Monday, April 18, 2011

Program Notes: Special Issue of Working USA on Anarcho-Syndicalism and Unions

Contemporary anarchists have played an increasingly central role in social movements, as witnessed by militant protest at global economic summits. In terms of participation and theoretical contribution and aesthetic, anarchists have strongly influenced the direction of the global justice movement, as well as been themselves influenced by radical grassroots efforts throughout the world, such as the Zapatistas and Peoples' Global Action. It is safe to say that the anarchist movement—thought dead and buried from the early 20th century—has been resurrected and is alive and well.

This special issue of Working USA attempts to take stock of these new developments and what their implications are for class analysis, working class struggle, and labor movements. Part of this accounting involves the study of on-going anarchist actions, while also demanding a historical perspective that considers the integral role of labor in the anarchist movement's development. Numerous contributors to this issue address these concerns, while others step-back to appreciate the theoretical relationships between anarchism and Marxism, technology, and the working class more broadly.

The issue begins with Williams noting a mixture of “new social movement” (NSM) and class-based characteristics in modern anarchism. The NSMs (such as environmental and peace movements) have allegedly rejected class-based struggle in favor of political and cultural forms of struggle. Additional NSM concerns include new constituencies, radical and horizontal organizational structures, and new collective identities, which do pertain to the anarchist movement. Yet, the conceptual landscape is so muddled that it calls into questions the relevance of categories like “NSM”, especially regarding a revolutionary movement, where many anarchists identify as “working class”, belong to labor unions, and claim economic-oriented ideologies such as “anarcho-syndicalist” and “anarcho-communist”.

Robinson's study shows that anarchists living in the central United States—supposedly uninterested in class, unions, and the like, and far away from the more “red anarchist” East Coast—regularly articulated claims revolving around class, participated in radical unions (namely the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), and critiqued capitalism as a major corrupting influence in society (in the “criminal justice system”, militarism, and day-to-day economic existence). This research gives the necessary qualitative texture to compliment Williams's quantitative study by providing in-depth evidence from an individual anarchist collective. This anarchist collective's actions point to the “continuing significance of class” in anarchist organizing. Robinson's essay also critiques the recent tendency of social movement observers to overlook or ignore class elements and she advocates for a continued appreciation of class inequality and class struggle.

Anarchists have also frequently participated in the labor movement itself. Shantz's essay reflects the consistent anarchist concern for working people and their rights to workplace freedoms, while simultaneously critiquing hierarchical business unionism that dominates many large labor unions. He argues for radical activism within mainstream unions, through a strategy of “flying squads”. These autonomous groupings of unionists within unions can provide support for the organizing work of marginalized groups, such as immigrant workers, as Shantz documents with the example of the overwhelmingly female and immigrant hotel workers in Ontario, Canada. Flying squads represent an anarchist appreciation of organization and democracy, while attempting to create self-empowered workers who are collectively independent of both their supervisors and union leadership.

Still, despite the undeniable presence of working-class anarchists and anarchist participation in the labor movement, this does not mean that modern anarchism is wholly analogous to the anarchist-infused labor movements of the early 1900s. There are categorical differences between the contemporary anarchist movement and the militant anarcho-syndicalist movements that began in the late 19th Century and had their heyday (and brutal curtain call) in Spain in the 1930s. James Joll and others have noted elsewhere that there is no strong, continuous connection between “classic” anarchism and the movement's re-birth in the 1960s. Christiansen addresses the interesting question of how a rejuvenated movement can continue a decades-old legacy. His multi-method study of the IWW in the US explores how the radical union has re-established itself using both its traditional principles of direct action, but also influenced by the ideology of anarchism. The fall of the USSR benefited both the IWW and modern anarchism, and each benefited from the other in this post-Soviet period. Symbiosis has results as anarchists joined the IWW and the IWW has become more anarchist. Although Christiansen notes some problems between the two, the IWW's classic “narrative” has helped to introduce modern “Wobblies” and anarchists to the IWW's history.

Another historical episode running in tandem with the Wobblies in the US was the Italian-American Galleanisti movement. Wellbrook’s reconsiders the Galleanisti and situates them within the US's violent labor history, portending to show that their militancy was not wildly out-of-step with militant working-class resistance that regularly faced-off against violent capitalist offensives. Combined with the death sentence to two Galleanisti Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for murder, the Galleanisti's radical rhetoric and bombing campaign (notably their suspected bombing of Wall Street) helps to conjure up the worst, rigid caricatures of “mad-bomber anarchists”, but Wellbrook presents them as merely one violent element within an intensely turbulent period of American class conflict (also see the review of Adamic's re-printed Dynamite! on American class violence in this issue). The fierce rhetoric and action of the Galleanisti dovetailed with the US entry into World War I to provide justifications for the social repression of anarchists, labor unionists, and immigrants (especially Italian-Americans and Russian-born), although employer-initiated violence and WWI were clearly responsible for more death and chaos in the US.

