In one of his contributions to the Reimagining Society Project Tom Wetzel presents what essentially seems to me to be a traditional anarcho-syndicalist approach to organising for social transformation. Here I argue that developments in participatory vision, that have occurred over the past couple of decades, have had an impact on strategy in ways that Tom’s proposal does not take into account. (1)
To my mind these developments in vision have opened-up new ways of thinking about strategy – new ways that even some advocates of participatory vision don’t seem to appreciate. What I find particularly exciting about these new developments is that they also seem to me to harbour the potential to overcome much of the division that exists within the Left – that is if the Left can open-up its collective mind and seriously consider some new ideas for organising.
In point 6 Tom states –
"From the 1860s into the 20th century the vision of workers’ self-management of industry was developed by radical worker activists as part of a political tendency in the working class — libertarian (or anarcho-) syndicalism. Syndicalism is both program and strategy. Libertarian syndicalists see a self-managing socialism as a creation of "the workers themselves." This is seen as emerging from a mass worker movement where a widening solidarity, mass participation in actions, and direct worker control of the mass worker organizations expresses the growing working class aspiration for control over their lives on and off the job."
That sounds good but does this account of self-management address all areas of economic activity – production, consumption and allocation? As Robin Hahnel has pointed out in his contributions to the Reimagining Society Project -
"The traditional socialist vision of democratic planning remains blind to the need to provide workers in enterprises and consumers in neighbourhoods with a considerable degree of autonomy over their own behaviour. On the other hand, libertarian socialist and anarchist visions are blind to the need for carefully designed procedures to help producers and consumers who should be autonomous in some regards but not in others, plan activities that are highly interrelated both equitably and efficiently." (2)
Hahnel adds that "A penchant for avoiding serious – not to be confused with contentious — debate over exactly what procedures are best suited for different categories of economic decisions has hidden these blind spots for too long."
As a solution to overcoming these blind spots in vision for a classless economy Robin Hahnel, along with Michael Albert, propose participatory planning as an alternative to both central planning and competitive markets.
Although not typical, in my experience, of anarchists / syndicalists of the past and present, here I think that Tom would agree that participatory planning has overcome a serious weakness in left libertarian vision for a classless economy. However, what I really want to discuss is how this development in vision impacts on strategy. Or more precisely, how the clarification of participatory planning as a means of allocating goods and services in a classless economy affects the way in which we think about the transition from a capitalist economy to a participatory economy.
Tom states that "Worker-controlled — "self-managed" — mass worker organizations, rooted in direct democracy, provide the vehicle for workers to create a new economic system in which they are in the driver’s seat."
He adds that, "From a libertarian syndicalist point of view, this movement needs to be generalized throughout the society. Syndicalists look to an eventual rupture with the existing system through a generalized taking over of management authority in workplaces and industries by workers, in both the public and private sector — expropriating the capitalists and evicting the management hierarchy from power."
Tom continues stating that, "During a period when a fundamental challenge is being mounted to the dominating classes, there is likely to be significant economic and political disruption and conflict."
He rightly says that "We need to have a strategy that can ensure people’s material well-being in that situation."
And then he claims that "An advantage of the syndicalist strategy is that the workforce itself possesses the skills and knowledge needed to keep production flowing."
Tom points-out that "From a libertarian syndicalist point of view, it is through a transformative general strike that the building of a different social arrangement begins."
From Tom’s point of view, the revolutionary scenario we are looking at includes the following key points –
- significant economic and political disruption and conflict.
- ensure people’s material well-being in that situation
- keep production flowing
- transformative general strike
So we are looking at a situation whereby during a "general strike" we will "keep production flowing" so as to "ensure people’s material well-being in that situation". Plus amongst "significant economic and political disruption and conflict" we are to implement a transition from competitive markets to participatory planning – amongst other major changes.
