Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lights in the dark: CNT and CGT members on indefinite strike against redundancies in Catalunya

The following is a repost from

Members of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT union and CGT union have gone on indefinite strike and occupied their workplace at the IMESAPI lighting plant in Granollers, Catalunya, Spain, demanding an end to the redundancy plans which would see four of the 21 workers let go.

The workers – now 23 days into their strike – are responsible for maintaining the street lights throughout the small Catalan town, and therefore are of critical importance to the town council. IMESAPI itself is a part of the huge ACS conglomerate owned by Florentino Pérez, the multibillionaire engineering tycoon known internationally as the owner of Real Madrid FC.

Crucially, all of the workers at the Granollers plant belong to either the CNT or CGT unions, who have vowed to back the strike as long as it continues, unlike the mainstream Comisiones Obreras union,who signed off on similar redundancy packages at IMESAPI plants in Barcelona (which saw a failed strike) and Tenerife.

Despite now finding themselves alone in their struggle, the IMESAPI strikers have been industrious: holding twice-weekly family demonstrations marching through the town to the town hall. The strikers' march through the town centre on 22 December was a cold bucket of water for shoppers on possibly the most important commercial day of the year. As their children - at the demonstration's head with a banner that said: “FLORENTINO PEREZ, WHAT ABOUT OUR TOYS?” - filed past over the umpteen Nativity scenes and kitsch Christmas decorations, one could sense an evident contrast between the absurd myth of Christmas plenitude perpetuated by town councils and retail, and the real sense of festive lack being endured by many in crisis-hit Spain.

Indeed, workers on the demonstration spoke of a lean Christmas, while many were worrying about their next mortgage payment. A further blow has been the cynicism of IMEPASI, who still haven't paid their workers their annual Christmas bonus, despite repeatedly promising to do so. They have also refused to open their books to the unions, who suspect financial irregularities on the part of their employers and claim that the new redundancy measures would make the remaining workers' jobs impossible.

The strike and occupation continues and you can keep track of it on Facebook (in Catalan/Spanish):

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fighting For Ourselves

Solidarity Federation

This new Solidarity Federation pamphlet is a thorough, fascinating and inspirational introduction to the anarcho-syndicalist group's perspective - taking in the past, present and projected future of workers' struggles in the UK, Europe and the world. But while it presents a compelling argument for the necessity of SolFed's tactical approach, Fighting For Ourselves does not make a strong case for SolFed itself being the primary locus of that fightback.

Perhaps the single most impressive thing about the work is the seriousness of the approach taken. Clearly a lot of thought, preparation and debate have gone into it. What's more - the writers clearly perceive that: a) the current economic crisis presents both challenge and opportunity, and b) mass rank-and-file organisation is now self-evidently the most 'realistic' way forward.

Chapter one analyses "the mainstream workers' movement", charting from the full-blooded origins of trade unionism to today's hollowed-out bureaucratic structures. In contemporary times, "The energy it would take to reform or dislodge such bureaucracies, not just the elected officials but the structures themselves, is many times that required to simply bypass the bureaucracy and take action outside it." This history of this development is far from exhaustive, but does point out major milestones along the way. Particularly important is the shift from what is termed "associational" to "representative" models, with the latter meaning a paid bureaucracy has to kept in place, and therefore most have distinct material interests to those it is supposedly representing. The case study of early 20th century bureaucrat John Turner is particularly instructive in this regard - he considered himself an anarchist, but "By 1909 Turner was accused from one quarter of playing the 'role of one of the most blatant reactionaries with which the Trades Union movement was ever cursed'".

It then moves on to self-styled 'revolutionary' and 'Marxist' parties, and using the phrase 'dictatorship of the proletariat' tars all Marxists with the brush of seeking state power over the working class. This is an error, which is even hinted at in the brief reference to Marx's opinion of the 1871 Paris Commune. I hope it is an honest error, especially because the rest of the critique stands up to scrutiny, and is well aimed in its breakdown of the Bolsheviks, their immediate descendants, and those who falsely claim their mantle in the 21st century (the observation that "Revolutionary rhetoric serves as a mask for reformist practice" in modern fake left organisations is particularly pertinent).

All of which leads us inevitably to the Labour Party, and a superb blow by blow takedown of its reactionary record as defenders of ruling class privilege. Whereas left apologists often cite the achievements of the post-war Atlee government, SolFed correctly describe this is a response largely agreed on by all three bourgeois parties, including the Conservatives. As Tory MP Quintin Hogg surmised in 1943, the prevailing attitude was that "we must give them reform or they will give us revolution." The social democratic settlement was therefore largely taken rather than merely given, because "without the tangible threat of working class unrest, that [elite] consensus would never have been acted on".

