From Tom Wetzel’s FB page and reposted with permission:
“This is my brief initial introduction to syndicalism in my book (“Overcoming Capitalism: Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century” )
“From a syndicalist point of view, a potential for working class liberation lies in the development of three tendencies:
A strategy based on disruptive direct action like strikes, work-to-rule, tenant rent strikes, and workplace occupations rather than relying on “professionals of representation” (paid union hierarchies, lawyers, professional politicians).
Self-managed unionism: Workers taking direct control of struggles with the employers—and direct control of the mass organizations people use in such struggles. Syndicalists also advocate for self-managed mass organizations in other areas of struggle such as tenant unions.
The emergence of a more active and wider solidarity among the oppressed and exploited majority—building a movement based on the principle “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.”
Class-wide solidarity and a coordinated movement are needed in order to maximize the potential power working class people have for making changes. The ultimate goal would be to bring the worker unions and grassroots social movements together into a common front or alliance to challenge the power of the dominating classes.
These methods tie in with the idea of working class independence: Independence from professional politicians, political parties, and the paid hierarchies of top-down unions and bureaucratic non-profits. This is how working people can chart an independent course in struggles with the bosses and state authorities.
Syndicalism is thus a kind of self-organization strategy, based on direct self-activity of workers themselves and a participatory structure for member control—a kind of formally organized worker combat movement.
Syndicalism was developed by self-educated worker militants, organizers and publicists between the late 1800s and the mid-1930s. Syndicalism wasn’t a frozen “doctrine” but an evolving practical approach to building a direct form of working class power. There were vigorous internal debates in those years. Both Marxist and anarchist ideas had an influence. During that era large mass union federations were built that combined a participatory, horizontal form of unionism with a commitment to libertarian socialism and “workers managing the industries.” Organizations of this sort emerged in various European countries, throughout Latin America, and in other parts of the world. “
I use the phrase “participatory, horizontal form of unionism” here but the official word for this was “federalism” back in the day. Not all of the radical unionists of the 1905 to 1920 period were federalists. Some tendencies in the radical unionism of that period (such as the “industrial socialists”) were advocates for “democratic centralism” — as was Monatte’s Vie Ourvrier network in the French CGT (the source of William Z Foster’s conception of syndicalism, from the time he spent in France in 1910) as well as Heywood and the “industrial socialists.” These tendencies were more likely to go over to the Communist movement after the Russian revolution. But they were a minority in the radical unionism of that period. The federalist tendency was more dominant because it derived from the worker militants who developed a critique of the role of the newly emergent paid bureaucracies in the unions in USA and Europe in that period. These militants understood that the paid officials, whose power was often based on the then new tendency to “collective bargaining” had interests separate from the rank and file and often were a barrier to advancing the struggle because of their concern for their own power and protection of the union institution’s solvency. This is why they developed various tactics to prevent domination of the movement by a paid bureaucratic layer — such as term limits, elected rank and file negotiating committees, focusing control on the shop based organization such as shop delegate councils, and so on.
“Overcoming Capitalism: Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century”
(400 pages) is slatted to come out on June 212022. The book can be purchased from AK Press.
From restaurants to factories to hotels and construction sites, bosses have long tried to cheat workers of their paid labor. Be the worker an immigrant, born in the US,of any gender, a person of color or a young person just entering the workforce, bosses will find ways to cheat you– some more than others. Working off the clock, stealing tips, not paying overtime, or misclassifying workers are just a few ways bosses tend to steal wages.
Wage theft is just one symptom of the real problem at hand– a society based on exploitation is at the core of this is the wage system and how the boss uses it to extract your labor for their benefit. And if wage cheating is to their benefit, they will do that as well. We understand that the root of this exploitation is based on the endless accumulation of capital. Wage theft is part of this process.
At the core of capitalism is the extraction of surplus value from workers, including incarcerated labor. Thus the boss aims to save on labor by keeping wages as low as possible, thus shifting the costs of the workers’ survival more and more on to the workers themselves. This is what the bosses are doing when they fail to pay what a worker has earned.
Workers here in the US and globally have been battling wage theft for ages. Currently, the International Workers Association’s member sections have been fighting this method of exploitation all over the world. In Poland, Serbia, and the UK, the Anarcho-syndicalists of the IWA have used direct protest to force the bosses to pay the wages they promised workers, but then attempted to withhold. As a working class, Anarcho-syndicalist organization, Workers’ Solidarity Alliance has stood in solidarity with striking incarcerated labor and joins with the IWA in it’s week-long campaign against wage theft. Like the IWA, WSA is working for a world where nobody will rely on wages from their employer to survive; for a life after capitalism where wealth and resources are collectively controlled and each individual is free to pursue their passions.