In my opinion what advocates of traditional syndicalist strategy need to do in light of this clarity of vision is to say in much more detail how the transition will actually take place. But even if the traditional syndicalist strategy is practically possible does it not make sense to consider other, possibly much easier and less violent, roots to the same objectives?
It seems to me that syndicalist strategy increases class tension to the max! However, if possible, don’t we want a strategy that slowly decreases class tension, to the point where it no longer exists, rather than increasing class tension to the point of all out class war? Surely such possibilities are at least worth exploring – even if, in the end, we reject them.
Other areas of development in participatory vision now make it possible to consider new strategic options. For example, writing about Steve Shalom’s vision for a participatory political system (parpolity) Michael Albert states –
"The problem that arises for serious people responding to Proudhon’s and many other inspiring anarchist formulations is that they do not specify how to transcend the regimentation typical of state and government. They don’t explain how each citizen and community can freely determine its own actions organizationally. How do we legislate shared norms, implement collective programs, and adjudicate disputes, including dealing with violations of sociality? How do we prevent humans from being reduced to atomized units clashing and jangling, and instead compose a society where the actions of each person collectively benefit all other people?" (3)
One possible reason for the neglect in this area of developing vision and strategy is that anarchists typically see the objective of the revolution as to bring the political sphere to a close. Thus Chomsky states –
"… the libertarian doctrine of the anarchists, particularly in its principle that the state must disappear, to be replaced by the industrial organisation of society in the course of the social revolutions itself. Proudhon in 1885 wrote that what we put in place of the government is industrial organisation, and many similar comments can be sited." (4)
One such similar comment that illustrates this anarchist bias was highlighted by Rudolph Rocker and can be found in the IWA’s declaration of principles which, amongst other things states –
"Against the politics of the State and of parties it erects the economic organisation of labour; against the government of men, it sets up the management of things. Consequently, it has for its objective, not the conquest of political power, but the abolition of every State function in social life." (5)
These statements seem to imply that the functions of government – the creation and enforcement of laws – will become redundant in a classless society. This is a position shared by both Marxists and anarchists but as Michael Albert makes clear –
"Thugs with clubs, in all variants, whether aroused by liquor, jealousy, arrogance, greed, pathology, or some other antisocial attribute, won’t disappear from a good society"
He continues, adding -
"So we need to establish institutions that let us accomplish political functions in accord with our values, just as we need to establish economic institutions that let us accomplish economic functions in accord with our values. The question for political vision is: what are desirable new political institutions?"
This is the question that Steve Shalom tries to answer in his proposed vision for a participatory political system. It seems to me, therefore, that parpolity overcomes another major blind spot in left vision. But it also seems to me that the clarification of political vision opens up new possibilities for strategy and organising for social transformation that, due to their misguided thinking and subsequent lack of vision in this area, traditional anarchists / syndicalists have failed to take full advantage of.
Furthermore, and more importantly, it seems to me that this clarification of vision for a political system that complements participatory economics has opened-up new possibilities for strategy that actually bypass the difficulties found in traditional anarchist / syndicalist programs highlighted above. I have laid-out what such a program might look like in one of my contributions to the ReSoc Project. (6)
I have argued that -
- overcoming blind spots in the economic sphere (most notably participatory planning) has highlighted the complexities involved in traditional syndicalist strategy.
- Following this clarification in vision for a classless economy I have requested a clear and more detailed account of how the transition from capitalist economics to participatory economics could occur from a syndicalist point of view.
- I also pointed out that the syndicalist strategy increases class tension to the point of class war and that if possible we should employ strategy that has the opposite outcome.
- Finally I have argued that overcoming additional blind spots in the political sphere have opened-up the possibility to develop new strategy that avoids the complexities mentioned in point one of this summery whilst also possibly avoiding out-and-out class war as mentioned in point three of this summery.
- From Solidarity Unionism to a Self-managed Society
- Overcoming Blind Spots In Left Vision: Participatory Planning
- Realizing Hope.
- Government in the Future
- Social Transformation in Six Stages