Reply to nate on mass and political organization

here is my reply to nate’s post on his blog

‘The FdCA specify that the class struggle is not “a collection of organizations for struggle produced by the situation of the class which work towards a common goal by reason of need” and they warn again “confusing the proletariat’s immediate needs (which are the basis of every struggle) and its real needs, which are the basis of the class struggle.”

I’m not sure about this, as I tend to see the class struggle as precisely this collection. I can see good reasons for making this point, though. First, if the class struggle is not just organizations then pre- and proto-organizational activity (individual and small group actions as well as so-called spontaneity – I agree with Sergio Bologna that spontaneity is just micro-organization, occurring very rapidly) are part of the class struggle. Second, the immediate organs of struggle – the union, the unemployed group, the tenant organization, etc – aren’t sufficient to take the struggle beyond the immediate concerns. That’s the real heart of the matter. That sounds reasonable to me, but it also sounds reasonable to me to say that these organizations can go beyond the immediate issues and struggles. I’m out to lunch on this. That may be my current disagreement with platformism insofar as I (mis?)understand it. I’m not convinced that a specific political organization is necessary. I do think it’s useful and can do some good, so this is not a major disagreement. I think that so-called ‘mass work’ should be prioritized and I worry that overemphasis on political organization can take time from mass work.’

I agree with your disagreements about the nature of the mass organization here. But I want to argue for the necessity of the political organization. My argument would be that neither the mass nor political organization is sufficient, except jointly (the FdCA describe this relationship as dialectical which is crudely right, though I think dialectics are not useful concepts). Likewise the political organization is necessary for two reasons: (i) it can do work that is necessary and yet cannot be done by the mass organization, (ii) without that work [it has recurred in history, thus not necessity but probability] mass organizations tend to be diffused, coopted, destroyed, etc.

on the first point. I take as my anarchist fundamental principle that the working class can build, maintain and construct and run its own world without intermediaries political or otherwise. Yet there are things that will not develop spontaneously out of struggle. The points that are most obvious here are ones that require things contradictory to the nature of the mass organization, that is things which are predicated on common/cohesive political thought, tactics, and strategy. A mass organization is inherently pluralistic, dynamic, and multifarious. For this reason, mass organizations are not adequate for (i) coordinating activity amongst those of a libertarian creed, (ii) defending against authoritarianism within mass organizations, (iii) and [a certain kind of] conscious political development.

I don’t think I need to argue for why these can’t happen in mass organizations? One reply is that they haven’t happened, and that throughout the history of revolutions and anarchist organizing, it has been precisely in these areas that we have failed on the one hand, and on the other organizations have arisen after the fact and expressed the needs for an organization that can fill these voids (Friends of Durruti, Platform, Organizational Dualists, Especificists, etc). Whatever one thinks of these organizations, the convergence towards their emergence speaks to a dynamic if not need. That was my second point. In essence when left to their own devices the history of anarchosyndicalism has pointed to the insufficiency of mass organizations in dealing with the reemergence of the state, statist cooptations, attacks from the right and left, etc. perhaps something that speaks to the success of the other strategy is that the FAI for all it’s flakyness formed to defend the libertarian orientation of the CNT, and did so successfully only after organizing as a specifically anarchist organization of CNTistas (against the treintistas). After it lost its initial purpose though…

I think this work is necessary for our struggle because we need to be able to coordinate so as to spread the libertarian character of social movements, and to defend them from statism, and attacks.

The third piece is more subtle I think. Nate is right that consciousness develops in struggle. But not only in struggle, but also from conscious deliberations with like-minded comrades who you trust, have history with, and share a common framework and work with. I think that this dynamic between consciousness through group reflection and mass struggle is one that is jointly necessary. That being said in the end the struggles must be prioritized and the political organization and work is subordinate to that work.

This point is a departure from many organizational tendencies in anarchism. Crudely stated naïve anarchosyndicalism argues that mass organizations can be revolutionary and are sufficient for revoltuion. Some anarchist communists argue that mass organizations are inherently reformist, and therefore the specific anarchist organization is the locus of revolution and the point of loyalty for the conscious minority. I would argue that indeed mass organizations can be autonomous and revolutionary, but that there are limitations both structural and historical (based on development across time) to anarchist mass organizations, which necessitate a specifically anarchist organization. This organization on the other hand must be subordinate to the mass organization that it is oriented towards. This creates some problems though as the organization itself may be problematic. Moreover the movement of society flows across social movements seemlessly unlike the arbitrary boundaries we set out for them. Capitalism pushes atomization, whereas anarchism seeks holism. For this reason the anarchist organization ought to be independent from any particular movement, but a federation of collectives that work within movements. A broader politic then is able to exist, but is oriented towards the work that is in accordance with our principles (decentralized, directly democratic, etc).

