We need a united class not a united left




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A mid length summary

"Many leftists are offended when I advocate unions independent of the left, as if I am claiming that the entire left is worthless. I am not.

The myriad of leftist groups and publications might serve as so-called affinity groups. Anarchists have always made a distinction between affinity groups and class organizations. Affinity groups are small groups of friends or close anarchist comrades who hold roughly the same views. This is no basis for class organizing and that is not the intention either. Therefore, anarchists are in addition active in syndicalist unions or other popular movements (like tenants’ organizations, anti-war coalitions and environmental movements).

Leftist groups and publications might serve as affinity groups – for education and analysis, for cultural events and a sense of community. But vehicles for class struggle they are not."

Hi Anarki,

I read the ZNet article.

I think the author makes some good standard syndicalist arguments. I also think they make some standard syndicalist oversimplifications.

For example:

Political organizations are not built for workplace struggles. They are basically useless for this purpose. This applies to both parliamentary labor parties and extra-parliamentary left-wing groups. Left-wing organizations repel employees who don’t see themselves as part of the left. Such organizations can also be open to bosses and employers and be led by people in the political establishment.

The Progressive International - a political organisation - has organised #MakeAmazonPay for the last few years, including international strikes. To be exact, the strikes were organised by labour unions which are members of the ProgIntl. My point is that it’s not as simple as Hästbacka is saying. Political organisations can have an important role even in workplace struggle.

I don’t think we need to make the choice between one or the other. Syndicalist unions and syndicalist strategies have an important role, but they don’t exhaust what we need to transform society.

There’s also a contradiction in the argument. The author states:

The crucial differences between syndicalist unions and the political left can be summed up as follows. A syndicalist union is an interest organization for sellers of labor power … The union also welcomes those parts of the working class who are not wage earners … The condition for becoming a member is not that you identify with the left or hold a set of leftist opinions.

Later they state:

The objection is raised by syndicalists who are afraid to let all sorts of a**holes into the union: Is the union open to homophobes, racists and even nazis? A class organization cannot control what people think or feel in secret, but there are of course certain behaviors that must be promoted.

As said, the basic values of SAC are solidarity, democracy and independence. If the values of a homophobe or racist is expressed at work, then it’s a violation of solidarity. Thus, the person cannot be a member of the union. Likewise, people who don’t respect the democracy or independence of the union cannot be members. For security reasons alone, nazis cannot join the union. In the case of SAC, our union is officially feminist and anti-racist. [my bold]

Well, looks like they require that members ’ identify with the left or hold a set of leftist opinions’. I don’t see a way around this, just noting that the ‘class only’ approach the author argues for in the article is misleading.

A syndicalist union and a political party / movement have different functions and different pros and cons. Though here we are straining the word ‘political’ to mean ‘anything a syndicalist union doesn’t do’. The whole purpose of a political organisation is to unite people according to a set of values and a vision for how society should be. Its key strength is in tying together different struggles, joining the dots. The whole purpose of a syndicalist union is to organise wage earners in their workplace struggles on a class basis in preparation for a new society. Its key strength is in its working class universality, its rank-and-file organisational model, and its militancy.

You’ll always need both. The more a syndicalist union tries to adopt the functions of a political party/movement, the more it will dilute/undermine the points Hästbacka argues for. An ecosystem needs multiple species to fill their niches.

I don’t know enough about Sweden to comment on the author’s proposal and the ‘unite the left’ proposals they criticise. What I’ll say is that independent worker power is indispensable for many reasons, such as fighting against the continual domination of progressive struggle by coordinators / professional managerial class.

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Thx for the comments on my article!

“To be exact, the strikes were organised by labour unions which are members of the ProgIntl.”

I am glad to hear they have organized strikes. In your opinion, would they have succeded even better if it was done by unions without the ProgInt? Or, done better by the ProgInt without unions? What did ProgInt add that unions couldn’t do?

“I don’t think we need to make the choice between one or the other. Syndicalist unions and syndicalist strategies have an important role, but they don’t exhaust what we need to transform society.”

I agree and it is not denied in the article. We need unions and more. But are parties really necessary?

“There’s also a contradiction in the argument. (…) Quote from article: ‘For security reasons alone, nazis cannot join the union. In the case of SAC, our union is officially feminist and anti-racist.’ Well, looks like they require that members ’ identify with the left or hold a set of leftist opinions’.”

It is not a contradiction. SAC’s official goal is socialism and SAC is officially feminist and anti-racist. But members are not required to be convinced socialists or adopt any feminist or anti-racist doctrine. No package of opinions is required. If you are are a worker and act in a decent way on the job, you can become and remain a member. One point of SAC beeing officially feminist and anti-racist is that it repels nazis and the like.

Btw, the left don’t have a monopoly on feminism or anti-racism.

