By Sam Mainwarring
From a talk first given by Sam in North Nj in 1995, a Philly-Metro WSA pamphlet.
For decades I’ve given out syndicalist literature, to co-workers and friends. They usually thank me, and I’ve managed to have some good conversations with folks over the years about syndicalism.
The question comes up, here I make all this talk about unions and anarchism, and what do unions have to do with freedom ? I talk about a self-managed society, abolishing capitalism, and replacing it with mutual aid and cooperation, and they see unions as the opposite of all this.
This is the main point. The unions we are talking about are not the same as what you see in the current AF of L or Teamsters, what we call pro-business unions. While we support the efforts by workers to fight for rights, when the spirit of labor comes to our minds, it will look different. Instead of fighting for only bread and butter issues, we want to completely change society. To quote classical anarchist Max Baginsky, “what we want: living, not dead, unions.” These unions will be several things all at once. While still under capitalism, they will be centers of democracy where workers fight for our basic rights. They will be centers of self-education, a working person’s university, where we can learn about the industry we’re in, preparing us for the future where we change our industries into democracy, where human needs are met in the day to day.
Working people don’t get anything close to a fair shake, even in the best of times. And when things get bad, we get the worst of it.
Let’s say right up front, if workers are in a pro-business union currently, fighting for their rights, we stand with them. We don’t say, “That union is not anti-capitalist enough for us, so we’re not gonna support the members. ” If workers are out on strike, we’ll do everything we can to support them, no matter what trade union it happens to be. (This is not including cop unions of course.)
After decades of union busting, most workers in the US are not organized together, but are separated out from each other as wage earners. Often, we only all sit next to each other at training sessions organized by the employer, or some such thing like this. Other US workers, a small minority at this point, are part of established, recognized, labor unions.
Our movement has to welcome all workers, whether they‘re already part of a recognized union or are fighting from scratch, moving toward creating one.
When you become interested in revolutionary unions, what we call anarcho-syndicalism, and you’re already part of a union workforce, there is plenty to do inside the union structure. Building relationships with fellow workers; introducing others to the fight for union democracy; ideas of environmental justice, and that environmental justice and the idea that workers’ rights are connected; addressing the racism and sexism of society out there, the bigotry against the gay community, and in our unions—these are all things that move us upward to a bigger goal, creating unions that can change society from the bottom up.
For many workers, where labor isn’t organized… Yet, there is another route. That route is organizing your workplace into a bottom-up, not top-down group that keeps people together for addressing grievances. If a group like this has a much more idealistic view, like being a seed for challenging capitalism and changing society, leading up to a general strike that can transform us, this is what we call a ‘syndicate’ (originally French for “trade union”).
As centers of self-learning, our syndicates can have workshops or other ways for workers to learn what our industry is all about, how it’s full of upper dogs and lower dogs, how it’s part of larger systems like capitalism and the state and bigotry. We can learn about our counterparts around the globe—and that is revolutionary! A lot of our manufacturing has been off-shored to poorer countries, where workers have fewer rights and even fewer environmental protections. In our reading groups we can learn about our fellow workers all around the earth, and what is different about our cultures, but also all that we have in common; how we really are brothers and sisters, even as multinational corporations play us against each other.
And the much bigger vision, how our syndicates can be bodies of democracy and be revolutionary: What is the general strike? What if all workers in all industries, agricultural, manufacturing, and service, joined together in action, for all of our sakes, and the democracy of our syndicates becomes the democracy of society and the economy? What if top-down state and capitalism were ended forever, and replaced by a new kind of society, self-managed by all who do the work, for the good of everyone?
Once I was giving a talk and someone asked me, “What is this anarcho-syndicalism stuff?”
I explained it by saying, there’s a short answer, and a long answer. If you were going to really get into the theory of it, the history of it, that’s a long, long answer. There is a history, including a social revolution in Spain in the 1930s, a long history of radical workers’ unionism. But here’s my short answer:
Anarchism points to the future-where everyone shares the goods of this world together, where working people have real democracy in our workplaces, and where industry is there for meeting the needs of the community, not for making the rich richer, and brainwashing us with commercialism.
We use the word ‘state’ to mean all the top down government. The politicians are as bad as corporations, and they try to make us think that ‘democracy’ means they get to decide on our behalf. They spend money and time trying to convince us to vote them in and keep them in power; to keep buying what they have for sale, to keep themselves in power. In so-called ‘Communist’ countries, the political class, the Red Bureaucrats, control everything completely, and workers have no rights to organize unions that challenge them. So the revolutionary unions are for real worker’s self-management. We oppose any system where there’s a class system, even if it calls itself ‘Communist.’
Far as I’m concerned, everything I’ve just said is not really theory, but practice. Building workers’ organizations that can turn into revolutionary unions, and then, the revolutionary unions can lead up to the general strike, and the making of an anarchist society. That’s real democracy, and real communism— ‘free’ communism. These are all things we learn by trial and error, by experimentation, by learning from our mistakes.
The anarcho-syndicalist movement has talked about practice, not academic theories of this kind or another. Its theory is based on experimentation and struggle.
Now there have always been syndicalists much more into the theory side of things, like studies of industry and economics and such like that. I’m all for this, and I have a few of my own ideas.
