Scott Nappalos: Anarchist Social Organization

Today I reproduce an article by Scott Nappalos describing the approach to social change taken by the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation (the FORA) in the early part of the 20th century. Although the FORA was an anarchist federation, it did not follow an anarcho-syndicalist approach, as it did not see the workers’ class struggle organizations as providing the basis for a post-revolutionary society. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections relating to this approach, including a 1925 article by Emilio López Arango and Diego Abad de Santillán on anarchism in the labour movement, where they argued that the trade union is “an economic by-product of capitalist organization… Clinging to its structures after the revolution would be tantamount to clinging to the cause that spawned it: capitalism.” I have also posted on this blog another article by López Arango on anarchism and the workers’ movement. Nappalos’ article was originally published by Ideas and Action. Nappalos has posted several translations of the writings of López Arango on the website.

An Anarchist Social Movement – The FORA in Argentina

The rise of the right and the incapacity of the institutional left to offer an alternative is pressing the crucial question for our time: what is our strategy in pre-revolutionary times? The revolutionary left is fixated on the ruptures and revolutions of history, and this has done little to prepare us for the present. In the United States there are no nation-wide social movements to draw upon in forging a new social force. Resistance remains largely fragmented, and more often than not abstracted from the struggles of daily life and carried out by a semi-professional activist subculture. The challenge then is where to begin, or more specifically how to move beyond the knowledge, experiences, and groups of the past two decades towards a broader social movement?

There are some experiences we can draw on however from the heyday of the anarchist movement, where similarly radicals in a hostile environment began to discuss and craft strategic interventions. An overlooked and scarcely known debate within anarchism was between so-called dualism and unitary positions on organization.[1] That framing for the disagreement largely comes from the dualists who were supporters of specific anarchist political organizations independent from the workers organizations of their day. This was contrasted against the anti-political organization anarchists in the libertarian unions who proposed a model of workers organizations that were both a politicized-organization and union.

The portrayal of anarchosyndicalists as inherently against political organization and as advocating unions exclusively of anarchists is a straw man. If anything the orthodoxy supported political organizations including: Pierre Bresnard, former head of the International Workers Association (IWA-AIT), the Spanish CNT (through its affinity groups, specific organizations around publications, and the FAI), along with others in the various revolutionary unions of the IWA-AIT. A more balanced picture of the movement would be (at least) a four way division within IWA-AIT organizations including: class struggle syndicalism that downplayed anarchism and revolution (both with defenders and detractors of political organization), the dominant position of revolutionary unionism influenced by anarchism but striving for one big union of the class, political anarchists focused on insurrectionism and intellectual activities, and a fourth position that is likely unfamiliar to most readers.

That position I will call the anarchist social organization for lack of a better term. Elements of this position have existed and persisted throughout the history of the syndicalist movement, but found its core within the revolutionary workers organizations of South America at the turn of the century. In Argentina and Uruguay in particular a powerful immigrant movement of anarchists dominated the labor movement for decades, setting up the first unions and consolidating a politics in an environment where reformist attempts at unions lacked a context enabling them to thrive.[2] This tendency spread across Latin America from Argentina to Mexico, at its zenith influenced syndicalist currents in Europe and Asia as well. It’s progress was checked by a combination of shifting context and political reaction that favored nationalist and reformist oppositions. Both Argentina and Uruguay underwent some of the world’s first legalized labor regimes and populist reform schemes to contain the labor movement combined with dictatorships that selectively targeted the anarchist movement while supporting socialists and nationalists across the region. The anarchist movement of el Río de la Plata was dealt heavy blows by the 1930s and began to decline.

The theorists of Argentina’s Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA, Argentina Regional Workers’ Federation) in particular laid out an alternative approach to politics that was highly influential. Argentina perhaps vied with Spain as the most powerful anarchist movement in the world and yet is scarcely known today. The FORA takes its name from an aspiration towards internationalism and one of the most thorough going anti-State and anti-nationalist currents in radical history. The FORA inspired sister unions throughout Latin America many with similar names such as FORU (Uruguay), FORP (Paraguay), FORCh (Chile) and unions in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia just to name a few. They even won over the membership of established IWW locals in Mexico and Chile to their movement away from the IWW’s neutral syndicalism.