With reformist unions, top-down "Marxist" groupings and the Labour Party dispatched, the next two chapters take in all shades of anarchists, syndicalists, and "dissident Marxist" currents which have attempted to organise amongst the working class down the years. There's plenty to learn here, and the logic flows neatly from one idea to another, with each group apparently having learned from the failures of its predecessors.

It's easy to see why this is a convenient device for the writers, because the reader quickly begins to suspect that SolFed will emerge as the perfect outcome and synthesis of all these different ideas! But history doesn't work quite as simply as that. Certainly we should aim to learn from the past, but primarily it is material circumstances which shape ideas, which then drive people into action. This may seem a trivial - almost drily philosophical - point to make, but it does have real world repercussions, as evidenced in the concluding chapter.

Before we get there though, there is an excellent section on post-war class struggle. This draws quite heavily on macroeconomics, although you certainly don't need a degree in it to get your head round the main thrust of the argument. SolFed contend - again rightly - that the post-war settlement meant "the institutionalisation of the working class as a collective entity", which was managed in the interests of the ruling class in line with the Keynesian doctrine fashionable in elite circles at the time. In the late 60s and early 70s, this model was ruptured by economic crisis, and working people reached a major limitation in terms of what they could wring from the capitalist class without pushing on to revolution. SolFed admit that - from a capitalist perspective - there really was "no alternative" - as Thatcher put it - to the neoliberal counter-revolution launched more than three decades ago.

So following the imposition of this agenda by many successive prime ministers - and in the midst of widespread capitalist breakdown - the financial elite's refusal to give an inch leaves no space for the bureaucracy to operate, and this means there really is no alternative to rank and file organisation of working class fightback.

It is at this point that Fighting For Ourselves presents its prescription: for workers to organise themselves in an anarcho-syndicalist union - i.e. SolFed, organise direct action for themselves based on the resources at their disposal, and by the power of example draw ever more people into the organisation. Eventually this will lead to mass insurrectionary general strikes around the world, which could quickly abolish the wage relation, and create a world of free access - full communism.

This is spelled out with luminous liveliness and self-belief, and this is the most emotionally powerful section of the pamphlet. I might quibble about some terms here and there, and I might predict that certain phases might take longer than SolFed envisage, but I agree about the fundamentals. At this stage of the battle - before mass non-hierarchical struggles against austerity have begun over much of the world - this should almost be enough.

Yet it is not quite. Despite a few caveats about SolFed not being the be all and end all, this is a SolFed-centric vision. This is maybe most evident in the passage about the SolFed Local:
"At the heart of the anarcho-syndicalist union is the Local, which aims to be at the centre of community and workplace struggle in the surrounding area. But the role of the Local goes beyond that. It provides the physical space where a diverse range of groups, such as oppressed, cultural, and education groups can organise. The Local acts as the social, political, and economic centre for working class struggle in a given area. It is the physical embodiment of our beliefs and methods, the means by which workers become anarcho-syndicalist not just on the basis of ideas but activity."
Such bodies will need to exist. But if there is a particular reason why they should be part of - or mainly facilitated by - SolFed, it is not described within these pages. Thinking of Liverpool radical politics right now, I would love to be in such a group with the SolFed comrades, but I'd want AFed comrades there too, as well as the many unaligned comrades who make up the overwhelming majority of radical class struggle activists.

The hypothetical SolFed organisation of the future as painted so vividly at the end of Fighting For Ourselves is just that - a theoretical abstraction based on lessons learned from all the defeated mass struggles of the past. If - as seems likely - mass struggles break out worldwide in 2013, workers may well make use of SolFed. But why not AFed? Why not the IWW? Why not the platformist groups? But come to that, why won't they forge their own tools with which to beat the boss class, based on their own lived experiences in their own class struggle classrooms? Surely, in this hyper-globalised, hyper-linked world, what works will spread memetically, in a way prefigured by the Occupy movement of 2011.

For all this pamphlet's attacks on 'vanguards', its focus on building a specific organisation - i.e. by SolFed - when "we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers’ resistance", still leaves us with a tiny minority trying to lead the immense global proletariat by example. I wish them all the best with that task.

