, often the affiliated groups do not actually send delegates which brings into question to what extent the network reflects its component parts rather than just those who turn up at meetings.
Extinction Rebellion is an example of an effective network that aims to avoid hierarchies. From their website:
“We organise in small groups. These groups are connected in a complex web that is constantly evolving as we grow and learn. We are working to build a movement that is participatory, decentralised, and inclusive.”
However, looking at their description of decision-making it is unclear how it works. There is a clear distinction between national and local in terms of organisation. Local groups are autonomous and therefore can develop their own decision-making processes and ways of being inclusive. However, trying to do this on a national level is difficult even with the best intentions when trying to organise big events- the Rebellions. There is no clear link between the local group and the national though some people in local groups may be part of some of the structures of the national. However, according to one member many in the local groups do not know how the ‘national’ works but it is seen as the main source of decision-making for the big events. Members of local groups may attend some meetings of the national but not as delegates as such. There is an array of different groups, roles and structures that to the uninitiated will be a complete mystery. Another member referred to a group called the ‘Guardians’. This group is meant to safeguard the basic founding principles of the movement but it smacks of secrecy and hierarchy, though it is at least referred to on the website https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/about-us/. It will be interesting to see how the movement develops its decision-making structures as more and more people come into its ranks.
The tendency for networks, such as the Radical Housing Network, the Community Food Growers Network and the Land Justice Network to be able to raise funds and employ a co-ordinator has had unintended disadvantages. Those that used to do work as volunteers are happy to take a back seat and let the co-ordinator do the work. This then causes problems of a lack of participation and over-reliance on the co-ordinator. When funds run out the network struggles to get the volunteers to take over the work. This has caused problems for several networks which have now lost their co-ordinators. The RHN once organised working parties and a series of unpaid volunteers to deal with the very heavy workload of a successful network. However, they then employed a co-ordinator which was very helpful. But when they left, there was a vacuum: the RHN has a backlog of e-mails and a website that hasn’t been up-dated.
Despite the disadvantages, networks are crucial for building a revolutionary movement because they bring people together in a co-ordinated manner and mobilise resources more effectively. However, the best networks will be aware of the potential disadvantages and take steps to minimise these.
Organising in the workplace: unions
There are many different kinds of unions so it is difficult to generalise. The traditional trade unions have many of the same advantages and disadvantages of political parties. Though they are large and can mobilise considerable resources, they mainly exist to control and stifle struggles, channelling militancy into support for a political candidate or token one day strikes. The existence of the union is more important than the class struggles and the members are used more as cannon fodder to support the very limited political objectives of the leaders as well as to finance the large bureaucracy which has its own interests in maintaining its privileges. In addition, they have shown little interest in organising precarious workers. This is why alternative unions – ‘rebel’ or ‘base’ unions- have sprung up.
Here we focus on these alternative unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), United Voices of the World (UVW), the Cleaners, and the Allied and Independent Workers Union (CAIWU).
These unions have a militancy not usually found in the traditional unions. They fight to win and are willing to use a range of innovative tactics, including direct action, to do so. The repertoire of tactics being much wider than traditional unions, their strikes tend to have maximum effect. They will use people not at risk of sacking, such as other union members and supporters, to organise protests against the bosses. The noise protest has been used to great effect.
In many ways similar to a network, these unions are able to bring a wide range of workers together for a common purpose and have been particularly successful with precarious workers such as cleaners. Presenting a united front to the bosses is crucial for resisting attacks and winning improvements in working conditions and wages. The union can also support individuals by providing advice and legal support. They also organise solidarity protests which have been critical in winning demands. Coming together with other workers helps to create class consciousness and awareness of wider political issues. There are also opportunities to develop skills. The bureaucracy is much smaller and those who take on positions of organisers are not well-paid or are often volunteers who are still doing, or once did, the same work as the workers they are organising.
The new base unions tend to be much smaller and have far less resources than the traditional unions. They are therefore limited in who they organise and tend to focus on small groups of workers. Campaigns to organise larger groups of workers are difficult. The most successful campaigns have been when the union has one or two members in the workplace already or when a groups of workers are already interested in doing something and contacts the union to help. However, what might be an advantage in some respects, willingness to focus on small groups of neglected workers, can be a disadvantage in terms of having an impact within the wider working class. It is the traditional unions that have a monopoly in the bigger workplaces.
The base unions will also have problems of hierarchies. This is because there is still a division between organisers and the workers who are being organised. Of course the extent to which the workers themselves become their own organisers depends on the situation but often the workers will have considerably less experience than the organisers and this can therefore lead to inequality. The IWW tends not to have paid organisers, unlike some of the others, but there is still the idea that organisers are special in some way- they have the expertise and have been through training.
Bureaucracy in traditional unions is well-known but it can exist in the alternative unions as well. The IWW has a huge amount of rules and procedures, a large number of officers, regular meetings with numerous motions, and e-mail lists. It can be very hard for many workers to participate.
