Building an effective anarchist movement


What do anarchists want? To put it briefly, we want to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a society organised to serve the needs of the many, we want to make real the old call of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. This will be a socialism where everyone affected by a decision can take part in making that decision, and where the liberties of the individual are respected.

So how do we get there?

The WSM sees its role as explaining and building support for anarchism. We recognise that the society we want can only be built by a politically conscious movement of the working class, using its industrial power.

As we see it, a successful revolutionary transformation is dependent on two things:

Firstly, we need widespread revolutionary consciousness. By this we mean a rejection of both the exploitation and authoritarianism of capitalism, and a desire to reorganise society in a new and better way around our own needs and interests.

Crucial is the recognition that only the working class itself can make and secure the revolutionary transformation we want and that following from that only the democratic councils created in our workplaces and communities will represent any authority in the new society. These will be federated nationally and internationally to combine efficiency with direct democracy. No other centres of power will be tolerated.

And secondly, we need industrial organisation and solidarity to be sufficiently developed so that physical control over the means of production and distribution can be achieved and all remnants of minority rule abolished.

Our ideas about how to organise and what to do flow from this understanding.

Within the international anarchist movement there are two major currents: syndicalism and what has become known as ‘platformism’.

Syndicalism is a French word meaning "trade unionism", but is usually used to describe the idea of bringing together all workers into militant unions which have the explicit objective of ending capitalism and creating a socialist society. The early General Confederation of Workers in France, the CGT, was the first large union of this type. Today the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, is a living example.

Some syndicalists said that industrial unions were in themselves sufficient to bring about socialism. Others, like the American Daniel De Leon and our own James Connolly, proposed having linked political parties that would be under the control of the union.

Anarchists developed an anti-authoritarian version, anarcho-syndicalism, of which the best historic example is the Spanish National Confederation of Workers, the CNT. Today anarcho-syndicalists have a few minor unions in Spain, France, Sweden and Italy, and smaller groups that want to create unions in many countries.

Their tactics differ, with some taking the view that a few hundred people can form a union and by power of example will eventually attract the support of the majority. Others create networks, both within and outside mainstream unions with the aim of growing large enough to break away and form new unions.

We are certainly not hostile to anarcho-syndicalists; they share the same goal as other anarchists. In countries with such unions anarchists who share the same basic politics as the WSM are involved in them as well as in the mainstream unions.

But we do make this point: because the syndicalist organisation is the union, it organises all workers regardless of their politics. A real union does not set a political test for potential members, it wants to organise as many workers as possible on the basis that workers have more in common with each other than they do with the boss.

Historically many workers have joined such unions, not because they were anarchists, but because the syndicalist union was the most militant and got the best results. Just because a union has revolutionary policies and a radical culture is no guarantee that everyone joining agrees with that, or even understands it. The more successful such a union is in day-to-day struggles the more it will grow. Our fellow workers who may normally vote for the DUP or Sinn Fein won’t adopt a completely new outlook on life just because they join an openly revolutionary union. Because of this reformist, conservative and overly cautious tendencies have always appeared.

Syndicalists are quite correct to emphasise the centrality of organising workers in the workplace. Critics who reject syndicalism on the grounds that it cannot organise those outside the workplace are wrong. Taking the example of Spain it is clear that they could and did organise throughout the entire working class as was evidenced by the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, the 'Mujeras Libres' (Free Women), and the neighbourhood organisations.

Spain in 1936/7 represented the highest point in anarcho-syndicalist organisation and achievement. Unfortunately because they didn’t understand the centrality of what we might call ‘the battle of ideas’ they were unable to develop a programme for workers' power, to wage a political battle against other currents in the workers' movement (such as reformism and Stalinism). Indeed syndicalists seemed, and still do today, to ignore other ideas more often than combating them.

In Spain they got sucked into support for the anti-fascist but capitalist Popular Front government, which in turn led to their silence and complicity when the Republican state moved against the collectives and workers’ militias. A minority in the CNT, organised around the Friends of Durruti grouping, was expelled when they issued a proclamation calling for the workers to take total power (i.e. that they should refuse to share power with the bosses or the authoritarian parties).

