Anarchist Materialism: Can we start having a revolutionary labor strategy?
Disclaimer: This piece is designed to challenge some prevailing attitudes of Class Struggle Anarchists in the US. The arguments should not be seen as a critique of individual behavior but rather of structural tendencies which hopefully will produce a constructive discussion.
It should be apparent to anyone viewing the labor movement in the US that it has arrived at a turning point. Despite economic stagnation and a reduction in comparative household wages, business unions are in a weaker position than they have been in almost 100 years. Meanwhile there seems to be a lack of discussion about how radical labor militants can seize this opportunity to become relevant… much less win. If we want a revolutionary change in economic and social structures, then it is necessary to build the power and capacity that can actually achieve it.
However, in order to build power, we must first determine where power lies. One such way is to map out economic and community structures and find out where anarchist militants can be the most useful. In labor organizing it is vital to understand the demographics and profit generation of specific industries, capital investment, percentage of GDP, modes of production (the manner and relationships of production), transportation choke points, and important utilities (such as power companies) just to name a few.
From there it is important to develop and prioritize a strategic orientation. What are the stages that the US needs to go through in order to actually overthrow the system? First the current period should be thought out. What are the current realities both in terms of where our strengths are and that of the rest of the left and working class, as well as our opponents? Is capital in advance or retreat? Are we in a moment of structural reorganization and if so, where in the country? Manufacturing may be shrinking in the Midwest but retooling in the Southwest and growing in the Southeast. There could be increasing mechanization in the ports, but also expansion to keep up with growing population demand. Food production may be shifting in scale, labor, and products as it becomes industrialized or shifts to accommodate trade agreements. But this must be researched to determine the exact material conditions that exist. Only then can we decide how to begin social insertion and develop mature national strategies.
Next, militants need to figure out realistic long term goals. Are we aiming for collectivization of industries? If so, then which ones would be the most necessary to focus on now and how will this actually be achieved? After the Spanish Revolution began in 1936 and the 1.6 million member Anarchist-Syndicalist Union (CNT) began the most widespread anarchist economic experiments in history, they only collectivized industries with:
- over 100 workers
- between 50-100 workers if 3/4ths voted for it
- Under 50 if a majority and the boss voted for it
- Workplaces of the most extreme strategic importance to the national economy
Of course we want all workers to be organized and have collectivized workplaces for everyone who wants it, but we cannot be utopian about revolutionary processes. There needs to be a new economy to replace the old one and there needs to be production, access to raw materials, and transportation as well as ideological and organizational structures placed over these modes. It is doubtful that a revolution could succeed without organization in these sectors and definitely could not sustain itself later. If we are going to focus on building our capacity, it follows that it should be in the most important industries. How is Starbucks or Jimmy Johns going to be a vital part of the new economy (or even a chokepoint in the current one)? This is not to say that people working there already shouldn’t be encouraged to organize, but as social/organized anarchists, we need to have a strategic orientation that will help us achieve our goals.
For example, if you want to organize at the chokepoints of capital flows—labor militants should get jobs in ports, rail container facilities, distribution centers, military and other strategic manufacturing, port truckers and light rail freight, general rail freight, natural resource extraction (oil, mining, etc), or maybe universities or healthcare centers. It all depends on what the organizational orientation is and what facts show is the most strategic geographically and on a wider scale. There should also be attempts at including locations that have queer workers, domestic workers, and others that aren’t predominantly (cis) male in the category of “strategic industries”.
From my experience in workplace organizing, I have come to the conclusion that under most circumstances, we should prioritize workplaces over 50 workers. According to the Sojourner Truth Organization, a Chicago based communist org that operated in “industrial concentration” (at the point of production) from 1969-85, workplaces with less than 50 workers often cannot afford the costs of having a union. They wrote that it is much cheaper to completely rehire the workforce or to move to a new location. Furthermore, if we are attempting to build a militant labor movement, then scale is important. How is a 5 person shift walkout or strike going to have an impact when much of the organizing needs to come from outside. Instead, think about a larger workforce who can take on the tasks themselves. They can have workers (or their family members) collecting for the strike fund at high trafficked areas, maintaining pickets or even blockades during all business hours (rather than select vigils or protests), set up strike camps, and collectively produce and distribute propaganda. If some or all of these activities are engaged by an outside union (such as the IWW), there is no growth of experience and worker capacity. Furthermore, there is no substantial effect on either capital or sectors of the working class.
To build an effective labor campaign in such workplaces, it will probably be necessary to always have two or more salts (a person who gets a job with the intention of unionizing) per workplace and at least one salt for every 50 workers. As anybody who has attempted to organize a workplace by themselves knows, it can be very isolating and discouraging. Even forming a small committee or finding one or two co-workers to start things can take time. Working as a team allows multiple shifts and workplace areas to be covered as well as providing useful feedback, cooperation, and a sense of forward movement. The sense of momentum and cooperation also gives confidence to both the salts and their co-workers who may be hesitant to risk their employment. From there it is important to map out the workplace (both the coworkers and the material conditions, assets, and limitations). Then plan an escalation strategy with metrics that is multiple steps ahead. If you aren’t moving forward, you will soon be moving backward.
