Between infoshops and insurrection: U.S. anarchism, movement building, and the racial order

Joel Olson argues against two major tendencies in American anarchism, counter-institution building and militant street protests, and suggests building a movement against the racial order should be a priority.

This is a slightly revised version of a chapter from the new book Contemporary Anarchist Studies, edited by Randall Amster, Luis Fernandez, etc. (Routledge 2009). Joel Olson teaches political theory at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and has been around anarchist circles in the United States for many years.

Anarchism has always had a hard time dealing with race. In its classical era from the time of Proudhon in the 1840s to Goldman in the 1930s, it sought to inspire the working class to rise up against the church, the state, and capitalism. This focus on “god, government, and gold” was revolutionary, but it didn’t quite know how to confront the racial order in the United States. Most U.S. anarchist organizations and activists opposed racism in principle, but they tended to assume that it was a byproduct of class exploitation. That is, they thought that racism was a tool the bosses used to divide the working class, a tool that would disappear once capitalism was abolished. They appealed for racial unity against the bosses but they never analyzed white supremacy as a relatively autonomous form of power in its own right.

Unfortunately, contemporary anarchism (which dates roughly from Bookchin to Zerzan) has not done much better. It has expanded the classical era’s critique of class domination to a critique of hierarchy and all forms of oppression, including race. Yet with a few exceptions, the contemporary American anarchist scene still has not analyzed race as a form of power in its own right, or as a potential source of solidarity. As a consequence, anarchism remains a largely white ideology in the U.S.

Despite this troublesome tradition, I argue that anarchist theory has the intellectual resources to develop a powerful theory of racial oppression as well as strategies to fight it, but first it must confront two obstacles placed in front of it by the contemporary American anarchist scene. First, it must overcome an analysis of white supremacy that understands racism as but one “hierarchy” among others. Racial oppression is not simply one of many forms of domination; it has played a central role in the development of capitalism in the United States. As a result, struggles against racial oppression have a strategic centrality that other struggles lack.

Second, it must reject the current U.S. anarchist scene’s “infoshops or insurrection” approach to politics and instead focus on movement building. Organizing working class movements, which was so central to the classical anarchist tradition, has given way to creating “autonomous zones” like infoshops, art spaces, affinity groups, and collectives on the one hand, and glorifying protests, riots, and sabotage on the other. But in the infoshops and insurrection approaches, the vital work of building movements falls through the middle.

In a class society, politics is fundamentally a struggle for hegemony, or a struggle to define what Antonio Gramsci calls the “common sense” of a society. In the United States, white supremacy has been the central means of maintaining capitalism as “common sense.” Building mass movements against the racial order, then, is the way in which a new hegemony, an “anarchist common sense,” can be created. But in building that common sense, I argue that contemporary American anarchism should look less toward Europe and more toward the struggles of peoples of color in their own back yard for historical lessons and inspiration.

Hierarchy, hegemony, and white supremacy

The intellectual framework of most of contemporary American anarchism rests on a critique of hierarchy. Murray Bookchin, perhaps the most important theorist of the concept, defines hierarchy as “a complex system of command and obedience in which elites enjoy varying degrees of control over their subordinates” (Bookchin 1982, 4). Capitalism, organized religion, and the state are important forms of hierarchy, but the concept includes other relations of domination such as of “the young by the old, of women by men, of one ethnic group by another, of ‘masses’ by bureaucrats, … of countryside by town, and in a more subtle psychological sense, of body by mind, of spirit by a shallow instrumental rationality, and of nature by society and technology” (4). Hierarchy pervades our social relations and reaches into our psyche, thereby “percolating into virtually every realm of experience” (63). The critique of hierarchy, Bookchin argues, is more expansive and radical than the Marxist critique of capitalism or the classical anarchist critique of the state because it “poses the need to alter every thread of the social fabric, including the way we experience reality, before we can truly live in harmony with each other and with the natural world” (Bookchin 1986, 22-23).

