ASR 69, Winter 2017

2. Collective Editorial: Trumpocolypse

3. A New Wave Of Radicalism? By Martin Comack

3. The Tragedy Of Trump By Jeff Stein

4. Wobbles: A Workers’ Climate Plan, Economic Inequality, Dangerous Unions?, Precarious Futures…

6. International Labor News  Compiled by Mike Hargis

8. A New Vision or a New Reformism?  By Wayne Price

10. Trumpocolypse: After the Election  By Wayne Price

11. Here We Go Again  By Samantha Berangi

12. Tendencies of Trumpocalypse  By Jeff Shantz

13. Mother/Caregiver by Elena Hontangas

15. Defeating Capital to Save the Planet  By James Herod

18. Feature: The Fall of the First International

18. Anarchy and Democracy  By Robert Graham

21. Workers Unite! The International 150 Years Later Review Essay by Iain McKay

33. Marx’s War on the International Labor Movement Review by Jon Bekken

34. Marxism & Anarchism in the First International Review by Iain McKay

36. Reviews: Revolution and Dictatorship by Luigi Fabbri; Translated by Paul Sharkey

38. From Russia with Critique  Review by Iain McKay

40. Nakov & Bulgarian Anarchism  Review by Jeff Stein

41. Frank Little, A Wobbly Life  Review by Gerald Ronning

42. Anarchism in America  Review by Jeff Stein


ASR would like to hear from our readers on what it means for the revolutionary labor movement, and particularly how we can move forward during this period.  (We’re pretty sure our readers already know that Trump is a particularly obnoxious member of the employing class, with a long history of abusing workers here and abroad. So we’re looking to discuss what we can do about it instead.)

You can post your contributions here or email them to ASR at by Dec. 12. We will print as many as we can in ASR 69.

The CNT’s Revolutionary Principles

Translated by Jeff Stein for Libertarian Labor Review.

(This is the third and last installsment of a three-part series about the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union. It is translated from the pamphlet Anarcosindicalismo, Basico. The CNT presently has about 35,000 members.)


Anyone can voluntarily belong to the anarcho- union, with the exception of police, soldiers and members of security forces. No ideological qualification is necessary to be in the CNT. This is because the CNT is anarcho-syndicalist, that is, it is an organization in which decisions are made in assembly, from the base. It is an autonomous, federalist structure independent of political parties, of government agencies, of professional bureaucracies, etc. The anarcho-union only requires a respect for its rules, and from this point of view people of different opinions, tendencies and ideologies can live together within it. Ecologists, pacifists, members of political parties … can be part of the CNT. There will always be different opinions, priorities and points of view about concrete problems. What everyone has in common within the anarcho-union is its unique way of functioning, its anti-authoritarian structure.

Revolutionary syndicalism defends itself against the maneuvers which would convert the union into a tool of the political parties, or profit-making enterprise for some individuals, or a platform for leaders, or a personality cult, or a rigid ideological structure. Because of this the CNT usually repels hierarchical or authoritarian personalities. The CNT is an open structure, but its members have to know where it stands and for what.

The Principles of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The anarcho-union is based on three fundamental principles: Self-Management, Federalism and Mutual Aid.

Self-management means self-government. The anarcho-union desires that individuals, workplaces, villages, cities and all other entities, manage their own affairs, without the interference of any authority.

Federalism presupposes autonomy, and is the bond which joins in free union all groups, as much economic as social. Federalism is the basic principal that prevails within the structure of the CNT, which is nothing but a confederation of sovereign organizations, not subject to a central power.

Mutual Aid is seen as a better system of development, in contrast to the competition which exists in the capitalist system. Mutual Aid sees the world as a whole, in spite of different races, languages and cultures.

In consequence, anarcho-syndicalism is anti- authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-militarist, anti- centralist, anti-theocratic, anti-nationalist… Or if you prefer, libertarian, communists, pacifist, secular, internationalist…

Direct Action: The Tactics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The word tactic signifies action taken on the terrain of concrete situations. Direct action presupposes action without intermediaries, the direct solution of problems by the interested parties. Direct Action is a rejection at the same time of the activities of parliaments, magistrates, [bureaucratic] committees, governments, etc. in the affairs of the people.


    • You decide one month to go on strike requesting improvements in the terms of employment and to stop implementation of management’s production plan. The same strike with the same strike call can be carried forth by means of Direct Action, made in an assembly of all the workers and their delegates elected from the different departments of the workplace; or by Mediated Action, in which the strike is called by the [official] enterprise committee, which negotiates without informing nor asking the opinion of the assembly, and with the intervention of the [government] labor authorities who can dictate a settlement.
    • You have been fired. Direct Action means that your problem is taken up as the problem of the anarcho-union and by your fellow workers, who spread the word, exert pressure, job actions, sabotage, etc. in order to get your reinstatement. Mediated Action goes directly to a lawyer and awaits the action of a magistrate.

The only type of action approved by the anarcho-union is the tactic of Direct Action, in all its congresses since 1910.

Nevertheless, and to be frank, it is necessary to consider the times and our [meager] forces. We have to resort at times to a type of mediated action by way of our legal offices and the labor magistrates. We always prefer to solve our problems without resort to lawyers, who tend to put our sovereignty into the hands of the judicial system, prolonging processes which could be more quickly resolved without it, and spending a great deal of money to maintain an expensive, parasitical, pernicious and useless legal system.

But there are times in which for lack of a resolution, or support from the people… there remains no other remedy than to resort to a lawyer, or else do nothing. For this reason on occasion it has been proposed to accept into the accords of congresses, the use of direct action preferably, but mediated action when other remedies don’t exist. It has not been done, because as long as Direct Action is held to be the only tactic acceptable to anarcho-syndicalist militants, we will maintain a commitment to it, and every time that we act contrary to Direct Action, we are aware that we are breaking an accord. If we admit a type of tactics against our structure and we swallow the indigestible, it is possible that when we have enough strength and enough people to carry out our point of view without supporting legal norms, we will not be able to see it and will routinely appeal to the tribunals. [It might make more sense to adopt a clearly defined and more consistent policy on when legal means may be used, and set some limits, than to officially denounce such tactics but pretend not to notice that the union is using them. – Translator’s note]

Direct Action is always quicker, cheaper and more effective than recourse to mediation. It has the disadvantage of requiring more energy and courage to carry out.

The Final Goal of Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-syndicalism wants to transform society. It wants to abolish the capitalist system and the state. It believes that no one has the right to impose their will on others in order to rob and exploit their labor, and to maintain this system supported by an apparatus of organized violence and terror which is the state and its police system. There exists a large quantity of literature dedicated to a critique of the capitalist system, and we are not going to dwell much on this theme.

In order to arrive at this transformation, the anarcho-union affirms that there exists no other means than the Social Revolution, an abrupt change by which the authoritarian structures are demolished. It is the end of a process and the beginning of something new. The revolution occurs when the people collectively see it as necessary, when the moral, ethical, philosophical and economic basis of the system is seen as bankrupt. It is not a predictable phenomenon, nor realized by a minority, but you prepare for it, then there comes a moment when it is possible, something breaks loose, and it happens. The role of the anarcho-union is to build upon the contradictions of the system, to make clear to the people the falsehood, the deception, the exploitation committed by a ruling minority, and to be present during the revolutionary process to incite it if possible, and to avoid on the side of the revolution the self-seeking benefit of minorities, vanguards, parties, etc., and on the other, when the counter-revolution comes, that the people lose as little as possible of what they gained. The revolution must abolish property, the state, governments, police, the army, universities, churches, banks, industries, the competitive and individualist mentality… and establish new structures and forms of life.

The revolution is thought, liberty and desire in action. People who have lived through revolutionary times describe them as a festival of lights, sounds and joy. It is not a bath of blood and violence such as they show on television. The people stop in the street and talk, this happens always and is very important. They talk about everything, they talk with people of other languages and they understand them because they want to communicate with you. They talk about things that nobody before had ever said and that now comes out naturally, without effort. They accomplish things which days before would have been inconceivable… Whoever has seen such moments on any occasion will never forget them.

The revolutionary act is an act of the people. It is realized by the existing people with all their defects. There has been a debate over the centuries whether the revolution could be brought about through normal beings, who are more or less as forceful, authoritarian, violent as is this sick society, or by people who are better formed and who carry within them the form of future behavior and have been changed by education and other methods. In general, although there are as many opinions in the anarcho-union as there are persons, the CNT holds the opinion that the revolution will be realized by the people as they are today, and that the way to form persons in liberty and responsibility is first to have a social transformation. That is to say that it is first necessary to change the social structure and the people will change afterward. It likewise happens that the revolution purifies people, at least until the time in which the counter-revolution comes, and the longer the revolution lasts, the better they become.

In spite of this idea, the anarcho-union makes an effort to turn the union into a school of the people, transmitting through it by means of constant debate with other schools of thought, and foreshadowing the future society by creating here and now, a structure similar to that which we hope to substitute to authoritarian society, a new moral and ethical way of life.

The capitalist state has taken on the responsibility over the decades, with the valued aid of the establishment unions and political parties, of inculcating us with the idea that revolution doesn’t bring anything more than disasters, and that in our developed western civilizations, democracy is the only viable invention. The CNT is certain that the social revolution is the only worthwhile, sincere and realistic future for the human species, that the revolution is not the bloodbath depicted in films and history books. The revolution must be treated as a process that is gestating now, that will arrive, as it always arrives, and we should be prepared to meet it without fear, and add fuel to the blaze. Whether it will be provoked by a strike, by a military coup, by a crash in the stock market, by the refusal to pay taxes, by a capitalist war, by factory occupations, by an invasion of immigrants, is something that we can’t know. That which is certain is that a large CNT, merged with the people, will be the revolution’s best guarantee of triumph, and that what has happened in previous attempts, in which the state has reasserted itself and the same conditions in a different guise, does not happen again.

The structure that society will take once the revolution is carried out, is that which the confederation calls, Communismo Libertario [Libertarian Communism], an economic system in which each person will take from society what they need, and will give in exchange what they are able.

The CNT and the Spanish people had the opportunity of developing the most profound and beautiful revolution in human history, during the period of social war from 1936 to 1939. They put into practice the ideas which have been expressed above, and demonstrated that a free life and equality doesn’t depend on anything more than free will. For capitalism it was necessary to wage a war of extermination, in order to destroy Utopia for the moment.

Voting in the Anarcho-Union

In the CNT voting is avoided and agreements are reached by consensus. Unfortunately when there are large numbers of people involved in the discussion it is more difficult to reach agreement and there comes a time when it is necessary to take a vote.

In local union assemblies this problem is resolved with ease. Normally votes are not taken because people within the union know each other directly and from their daily contact they are accustomed to having more or less the same ideas, and if it becomes necessary to vote by the number of those agreeing, each one gets a vote.

The problem arises when decisions have to be made in local or regional plenaries or congresses. It is already been explained that the basic structure of the CNT is the industrial union branch, or where these do not exist, the union of various occupations [SOV – Sindicato de Oficios Varios]. Well then, there is no completely fair method for making decisions through voting.

    • If each union gets one vote, a union of 1,000 members would have the same voice in decisions as a union of 50. Two unions of 25 (2 votes) could impose their opinion onto a union of 1,000 (1 vote).
    • If votes are by the number of members, a union of 2,000 members would have 2,000 votes, and 100 unions of 20 members would have the same voice in decisions as just one union. The geographical distribution of 100 unions is wider than that of just one, but an agreement obligates all unions equally even though a small union would have the same responsibility to enforce it as a big union, in spite of the greater difficulty for the small one.
    • We find besides the problem of minorities. For example, union A decides to go on strike by 400 votes against 350, and would have to support its decision to strike, since that was the outcome of its assembly. Union B of the same local federation says no to the strike by 100 votes to 25. Union C of the local federation says yes by a unanimous 15 votes. There are thus two unions in favor of the strike and one against, so a strike would be called if based on one vote per union. But adding the negative votes together, 450 voted against the strike, leaving 440 in favor. In order to avoid these possible inequalities in the anarcho-union, when a vote is needed a proportional system is called upon, which bases the decision on the number of people voting one way or the other according to the following table:
        From 1 to 50 adherents – 1 vote
        From 51 to 100 – 2 votes
        From 101 to 300 – 3 votes
        From 301 to 600 – 4 votes
        From 601 to 1000 – 5 votes
        From 1001 to 1500 – 6 votes
        From 1501 to 2500 – 7 votes
        From 2501 and beyond – 8 votes

This system benefits minorities, but its results may be disputable. For example, ten unions with 25 adherents would total 250 members having 10 votes. This would be more votes than a union of 2,500, which with 10 times more members, would only have the right to 7 votes. As you can see it is a mess. [Although perhaps no more so than in a representative body like the U.S. Congress in which tiny states like Rhode Island have proportionally more representation per citizen than populous states like California. – translator’s note]

The reason the CNT does not look for another system is because in the present day it is not necessary. The agreements consented to after discussions can seem absurd to those who started with something else in mind in the anarcho-union, but they are extremely important for the union or region which defends their position. What one thinks about the outcome of all forms depends on your frame of reference.

Whenever there is voting, one has to recognize that what is being discussed is a problem of power, and in the anarcho-union therefore one must try to vote as little as possible, and reach agreement by consensus. All our votes are open, and with raised hands. They are never secret.

Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism

The CNT is not an anarchist organization. This is something which must be made clear. The CNT is an anarcho-syndicalist union. Although there are many similarities between both things, there are also differences.

