Solfed and the Anarchist Federation: Debating the role of the unions

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Two recent documents coming from different parts of the anarchist movement both make attempts to address the questions of the role of the unions and how workers can struggle. The first is a document that was circulated by the Brighton local of the Solidarity Federation for discussion in the period leading up to their national conference. The second is the workplace strategy of the Anarchist Federation that was adopted by their national conference in April.
For us the discussion document from Brighton Solidarity Federation marks something of a break from traditional anarcho-syndicalism, though they are at pains to stress that it doesn't, and it came as no surprise to us that it was rejected by their conference. That does not mean that nothing positive can come out of this current. On the contrary, many of the ideas that have emerged from it recently express a real attempt to try to develop a workable praxis in the current period. However, we feel that this current as a whole is deeply tied to a vision of mass revolutionary organisations which belongs to a bygone period and offers no perspective for workers today.
The Brighton document though rejects this approach and states clearly that "not only are permanent mass organisations not revolutionary, but that in the final analysis they are counter-revolutionary organisations". This is something that we can heartily agree with. It also talks at length about the differences between mass organisations and minority ones and the differences between permanent and non-permanent ones. Here again there is much to agree with.
For the comrades in Brighton, "internal democracy in a mass organisation when the majority of workers are not pro-revolutionary means that the organisation has to sacrifice either internal democracy or its revolutionary principles". Certainly, outside of a revolutionary period, it is inevitable that only a minority of the working class will be actively in favour of the communist revolution. Faced with this reality, the (anarcho-) syndicalist attempt to establish ‘revolutionary' unions has ended up either creating small groups which are essentially political organisations that don't admit their own nature, or mass organisations that behave exactly like trade unions - the most obvious case being that of the CNT in the war in Spain, where it participated in the bourgeois republic at every level, just like the unions in other countries did in the 1914-18 war.

One point which we think could have perhaps been made a bit clearer is the section which talks about 'industrial networks' set up to create links between militant workers with the aim of exchanging experience and acting together in moments of class struggle. The text states that "Of course a level of theoretical and tactical agreement is required - networks are not apolitical - but we do not see this as being as high as for propaganda groups", which begs the question of exactly how high it should be. If the comrades don't see these groups as ones that would lobby to elect union bosses and don't see them as groups trying to democratise the existing unions, that is good. But their conceptions are not entirely clear on this.
Finally we would like to raise the question of whether workers should limit their attempts to form these sort of groups along sectoral lines. For us, if the workers' struggle in general needs to break through boundaries between sectors and enterprises, then the most militant workers need to follow the same logic when they form discussion groups or groups to agitate within the class struggle.

Nevertheless, the document is a serious contribution to what is an essential discussion for revolutionaries today and in that we welcome it and urge our readers and sympathisers to read it and take part in this debate.
The AF document on the other hand seems to us to be much more confused. Indeed much of the introduction seems to be taken up by apologizing for its own existence. There seems to be a distinct uneasiness about actually putting forward political ideas as well as what seems to be nearly a fear of prioritising workers' struggles.

The AF write "simply because we're writing about the workplace here does not mean that we believe that fighting in the workplace is more important than fighting else where". In our opinion workplace struggles are at the core of the working class struggle. Of course there can be struggles in the 'community' that are class struggles it is also much easier for these sorts of movements to end up being confused cross class movements. The workplace is where the working class is concentrated as a class, and also where it has the potential to use its power. Of course, the class struggle has to go beyond the individual workplace and come out onto the streets, incorporate the unemployed, take up housing and other issues, and so on, but the action of the employed workers as workers will always be of central importance in this process.

In fact there are times when the document seems confused about what class action actually is. At one point it talks of a range of workers' groups extending to "loose and informal groups of friends who support each other in small acts of theft and sabotage". While most of us have probably stolen something from work at some point, and we don't want to moralise about this, it should be clear that taking home a few printer cartridges or taking home some work boots for a friend is in no way a collective act of class struggle.

When they finally come to writing about the role of the unions the AF, despite recognising that unions "cannot become vehicles for the revolutionary transformation of society" that they "divide the working class", even that they "must police unofficial action", ends up saying that unions provide "important material advantages that workers' simply cannot afford to ignore (e.g. better pay and conditions, better health and safety, some legal protection for industrial action and so on)".

To us it seems quite amazing that such organisations as previously described can manage to win all of these gains for their members. The question is whether the relationship between the two is causal. Do workers have comparatively good working conditions because they are members of a union, or because in the past they have been militant and fought for good working conditions? Very often this fight would have been conducted in spite of or even against the role of the trade unions in their workplace - and very often the union is there precisely because these are militant workers, and in this situation the more intelligent bosses see the union as being essential for the maintenance of ‘good industrial relations' (i.e. labour discipline).

When they go on to discuss whether militants take posts in the union, they seem to recognise the dangers involved, but also inform us that "AF members sometimes take positions as reps or shop stewards". And that "this is a judgment that individual members have to make in particular circumstances". Of course 'particular circumstances' are governed by the level of class struggle. When the working class isn't struggling, union reps are not forced to play a role against that struggle if only for the reason that it doesn't exist. However, when the class does come into struggle, reps are forced into what the AF calls a 'contradictory position', for example being obliged to condemn wildcat stoppages.

When it comes to the question of syndicalist unions, the AF seems even more confused and unclear than the anarcho-syndicalists. While recognizing that "syndicalist unions run the same risks as ordinary unions", they seem to see some difference in that they are "more likely to remain under the control of their membership". It may be that that tiny syndicalist 'unions', such as the IWW in the UK, are under the control of there membership now, but this has more to do with the fact that they don't operate as unions than with any superior organisational model. When syndicalist unions take on the function of unions they are also forced to act in the same way as the 'yellow' unions. In some of the few places where the IWW actually manages to operate as a union in the US, it has already signed no strike deals.

Despite our criticisms of these texts, we are convinced that they can play a role in contributing to a vital discussion. We would also encourage readers to look at our series on anarcho-syndicalism.

Sabri 7/7/9.