For larger organization, it is important to set up jobs committees to help with resume building, job searching, interview questions, and recommendations. These committees should develop workers for insertion into strategic industries. Further activities include funding certifications (forklift, truck driving, TWIC cards, etc) and trade school classes in important jobs. One tactic for padding resumes is to find “dead factories” or work locations that are no longer operating to fill in work gaps and provide experience. Once some militants are able to get into targeted workplaces and industries, they will be able to help bring other people in and can mentor new people in unfamiliar jobs.
In order to accomplish such a strategic overhaul, the left in the US needs to move away from activist organizing towards long term work. Building power will require militants to choose sectors of importance and to stay involved in them in ways which build capacity in the rank and file. This is in very sharp contrast to the concept of activists which only organize people towards campaigns. Anarchist or Revolutionary labor strategies cannot focus only on wage increases and reforms as they will fail to achieve the structural change that we envision. That being said, wage and benefit increases can act as a gateway to radicalizing the rank and file. For this to be effective it is necessary to talk politics with co-workers. The problems on the job and the empowerment of collective action can further the argument for class consciousness, worker self- management, and other tenets of anarchism. In having these discussions, it is more important that workers act like anarchists than that they call themselves anarchists, but it is important to discuss the ideas behind anarchist thought, particularly if it relates to their actual lives. Doing so in a respectful and understanding manner is the best way to build trust and respect with co-workers, which is the key to cooperation. Such trust will also allow more gradual discussions on sexism, racism, and homophobia with co-workers. This long term agitation can be quite a commitment and thus should be focused in strategic ways.
Unfortunately, capacity building can be stymied by the existence of anarchist bureaucrats in the labor movement. As anarchists, we often envision a self-managed society from the bottom up that relies on the politicization, experience, and collective action of the workers and community members at the base. The problem with union staff is it does not encourage a rank and file strategy. At best it siphons away many experienced and devoted militants into working in the very business union bureaucracy we are combatting. At worst, it waters down politics in the IWW, and leads to business union modes of thinking and operating, while turning Wobblies (members of the IWW) and libertarian labor militants into shock troops for business union campaigns. Some have stated that this creates, “invaluable experience of union work” which cannot be obtained elsewhere. While there are plenty of cases of anarchists “learning the trade” through salt campaigns or as researchers for unions, this often comes at the expense of long term rank and file organizing and building the anarchist labor movement. Is there any evidence that this experience goes into developing rank and file work later? How many SEIU or Unite Here staffers go on to salt and build rank and file unions and caucuses after leaving? These are questions that must be asked and looked at honestly if we are to succeed.
In addition to paid union staffers, there are many anarchists who have taken union officer positions. These range from shop stewards to presidents of locals. This can have both pros and cons which need to be carefully fleshed out for their strategic orientation and the effect it has on the anarchist labor movement in the US. First the potential benefits:
Anarchists who have gained these positions due to rank and file surges within unions with more democratic structures can use these positions to increase democratic activity and combative action within their unions. They can also turn the unions into educational vehicles of struggle which can produce experienced anarchist militants. To do this, it would be necessary to use the positions to prepare and support the development of rank and file workplace organization. If not, elected anarchist officers (even those receiving substantial votes and support of the rank and file) risk turning into bureaucrats.
When positions are used poorly, Anarchist bureaucrats have called for strikes with short notice, with little rank and file feedback, and with little preparation. They have looked at board meetings as key decision making spaces rather than trying to develop shop floor democracy. Some get embroiled in negotiating committees, centralize knowledge, and waste time that can be spent helping the rank and file develop towards wider and more sustainable action. Democratizing the labor movement cannot just be called for and hoped to fall from the sky. It must be built and that means spending more time engaging the rank and file than participating in internal meetings. Radical slogans and symbolic arrests are no substitution for large scale militant participatory direct action.
So what is the alternative? We have to have rank and file workers to build capacity in the working class. While this seems obvious, it is currently very rare. We have far too many Anarchists who go to graduate school and then become stuck (owing to the pressures of academic work and debt) and isolated from the working class. Or they try to obtain jobs in NGOs and again become part of bureaucratic structures and demobilizing institutions. This is not to say that researchers and academics have no place in the labor movement. Statistics and mapping of actual material conditions are necessary to figure out strategy and tactics, but the most important work will be engaged by rank and file workers in their workplaces. While it can be possible to build relationships with workers in nearby industries, these will never be as strong as bonds forged through common work experiences and solidarity.
If one is fortunate enough to avoid such work, then it is a hard sell to devote years to working in these industries. There are very real economic pressures facing those in working class jobs. There is low pay, very few benefits, inflexible and changing schedules, and often mind numbing manual labor. However, the vast majority of working class people don’t have a choice. The concept of the American Dream rings hollow as real social mobilization is statistically unfounded. As a result, the only way to improve living conditions and to improve the lot of the working class is to build rank and file labor power at work.
- Research the current material conditions
- Describe the current period and what escalating features would result in more developed periods for the anarchist movement.
- Plan a strategy that takes into account strategic industries which can develop revolutionary conditions, defend the revolution, and later can be useful in a post capitalist economy
- Target workplaces that fit into the broader strategy, while being flexible
- Build rank and file capacity rather than bureaucracy
- Provide multiple salts per workplace
- Encourage political discussions at work that are tied into workplace actions and conditions
- Develop jobs committees which will act as the mechanism for insertion into strategic industries