Alexander Hope

Unionism, Vanguardism or Mutual aid?

This may come to a surprise to my anarchist comrades, but I hold a critical position against unionism in general, as it breaks away from anarcho-communism. However, before starting the argument we must first answer the question of ‘‘What is a union?’’

According to Malatesta, ‘‘a union is set up to defend the day to day interests of the workers and to improve their conditions as much as possible before they can be in any position to make the revolution and by it change today’s wage-earners into free workers, freely associating for the benefit of all’’

Malatesta furthermore claims that a union cannot wait until all its members become anarchists, therefore by nature syndicalism is inherently not anarchist by its values but rather as a hybrid creature that includes other ideologies from all walks of life. I quote once more,

‘‘ Can it possibly wait for all the workers to become anarchists before inviting them to organise themselves and before admitting them into the organisation, thereby reversing the natural order of propaganda and psychological development and forming the resistance organisation when there is no longer any need, since the masses would already be capable of making the revolution? In such a case the union would be a duplicate of the anarchist grouping and would be powerless either to obtain improvements or to make revolution. Or would it content itself with committing the anarchist programme to paper and with formal, unthought-out support, and bringing together people who, sheeplike, follow the organisers, only then to scatter and pass over to the enemy on the first occasion they are called upon to show themselves to be serious anarchists?’’

There is of course a difference between socialist unions and anarcho-syndicalist unions lead by anarchists. There are unions which have been great, revolutionary and increased proletarian consciousness and organization, but there were also unions which were directly destroyed by corrupt bourgeois influence or that developed into reactionary forces. However, on the whole unions in both the anarchist and non-revolutionary venue have an inner flaw of being reformist by nature, we quote from Malatesta again,

‘‘Syndicalism (by which I mean the practical variety and not the theoretical sort, which everyone tailors to their own shape) is by nature reformist. All that can be expected of it is that the reforms it fights for and achieves are of a kind and obtained in such a way that they serve revolutionary education and propaganda and leave the way open for the making of ever greater demands. Any fusion or confusion between the anarchist and revolutionary movement and the syndicalist movement ends either by rendering the union helpless as regards its specific aims or with toning down, falsifying and extinguishing the anarchist spirit. A union can spring up with a socialist, revolutionary or anarchist programme and it is, indeed, with programmes of this sort that the various workers’ programmes originate. But it is while they are weak and impotent that they are faithful to the programme — while, that is, they remain propaganda groups set up and run by a few zealous and committed men, rather than organisations ready for effective action. Later, as they manage to attract the masses and acquire the strength to claim and impose improvements, the original programme becomes an empty formula, to which no-one pays any more attention. Tactics adapt to the needs of the moment and the enthusiasts of the early days either themselves adapt or cede their place to ‘practical’ men concerned with today, and with no thought for tomorrow.’’

Much of what Malatesta says in this paragraph remains very true today, the unions start out commited to a programme perhaps even an anarchist one, but as the unions attracts more attention and expands, the original programme is forgotten, and rather than follow the anarchist programme, the union reverts back to its primal function within capitalism — that of struggling for better working conitions, concerned with today and with no thought for tomorrow as Malatesta well remarked. Therefore, any anarchist union which starts with an anarchist programme will eventually grow larger, but for Malatesta this is not necessarily a good news, because a union will revert to its primary function of present working conditions and forget that it is fighting a revolutionary battle for an anarchist future, henceforth, an anarchist union that might start out as anarchist, might in the near-future devolve its anarchism into a watered down version of anarchism, in such a manner that the anarchist union would no longer remain anarchist, but become a convetional union devoid of anarchist thought. Can we truly therefore call such a thing, ‘‘Anarchist’’? If it is divorced from anarchism?

If these are the anarcho-syndicalists of today whom are totally devoid of anarchism, then indeed with a sad and heavy heart I shall say that ‘‘Syndicalists have become the Trotskyists of Anarchism.’’ — Yet not all hope is lost when it comes to syndicalism. As I will affirm later on, anarcho-syndicalism has a promising future in the east as opposed to the western world.