Firstly, I think anarcho-syndicalist ‘theorists’ should make themselves clear to the common worker and they should say they don’t represent the movement. As I’ve said, there has always been, and always will be, a strong belief that our theory comes out of practice. Not from academics. I want to see the theorists, (who I do appreciate), I want them to make clear the traditional side of syndicalism, that doesn’t rely on fancy economics, geography or what have you, but really stresses that we do our theory in our workplaces, in experiment with democracy and self-education.
Ok, that said, a second thing that we need to be clear on is that syndicalism is, and has always been, multi-tendency. No one detailed ‘theory’ will ever be promoted by our workers’ organizations. And clearly no one name of a theorist will ever be promoted either, like happened with Marxism. We can use the help of intellectuals, but they will never be our prophets or our gods.
Take, for example, our comrades the anarchist geographers, they’ve started doing this stuff in one form or another, carrying on this tradition of some of our famous anarchists, Kropotkin and Reclus, teaching themselves revolutionary social science. I’m all for that, for a few reasons. For one, they don’t claim to represent the whole syndicalist movement. And I see what they are doing as a good part of the trial and error of the movement. If other anarchists in the same workers’ organizations like a different approach, all the better. The point is that anarchists do not worship academics the way many Marxists do. But teaching ourselves geography, economics and the like, sharing what we learn in the worker’s revolutionary syndicates, I’m all for that.
The last thing I wanted to say was about anarcho-syndicalism being up to date. I went to NYC to hear a talk not long ago, and someone was there, an old white guy like me, giving a talk about “all the workers in all the factories,” etc. He was basing everything on Marxism. It was like he came in a time machine from the past, and no one had told him how much industry has changed since Das Kapital, or how much it’s changing now.
We in our syndicates, in our study groups, have a task before us, to learn how capitalism and the state are different through history. If we are going to support labor struggles today, and sow the seeds of revolutionary syndicates, we have to understand how in different ways we were exploited as agricultural workers, then as factory workers, and service industry workers. We have to see how different the history is of black workers whose ancestors were brought here by violent slavery.
Everything is speeding up. Now our economy is driven by shipping containers, packed with temporary trash to sell us and make us feel free. These things traveled here by ships, largely from third world countries with fewer protections. Every product out of the container has a history, and this history of each thing they are selling us, well you can’t separate that thing from human rights. We as US workers, unionized or not, are tought to consume these things. But we are also taught to not think about the working conditions people labored in to create them.
From here to the worldwide general strike, we are at square one. We’re at the point of starting to sow seeds. So let’s make these study groups. Let’s learn exactly what kind of economy we have today, as opposed to where so much older literature was written. Organized labor has dwindled, and so much manufacturing has been off-shored. So many workers in de-industrialized areas are trying to adapt ourselves to the service economy to survive.
This is my last thought, and I know some folks in the audience will be happy I got here in the talk. Our study groups and syndicates have to, and I really mean have to, reflect the real lives of working people today. I read this old anarcho-syndicalist magazine, written by white men like me. And then I’m on a hospital visit, talking with the aides and nurses and what have you, and they come from diverse backgrounds. And the health service economy is booming now. And there is no way I would show them a magazine where only white men have written articles. In my recent hospital visits, the health staff I have had the pleasure to talk to, they would be put off by it if I showed them this magazine, as if this were what anarcho-syndicalism is all about.
So two main points: We have to sow seeds for our future syndicates (revolutionary unions in industries); we have to teach ourselves the stages of industry and where we are in the here and now. And we have to build study groups and then syndicates that reflect our workforce. The stereotype of the grumpy white syndicalist has really got to come to an end (and maybe this is funny, spoken by a grumpy syndicalist).
To bring all of this all together (I’m referring back to notes from past meetings, when someone talked about the early French syndicalism, when the anarchist geographers were here). The anarchist geographers pointed out that industry has gone from agriculture (‘primary sector’) to manufacturing (‘secondary sector’ ) to service economy (‘tertiary sector’) I think even though there are not many anarcho-syndicalists, as few as we are, we can make a big difference. We’ve already said we are at square one, so far as building revolutionary unions. So be it. What we should do as a syndicalist movement today is come together, if there are none of us in the same workplace, and none of us in the same business or industry, then here’s what we do- we start out with the widest phase of industry.
If there are two or three agricultural workers among us, then they should come together and form a study group about the history and geography of agriculture, and the history of workers in agriculture, understanding their place in history and geography, and promoting solidarity among all agriculture workers. And then the same with manufacturing workers, and the same for service economy workers. Even though we are far from actual revolutionary unions or syndicates, these agriculture workers, manufacturing workers and service workers would be sowing the seeds of a syndicate- call them ‘pre-syndicates.’
Then as time goes on, among service workers for example, two or more end up in the same general industry, say secretarial, and then they make a study group tracing the history, geography of secretarial workers, locating themselves in this history and geography, all the social justice parts of this industry, engaging in labor activism from this. And then, in this group, if someone in a working group draws in someone new from their worksite— even if it’s only two at first—they start a study group about their work site, its history, economics, what have you, and begin workplace organizing. This I’m calling ‘pre-syndicalism.’ You start out with the broadest categories and get more and more specific. At each level of this, even if there are not many people involved, it doesn’t matter, because it’s sowing seeds for building revolutionary unions, study groups and organizing teams; sowing the idea of the future general strike; what it could look like; the culture of all equal worker’s democracy; the values of a future world where work is creative; and where workers transform our industries from the inside out. Where all workers the world over build relationships together in common industries, uniting with all their workers, building the future through the all-encompassing general strike.