The ideas of the FORA came to be known as finalismo; so named because in Spanish fines mean ends or goals, and the FORA made anarchist communism it’s explicit aim as early as 1905. Finalismo was a rejection of traditional unions and political organizations in favor of the anarchist social organization.[3] In the unions, FORA saw a tendency to divert the working class into reforming and potentially reproducing capitalist work relations. Unions they argued are institutions that inherit too much of the capitalism we seek to abolish.[4] The capitalist division of labor reflected in industrial unions in particular could be a potential base for maintaining capitalist social relationships after the revolution, something that the FORA argued must be transformed.

“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.”[5]

This critique they extended to apolitical revolutionary unions like the IWW and even with anarchosyndicalism itself, which was seen as arguing for using unions, vehicles of resistance that reflect capitalist society, as cells of the future structure of society. Their goal was to transform a society built to maintain class domination to one organized to meet human needs; something the existing industries poison.

“Anarchosyndicalist theory, very similar to revolutionary unionism, is today confused by many who approach the workers movement, and even participate in it, because they consider that all anarchists who take part in unionism are automatically anaarchosyndicalists. Anarchosyndicalism is a theory that bases the construction of society after the emancipatory revolution in the same unions and professional associations of workers. The FORA expressively rejects anarchosyndicalism and maintains its conception that one cannot legislate the future of society after revolutionary change…”[6]

While participating in class struggle on a day to day basis, members of the FORA similarly rejected the ideology of class struggle. Class struggle as ideology was seen as reflecting a mechanistic worldview inherited from Marxism, that ultimately would reinforce the divisions derived from capitalism which would sustain obstacles to constructing communism after the revolution. Class and worker identity are too tied to capitalist relationships, they argued, and are better attacked than cultivated.[7]

The foristas were skeptical of political organizations separate from workers organizations, and believed they posed a danger. Such organizations would tend to over-value maintaining their political leadership against the long term goal of building anarchist communism.[8] The world of political anarchism was seen as drawing from intellectual and cultural philosophies abstracted from daily life, whereas the anarchist workers movement drew it’s inspiration from connecting anarchist ethics to the lived struggles of the exploited.

“Anarchism as a revolutionary political party is deprived of its main strength and its vital elements; anarchism is a social movement that will acquire the greater power of action and propaganda the more intimately it stays in its native environment.”[9]

In their place, partisans of the FORA proposed a different type workers organization and role for anarchists. Emiliano Lopez Arango, the brilliant auto-didact and baker, emphasized that we should build organizations of workers aimed at achieving anarchist society, rather than organizations of anarchists-for-workers or organizations of anarchist-workers.

“Against this philosophical or political anarchism we present our concept and our reality of the anarchist social movement, vast mass organizations that do not evade any problems of philosophical anarchism, and taking the man as he is, not just as supporter of an idea, but as a member of an exploited and oppressed human fraction… To create a union movement concordant with our ideas-the anarchist labor movement- it is not necessary to “cram” in the brain of the workers ideas that they do not understand or against those that guard routine precautions. The question is another…Anarchists must create an instrument of action that allows us to be a belligerent force acting in the struggle for the conquest of the future. The trade union movement can fill that high historic mission, but on condition that is inspired by anarchist ideas.”[10]

This position has often been misunderstood or misrepresented as “anarchist unionism” i.e. trying to create ideologically pure groupings of workers. The workers of the FORA however held in little esteem the political anarchist movement, and did not believe in intellectuals imposing litmus tests for workers. Instead they built an organization which from 1905 onward took anarchist communism as its goal, and was constructed around anarchist ideals in its struggles and functioning.