We must also look into the future, not only to the present. Questions such as ‘‘Will unionism survive the age of automation in the 21st century?’’ are questions that need to be explored and contemplated. What will collective bargaining get the proletariat in an age where labour is controlled by automatons? — The blunt answer would be ‘‘Nada, zilch’’ — nothing of any value. Unions are a product of the industrial revolution, outside of the industrial revolution context unions will decay with time and become non-existant, just like the guilds were a product of the medeival peroid and were abolished in the capitalist peroid that followed it. Unions will be on the forefrunt in the battle of automation, but since there can be no bargaining between the employer and the unemployed, unionism will gradually become obsolete. The age of automation is closer than it looks, machines are taking over many jobs handled by workers and unionism as a tactic is put into question. What will survive in the age of automation? — Anarchists surely will survive who are willing to construct socialist revolutionary groups on which the working class can depend for the future of the revolution.

While the future of unionism is bleak in the automation age that is approaching, we must admit that 20th century unionism was highly revolutionary and deserves respect. We are not here to judge 20th century unionism — modern men have nothing but repsect for the rights and privileges that developed because of unionism in the 20th century. We are here to judge the value of unions in modern class struggle.

First and foremost we must realize that the bourgeois as a class are resistant and struggle back against proletarian advances. It would be foolish to assume that in class struggle, only proletariat struggle effivciently. The bourgeois class is just as resilient and resistant to the advances of the proletariat class. Henceforth the bourgeois’s machinations and schemes allow them to resist against unionism by weakening union power through a number of tactics and even through carefully planned union busting. Even the government, the puppet of the bourgeoisie will put restrictions on what is permissible or not when it comes to the union and will heavily restrict the right of the general strike or perhaps result in the removal of this most essential right. It is clear that we cannot depend upon these so-called ‘‘Rights’’ anymore and rely on direct action as a guarantee for liberty.

21st century unionism continuously makes concessions to capital and end up being complacent to capital. It’s no mystery that unions today make continuous concessions to state and capital, unions now are fully integrated into the capitalist system and are used as a way to shut up workers for a few decades. Is this to be our legacy? Surely not!

Let us look deeply at evidence of the fragmentation of unionism today. We cannot make bleak remarks without evidence. The proof of the fragmentation of unions is clear as crystal and for all to see, but for the blind who cannot yet see this truth, we must provide evidence of the fragmentary status of unions in our time. We shall be reviewing a very recent study from 2017 by Paul Marginson, called, ‘‘European Industrial Relations: An increasingly fractured landscape?’’ — it talks mainly about European policy and can be applied as extension throughout the western world’s policies. It is noted in this study that,

‘‘Corrosion is most evident for trade union organisation, which declined by around one-fifth between 2000 and 2013.’’

Furthermore the study continues to affirm the union’s weakening not only because there is a clear lack of membership within the unions themselves, but because of imposed restriction by the ruling class.

‘‘The impact on industrial relations institutions and standard-setting arrangements amongst these countries has been extensively documented, and includes measures to: decentralise collective bargaining to company level (abolition or restriction of bargaining at cross-sector and/or sector levels; suspension or inversion of the favourability principle; expansion of possibilities for derogations and opt-outs from cross-sector and/or sector agreements); decrease the coverage of collective bargaining (removing or restricting extension mechanisms; removing or restricting continuation of agreements after expiry); weakening the ability of trade unions’ to act as the bargaining agent for workers; weakening arbitration mechanisms and restricting the use of industrial action (Marginson 2015; Molina 2014; Koukiadaki et al. 2016).’’

It is therefore crystal clear that most unions in the western world have been fully integrated within capitalism and therefore their revolutionary zeal which they once had in the 20th century has been dissolved and corroded. It is more likely that you would find a union that bends immediately to the will of the ruling class, rather than actually protect its workers efficiently. Surely the majority would agree, that a tool that bends its knee immediately the the bourgeosie is not a good tool for the future of the next anarchist revolution. While the future of syndicalism and unionism looks bleak in the west, this does not necessarily ring true for the eastern world and other developing countries. Anarcho-Syndicalism is a valid ideology when it comes to developing countries and in such a context, Anarcho-syndicalism has a bright future in the east.