Anarchism is by definition illegal, a negation of the state which cannot give it permission to live. Anarcho-syndicalism moves within legality: it legalizes its union sections and federations in order to function more easily. Anarcho-syndicalism operates inside of major contradictions.

The base of anarchism is the affinity group, a group of close friends, without regard to jobs, or geographic location. The base of anarcho-syndicalism is the [local] union of various occupations or the industrial union branch.

Anarchist action is theoretically more revolutionary than that of the anarcho-syndicalist. Anarcho- syndicalism struggles for immediate demands, a reformist activity, even if it is outside [capitalist] institutions and based upon its own forces.

Anarcho-syndicalism permits the coexistence within it of people of various ideologies: marxists, christians, anarchists… it only requires that they be workers. Anarchist organizations are necessarily formed only of anarchists.

Anarchism functions more on the ideological level, in education, propaganda, information, cultural activity, as well as within anarcho-syndicalist unions… The union acts above all within the places of work.

Anarchism is more than an idea. Anarcho- syndicalism is more than a structure. Anarchists are supposed to be better persons than the social average, with better ethics and less egocentrism. Anarcho-syndical-ism expects nothing more from its members than that they are workers and respect its structure.

Anarchism does not direct anarcho-syndicalism. For the latter it is more than enough to push forward its own projects. Besides, in Spain it has been anarcho- syndicalism which on more than one occasion has carried along, directed and employed for different purposes the anarchist organizations which supported it.

There exist good relations, fraternal, between the CNT and the different libertarian organizations on a national scale, which are in Spain, the FAI [Spanish Anarchist Federation], the FIJL [Spanish Anarchist Youth Federation], and Mujeres Libres [Anarchist Women’s organization], as well as with clubs, groups and individual anarchists. The vast majority of anarchists work within the CNT, and their organizations generally help the anarcho-union without conditions.

Translator’s Comments

The three parts of this series were excerpted from a longer pamphlet. I dropped the historical quotations which accompanied the original to concentrate on the contemporary material as well as to save space and translation time. I also did not include the material concerning CNT positions on various bargaining topics like salaries, hours, redundancies, etc., as well as social issues like militarism, ecology, gay rights, etc. This material would have added little to the text since CNT positions on these issues do not differ from standard left-wing socialist and labor positions. What is unique about the CNT, and separates it from other Spanish unions, is its anarcho-syndicalist structure and practice.

What is important about this look into the CNT is it shows the similarity between the CNT and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). Although the IWW is not officially an anarcho-syndicalist union, it functions in much the same way. Like the CNT, the IWW emphasizes building worker-run industrial union branches at the point of production. In geographical areas where this is not immediately possible, the IWW allows its members to organize into General Membership Branches, similar to the SOVs (Sindicatos de Officios Varios) of the CNT. Like the CNT, the IWW maintains that direct action is the most effective form of worker resistance to employers, but also like the CNT the IWW is ready to use whatever legal recourse it can to protect its members when direct action is not possible.

There are differences between the CNT and the IWW, of course. Unlike the CNT, the IWW is not federalist. The branches and industrial unions of the IWW are self-governing, but the IWW has a mass elected General Executive Board with policy-making powers, although the Executive Board’s actions can be overridden by member referendum. The IWW also gives its members an appeal process whereby union disciplinary actions or constitutional violations by local unions can be overturned by higher bodies. These elected central bodies and powers give individual members in the IWW more protection from arbitrary actions by local unions than in the CNT, but it is at the expense of diminishing local authority. Neither the CNT’s federalism nor the IWW’s elected representation is a perfect system, and both depend on their membership’s vigilance and common sense to see that their system is not abused.

The CNT may have some lessons for the IWW. In the coming months, the financial crisis within the IWW may force it to reevaluate the way it is structured. Maintaining a central office with a paid General Secretary Treasurer and paid office helper may no longer be affordable. If the IWW can’t straighten out its finances, a shutdown of its central office or a shift to an all- volunteer staff might be necessary. If this happens how will the IWW function as a centralized organization? Can its General Executive Board direct a non-existent or part-time General Headquarters? Perhaps adopting a more federalist structure with a General Secretariat composed of volunteers from the same or nearby General Membership Branches could be a solution. What this would mean for IWW members living in areas where there are not enough Wobblies to form a branch, is unclear. Would these individuals be forgotten by a decentralized IWW? Would a Secretariat based upon a single branch or region, serve the whole union’s interest or just a local one? If the CNT is to be used as a model, we need to look at both its faults as well as its benefits.

In a forth coming issue, I would like to see a study of the SAC, the Swedish syndicalist union. The SAC may have its own answers to how to maintain a labor organization with workers’ control. Stay tuned.

— Jeff Stein

Principles of Libertarian Economics: Part 3

by Abraham Guillen (translated by Jeff Stein)

This is the final installment in this three-part series. Part I ran in LLR #14, Part II in LLR #15.

Information and Self-government

A self-managed economy will have to rationally organize the branches of industry and, within each one, integrate the small and medium enterprises with the big enterprises to constitute a unified whole. For example, in the branch of industry of domestic electronics, which seems to have no relationship with the construction industry, it may be suitable to control home heating and cooling not with individual refrigeration and individual furnaces but centrally, with the goal of saving energy. In this sense, the construction industry, to construct new housings, would build them to work in the manner of hotels, with all included services, so the worker would live similar to a present day bourgeois in a great hotel. For this to happen it would be necessary to increase the productivity of labor in the primary and secondary sectors, so that each worker in agriculture and in industry would be capable of producing for many people so that, in compensation, they would proportion him the necessary services of a sort of social hotel, as we have indicated. But for this to happen will require a great revolution in culture and technology, investing much in Research and Development.

The self-managed economy will have to invest a good portion of the national income in the production of both consumer and capital goods, particularly in its first years of operation, so that the productivity of the labor is increased to unprecedented levels. In this order of ideas, economic growth, with libertarian socialism, would be greater than with private capitalism or State capitalism, since the surplus-value wasted on the parasitic classes under capitalism would be invested instead. Consequently, it wouldn’t be necessary to harshly tighten the belts of the workers, as did Stalin; instead the gross national or social income would increase annually in greater proportion than under industrialized capitalism or bureaucratic socialism (which wastes too much in armaments, in salaries of unproductive officials, and slows economic growth to no greater a pace than that of the developing capitalist countries).

By means of the application of information and of computer networks, well supplied with all types of data, the Federative Council of the Economy would have the actual information for each branch of production or of services. Therefore, the economic integration of branches of production and of service would be a positive science, which would know everything necessary in order to avoid crisis of disproportional of growth in those branches, without the production of excesses of personal, of goods not sold, or of raw materials, since it would be known, at each moment, the amount necessary to produce, to distribute or invest so that the social economy has a law of harmonious development.

For example, the central computers of the Federative Council of Economy, with informative contributions of the computer terminals in local factories, provincial and regional, would make known what was everyone’s production, reserves and shipments to the self-managed market. In the case of the industry for manufacturing of paper containers, the central computer would register the number of establishments, the personnel employed in each one of them, total of work-hours, cost of the personnel in stable monetary units, electric power consumed in the process of production, value of the fuels and gas used, value of the consumed raw materials, general expenses, taxes, value of the total production, value of the employed labor, amounts destined to pay debts and for new investments. In sum: programming the economy would be simple, without need of bureaucrats, of capitalist managers or of technocrats.

When we speak of taxes we don’t refer to the tribute of the western capitalist type nor to the business taxes (mainly figured as a business expense usurped from the enterprises by the State in the USSR and in the “popular republics that made up the COMECON), but to the delivery of a pre-determined quota of the economic surplus, extracted by the self-managed enterprises, transferred to the self-governments, responsible for returning those transfers to society in social and public services according to their ability: sanitation, hygiene, paving of streets, highways, roads, ports, railroads, education, public health and other responsibilities of the self-governments which would be too great to enumerate.

Labor-Value Money

In this case we would attempt to strengthen the economy of the free self-managed municipality, not in the traditionally Roman [state-citizen] nor modern bureaucratic sense, but as the social and public enterprise of the citizens; as well as the industrial, agricultural, of research enterprise or certain global services which would constitute the task of the associated workers with their means of production, self-organized into Worker Councils of Self-Management and in Basic Units of Associated Labor, where the economic accounting should be automated by means of computers and take as their unit of calculation, the labor-hour (LH). It would have thus a monetary equivalence of the same value, if the money is intended to remain stable. The LH would circulate monetarily in the form of ticket which would give the right to consume reasonably, always leaving an important portion in order to invest more capital than wornout during a year, so that libertarian socialism would enlarge the social capital, with the goal of progressing more with self-management than under the dominance of capitalists or of bureaucrats.

The LH, as labor-money, wouldn’t lead to monetary inflation like capitalist money or like the soviet ruble, which conceal by being the money of cass, the parasitical incomes of the western bourgeoisie, or of the eastern bureaucracy, inflating the growth of the gross national product (GNP), with salaries of officials or unproductive technocrats, or with dividends, interests, rents and surplus values received by the capitalists, according to the western economic model, where each day there exist a growing parasitical class at the expense of productive workers. Every project of investment would be calculated in hours of labor (LH), as well as in terms of personal and public consumption required. It would be monitored that neither would be excessive in the carrying on of a libertarian, self-managed society, of direct associative democracy, so that a part of the global economic surplus would be invested in achieving a greater automation of industrial production and of agricultural production. It would thus be possible to continue reducing the working day to a range which would allow a more leisure time, so that all the citizens could occupy their time in more relaxation and, above all, in better scientific, cultural and technological preparation.

The LH, as labor-money and as a quantification of the economy, having a stable monetary value would program the economy: to account it; to establish the costs of the goods and services; programming the integrated branches of the division of the labor and correct disharmonies between them; quantifying in the products the cost of raw, energy, amortization of the capital, value of the work, economic contributions to the local self-governments and to the national co-government, etc. All of this would function within a libertarian socialism of a self-managed market, without speculators, hoarders or merchants, in order that competition benefit the workers and the consumers, the cooperative groups and self-managed enterprises, in the manner similar to the way the market functioned in the Spanish libertarian collectives during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39. The goal would be to avoid the bureaucracy of a centrally planned economy, such as occurred in the USSR and China, where the officials decided everything and the people participated in nothing. As if that were socialism, however much they try to introduce it thus by means of a totalitarian propaganda, as if lies could be converted into truths by force of repeating them as the only truth, thanks to the state monopoly of the radio, the press, the television, the universities, the schools, so that Power regulates knowledge according to their political convenience.

In a libertarian economy, labor-money wouldn’t be money in the capitalist sense such as we understand it and need it today, since it wouldn’t allow the individual accumulation of capital in order to exploit the labor of other people and obtain a surplus value. Rather it would be intended to facilitate the exchange of goods and service, in a self-managed market, where these exchange at their true labor value, so that it fulfill economically the law of equal exchange in equality of condition for all the integrated branches of the social division of the labor and the law of the cooperation of those same branches or federations of production and of service. If, on the other hand, there were no free operation of the self-managed market, things would fall into economic chaos, by trying to centrally plan everything. Prices and their economic calculation, as well as the market that really forms them (without maintaining bureaucratic costs) are only possible within an indicative global programming, but which leave the day-to-day market free, so that all the enterprises are able to produce the best and most economically, about which the consumers must ultimately decide. From this method, there is an invisible hand which self-regulates the social economy, better than thousands of officials and technocrats equipped with thousands of computers who without liberty, order disorganization by being poorly informed or because of the self-interests of the totalitarian bureaucracy, who manage more like inquisitors or cruel police (as happened in the USSR and China).

If the LH, the unit of labor-money, would have, for example, an purchasing power of 1 hour of average social-labor and this were equivalent, roughly speaking, to one dollar, one could establish, among others, the following calculation of economic-accounts:

Calculation in (LH) of an Industrial Enterprise

  • Costs of machinery = $1000 = 1000 LH
  • Raw materials, energy, etc. = $50,000 = 50,000 LH
  • Hours worked in production = 50,000 LH
  • Total of LH = 101,000 LH
  • Units produced during the period of work = 100

Dividing the total number of LH, spent in the process of production, and the total of units produced in that time of work which could be daily, monthly, or yearly, we would have an average of labor value for unit produced of 1.010 of LH or of labor-money.

Now then, as no money could be absolutely stable, since if the productivity of the labor increases, due to improvements in machines, education of the workers and more efficient methods, it would result that the LH will end up having less value of exchange, increasing its value of use, driving this economic process toward an economy of abundance where, overcoming venal value, the value of use would only remain. Consequently, having reached this stage in the economy and technology, with most of the work automated, the value of the produced goods wouldn’t be based much on living labor, but almost everything would be labor of the past (accumulated capital), which would determine thereby a self-regulated production of abundance. Then the wonderful time will have arrived of overcoming finally both money and the commodity, each man receiving according to his necessity, although he only contributes according to his unequal capacity, or in other words, that it would make possible the economic equality between the men: libertarian communism, rationally and scientifically, economically possible, without which it must considered as a beautiful utopia.

Only a self-managed economy, rational and objective, based on scientific laws, from the commencement of the establishment of libertarian socialism, avoiding the fall into one phase or another, into either the socialism of group property, into forms of corporatism or of narrow syndicalism, but towards a condition of always placing the general interest above the particular interest of the professional or work groups.

The Libertarian Society

On the subject of the future of a libertarian and self-managed society, Kropotkin warned and advised:

We are convinced that the mitigated individualism of the collectivist system will not exist alongside the partial communism of possession of all of the soil and of the instruments of labor. A new form of production will not maintain the old form of redistribution. A new form of production will not maintain the old form of consumption, just as it will not accommodate the old forms of political organization.