Against wage theft! Against capitalism! For Workers Solidarity and Libertarian Socialism! Join us!
Folks might find this of interest. This is a statement then NY-WSA issued a day or so after the September 11, 2000 even
“Against the Madness”
Workers Solidarity Alliance Statement on terrorism and war
It is tragic that, in a world half-mad and wholly chaotic, emotion seems to have overwhelmed reason. The good, the intelligent and the humane side of women and men has been drowned in a sea of lies, ignorance and cruelty, and many of those who seek freedom and well being for all humanity grow discouraged and apprehensive. Yet hope remains alive as long as we can stop, reflect and ask ourselves hard questions and do not accept the current alternatives as being the only ones available.
The Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) condemns the World Trade Tower attack on September 11, 2001. The WSA has always condemned attacks on innocents and workers. The thousands of working people who were killed here in the USA, –clerical workers, airline workers, construction and restaurant workers, rescue workers — died in a horrible act of terror. Immigrants, communities of color, the entire diverse yet interdependent web that makes up the American working class was attacked.
There are real and pressing problems for many people in the world today, particularly in what is generally called the Middle East. Many live in despair, poverty, and see no hope at all for a better life. But those who were killed in this insane act were not the people responsible for the policies or actions that caused this, nor will their deaths change it.
Now the war drums beat loudly, and the flag is waved everywhere, and the emotions of those who grieve are submerged into a call for “national unity”. Yet it is our view that this is the very thing that got us into this mess, and it will not solve the problems, but simply make it worse. Nationalism, patriotism, militarism, the idea that somehow both the rich and poor can be wrapped in the same flag and thus have the same interests has led to untold tragedy throughout history. It is not the bodies of the rich and powerful who will be sacrificed on the battlefields. Yet the State and the bosses whose interests it serves will call, as States and bosses have throughout history, for workers to submerge their interests in the name of “national unity”
Nor is it the responsibility for what happened on September 11 of the untold innocents and workers in other lands that may be slaughtered as the US and its allies unleash their war machines. The people of Afghanistan suffer horribly under the rule of the Taliban, as do the other peoples of the region live under the thumb of brutal and oppressive regimes. To kill them solves nothing, any more than the use of terror here does anything to make their lives better.
It must be remembered that the US government has poured money into the very organizations it is now ready to hunt down, and manipulated these groups in an endless game of power in that region. This is nothing new, for the government of the United States, like all other governments, has been an exponent of terrorism since its inception. The thread starts with the massacre of Native Americans and kidnapped labor of Africans, to he repression and killing of working people who fought their bosses and the recent “interventions” that the American state has engaged in since the end of World War Two.
The American rulers are not alone in this dangerous behavior. Ruling classes, religious fanatics and States have been and will be as long as they are allowed to exist, terrorists by definition. This is why, as workers and advocates of radical social change, we cannot trust or advocate warfare as a solution to the senseless attacks on New York and elsewhere. Just as World War I did not make the world safe for democracy, just as World War II did not root out fascism from the face of the planet, this new war that faces us will not end terrorism. Instead, our sons and daughters will be stolen from us, our labor power wasted on murderous toys, and the world will not be a better place for it.
Those who can end terror and war are those who are forced to die in it and produce it, the working class, both here in the U.S. and in the “enemy” countries. Even in the midst of the madness we hear some voices calling for a new peace movement. Building on the recent mobilizations against corporate control, activists serious about blocking further destruction must reach out to, and more importantly, listen to working people. Workers serious about fighting for a society without bosses must not fall prey to the current jingoism and war drumming. The real war for us must be class war, not military conflict. As body bags begin to pile up, it is also time for workers and anti-militarists to talk with each other, work together in an effort to end the mad rush to possible world destruction.
As workers and peace activists, we must continue to build links across borders and cooperate with, not as some will advocate, agents of local elites and would-be States, but those fighting for liberation from fear, violence and oppression. Working cooperatively, resisting cooperatively, the working class can and will end the cycle of violence and oppression.
The British writer R. H. Tawney once described capitalist management of the workplace as “autocracy checked by insurgency.” And, indeed, a kind of insurgency takes place when workers band together to form unions. Worker unions are a key working class organization because of the potential power workers gain from collective resistance but also because of the potential role of unions in social transformation. However, unionism in the private sector in the USA has been on a long decline — from roughly one third of workers in the early 1950s to only 6.2 percent today. To build unionism into a larger, more effective and worker controlled movement, I think we need to build new unions, independent of the bureaucratized AFL-CIO-type unions.