This analysis of hierarchy broadened contemporary anarchism into a critique of all forms of oppression, including capitalism, the state, organized religion, patriarchy, heterosexism, anthropocentrism, racism, and more. The political task of contemporary anarchism, then, is to attack all forms of oppression, not just a “main” one like capitalism or the state, because without an attack on hierarchy itself, other forms of oppression will not necessarily wither away after the “main” one has been destroyed.1

This critique of what is sometimes called “class reductionism” is powerful, for while patriarchy is surely connected to capitalism, for example, it can hardly be reduced to it. Despite this advantage, however, the anarchist critique of all forms of oppression fails to distinguish among those forms of oppression that have been more significant than others to the structuring of U.S. society. In other words, the critique of hierarchy in general lacks the ability to explain how various forms of hierarchy are themselves hierarchically organized. It correctly insists that no one form of oppression is morally “worse” than another. But this does not mean that all forms of oppression play an equal role in shaping the social structure. The American state, for example, was not built on animal cruelty or child abuse, however pervasive and heinous these forms of domination are. Rather, as I will argue below, it was built on white supremacy, which has shaped nearly every other form of oppression in the United States, including class, gender, religion, and the state (and animal cruelty and child abuse). Understanding white supremacy should therefore be central to any American anarchist theory, and developing political programs to fight it should be a central component of anarchist strategy, even if racism is not morally “more evil” than another forms of oppression.

The critique of hierarchy, in other words, confuses a moral condemnation of all forms of oppression with a political and strategic analysis of how power functions in the United States. It resists the notion that in certain historical contexts, certain forms of hierarchy play a more central role in shaping society than do others. It assumes that because all forms of oppression are evil and interconnected that fighting any form of oppression will have the same revolutionary impact. For this reason, it assumes that there is no more need to fight racial discrimination than, say, vivisection, since both are equally evil and interconnected forms of domination.

But as the great theorist W.E.B. Du Bois shows in his classic Black Reconstruction, the primary reason for the failure of the development of a significant anti-capitalist movement in the United States is white supremacy. Rather than uniting with Black workers to overthrow the ruling class and build a new society, as classical anarchist and communist theory predicts, white workers throughout American history have chosen to side with capital. Through a tacit but nonetheless real agreement, the white working class ensures the continuous and relatively undisturbed accumulation of capital by policing the rest of the working class rather than uniting with it. In exchange, white workers receive racial privileges, largely paid for by capitalists and guaranteed by the democratic political system. Du Bois calls these privileges “the public and psychological wages” of whiteness:

“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them.” (Pp. 700-701)

At the time of the publication of Black Reconstruction in 1935, these “wages” included the right to vote, exclusive access to the best jobs, an expectation of higher wages and better benefits, the capacity to sit on juries, the right to enjoy public accommodations, and the right to consider oneself the equal of any other. Today they include, in part, the right to the lowest mortgage rates, the right to decent treatment by the police, the right to feel relatively immune from criminal prosecution, the right to assumes one’s success is due entirely to one’s own effort, the right to declare that institutionalized racial discrimination is over, and the right to be a full citizen in a liberal democratic state. These wages undermine class-consciousness among those who receive them because they create an interest in and expectation of favored treatment within the capitalist system rather than outside of it.

The racial order in the United States, then, is essentially a cross-class alliance between capital and one section of the working class. (I make this argument in detail in my book The Abolition of White Democracy). The group that makes up this alliance is defined as “white.” It acts like a club: its members enjoy certain privileges, so that the poorest, most wretched members share, in certain respects, a status higher than that of the most esteemed persons excluded from it (Ignatiev and Garvey 1996). Membership in the white “club” is dynamic and determined by existing membership. Richard Wright once said, “Negroes are Negroes because they are treated like Negroes” (Wright 1957, 148). Similarly, whites are whites because they are treated like whites. The treatment one receives in a racial order defines one’s race rather than the other way around: you are not privileged because you are white; you are white because you are privileged. Slaves and their descendants have typically been the antithesis of this club, but various other groups have occupied the subordinate position in the racial binary, including Native Americans, Latinos/as, Chinese Americans, and others. Some, such as Irish and Jewish immigrants, started out in the subordinate category but over time successfully became white (Ignatiev 1995, Brodkin 1999). Others, such as Mexican American elites in California in the nineteenth century, started out as white but lost their superior status and were thrown into the not-white group (Almaguer 1994).

