Luis Andrés Edo: Redefining Syndicalism (1984)

Luis Andrés Edo (1925-2009) was very active in the anarchist resistance to Franco following the Spanish Civil War. He joined the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, the CNT (Confederación  Nacional del Trabajo see Volume One, Selection 124) in 1941, at the age of 16, two years after Franco took over Spain. He was involved in various attempts to overthrow the Franco dictatorship, working clandestinely in Spain and sometimes from exile in France. He was imprisoned several times, and participated in the mutiny at the Model Prison in Barcelona in 1975. He recounts his experiences in his memoirs, La CNT en la encrucijada: Aventuras de un heterodoxo (Barcelona: Flor del Viento, 2006). In the following piece from 1984, Andrés Edo argues, echoing Maurice Joyeux (Volume Two, Selection 61), that there remains an important role for anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations to play, as they can provide an ongoing structure that can serve as a revolutionary example and catalyst without absorbing other forms of anarchist organization and activity. Andrés Edo opposed attempts to turn the CNT into a broader based anarchist federation which would include cultural centres (ateneos), alternative lifestyle and other anarchist groups that emerged in Spain following the death of Franco in 1975, so that the CNT could remain focused on its role as a revolutionary trade union. He also opposed the “institutionalization” of the CNT (the participation of the CNT in the government controlled system of union elections and representation). In 2002, he published La Corriente (originally entitled El pensamiento antiautoritario), a collection of more theoretical essays that he had written during his many years of imprisonment. In his later years, Andrés Edo moved closer to Murray Bookchin’s then anarchist social ecology (Volume Two, Selections 48, 62 & 74), endorsing the concept of ecological communities based on popular assemblies. The following piece was originally published in Anarcho Syndicalisme et Luttes Ouvrieres (Lyon: Atelier de Creation Libertaire, 1985). The translation is by Paul Sharkey.

Luis Andrés Edo: Redefining Syndicalism (1984)

1. Anarcho-syndicalism defined

The anarchist discourse in support of the trade union option has thrown up some arguments of incontestable value as far as the struggles of the workers’ movement are concerned. The devising and propagation of anarchist models of action and organization (direct action, autonomy, the federalist principle, assemblyism, etc.) are contributions offered by militant anarchism and they evolved from within revolutionary labour currents.

Those contributions, taken on board by the structural phenomenon of syndicalism, have been acted upon time and time again, in accordance with their anarchistic content and despite the obvious difficulties inherent in the translation of theory into practice.

That is an undeniably true fact: however, the manifest incapability of anarcho-syndicalist organization to translate these insights into actions without doing injury to their anarchist content is equally a fact. So much so that within the trade union structures one finds a persistent phenomenon whereby these anarchist presentiments are subjected to “redefinition” and where the tendency is for them to be distorted and for the implications of them to be restricted to the narrow confines of the organization.

Repeatedly, even within an anarcho-syndicalist context, distorted notions such as “class union, and  syndicalism sufficient unto itself” have been peddled; these plainly and brazenly fly in the face of anarchist ideas.

Were those two notions to prevail, the anarcho-syndicalist structure would become the exclusive element of the anarchist revolution. And while the accomplishment of any such revolution in the absence of participation by the anarcho-syndicalist organizations is inconceivable, it is every bit as true that revolution can scarcely be achieved without participation by all segments of society toiling away on the fringes of the trade union sector in order to meet libertarian targets.

If the tendencies championing organizational autonomy from the system lapse into this adulterating “redefinition” generated by structures, the adulteration phenomenon takes an even more serious turn when the “redefinition” emanates from these other tendencies ready to embrace institutionalization of anarcho-syndicalism, as is currently the case in Spain where well-known militants with lengthy records as anarchists are beset by some sort of blight (the “institutional syndrome” laying Spanish civil society waste) and are championing institutionalization of the CNT [the participation of the CNT in the government controlled system of union representation]; at which point the “redefinition” turns into unacceptable adulteration.

Calm reflection upon all these contradictions leads us to suspect that any sort of definition limits perspective and that any structure is inclined to lead to a thoroughgoing, final, exclusive and closed “redefinition”…

It is our belief that the anarchist substance of syndicalism should not be feigned by a definition but that this substance should be discernible in the orientation and content of its action.