Two Episodes of New Unionism History is instructive here. Unionism in USA has not grown in a gradual way but in cycles that are tied to working class insurgency. The two greatest periods of union growth came in large strike waves — in the World War 1 era and again in the early 1930s. From 1909 to 1921 union membership doubled through a vast insurgency that saw thousands of strikes every year. Nearly a million workers organized themselves into industrial unions outside the AFL. The hardest edge of the new unionism was the Industrial Workers of the World. But the IWW was just the tip of the iceberg.
To take an example, the American Congenial Industrial Union was a major independent union in Pittsburgh. A group of militants of the IWW, Socialist Party and Socialist Labor Party had formed a kind of “united front from below” to organize the ACIU. Ultimately the union focused on organizing at the large Westinghouse complex in East Pittsburgh. Even though the organizing there was initiated by skilled tool and die makers, the workers rejected the AFL craft unions. A cross-craft unity was built through an organization based on elected shop steward committees. In 1915 this independent organization carried out a ten-day strike of 40,000 workers. As with the 1913 IWW dock workers strike in Philadelphia, there was an elected rank-and-file negotiating committee and the agreement hammered out with management did not contain a “no strike” pledge. The committee typed up the agreement and tacked it to the workshop bulletin boards so everyone would know what management had agreed to. During 1918–1919 David Saposs travelled around the country doing extensive interviews with rank-and-filers and militants in the new independent unions. In Left-wing Unionism Saposs reports that workers in the independent unions regarded the AFL’s conservatism as “abhorrent”:
From these interviews it was quite evident…that the mass of immigrant workers had become inculcated with the IWW passionate distrust of the AFL and possessed a religious reverence for revolutionary industrial unionism….The local leaders felt that the rank and file would follow their advice provided that they did not override the current prejudice by affiliating with the [AFL] or discarding the idea of revolutionary industrial unionism.
Despite this widespread support for the IWW approach among the independent unions, few were willing to affiliate to the IWW after the federal government began its repression of the IWW in late 1917. According to Saposs, the militants were afraid they’d be putting a bullseye on their backs if they joined up with the IWW. The new unionism of the World War I era shows how the tendency towards renewal of struggle was enhanced by building new unions not controlled by the bureaucratic layers of the AFL. A vast growth in worker unionism also occurred through another working class insurgency in 1933–37. There were thousands of strikes every year. In 1933 a million workers were on strike.
As in 1909–1921, hundreds of thousands of workers built new unions outside the bureaucratized unions of the AFL. Between 1933 and 1934, 250,000 workers built new grassroots industrial unions. For example, the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers was a militant outfit with about four thousand members — organized at the shipyards along the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, Chester, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. As with the shipyard workers, other independent unions in Camden had a strong radical presence. This included an industrial union at the Campbell Soup plant and the 2,600-member Radio and Metal Workers Industrial Union at Victor Radio, which was able to force the company to recognize it. Another 75,000 workers joined the radical unions of the IWW and Communist Party-controlled Trade Union Unity League between early 1933 and the spring of 1934.
Throughout the early 1930s both the Communists and the IWW agitated against reliance on Democratic Party politicians, AFL officials, or government arbitration. Both groups agitated for industrial unionism, rank-and-file control of unions, class-wide solidarity, and disruptive collective action. This agitation fit in with working class mood at that time and helped to contribute to both the new unionism and the victories that would be achieved in that decade.
In both of these periods workers built new unions outside the AFL unions because the layer of paid officials who had developed control of those unions by the World War 1 era formed a kind of fetter on struggles by workers, and made those unions less effective as vehicles of worker struggle. Back in the early 1900s syndicalists had coined the term “militant minority” to refer to the more active workers who do organizing, have influence among coworkers, and are more committed to the struggle, to building unionism, and often are motivated by ambitious ideas of radical change. In the 1930s the thousands of labor radicals on the scene were an important factor in the organizing that took place. In the account of that era in The Labor Wars, Sidney Lens points to the support of the militant minority for the tendency to worker-controlled, class-struggle unionism in that era:
The radical unionists of the 1930s brought to their work a number of apriori political concepts. They opposed in principle any collaboration with capital…such as William Green had [practiced] in his attempt to win support from General Motors for unionizing the auto industry. The employer and the state were…implacable enemies to be fought to the death. Moreover, the new radicals felt that the “labor fakers” who…headed the old [AFL] unions…unless challenged, would undermine any legitimate labor struggle. The ultimate defense, then, against employers and labor fakers was to vest control of the affairs of unions in the rank-and-file membership.
The militants understood the importance of worker control of the struggles and organizations in rebuilding an effective unionism. This illustrates the way unionism has always had two conflicting “souls” or tendencies. In certain times and places, the rebel, grassroots soul of unionism comes to the fore. In other periods, a paid bureaucratic layer consolidates its position and looks to restrain the level of conflict in order to ensure the survival of the union as an institution in the hostile terrain of capitalist industry. This contradictory character of unionism is also expressed at times in the conflict between the rank and file of unions and the paid officials at the top.
