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What makes a revolutionary union revolutionary?


In practice there seem to be at least three analytical levels which quite often are not, or not sufficiently, distinguished. In the first place, we could distinguish the ideological level, at which one thinks about the movement in a general, political-philosophical way At issue here are questions such as: what is the world really like? What is unjust, bad, etc.? Who are our enemies and friends? What social changes are possible, and how can they be accomplished?

What makes a revolutionary union revolutionary?

Debate on "Revolutionary Unionism"

From Rebel Worker Vol.31 No.4 (215) Dec.2012-Jan.2013


What makes a revolutionary union revolutionary? or in other words, what is the content of the 'political' in a political-economic organisation?

Academic historian Marcel van der Linden says this, which I think can be used to think about an answer:

In practice there seem to be at least three analytical levels which quite often are not, or not sufficiently, distinguished. In the first place, we could distinguish the ideological level, at which one thinks about the movement in a general, political-philosophical way At issue here are questions such as: what is the world really like? What is unjust, bad, etc.? Who are our enemies and friends? What social changes are possible, and how can they be accomplished? Secondly, we could distinguish the organisational level: how is the trade union structured (for example subscriptions, strike funds) and how does it behave in daily practice, when labour conflicts occur, towards employers and the state? Thirdly, there is the shopfloor level: are the workers who are members militant and strike prone? What forms of action do they favour? A source of confusion is that these three levels sometimes point in the same direction, but often do not. Everyone can agree that an organisation which ideologically defends anarcho-syndicalism, organisationally possesses a federative structure without a strike fund, and on the shopfloor is extremely militant and strike prone, can be defined as revolutionary syndicalist. But things become more difficult when a movement does not correspond to the ideal type at all three levels. Then where should we draw the boundary?/

At the moment, joining SolFed (Solidarity Federation -- syndicalist grouping in the UK) operates almost entirely on the ideological level - i.e. most people come to SolFed of their own accord because they have similar ideas and like the sound of what we're saying. We don't have much of an 'organisational level' beyond the industrial strategy and an aversion to works councils and the like, but this is mostly hypothetical as we've been more of a propaganda organisation than one that organises struggles. The organiser training we've been rolling out over the past 12 months could be seen as trying to develop both the organisational and shop floor levels - both developing how we engage in struggles and giving SolFed members the skills and confidence to act in a militant way in their own workplaces. But it's still early days for those.

The CNT-E (Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist union confederation) is almost the exact reverse - all the emphasis is on the organisational level ('the three NOs' of works councils/union elections, liberados and state funds) and the shopfloor level (militancy and a will to fight). I would say that although they say "your political ideas are not important" there is an implicit ideology behind the organisational and shopfloor aspects, and they're open that this is anarchism. CNTistas need to act consistently with this ideology, even if they don't identify with it.

I think the less a union makes its ideological element explicit, the more it creates a void to be filled by either entryist political organisations or well-meaning but problematic 'ideological leadership' by groups like the FAI. Personally I think the ideological element should be explicit, but not exclusionary in terms of identity politics (i.e. whether you identify as anarcho-syndicalist is not the issue, but whether you share principles and goals). As a comrade put it in internal discussions:

We should not think of anarcho-syndicalism as a faith - we should think of anarcho-syndicalism as a practice (to be more precise: as the practice of militant workers organising in a manner based on the principles set out in our constitution, and it matters very little what label individual workers apply to their politics).

Of course a revolutionary union is not just a vehicle for everyday struggle but for social transformation, and if it is democratic/member-controlled then its members need to share that goal as well as the corresponding methods. This matters because often the bosses really are as skint as they claim, and unless you have some kind of revolutionary perspective they open the books and you're forced to accept the logic of cutbacks, and can at best seek a partnership role in softening their effects on workers (like most TUC (Trade Union Congress -- British ACTU) unions are doing at the moment).

This leaves two related issues: education and the relationship between a (proto) revolutionary union and militant workers breaking with social democracy but not necessarily revolutionary. Rudolph Rocker (German Anarcho-Syndicalist)has argued that class struggle serves as a "practical education in social philosophy". This is essentially correct, but this education isn't automatic or homogenous. Different workers may draw different conclusions from the same struggle. Early syndicalism (CGT General Federation of Labour -- French syndicalist grouping, IWW (Industrial Workers of the World -- US based syndicalist union) developed under conditions of harsh repression, which made it easy for agitators to educate the idea that "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common". Today's bosses are often smarter, and seek to use methods of class collaboration to blur class lines and divide and rule workers between militants who preach conflict and moderates who seek co-operation.

Revolutionaries are made not born, but it's an open question how much political development should take place inside a revolutionary union. Set the bar too low and the union, democratically run, will fill with non-revolutionary workers, and it would be no surprise if they signed no strike deals, or joined works councils, or pursued other methods rejected by revolutionary unionists - potentially compromising the union as a whole, or at least creating tensions and splits. But set the bar to high, and the development may never even take place, as workers feel rebuffed from joining an exclusive club and perceive the revolutionary union as elitist - instead driven into the arms of less discerning trade unionists, or less democratic Leninist-controlled formations eager for foot soldiers (who need not worry what their members think, since they don't have much say).

So this question of education is bound up with the necessity for a healthy periphery around individual members or branches of a revolutionary union, organising stuff together atn work or outside it, and on the basis of this joint work broaching some of the ideological rationale behind our methods; that direct action is the bridge between everyday struggles and social transformation, and if you also desire the latter then both you and the union benefit from you joining (the inverse also being true - if you don't share this goal, it's better to not join but work together wherever you can). So far, membership has been considered on an individual basis. This is all well and good, but what about groups of workers breaking away from mainstream unions, or approaching a (proto) revolutionary union?

Something like this happened with the London cleaners, who ended up working with the IWW after breaking from Unite British bureaucratic union affiliated with the TUC). This is no problem for the UK IWW since they want to be a militant rank-and-file union rather than a revolutionary one, and seem to have little criticism of mainstream trade unionist methods compared to many of their stateside counterparts. But if a revolutionary union initiative gets off the ground and starts having some successes, it will likely be approached by such break-away groups, or want to actively approach them. Saying people can join on an individual basis is likely to be taken as a rebuff, foreclosing any future working relationship and thus the chances of a development in a revolutionary direction. But let the branch join on mass, and you're not operating as a revolutionary union anymore but just a militant one (with all the problems that such branches may well do all sorts of things that revolutionary unionists would oppose).

Of course, it is workers right to do things revolutionary unionists oppose! But imho they shouldn't be doing them as members of a revolutionary union. So is there some middle ground between 'fuck off you're not revolutionary enough' and 'omgz workerz join us nao pls!'? It shouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility that there's some kind of formal relationship of mutual support short of membership, that allows a (proto) revolutionary union formation to work with break-away militant formations while both retain their autonomy. It would seem to me that such practical solidarity expressed regardless of membership would be the best conditions for workers to come to share revolutionary practices - e.g. favouring direct action over mediation in principle rather than out of the necessity many small militant unions face.

This is basically a restatement of the idea that an organisation-as-thing exists to do organisation-as-process, and membership is not a precondition of that. But building practical relationships of solidarity with non-members seems like the best way in a medium-long term for them to respect and come to share revolutionary practices, and thus in the long run to swell the ranks of a revolutionary union. Pulling all such people into the organisation-as-thing as a precondition of organisation-as-process from day one may well lead to faster growth, but it would be building something different, lacking the three elements of a revolutionary union, and therefore risking lacking them all as it bureaucratises and goes the way of all the other unions that don't explicitly reject capitalism in both theory and daily practice.

Joseph Kay,

Thanks to Libcom

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