As with all organising, there is still the problem of divisions within the working class and the general lack of political awareness of wider issues and the need to go beyond one’s own individual interests. The Industrial Workers of the World have the aim, given in the name itself, of uniting all workers. This is a great aspiration but is an uphill struggle. Because of the nature of work, there is a focus on a particular occupational group, such as couriers or language teachers. This focus on particular work demands means that the wider political context remains in the background. Often when a group of workers win their demands they do not carry on and support others. This happens especially when doing individual case work. Huge efforts are put in to help a few individuals who often disappear once their problem is solved. A general political awareness is not necessary to fight at work. Also, workers may hold racist or sexist views and this could prevent solidarity within an occupational group. The most successful campaigns tend to be with those that have some pre-existing political awareness such as many of London’s Latin American cleaners.
Nevertheless, the whole point of organising in the workplace is to bring a variety of working class people together. Of course it is going to be more difficult than organising with people that largely share your views. That is one of the issues with anarcho-syndicalist unions. Members will mostly be of the anarchist persuasion. This makes it easier to organise and is certainly more militant but it could mean that overall the working class remains divided.
A weakness of even the best base unions will be the division between workplace and community. It is usually more political groups such as the Solidarity Federation and the Angry Workers of the World who make a link between work and community issues such as housing, though this is usually by doing individual case work which brings its own disadvantages.
It is very difficult to do workplace organising and the efforts by the new base unions have been impressive. Nevertheless, without an overall political perspective it will be impossible to overcome the many divisions in the working class and create an effective anti-capitalist working class movement. That does not mean that bringing workers together and fighting over economic demands at work is not important- it is crucial in building up working class confidence. However, we need to have a wider vision of what the aims are if the new alternative unions are going to be more than vehicles to make economic gains for small groups of workers. Ultimately, our aim is to actually take over the workplace and run them ourselves.
Some ideas for workplace organising
- Build up links between different groups of workers, users, pensioners, the unemployed etc. Unite the Union has tried to do this with its Unite Community. How successful and militant it is depends on who joins at the local level. The Angry Workers and IWW have a project in west London that aims to do this. So local networks that involve all members of the working class would be a goal.
- Within workplaces organised by traditional unions, aim to organise outside the union- bringing together people from all the different unions as well as the non-unionised.
- Be creative in thinking of strategies. Strikes can be crucial if they are not token and do not spare resources. But there are other strategies, eg work to rule, using supporters or consumers to disrupt the company, using key workers who move about the workplace to spread ideas.
- Be conscious of the potential for hierarchies to arise between organisers and those being organised. Training and education, strategies to enhance participation, rotation of tasks etc must be a priority. Just having an awareness of the problems of inequality is the first step to thinking of ways of limiting the impact of unequal power.
Anarchist Communist Political Organisations
As the ACG, we of course believe that these organisations are crucial. Having a national or even international organisation that brings people together with the aim of building a revolutionary working class movement overcomes many of the disadvantages of other forms of organisation, such as single issue campaigns and local groups. Like the political parties, such an organisation has a broad view of social change, seeking to transform all society rather than just one aspect. However, a crucial difference is that an anarchist communist organisation has a very different vision of society as well as very different methods of organising from the reformist and Leninist parties. Our aims are the overthrow of capitalism and all hierarchies, with the full and active participation of the working class, and the creation of a libertarian society.
Any member of the working class can join and there can be a variety of focuses whilst at the same time retaining co-ordination and a view of the bigger picture. The focus is on wider structures and institutions, capitalism, the State, patriarchy etc and seeks to understand how they are interlinked. Members will be involved in single issue campaigns, workplace organising, local anarchist groups and networks but by coming together in a political organisation, they can share ideas and experiences, analyse the links between different issues, and devise strategies for overcoming divisions. They are also in a position to undertake a more global analysis of the issues and spread this to a much bigger audience through a range of mediums. They will also be able to promote general anarchist communist ideas about the future society which extends well beyond the reforms that we campaign for on a day-to-day basis.
The main disadvantage is the limited size and influence of such an organisation. Unlike the big political parties and unions, the small anarchist communist organisations are not well-known. Without the resources, they cannot spread their message very far. In addition, the aims will not be the aims of the majority of people which are limited to wanting a better life within the current system. There will not be many people who will initially share our aims, even if they do get the chance to hear about our ideas.
Another disadvantage is that the organisation itself will require continuing work and effort to maintain. As with all organisations, this will mean potential hierarchies and inequalities in participation. Also, trying to unite all working class people in one organisation means that there is potential for conflict between different interest groups or perspectives. This is largely solved by having a clear set of aims and principles and structures, but this in itself restricts membership to those who agree with these. It is also necessary to carefully consider how to enable diversity within the framework of these aims and principles and find ways of making decisions and resolving disagreement and conflict.
The organisation as a whole can develop an overarching strategy which is anti- capitalist, anti-State, and anti-hierarchy. Individuals and local groups necessarily will be unable to do everything and will therefore need to decide what to prioritise, based on a consideration of their situation and interests. The larger and more diverse the membership, the more areas can be covered. However, many people who are very involved in particular struggles often do not then have the time to devote to building the wider anarchist communist organisation. Somehow the organisation has to have members who are involved in real struggles as well as maintaining the broader perspective, analysis and structures.
