Keeping up with the times: More on syndicalist strategy

by Gabriel Kuhn, published in ASR 84

Rasmus Hästbacka has written an interesting article titled “Greetings from Sweden: A dual-track syndicalism?” Rasmus cites a few texts that I have written, some of them together with comrades from Sweden and Germany. I interpret Rasmus’s article as an invitation to continue the debate about the future of the SAC and syndicalist unions that find themselves in a similar position. My response reflects my own thoughts and not necessarily those of the comrades I have collaborated with.

Rasmus addresses some arguments that said comrades and I have put forth in pieces for ASR, Counterpunch, and Arbetaren. However, Rasmus also addresses arguments that are nowhere to be found in these articles, which can cause confusion. No one was calling for “mandatory belief systems,” or unions that “require members to be active and conscious revolutionaries,” or for anarchist “affinity groups” to replace unions altogether. I – and I believe I can safely say that for my co-authors as well – “trust ordinary workers.”

Rasmus is right in summarizing the position taken in our articles thus: “In short, my … comrades suggest that we abandon the project to build a formal mass union. Instead, they seem to put their hopes in networks of workplace organizers.” (1) Rasmus counters this by saying: “Why not recruit as many members as possible and offer all members training in organizing? Why not try to build a big union and an even bigger movement within the working class? … I say let’s do both!

Nothing wrong with that per se, but I feel it’s a little like saying, “Why not become a world-class swimmer and a world-class mountain climber?” Sure, that’d be nice, but it isn’t that simple. Goals can be overambitious and you have to choose priorities. This applies to union organizing as well. Yes, ideally, we could be all sorts of things at once. Realistically, however, we have to consider the resources we have, our organizational abilities, and the overall political, economic, and social situation. This is at the core of making strategic decisions.

Rasmus writes: “No one can really predict if SAC will grow into a mass union again or not.” That is true. No one can really predict if the sun is going to rise again tomorrow either. But in all likelihood it will. And in all likelihood, the SAC will not grow into a mass union again. This is not the 1920s. Rasmus believes that “we can only try and see.” I don’t consider this a principled approach. Sure, you can try whatever you want and pursue all the tracks that tickle your fancy. But as an organization, we cannot focus on building a mass union for ten years, then shrug our shoulders, and say, “Alright, at least now we know it didn’t work.” After all, we could have done much better things during that time.

I don’t agree with Rasmus that there have been no attempts. At the 2012 congress of the SAC, the majority voted for the so-called “40k Plan,” which was supposed to raise the membership of the union to 40,000 by the year 2027. As an intermediate goal, a membership of 15,000 people was envisioned for 2020. Today, we have the year 2021 and 3,000 members, that’s less than what we had in 2012. (2)

I suppose that Rasmus would say that we haven’t really tried; that the motion passed at the congress wasn’t followed up by relevant measures. But there are reasons for that. It’s not the fault of a few individuals or the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time. It’s a consequence of our organization not being in a position to deliver on such colossal promises. I don’t want to bore international readers with the inner workings of the SAC, but many of the union’s principles, such as bottom-up decision-making, have been undermined in the neoliberal era, in which it has proven difficult to maintain an active membership.

Rasmus seems to have high hopes for the 2022 SAC congress passing a new “Declaration of Principles.” But if that happens, it won’t reflect the majority views of our members, and it won’t even, as Rasmus claims, “reflect the majority views of active syndicalists.” Even among our active members, many simply don’t care about such declarations. Like the “40k Plan,” it will be words on paper, largely irrelevant for the union’s day-to-day activities.

Speaking of active and passive members, Rasmus says: “I think we need to … value all union members, from the most to the least active.” Yes, all members need to be valued. But the single biggest difference between mainstream unions and syndicalist unions is that the latter rest on an active membership. All of the principles of a syndicalist union that Rasmus embraces – such as “rank-and-file democracy” – rely on this. If you want a union where workers are supported by their fellow workers rather than union officials, it requires activity. This has nothing to do with “consciousness,” “political convictions,” or any of that kind, but simply with the time, energy, and commitment that people are able to bring to the union. Otherwise, where is the difference to the insurance model offered by the mainstream unions, who promise to protect your interests if you only pay your fees? (3)

It is fully understandable if workers choose this model. How much time does the neoliberal reality leave for union activism? This is what syndicalist unions must react to and what needs to be taken into account when we talk about strategy. What do we do when building a mass union of active members seems to have become a far-fetched goal? We can either chase the dream nonetheless and risk making ourselves ever more irrelevant in the process, or develop concepts that are more in tune with our times. I believe that syndicalist unions focusing on a strong, active base of workplace organizers rather than on membership numbers are better equipped to radicalize labor conflicts and strengthen the position of the class in the struggles to come.


(1) I guess one could say that we’d like to “shift focus” rather than “abandon” anything, but we don’t need to be nitpicking here.

(2) Rasmus cites the Swedish Dockworkers Union (SDU) as an example for building a “democratic and militant” union. I do not think that the situation of the SDU can be compared to that of the SAC. The SDU organizes in one industry and formed as a breakaway group from the mainstream Swedish Transport Workers’ Union. This has always provided a cohesion among its membership that the SAC does not have.

(3) I think Rasmus’s suggestion that syndicalist unions, too, rely on membership fees of passive members is both problematic and false. It is problematic because it is in line with the insurance model of mainstream unions; something we don’t need to compete with. It is false because, in the end, money is not the decisive factor. Money makes things easier, yes, but plenty of evidence shows that a few committed comrades with next to no financial means can, oftentimes, achieve much more than well-funded organizations.

6 thoughts on “Keeping up with the times: More on syndicalist strategy

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