There is a key difference between being an ideological organization doing organizing versus organizing with an anarchist orientation. The workers of the FORA tried to create the latter. Counterposed to raw economics and the ideology of class struggle, they emphasized a process of transformation and counter-power built through struggle but guided by values and ideas.[11] Against the idea that syndicalist unions were seeds of the future society, they proposed using struggles under capitalism as ways to train the exploited for revolutionary goals and a radical break with the structure of capitalism with revolution.[12]

In doing so they organized Argentina’s working class under the leading light of anarchism until a series of repressive and recuperative forces overwhelmed them. The CNT would eventually follow FORA’s suit some three decades later with its endorsement of the goal of creating libertarian communism, but it’s vacillations on these issues (predicted by some foristas such as Manuel Azaretto)[13] would prove disastrous. CNT scored a contradictory initial victory, but floundered with how to move from an organization struggling within capitalism to a post-capitalist order.

Anarchist Social Organization Today

The insight of the FORA was its focus on how we achieve liberation. These organizing projects are centered in struggles around daily life. Working in these struggles aims at creating an environment where participants can co-develop in a specific environment guided by anarchist principles, goals, and tactics. Ideas develop within through a process of praxis where actions, ideas, and values interact and come together in strategy. These are particular weaknesses we have in recent anarchist and libertarian strategies in the US.

In both political organizations and organizing work, anarchists have failed to put themselves forward as an independent force with our own proposals. Anarchist ideology is kept outside the context of daily life and struggle; the place where it makes the most sense and has the most potential for positive contributions. Instead ideology has largely remained the property of political organizations, while anarchists do their organizing work too often as foot soldiers for reformist non-profits, bureaucratic unions, and neutral organizations hostile to their ideas. This is carried out without plans to advance our goals or independent projects that demonstrate their value.

Similarly, as I argued[14] against the debates over the structure of unions (craft vs. industrial), the divisions over dual vs unitary organization carry important lessons but displace more fundamental issues. At stake is what role our ideas play in the day-to-day work of struggle in pre-revolutionary times. The foristas were correct in seeing a positive role of our vision when combined with a practice of contesting daily life under capitalism, while constantly agitating for a fundamental transformation. Many dualists miss these points when they seek to impose an artificial division between where and how we agitate by organizational form.

Still these issues don’t preclude political organizations playing a positive role for example with crafting strategy, helping anarchists develop their ideas together and coordinate, etc. There has been an emphasis in political thought to speak in generalities, about forms and structures, and thereby missing the contextual and historical aspects of these sorts of debates. More important than the structure of an organization is where it stands in the specific context and work on its time, and how it manages to make its work living in the daily struggles of the exploited. That can happen in different ways in a number of different projects.

Today such a strategy can be implemented within work already happening. For those who are members of existing organizations such as solidarity networks, unions, and community groups, militants should begin networking to find ways to formulate an anarchist program within their work, advance proposals to deepen anarchism’s influence over the organizations and struggles, and move towards an anarchist social organization model of struggle. With experience and a growth of forces, we could contest the direction of such organizations or form new ones depending on the context.

The existing political organizations similarly can contribute to this work by advocating for anarchist social organizations, contribute to agitation within existing organizing projects, and collaborate on the creation of new projects. In some cases this may require locals of political groups themselves forming new organizing efforts alone. Ideally this would be carried out with other individuals and groups through a process of dialogue. There are at least three national anarchist organizations all of which benefit from having the capacity to influence the debate, and could intervene on the side of advancing anarchism as an explicit force within social movements. The alternative is for it to remain obscured, clumsily discussed, and largely hidden from view of the public.

Where there is sufficient interest and capacity, new groups should be formed. Workplace networks, tenants and community groups, solidarity networks, and unions can be created with small numbers of militants who wish to combine their political work in a cohesive social-political project. In the United States such a strategy has not even been attempted on any serious scale since perhaps the days of the Haymarket martyrs and their anarchosyndicalist IWMA. The unprecedented shift in the mood of the population brought on by the crisis of 2008 has made these sorts of experiments more feasible if not pressing. It is up to us to take up the challenge and experiment. Yet the primary work in front of us is to find ways to translate a combative revolutionary anarchism into concrete activities that can be implemented and coordinated by small numbers of dedicated militants, and allow us a bridge to the next phases of struggle.