In this order of ideas, explains Kropotkin, the private ownership the capital and of the earth are attributes of capitalism. Those conditions were consistent with the bourgeoisie as a dominant class, although the public [state] ownership of capital and of the earth is consistent with the capitalism of the soviet-State, which elevates the totalitarian bureaucracy as a new dominant class.

The private ownership of the means of production and of exchange created capitalism as a mode of production and the bourgeoisie as dominant class.

“They were”, says Kropotkin, “the necessary condition for the development of the capitalist production; it will die with her, although some may try disguising it under form of a ‘labor bonus’. The common possession of the instruments of labor will bring necessarily the common enjoyment of the fruits of the common labor.” (The Conquest of Bread, p.28)

If upon changing the mode of production and of distribution, daily life doesn’t change, including distribution, consumption, education, the political system, the legal and social, in the sense that one dominant classes are not substituted by other, then, really, nothing essentially has changed. Thus it happened in the Soviet Union, where the economic categories and the economic laws of the capitalism were hardly modified, with the result that the economic dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was replaced with the political and economic dictatorship of the bureaucracy and, in consequence, private or anonymous capitalism for the capitalism of State. A revolution like this, although it is called socialist, constitutes a great swindle to the detriment of working people, for whom in the majority of cases, it has not meant more than a change of master or of a saddle, to the unfortunate beast of burden. So instead of being the proletarian of the bourgeois, they have a new Patron, that is to say, the technocrat and the bureaucrat. In our way of thinking, the alternative to capitalism is not Marxism Leninism, but libertarian socialism.

The True Social Revolution

For a revolution to be true, in the sense of emancipating working people from the oppression and exploitation of the dominant classes, it has to establish a new mode of production, exchange, distribution and consumption and create new social relationships; new and more powerful productive forces; new political forms of popular direct participation; new legal institutions having as their basis the popular jury, new universities and technical schools integrated with industries, agriculture, mining, energy, fishing, the forests and other sectors; new philosophic, political,social, artistic, and cultural doctrines; new conceptions of national and social defense based more on the people in arms (than on a bureaucratic professional army, expensive and wasteful) in order to defend the society, as much inside as outside of it. It is necessary to affirm the system of popular self-defense, since without which there couldn’t be a guarantee that self-management will be accepted by a professional army, the latter always having tendencies to stage a “coup” in order to take Power.

On the other hand, in order to avoid the coming to power of a one-Party-state, which is the worst and greatest single political wrong, as happened in the USSR, there will need to be created a participatory socialism. This would entail a respect for the free personality within the collective, the self-determination of the local governments within a federalism which coherently maintains a unified market, the social and national self-defense, diplomatic relations with the exterior, the socio-economic system as a relatively homogeneous regime. A federalism which keeps a national and social accounting system in order to estimate and program the authentic valuation of the national or social global income, making it possible to know where we have been and toward where we are going economically, socially, politically, scientifically and technologically.

But a new economic system, based on self-managed socialism, will have to have another way of estimating the annual economic growth on the basis of short, medium and long term plans, constructing a macro-economic picture of the national and social economy, departing from the known figures and projecting toward figures to be attained in the next trimesters, semesters, years. Thus the future, in certain manner, will be anticipated by having a Federative Council of the Economy, where each federation of production or of services knows that which it has and that which it wants, in accordance with the effective demand of the self-managed market. Libertarian socialism, if it wants to distinguish itself from authoritarian soviet communism, must respect the law of the supply and demand, without falling into bourgeois liberalism, since in the self-managed market the federations of production and of social and public services act competitively. Because if the market is suppressed, and with it the law of labor-value, the law of economic competition, the law of formation of just prices in the market, it would not be possible establish a rational economy of costs and prices, necessary investments and appropriate consumption. In its place would be a centralized and bureaucratic planning which places the total-State above the oppressed, exploited Society, as happened in the USSR under a planning of economic decrees, without respect for objective economic laws.

On the other hand, libertarian socialism has to respect the pluralism of ideas, although it wouldn’t provide a space for byzantine struggles. People would be self-organized in their own interest in self-managed enterprises, mutual cooperatives, local self-governments and all types of socio-economic and political forms of direct participation. Politics would be deprofessionalized, abolishing the political class and the political parties as expression of antagonistic interests, since each citizen or worker will participate in their enterprise, local self-government, federation, daily, without falling into the trap of electoralism, where they only participate for a day to elect a government worse than another.

Traps of Bourgeois Economics

Libertarian socialism will have to create a new economic doctrine and a new system of estimating the national or social income. Actually, the concept of gross national product (GNP), of which there is so much talk and is so little understood, counts in unstable monetary units, the total of the goods and services obtained by economic activity: agriculture, industry, services, as large integrated sectors of the national economy.

If the GNP, the way it is constituted in the bourgeois economy, were estimated in monetary units of constant purchasing power, thus deflating the official figures, it is possible that it actually diminishes instead of increasing. On the other hand, the GNP, in its bourgeois form, includes the economic participation of the unproductive “tertiary” and “quaternary” sectors, in the sense not that this should be concealed, but that the GNP shows “growth” when it may have diminished materially, in effective production. Thus, for example, in many countries which are diminishing their industrial and agricultural production during some years, but if salaries increase and the number of tertiaries in the state bureaucracy, commerce, the banks, and in social and public services grow, it is said that the GNP has grown, for example, an annual 3%, when the reality is that this macro-economic figure only represents salaries, incomes without effective work, surplus values taken, parasitic income , etc.

Libertarian socialism, creating a social economy based on truthful figures, would have to estimate the GNP in a different manner than the capitalists. It is necessary to give to the concept of social income, units which are measured or concrete and in constant money based on material output: agriculture, cattle raising, forests, fishing, energy, mining, industry, or whatever is actual production. As for the “services”, only transportation, railroads, trucking, marine and air would be included in the concrete estimate of the effective or material income, since although transportation doesn’t add production, it transports it from one side to another and, in consequence, it should be included in the concrete income of one year to another.

Adding the concrete income alongside gross income (administrative “services”, commerce, banks and other social and public services), it would be seen if these take too great a percentage in the total income by having too many unproductive personal who, in order to not drain the social economy, would have to be recycled as productive personnel. Now then, in the “services” which could be considered as productive, would be included the personnel destined for Research and Development (R &D), without whose presence an economy will stagnate for lack of economic and technological progress; but the personnel of R&D should be, besides in the Institutes or Centers (which tend to be bureaucratic and technocratic), directly in the industrial enterprises, agricultural, energy, forests, mining, fishing, etc., since science and technique should be united directly to labor as immediate factors of production and not as though the ostentation of an academic title should make one a technocrat.

In sum, the net income of a country would have to be estimated, in a libertarian socialism, at costs determined in relatively stable physical and monetary units which don’t mislead, deducting the necessary investments of social capital in order to enlarge production and not simple reproduction as happens to the bourgeois economy in a crisis.

The estimate of the national and social income must be transparent: from the total of the wealth created in a year must be deducted the material consumption of people and that of self-administration (where there should not be much bureaucracy, by reason of better information) and to deduct, set aside or remove the social or national saving destined for investment in order to increase the reproduction of effective wealth, create new enterprises, design improved and more productive machines, carry on scientific investigation, automate industrial production and public services, and mechanize and electrify agriculture.

Liberation of the Working People

In sum, the libertarian economy should liberate the worker from their old employers, either private managers or from the State as Manager, to end that the workers, by means of their Self-Management Enterprise Councils, direct the economy which they create with their labor upon the means of production associated, from the bottom up, by means of the federations of production and of social services composed in a Federative Council of the Economy; only thus could there be planning and liberty, an associative democracy of full participation of the working people, a self-managed socialist society, avoiding any form of totalitarian communism (which, as a matter of fact, is capitalism of the State).

Without economic liberty there can’t be political liberty; since with capitalism there is an economic dictatorship of a plutocratic minority over the majority of working people; and with capitalism of the State, in the soviet manner, the State exploits and oppresses Society by means of the one-Party which is a bad one for the majority and a good one for the bureaucratic, oppressive and exploitive minority. The solution is: neither totalitarian communism nor capitalism but self-management, direct democracy, federalism and socialism.

An Afterword by the Translator

by Jeff Stein

Abraham Guillen has given us some useful concepts for analyzing the economic systems of state-socialist and corporate capitalist countries. Although these economies are no longer dominated by individual capitalist owner-managers, they remain exploitive, class systems. According to Guillen, ownership of the means of production is now collective, spread across a stratum of “techno-bureaucrats.” These techno-bureaucrats are just as much concerned with accumulating capital through exploitation of workers, as the old “robber baron” capitalists. However, the surplus of the system is shared (although not on an equal basis) within the techno-bureaucratic class. Under these systems, legal ownership means less than one’s position in the state or corporate hierarchy. Only a system of worker self-management of their own workplaces, can eliminate this exploitation by the techno-bureaucracy.

This does not mean Guillen’s theory is without problems. His proposals for a “market without capitalists” and the establishment of “labor-money” are built open the assumption that the labor theory of value can provide the basis for a libertarian socialist economy. The labor theory of value provides a powerful argument for the elimination of capitalists and bureaucrats, since their incomes represent an unnecessary drag on the economy. However, in a self-managed economy inequalities having nothing to do with labor productivity would arise between self-managed enterprises, giving some a competitive advantage over others. For instance, the size of the enterprise, the availability of scarce raw materials, the presence or absence of strict environmental regulation by the local municipality, etc., would all come into play, and these are not always factors which are easily calculated in labor-hours.

Augustin Souchy, another anarcho-syndicalist who made extensive studies of various attempts at establishing workers self- management, observed that:

working hours as the only value determinant is unrealistic. Experience shows that the lack of raw material, rarity of quality, differences of consumer goods, highly qualified services, etc. are equally vague determinants. These factors will not change in a socialist economy.” (Beware! Anarchist!, Chicago, 1992. p.42)

One factor which is becoming increasingly important in determining production costs is energy. As the amount of labor decreases due to automation, the amount of energy in terms of fossil fuels, electricity required, etc., increases. This means that while the labor value of many products is going down, their energy value is going up. As long as energy is cheap and abundant, this does not necessarily present a problem. However, in the future, as the southern hemisphere becomes increasingly industrialized and there is a greater demand for energy, and as fossil fuel supplies dwindle, a purely labor-based system of economic accounting would collapse. Energy would either have to be rationed, or some sort of global federation would have to set a tax on energy. Either way, the labor-exchange economy would be forced away from an unregulated market system. On the other hand, the sort of energy accounting based system proposed by some “green” economists is not adequate either, since the energy theory of value does not take into account the qualitative difference between human energy (labor) and non-human energy.

There is no such thing as a perfectly, objective theory of economic value. Each theory has its own hidden biases which will tend to skew the results of any accounting system (this includes the bourgeois scarcity-value system, which favors those who own capital and scarce resources). The best a labor theory of value can do is identify that part of a thing’s (a good or service) value, which is the result of social production. The rest of a thing’s value is contributed by energy, nature, the social infrastructure, and a host of other variables. In a libertarian, self-managed economy, the accounting of these non-labor costs and the distribution of these benefits, therefore needs to go beyond the individual workplaces and their labor accounts. An economic role must be played by the free municipalities (communes), who must set democratic controls over energy, environmental standards, and scarce resources, in order to make sure that those exchanges which take place do not undermine social equality or the capacity of the earth to sustain itself. Therefore, contrary to Guillen, we should insist that whatever exchange or currency system exists in the future, it provide for greater community control and allow all citizens a voice as to how value should be determined.

A Labor Party: What For? (LLR 16)

With the Democrats’ recent passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the political impotence of the AFL-CIO’s reliance on that party to defend its interests was as clear as it has ever been. The AFL-CIO mounted its largest lobbying effort in decades, doing everything short of a general strike to persuade Congress to vote NAFTA down. For their efforts, Clinton denounced unions’ efforts to “bully” the Congressman they bought and paid for into voting their way. And top Democrats did not hesitate to voice their contempt for the business unions, assuring reporters that the AFL- CIO and its affiliates would continue to support the Democrats because they had no other alternative.

This debacle seems likely to give new impetus to ongoing efforts to form a labor party. Even before the NAFTA vote, the most prominent of these groupings, Labor Party Advocates (which is heavily supported by leaders of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and the United Electrical Workers) announced plans for a founding convention. Although LPA initially said it would only organize a Labor Party when it had secured the support of 100,000 unionists, it appears to have plateaued at less than 5,000 members. Thus, the founding convention appears to be a last-ditch, desperation effort to get their party off the ground.

Yet there does appear to be growing support for labor party efforts (and indeed for third parties in general–as evidenced by the National Organization for Women’s efforts in this direction, among others), sparked by widespread and growing disillusionment with the Democrats. As UE secretary-treasurer Amy Newell put it, “Every month that goes by under the Clinton Administration is additional fuel for our fire…”

As Sam Dolgoff notes (in The American Labor Movement: A New Beginning), agitation for a labor party is almost as old as the labor movement itself and has on a few occasions come close to capturing the official support of the American Federation of Labor. State-wide efforts in Minnesota and New York in the 1930s had substantial success before they were absorbed into the Democratic party. Yet labor party enthusiasts might do well to examine the record of labor parties around the world before embarking upon this well-trod path.

In Belgium, our fellow workers recently found it necessary to take to the streets in a general strike to protest plans by the coalition Socialist-Social Christian government (each closely liked to the two largest labor federations) to enact a “social pact” to hold down wages and slash social spending. A similar pact was recently pushed through by Spain’s socialists.