The problem for syndicalists is that a union which organizes on the basis of your place in the workforce is not the same as a political organization which organizes on the basis of a fairly comprehensive political agreement, so where will the systematic explanation of anarchism and why other political ideas will not lead to the society we want come from?

So, what’s the alternative that the WSM proposes? In a word it can be called ‘platformism’ – possibly the most rubbish name ever for a political tendency.

It comes from a short document called the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists which was written in 1926 by a group of exiled Russian and Ukrainian anarchists, and which we think still has much to offer to today's debates around the question of organisation. And we are not alone in this, you can check out the website which brings together like-minded groups on all five continents.

The authors had participated in the Russian revolution and saw all their work, their hopes and dreams fail as an authoritarian Bolshevik state triumphed and destroyed real workers' power. They wrote the pamphlet in order to examine why the anarchist movement had failed to build on the success of the factory committees, where workers organising in their own workforces began to build a society based on both freedom and equality.

In the first paragraph they state
"It is very significant that, in spite of the strength and incontestably positive character of libertarian ideas, and in spite of the facing up to the social revolution, and finally the heroism and innumerable sacrifices borne by the anarchists in the struggle for anarchist communism, the anarchist movement remains weak despite everything, and has appeared, very often, in the history of working class struggles as a small event, an episode, and not an important factor."

This was strong stuff, a wake up call for the anarchist movement. It is a call that we still need to hear. Despite the virtual collapse of almost all other left wing tendencies, anarchism is still not in a position of strength. Even though many of the Leninist organisations have either evaporated into thin air, shrunk drastically in size or moved to social democracy, it is a sad fact, that were there a revolution tomorrow, they still would be in a better position to have their arguments heard and listened to than we would. This fact alone should give us pause for thought. We cannot be complacent, and rely on the hope that the obvious strength and rightness of our ideas will shine through and win the day.

The world we live in is the product of struggles between competing ideas of how society should be organized. If the anarchist voice is weak and quiet, it won't be heard, and other arguments, other perspectives will win the day.
It is not my intention to go through The Platform with a fine-tooth comb. It was never intended to provide all the answers. It has gaps, as do all new, practical steps of any importance. It is possible that certain important positions were missed, or that others were inadequately treated.

Instead I will look at some of the document's underlying principles, in particular the problems which they identify in anarchist organisations, which they describe as follows.

In all countries, the anarchist movement is advocated by several local organisations advocating contradictory theories and practices, leaving no perspectives for the future, nor of a continuity in militant work, and habitually disappearing hardly leaving the slightest trace behind them.

Their solution is the creation of a certain type of anarchist organisation. Firstly the members are in theoretical agreement with each other. Secondly they agree that if a certain type of work is prioritised, all should take part. Even today within the anarchist movement these are contentious ideas so it is worth exploring them in a little more detail.

The Platform's basic assumption is that there is a link between coherency and efficiency. Those who oppose the Platform argue that this link does not exist. To them efficiency has nothing to do with how coherent an organisation is; rather it is a function of size. This position argues that the Platform, in its search for theoretical agreement, excludes those not in absolute agreement, and thus will always be smaller than a looser organisation. As size is of more importance than theory, practically these organisations will not be as effective.

This debate takes us to the centre of one of the most important debates within anarchism. How does a revolutionary change of society occur? What can anarchists do to assist in the process of bringing such change about?

Capitalism is an organized economic system. Its authority is promoted by many voices, including the parliamentary political parties, the media and education system (to name but a few). A successful revolution depends on the rejection of those voices by the majority of people in society. Not only do we have to reject capitalism, but we also need to have a vision of an alternative society. What is needed is an understanding both that capitalism should be defeated and that it can be replaced. For an anarchist revolution there has to be the recognition that we alone have the power and the ability to create that new world.

The role of an anarchist organisation is to spread these ideas. Not only do we need to highlight the negative and injurious aspects of capitalism (which is obvious to many anyway), we also need to develop explanations of how the system operates. This is what is meant by theory, simply it is the answer to the question 'why are things as they are?'. And we need to do one more thing; we need to be able to put our theory into practice, our understanding of how things work will inform how we struggle.