Scott Nappalos, November 2017


Emilio López Arango: Anarchism and the Workers’ Movement

Emilio López Arango

It is great to see that AK Press is about to publish Ángel Cappelletti’s history of anarchism in Latin America. In the chapter on Latin American anarchism in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary of Libertarian Ideas, I included several translations of material collected by Cappelletti and C.M. Rama in their companion anthology of anarchist writings, El Anarquismo en America Latina (Caracas, 1990). One of the pieces I used was an excerpt from Emilio López Arango (1894-1929) and Diego Abad de Santillan’s El Anarquismo en el movimiento obrero, published in 1925 in Argentina, where both of them were very active in the anarchist movement. Together with Neno Vasco in Brazil, López Arango was one of the most original and important anarchist thinkers in Latin America. This is a translation (I’m assuming by Scott Nappalos) of excerpts from López Arango’s “Doctrine, tactics, and ends of the workers’ movement,” the first chapter of a posthumous collection of López Arango’s writings, Ideario, published by the Asociación Continental Americana de Trabajadores (ACAT), in Buenos Aires in 1942 (I also included statements from the 1929 founding congress of ACAT in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology).

Argentine anarchist paper edited by López Arango

The workers movement is determined by the assemblage of moral and material factors that form and give life and reality to the social system, and that in the process of the capitalist civilization enslave humanity to the rule of necessities. But the proletariat, if pushed to struggle for bread, isn’t limited to aspirations of gaining a better wage; they aspire also to break the yoke of economic exploitation and liberate oneself from the domination of the privileged castes in the political sphere, in the struggle against the state.

If for the anarchists every immediate solution is relative, because it is limited by the law of capitalist equilibrium, in consequence syndicalism can’t be a theory of the future. This does not mean that anarchism opposes revolutionary objectives as an expression of the absolute to the contingent reality. On the contrary, it’s about facts and experiences that libertarian theories should create a base for direction, searching in the working masses for the necessary elements to promote the advancement of history and decide social progress against the reactionary currents.

The anarchists should in consequence contribute our energies to the workers movement. But our commitment poses in fact a theoretical hostility to classical syndicalism – to the syndicalism that wants to rely on itself – and takes to the field of class struggle all the theoretical differences that separate us from the Marxist parties. It is the interpretation of the role of workers’ organizations that brings the inevitable polemic between reformists and revolutionaries. And the disagreement should be maintained at all costs, because the political and ideological mentality in the unions is as impossible as demanding that the workers limit their actions to demand better wages from the employing class.

We the anarchists can’t forget that the workers movement, to be truly revolutionary, should cover the confluence of social factors that makes the life of the employed odious. To divide socialist ideas into different features, separating the political from the economic – the spirit from the body – is to deny to the worker the faculty to think and act in accordance with the ideal of justice. For this we want to define the trajectory of anarchism of the immediate reality not as a parallel line to the process of the capitalist economy, but as a divergent spiritual power in constant rejection of the social constructions subject to historical fatalism: the determining needs, according to Marxist theorists, for the continuity of the capitalist regime.

All the proletarian organizations were born of the necessity to erect a barrier to the exploitation of labor, to the monopoly of the rich for a privileged caste, and to the injustices of the masters. This is the primary contingency that explains the struggle of classes and also the fundamental dynamic of syndicalism. Suppose that the defensive action of the proletariat is only to try to find a base of equilibrium to the problem of necessities. It would then solve the economic issue by placing against capitalism a strong workers coalition, regulating the economy with appropriate organs, creating a compelling power that obligates capital and labor to maintain their forces in equilibrium and to resolve peacefully their differences. Is not more manifested outside the area of the influence of class struggle, to the margin of union conflicts, in the spirit of strife that frustrates all the plans of reconciliation of the reformist politicians?

To find the solution to social problems in an accord between exploiters and the exploited – about the simple material contingencies – is to accept the height of historic injustices. The resistance to capitalism isn’t determined exclusively by the economic question; it has its origins in moral inequality, in all the determining causes of political privilege, of caste, which sustains the regime of wage labor. Could the triumph of the working class, if only for the objective to modify the position of the classes in the social concert, mean something other than a repetition of the phenomenon that is perpetuating injustice throughout the centuries and civilizations?