You can buy hard copies of Fighting for ourselves for £6 (including p&p) from Freedom Press (UK - £5 in the shop), and for $10+p&p from Thoughtcrime Ink Books (North America). It can also be viewed or downloaded for free from the 'Selfed' website.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Mother

Maxim Gorky

"What queer people you are!" said the mother to the Ukrainian one day. "All are your comrades--the Armenians and the Jews and the Austrians. You speak about all as of your friends; you grieve for all, and you rejoice for all!" 

"For all, mother dear, for all! The world is ours! The world is for the workers! For us there is no nation, no race. For us there are only comrades and foes..."

When I was searching a cover image to go with this review, I stumbled across another one on the LibCom website, which was published just three weeks ago. Though I'm reluctant to say it proves anything much, it's an extraordinary coincidence that both me and the writer of that piece were both drawn to this novel this autumn. Speaking for myself, I found I drew enormous strength to persevere in what Gorky called "treading the path of truth and reason", in the teeth of what has been an extremely bleak year for 'the left'. But it was no mere comfort blanket; I was everywhere confronted with the brutal reality of the system here and now in the descriptions of the system there and then, and challenged in my own assumptions on every page.

Gorky was born into something quite far removed from the privilege which nurtured Leo Tolstoy. Orphaned at nine, he ran away from home at twelve to find his grandmother, who raised him until she herself died. Gorky attempted suicide, before taking a series of itinerant jobs across Russia, which gave him a sharp insight into the struggles of life on the margins. It was these people he wrote about in his early years as a journalist, essayist and novelist.

The intensification of mass struggles in the earliest years of the twentieth century sharpened his focus even further, and he was drawn to the emerging workers' movement. The abortive 1905 revolution against the Tsar provided the inspiration for The Mother - a staggering work which pulls no punches in describing the abject lives of the dispossessed, yet never employs condescending pity in the way that petit bourgeois-raised Charles Dickens did, for example. For Gorky, the working class were full of fight, and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves given half a chance.

The writer showed great skill in painting a picture of a scene in a few lines, with each holding a huge weight of rich social significance. One awesome illustration of this comes early on, when Gorky describes how the main female protagonist watched over her young adult son Pavel after he'd been out drinking for the first time:
"But when she returned he was already asleep. She stood over him for a minute, trying to breathe lightly. The cup in her hand trembled, and the ice knocked against the tin. Then, setting the cup on the table, she knelt before the sacred image upon the wall, and began to pray in silence. The sounds of dark, drunken life beat against the window panes; an accordion screeched in the misty darkness of the autumn night; someone sang a loud song; someone was swearing with ugly, vile oaths, and the excited sounds of women's irritated, weary voices cut the air."
The mother begins the novel as a battered wife, surviving day to day on the urge to protect Pavel from his father's blows, and drawing vague comfort from prayers before Christian icons. Gradually she is drawn into the small revolutionary circle of Pavel's friends, and by the end she faces something like martyrdom at the centre of a rapidly growing network of comrades spanning from town to town and deep into the countryside. Through her, we know her people.

In the wrong hands, this kind of work could seem preachy and didactic. But even though obviously intended to draw people into the cause, Gorky had lived the life he was describing, and it was clearly everything to him. The many female characters are determined and strong-willed - an extreme rarity in its day, and not much more common today. But this is never forced or tokenistic - it is realistic. Some scenes - particularly those around the May Day parade - left me hardly believing that a mortal had written them, such was the brilliance of Gorky's ability to portray conflicting forces and warring emotions in just a few words.

As the LibCom reviewer put it:
"The situation is bleak and promises no immediate change; only through a long uphill struggle will oppression be overcome. But a faith, one not unlike that of primitive christianity, is what ushers the characters in this novel, the mother especially, to go onwards and fight and believe, and pour nearly every ounce of hope and joy into the struggle as it persists from day to day. The beauty of the future society, a society based on the sharing of the world's wealth in common, brightens the revolutionary mission the characters have taken upon themselves, at a great amount of risk."
Or in Gorky's glowing language: "Who can extinguish this love? Who? What force can destroy it? What force can opposite it? The earth has given it birth, and life itself longs for its victory. Life itself!”

Amen to that.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Liverpool Starbucks and Poundland Targeted on Day of Action

The scene at the front of Bold Street Starbucks at Saturday lunchtime...
A large group of activists wreaked a little bit of havoc with pre-Christmas capitalist business as usual on Saturday afternoon, as they joined in with a nationwide UK Uncut action, and also targeted workfare exploiters Poundland.