The Role of the Bureaucratic Layer Today the paid bureaucratic layer in the AFL-CIO-type unions is deeper and more entrenched than in the AFL of the early 1930s. Moreover, this layer has been unable to reverse the long decline in union membership — from roughly one third of workers in the private sector in the early 1950s to 6.2 percent today. The absence of unions in large areas of the economy presents us with both the need to “organize the unorganized” and the possibility of building new worker-controlled unions, independent of the bureaucratized AFL-CIO-type unions.
Even if paid national or local officers started out working in the unionized shops, they no longer do. Their career in union office provides a different way of life. Rank-and-file members may face autocratic supervisors, chemical exposures or job stress from speed up, but the full-time officials no longer face these conditions. Because the union official’s way of life is bound up with the union institution, they tend to oppose strikes or other courses of action that may risk fines or risk the union’s destruction. Thus we see officials adopting a mentality of subservience to the law and court rulings. Also, strikes are a lot of work and this extra stress doesn’t increase their pay.
More than 90 percent of union contracts in USA nowadays have a clause that prohibits strikes during the life of the contract. This has been a factor in post-World War 2 union bureaucratization. The elite federal judges have interpreted these clauses as banning any kind of collective struggle — slow downs, sick outs. This creates legal handcuffs, making it harder to build a strong in-the-shop worker organization to push back against day-to-day power of bosses.
No-strike contracts get in the way of unions engaging in solidarity actions with other workers on strike. For example, in 1999 the 300 workers at the 143-year old Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn attempted to prevent the company from laying off a third of the workforce. The workers were members of ILA Local 1814. They challenged the Lyle & Tate conglomerate by going on strike on June 15. While the workers held out for twenty months, workers at other Domino Sugar plants worked overtime to make up the difference. At Baltimore there was another plant, represented by UFCW Local 1101. The head of that local explained why he refused to consider a sympathy strike: “If my contract were expired, I would have joined them 100 percent.”
Most contracts nowadays also have stepped grievance procedures. A distant grievance hearing makes it harder for workers to bring leverage to bear on beefs since their leverage lies in their ability to gain solidarity of co-workers and disrupt work. This also contributes to the lack of shop floor presence for the union because it means issues aren’t dealt with through worker self-organization on the job. Grievances are often handed over to lawyers which encourages a narrow legalism and the view that beefs should be “handled by professionals” — not workers themselves.
The pervasive “no-strike” clauses and stepped grievance procedures of today go back to World War 2 and the efforts of the National War Labor Board to force “industrial peace.” In the wake of the many hundreds of sit-down strikes in 1936–37, brief stop-work events or “quickie strikes” were a common way for workers to push back against management on the job into the early ‘40s. Issues would be resolved directly with supervisors in the workplace. The National War Labor Board developed the stepped grievance procedure as a way to suppress this kind of direct struggle.
I’m not saying the officials will not mobilize workers for fights with the employers. In fact, they do so at times because it’s necessary to force the employers to negotiate. But they try to do this without blowing up their established relationship with management or risking the open hostility of the state. This means there is a tendency to place limits on how far the struggle escalates. They justify this because they tend to confuse the union institution with working class interests. They make this confusion since the union institution is the basis of their power and way of life.
In the words of historian Robert Brenner: “From the end of the ‘30s through the whole postwar period, the labor officialdom…made every effort to confine the union to non-confrontational methods of struggle that would not get out of hand and threaten employers.” This makes the paid hierarchy of the unions into a roadblock to the revival of the kind of widespread struggle and solidarity that are needed to build worker power, grow unionism in new areas or mount a fundamental challenge to the capitalist regime. Rather than look to building wider direct struggle to push for change, the bureaucratic layer encourages workers to look to politicians and electoral politics as the solution to their problems.
Depending on the Democrats as an avenue for social change creates a limit to union action and politics. Electoral politics is a poor avenue for building working class power. A majority of working class adults don’t vote. Meanwhile, business owners, high-end professionals and managers vote very regularly. Democratic Party politicians will tend to shy away from radical proposals for fear of losing middle class votes or withdrawal of funding from people with money. We can win some gains through electoral coalitions, such as a higher minimum wage. But this is not where working class power lies.
Self-managed Unionism The existence of major workplaces without unions means that “organizing the unorganized” needs to be a priority for the radical left. The huge surges of union membership during the World War 1 era and early 1930s illustrate how union revival is tied to the renewal of direct struggle. The rise in strikes was linked to the emergence of grassroots unions outside the inherited, bureaucratized AFL unions because the AFL bureaucracy tended to get in the way of effective struggle. The absence of unions in strategic areas of the economy today presents the possibility of building new worker-controlled unions — independent of the bureaucratized AFL-CIO-type unions.