Syndicalism reduces the sphere of the revolutionary movement to the rule of necessities. For this the authoritarian currents that favor the organization of the workers on economic grounds – who strive to parse the ideas of the union – limit the action to the working class in defense of the wage, allocating to the parties the work of organizing political life of the peoples in a united state.

Through this logic they abandon the position of syndicalism in the sense that their ideologies fail to adjust to the immediate reality. Historical materialism condemns revolutionary propaganda that breaks the rhythm of capitalist evolution. This denies the effort of the rebel against the social environment, which opposes the sacred morals for a new ethical principle, that tries to live life belying the law of routine conventions.

For these reasons, the anarchist cannot limit our interventions in the workers’ movement to the simple defense of the wage. Capitalism is not a simple economic concretion: it represents a state of progress and civilization, and is concrete in its force and potency in all the old and new causes of human misfortune. How can the worker liberate herself of material slavery if she remains a slave morally? In what manner can the people come to realize their own destinies if they accept as fate all the social injustices and can only combat some of the roots of evil?

Capitalism will not be destroyed if the root causes remain unchanged: if humanity is still a slave to their needs and an enemy of their liberty.

All the economic reforms have in consequence the perpetuation of the capitalist regime, and a workers’ revolution would not be nothing more than a change of the privileged classes if performed on the plane of the economy, continuing the line of the industrial process, which is mechanizing the individual who has lost their best spiritual qualities by atrophy of the brain and heart.

The struggle for bread is not enough. Let us capture in the consciousness of man the value of the loss of individuality, establishing a moral resistance to the monstrous constructions of capitalism and opposing to material reality a reality of spirit.

Emilio López Arango

Enrique Roig de San Martin – The Motherland and the Workers (1889)

The Cuban anarchist movement can be traced back to the 1860s, when Proudhon’s mutualist ideas (Anarchism, Volume 1, Selections 12 & 18) were popularized in Cuba by Saturnine Martinez. A variety of mutualist workers’ and mutual aid associations were formed. From these a trade union movement began to develop. By the 1880s, anarchists influenced by the libertarian socialism of the anti-authoritarian sections of the First International (see Volume 1, Chapter 6) and the Workers’ Federation of the Spanish Region (Volume 1, Selection 36) had taken an active role in the Cuban trade union movement, thanks largely to the work of the weekly anarchist paper, El Productor, edited by Enrique Roig de San Martin (1843-1889). The proto-syndicalist Cuban Workers’ Alliance, inspired by Bakunin’s International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, regarded unions as revolutionary organs of the working class that would seek to abolish capitalism independent of any political party. Anarchists were also involved in the fight against racial discrimination, a significant problem in Cuba as slavery was only officially abolished in 1886. In the following excerpts from El Productor, translated by Paul Sharkey, Roig de San Martin responds to an article in the “liberal” paper, El Pais, calling on the workers to support the cause of Cuban independence.

The Motherland and the Workers

It is not because we are “faint of heart”, not because we are “hot-headed” nor “for reasons of a personal nature, even though we be the sons of this land”, that we shy away from “defending [Cuba’s] dignity and grandeur”.

El Pais should know that in acting as we do we are prompted solely by the dictates of honest conscience.

This land it has fallen to our lot to be born in holds great, very great attractions for us, but at the same time we have paid fervent tribute… to “her dignity and greatness.” In our hearts, knowledge that the greatness of a country resides in the greatness of its inhabitants has caused us to amend our opinion of the defence of our own “dignity and grandeur”.

The continual growling from an empty belly, the heart-rending sight of children starving and naked and the wretched spectre of a weak and bloodless spouse: this is the picture that has presented itself to our eyes every time that we have tried to improve our comrades’ circumstances.

In vain, staking all on the wings of chimerical dreams, have we asked the art of politics in which part of its repertoire lurks the solution to the economic strife that tyrannizes us. To no avail, for the only reply we have ever had is silence.

What is more, much more, some bamboozler has stepped forward to reply, with the timidity of one who knows that he is uttering an untruth: “You ignoramuses, Politics will help you bring down the prices of consumer goods, which is tantamount to your receiving a pay raise which must leave you better off than you are at the moment.”