The five hours of fun began at noon, with a static rally organised by Liverpool Against The Cuts, who also played a co-ordinating and publicising role in the run-up to Saturday. It took place next to the Co-operative bank on the corner of Bold Street, and like other recent demos, it seemed quite isolated from the general public milling by. A handful of speakers decried the government's austerity agenda through a megaphone, but it appeared to make little impact on busy shoppers.

After a few minutes, a group led by the Socialist Singers and the Angry Women of Liverpool made their move on the local branch of Starbucks - the multi-billion pound company which has recently been making the headlines for its ability to avoid paying tax. Police were monitoring the front Bold Street entrance, and the back door had been locked, but a small number of us managed to get inside by simply posing as customers and strolling past the cops. Once inside, the AWOL banner was unfurled. This inevitably provoked the anger of the manager and a plainclothes cop/security guard, who claimed he "didn't want to hurt" one demonstrator, but twisted her hand and wrist in opposite directions as she and comrades were bundled out of the building.

But by this time, the Socialist Singers had massed outside the front entrance, effectively blocking it, and scores more had moved from the static demo to hear them/join in, creating a 'wall of sound'. The front door was also locked, and only opened when the customers already inside wanted to leave.

The shop was closed for at least a couple of hours over the busy lunchtime period, and many caffeine seekers were turned away. Most left with no complaint once they were informed we'd closed the branch due to Starbucks' refusal to pay taxes, and the link with the austerity bearing down on us all was constantly reinforced by the many placards and banners. But one American appeared to be in denial, claiming it was "an objective fact I can get coffee in this shop", while another man announced he supported the cuts to "bad nurses and bad teachers", for which he was roundly booed and denounced as "Tory scum".

Eventually, a breakaway group moved away in knots of twos and threes, in order to hit the Liverpool One Starbucks branch half a mile down the road. There we encountered more hostility from the manager and one cop in particular, but this time the element of surprise meant that we'd got more bodies into the shop itself, therefore making it more difficult to evict us all without arrests. After much shouting, a lengthy standoff ensued, while passers-by took photos through the windows, many of which were uploaded on social networking websites.

...and the back!
Finally, the police ran out of patience, and 'good cop' was sent over to couch a threat of arrest under aggressive trespass legislation in "respect for your right to demonstrate" and acknowledgement that "you've had a really successful protest". At this point we decided to walk out together, with large numbers maintaining a picket outside, whilst others of us swapped UK Uncut for Boycott Workfare, and descended on the Williamson Square Poundland.

We have held many pickets there over the past few months, and normally the security guard merely asks us to make sure we are not blocking access as we hand out leaflets and talk to people about the workfare scheme. This time however - perhaps because his patience had run out or perhaps due to Christmas pressure - he threatened to call the police, before actually calling three other 'security' men, one of whom was a massive tracksuited guy. This individual proceeded to push one protester, throw balled-up pieces of paper at me, and make gang signs. Another threatened to meet demonstrators "down a dark alley".

The law did arrive about twenty minutes later, and as is usual they marched straight inside to consult with the store security. When they emerged, they were deaf to our complaints about the criminal acts committed by 'security', but the senior cop clearly didn't want to make any arrests either, so he merely repeated the normal security mantra of "make sure you don't block the door", having warned his junior colleague to back off and calm down. Many potential customers took our literature, and stopped for a chat.

As the clock ticked round to five, we decided to call it a day, satisfied that we had put in hours of excellent work. The afternoon had been a massive success - costing Starbucks significant amounts of money, and generating great publicity for our causes. These victories were only possible due to the coming together of many different groups and unaligned people on the radical left, which gave us the numbers necessary to make a big physical impact, and made for a fantastic atmosphere. However, we need to make more effort to communicate with the workers in the shops. In the case of Poundland and other workfare profiteers, real jobs and wages are being undermined by the scheme. And Starbucks declared war on its staff this week, as it refused to accept any cut in profits if and when it decides to pay some corporation tax.

Saturday's events provided a brief, tantalising hint of working class power, but real change will have to be based on workplace organisation.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Liverpool Students Prepare For Anti-Cuts Day Of Action

As George Osborne was waging relentless class war from the House of Commons dispatch box this afternoon, Liverpool students and supporters held a small demo with a massive banner outside the University of Liverpool Guild of Students building.

The group handed out leaflets promoting the big anti-cuts day of action, which will take place in the city this coming Saturday. The event will see activists from anti-cuts, anti-workfare and anti-tax dodging campaigns link up to cause disruption to capitalist business as usual in the run-up to Christmas.

People who wish to take part should assemble at noon by the Co-operative bank on Bold Street.

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