There is a long-standing conception of how unions can be built as worker-controlled organizations. This is the concept of “self-managed unionism,” developed by the syndicalists of the pre-World War 2 era. This wasn’t a frozen “doctrine” at the time but an evolving practical approach to building a direct form of working class power. As updated for our present situation, this approach would have several features.
Member control of a union starts with the way unions are organized. Through conversations with coworkers we find out what is important to people, and find people who can come together as an organizing committee. As an initial group are gaining participation of coworkers, persuading them to “join the cause,” this means getting people to act together, “in union.” This can mean encouraging small scale forms of direct resistance, building the union based on active participation of workers in the shop, not just passive voting for a distant “bargaining agent” through an NLRB election. The organizing group makes the decisions, not outside paid organizers.
Building the resistance to management in the shop is important because of the way this focuses control in the hands of the workers themselves. Advocates for self-managed unionism are opposed to no-strike clauses, stepped grievance systems and management rights clauses in contracts because of the way these get in the way of building the struggle in the shop against management power. An important type of on-going organization for the struggle in the shop is an elected delegates council. Unlike appointed shop stewards, election creates accountability to the rank and file, assuming this is not just a pro-forma election of the local supporters of a union political machine. The elected delegates can act to collectivize grievances and mobilize and coordinate the struggle in the shop.
A core part of rank-and-file self-management of a union is the importance of face-to-face assemblies of the members. Union assemblies are the place where we, the members, call the shots. This comes into play in a variety of ways, such as the meetings where workers discuss the union’s direction and agenda, decide on and control strikes, elect rank-and-file negotiating committees, or discuss and vote on proposed settlements to strikes. I don’t mean committees that are mere sounding boards for officials in negotiations, but committees to do the negotiation of a settlement to a struggle. When paid officials of top-down American unions control negotiations, they often prefer to keep the members in the dark. Member control over negotiations also means direct feedback — keeping the members informed about what is going on in negotiations.
The direct deliberation and democratic decision-making by workers in assemblies is indispensable to self-managed unionism because unions are likely to be more effective to the extent they are controlled by the workers who are affected. The development of worker participation in direct struggle is central to self-managed unionism because of the way that strikes and shopfloor actions are worker centered and crucial to building worker power.
Strikes are crucial because of the way they build working class power. To be effective, a strike needs to bring the operation to a halt. An effective strike cuts off the flow of profits to the employer…or shuts down the operation of a public agency. If a “strike” consists of people picketing in front of a store while the cash registers go on ringing up sales, this is more of a PR action that doesn’t do much to build worker power. To the extent that workers organize strikes and other worker actions themselves and control the struggle against the employer, this is a form of worker counter-power. Counter-power means that people are organized independently in a struggle against those who hold institutional power over them.
Self-managed unionism needs to be able to take on coordinated actions and solidarity among large groups of workers — such as in a city-wide or industry-wide strike, or action throughout a corporate chain. Coordinated action on a larger scale creates greater worker counter-power. The need for coordinated action among larger groups of workers has often been an argument for centering control of unions in a paid professional layer outside the workplace. For self-managed unionism, delegate democracy provides a different answer. Meetings of delegates elected by the worker groups at different facilities can be a way to organize solidarity and campaigns among workers throughout a company or industry, or a major struggle in a city such as a city-wide general strike.
Another aspect to rank-and-file control over a union is control of the administration of the union — maintaining the union and carrying out tasks the members want the union to do. Rather than the “strong leader” model, the self-managed union model proposes tactics such as term limits, or limiting pay for officials to what one made on one’s last job for an employer. In the 1930s veteran IWW organizer Fred Thompson described how the IWW avoided long-time office holding:
We have officers, some voluntary, some on the payroll…None of them are officers for many years. The various terms of office vary from three months to a year, and in no case can a member serve more than three successive terms. Thus our members are elected in and out of office.
If they were to stay in office for life, Thompson says, they would begin to identify defense of the union’s financial state as their priority. “But they don’t stay,” he continues, and thus “they look at the problems of organization in much the same way as the members do.” He also points out that a “good portion” of the decision-making takes place in general member meetings and in district or industrial union conferences of delegates.
I’m not saying that building new worker-controlled unions in strategic sectors is going to be easy. The employers have evolved various tactics to keep a union-free workplace. For example, the United Electrical Workers union has found that as many as 70 percent of workers in warehouses they’ve been working to organize in the Chicago suburbs are temps. In one of these counties it’s hard to find a job other than through temp agencies. In South Carolina, more than half the workers at BMW’s huge factory are temps. This creates a divided status among workers and a roadblock for NLRB elections. The approach being used by UE is to build an in-shop union even if only an on-going “minority union.” Workers can act as a union without going the NLRB election route. Eventually workers will have to develop the unity and organization to smash the temp labor regime.