Returning to the Platform, the key problem with anarchist organisations as they existed is that they were not only incapable of developing such an approach, but didn't even see it as necessary. Because there was no agreement on theoretical issues, they could not provide answers to the working class. They could agree that women's oppression was wrong, but not explain why women were oppressed. They could agree that World War One was going to lead to death and destruction, but not why it had occurred. Such agreement is important because without it cooperation on activity, agreement on what to do, is unlikely.

It is not enough to have a group of individuals meeting together, if they are not united in ideas or in action. This undermines the entire meaning of organisation, which is to maximise the strength of the individuals through co-operation with others. Where there is little agreement, there can be little co-operation. This absence of co-operation only becomes obvious when the group is forced to take a position on a particular issue, a particular event in the wider world.

At this point, two things happen. Either, the individuals within the group act on their own particular interpretation of events in isolation, which raises the question, what is the point of being in such an organisation? Alternatively the group can decide to ignore the event, thus preventing disagreement.

This has a number of unfortunate side effects for anarchist politics. Most seriously, it means that the anarchist interpretation of events still will not be heard. For no matter how large the organisation, if all within it are speaking with different voices, the resulting confusion will result an unclear and weak anarchist message. Such an organisation can produce a weekly paper, but each issue will argue a different point of view, as the authors writing for it change. Our ideas will not be convincing, because we ourselves are not convinced by them.

The second side effect is that our ideas will not develop and grow in depth and complexity because they will never be challenged by those within our own organisation. It is only by attempting to reach agreement, by exchanging competing conceptions of society, that we will be forced to consider all alternatives. Unchallenged our ideas will stagnate.

Without agreement on what should be done, the anarchist organisation remains no more than a collection of individuals. The members of that organisation don't see themselves as having any collective identity. Too often the lifetimes of such groups are the lifetimes of those most active individuals. There is no sense of building a body of work that will stretch into the future. Considering that in these times the revolution is a long-term prospect, such short term planning is a tragic waste of energy and effort.

Often the experience of anarchists is that they are energetic and committed activists, but fail to publicize the link between the work they do and the ideas they believe in. One example of this was the successful anti-Poll Tax Campaign in England, Scotland and Wales. Although many anarchists were extremely involved in the struggle against this tax, when victory finally came, anarchists didn't come out of it, as might be expected, in a strengthened position. We could say the same about the more recent anti-war movement. We need to ask ourselves why this is so.

It would seem to be because anarchists concentrated their efforts making arguments against the injustice of the day, and sidelined arguments in favour of anarchism. Furthermore, though many worked as individuals they couldn't give any sense that they were part of any bigger movement. They were seen as good heads, and that was all. In contrast, despite the WSM's extremely small size when a similar campaign - the Anti-Water Charges Campaign - ended, we had heightened the profile of anarchism in Ireland. We emphasised that our opposition to an unjust tax was linked to our opposition to an unjust society and our belief that a better society is possible. Our numbers began to grow, as did our influence. The same happened with our work in the anti-war movement.

Now we are still a small group, our membership is not yet into three figures. But we have moved from a half dozen people to a small organisation with five branches and a bi-monthly paper that prints 10,000 copies. Our annual anarchist bookfair in Dublin is now the largest indoor event on the left.

Anarchism is still a very minor influence in Irish politics, but we do believe that our approach is working. Of course the real test is can we make anarchism the dominant political idea in the working class, and we have barely started that journey.

Going back to the question of efficiency and size, organisations in the 'Platform' tradition agree that size is important and they all seek to grow so that they are in a position of importance in society. However, they emphasise that all the positive attributes of belonging to a larger organisation, the increased work that can be undertaken, the increased human potential that can be drawn on, are undermined if such an organisation is directionless. The key point is that it is not a case of choosing between size or coherency, rather we should aim for both.

Text of talk delivered at a day of workshops and meetings organised by the Belfast branch of the WSM on the theme of the tasks facing anarchists in Ireland. The strengths and weaknesses of anarcho-syndicalism and the relevance of the platform in the 21st century