FdCA on mass organization: it’s nature and our role

I recently re-read the FdCA’s position paper on the Mass Organization (which it should be said is only one tiny piece of their interlocking theoretical and strategic pieces).  Taken on its own the pieces main strengths are its critiques[i], it’s weaknesses I would say are its proposals for the role of revolutionaries and mass organizations. I have to preface this by saying that I am sure I’m getting some of this wrong translating from the Italian to American context, that this article is fairly schematic and connected to other pieces I don’t explore, and my reply is likewise schematic and a rough rough draft a serious response.  

"They are different from political organizations and we must not deny this difference, nor relegate them to the role of second-class revolutionary organizations and seek to dominate them. Neither must we reduce our own role to second-class status and submit to the mass organizations. The relationship that we have with mass organizations must be one of a continuous dialectic, representing a real interchange and not limited to a one-way flow. The first essential, but not unique, condition for there to be a real interchange is that both entities be truly autonomous."

While rather simple this is worth saying since, well, most radicals in the US are fairly simple about mass organizing. While the 1st is seen with some Leninist groups, it is the 2nd I see more often. Radicals often take a fairly spontaneist and formalistic democratic orientation to mass organizations, and see little role for radicals beyond being foot soldiers for the unions and NGOs. Now even that is an improvement over protest politics and political cliques separated from struggle, but it is an orientation that leads only to running in circles within mass organizations, and will never take us beyond strategies within capitalism to strategies to move beyond it.  I’m not sure how useful it is to say the relationship should be dialectic, I think it isn’t, but it’s true there should be back and forth and co-evolution should occur. This is especially true in light of the fact that presently those involved in mass organizing are more advanced generally than the politicized layer of people outside that work (which is the norm in the US).

"Historically speaking, even the continual preaching of direct action and self-management within the unions has failed in its revolutionary aims when, reduced to pure syndical method and having lost its alternative, libertarian content, it has come up against proposals for struggle which were supported by organic political programmes, or when it has come up against the pure and simple fact that the dominant classes were able to take over what were by then empty methodologies which were often reduced to pure extremism. This collapse has since dragged libertarian methods along with it, methods which have often seemed wonderful, but which did not have a practical historical link or general prospects."

The orientation of many within mass work is to bring libertarian methods (direct action, autogestion, etc) to the mass struggle, often in combo with largely symbolic and alienated[ii] forms of political activity like passing resolutions within these organizations (resolutionary syndicalism). FdCA is clear that there is no guarantee by these methods alone that we will have a libertarian potential over any other one.

Likewise they are clear about the need for revolutionaries to be present directly in struggle, built out of working class communities, and not theorizing from the outside or as professional activists. This shouldn’t really be controversial, but unfortunately it is given the left’s social position, and the propensity of radicals to seek out academic, union, and NGO work,  over other forms of political activity (to whatever extent that work can even be called political).

“These requisites are only held by members of the exploited class. They are the only ones who can develop them and use them correctly. Nobody can know what alienation is unless they experience it. Merely knowing about alienation from a distance means nothing. Alienation cannot exist if the person does not have to live with it and react to it (either positively or negatively, mentally or physically) and therefore contribute to its determination. Those who only perceive the social alienation of the exploited class can only have an attitude of solidarity towards them (much as it may be useful and sincere), but can never substitute themselves for the proletariat in their alienation, nor decide how best to defend oneself from it.”

The FdCA also believes that revolutionaries should be present in the struggles to learn from them, to develop revolutionaries, and move our own thinking forward. This is positive, and recognizes the crucial necessity of a praxis in regards to mass organizing, and the limitations in consciousness of revolutionaries abstracted from struggle. This is a simple point, but worth emphasizing given the state of the movement.

“These lessons must be learnt also by our comrades, the members of the mass organizations who will learn them through their practice – not personally, but through the collective struggles of the organization – so that they become part of the official political heritage of the organization itself and, finally, build precious material for the continuous political education of its members, old and new.”