The ability to develop and sustain self-managed unions depends on the commitment and organizing abilities of workers who are prepared to do the organizing and keep the organizations going. These kinds of skills can be learned. Sharing of skills — and learning about the system we’re fighting — needs to be an organized effort. People can work at this either through one-off workshops or on-going participation in a grassroots popular education program. A union — or other organization — might have its own “worker school” to develop organizing ability and share skills among the members. A more effective grassroots unionism is possible if more working people have the skills and confidence to act as organizers and to participate in the running of their own union. This is why many syndicalists have stressed the “formation” of the worker as organizer and activist.
The Spanish unions of the 1930s CNT were a case where the self-managed union approach had been developed extensively over a period of years. The Spanish syndicalists worked to develop working people as activists and organizers. Activists in Spain built many storefront popular education centers, called Ateneos. They existed in all working class neighborhoods in Barcelona and Valencia. Some CNT unions ran their own school. The centers hosted classes on public speaking, debates, and workshops on social studies and the politics and practices of the CNT. Workers acquired confidence and skills that enabled them to be organizers on the job and participate actively in the movement. Spanish syndicalists of that era called this capacitación — building the person’s capacity to be a factor in social liberation. In the USA at present, organizations such as the IWW conduct one-off organizer training workshops and the IWW has annual sessions at Work People’s College. Labor Notes also puts on one-off “troublemaker schools” which provide workshops with useful examples, and their magazine and books provide useful information for organizing.
Just to be clear, I am not here suggesting that the radical left should ignore the situation of workers in the inherited AFL-CIO-type unions. Any strategy for building a more effective and worker-controlled unionism needs to have a strategy for these unions. We can work to build rank-and-file committees and networks in workplaces where these unions are exist, independent of the paid bureaucracy — to build the struggle in the workplace, to encourage broader solidarity, and push for rank-and-file control of the union.
Class Formation Rebuilding worker-controlled unions, production-halting strike action, and a process of growing cross-sector solidarity between the various segments of the oppressed majority are crucial to the process of class formation — the more or less protracted process through which the working class overcomes fatalism and internal divisions (along lines of race and gender for example), gains political insights, and builds the confidence, aspirations and organizational strength needed to pose an effective challenge to the dominating classes.
The working class does not “automatically” have the capacity to transform the society. This capacity has to be built. So long as people are isolated and don’t see people around them supporting each other and exhibiting collective social power such as in strikes, they will be more inclined to think “You can’t fight City Hall,” “I’m on my own”, and make decisions on that basis. Fatalism continues unchallenged. In this situation people may tend to regard ideas of radical social change as “a nice idea but unrealistic.”
When workers develop power through disruptive collective action, this encourages the sense that “we can change the society.” To the extent workers control their own struggles and organizations, this develops confidence and skills among the rank and file. Control of unions by the paid officials and staff doesn’t do this. Self-managed worker mass organizations provide a bridge where radicals in the situation can connect the grievances of their coworkers to the more ambitious agenda for change that socialists offer. Developing stronger class-wide solidarity is important to the process of building a force for social transformation because the working class needs to “gather its forces” from the various sectors of struggle to form a united social bloc with both the power and aspiration for change. In this way the working class “forms” itself into a force that can change the society.
It’s an honor to share this electronic stage with the other co-presenters. It’s been an excellent informative conference.
In thinking about Kronstadt and all movements for social change, I believe the old libertarian socialist group, London Solidarity, put it best in their 1967 Preface to Ida Mett’s “The Kronstadt Commune”. They laid out that most histories written by radicals are those trying to score a point for their Party or leaders.
As they wrote:
“The masses never appear independently on the historical stage, making their own history. At best they only ‘supply the steam’, enabling others to drive the locomotive, as Stalin so delicately put it.”
For me and others, the main contribution of the Russian workers, citizens, peasants were being the guiding forces in both the struggle and in the constructive phase of the revolution. They alone are really the steam, the engine and the engineer rolled into one. And there is no doubt that revolutionary advances are never made without the daily toil of those directly engaged.
It is clear to me, a Revolution must be Constructive or it will doom itself to failure.
Of course, there are many aspects to revolution. In this short presentation I will touch upon two aspects of the Russian Revolution, because they still retain importance: Housing and the workplace.
1. The struggle for housing
In Petrograd, as elsewhere, the revolutionary struggle took on all forms of injustices and sought to immediately provide relief to the citizen-worker .