This system of racial oppression has been central to the maintenance of capitalist hegemony in the United States. If, as Marx and Engels argue in The Communist Manifesto, capitalism tends to bring workers together by teaching them how to cooperate, and if this cooperation has revolutionary tendencies (“what the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own gravediggers”), then capitalists need to break up the very cooperation that their system of production creates. 2 Now, different societies have developed different ways of disrupting class solidarity, often by giving advantage to one set of workers over others. Perhaps in Turkey it’s through the subordination of the Kurds, perhaps in Saudi Arabia it’s through the subordination of women, perhaps in Bolivia it’s through the subordination of the indigenous population, perhaps in Western Europe it’s through social democracy. In the United States, it has been through the racial order. The wages of whiteness have undermined the solidarity that the working class otherwise develops daily in its activities. It has fundamentally shaped other hierarchies, such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion, refracting them through its prism. In so doing, it has contributed to making capitalism seem like “common sense,” even to many workers (particularly white ones) who stumble under its burdens.

The racial order, then, is not merely one form of hierarchy among others. It is a form of hierarchy that shapes and organizes the others in order to ensure capitalist accumulation. Morally, it is not more evil than other forms of domination, but politically it has played a more central role in organizing American society. Strategically speaking, then, one would think that it would be a central target of American anarchist analysis and strategy. Curiously, though, this has not been the case.

Between infoshops and insurrection

It is surprising how little thought the contemporary American anarchist scene has given to strategy. Broadly speaking, it upholds two loose models that it presents as strategies and repeats over and over with little self-reflection or criticism. I call these models infoshops and insurrection.

An infoshop is a space where people can learn about radical ideas, where radicals can meet other radicals, and where political work (such as meetings, public forums, fundraisers, etc.) can get done. In the infoshop strategy, infoshops and other “autonomous zones” model the free society. Building “free spaces” inspires others to spontaneously create their own, spreading “counterinstitutions” throughout society to the point where they become so numerous that they overwhelm the powers that be. The very creation of anarchist free spaces has revolutionary implications, their proponents argue, because it can lead to the “organic” (i.e. spontaneous, undirected, nonhierarchical) spreading of such spaces throughout society in a way that eventually challenges the state.

An insurrection is the armed uprising of the people. According to the insurrection strategy, anarchists acting in affinity groups or other small informal organizations can engage in actions that encourage spontaneous uprisings in various sectors of society. As localized insurrections grow and spread, they combine into a full-scale revolution that overthrows the state and capital and makes possible the creation of a free society.3

Infoshops serve very important functions and any movement needs such spaces. Likewise, insurrection is a focal event in any revolution, for it turns the patient organizing of the movement and the boiling anger of the people into an explosive confrontation with the state. The problem is when infoshops and insurrection get taken as revolutionary strategies in themselves rather than as part of a broader revolutionary movement. In the infoshops model, autonomous spaces become the movement rather than serving it. In the insurrection model, spontaneous upheaval replaces the movement by equating insurrection with revolution rather than seeing it as but one part of the revolutionary process. The infoshops and insurrection models, in other words, both misunderstand the process of social transformation. Radical change may be initiated by spontaneous revolts that are supported by subterranean free spaces, but these revolts are almost always the product of movement building.

Social movements are central to radical change. The classical anarchists understood this, for they were very concerned to build working class movements, such as Bakunin’s participation in the International Working Men’s Association, Berkman and Goldman’s support for striking workers, Lucy Parson’s work in the International Working People’s Association, and the Wobblies’ call for “One Big Union.” To be sure, they also built free spaces and engaged in “propaganda by the deed,” but these were not their sole or even dominant activities. They did them in order to build the anarchist movement, not as a substitute for movement building.

Yet surprisingly much of the contemporary anarchist scene has abandoned movement building. In fact, the infoshops and insurrection models both seem to be designed, in part, to avoid the slow, difficult, but absolutely necessary work of building mass movements. Indeed, anarchist publications like Green Anarchy are explicit about this, deriding movement building as inherently authoritarian.