I don’t know about this either:
“the mass organization is not, and cannot be, Anarchist”.

Read Malatesta’s article on syndicalism. The argument is simple. Basically, if a mass organization was anarchist it would either have to only allow anarchists in or allow anyone in. If the former, then it wouldn’t be mass since not very many people are anarchists. If the latter, it’s not anarchist since most do not hold anarchist politics. Wack argument, but fashionable amongst platformists. The reply is that something can be anarchist without being consciously so, and that whatever it is for X to be anarchist, it is a continuum one can move towards not a binary on-off concept.

Also, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the term ‘party’ and am surprised to see anarchists use it. “[T]he Anarchist concept (…) considers the party as an integral part of the class, that part of the class which is conscious of the historical role of the proletariat.”

Platformists in europe like marxist language i hate, i.e. Party, vanguard, historical materialism, dialectics, dictatorship of the proletariat. God the worst is this collective out of budapest. Ugg.

Contrary to political organizations, mass organizations are not based on an acquired consciousness nor do they explicitly seek to promote consciousness. They are based on immediate and objective material bases which arouse undeniable physical needs. Consequently, the members of the mass organizations live through the situation they organize themselves for. Their economic role is the basis on which they can come together and, given that exploitation gives rise to all manner of unsatisfied needs (alienation), they come together to satisfy these needs as best they can. ”

I’m not sure. I think that struggle changes people. That is, mass organizations are the site where people acquire class consciousness. Second, this consciousness helps an organization be better at what it does. Therefore it is in the interest of mass organizations (and/or of the members whose interests the organization is an expression of) that its members acquire this consciousness and use it practically. There are contradictions that can exist, a sort of unevenness of interest leading to contradictory interests – leaders who have an interest in preventing consciousness in the ranks which might challenge the leaders etc (monopolists of class consciousness and those who aim to prevent class consciousness lose if the membership gains class consciousness).

Good counter-example: workers in portland choosing the IWW over a business union when presented both because of the desire for direct democracy. They could better serve their material interests…

It seems to me that political organization is a function which could exist within mass organization either formally or informally. (Again not to say a separate formal organization can’t be useful, but I don’t know that it’s a requirement.)

One thing only being inside would do is limit the amount we learn from others outside the mass organization, whereas a broader organization could challenge us with the work of others and build broader solidarity.



4 thoughts on “Reply to nate on mass and political organization

  1. hey Todd,

    Thanks for this. I replied over at mine. “Malatesta’s (…) argument is simple. Basically, if a mass organization was anarchist it would either have to only allow anarchists in or allow anyone in. If the former, then it wouldn’t be mass since not very many people are anarchists. If the latter, it’s not anarchist since most do not hold anarchist politics.”

    Where’s this at, is it online? I’d like to read it. This strikes me as a very static picture. Either people are or are not anarchists. Where do these anarchists and non-anarchists come from? And why do people join the mass organization, under what circumstances? If we see people as joining out of experiences of and needs in struggle, and if we see struggle (plus discussion and study as you note) as transformative then this argument seems to dissolve: people join the mass organization as part of a transformative experience. Put differently, this seems to presume we can’t or shouldn’t try to deliberately make people into anarchists. If that’s the general attitude then our political opponents who do try to make people into adherent will win.

    take it easy,

  2. duke, i sorta agree with some of that (minus the smack talking). i’ve never gone for malatesta’s arguments though because:
    1. ideology is less a product of will than of history. there are no apolitical unions, just unions with different positions in the class. likewise composition of the unions will vary with the context.
    2. malatesta misses the role of struggle radicalizing workers consciousness. this makes growth without watering down principles possible, since workers in participating can be radicalized (not saying it will, just that it is possible, which destroys the fork in his argument).
    3. i think the argument is true of unions. i also agree that unions are usually counterrevolutionary. i just don’t think anarchists should build unions. we should build workers organizations that (a) build consciousness through struggle itself, (b) can initiate and widen struggle, and (c) create a framework for workers/community councils. this is different from unions, and a revision of anarchosyndicalism, but one that comes out of a wing of a-s (friends of durruti, fora, councilist inspired a-s).
    4. malatesta didn’t believe it interestingly. he helped build the USI a few years after making those arguments.

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