Like all things in the world — there is the good and the bad. Generally speaking however, the unions lead by anarchists in the past have yielded great results for the proletariat and they should continue to be used in this modern age within the framework of capitalism to catapult the proletariat towards a higher consciousness. Meanwhile the unions in socialist states where not the main driving force of revolutionary change — rather it was the vanguard party that was responsible as such a force for change and increasing proletarian consciousness. Nevertheless I shall be offering my critique to both the vanguard party and unions as tools that function well within capitalism, but function less well in a post-capitalist society that is in a stage of socialist construction.

Before starting our critique we have to first identify what we mean by ‘‘revolutionary syndicalists’’ — according to Malatesta, there are two ways we can go about defining syndicalism. Malatesta says that

‘‘There needs to be some explanation of the meaning of ‘syndicalism’ If it is a question of what one wants from the future, if, that is, by syndicalism is meant the form of social organisation that should replace capitalism and state organisation, then either it is the same thing as anarchy and is therefore a word that serves only to confuse or it is something different from anarchy and cannot therefore be accepted by anarchists. In fact, among the ideas and the proposals on the future which some syndicalists have put forward, there are some that are genuinely anarchist. But there are others which, under other names and other forms, reproduce the authoritarian structure which underlies the cause of the ills about which we are now protesting, and which, therefore, have nothing to do with anarchy’’

While unionism has been a great driving force of social change in the 20th century, it no holds the same revolutionary potential for social change in the 21st century, but this isn’t the sole reason why I critique unionism. I am also critical towards unionism, because trade unions in general are things that develop within capitalism, and within a capitalist framework — henceforth they cannot be applied outside a capitalist framework. Unions applied outside a capitalist framework become useless and sometimes reactionary. I never believed that unions could become a main driving force with a leadership role after a proletarian revolution for the sole reason that using something that develops within capitalism cannot bode well for socialist construction. Within a capitalist framework, anarcho-syndicalism and unionism do wonders for society and liberate the worker within such an oppressed society. Unions have been a backbone of anarchist thought for the larger parth of the 20th century, but then again while we as anarchist must recognize the importance of unions within a capitalist society, their role must significantly change after the revolution. Within an anarcho-communist framework, the union’s role changes from one of fighting capitalism, to a more peaceful role, that of being a political school that watches over the people, protects them from reactionary ideas and reinforces their anarchist beliefs.

This is why the union’s role changed in socialist states, and maintained a persuasion role. I would actually in this case agree with Marxist-Leninists that the role of unionism should change completely after the revolution, I shall quote from Lenin himself, when he says that

‘‘It is not a state organisation; nor is it one designed for coercion, but for education. It is an organisation designed to draw in and to train; it is, in fact, a school: a school of administration, a school of economic management, a school of communism. It is a very unusual type of school, because there are no teachers or pupils; this is an extremely unusual combination of what has necessarily come down to us from capitalism, and what comes from the ranks of the advanced revolutionary detachments, which you might call the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat. To talk about the role of the trade unions without taking these truths into account is to fall straight into a number of errors. Within the system of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the trade unions stand, if I may say so, between the Party and the government.’’[1]

— So Lenin here proposes that unions should be used as a school, rather than a means to combat the bourgeois after the revolution. The unions within capitalism serve the purpose to organize the workers for collective bargaining in order to fight for concessions, but after the socialist revolution, there is no more need of these unions that fight for concessions under capitalism. Therefore Unions rather than abolishing them, should be turned into schools of persuasion and the streghtening of communist ties between the masses. Of course the only difference is, that in anarcho-communism unions will become schools that stand between the people and their communes, and not between the party and the government.

Of course, while I critique unionism, I also critique the vanguard party. Unions develop within capitalism, therefore their application after a revolution is necessarily petit-bourgeois. With the same argument, a political party (The vanguard) also develops within capitalism, and its application after the revolution is also necessarily petit-bourgeois, this is also one of the reasons why I accuse Marxism-Leninism of being a petit bourgeois ideology.