A revolution is not an infoshop, or an insurrection, or creating a temporary autonomous zone, or engaging in sabotage; it cannot be so easy, so “organic,” so absent of political struggle. A revolution is an actual historical event whereby one class overthrows another and (in the anarchist ideal) thereby makes it possible to abolish all forms of oppression. Such revolutions are the product of mass movements: a large group of people organized in struggle against the state and/or other institutions of power to achieve their ends. When movements become powerful enough, when they sufficiently weaken elites, and when fortune is on their side, they lead to an insurrection, and then perhaps a revolution. Yet in much of the anarchist scene today, building free spaces and/or creating disorder are regarded as the movement itself rather than components of one. Neither the infoshops nor insurrection models build movements that can express the organized power of the working class. Thus, the necessary, difficult, slow, and inspiring process of building movements falls through the cracks between sabotage and the autonomous zone.

The strategy of building autonomous zones or engaging in direct action with small affinity groups that are divorced from social movements assumes that radicals can start the revolution. But revolutionaries don’t make revolutions. Millions of ordinary and oppressed people do. Anarchist theory and practice today provides little sense of how these people are going to be part of the process, other than to create their own “free spaces” or to spontaneously join the festivals of upheaval. Ironically, then, the infoshops and insurrection approaches lead many anarchists to take an elitist approach to politics, one in which anarchists “show the way” for the people to follow, never realizing that throughout history, revolutionaries (including anarchists) have always been trying to catch up to the people, not the other way around.

Movement building and the racial order

Which brings us back to the racial order. The abandonment of movement building by the bulk of the contemporary American anarchist scene has led it to ignore the most important and radical political tradition in the United States: the Black freedom movements against slavery, segregation, and other forms of racial oppression.

The intellectual tradition of American anarchism has always looked more toward Europe(and sometimes Mexico) than the United States. American anarchists know more about the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt rebellion, the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Paris 1968, the German Autonomen, and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas than they do about the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, the Sharecroppers Union, the civil rights movement, or the Black/Brown/Red power movements. It’s not that American anarchists and history are ignored—Haymarket, Berkman, Parsons, de Cleyre, Goldman, Bookchin, and Zerzan all have their place in the anarchist pantheon—but these persons and events are curiously detached from an understanding of the social conditions that produced them, especially the racial order that has dominated U.S. history. (One consequence of this European focus, I suspect, is that it has contributed to the predominantly white demographic of the contemporary anarchist scene.)

The ignorance of Black freedom movements is so profound that even anarchistic tendencies within them get ignored. Nat Turner led a slave uprising in 1831 that killed over fifty whites and struck terror throughout the South; it should clearly count as one of the most important insurrections in American history. Historians often describe William Lloyd Garrison, a leader of the abolitionist movement, as a “Christian Anarchist” (e.g. Perry 1973), yet he is almost never included in anarchist-produced histories. The Black-led Reconstruction government in South Carolina from 1868-1874, which Du Bois dubbed the “South Carolina Commune,” did far more toward building socialism than the Paris Commune in 1871 ever did. Ella Baker’s anti-authoritarian critique of Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged young civil rights workers to create their own autonomous and directly democratic organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arguably the most important direct action civil rights group. Further, the racial consciousness produced by these struggles has often been broader, radical, and international than the consciousness produced by other U.S. struggles, even if it describes itself as “nationalist” (See Robin Kelley’s great book Freedom Dreams for more on this). Yet these persons and events curiously form no part of the anarchist scene’s historical tradition.4

In sum, the Black freedom struggles have been the most revolutionary tradition in American history yet the anarchist scene is all but unaware of it. I suggest that there is more to learn about anarchism in the U.S. from Harriet Tubman, Abby Kelley, Nate Shaw, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Forman, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur than from Proudhoun, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Berkman or Goldman. There is more to learn from abolitionism than Haymarket, more from Reconstruction than the Spanish Civil War, more from the current social conditions of Black America than the global South. To see this, however, requires modifying the critique of hierarchy so that it can explain how forms of domination are themselves organized. It requires abandoning the infoshops and insurrection models for a commitment to building movements. It requires looking to Mississippi and New Orleans more than Russia or Paris.