In Canada, the labor-backed New Democratic Party lost nearly all its seats in the recent national elections, apparently because of widespread disgust with its role in enforcing capitalist austerity in the provinces under NDP rule. In Ontario local unions refused to allow the provincial NDP government to participate in Labor Day celebrations. The NDP won provincial elections in 1990 on a platform of labor law reform, pay equity, progressive tax reform and public auto insurance. But when corporations threatened to use its economic power in a sort of general strike by capital, the government quickly threw in the towel. The “labor” government abandoned public auto insurance, abandoned most of its labor law reform package, and gutted social service spending. Ontario workers understandably concluded that they could get these sort of anti- worker policies from any capitalist government, and so did not vote for the “socialist” NDP in the federal elections.

These are not isolated examples. Every labor and socialist party in the world which workers have voted into office has ended up betraying them. This is because labor parties are incapable of addressing the real cause of anti-labor governments. As Dolgoff wrote,

A capitalist democracy is a competitive society where predatory pressure groups struggle for wealth and prestige and jockey for power. Because such a society lacks inner cohesion, it cannot discipline itself. It needs an organism which will appease the pressure groups by satisfying some of their demands and prevent conflicts between them from upsetting the stability of the system. The government plays this role and in the process… the bureaucratic government apparatus becomes a class in itself with interests of its own….

Labor parties are no more immune to the diseases inherent in the parliamentary system than are other political parties. If the new Labor Party legislators are elected they will have to “play the game” according to the established rules and customs. If they are honest they will soon become cynical and corrupted… Most of them, however, will find their new environment to their taste because they have already learned to connive when they were operating as big wheels in their own union organizations… A course in the school of labor fakery prepares the graduates for participation in municipal, state and national government….

Tactics must flow from principles. The tactic of parliamentary action is not compatible with the principle of class struggle. Class struggle in the economic field is not compatible with class-collaboration on the political field. This truth has been amply demonstrated throughout the history of the labor movement in every land. Parliamentary action serves only to reinforce the institutions responsible for social injustice–the exploitative economic system and the State.

The strength of the labor movement lies in its economic power. Labor produces all wealth and provides all the services. Only the workers can change the social system fundamentally. To do this, workers do not need a labor party, since by their economic power they are in a position to achieve the Social Revolution… As long as the means of production are in the hands of the few, and the many are robbed of the fruits of their labor, any participation in the political skulduggery which has as its sole purpose the maintenance of this system amounts to both tacit and direct support of the system itself.

Rather than diverting workers’ resources and energies into forming yet another political party, sincere working-class activists would do far better to build genuine, class-conscious unions and to work with their fellow workers to build a new society through direct action in their communities and at the point of production. Labor parties can play no part in this struggle.

The Capitalist Siege Mentality (ASR 62)

It is told of Rothschild that, seeing his fortune threatened by the Revolution of 1848, he hit upon the following stratagem: “I am quite willing to admit,” said he, “that my fortune has been accumulated at the expense of others, but if it were divided to-morrow among the millions of Europe, the share of each would only amount to five shillings. Very well, then, I undertake to render to each his five shillings if he asks me for it.”

Having given due publicity to his promise, our millionaire proceeded as usual to stroll quietly through the streets of Frankfort. Three or four passers-by asked for their five shillings, which he disbursed with a sardonic smile. His stratagem succeeded, and the family of the millionaire is still in possession of its wealth.

— Peter Kropotkin, from The Conquest of Bread

Peter Kropotkin would have found it ironic that, six score years after writing Conquest of Bread, the wife of a descendent of the powerful Rothschild banking family would host a conference on economic inequality. Lynn Forester de Rothschild, third wife of Evelyn Robert de Rothschild and CEO of E.L. Rothschild, a financial holding company, invited 250 fellow capitalists to a London conference to promote “inclusive capitalism.” Those invited collectively control $30 trillion of investment capital or roughly one third of the world’s total. Among those in attendance were Britain’s Prince Charles and former U.S. President Bill Clinton (Rothschild is a friend and past supporter of the Clintons).  According to Rothschild, the reason they had all come was a concern that the public was beginning to think that business was not only incapable of solving society’s problems, but was in fact the source of what was wrong. She told one reporter that “Capitalism appears to be under siege.”

Rothschild is not the only capitalist to make such a surprising remark. In January, Tom Perkins, a silicon valley capitalist wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he compared progressives protesting inequality, like those of Occupy Wall Street, to the Nazis who carried out violent attacks on Jews during Kristallnacht. 

The phrase “capitalism is under siege” goes back to the banking collapse and financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent election of Barack Obama. Drawing upon the anger of voters, candidate Obama promised change from the financial deregulation policies that had brought on the crisis, and the government bailout of the banks who were “too big to fail” (although once in power he did little to change such policies).

In the aftermath of the crisis, working families in the U.S. lost trillions of dollars in savings, lost homes or home-value, lost jobs, and saw their pension funds looted – all due to capitalist financial speculation. Yet the wealthy individuals, who caused the crisis, saw their lost wealth restored and even made money in the bargain as they used government bailout money to buy up smaller not-too-big banks and other firms for a fraction of their value. Naturally the working class majority is upset, but in the absence of worker-run organization, working people have not been able to do much about it, except vote against one pro-capitalist party or the other pro-capitalist party.

The capitalists who attended the Inclusive Capitalism Conference know that things could change if some palliative measures are not taken. For most it was a matter of perception. Christine Lagard, head of the International Monetary Fund, said that the purpose of “inclusive capitalism” is to “restore faith in the financial system” by showing a concern for long-term growth over short-term profits. Other capitalists suggested that the investors need to be more concerned about the environment and good treatment for workers, as well as the middle class. For the most part it was a call for voluntary philanthropy, not regulatory reform, much less anything to do with wealth redistribution. Perhaps the most honest statement made to a reporter from NPR was that made by Scott Winship of the capitalist think-tank, the Manhattan Institute: “It sort of surprises me that you have a bunch of people in the investment community who view this as having a significant return on investment in some way, whether the return is in people patting them on the back and saying, ‘Thanks for caring about us,’ or in actual changes to policies.”

“Inclusive Capitalism” is an oxymoron, like “military intelligence,” “tough love” or “compassionate conservatism.” Capitalism is by its very nature, exclusive.  Economic competition is the means, but monopoly is the goal. As Peter Kropotkin pointed out, capitalism is a form of warfare. The objective is neither equality nor liberty. The objective is to make others work as slaves, so that their sweat and sacrifice enriches the masters, who could never accumulate vast wealth from their own labor.

What has changed since Kropotkin’s time is not the nature of capitalism. What has changed is the extent to which the capitalists now depend upon the state. Had it not been for the financial role played by the various governments in bailing out the capitalists in time of economic crisis, the international economic system would have collapsed in 2008. The question is, if the working class must give up their own meagre resources to save the wealthy during economic crises, why keep bailing the capitalists out? Like the feudal aristocracy of the 18th century, is it not time to stop supporting these idlers in the 21st century?

Anarcho-syndicalism for South African unions today

Lucien van der Walt — author of Black Flame: The revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism (with Michael Schmidt, 2009, AK Press) and editor of Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940 (with Steve Hirsch and Benedict Anderson, 2010, Brill) — was an invited speaker at the 2013 inaugural National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) Political School.

He debated anarcho-syndicalist versus Leninist views of the potential of trade unions, with Solly Mapaila, Second Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

The NUMSA Political School was held at Benoni, Gauteng, South Africa, September 13-18, 2013, on the theme of “The Political Role of Trade Unions in the Struggle for Socialism.” NUMSA is the largest trade union in South Africa: an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), NUMSA has been a radical opponent of the policies of the ruling African National Congress to which both COSATU and the SACP are formally allied.

This transcript captures Lucien van der Walt’s main points, as well as selections from the other speakers where they are essential to understanding the discussion. It has been lightly edited for publication.

Initial input in response to David Masondo’s presentation, titled “From Rustenburg to Ongoye: The Evolution of the SACP’s Programmatic Approach”

Lucien: Okay, well, obviously I am not a NUMSA member, not being a metal worker, so maybe I am even speaking out of turn… although I am a lapsed SA Communist Party member. I joined the Party once. Which means I have a card, somewhere, but they don’t call me. Maybe they have my details wrong!

Floor: Laughter

Lucien: But on the other hand I don’t have to give the SA Communist Party any money. I don’t get anything and I don’t give anything.

Floor: Laughter

Okay now, Comrade David, you lay out only two options.

First: we fix the SACP or, second, maybe we set up a SACP Mark 2, the new version, the new edition.

Comrades who are auto workers know that every couple of years you bring out a new car. The problem is that a car is a car. And a car can’t fly, and if there is a problem with cars only some changes can be made. There are certain things that they can’t do and certain things they can do. Same for parties.

Maybe the question is to think about the political form itself. Is the political party an appropriate form? Do we need a party to carry out the political vanguard role of the working class? Why can’t this role be done by a trade union? Right now, actually, that’s what’s happening. We are debating if it’s a possibility, but right now we have a situation where NUMSA is already providing a vanguard leadership to the working class. Not just in its own ranks. Sections of COSATU, sections of the unemployed, sections of social movements, they all look to NUMSA.

You now want to bring the SA Communist Party back on track, although you have left it far behind. You’ve left it behind; you, the unions, are far ahead of that party. You are also two steps to the left of the Communist Party. You are playing a vanguard role that the Communist Party hasn’t done. But then, you say: “No, we must go back to the Communist Party to have a vanguard”!

Floor: Laughter and applause

Lucien: So that doesn’t make sense to me. I am saying that it’s a issue about the form, and the method. If you want to give political direction to the working class, why can’t you, the unions, do it? Why can’t the union be a vanguard ideological and mobilizing force? Why can’t NUMSA, for example, be the core of a union movement that shifts things?

That’s what you have done already! It’s not my idea, it’s your idea and it is what you have done already.

So that would be my suggestion:… I ask: is there not a third option? Not SA Communist Party Mark 2. Not SA Communist Party, the 2014 edition. Not SA Communist Party rebranded as a “mass worker party.”

But rather, a third form of politics here, which is a revolutionary trade union movement that will provide a link between the different layers of the working class. Provide the basis of a bottom-up coalition of social movements and other unions in class struggle. And that will put on the forefront, not nationalization by the state, but collectivization: workers’ control of the means of production through the union. Through the union, not through the state: through the union.

So, I will leave it there…

Main input: Debating anarcho-syndicalist versus Leninist views of the potential of trade unions, with Solly Mapaila, Second Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party

MC Oupa Bodibe: I’m sorry, I have to cut you off Comrade Solly. Lucien, I know that you are very eager to respond.

But first, I have several questions for you. Lucien, there are two arguments that should be taken forward today. One is the view that trade unions tend to “standardize” capitalism. They support it, okay? Because if you looking at the capitalism that has become more social friendly, or more developmental and also more pro-poor, workers now have a much bigger role to ensure the equal distribution of resources. That is the point I want to make.

The second argument is that one that Comrade Dinga Sikwebu talked about earlier: the inherent conservatism of the trade union movement. This is something that is coming up in meetings.

Do you think these statements are valid for all times? Or do they speak to different historical positions and balances of power in the trade union movement?

Lucien: Let’s step back. The arguments that I will criticize, the arguments that Comrade Oupa is alluding to, the arguments that unions are always inherently limited, reformist and economistic, are summed up in V.I. Lenin’s What is To be Done?

So what does that work say? And is it right? If we take What is To be Done? at face value, it essentially suggests that it is the normal nature of unions to be concerned only with day-to-day and narrow economic issues.

If we have to take Lenin’s What is To be Done? at its face value, it also says that unions are reformist, in the sense that they only look at small issues. That in fact they are unable, in a fundamental way, to look at larger issues. That this is partly because they supposedly divide the working class. And there’s something in this: NUMSA deals with metal and allied industries, while other COSATU unions deal with, for example, teachers and schools, and you are all in different unions.

So from Lenin’s perspective, part of the problem is that unions are dealing with small issues, they are dealing with the narrowest economic issues, and they reflect the divisions within the working class.

And for Lenin, these reasons meant that unions really struggle to think beyond the immediate issues. They struggle to think beyond capitalism and to imagine a better, transformed society. And this is where Lenin then brings in the argument for the unions having to be permanently led by a so-called Marxist “vanguard party,” a party of the type that the SA Communist Party claims to represent. To put it another way, the unions cannot be revolutionary, and cannot play a key role in fighting for socialism, unless a Marxist vanguard party is giving them orders. They can be “revolutionary” only when they aid a Communist Party, and even then, only by providing some muscle, not a political direction, not a leading role.

But is this line of thinking really correct?

Well, I think one way to look at all of these issues is to be historical. And if we do that, we have to admit that some unions – and there is no way we can doubt that – some unions are conservative. Some unions are reformist, and all they interested in is better wages and better conditions. In this sense they are also economistic. They fit Lenin’s model.

But that’s not the same thing as saying that all unions, in all circumstances, are narrowly trapped in reformism and economism. I think if we want to look more historically, it becomes possible to see a range of union experiences that go far beyond what Leninist theory would predict

The problem with Lenin’s argument is that while unions have reformist tendencies, they are just tendencies. There are other forces going in other directions, and these can take unions much further than Lenin’s What is To be Done? suggests.

So we can find many unions which conform perfectly to Lenin’s model. And maybe the Russian trade unions that Lenin was dealing with conformed perfectly to his model.

But if we look historically and globally there is a wide range of unions which are something beyond reformist, something beyond economistic, something beyond simply dividing the working class.