The reader may want to ask: ‘‘So unions and the vanguard party both develop within a capitalist framework and their application to a post-capitalist socialist country would be petit bourgeois, so what are we left with? What are we left with if the vanguard party and unions are both petit bourgeois?’’ — The answer is quite simple… — Social organization and mutual aid are two elements that develop in every political and economic system in existence. In medieval society, in capitalist society, in socialist and communist society, social organization and mutual aid survive quite naturally. Meanwhile unions and vanguard parties can only develop within a petit bourgeois capitalist framework, henceforth unions and vanguard are not universal to all frameworks but only pertains to a capitalist framework. This is why we don’t find any unions and vanguard parties in medieval societies because they only apply to a capitalist society and nowhere else. Therefore if one where to apply the vanguard party outside a capitalist framework, that Marxist-Leninist would be making a petit-bourgeois mistake just as the unionist who believes unions should be in control after the socialist revolution. Anarcho-syndicalism, unionism and Marxism-Leninism therefore are petit bourgeois when applied outside capitalism, but when applied within capitalism they are necessarily proletarian in nature and revolutionary.

Only social organization and mutual aid guided by platformism are truly socialist in essence both within and outside capitalism and only these methods within anarcho-communism can lead to communism. According to Marxists, under Communism, the contradiction between imperialism and socialism is reconciled, as imperialism has been wiped out, so do the contradictions within class society. Therefore ‘‘The party’’, with no use at all, becomes obsolete and so it dissolves. — However, I make a different argument, that the party like a union is merely a tool that develops within capitalism and cannot function outside of capitalism. After all, ‘‘the party’’ was an invention that was created by the parliamentarian liberals, it was not created by the monarchs. If the liberals tried to impose their liberalism through monarchism they would have failed, in similar ways the Marxist-Leninists who try to bring about communism through a party (An invention of the liberals) will also fail in their mission. If a union is used after a working class revolution, the unions necessarily become reactionary, in the same way if a vanguard party is used after a revolution. The party or the union itself becomes reactionary and littered with capitalist restoration elements. One needs only too look at the history of Marxism-Leninism, Unionism and Kruschevism (Capitalist restoration) went hand in hand, this is because both the vanguard party and the union were maintained after the revolution, therefore these petit-bourgeois forces united together and crushed any socialist construction that might have taken place in the USSR.

Some Marxists will of course claim that the vanguard party can exist in both capitalism and socialism — this is true, however such an invention is a freak of nature, an abomination, something from the past that survives in the present. Imagine for a moment if liberal parties instead of parliamentarians had a monarch in order to transition to liberalism? — Wouldn’t this be outrageous, or imagine for instance if a liberal party were used to bring about socialism? — Wouldn’t this be idealist and petit-bourgeois, and wouldn’t it be ridiculous if a union that fought for better working conditions under capitalism because of the exploitative nature of capitalism, would fight also in a socialist system for better working conditions where supposedly workers are no longer exploited? — unless one were to make the argument that ‘‘Socialism’’ still retains some capitalist exploitative nature within it.

Guilds developed in medievalism but have you ever seen a medeival guild in a capitalist society? Of course not! It is simply impossible for a guild to exist in a post-medeival society and any attempt to bring guilds back is reactionary, henceforth the whole idea behind guild socialism is confusing. In the same manner we have never seen a union or a party develop in medeivalism because these are inventions that develop within capitalism. Medeival Guilds of course were forms of assosciation constructred through mutual aid, however their role in society was to protect and ensure proffessional craftsmen interest. Such a medieval concept cannot be applied to a post-capitalist society, however something of value can be learned from it. That organizations formed through voluntary assosciation through mutual aid existed both in medeival society, capitalism and can flourish beautifully in a post-capitalist revolutionary society.

In the same manner, market socialism makes little sense, because ‘‘Worker co-operatives’’ are petit-bourgeois inventions that develop only within capitalism. Therefore worker co-operatives cannot lead a proletarian socialist revolution, because if they did, then the result would be a petit-bourgeois society that cannot get rid off commodity production, capital and private property. As long as these three elements exists, anarcho-communism is not possible. It wouldn’t take a bright mind to realize that there is no difference between your employer deciding your wage and working hours and your co-working employers deciding your wage-slavery through a democratically eclectic process.