Even earlier in US history, and definitely prior to the USSR, the lines between Marxism and anarchism were less clear, although not unimportant. Pinta contributes to a synthesis of these two ideological strains by discussing another prominent incident in labor history (which also happened to involve a bomb): the Haymarket Affair. The efforts to establish the Eight-Hour Day came to be known as the Chicago Idea, which Pinta describes as a unique amalgamation of revolutionary unionism, post-Paris Commune socialism, and pre-figurative and anti-authoritarian anarchism.

Turcato also sees strong connections between labor and anarchism, largely through the words and actions of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta. For Turcato, the various anarchist ideologies of the 1890s are not so interesting for their theoretical differences, but for their tactical approaches. One approach favors labor organization and collective action, while another approach tended to be wary of large organizations and unions, instead favoring autonomous actions. Although collectivists and communist strains of anarchism (as well as organizationalists and anti-organizationists) were strongly rooted in working class communities, activists differed about the constitution of the future anarchist society as well as the means to achieve it. Malatesta and others constructed a pluralist anarchism that would tolerate ideological differences, treating such differences as “hypotheses” for which sufficient evidence was not yet available. This “anarchism without adjectives” is still a useful concept in modern anarchism, especially with “small-a anarchism”.

The theoretical basis of old anarchism is a worthy subject of debate – particularly how it informs the present – but anarchist theory is still being developed and merged with other theoretical traditions (e.g. feminism, post-modernism, post-colonialism). The ideological and organizational differences present in anarchism also appear in the division between anarchism and autonomist Marxism. Gautney explores the positions held by various contemporary anti-authoritarians, which she argues partially reflects historical differences between anarchism and Marxism. New anarchism shares commonalities with the autonomous Marxist tradition, for example the Italian Autonomia, in principles of prefiguation, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-capitalism. Both anarchism and autonomism have coalesced to inspire projects throughout the world, including social centers, Food Not Bombs collectives, and direct action-oriented networks. Gautney's essay raises the question of where autonomism ends and anarchism begins (or the opposite), and whether this question is ultimately worth answering.

Other philosophical and tactical questions that persist through the anarchist movement include the role of technology in revolutionary movements. Gordon explores this theme, building on his recent book Anarchy Alive (also reviewed in this issue). He compares Promethean anti-capitalism – which sees (limited) technology as useful for liberation – and modern-day primitivism that cynically considers all technology to be created out of unequal power relations and authority. Although some claim that technology is “neutral”, Gordon discusses Langdon Winner's arguments that wide-spread technological developments change patterns of social relations, thereby changing society. Consequently, the invention and deployment of technology has clear political consequences, particularly as it is used for the control and domination of some people by others (namely the state and corporations). Alternately, many technologies have enabled greater (or perhaps merely different) forms of social relationships, which have benefited anarchist organizers: computers, telecommunications, and information technologies. Gordon's appraisal of technology is smartly nuanced, principled and practical at the same time, calling for an applied application of certain discarded technologies, classic folk knowledge, and other scaled technologies useful in anarchist efforts.

This special issue of Working USA is rounded out by a philosophical discussion of anarchist theory, particularly as an ethical theory and practice. Jun argues that classical anarchism has always had a solid ethical foundation, routinely dismissed by other leftists as Utopian, unscientific, or anti-intellectual. However, anarchism involves strong, principled values of freedom and equality, which, according to Jun, cannot be easily disentangled. More importantly, for this issue, classical anarchism has been deeply rooted in the working classes of European societies. The very method of delivery for anarchism – serials, pamphlets, soap-box speeches – contains a uniquely populist character that sets it apart from much of the Marxist left. Anarchism has tended to emphasize both thought and action, considering them to be entwined practices, which demonstrates that anarchism has not been adverse to theory, but merely inappropriately suited for the kind of theory typically generated by “intellectuals” and academics. Although Jun thinks that the character of contemporary anarchism has yet to be as working class as “classical” anarchism, he notes trends that could be changing this—trends observed within this issue's first three essays. He ends his essay with a call to enliven efforts to generate anarchist theory, via inspirational words and actions.

These ten essays may be viewed as calls for greater attention to anarchism within the labor movement and its connection to working class politics. The editors of this special issue of Working USA hope that the ideas contained here will be useful for deeper reflection, future re-articulation, and reinvigorated action on the part of labor and social movement scholars, anarchist activists, and the rank-and-file of today's working classes.

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