2. Trade unionism hits a brick wall

Since, following the Second World War, the System agreed to the most significant trade union demands (for social security, the right to work, company recognition of the union) which had been, up until the 1930s, partly but not universally acknowledged, all of the major trade union organizations have voluntarily remained integrated into the system as institutions essential to its proper running.

Furthermore, the process whereby collective bargaining is conducted being, especially in the industrial context, subject to regulation and codification and the ordinances of the governmental administration — endorsed in advance by the legislative authorities — it represents one of the most important, indeed most indispensable, factors in the continuance of capitalist exploitation. By accepting that negotiating process, the trade unions are facilitating the furtherance of the exploitation of workers.

By becoming institutionalized, trade unionism has lost its freedom of action and it believed that this might be replaced by supposed social security and employment.

“Arbitrary dismissal” (whereby the worker loses his right and guarantee to his job), the burgeoning “black economy” (whereby the bosses wriggle out of the payment of taxes destined for social payments to workers) and finally technological readjustment which preaches increases in the rate and volume of production and job cuts are, essentially, the factors that have led to the irresistible rise of a slide into insecurity of employment and social insecurity in the relations of production.

As may be seen from the process of rigorous integration, trade unionism loses its freedom of action as well as its chance to make a genuine defence of workers’ job security and  social security net.

That process of integration has thrown up an utterly irreconcilable and irreversible contradiction. In fact, the members of the trade union apparatus are rewarded by Capital and the State with a privileged status in comparison with the rest of the workforce and this is the start of a widespread process of making the workers subordinate to the trade union machine.

The workers’ very own structures (the trade unions) are thereby stripped of their role as protagonists.

The “machine” replaces the trade union movement and the trade union-organized labour movement’s revolutionary strand finds itself neutralized yet again.

It is against the backdrop of this fact that, undeniably, trade unionism as a revolutionary option has hit a brick wall, that we should analyze the role of anarcho-syndicalism, the only approach to workers’ action that can resist the charms of integration.

Here the first critical observation that needs to be made is that an anarcho-syndicalist organization would have at the core of its activity the escalation of trade union demands (broadening the social security net, lowering retirement age, reducing the working day, additional leisure time, extension of all benefits to victims of discrimination, etc.), that is, broadening and improvement of the application and operation of demands that have made a contribution towards greater refinement of exploitation.

So anarcho-syndicalism is caught in a trap: it cannot make progress in the direction of its goals of transforming society, it remains outraged by and opposed to integration, and at the same time it calls for the extension and escalation of demands which, objectively, have eased the integration of the trade union organized workers’ movement into the system…

The belief that the impasse of collaborationist trade unionism should open the way to anarcho-syndicalism is a mistaken one: the former’s loss of revolutionary élan triggers a chain reaction that damages the trade union movement as a whole.

But there is no reason to speak of trade unionism being in crisis unless the link is made to the general crisis afflicting all of the institutions and trends within civil society, a crisis that triggers that very same “chain reaction” and afflicts the entire body of society, not excepting anarchist organizations, bodies and currents.

Anarchist critiques of trade unionism should be asking whether that is the root cause of the revolutionary crisis or if its loss of élan is simply a side-effect of a wider crisis that also entails a crisis in anarchism.

3. Need for an anarcho-syndicalist structure

Despite the current impasse, despite the contradictions and shortcomings that have become evident within anarcho-syndicalist organization throughout its history, we must resolutely reject the idea of it being dismantled.

The emergence of diverse currents within anarchism has required and continues to require backboned, stable organization capable of serving all of the options emerging from within anarchism as a catalyst for action.

Of all the organizations that the movement has known, none serviced that need so well as anarcho-syndicalism. Wherever the anarcho-syndicalist discourse has not translated into an influential organization, anarchism has simply vegetated. True, the catalyzing action of the anarcho-syndicalist structure is being constantly called into question these days, but no discourse thrown up by the libertarian movement has proposed the creation of a structure with the capacity to fulfill this purpose. The organizational articulation of anarchist federations (which we are not opposed to, of course) cannot in any way be regarded as a substitute for that catalyzing function; at any rate, it has not thus far shown that it is.