The well known Russian anarcho-syndicalist participant in the Russian Revolution, G.P Maximoff, wrote, that in the wake of October 1917,
“Under the influence of Anarcho-Syndicalist propaganda, there began in Petrograd a spontaneous process of socialisation of housing by the house committees. This extended to entire streets, bringing into existence street committees and block committees, when entire blocks were drawn in. It spread to other cities. In Kronstadt it started even earlier than Petrograd and reached even greater intensity. If in Petrograd and other cities, dwellings were socialised only on the triumph of the October revolution, in Kronstadt similar steps were taken earlier, under the influence of [Kronstadt anarcho-syndicalist Efim] Yartchuk, who was enjoying great popularity in that town, and in face of the active resistance of the Bolsheviks. Measures of this kind were carried out in an organised way by the revolutionary workers and sailors throughout the town. The Bolshevik fraction left a session of the Kronstadt Soviet in protest against the socialisation of dwellings.” [ “Syndicalists in the Russian Revolution” ]
According to Hubertus F. Jahn. the house committees “tasks were keeping order, defending the house, distributing ration cards, registering tenants, and caring for hygienic conditions in house and court-yard. “
“…… These cooperatives regulated the life of the whole building and tried to organize communal kitchens. In other dwellings, where bourgeois elements still happened to reside, the new house committees of the poor or recently moved-in soldiers or workers often held sway. Without consideration of age, sex, or former status, all inhabitants took turns keeping watch during the night, clearing away the snow, and so on.”
The saying that “the basement is now identical to the second floor” summarizes the new social situation in the houses.”
2. The struggle for workers self-management
A key aspect of the revolutionary struggle is the struggle for economic freedom and workers self -management.
From the outset the Anarcho-Syndicalists were clear about what it would take to establish libertarian socialism.
In 1917, according to the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-syndicalist Propaganda :
“The whole expanse of Russia is now covered by an intricate network of popular organizations: soviets of peasants’, workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, industrial unions, factory committees, unions of landless peasants, etc., etc. And with each day the conviction is growing among the toiling masses that only the people themselves, through their own non-party organizations, can accomplish the task of a fundamental social and economic reconstruction.” [June 1917 “Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda”]
As Maximoff also points out:
“The idea of “workers’ control”, carried out through the Factory Committees, an idea advocated by the Anarcho-Syndicalists from the very outset of the revolution, took root among the city workers, gaining such a strong hold on them as to force its acceptance, in a distorted form, of course, by the Socialist parties. The Social Democrats and the right Social-Revolutionists twisted this idea of workers’ control into that of State control over industry, with the participation of workers, leaving enterprises in the hands of the capitalists. As for the Bolsheviks, they were quite vague about the meaning of the term “workers’ control”, leaving it undefined, and making it a handy tool of demagogic propaganda.” [Syndicalists in the Russian Revolution]
The Bolsheviks concept of “workers control” was, at best, weak kneed and “merely legalized gains the workers committee movement in Russia had already achieved through class fights during 1917.”
Anotherwords, The State and The Party, not the self-governing and independent non-state organizations of citizens, peasants and workers were to rule, to be in charge, to manage and control. The very antithesis of the slogan “All power to the soviets” and libertarian and grass roots oriented aims at the start of the revolution. The end of the revolutionary and constructive phase was at its end.
In drawing this to a close,
I thought Ida Mett, in her 1938 epic pamphlet “The Kronstadt Commune” put her finger on the pulse of the “socialist project”. The project of yesterday and today.
She observed that :
“The great ideological and political discussion between ‘realists’ and ‘dreamers’ between ‘scientific socialists’ and the ‘revolutionary volnitza ‘[or ‘open conference’.] was fought out, weapons in hand. It ended, in 1921, with the political and military defeat of the ‘dreamers’. But Stalin was to prove to the whole world that this defeat was also the defeat of socialism, .…”
The defeat of Kronstadt was the final defeat of what workers and citizen’s self-management might become.
Fifty years on I continue to be inspired by the libertarian tendencies of the Russian workers, the heroic Kronstadt sailors, the Paris Commune, the Spanish collectives and other struggles, for freedom from oppression, for a socialism that is self-managed and libertarian. The creation of a new society from below.
It is in their spirit that we carry on the struggle for freedom.
March 20-21, 2021: A two-day online conference to commemorate the Kronstadt Commune of March 1921
We invite you to “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond,” an international convergence to remember history’s repressed revolutionary hopes and explore the “living past” struggle of authoritarianism vs. humanism.
