Archive for the 'Strategy' Category


Breaking Free

For Workplace and Community Democracy

Ideas towards a syndicalist left political strategy

Why here, why now?

The idea behind this blog is to launch a space for developing ideas as to what might be done to engage with the current social and political situation. I write from the perspective of a long term activist in social, political, environmental and union fields in England. So, whilst some of these ideas might hopefully be more widely applicable, they will necessarily be largely based on what I have experienced, and the situation I see around me at first hand. This does not mean I will not draw on experiences of others from other parts of the world and other times, or from existing political theory, but it does mean that ideas I put forward are not necessarily meant to have universal application. Whilst I would hope that this will be a space for debate in comments, this blog is the product of one individual and should not be seen as an attempt to lay down some infallible programme – it is more about thinking aloud.  I aim to remain anonymous at least for the time being, both to protect my privacy and hopefully enable people to address the ideas rather than an individual or his current or historic  political affiliations.

Recent months have seen various initiatives similar to this launched in the British political blogosphere, this is a sign of the current pressing need for well thought-through and openly discussed strategies for those who currently find themselves outside of what passes for the “mainstream left” in Britain. This is not the place for discussing the malaise of decaying social democracy in Britain, the long drawn out tragedy of the Labour Party or the inability of most of the historic (Leninist or Anarchist, Green or left Scots/Welsh Nationalist) non-labour left to gain an echo or a hearing for their ideas in workplaces and communities of late. Suffice it to say at this stage it looks as though the disengagement of ordinary working class people from “official” politics, their disempowerment and even their drawing into the circles of influence of the far right is set to continue. People like the Left Luggage bloggers have begun to address the state of affairs, the IWCA and similar groups and offshoots have been doing this in a (necessarily limited, given their size) way for some years. However, many of us who have similar socialist, left libertarian, left syndicalist and democratic politics may find ourselves still within existing left parties and groups whilst disagreeing profoundly with some of their leading ideas, structures and strategies. This is because no alternative seems to currently exist and left libertarian groupings, Green, left/civic nationalist, Labour or Marxist parties at least offer a collective framework and somewhere that we might meet those of like mind.

However, whilst we might not be prepared to throw ourselves out into what might seem the political wilderness, this does not mean that those of us who are a conscious radical democratic minority cannot discuss another way forward to the current sectarian decay of the left.

As someone who has been involved in the libertarian left before involvement in green electoral politics and one who remains a committed member of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) I am fully aware of the strategies generally put forward by the most coherent left libertarian groups – the most convincing currently being the platformist group, Liberty and Solidarity. I am in complete agreement with them (and this links also to the ideas of the Left Luggage people) about the necessity and desirability of the chief focus in British circumstances at the moment being workplace and community organisation – tenants and residents groups, community campaigns, shop stewards networks and the IWW. Where I differ though, is agreeing also with the IWCA (Independent Working Class Association) that the electoral field cannot be abandoned if the far right and establishment politics are not to be allowed free reign over an important part of people’s lives and worldviews. The problem with the IWCA is that they appear to have thrown out the baby (workplace organisation and syndicalism)  with the bathwater of compromised trade unionism and labourism.

Why use the word syndicalist rather than labour or socialist?

I make no apologies for using the word syndicalist as a label. Several things may be said about this. The chief arguments about the “legitimacy” of the Labour Party of old in Britain were to do with its’ “organic” link to the working class through the unions. It is in the very name of the party. Now there is no time just at the minute to go over all the arguments about the bureaucratic and undemocratic nature of both Party and Unions for much of their history and the route to the current ongoing debacle, but the key point is a legitimate one – working people demand representation within the (flawed and treacherous) field of “official “ democracy, and their organisations have therefore had some role in this. Likewise, there is no time at the moment to go over all the arguments over not “specially privileging” economic over community organisation, but again there is debate to be had there. What seems clear to me is that there is an argument that working people should seek to elect directly accountable (where possible, mandated) people to existing bodies to act in a number of roles – amongst them, investigators, whistle blowers, spokespeople and an extension of popular resistance and opposition into enemy territory. There is no need for an ideological commitment to a vision of “social democracy victorious through conventional channels”, though. Such a vision has been responsible, (along with the perhaps inevitable corrupting effect of official politics) for progressively sidelining the more important democratic goal of local workplace and community organisation and struggle. The kind of democracy those that I associate with and sympathise with seek – economic and social – is to be achieved at this level – with political office as its expression, not its cause.

