The Ghosts That Still Haunt Us: Old School Syndicalism Not As Irrelevant As It Should Be

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A critique of another critique of a critique of syndicalism. This piece addresses this essay, also published on It’s Going Down.

“We must not forget that the union is, as a result of capitalist economic organization, a social phenomenon born of the needs of its time. To retain its structure after the revolution would imply preserving the cause that determined it: capitalism.”

– Lopez Arango, E. & de Santillan, DA.
Theorists affiliated with FORA as cited in Anarchist Social Organization by Scott Nappalos

I’ll be honest—I’d never heard of FORA before reading “Aiming at Ghosts”, a recent article published by It’s Going Down critiquing another recent article “Nothing to Syndicate.” But I’m going to make a wager here: most wobblies haven’t heard of FORA either.

Let me start by saying that I am not the author of Nothing to Syndicate although I was very excited by it’s publication. I have also distributed numerous copies of the pamphlet (and will certainly continue to do so).

“Aiming at Ghosts” takes its name from the author’s primary premise: the syndicalists described in the original essay do not exist, they are phantoms of the imagination. Today’s syndicalists, the author suggests, have evolved past their caricature as people LARPing the 1930’s. However, the evidence is rather scarce that this is the case. The article is further fleshed out and includes a large digression where the author puts their ignorance of afro-pessimism on display.[1]

First off, lucky you. I wish I had the privilege of never meeting a noteworthy number of said LARPers. In fact I’ve met far too many wobblies, destroying their lives in awful workplaces as their sacrifice for the union, intent on recreating the conditions of the early 20th century heyday of labor organizing. Rather, their most efficient work is often the sabotage of other non-syndicalist radical efforts.

The author begins by conceding a point in the original article about the ecological considerations of syndicalism. However, they again posit an ignorance about who would actually advocate for the position critiqued. Well, the section of the original article in question in fact cites not simply the IWW, but their “environmental” caucus in particular, as being out of touch with the full implications of the ecological catastrophe we’re living in. If the self-proclaimed environmental unionists are falling short, why would we expect better of those who don’t claim any unique considerations for the environment?

It is here the author first cites one of two articles (by the same author) about FORA, the Argentina Regional Workers’ Federation, that they will cite multiple times throughout the piece. Unfortunately, it does not reflect upon the whole of syndicalists that a single author wrote two articles across two years that engage a bit critically with the IWW’s history. Interestingly enough, FORA probably goes further than the author does in their criticism—in fact, FORA outright rejects anarcho-syndicalism, and calls for the abolition of unions (although only “after the revolution”).[2]

Next, the author compares their list of recent waves of workplace with the original article’s list that attempts to highlight those outside the workplace. The author brings up contention around whether or not prisons count as workplaces, as well as the 2006 strikes and walkouts, the education strikes this past year, and the longshoremen’s involvement in the west coast Occupy movement. Let’s take these one at a time.

The author seriously misses the point of the original article about the November 2nd “general strike”, which was not really arguing whether or not the Longshoremen’s union (ILWU) organizing helped pave the way for the port shutdown to be effective. To the extent that November 2nd in Oakland, CA was a general strike, it was accomplished not through workplace organizing but by the blockading and even attacking of businesses. The purpose of that afternoon’s anti-capitalist demonstration was to shut down what hadn’t yet closed. The ILWU would have gone to work as usual had tens of thousands not made their way to the port and shut it down. If they did not have “a strong tradition of radical workplace organization, which allowed them to win contract provisions that mean they can respect outside pickets” the night might have ended with those massive crowds having to more diligently enforce the shutdown.

This might in fact be the most controversial position of this whole essay, but I believe that considering the prison strikes as a workplace issue narrowed the scope of struggle significantly. 2016 saw prisoners Holman repeatedly take over the dormitories, set fire to guard towers, and attack guards—one fatally. With this momentum, how can calling for a mere work stoppage seem appropriate?[3] Of course, that prison strike saw inmates all the way from Florida to Michigan take collective and riotous action. Actions like these, in addition to work and hunger strikes, helped fill out the mosaic of the 2016 prison strike. In 2018, the prison strike was still understood as primarily involving work and under strikes, which was reinforced when reporting on strike activity:

“There have been many protests, disruptions and unusual occurrences in prisons across the US in the last two weeks, these incidents might be strike related, or they might simply be occurring at the same time. Outside organizers are pursuing leads and seeking confirmation. In our strike roundup we’ve been careful to only include instances of protest that were explicitly connected to the nationwide strike and its demands.”
IWOC’s website

This creates a self-fulfilling narrative where strike activity as understood in the strictest definition is what circulates on the inside, and then we only catch wind of the actions that can fit that within that framework on the outside.

There are other struggles that have emerged around workplaces that the author mentions, like this past year’s education strikes or those around May Day in 2006. The original article made no attempt to suggest that there have been no resistance erupting from workplace struggles. Only that the workplace has been decisively de-centered as the site of conflict.

Lastly, the author dismisses the original article’s personal testimony from the service industry as simply rehashing the ideas from the prominent text, Abolish Restaurants. To say nothing of the way this dismissal perhaps mirrors the way syndicalism flattens all workers’ experience, it’s also not an argument to say that someone else has criticized something before and that’s the end of it. Critiques of syndicalism are not made because they are new—syndicalism was critiqued even when it was relevant about a century ago. It’s also not evidence that the IWW engaged with ideas because they host the article on their website with a disclaimer saying that such ideas are “ultra-left dogmatism.”

In the end, I think that if syndicalists actually take to heart the lessons laid out in the original article, then they have come so far from syndicalism that the label hardly matters anymore. If one believes that there are many worthwhile struggles that happen outside of the workplace, that don’t need to be mediated, that unions are in fact a product of capitalism, and that self-management is not a goal but instead one aims for a much more vast and deep transformation of life—why consider yourself a syndicalist anymore? It doesn’t matter to me anyway.

But this is where the author and I diverge. There are a number of syndicalists who still base their organizing around the strategies of early 1900s, whether they’re older and stuck in their “NEFAC”[4] ways, or younger and haven’t read Abolish Restaurants, or any political analysis written in the last 50 years besides what’s included in the union newsletter. And I am personally very thankful that someone wrote such a thoughtful (much more so than this article) critique of syndicalism for the present day.

Notes:

1. I don’t even bother to reply to the author’s really abhorrent ignorance of Frank Wilderson’s work because it’s just so obscenely wrong. No, your snide remarks don’t mask the fact that you haven’t put an ounce of brainpower into thinking through the difference between the concept of “irreconcilable positionality” and a revolutionary subject/vanguard (as if the “One Big Union” isn’t a goddamn de facto vanguard anyway). Read Frank Wilderson or any afro-pessimism honestly for more than five minutes and hopefully you can figure this one out on your own.

2. For those of us who don’t believe in “after the revolution”, when is the right time to abolish unions?

3. This might read as a silly exaggeration to those without the context, but the call for the 2016 prison strike originally came from Alabama where Holman prison is located. Michael Kimble, an anarchist prisoner at the facility, has even gone so far as to publicly criticize groups like FAM, who helped call for the strike, for their lack of support for militant prisoners.

4. The author suggests the original article is reminiscent of “a heated argument between Evasion-era Crimethinc and NEFACers.” Even such phrasing reminds us that CrimethInc. has evolved significantly over the past twenty years to keep pace with the shifting world around them.


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