I find it strange at a NUMSA Political School, a union political school, which is dealing entirely with socialism and larger issues of strategy, and which is almost being driven entirely by union activists and intellectuals and associated people, a whole congress that isn’t being led by a party, to be debating whether unions are reformist and suggest unions are helpless without parties.

Right here, you are refuting Lenin through your actions. If Lenin’s argument is right, this Political School could not be happening. This could not be happening! This event is all an illusion. If unions are always reformist and economistic, and Lenin is right, well then maybe you are not even in this room. And if you are, you are wasting your time here. You get me?

But I don’t think it is an illusion… I think Lenin is simply wrong.

The refutation provided by the anarcho-syndicalist Spanish Revolution

Now let’s take this argument another way, which is to look at an example from history.

Where a trade union that did something that sets the bar on what unions can do. Seeing as we have spoken a bit about historical circumstances, I am going to mention a trade union federation that existed in Spain, one that was founded in 1910. This trade union in Spain, we will call it by its initials, the CNT.

The CNT means the “National Confederation of Labor,” and it was set up in Spain in 1910. It was by the mid-1930s, in Spain, the leading force in the working class. By that stage the CNT had organized nearly 2 million workers. Spain’s population at the time was round about 24 million. So if we want to put it into South African terms of today, in our own proportions, the CNT would be around 4 million strong.

It was a union in the Bakuninist tradition – that’s to say, in the anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition. And the CNT did not confine itself to wages or to working conditions. Yes, it fought those fights. Fiercely. But it never stopped at dealing with those fights. It ran 36 newspapers and periodicals, 36 publications, including the biggest daily newspaper in much of Spain.

Comrade Solly is quite right, a large amount of the press is controlled by private capital in our country. You can go to a shop here, and what do you get? Capitalist media.

But what do our unions have in the way of mass media in South Africa? We have our internal union newspapers. But basically we wait for the capitalist press to print our press statements, and do what they like with them. Publicly we have nothing.

Well, the CNT produced its own newspapers. And these newspapers outsold and out-competed the capitalist and government newspapers. It had its own radio station and its own movies. In every single working class neighborhood where the CNT was strong, the CNT set up workers’ centers. These workers’ centers organized people, it gave a space where people could organize. These provided a space where the working class outside of the union was educated, including kids. Millions of people went through these centers. The CNT printed millions and millions of books and pamphlets.

And the CNT was a union which stressed direct action. It did not vote in elections. It refused to vote in elections. It did not ally to any political party. It said: “What do we need a political party for?” It out-competed, in the Spanish case, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE).

This party, PCE, claimed to lead the working class, to be its most revolutionary force – it was far less radical, and certainly far less popular, than the CNT. When CNT was reaching 2 million strong, the Spanish Communist Party was 10,000 strong. And this is the Marxist “vanguard” party. With 10,000 members! Well, workers didn’t believe it was the “vanguard” – they believed CNT was the vanguard, in the sense of being the leading radical force in the class.

Now the CNT built up over the years generations of anarchist/ syndicalist cadre. And it trained them through what it called “revolutionary gymnastics.” Does anybody here go to gym? A gymnasium, where you train.

Voice from the floor (joking): Comrade Irvin Jim goes to gym (laughter)

Lucien: Ah, there we go, you are saying comrade Jim goes to gym! Jim’s from the gym.

Floor: Laughter.

Lucien: Well, what the CNT did was, because they believed that the real power of the working class lay in its own action and its own resources and its own self-reliance, the CNT consistently tried to use direct action. This was the “gym” to train revolutionaries.

It didn’t use the courts or elections. It didn’t use the courts to try and stop evictions; it would rather stop the evictions physically; it would rather use a rent strike. If somebody in the union was assassinated by the state, it would… It would do what? Tell me what you think they did? They shot back, shot back. CNT developed its own military structures. The CNT worked inside the army as well, and built cells among the soldiers.

Now, these struggles, these experiences, these methods, were a “revolutionary gymnasium,” a training ground, a place where the working class could get stronger, and fitter, and trained for the battle of the classes. Even a small wage struggle could, treated properly, be part of the training in the revolutionary gymnasium.

Now you can imagine that any state, any state, seeing a union like CNT emerging, would start to get quite alarmed. Spain in those days was attracting a lot of foreign investment. It was a country with a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment, a lot of struggle. This sounds familiar to us as South Aricans…

And the biggest mass movement was CNT.

In 1936 there was an attempt to make a military coup in Spain. The right wing of the ruling class was afraid that the CNT was going to make good on its promise of revolution. At the least, its struggles were a serious threat to the ruling class, And “revolution” wasn’t just a congress resolution by the CNT. At least three times, three times in the 1930s, the CNT organized armed uprisings.

This was a trade union federation, a revolutionary trade union. The Spanish ruling class did not take comfort in Lenin’s What is to be Done?, with its predictions that such a thing as the CNT was impossible. The CNT was doing this without being told what to do by a Communist Party. A revolutionary trade union, it had allies among youth structures; it had allies within community movements, allies among woman’s structures.

But it had no Communist Party that led it. It didn’t need it, didn’t want it, and it wasn’t worried about Lenin’s What is to Be Done? telling it that could not do what it was actually doing.

And the attempted military coup in 1936 was stopped by the CNT. When the army rose up, the CNT stopped it. It split the army; the army came over in large numbers to the CNT. The CNT brought out the guns that it had accumulated, and stopped the army that remained.

But they, the Bakuninists, the anarcho-syndicalists, didn’t just stop there. In Barcelona, in the province of Catalonia (which was sort of the “Gauteng” of Spain), the anarchist CNT trade unions took the factories and services. They ran them. They took over power stations, and they took over the car factories. I’m talking stuff that metal industry comrades here will recognize immediately. Car factories, power stations, tram yards… But also hospitals, restaurants, farming.

All of these were placed under workers’ control. And how were these run? They were run through the CNT. So essentially the weekly union meetings and democratic CNT structures that the CNT had always organized, say in the metal industry, became the structures which now governed the economy. So, the metal union became the basis for bottom-up democratic control of the metal industry, and through the CNT federation, was linked to the unions in all the other sectors. Together this provided a basis for democratic planning, in conjunction with working class communities.

So this wasn’t nationalization in which unions basically choose to replace an economic elite with a political elite: where you chose to replace the Oppenheimers with the Ramaphosas through the state. No. What they did is they directly controlled the economy.

The CNT’s shop steward structures became the committees that ran the factories. The weekly meeting of workers which mandated the shop stewards provided the basis of accountability and control. And with this power in their hands, they were able to reconstruct the Spanish economy. The same things happened in the countryside. And all in all, around about 10 million people were involved in these collectives and this “collectivization.”

Now, there is a point to this history, besides just a lot of history. The point is simply that there is no way that a union like CNT bears out the Leninist claim that unions by themselves are inherently reformist.

There is no way that anyone in the Spanish ruling class said “well thank goodness; Lenin said the CNT is reformist. Now we know. We are safe from these guys.” They called a military coup to try to stop the CNT instead.

Why couldn’t the Spanish Communist Party gain traction? Because the CNT demonstrated in practice that it didn’t need a vanguard. The union was enough. So why not a NUMSA on CNT lines?

An alternative to electoral politics

Now, I am not saying that every union can be revolutionary. But I am saying that with the correct ideology and with bottom-up CNT- (or NUMSA-) type structures a union CAN be revolutionary. It can play the political role that is usually taken by political parties. And do it better.

The last thing I will just say on this, Comrade Oupa, is this. The CNT didn’t see revolutions as which party you vote for in elections. It didn’t see revolution as who you vote for. It didn’t see the options for the working class movement, as this party or that party, or this faction of that party, and this faction of that party.

It was quite clear, the state is an enemy. The state, by its nature, is part of the ruling class. The people you vote for join the ruling class. You can put the best man at the top, three years later, he will look like the man you threw out.

Floor: Laughter.

Lucien: The anarchist Bakunin said “You can take the reddest radical and put him on the throne of the Tsar, and within three years you will have a new Tsar.”

Floor: Laughter.

Lucien: Now because they had this politics, what they did was, rather than set up a party and vote for it, and then get disillusioned in elections, and then look for a new party or a new party leader to fix the mess, they understood why elections don’t work. Not for the working class.

Elections, they argued, were a graveyard of politics. You send your best cadre into parliament, and they never come back!

Floor: Laughter and applause.

Solly: What I think Comrade Lucien is basically raising is that let’s use the existing organization that we have, the materials that we have, and make sure that we deal with the kind of problems that we basically have. For me if the second option is to be taken, of course you’ve got to ask questions like “what forms of organizing this workers’ party will be different from what we basically have in the SA Communist Party or in other vanguard parties that have been formed before?” What would the content be, what form should it take so that we don’t reproduce some of the problems that you basically have?

But in the past, the enemy has always been the oppressive apartheid government and the capitalist system. But what is the enemy now? And also, we can also say the apartheid system also represented government. Is government our enemy today?

Floor: murmurs and comments “Yes!”

Solly: Well, we will respond to that. Is government our enemy today? Capitalism? Yes , it’s our enemy. I don’t think government is our enemy, today. Not the ANC government.

But of course, the Proudhonists and the Bakuninists speak to this particular question. The Proudhonists and the Bakuninists do not have a sense of the need for governments, or even a sense of law. They do not even appreciate the trade union movement in its current perception. If you read Bakunin properly, or you read Proudhon properly… Proudhon actually is called the father of anarchy. He was the first one to be declared the father of anarchists, Joseph Proudhon.

So there is no sense of rules. There is the sense of the truest concept of liberty. But that has to do with the development of society itself. Now, have we reached that stage of development of society where we people can self-rule? Because under communism for instance, people will self-rule. There will be no need for a state for instance. Because the state carries with itself the oppressive apparatus and capacitance power of the people and in the universal name of the people.

But you cannot wish away the state for now. It’s wishful thinking. But to debate the fact that there will be no need for the state in the future, as long as society evolves and develops to a particular level of consciousness, it’s a correct position.

Floor: various comments to speakers and on other issues

Lucien: Okay, some of those comments are for Solly. Also, I am not going to respond to anything detailed about the current internal issues in the SA Communist Party.  I’ve noted and appreciate many points, and I am going to go through them.

The problem with our Alliance politics

At the end of the day, if you are talking about what the political role of the trade union should be, the first thing you have got to start is knowing what you want to achieve. And to know what you want to achieve you have to know what’s wrong in a society.

And if we look, and I think comrades have made it quite clear, South Africa is a society with a wide range of problems. And it isn’t what we expected 19 years later after the 1994 elections and breakthrough.

In 1994, when the union-backed reform programme, the RDP, that is, the Reconstruction and Development Programme, came out a lot of people were debating, saying that “This thing is not very radical.” Now, things have shifted so far, with neo-liberalism and privatization and so on, that at this stage, if you brought out the RDP people would think it was the Second Coming. It would be highly radical compared to what we have got now, even though it is not very radical in essence.

The question then, is how do we fix those problems? The problems we face as a country and as a class? You know, the first time you make a mistake, it’s a shame but you can blame someone else. The second time you make a mistake, you’ve got no one else to blame for the mistake but yourself. And we must learn from the mistakes we make.

I think it’s important to re-assess some of the political strategies that have been taken by the big battalions of the working class movement. And to think of what other options are available. And the point about what I said earlier about Spain and the CNT isn’t to say that the way they did things is the only way that things have to be done. But it is to say this is one option. And a valuable one that pushes us out of Lenin’s box, one we need to take seriously.

I think we need to have an open discussion about what are the possibilities for trade unions, and to do so with a wide range of experiences in mind. What are the different things that unions can do? Those things require us to start thinking “out of the box,” to start to question the model that we’ve got today in the big unions, the model that holds the trade union is like a single person that must get married, and married to a political party. A single person that has to get married with urgency, and always to a political party. And whichever party comes along with the best promises, this party takes it off to the church. With this sort of outlook, its no wonder that a range of political parties always come with promises to us unions; they know that trade unions are thinking like this: “I must get married.”

Now, the marriage that was chosen in the end, for COSATU and so for NUMSA, was the marriage with the African National Congress (ANC). We speak now as if this marriage, the Tripartite Alliance, was inevitable, desirable and the best and most natural thing. And we speak, as we did this morning, as if we must just make the marriage work better. But what we forget is that this was a choice, a choice to start this marriage, and not an easy choice. Not even the obvious choice. That’s why I say we should look at history, and also think “out of the box.”

In fact, in 1993 NUMSA was looking at the issue of any alliance with the ANC very critically. It raised serious issues then and there. Twenty years ago NUMSA said the problem we face is, is that we might get a transition in which you end up with a bourgeois arrangement, with capitalism under the hegemony of a black nationalist movement which would not be able to deliver many of the things working class and poor people actually need, whether that is an improvement in their living conditions or whether that is issue of land … that the elite would be blacker, and the black elite would grow, but the working class, mainly black, would still suffer.

The need for revolutionary unions

Now I think if you have to look objectively, that which was predicted by NUMSA then is the situation we face now. We got exactly the outcome that NUMSA warned against. You got exactly the outcome you were warned against. You chose to marry, and marry badly.

And in this particular juncture, which the marriage with the ANC perpetuates, it’s not possible to make the deep-seated changes we need. Because the billions of rands needed for rolling out decent basic services everywhere are tied up with somebody rich and powerful, maybe white, maybe black, maybe politician, maybe businessman.

The decisions that are made are not made by working class people; those decisions are made by the rich and powerful. That is why you can see 36 billion rands spent on 2010 World Cup events here, and three years later, millions of people still have a bucket system for toilets. And the ANC and the state is a central pillar of this vicious system.