Short Statement by the Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA)
On Wednesday, January 6th 2021, an attack organized by a far right wing mob on Capital Building of the United States took place while congress met to certify the presidential election results. They were encouraged by a deranged authoritarian and outgoing President of the United States, Donald Trump and focused heavily on his corrupt grift and inflated ego. Even though the event was anticipated and all but announced publicly, the police initially appeared to treat the mob with “kid gloves” especially when compared to how they have treated Black Lives Matter protests and others just this year, something even the mainstream media has commented on.
The take over of the Capital building has long been in the making. The Nixon era gave a phenomenal rise to the white ultra-right authoritarian. Christian evangelicals. The rise of the Reagan right was the first “wink and nod” by elements of the political establishment to ultra-right elements. The wink and nod to so-called “patriot” groups. Many pretend they are right to bear arms groups, using them as a cover to arm, train and reach out to young men and women in the military. Running alongside the shift to the mainstream hard right, there was a slow growing pro-nazi and white nationalist current developing. The “Tea Party” within the establishment helped to inspire authoritarianism and to nudge the floodgates open. Trump, his allies, merely were the final expression of a 40 year descent into a longing for an open, racist, pro-white supremacist persona to help manifest and untrue, or at least encourage, an open acceptance, tolerance and place for an American authoritarianism
Laws used against the “right” today, are the same used against the left and workers movements yesterday. Defeat the ideas of authoritarianism daily. Because the laws you may cheer today, may be used against you tomorrow.
The battle against authoritarian ideas (religious, political, racial) within the working class is part of the class struggle. The battle against the state, right wing religious power mongers, and the petty bosses manipulating working class folks is a class struggle. The struggle against hate and bigotry as manipulated by those in power or wanting to be in power, while crossing class lines, will ultimately need to be won within the working class. Patient organizing and education of the issues, against those within the class who will sell it out at the sniff of money or power (or both) and a place to dominate is a must. In order to defeat the larger enemy, we must defeat it within our own ranks for starters. Our struggle will always be a parallel one
Trump isn’t the problem. The system is. Organize, educate, overthrow.
“The Rank and File Strategy”: A Syndicalist View
By Tom Wetzel
“Kim Moody’s writings on “the Rank and File Strategy” have gained a broad hearing within a variety of socialist groups, such as Democratic Socialists of America and smaller socialist groupings. His original pamphlet from 2000 talks about the strategy in terms of both rebuilding socialist influence in the labor movement and as a way to build a more worker-based socialist movement in the USA.”
“Interesting piece by Matt Meinster (a staff organizer with UE). He points out that union membership surges have historically only happened in great spurts or waves, usually in periods when there are major social changes, crises, social movements that challenge the legitimacy of the system — like during the World War 1 era, or the 1930s, or the growth of public sector unionism between early 1960s and 1970s, during the period of the civil rights and other new social movements.
He points out that the conditions for this are hard to predict. But he notes three points: (1) Major strikes, strikes coming in waves. (2) Large number of militants with the capability of developing organization and assisting struggles, this is what syndicalists called the “militant minority”, (3) A willingness to build unions independent from what he calls the “mainstream” unions, that is, as I’d say, independent of the more bureaucratized inherited unions. As he points out the paid layer of officials tend to be skittish about strikes and worry about running afoul of the law, whereas successful strike movements in the past have found ways to roll over the law.
I think the massive upsurges of strikes in the World War 1 era and the early 1930s show that in both cases large numbers of workers (1) had been radicalized, and (2) were prepared to build unions outside the inherited AFL unions.”
For us, the Workers Solidarity Alliance is an organization that believes in grassroots empowerment and strives for a future self-managed society. Which means that ourstructure and method of operation are based on the following principles:
DIRECT DEMOCRACY – We advocate workers, tenant and community organizations where the membership directly controls them, charting their direction. This means that key decisions need to be made through assemblies of the members,through direct democracy, not by hierarchies of paid officials and professional staff. Delegates, representatives or shop stewards are directlyanswerable, accountable and serve at the discretion of the membership. Theyare also subject to immediate recall by a majority of the members.
DIRECT ACTION – In our opinion, this type of action which is most effectiveand most empowers working people. Through direct action we retain control ofour own struggle and avoid surrendering that control to so-called “experts”of often questionable loyalty.
SELF-MANAGEMENT – Ultimately we wish to participate in the building of asociety where all distinctions of class and privilege are eliminated. A new,self-managed society where the wealth we produce is shared equally andfairly by all. We do not think it is possible to build such a society by surrendering authority to new political parties and new politicians. History has demonstrated that such parties, however good their stated intentions might be, often backslide and become not much better then the one they replaced. It is the concept of the ruling elite which we must oppose, and it is only by grassroots struggle that wealth and power can be fairly and equally shared by all. We therefore seek to create member-controlledorganizations within the workplace and community. These organizations are the foundation upon which a society based on direct democracy, solidarity and self-management may be built.