Going the other direction, I worry they’re too narrow. “Neither should we forget that these mass organizations are an ideal pool of prospective political militants, for the obvious reasons of the social position of the members and the composition of the mass organizations”. The biggest reason why militants are the ideal pool for revolutionary organization is that the struggle can advance people in a way that converting purely ideologically cannot. While the ideological component is important and fundamental, it creates an imbalance between theory and practice that can only be overcome by hard work, high levels of dedication, and immersion in the struggle.  This wouldn’t be as much of a question if the lion’s share of the left didn’t come out of academia, where even student politics usually isn’t linked to students struggling for their own interests as students in mass work.

Their conception of the work of the political organization is too uni-directional, despite the above paragraphs. While we are instructed to learn from the mass organization it’s somewhat vague, while the political organization’s task is clear “the aim of the political organization is only to provide the mass organizations with the fruits of the historical consciousness of the revolutionary proletariat”. On a related side note, the FdCA is much more clear about what ideas they think the revolutionary organization brings to the table relative to other groups that call for “leadership of ideas”.  That is, the nature of class and class struggle, the limitations of capitalism, and the need for revolution and anarchist communist society.  Too often people leave that open, and in the process our role becomes promoting direct action, assuming there’s a direct link between that and revolutionary consciousness (there isn’t).

Their conception (or my butchery of it) though is overly educationalist. It relies too much on a conception of the development of revolutionary consciousness through explicit learning, whether tied to struggle or not. Revolutionary consciousness however develops not merely through conscious reflection by individuals, or within mass organizations, but is preceded by activity that prefigures the shifts that can occur within groups. Action (can) precede consciousness. Consciousness likewise moves along not in steps, but sometimes in leaps. As struggles move forward, and sometimes explode, the scope of what is possible likewise changes. Revolutionaries pointing out the class and revolutionary content within struggles is of questionable efficacy. Should we do it, yes? Is that our task or strategy? It shouldn’t be.

These issues intersect with all the business about the nature of the mass organization and its distinction from the political organization. I think they waffle here. On the one hand they say things like

“Mass organizations differ from anarchist communist political organizations in that they have different bases and purposes. They do not have that clarity regarding the final goal that the political organization can have, though they potentially have the same goal as the political organization.”

While on the other hand saying things like

“Consequently, mass organizations must have the capacity to form their own objectives and the necessary methods of struggle by basing themselves on needs and on the consciousness of their natural members.”

Without quote slinging, here’s what I think is going on:

1.       There’s a latent appeal to Malatesta-esque arguments that people join mass organizations for common economic interests. Politicized mass organization divides that struggle, and either puts forward false programs no one believes, or creates de facto political organizations. The fallout is that mass organizations have a sharp distinction in terms of political content, and presumably don’t get to be revolutionary (except on the eve of the revolution). I could be reading too much into this.

2.       They recognize that mass organizations change as the struggle changes, and grant the need for political development and debate to occur within those struggles.

On #1 I think the crudest way they put the first part of this is:

“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. ”

There are missing pieces here though. First, it’s a static orientation that assumes: the unity of mass organizations and that they don’t become more or less politicized over time. In nearly every place I’ve heard of there is a plurality of mass organizations with more or less ideological divisions. Now we might think that’s dumb and oppose it, but that’s not the nature of mass organization that’s our analysis of how they should be. Likewise while economic interests play a strong role, it is myopic to miss the normative reasons why people are active in mass organizations.

It’s worth pointing out that the economic piece might be overstated. Many people who struggle in mass organizations lose (if not most). The costs are often higher than the benefits. Lots of people lose their jobs, undergo great financial hardships, and even experience violence in struggle against exploitation often with little hope of compensation or even winning. In my personal experience, I’ve seen more lifelong workplace organizers come out of failed campaigns than successful ones (not saying that generalizes, but it’s worth reflecting on).