We need a fundamental change in how society is run. And to get that, I think, we need to re-evaluate what the unions can do to achieve this. And to see what the unions have got right and what the unions have got wrong. Well, you’re married to a a big part of the problem. Now you need a permanent break, not marriage counselling.

The issue is not that anarchists, syndicalists like Bakunin were anti-union , as Solly seems to say. It is that they wanted the unions to be the best that they could be. And this requires revolutionary autonomy.

When we work from the assumption that the union must always be led by a party, like a Marxist vanguard party, I think we work from the wrong assumption.

You can have unions that are more revolutionary than a party, and you can have parties that are not very revolutionary.

Floor: Laughter.

Lucien: And just because you call yourself “revolutionary” does not make you revolutionary.

Floor: Agreement, calls of “yes” and “aha!”

Lucien: It is the objective actions that you undertake, including your political programme, that make you revolutionary.

Which is why when I started I said “Can we seriously be debating the question of whether trade unions can be revolutionary? Can we seriously be entertaining that debate?”

I don’t think that in South African history you will struggle to find unions that were reactionary, But you won’t struggle either to find revolutionary actions and leadership by unions.

Which is why I said this morning that if you looking for a way forward where are you looking? Look within. Stop looking to the political parties and to the elections.

Now, I know I sound like a bishop or a priest there! “Look within.” But there is something in this Political School that we must learn from… It is an example of how the unions, like NUMSA, are raising the main political challenges. But you can do much more.

Of course there are all these little parties that are popping up with an eye on getting on the gravy train through the next election, hoping they can get into office and make the money and get richer and richer. And hoping for union votes so they can get rich. But at the end of the day, those are not what’s worrying ruling class people at the top. That’s not what’s worrying those people. You, unions like you, NUMSA, are what’s worrying people in the ruling class. Trade unions are what worry the ruling class. That’s why there are campaigns against you at the moment.

So, yes, unions can be revolutionary and they can be more revolutionary than any party. And they can be revolutionary without a party. You, NUMSA, are doing that right now. So I think you need to think about a wider set of options than you have so far.

More revolutionary than the parties

And I think you need to get out of the mind-set that unions must be allied to a political party, and that this means the Tripartite Alliance with the ANC and SA Communist Party. An Alliance that is often presented as natural and as the only way to go, but that, as Eddie Maloko was saying last night at the book launch for his revised history of the SA Communist Party, is really very recent. It’s very recent, and was always controversial for NUMSA.

A recent article in the SA Communist Party’s African Communist even spoke of celebrating “100 years” of the Alliance. This is just not true. COSATU wasn’t even in a formal political alliance before 1990. And FOSATU, the Federation of South African Trade Unions, the immediate federation before COSATU, wasn’t in an alliance with any political party. Actually, neither were the other big union federations in the 1980s. But they were political, they were radical…

If we want to go back in union history further, you will struggle to find any such three-part Alliance. You will not struggle, though, to find radical unions that were not allied to the ANC, or even the SA Communist Party , but that were very revolutionary.

We might want to look at the ICU in the 1920s and the 1930s, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa, this was radical, even influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, and it wasn’t allied to political parties. The ICU unions planned to undertake land occupations. These were unions that mobilized tens of thousands of people in the countryside. These were trade unions that were seen (and you can look at the parliamentary debates from the times for this), they were seen as the threat. As a revolutionary threat.

No one was worried about the ANC then; the ANC was a few hundred people. Late 1920s, the ICU goes to the ANC and says will you join a general strike? And the ANC says: “No thanks.”

And now we sit here in 2013, 90 years later, and you say to the ANC will you do some serious redistribution of wealth and power? And they still say: “No thanks.”

So there is a consistent record where unions and other mass working class movements have shown that ability to raise, and fight around, radical issues. And a consistency in the inability of the ANC to undertake a range of serious measures essential to the working class.

Now my very last point on this is: when we look at a disease we have to know what is causing a disease, so that we can work at what the cure is. There is something in the political system of elections that means when trade unions back parties, the parties turn against them. ALWAYS. Here’s the illness.

That’s a fact. Somebody asked me about Brazil in a break earlier today: the comrade asked about Brazil under the Workers Party of Lula, the PT.  Well, in Brazil we see the same story as here: a trade union movement emerges under authoritarian conditions, called the CUT, or the Unified Workers’ Central. It decides “No, oh gosh, we are not enough , we are not good enough , we need a political party.” It helps set up and allies to this new party, a political party called the PT. The CUT unions then say “this party needs a great leader.” “Let’s find a great leader” so they go to Lula. Lula is a CUT metal worker, but he is one of these men with incredible charm and presence, and people love him. And they elect him into government.

And in a year or two, it’s just like here. Just like here, you find neo-liberalism. Within a year or two, you find union leaders being swallowed into the state and then being turned against the unions. Within a year or two you find that all of those hopes that people had, they start to scale them down. Like the RDP here, which we criticized in the 1990s for being too moderate, but now we speak of as if it was a revolutionary programme.

Working class democracy

And eventually you end up happy just because you have the PT or the ANC and its leader in charge. Never mind the policy. Not because of any achievements. You are just happy when you are consulted about the policy that you don’t like, although the policy will go ahead, and your consultation means nothing really. Your standards keep dropping down on these things.

And that sort of sense of hope, in 1993 and 1994 where the people said the RDP was too lame, well, we now have a situation where the people think the RDP is the salvation. That’s what our COSATU policy proposals amount to anyway: just a revived RDP. That’s how far our standards have dropped. Socialism isn’t even on the agenda. No, we push for an RDP Mark 2, and we call this the Growth Path for Full Employment and think this is radical.

And in terms of method, we talk about land reform, and workers’ control, and decent work and job creation, and we look to the ruling party and the SA Communist Party and to the state, in which both the ANC and the SA Communist Party are so central.

But there’s no reason to think you are going to get any of this through this government, or any other. And not through the policy COSATU proposes.

Why don’t you just take some direct action and mass campaigns for these goals?

You are not going to this stuff through this government. It’s a capitalist government, it’s a capitalist state. Like any state, every state, it serves a small political and economic elite.

It’s not going to do what you want, it can’t do that. You can put the best people in charge, they can’t do it. It just can’t be done.

I spoke about a car this morning. A car can’t fly. A car can’t fly, a dog can’t go “meow” and a cat can’t go “woof.”

Floor: Laughter

Solly: I want to say capitalism, yes, remains our primary enemy, of course it’s not a secondary enemy. It has never been that secondary enemy, but remains our primary enemy. Every capitalist is an exploiter. We must fight them.

But in our situation we are involved in our revolution that we will call the National Democratic Revolution. The anarchists don’t agree with it, the National Democratic Revolution. But this is what built the revolutionary movement that won democratic rights in 1994, under the banner of the National Democratic Revolution, the NDR. This had the political party leadership of the ANC and SACP.

We needed to deal with the legacy of the apartheid state. But there is the other key question there, which is class and class struggle, even in the Alliance, which is the basis of why the SA Communist Party is in this relationship with the ANC and COSATU. Because we want to see the ultimate end of class exploitation in this country, so we can have equality. But the road is through National Democratic Revolution and the ANC government.

And by the way, Bakunin himself, says he does not believe in the concept of equality. Bakunin didn’t believe in the concept of equality because he believed that that particular concept when it arises in society that is organized around those issues of equality and so forth, it puts restrictions on freedom. So [anarchism] has got an idealist sense of freedom…

Lucien: Thanks Com. … I think maybe we can just start with this slogan, which is emblazoned on the Political School’s materials: “No revolutionary theory, no revolutionary movement.”

But the question is, and what is a revolutionary theory? What is a revolutionary movement and what is a revolution?

The need for counterpower

The problem, and I think the burden of the working class, and the tragedy of the working class over the last 160 years, is that so many times it has had power, or almost had power, and it has handed it over. So many times working class people have built the mass structures that could govern society. Sometimes they have even started to govern society with this counterpower.

But the tragedy and the burden of our history as a class is that so many times we have stopped, and handed power over to leaders and to elites. And it seems every time we get there we say “oh no, hang on a minute, we need someone to tell us what to do.” Power is handed over to economic and political elites, that is, to ruling classes, which then make their own deals and line their own pockets. Here’s the cause of the illness.

We can look at our own country, our South Africa, in the 1990s. We moved from a situation in the 1980s and early 1990s where in many townships there was a large degree of community self-government through civics, and a big push for workers having a say in production through our powerful trade unions, and we moved to the CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa, 1991-1993) deal that we now complain about.

Steps needed for a class-based solution of the National Question

Now I think that CODESA deal that we got in 1993-1994 is a democratic break through. It was a huge advance, a victory, and brought about real changes in the political and social situation, and important steps towards the resolution of the National Question.

But saying it’s a breakthrough: that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a social revolution, even if we use the terms the SA Communist Party likes, like “National Democratic Revolution,” or “NDR.” Rather, 1993/1994 helps create space for a social revolution. It involved, on the one hand, major political and social reforms, but it also, on the other, involved an elite pact between the black political elite and the captains of white monopoly capital. It’s a political revolution, not a social revolution.

A social revolution is when ordinary people take direct control in society. And we don’t have that. We have more rights, but in a highly unequal society, where the National Question is not resolved for the black, Coloured and Indian working class – although the black elite has, on the other hand, been completely liberated. The 1993/1994 breakthrough was real, but it was also by its nature confined to the framework of class society, with the elite becoming blacker, but the masses staying exploited and impoverished despite having more rights. Unless we change this basic system, the National Question will never be resolved for the working class, since the material legacy of apartheid will remain, and so will the basic system of exploitation and competition, … both breeding grounds for race and national conflict and populist demagogy.

Now, when we speak about NDR, you get some comrades talking about nationalization as a radical step for a radical NDR. But if we just think in terms of nationalization, we are missing a very basic thing. We talk about nationalization as a simple solution. But it only means the state is going to operate exactly the same way as the private capitalists. We talk about too often about “white monopoly capital” as the core controller of the economy and therefore as the main strategic enemy. It is a strategic enemy but NOT the only one.

But ruling class power is not just in the economy, it also vested in the state. And economic power is not just in the private sector; it is also vested in the state. Yes, in the ANC-run state apparatus.

Comrades need to realize that the state is the single biggest employer in South Africa. That’s the state apparatus. The biggest land owner in South Africa is the state apparatus. The state extracts surplus value from its own workers, in its corporations like in ESKOM, in TRANSNET, in SAA, in the SABC, it has over 40% of capital assets and over 25% of land, and  operates on the same logic of top-down elite rule as any corporation, as any private “monopoly capital.”

So if you want to talk about and secure a situation that puts power into the hands of ordinary working class people, it doesn’t do to move power from private monopoly capital to state monopoly capital, to replace private capitalism with state capitalism, and to do this in the name of revolution, to call something like this a “revolution.” You’re just changing the bosses.

And it also doesn’t do to take power from your own mass movements and then hand it over to a political party. To give that party a blank cheque and then see it visit you for votes every five years. When every five years it will come to you and ask for your help, and gives you the reasons you should help it. And then for five years more you complain all over again, until it rebrands itself, it claims it fixes up the problems. That goes nowhere.

So yes, if you want a revolution, you need a revolutionary theory.

But in thinking about this, what comrades need to do is think seriously, not think sentimentally. Don’t think sentimentally, don’t base your judgement on emotions and the past. Nothing we say or do can take away some great things that the SA Communist Party has done in the past. We can think here, for example of its work in the unions in the 1940s and 1950s, and its armed struggle. Also the ANC, before 1994, did many great things. But that’s not the same thing as saying that they are always right, that they have all the answers, and that we are in a perfect situation where you can never criticize any of those structures. Or the only option is to renegotiate the marriage with those structures. It’s important to have a serious debate and to realize that our working class movement in South Africa, and also internationally, has never just been about one tradition, Marxism-Leninism, or about one tradition, nationalism.

These traditions are just positions in debates, not the only views possible, and not even necessarily the right views.

The early SA Communist Party itself, and you can go read Michael Harmel’s official history, Fifty Fighting Years, had an anarcho-syndicalist wing. For many, many years, anarcho-syndicalism was an important current in the Communist Party itself.

So we mustn’t look at political issues in sentimental terms, and cling to the notion that we are dealing, in the Alliance and the Party’s current theory, with a perfect truth that came down from Mount Sinai like the Ten Commandments and that can never be questioned.

Revolutionary unions and movements, not party politics

In the 1980s the anti-apartheid struggle wasn’t fought by parties, … it was fought by mass movements. There was the United Democratic Front which brought together churches, community organizations, youth organizations, unemployed movements and various political organizations. It wasn’t led by a party, even though it leaned one way. It worked alongside trade unions, like FOSATU and then later COSATU.

This was political action; this was political in profound ways. But the UDF was not the one who negotiated in the 1990s, that was the ANC, and this people’s power and this type of politics was lost.

The ANC leadership came later, from exile in the 1990s when the job of struggle was done, and said “Well, we led the struggle. Well, we have the right to make decisions.” They then closed down the UDF and they made an elite pact, they made a pact with white monopoly capital, at the same time as the important 1994 democratic breakthrough was happening.

We can talk all we like about “primary” and “secondary” enemies. But the current and ANC-headed  state apparatus is allied to white monopoly capital. But it’s not just a tool; it’s not just a victim. It’s an active participant. It is an actor in that situation, a strategic enemy in its own right, from the view of the anarcho-syndicalists at least.