But this is just so much sophistry. It is not the case that lower prices for consumer goods are equivalent to a raise in pay, for the latter is always tied to the former, rising and falling as the cost of living rises or falls.

On which point we have in our possession conclusive statistics and studies that leave no room for doubt. The fact is that it could scarcely be otherwise, since elevating the labouring folk to comfortable circumstances would be tantamount to the ruling classes cutting their own throats.

Inevitably, therefore, we are trapped for all eternity in a vicious circle, as long as it is left to politics to iron out the vagaries of fortune and the manner in which we operate.

But, taking it for granted that this is the argument, and granting that we were to achieve a hike in pay some day, albeit even indirectly, through politics, should that be the be-all and end-all of our aspirations?

Certainly not.

Being wage-earners, dependent upon a wage, our “dignity and grandeur” must be at the mercy of those who live off our sweat; and at least insofar as we understand the meaning of the word it is not dignified for our exertions to be directed towards the maintenance of an order that keeps us in degradation.

Which is why we want no truck with politics, why we urge our comrades to keep clear of it as much as they are able and to form an essentially workers’ party, committed solely and exclusively to the championing of their own interests.

But what about the homeland! …Ah, the homeland! The “dignity and grandeur” of the land that gave you birth!

But what do we mean when we speak of the grandeur of the homeland? Do we mean her independence! Precisely! Except that this, like everything else in politics is simply an abuse of words.

Does the independence of our homeland consist of her having a government of her own, her not being answerable to any other nations, etc., etc., even though her sons be subjected to the most degrading slavery? Can the homeland exist without her sons? Or can a “dignified, great”, happy and independent homeland include children who are slaves?

We cannot accept this interpretation.

We hold that the homeland is made up of her sons, and that there is no freedom for the homeland if some of her children are still slaves; it is of little consequence whether the slave-master is a foreigner or a fellow citizen; the result is the same. Slavery! Some may say: Where is the slavery? Has that stigma not been erased from our foreheads once and for all?

Sure. No longer will you find among us a slave with a branded skin, his flesh continually torn by the weighted tails of a brutal whip wielded by dull-witted overseers, the degraded henchmen of the ambitions of the mighty.

But that does not mean that slavery has been ended; very far from it; it is as powerful and as vigorous as ever, except that it has changed its form. Is that not what the “Regulation and Charter for the Organization of Domestic Service on this Island” represents?

Article 16 of the aforesaid Regulation reads as follows:

“No servant may absent himself from his residence on any personal errand, without the corresponding leave from his master, on pain of a one peso fine.”

And Article 21 of the Regulation reads:

“Should a servant be without employment for more than one month, he shall be deemed dismissed from service; and, should he fail to furnish due evidence that he is plying another trade, or has other means of sustenance, he shall be deemed a vagrant.”

Lest this article drag on too long, we shall refrain from offering comment and urge El Pais to do so in our place, since it has so far said not one word on this score, such is its liberality! The remainder of the Regulation is of the same ilk.

Besides all this, we understand perfectly well the reason behind politics as far as certain classes of society are concerned. By whichever means they think easiest, each of them searches for a way of living independently; and so we find the capitalist dabbling in conservative politics, just as those with enough wit to sparkle and shine dabble in liberal politics, both feeling like slaves in a set-up that is ill-suited to their aspirations.

But let us leave them to it, for when all is said and done it is up to them to turn situations to their advantage.

As for ourselves, we will be the slaves as ever no matter what political system is put in place.

We workers cannot nor should we be anything other than socialists, for socialism these days is the only thing standing up to the bourgeois rule that has us enslaved.

Talking to us of homeland and freedom is a waste of time unless they start by guaranteeing our independence as individuals; we are not about to redeem the homeland while we are all left slaves.

The measure of the homeland’s independence can be gauged by the amount of independence enjoyed by her children, and, as we have already said, there can be no free homeland while her children are slaves.

Enrique Roig de San Martin

El Productor, (Havana) 12 May 1889