Phil Dickens reviews the book Fighting for ourselves – anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle by Solidarity Federation. This is an opinion piece and not necessarily reflective of any PCS Bootle Taxes Branch position.
Solidarity Federation released their book in late October. Soon after, I got hold of a copy and read in cover to cover in about a day. It’s very recently been published free online, and is downloadable in .ePub and .mobi (Kindle) formats. Already, it’s been widely read within certain circles of the workers’ movement, but I’m writing this review because I think that it deserves a much wider audience.
The book is the product of about a year’s writing, but much longer in terms of the internal discussions and debates which fleshed out the positions and arguments within the book.
Solidarity Federation (SF or SolFed) are the British section of the International Workers Association (IWA) – a grouping of functioning unions and union initiatives whose tendency within the workers movement dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century.
To give a very brief background, anarcho-syndicalism represents a synthesis of (as should be evident from the name) anarchism and syndicalism. From anarchism we get the core principles of opposition to the state and capitalism and agitation towards a libertarian communist society. From syndicalism, the method of unions organising horizontally (as opposed to hierarchically) and using direct action to achieve its aims rather than through negotiation and representation.
However, a considerable majority of ordinary workers will never have heard of anarcho-syndicalism, unless they’re really avid Monty Python fans. That is one of the issues this book sets out to rectify. Annoying peasants aside anarcho-syndicalism was once one of the primary driving currents in the global workers’ movement, most famously in the social revolution that took place during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.
However, many of the largest sections of the IWA were smashed by fascism, world war and Stalinism, or pushed aside by the social partnership of the trade union movement. Fighting for ourselves recovers the history that was lost with this and offers an analysis of anarcho-syndicalism in practice and how the lessons and mistakes of the past can be drawn upon to organise effectively today.
If Fighting for ourselves was just an exercise in navel gazing, however, I wouldn’t be reviewing it here. It might still be of interest to myself, as a supporter of SolFed and advocate of anarcho-syndicalism, but it would have little relevance to those who were neither of these things.
Instead the book starts off not with the history described above but by addressing the tendencies in the labour movement that PCS members will be more familiar with. Namely, trade unionism, the Labour Party and Marxist workers parties such as the Socialist Party (which carries a lot of influence in our union and whose members occasionally hand out their leaflets outside the Triad).
In explaining how they understand trade unions, SolFed draw a distinction between the “associative” and “representative” functions of unions. It explains how the latter function inevitably tends towards bureaucracy and a disconnect between the leadership and the members, something many members will be familiar with for different reasons. Even if you don’t agree with the analysis presented, it is certainly thought-provoking enough to warrant giving time to and addressing rather than ignoring altogether.
A similar analysis explains how the problems with revolutionary workers’ parties and the Labour Party both start by separating “economic” struggles from “political” ones and the inevitable disconnect between workers and their representatives. Again, even if you disagree, it is a thorough analysis and one that demands to be engaged with.
But there is more to this book than simply doing down trade unionism and Labourism in order to big up anarcho-syndicalism. As well as offering political analysis and Labour movement history in an easily accessible form which one doesn’t have to do any homework to be able to understand, it looks at exactly where we are in the present and how we can apply the history and lessons offered to that situation.
The key argument of Fighting for ourselves is precisely the one that the title suggests – that we, as workers, need to take the struggle against cuts, austerity and the day-to-day injustices of capitalism into our own hands if we want to be able to win.
Rather than offering up this conclusion based on abstract theory or idealised situations, it does so on the basis of a history that workers are too often unaware of. Criticism of the mainstream of our movement is followed by a coherent and accessible explanation of the alternative they are putting forward. Nor is anarcho-syndicalism presented as that alternative without question. As already mentioned, the history and tradition is analysed critically and the mistakes of the past are brought to the fore as something that must be explained and learned from.
Even if you are not an anarcho-syndicalist, or even sympathetic to the ideas (a category which I imagine covers an awful lot of the people reading this review), you ought to read this book. Not because I’m an anarcho-syndicalist and think more people ought to be exposed to the ideas – though I won’t deny that this is true! Rather, because it is a contribution to a debate that we all ought to be having right now.
Why are we in the situation we are in right now, where the government feels so safe to attack all that we have won over a century of fighting? What kind of movement do we need to fight these attacks? How do we build that movement?
Even if you don’t agree with their answers, SolFed are offering answers. And if you don’t think that they are the answers then your task is obvious – to examine the same history, the same present conditions, and offer up answers of your own…