The ruling class in South Africa has got two wings: it’s got white monopoly capital based in the private sector, and it’s got the black state elite, that is the state managers who are based in the state: they are wielding the state. The state controls 45 percent of fixed capital assets in South Africa. It is a major economic player: the state is the biggest employer in South Africa, it’s the biggest land owner, and it has an army as well.

Who controls that? It’s not white monopoly capital, in some sort of surreptitious way. It’s the black political elite. White monopoly capital is working in alliance with this state elite because they have the same interests. But it’s not just giving the orders.

What I am saying is: it’s not like we have the situation where we have some sell-outs in the government who (if we change) will fight white monopoly capital. What we have is a situation where the black political elite allied to the white economic elite and around a common programme of neo-liberalism, and they are therefore united against the whole working class, including the black working class majority. And the ANC is embedded in this elite pact.

It’s not a situation of a few bad apples; it’s a situation of a tree that bears bad fruit. And you can give that tree fertilizer, like by  voting, it just gets bigger.

Floor: Laughter and applause

Lucien: It gets bigger. And when the apples (the politicians) from that tree (the state) are picked, they can’t understand why people go out and complain about how they taste. They think there must be something wrong with the consumers. And I mean here the working class public. They can’t see what’s rotten.

If I give you a rotten apple and the apple complains, who is to blame? If I give you a rotten apple do we expect the apple to say “Hey ,why does this guy not like me, what’s wrong with him? Is he a counterrevolutionary?” No, no, no.

There is something wrong in that situation!

Floor: Laughter and applause

Solly: Comrade Lucien should actually indicate to you what happened to the Spanish workers. What happened to the workers? They were plunged into a civil war that actually killed more comrades, including international solidarity comrades who went to Spain on the side of the workers. Killed by the bourgeoisie. Because of what? recklessness in terms of tactics.

I feel that Com. Lucien is basically going almost to the level that says there is no need for political parties. Why then for instance, when workers took power in Spain, was this power stolen under the table by the bourgeoisie? This is a classic example. Because workers were not organized. And the bourgeois  intelligentsia just came and stole a big number of workers’ gains, which they won through blood. The Paris Commune is another example: the workers did not have a party, a Communist vanguard, and they were defeated and massacred.

And we can have similar situations, just because we want to ignore the realities. So these are fundamentals. [We must analyze the state, scientifically.]

Lucien: I agree with Comrade Solly on the need to analyze the state, and if I have created the impression that anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism and Bakuninism ignores the state, then I have created exactly the wrong impression.

Taking the state seriously: Outside and against it

[Anarcho-syndicalism] takes the state very seriously. It doesn’t see the state as a “thing” out there, where you can just elect a few people and they will just change the system.

Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism says that it is not the politicians who change the state. Rather, it is the state that changes the politicians. It is not the politicians who change the state; it is the state that changes the politicians.

Who would have thought in 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be the president when the ANC and the country’s state adopted the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) in 1996? Who could have even imagined that?

We have to explain that scientifically. Marxist comrades keep talking about “material conditions.” But the NDR strategy ends up with idealist approaches.

Well look, you put someone in charge of the state, a capitalist state, they have to keep capitalism going. Those are “material conditions.” And they are not doing it for free either. Cyril Ramaphosa was a heroic leader of workers in the 1987 miners’ strike, and now where is he? He is a billionaire who owns mining shares, including at Lonmin, where the Marikana massacre took place a year ago. And evidence shows he called on police to “deal” with those Marikana workers. A changed man!

You don’t change the system by changing a few people; you change the situation by putting in another system.

States cannot be wielded by the working class.

You don’t just keep changing the ingredients in a soup and think it’s not soup. You’ve got to cook to a totally different recipe. As I was saying this morning, comrades, if a car doesn’t fly, a car does not fly. You can paint it purple and it still wouldn’t fly. You can call it the new model, it won’t fly. The state, and this is the thing to think about from the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, is something which cannot be wielded by the working class. It cannot be wielded by the working class.

Either you elect a reformist party, and that party ends up, over time, being co-opted in to the ruling class, like the ANC, or a revolutionary party, like the Russian Bolsheviks, seizes state power.

But such a revolutionary party doesn’t just seize power from capital; it also seizes power from the working class. And you can find, even as Comrade David on the panel was saying this morning, that your socialist party can, in fact, be the biggest enemy of the working class that you can get.

When you look at the situation of the Soviet Union, the heartland of Marxism-Leninism, comrades call that “socialism,” people call that “socialism.”

Well, comrades, that was a country with mass murder perpetrated by a Communist Party. That was a country with forced labor camps, with a pass law system and with no free trade unions. Why do you think the working class overthrew that system from 1989-1991? Why do you think a Communist Party can’t get elected these days anywhere in Eastern Europe? Because people have had a Communist Party in power. They’re fine, they’re covered, they’re done with such parties.

Comrade Solly makes the point that the Paris Commune was defeated and comrades: sadly that is true, it was defeated. But was that because it lacked a party? He makes the point that Spain 1936 was defeated. Was that because it lacked a party?

In Spain in 1936-1939, what Comrade Solly isn’t mentioning, it was the Communist Party, the Spanish Communist Party, working with the bourgeoisie, that destroyed those anarcho-syndicalist collectives I was speaking about. It wasn’t something out there called “the bourgeoisie,” it was the Communist Party backed by Stalin and backed by the KGB secret police, that were working in concert with the bourgeoisie, that destroyed the Spanish revolution. Long before the right-wing military took over.

It’s well documented. This isn’t a matter of opinion. They, the Party, said it’s “ultra-left” so unfortunately the “ultra-left” workers who were running society had to be put down. Put down like dogs.

The Soviet Union against the workers

Now where, where is this “vanguard” there? Where is the proof that you can only take power through a Marxist vanguard party?

No, the proof is something else entirely.

It’s not that if you’ve got a vanguard, the working class is guaranteed power. Very often the vanguard takes the power from the working class. Again, the parties are NOT the solution.

We can talk about the Soviet Union, and we can talk about the working class. as if the Soviet Union represented as state for and by the working class … But what stops the “vanguard” party taking power from the working class? What stops the party taking power from the working class?

In the Soviet Union: this is exactly what happened. A Marxist party took power. It banned all the other parties. It crushed independent trade unions. A party of less than 1 million people in a country of 160 million established itself as the sole dictator. Within that party itself, even factions were banned.

You want to know where this tradition of destructive argument – where everyone is labelled an “agent” or a “counter-revolutionary” or a “traitor” for saying what the leaders don’t like, that we see today in the ANC, COSATU and the SA Communist Party – comes from? It comes straight from those Soviet experiences. These traditions of political thuggery we see? It comes from those experiences. This was the first of the Marxist governments, and it treated anyone with a different view as an enemy of the “revolution.” And the “revolution” was defined not by the mass of the people, but by a small cabal of leaders who said “we are the revolution, and if you are against us, you are counterrevolution.” Those are the traditions that we are stuck with, and struggling with…

This is not to say that Communist Parties worldwide didn’t play heroic roles. Communist Parties often did play heroic roles. It’s not to say that people in Communist Parties were doing it with a hidden motive. It’s just to say that certain methods of changing society create new problems. If your method of changing society is to seize state power, you will end up with rule by an elite, maybe a new elite, but an elite.

And if your method of thinking is “we are the vanguard, everybody else is a counterrevolutionary,” you will end up with a dictatorship against everybody else if you ever get state power

And if your method of politics is like that even in your own organizations, so that factions are illegal or driven out, you will be an organization that doesn’t tolerate any debate. That doesn’t tolerate democracy. An organization that cannot be compatible with working-class democracy, because it does not tolerate any democracy. Again, the parties are NOT the solution.

So what I am really getting at with all of this is: we can’t just look at these things outside history and talk as if Marxism and Leninism came up with this perfect model, and a perfect set of solutions, as if there weren’t a third of the world run by Marxist-Leninist parties. Marxist-Leninist parties took power.

Yes, the big Communist Parties were superior in a basic way to the Trotskyite parties in that they achieved their goal, state power, unlike the Trotskyites, which never manage to take power. But in taking power those Marxist-Leninist parties took the power for themselves. It wasn’t the working class that took power. You can go to China now, it’s under Communist Party rule: go ask those workers if they have trade unions. Go ask them. They don’t.

So, now, I agree that you need to deal with the fact of political unevenness in the working class, and need to overcome the fractures in the class. But a vanguard Communist Party; it’s not the only way to solve these issues, or even the best way. Of course Communist Parties can play an important role; radical political organizations can play an important role, and they don’t even have to be political parties: in the CNT, anarchists organized a Bakuninist political organization, the Anarchist Federation of Iberia (FAI), to promote anarchism/syndicalism.

But so can unions. So can unions. I don’t see any reason why a union like NUMSA can’t go out and form alliances with other sections of the working class. Can’t be present in service delivery protests. I don’t see why not. I don’t see why NUMSA can’t run political education for non-NUMSA members. I don’t see why not. I don’t see why a renewed COSATU that takes a new approach can’t provide the foundation, can’t provide a pole of attraction, for a new oppositional anti-capitalist, democratic bottom-up socialist movement.

And what I am getting at is, with this we need to rethink how we pose these things. The parties are NOT the solution, but part of the problem the working class faces.

Confusions on the state

Meanwhile, our SA Communist Party comrades are getting confused. They talk as if the state is a neutral entity which is only sometimes against the working class. And then they also talk about Marxism and Leninism but that says something totally different, that the capitalist state, is anti-working class; that is what Lenin himself said. And then they try to put these two contradictory political things together: being in an alliance with a capitalist ANC which uses the capitalist state, and then also calling themselves Marxist-Leninists. They want have the cake and eat the cake at the same time. If you agree with Marxism-Leninism, this is a capitalist state and no amount of changing the people at the top will make any difference. But then you get told: “No, vote for the ANC, that’s the way.” This makes no sense.

But the problem is even bigger; it’s a problem in Marxist theory itself. Marxist materialism says the economic “base” determines the political “superstructure.” Marxist materialism says the “superstructure” includes the state. But then Marxism often says something illogical: use the state to change society. The revolutionary strategy boils down to setting up a so-called “workers’ state,” a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” to change the base, a state to abolish capitalism. This is no different in essence from trying to use a capitalist state to change society; in both cases, the idea is that the state is the motor of change

Now isn’t it illogical in Marx’s own terms to say we can capture the state and change the “base”? If the “base” determines the “superstructure” and it is a capitalist base, you cannot change that base using the state. That’s a really idealistic approach; the anarchist Bakunin was not an idealist like this. He saw this contradiction. So, you certainly can’t use a capitalist state to bring about socialism if you accept the theoretical basics of Marxism itself. But that’s what Marxist political strategy demands! And that’s what the whole NDR idea involves too.

A more sensible approach may be this: if you study anarcho-syndicalism, it’s argued that the state is allied to capital and it can’t break that alliance. It is an unbreakable marriage. They have a common interest. The state needs the capitalist to pay taxes; the capitalists need the state to shoot people, crudely speaking.

Okay, now, if this is the case how do you move forward? And this is where I am going to start pulling this input together.

A strategy for a bottom-up anarcho-syndicalist socialist transition

The working class needs a theory and it needs to translate that into a strategy for deep change.

You need a strategy and you need tactics. Comrade Oupa was saying that you need something appropriate to South Africa. Well, to have a strategy you have got to have a vision where you want to go. To have a vision of where you want to go, you have to know what is wrong in society. And you have to look at specific societies closely.

Fundamentally what anarcho-syndicalism argues is that what is wrong with society is that a small elite runs society. But it’s not just an economic elite, it is also a political elite. So as long as an elite runs society it will run society by the elite, for the elite and the state leadership will be of the elite.

And this is part of a whole society, based on exploitation and domination, on top-down power relations, in inequality, inequity, exploitation and suffering, a society where the National Question cannot be fully answered…

Comrade Solly said that Bakunin ignored inequality; that is just not true… The anarchists insisted that all relations of oppression, by gender, by race, by class, by nation, come to an end. That includes the oppression meted out by the capitalists and politicians against the working class. But it also means resolving the National Question in a progressive, working-class way, and it also means fighting for complete gender equality, including in our own movements, and aiming at getting rid all elites, black or white…

For the anarchists, the only way out of this endless circle of “vote for that party, vote for this party, vote for that party and never get anywhere” is if you actually remove that system.

Where you can create a democracy that is bottom-up, based on workers’ collectives, the socialization of production, that is based on an educated population that understands its rights and understands how to run things, that is based on human need before profit, that gets rid of the commodity form entirely, that gets rid of the market but also does not replace it with a central plan and a central dictatorship, but with bottom-up plans… Well, there is nothing idealistic here, we are talking about a working class democracy, about a free socialist society, the aim and vision of anarcho-syndicalists.

Now, if you want that world you have to build a type of movement that does two things. An  anarchist/syndicalist movement, first that builds counter power in the working class, that builds institutions in the working class that can govern society. Not institutions that hand power over to politicians, but working class institutions that will themselves take power – first and foremost revolutionary trade unions. But also organizations in other sectors, including working-class communities.

Organizations that are the embryo of the new society, organizations that build tomorrow today, within the shell of the old society. Organizations that resist ruling class power now, with working class counterpower, that build to eventually themselves directly replace ruling class power with working class power.

So: counter power. A CNT- or NUMSA-type union is key here.

Secondly, you need a revolutionary counter-culture which is a radical mass consciousness. It’s a mass consciousness that understands what is wrong in society and how to fix it. A consciousness that tells people we are in a class-divided society. You can vote for Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance, you can vote for Jacob Zuma of the ANC. But those are just different wings of the same upper class. That the solution isn’t that empty choice, it is to build something else, new.