There are some anarcho-syndicalists who will make the argument that this scientific concept of ‘‘Mutual aid’’ isn’t so important and that even anarchist ideological groups can be corrupted by capitalism and Mutual aid groups in particular can easily slide into becoming like a charity, even joining the NGO-industrial-complex. At the same time of critiquing mutual aid, they make the opposite argument that all unions have an element of mutual aid within them, therefore this fact somehow makes unions infallible. This, of course is a deep mistake because at one moment they critique mutual aid, and at another they affirm that a union makes use of mutual aid.

First and foremost there is no evidence to my knowledge that any anarchist ideological group has ever been corrupted and integrated into capitalism, but there is plenty of evidence suggesting that unions have been integrated and corrupted by capitalism. Secondly, making the argument that ‘‘Unions depend on mutual aid’’ — therefore that makes them good tools, is a wrong analysis. Even capitalism involves ‘‘Mutual aid’’ between the bourgeois class who help each other, do favours for one another, and sign mutually beneficial contracts between companies, does that make capitalism more moral and less exploitative just because it involves some ‘‘Mutual aid’’? — Of course not, in the same manner, just because unions have some elements of mutual aid, it doesn’t mean to say that unions are perfect. Mutual aid is a factor of evolutionary life, — in capitalism, mutual aid is obstructed and the trait of competitiveness is upholded instead. The vanguard party also depends on mutual aid upon its construction, but when the dictatorship of the proletariat comes into power, — it uses hierarchy in order to weaken the same mutual aid that made the vanguard party’s construction possible in the first place. The anarchists should always allow mutual aid to naturally partake into our lives, and destroy those tools which obstruct it — hence things like private property, the state, capital, capitalism, political parties — all these things obstruct mutual aid, and therefore need to be destroyed in order for mutual aid to take its natural course and make possible an anarchist way of life. To depend on unionism and deny mutual aid is not anarchism.

Just like any other anarchist I will support unions but as modern anarcho-communists it is our responsability to eliminate any capitalist endowed hierarchy and reject concessions to such a hierarchy.

The divine hierarchy of the Monarch is the monarchy’s invention, the party is an invention of liberalism, the vanguard party is a liberal NEP bourgeois invention. Socialism cannot maintain liberal inventions — the anarchists maintain that liberal tools like the party needs to be abolished in a revolution, and wage-slave tools like unions either need to be abolished or at least converted into schools — otherwise if the union’s status remains the same after the revolution, the union itself will become a reactionary petit-bourgeois force.

This idea that unions can become reactionary comes from Malatesta himself when he says,

‘‘I am against syndicalism, both as a doctrine and a practice, because it strikes me as a hybrid creature that puts its faith, not necessarily in reformism as Santillan sees it, but in classist exclusiveness and authoritarianism. I favour the labour movement because I believe it to be the most effective way of raising the morale of the workers and q because, too, it is a grand and universal enterprise that can be ignored only by those who have lost their grip on real life. At the same time, I am well aware that, setting out as it does to protect the short-term interests of the workers, it tends naturally to reformism and cannot, therefore, be confused with the anarchist movement itself.’’[2]

With all this being said, this doesn’t mean that we need to abolish unions after a revolution has taken place — This would be a rather crude and vulgar action. It would make much more sense if the unions were converted into a different role to serve socialist construction within anarcho-communism, instead of being a ‘‘leading force’’ that controls the economics and the politics of the commune, it should rather be a school with teachers of higher proletarian consciousness. One may ask: ‘‘Who will be the leading force if not the unions?’’ — The answer is simple, the leading force are the socially organized anarchists, organized in tight-knit communities of neighbours and friends. The platformist groups are those groups preferably united in action that trigger the first motion in revolutionary construction leading to the revolution itself.