Nevertheless, an anarchist communist organisation is vital for ensuring that struggles and movements are not trapped in single issues or reformism. It can provide an essential overview of the bigger picture, keeping in mind the ultimate aim of a full revolution for anarchist communism. (For more information see the forthcoming pamphlet: Role of the Revolutionary Organisation).
This is not a form of organisation per se but it has become a key part of the way that we organise. It is used by all the types of organisation discussed above but at the same time in some ways its own organisation.
The internet has been a huge help to those organising against capitalism and for a new society. It is hard to imagine organising anything without Facebook, websites, Twitter, etc. The internet is able to connect people who otherwise would not be connected. It enables geographically isolated individuals to link up with those in more urban areas, puts people with similar issues in contact with each other, informs people of different struggles, actions and events, and does this so much quicker than traditional forms of communication. It is also cheap!
However, despite the obvious advantages, we have to keep in mind that effective change can only happen in physical reality. Therefore, the internet cannot be an alternative to face-to-face organising and activity. It needs to be seen as an important tool- but just one tool. There is much debate as to how effective using the internet is. For example, when planning an action there are no more people attending than in pre-internet days. People seem to think ticking a box on FB or signing up to Eventbrite is a substitute for actually participating! It can create illusions about how many people will turn up. The amount of people active on social media bears no relation to the number of people who are involved in particular campaigns, networks and organisations. It can give the idea that there is a movement but in fact it is all in cyberspace and does not have any corresponding material reality.
Using social media to spread ideas, analysis and information is also limited. People gravitate towards sites or are friends on FB with people and groups they already agree with. We are not reaching out beyond a limited group of people and thus existing in our own bubble. People with radically different ideas from us will be reading the Daily Mail or looking at sites that contain the ideas that they are already comfortable with. People are very unlikely to look at other sites that might challenge their established beliefs.
Social media and digital communication can actually be counter-productive. People do not always consider carefully what they are saying when they are communicating by e-mail, posting comments on FB or a forum. Without face-to-face contact, the exchanges are often more aggressive, de-humanising those involved. This can lead to unnecessary conflict and disagreement, undermining our efforts to build a united revolutionary working class movement. It promotes ‘armchair’ anarchists, people whose only contribution to struggle is going on line and making negative comments.
Another major disadvantage is the lack of security. The internet is controlled by several big companies. FB in particular is open to all to see. If the State really thought we were a threat it would be easy enough to gain access to everything despite what we think of as being secure, for example with riseup.net.
Many point to how useful the internet is for finding out information, especially concerning what is going on around the world. This is only meaningful if you are going to do something with the information, eg organise a solidarity action, develop an international perspective on struggles etc. But even with just focusing on what is going on in this country, the sheer amount of information is overwhelming. Wading through information takes up a huge amount of time. The end result being that we becomes very well-informed but with no time to do anything practical about any of the issues.
Nevertheless, the internet will inevitably remain an important tool but it is important to keep in mind that change happens at work, in the community and on the streets.
Social centres, like the internet, are both a tool of organisation and can be organisations in their own right.
These can take all sorts of forms and have differing dynamics and roles. Some are more explicitly political and some are more counter-cultural and intent on creating a safe space where people of like-mind can reinforce each other’s world-view whilst the rest of the world can go away. For example, in Glasgow there are two social centre initiatives. One is tucked away in a part of town that whilst easy enough to get to, is where very few people live. It makes no bones about the fact that it is essentially a ‘scene’ but it does good work with refugees and asylum seekers and allows local libertarian groups to use its facilities. None of the people who run it are involved in any anarchist organisations (or syndicalist unions) but they would probably consider themselves anarchists. The other social space is run by community activists/entrepreneurs and serves a wider community than the ‘scene’. It is not explicitly political but it probably has more practical use for the local (working class) population as it has a cafe, undertakes community outreach and is not run entirely by activists.
Social Centres in the UK tend to reflect the nature of the ‘movement’ as a whole, in that they do not have any engagement with organised anarchism but prefer to see their projects as an end in themselves. There are exceptions – DIY centre and May Day rooms in London and the Sumac Centre in Nottingham are two examples. Having solid bases, including social centres, is good but only as good as the politics that dominate them and the extent to which they operate as centres of a resistance that go beyond their own walls.
All the forms of organisation, apart from the political parties and reformist trade unions, can be a useful part of building a revolutionary working class movement. However, for all of them, there are disadvantages that can be overcome to an extent. None of them on their own are sufficient. The anarchist communist organisation will not be effective if its members are not engaged in direct struggle in grassroots campaigns, networks, local anarchist groups, base unions etc. But these forms of organisation will be unable to develop a mass working class movement on their own, without a basic vision, analysis and strategy that brings everything together- which is the task of the anarchist communist organisation.