A position that says society needs to be based on grassroots democracy, on a democratically planned participatory economy, based on distribution according to need, based on common property, and without a state elite and without a business elite.

And to get that society, to reiterate, for anarchists, for anarcho-syndicalists, for Bakuninists, you need to build counter power: the organizational forms that prefigure the new society. Those are the seeds of the new society.

And the ideological forms that need to become hegemonic within the working class: those are the ideological forms of the new world in the making, that is revolutionary counter-culture.

The aim is not the rule of a political party that is supposedly revolutionary, but a revolutionary working class, with revolutionary ideas promoted by FAI-type and CNT-type structures, that the working class can directly implement, through its organizations.

Now the tactics to build such a project are a separate matter. I have laid out a strategy, I have laid out an aim and I have laid out an analysis. The tactics, what you would need to do in a given situation – that is not a simple thing of just sucking it out of your thumb. You would need to think very concretely how you would build such a project. You would need to think about how you lay the basis for a CNT and FAI in South Africa.

I’m not saying anyone has to build it, I am saying you should think about if you want to build it. Need revolutionary theory? That’s fine, what is your revolutionary theory then? If you agree with a certain theory, you need different tactics at different times. That needs a whole other discussion and a whole other afternoon. But I have given the elements of an anarcho-syndicalist approach, and the case against our current trajectory as unions….

Now I think with that I can leave most of the remaining things raised aside. I would like to thank NUMSA for giving me this opportunity here. And I would like to thank all of you for participating in a larger discussion over these days that allows us to recover the memory of our own class, the different political traditions of our own class that are very diverse and rich and provide an armory of intellectual and ideological tools for struggle. Because when I talk about anarcho-syndicalism, I am not talking about something new, something alien. I am talking about recovering and activating the collective memory of our own class, the political traditions of our own class, arming ourselves from the armory of intellectual and ideological tools of and for the working class.

Okay. Thank you!

Floor: sustained applause

Shutting down the government (ASR 61)

The recent U.S. government shut-down and the budget deal to avert a new one make it clear whose interests it serves.

Long-term unemployment benefits were allowed to expire in the budget deal, leaving millions of workers without any form of sustenance. (Now the Democrats are making a show of trying to reinstate the benefits, but had they really cared about the jobless they would have used the leverage the budget impasse offered.) Corporate tax loopholes were left untouched, and food stamps avoided another round of cuts only because the polytricksters can not agree on how deep those cuts should be. (At present, the program is generous enough that most recipients make it into the third week of the month before running out of food and turning to the soup kitchens to survive, so the need for cuts is obvious to all.)

During the shutdown, health and safety inspections of workplaces stopped, as did oversight of polluters. Museums, art galleries and public parks were closed. No one answered the phones at agencies charged with “enforcing” workers’ rights. But the border guards were out in full force, making sure none of our fellow workers crossed the borders money flows across so freely. The military continued its operations. No one was released from prison, not even those the administration concedes are victims of unfair treatment in the war on drugs. Whistleblowers like Private Manning were not set free; the persecution of those accused of lifting the curtain on the government’s secrets did not stop.

We can see what is important to the bosses in the list of essential “services” continued during the government shutdown, and in the list of those shuttered.

Even more telling was the pundits’ bleating. The government shutdown was not so bad, they said. We can get by just fine without parks and art, without labor rights and the like. What really matters – and on this the pundits were unanimous – is that Republicans back down on their threat to not lift the debt ceiling.

If they didn’t, horror of horrors, the government might go into technical default. The bankers would not receive their money on time! Financial markets would rebel! Catastrophe would ensue!

One can almost see the platoons of bankers, decked out in three piece suits, fountain pens in hand, parachuting in from their global tax havens to occupy Washington DC and set things right. Money must prevail! Debts must be paid!

They really don’t go to all that much trouble to conceal who’s in charge, and whose interests really matter.

Work ’Til You Drop

Editorial, ASR 61

Workers across the United States, and around the world, face relentless attacks on our retirement rights and other social benefits as the bosses seek to balance their books on our backs.

In order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy and other economic “reforms,” governments around the world propose to raise retirement ages to punish workers for the temerity to live longer (many pension schemes initially offered only illusory benefits, engineered to ensure that few workers would live long enough to draw social security payments), and “adjust” inflation payments to protect against too much comfort in our old age.

Deep cuts are necessary, we are told, in order to ensure that pension schemes “remain” “viable” for future generations – the very people being displaced from the job market as older workers are forced into endless toil.

Already, the U.S. retirement age has been pushed to 67, and politicians are looking at 70. Statisticians are floating proposals to “adjust” the Social Security inflation rate in order to save more money, even though the research clearly establishes that retired workers are hit much harder by inflation (which runs especially high for medicine and other necessities) than the current calculations recognize.

Although many younger workers fear that Social Security will simply disappear (as has already happened to most pension plans in the private sector), this seems unlikely. Instead, the politicians will keep whittling away at the program, condemning the retired to ever-deepening poverty.

For most, Social Security is all there is. Workers’ savings were exhausted long ago, as they went deep into debt to keep their heads above water during several decades of declining real wages. Relatively few U.S. private sector workers remain eligible for pensions, between short-term jobs that keep pension contributions from vesting and the mass conversion to underfunded (mostly from paychecks that were already squeezed to the limit) 401-K plans that are about as secure as any gambling scheme.

Even unionized workers’ pensions are endangered. In Seattle, Boeing workers were recently bullied into narrowly approving a mid-contract deal undermining their pension plan in exchange for one-time payments and management backing off threats to relocate production to non-union plants. Under the deal, new workers will see their pensions replaced with 401-K plans with no guaranteed benefit levels. (However, by rejecting the deal the first time around despite the pleas of IAM officials and politicians, workers did win significant improvements, including stopping a two-tier pay scheme.)

Many workers are understandably angry. So the polytricksters are taking advantage of workers’ resentment to advocate spreading the pain. Don’t go looking for your gutted pensions, they cry: Look over there, at the worker who’s getting something you don’t have!

And so the pensions of government-sector workers (who traditionally traded lower pay for better job security and benefits – both vanishing, though the low wages remain) are under the axe. Politicians are especially keen to gut public sector pensions because for years they’ve been skimping on their payments, relying on high stock valuations and dreams of future income instead of funding the plans with actual money. So they’ll have to cut back on corporate welfare and prisons and such if they actually have to make good on the pensions workers were promised.

Any worker who tried to run his or her finances this way would see wages garnished, or in some jurisdictions be tossed into jail until they paid up. But the polytricksters play by a different set of rules.

In Illinois, teachers are suing to overturn pension “reforms” that seek to save $160 billion by cutting cost-of-living increases, raising the retirement age, capping benefits, reducing collective bargaining rights, and opening the door to 401K-style plans that could weaken current plan funds and increase workers’ financial risk. Several states are considering similar “reforms.”

Meanwhile, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled in December that Michigan’s constitutional requirement that pension obligations for public employees must be honored was unenforceable if it meant that bankers and bond-holders would take a bigger hit in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. (The judge is also considering requiring the city to sell art from its museum, city parks, and other assets in order to get as much cash as possible to the financiers.) No state’s constitution offers stronger pension protection, and since few states have been properly paying into their plans benefits for millions of workers could be in jeopardy. Like other bankruptcy courts around the U.S., the judge considers the city’s pension obligations mere “unsecured debt,” and so last in line to be honored.

There was a time when workers relied on our own unions and mutual aid associations to meet these needs. There were certainly problems, but what could be more foolish than trusting the bosses and the polytricksters with our futures?

Rebuilding a Revolutionary Labor Movement

from ASR #68

A little over forty years ago, Sam Dolgoff wrote a discussion paper for the 1974 Chicago Conference of the Industrial Workers of the World, entitled “Notes for a Discussion on the Regeneration of the IWW.” The IWW at the time was undergoing a real regeneration. After shrinking to a small organization of a couple hundred members in their 60s and 70s, the IWW had been rediscovered by a new generation of revolutionary activists looking for a libertarian left alternative to the various Marxist-Leninist groups. The IWW was drawing in new members but had ceased to be a force in the labor movement and these new members were looking for ways to make it relevant. Older members, however, were divided on what to tell the younger members.

The IWW had undergone changes in its 70-year history, as had the labor movement in general. The IWW had tried to use the same labor laws as its AFL-CIO rivals to win union recognition in its organizing efforts, and to attract members promising the same benefits as the “business unions.” This had led to a successful presence in several metal-working shops in Cleveland, Ohio.  However these union shops were lost about twenty years later due to a split in the union over the Taft-Hartley law, when the IWW was threatened with losing its legal protections unless it complied with the anti-union law. Rather than lose legal union recognition, the Cleveland IWW chose to merge with an independent metal workers’ union but eventually ended up in the AFL-CIO. The IWW had stood its ground, but in the minds of some members it had not been worth the cost and they thought the time had come to try the Cleveland approach again. Sam thought differently.

Sam pointed out that the IWW could not compete with the AFL-CIO on its terms: professional organizers backed up by lawyers offering union pension plans, medical plans, and a host of services. Business unions were for conservative-minded workers.

The Cleveland IWW had originally appealed to a different type of worker in the 1930s than the conservative workers of the 1950s who split from the IWW rather than fight for their union rights against Taft-Hartley. Those who joined the IWW in the 1930s were part of a rebellious upsurge of workers that had carried out sit-down strikes in the auto industry and other industries. The IWW preceded the UAW in the auto industry, the UPW in the meatpacking industry and a number of other industries, but the lure of the CIO with its greater resources and promise of government support was too great. The Cleveland IWW had failed to educate their newer members about the union’s principles and had lost the direct action skills needed to resist Taft-Hartley.

By the 1960s and 1970s a new generation of workers had come forth who were rebelling against the union bureaucracy and began a massive wildcat strike movement that defied AFL-CIO leaders. Sam argued that the IWW’s best hope for rebuilding was to appeal these new militant workers and get them to create new organizations based on direct action. Frank Cedervall, one of the leaders of the Cleveland IWW, who had retired from his paid union position with the AFL-CIO and had now “returned to the fold,” denounced Dolgoff at the conference. Unfortunately Sam was not there to defend himself or his position paper. The outcome of the conference was in Cedervall’s favor and the IWW decided to form the “Industrial Organizing Committee” (IOC) of self-appointed organizers who would collect funds and develop resources to once again organize along the Cleveland model.

Most of the IOC’s organizing efforts in the 1970s and 1980s ended in failure for exactly the reason Dolgoff had predicted: the use of conservative organizing tactics to appeal to conservative workers. The IWW did not have the resources to compete with the business unions at their own game, nor to fight the legal battles this entailed with union-busting law firms brought in by the employers. Nor did it help when the IOC organizers played down the union’s revolutionary program. Eventually the IOC fell apart after it made an attempt to transfer the Nelson bequest (a piece of real estate owned by a former member of the IWW that was left to the union after he died) from the union treasury to the IOC, which would have given it the bulk of the union’s assets and made it unaccountable to the members. The IOC was dissolved.

Whether Sam’s proposal for the IWW to return to the guerilla labor tactics of the early IWW would have made a difference in 1974 is unknown. Guerilla struggles of any kind (and by this we are not suggesting violence but wildcat strikes, sit-downs, mass picketing and quickie job actions) are hazardous and require a special breed willing to take risks that more conventional union approaches do not. However, when considering what happened to the conventional labor movement since, rebuilding the revolutionary IWW may have been more realistic than sticking to the failing strategy of the various left-wing groups “boring within” and trying to save the AFL-CIO from its own class collaborationist policies. Building a revolutionary movement when worker rebellion is at its peak makes more sense than waiting for events to force the business unions to the left.

The left-wing of the labor movement lost a great opportunity.  The question remains whether Sam Dolgoff’s “Notes for a Discussion…” is relevant today.

Labor militancy is down considerably since the 1970s wildcat strike wave. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were only 12 major strikes involving over 1,000 workers in 2015. In 1969 there were 412 major strikes, in 1970 381, 298 in 1971, 250 in 1972, 317 in 1978, and 424 in 1974 when Dolgoff wrote his “Notes.” Things began to change around 1982, when the number of major strikes began to drop below 100. This was during the Reagan recession when Reagan’s austerity economic policies began to have effect. The other reason for the drop in strike activity was global outsourcing, as capitalists began shifting manufacturing to low wage countries. Global sweat shopping continued in the 1990s under the Clinton administration with the passage of NAFTA. By 1999 the number of major strikes had dropped to only 17. Workers can’t strike if there is high unemployment and what jobs exist are temporary, part-time and precarious.

On the other hand these were exactly the industrial conditions in which the IWW was successful at organizing. It was not the skilled jobs which the AFL craft unions organized, but jobs like the lumberjacks, miners, harvest workers or dock workers, where jobs were temporary, or seasonal, and difficult to organize. These jobs lent themselves to quick job actions and guerilla tactics, not the long, drawn-out organizing campaigns of the business unions.

We see these same conditions in the service sector or “servant economy.” SEIU and UFCW and other service sector business unions are trying to make inroads here, but they still think conventional warfare will work. They have launched the “Fight for $15” movement, but instead of shutting the service economy sweatshops down with mass picketing they rely on passing laws that won’t take effect for years, by which time the bosses will have raised prices in anticipation and workers may need $25 an hour to have a living wage.

It boggles the mind that having seen how quickly the Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter protests caught fire that business unions insist on such timid tactics and keep hanging on the coattails of Democrat Party politicians. Workers are hungry for alternatives. It is time we anarcho-syndicalists give them what they need.

(Copies of the 1974 position paper are available from ASR for $1.50)