Therefore, within a capitalist society there should be two venues, the unions that fight for better working conditions, and the platformist anarchist groups that organize the anarchists together in an attempt for a worker’s revolution. The unions and platformist groups preferably should not be disjointed but united in action rather than divided. If a fruitfrul relationship between the two venues is not established, then the platformists must fend for themselves and lead their own union. After a revolution has taken place, the platformist’s responsability is to cater for the needs of the community, to guide them like advisors rather than leaders. The platformists groups aren’t a hierarchal vanguard party that demand the commune’s loyalty and obiedience, rather they are simply groups of highly conscious anarchists who teach the masses how to socially organize pragmatically, how to fix their commune problems, how to combat better counter-revolutionary forces. These are like advisory committees, or rather the platformist go from one community to another to make sure the community is thriving and not crumbling. In contrast the unions are schools of communism that stand between the masses themselves and the platformist group with all its branches across the communities. The unions are there to make sure the worker’s liberty are being respected and vice-versa the platformist branches built across the communities and cities are also there to make sure that these union schools of communism are respecting the worker’s liberty. All aspects in anarchist society should be voluntary, therefore unions and platformist shouldn’t seize control of productive forces, rather they should be a guidance role for the proletariat themselves to seize the means of production and control their own society in each community.

Malatesta offers a similiar view because in his opinion,

‘‘The anarchists should not want the unions to be anarchist. The anarchists must work among themselves for anarchist ends, as individuals, groups and federations of groups. In the same way as there are, or should be, study and discussion groups, groups for written or spoken propaganda in public, cooperative groups, groups working within factories and workshops, fields, barracks, schools, etc., so they should form groups within the various organisations that wage class war. Naturally the ideal would be for everyone to be anarchist and for all organisations to work anarchically.’’

This more or less is the true essence of anarchism, an organization of anarchists working and fighting for anarchists ends as individuals in organized groups united together as a federation of groups with similiar principles. Only individuals united freely in thought, will and action can bring about anarchism. The Man Of Tomorrow is Forged By His Battles Today.

To sum up:

  1. Mutual aid and social organization of revolutionary movements happens in all societies and in all economies. Vangaurdism and unions owe their existence to mutual aid and social organization because without these two elements, vanguardism and unionism wouldn’t exist in the first place.

2. The vanguard party and the Unions develop only in a capitalist framework, they are only useful within a capitalist framework. Therefore, Marxists today who still follow Marxism-Leninism, need to realize that after the revolution, the vanguard party must be abolished, — Hence the result will be that of anarchism.

3. To apply unionism and vanguardism outside a capitalist framework becomes reactionary, petit-bourgeois and anti-communism after a proletarian revolution has taken place. Unions in a post-capitalist society will not combat capitalism, but rather they will combat the only thing there is — ‘‘Socialism’’ — hence forth this is why a union may become reactionary if applied to a post-capitalist society.

4. Only something that stands outside the capitalist framework — that doesn’t depend on a capitalist framework for its usefulness and existence can bring about communism. These tools are known as ‘‘Strong Social organization’’ and ‘‘Mutual aid’’ — Platformism is also something that can develop within and outside capitalism without any problems.

5. Unions and platformist groups should fight the bourgeois in a capitalist framework. After the revolution, their role should change into guidance groups of the proletariat, to help the proletariat cease the means of production and protect themselves from counter-revolutionary attacks. The more the proletariat are guided towards this anarchist way of life, slowly the communities will progress from socialism into anarcho-communism. This would mean that gradually the proletariat will become so attuned to the anarchist way of life, that they will no longer recquire platformist groups and unions to guide or advise them anymore.

[1] V. I. Lenin, ‘’The Trade Unions, The Present Situation And Trotsky’s Mistakes’’, Speech Delivered At A Joint Meeting Of Communist Delegates To The Eighth Congress Of Soviets, Communist Members Of The All-Russia Central Council Of Trade Unions And Communist Members Of The Moscow City Council Of Trade Unions, (December 30, 1920)

[2] Errico Malatesta, ‘‘Further Thoughts on Anarchism and the Labour Movement’’, (March 1926)

[3] Errico Malatesta, ‘‘The Labour Movement and Anarchism’’, (December 1925)

[4] Errico Malatesta, ‘‘Syndicalism and Anarchism’’, (April-May 1925)

[5] Paul Marginson, ‘‘European Industrial Relations: An increasingly fractured landscape?’’, WARWICK PAPERS IN INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS NUMBER 106 ( 2017)