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As a friend of mine often says: If we put our hopes only in that percentage of the population calling themselves leftists, we are likely to get disappointed and depressed. Remember that the working class are so many more, so much more.

Ah, I didn’t realise you were the author, otherwise I would have acknowledged that and would have dwelled more on what I agreed with. I think it’s a good article, we just have a few points of difference.

What did ProgInt add that unions couldn’t do?

Well, it’s an interesting question. The advantage of the ProgInt is that it draws together many different aspects of leftist struggle. So it is well positioned to coordinate a campaign across those multiple strands, namely media, labour unions, environmental groups, political parties, and other social movements.

Another aspect is that the Progressive International has gained traction precisely on the basis of its values and vision. That is, it has grown to be in a place to successfully organise such a campaign because of its broadness.

Do I think that a powerful international of syndicalist unions couldn’t achieve a similar campaign? No, I wouldn’t argue that.

That wasn’t clear to me in the article but it doesn’t surprise me to read that. Thank you for confirming.

I think so. And not only on the question of elections. I think parties are importantly precisely for the reasons I outlined above. Parties bring people together on the basis of shared values and shared visions of what society should be. I think that is indispensable to the transformation of society.

For example, I am very interested in changing the political system so that the masses have more control; in short, through sortition and wider use of participatory and ‘direct’ methods. That also happens to be precisely the kind of issue that syndicalist unions make a point of avoiding. We could, of course, list other examples.

For me, that doesn’t mean syndicalist unions don’t have their place. It just means that we need other forms too. The result being complementary, although not without conflict too.

It’s not clear how a syndicalist union can both (1) be a revolutionary vehicle for socialism, and (2) not require its members to be in favour of socialism. You can’t have both. I’m sure you are aware that this has been a recurring tension within syndicalist unions, namely between those who want to ‘go all the way’ and those who see the union merely as an effective means of better pay and conditions under capitalism.

It’s the main reason that the FAI existed within the CNT.

Similarly for the SAC (1) being ‘officially feminist and anti-racist’, and (2) ‘members are not required to … adopt any feminist or anti-racist doctrine … No package of opinions is required’. Let’s put aside the issue of there being a contradiction or not. What is clear is that some organisation must require members to hold some package of opinions on these matters. Otherwise, feminism and anti-racism will be neglected. I think some of the work can be done through ‘class solidarity’ alone, and I think that is important and is often missing today. However, these issues require specific activity and specific organisations.

Consider abortion rights - will that all be done through the syndicalist union? If the answer is ‘no’, then someone else has to do it. If the answer is ‘yes’, then the union has become a quasi-political party by definition.

Equally, I don’t think a political party / movement (for example, I’m a member of DiEM25) can replace a labour union.

I agree with this. And I agree with the main thrust of the article which is that independent and militant working class unions are indispensable and too often left out of the conversation.

I’ll also add that I think most people who call themselves ‘socialists’ are actually ‘anti-capitalists’. Actual socialists, as in people who advocate concretely for socialism, are in the minority of self-described socialists. I don’t mean this to insult anyone, I just think it’s an accurate description.

Let me know what you think.

You raise many good questions. Couldn’t deal with them all in the Znet article (and it is still long). But one problem I’ve discussed before, in other articles. It can be called the paradox of syndicalism.

So for example in this article…

…I write:

What if lots of non-believers join the class organization? That would undermine the organization’s capacity to advocate and fight for the vision! Well, I assume that you who are strong believers have strong arguments for your case. I encourage you to try to convince the skeptics, all skeptics who fancy a conversation. Make your case! I’m with you. Let us not hide in a radical cloister.”

In this article…

…I write:

“(…) even more important than presenting arguments is that union members participate in class struggle. Class struggle is a practical school and nurturer of the thirst for freedom. It’s a school in the sense that workers who organize on the job will start the process of figuring out how the world works. In this process, workers will probably hunger for more freedom on the job and in life generally. Thus, the vision grows in both brain and heart, so to speak, and is mirrored in self-managed unions through which workers are expanding their power and freedom.”

I have no problem with specific political organizations. Anarchist, communists etc start them under various and sometimes corny names (“platformism”, “especifismo” etc). As long as folks in such organizations don’t see themselves as automatically most Woke and revolutionary, but that we all can get lost or become corrupt.

The Spanish FAI is a tragic example of how “the most revolutionary” became counter-revolutionaries in practice, in the Spanish government. Not the whole of FAI but certain groups within it. I discuss it here:

Another point in the article above is this:

"Let me be clear. I am not only sceptical of ‘revolutionary’ cadre unions. I also don’t believe in turning SAC into a ‘revolutionary’ mass union . Why? Because no trade union can be revolutionary. It is the global working class that has the potential to become revolutionary, to play a revolutionary role. The workers are the actor . Unions are the workers’ resource and tool .