Moreover, and by way of an answer to all who consider that there is no need for a structured organization, we need only refer to historical processes and current affinity-based social phenomena for proof of the extent to which anarchism is ineffective when it is afflicted by the absence of some organization capable of serving as a catalyst.

If anarcho-syndicalism’s structure no longer fits the bill, we will have to come up with some other sort of a structure, but the critics have yet to devise one. Which is why we believe we need to hold on to anarcho-syndicalist organization.

4. Prospects of anarcho-syndicalism

By dint of other potential definitions and affording a non-restrictive scope to influences and perspectives that may derive from trade union organization, one can think of a trans-structural and extra-trade union activity at odds with a simple, wholly structural view of trade union action.

In order to demonstrate the incompatible impacts of both positions, we shall refer to two (out of the many) historical phenomena:

1. July 19, 1936, when the army rose in rebellion in Spain and the CNT might not have been able to abort that rebellion but for its organizational structures: this was feasible (in Catalonia in particular) because it was flanked by segments of the people not affiliated to any structure, but who had been exposed to the CNT’s trans-structural and extra-trade union activity for several years;

2. From July 21, 1936 on, the representative bodies of the CNT were caught up in a frantic flurry of meetings, plenarias and plenos, so much so that the unions were unable to keep up this pace without serious operational difficulties; federalism ran out of control, leading to a gulf between the unions and the federal and confederal organs and this was to have a heavy impact on the CNT’s political approach. Thus was triggered intra-structural activity by representative organs which no doubt smoothed the way towards CNT participation in the government. In this particularly limited instance, an intra-structural phenomenon came to light, one to which all organizations are inclined when their representative bodies are no longer responsive to pressures from those whom they represent.

Today, more than ever, when trade unionism finds itself in an undeniable impasse, the anarcho-syndicalist structure must engage in some activity that is trans-structural, extra-trade union, and at all times counter-institutional.

A. Trans-structural

The basic, prime aim of anarcho-syndicalist activity must be to take a hand in the situation of non-institutionalized sectors (ones not part and parcel of some trade union structure) whose numbers are growing daily (the unemployed, new-style, fringe cooperatives, and ‘wildcat’ disputes involving workers, producer sub-groups discriminated against by the ‘black economy,’ etc.).

Paradoxical though it may seem, we must fight shy of playing a leading role geared towards absorbing all sectors and sub-sectors into anarcho-syndicalism; this should be a matter of free and voluntary choosing in which pressure should not be a factor.

B. Extra-trade union

Extra-trade union activity is a way of getting involved in the activities of social, cultural and fringe groups whose anti-authoritarian bent affords them a quasi-anarchistic outlook.

Establishing non-structural, concerted action relations with such movements while rejecting the wrong-headed notion (seen in Spain in 1976-1977) of an “all-embracing CNT”, i.e. a structure wherein there would be room, alongside trade unions, for ateneos, collectives, groups and communes, etc. We look upon such absorption as inadequate for it would introduce into the anarcho-syndicalist organization a factor tending towards destructuring.

The structural and the a-structural should enjoy complete autonomy in their respective operations; the “federal compact” through which the anarcho-syndicalist organization grows cannot be applied to the a-structural development characteristic of such movements; the two formats can only be associated through some “action agreement”.

C. Counter-institutional

Anarcho-syndicalism’s presence and activity are needed as an ongoing pressure on integrated worker macro-sectors, breaking down the institutionalized patterns through which they evolve. The way to go is to intervene in campaigns, demonstrations, strikes, disputes and negotiations which overpower the institutionalized trade union “machinery” and organisms.

Any attempt to introduce qualitative initiatives into the institutional framework by agreeing to participate in its mechanisms is sheer illusion. The only qualitative initiative is to shatter the framework in question. The institutional company committee must be countered by “company delegates” and by representatives receiving their mandate from the workers’ assembly.

Workers’ assemblies (be they company or industrial sector based) can, it is true to say, on certain occasions take decisions at odds with the general accords of the anarcho-syndicalist organization; however recourse to the assembly is not simply a one-off exercise but also an ongoing process regulating and amending relations between the workers; in spite of the contradictions that can be thrown up by these situations, anarcho-syndicalism can get involved, with improved and broader prospects, in the institutional framework.

 

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