Obviously this political expression is more likely to be both possible and desirable in the foreseeable future at lower and more immediately accessible levels of the political set up in Britain. But in using the word syndicalist, the message is given that real control and democracy lie in the community and workplace and their democratic bodies, not in political parties divorced from the base. Indeed, the main location of struggle is the workplace and community, not the realm of “official politics”, important as it might be for other reasons. Of course, the regrettable political journey of a minority of renegades in the historic European syndicalist movement, and abuse of some syndicalist terminology by the opportunist far right means that we must attach the word left to syndicalist to avoid mischief. However, this is not so much a problem in England as opposed to other parts of Europe as there never was any significant syndicalist movement outwith those left-wing industrial militants (like Tom Mann and the Industrial Syndicalist Education League or ISEL) who eventually found themselves tied to the fate of the official “Communist” movement. Our commitment to direct democracy and our opposition to authoritarian partyism must make clear at what point we part company with the dodgier parts of the European syndicalist legacy. I would trust that a left syndicalist political current in Britain would hold fast to internationalism, resolute opposition to racism and scapegoating, opposition to militarism and the glorification  of violence, and opposition to state worship. Similarly the “left” word draws a line between what I am proposing and historic continental anarcho-syndicalism, which while offering many useful examples, was flawed in its attachment to inflexible anarchist ideology – an ideology that would be very difficult to advance here in current conditions, and which like Leninism carries too much negative baggage.


Intervention on the field of official politics at a local level in the foreseeable future would not be through another factional or sectional Party, but through Independent candidates agreeing a common general programme, key amongst their aims being to take direction from community and workplace bodies in their locality. An added minor advantage of Independent status for candidates would be to avoid many of the bureaucratic and intrusive demands of the British state when it is dealing with parties – a process that both ties up militants with bureaucratic tasks and helps to create a layer of political specialists divorced from the base in conventional parties. This bureaucratic layer soon acquires a different outlook and priorities to the membership, but are often in a position to exploit their advantage within party structures.

Independent left syndicalist candidates would not represent a single union or group (Industrial Unions like the IWW have anti-political rules that generally require members to suspend their membership of the union whilst they are in elected office anyway, and left unions in Britain like the RMT, FBU and PCS either have had a bad experience of affiliation to a single Party or have political independence as a goal ) The Independent left syndicalist candidate would seek to take a mandate and direction from those expressions of popular democratic organisation within the area where the vote is taken. This means that those of us who would adopt this strategy would first and foremost be interested in supporting and building fighting workplace and community organisation at a local level, which is in fact more of a pressing concern and necessity than contesting elections.

So it is this question of how those of us with history and experience of struggle, and some vision of what used to be termed “the cooperative commonwealth” engage with, promote and assist the development of basic workplace and community organisations. It is a question of how many of those who would clearly benefit from a new approach can be won to one. And as Left Luggage and the IWCA have suggested it is a question of prioritising in our work and study those questions that have immediate relevance and importance in our communities – crime, health, education, poverty, housing, overstretched services and the local environment.

Stargrave 22/04/2009

Points for further elaboration and discussion  in the near future –

· What kind of Party/Network is appropriate at the current time and in the foreseeable future and why? (A network that does not require exclusivity and which people can support whilst in existing formations whilst they still see being part of these as having value – why the theoretically based membership organisation should not be fetishised.)

· How to oppose reactionary currents fighting on the same turf?

· Linking together the existing independent left.

· Internationalism

· Sources of useful ideas and viewpoints – links.

· How being more effective on local issues will lead to being more effective on global issues – e.g. climate change.

· What is the trajectory of mainstream politics in Britain?

· What is the global trajectory – what is the big picture?

· Answering criticism – Diffusion v Democratic centralism – the false choice.

· Class alliances and differences, real and imagined.  The “class blind” and “class blinded” objections.  Class in Britain versus the rest of the world.  Language and terminology.

· Nuts and bolts – community and workplace organisation –the dangers of bureaucracy, co-option, diversion, entryism and exhaustion.  Focus and broader cooperation in balance.

· Why do people join?  Why do people stay?  What puts people off?  Openness and honesty.

· The skills of activists – organisational and motivational

· The unorganized.  Helping the unorganized to get organized.  Base unionism and rank and file within TUC unions.

· Sober appraisal of circumstances.  The prioritising of winnables versus diffuse universal solidarity controversy. Workplaces and communities in need.  Avoiding co-option.

April 2020