The role of values, vision, other possibilities, etc., is huge in mass organization. It’s part of the reason we see wacky combinations of political and religious themes throughout these movements. Given the plurality and the politicized nature of mass organization, it is somewhat arbitrary to exclude revolutionary content from it. Better to say, mass organizations become revolutionary when the class does, likewise with sections of the class. As struggles expand and contract, it happens unevenly. It’s natural then that sections of the class will build organization, or organization will change, to meet these lessons and experiences.

It seems unworkable to me honestly to try and convince all these groups to merge into politically neutral economic front (not sure if FdCA supports that). I’m not sure how you would do that, or why that’s a better approach than trying to work where things are presently. Further limiting mass organizations from graduating to the political big leagues is something of a shackle on their development. What do we do then should sections of the class surge ahead and capitalize on the lessons of struggle? Something that is little discussed is how without sufficient space and organizational power, it becomes difficult to sustain and develop these struggles within larger (usually hostile) organizations. That isn’t to support small isolated experiments, but to recognize an additional need, space to sustain the gains of struggle when it doesn’t exist already.

All this I believe changes the role of revolutionaries in mass organizing. I think our role is less in the historical repository of class wisdom, so much as it is midwives of struggle, organizing, and nurseries of militants and organizations that can spread and develop mass revolutionary consciousness. Conscious instruction has some role to play, but I think it’s second fiddle to the mass work, though crucial to our one-on-one work and development of militants.


I’m not sure I follow them here. They make an appeal for respecting the autonomy of the mass organization, sure enough. Instrumentalism about the mass organization is a bad idea, and led to bureaucracy, repression, etc. Fine.  Then this,

“The significance of the autonomy of mass organizations is that the masses can learn to build a revolutionary programme only if they have complete freedom to put the objectives of struggle into action, to choose and evaluate them for themselves and without imposition from outside forces. In a system of social domination, this freedom means that the only obstacles to the masses’ action must appear and be affronted by the masses themselves as conflictual factors, as arms of the class enemy, as products of class society.”

This seems problematic though, because that freedom will never really exist, except in half-measures. Within capitalist society there will be innumerable forces trying to co-opt and divert struggles. Perhaps they mean it more loosely, that revolution needs to freedom from influence more or less. I’m not sure how much hinges on this honestly, because I think it works the other way. When class power emerges strongly, it will rupture these influences. Otherwise, if it goes the other way, I think we’re trapped…


[i] I will not go into much of this since I think it’s fairly uncontroversial for libertarians at the moment, and I want to focus on other aspects of the position. I will say that I think they set up a number of straw men in terms of syndicalists, ultralefts, etc. While not naming them outright, it seems like the ideologism, spontaneism, etc., are based not so much on real arguments, but caricatures of real positions. I found those parts least interesting and less useful and am ignoring them for brevity.

[ii] I’m trying to use shorthand here to mean roughly when political groups propagandize to the masses separated from activity and struggle.


One thought on “FdCA on mass organization: it’s nature and our role

  1. hi Todd,

    Thanks for this. I agree w/ you that the ‘learning from the mass organization’ piece is underdeveloped/underpresented here. That’s the bit I think I think I care most about and would like to hear a lot more about. Maybe this is really basic but I feel like in my experience in the US that there’s also a preliminary level that’s needed, a ‘learning how to be in a mass organization’ or ‘how to be useful at all’.

    I like your point about direct action fetishism. I’d like to see you expand on that part of this response (in the paragraph that begins “Their conception of the work of the political organization…”)

    Great point on the Malatesta-ish stuff and, as you put it, missing the normative reasons why people are active in mass organizations. I think that’s key and something we should talk more about. I like your point about costs being higher than benefits. But those aside, even when the costs/benefits do balance, I think those books balance oftentimes because of extra-economic factors: life long loyal union activists, say, often give up a lot (lack of social and family lives, etc) and they gain a lot but not a lot *economically*.

    take care,

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