This is not to say that American anarchism has been completely silent on race. The anarchist critique of white supremacy began in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the work of Black anarchists such as Kuwasi Balagoon and Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, the journal Race Traitor (which was sympathetic to the anarchist scene and did much to develop it intellectually regarding race), and anarchist organizations such as Love and Rage, Black Autonomy, Anarchist People of Color, and the anarchist-influenced Bring the Ruckus. Not coincidentally, these organizations also tend or tended to emphasize movement building rather than infoshops or insurrection. It is this tradition that influences my analysis here. But it is hardly a dominant perspective in the anarchist scene today.

After the Berlin Wall

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many anarchists were confident that anarchism would fill the void left by state communism and once again become the dominant ideological challenge to liberalism like it was before the Russian Revolution. This confidence, even exuberance, was on display throughout the U.S. anarchist scene in publications such as Anarchy, Fifth Estate, and Profane Existence; in the creation of new organizations such as the Network of Anarchist Collectives; and in the burst of anarchist infoshops opening up in Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, D.C., New York, and elsewhere.

It was an exciting time. Yet anarchism never filled the void. It never captured the hearts and minds of ordinary people. A similar optimism followed the uprising in Seattle in 1999. Anarchists again confidently predicted the emergence of a new, powerful movement. Yet once again, it didn’t happen. Today anarchism in the U.S. is in about the same place it was in 1989: a static ideology and a loose scene of largely white twenty-somethings, kept together by occasional gatherings, short-lived collectives, the underground music scene, and a handful of magazines and websites.

What went wrong in 1989 and 1999? Why hasn’t anarchism filled the void left by the collapse of communism? Why hasn’t anarchism grown as a movement and a philosophy? Most of the answer, no doubt, lies in the fact that anarchists grossly underestimated the power of capitalism and liberalism. All socialist ideologies lost popularity with the fall of the Soviet Union, since there no longer seemed to be a viable, “actually existing” alternative to capitalism. Capitalism and liberalism appeared invincible and the world system seemed to be at “the end of history.” September 11, 2001, brought a new antagonist to global capital — religious fundamentalism — but it hardly represents a libertarian alternative. World events, in other words, smothered libertarian socialism between neoliberalism and fundamentalism.

But part of the problem, I have suggested, lies with anarchism itself. The failure to develop a theory of U.S. history that recognizes the centrality of racial oppression, combined with a related failure to concentrate on building mass movements, has contributed to anarchism’s continued marginalization.

But what if this was to change? What if American anarchists went from building infoshops and plotting insurrections to building movements, particularly movements against the racial order? (They could still build free spaces and encourage insurrection, of course, but these efforts would be part of a broader strategy rather than strategies in themselves.) What if anarchists, instead of concentrating on creating “autonomous zones” on the U.S.-Mexico border, as some have tried to do, worked to build movements in resistance to anti-immigrant laws?

What if anarchists, instead of planning (largely ineffective) clandestine direct actions with small affinity groups, worked to build movements against the police, who are at the forefront of maintaining the color line? What if anarchists, in addition to supporting jailed comrades, worked with family members of incarcerated people to organize against prisons? What if anarchists stopped settling for autonomous zones and furtive direct actions and focused on undermining the cross-class alliance and on changing the “common sense” of this society?

The scene might just build a movement.


Almaguer, T. (1994) Racial Fault Lines: the historical origins of white supremacy in California, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bookchin, M. (1982) The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, Palo Alto: Cheshire.
——— (1986) The Modern Crisis, Philadelphia: New Society.

Brodkin, K. (1999) How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1992) Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, New York: Atheneum.

Forman, J. (1985) The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: International.

Ignatiev, N. (1995) How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge.

Ignatiev, N. and J. Garvey (1996) Race Traitor, New York: Routledge.

Lowndes, Joe (1995) ‘The life of an anarchist labor organizer’, Free Society 2 (4). Available HTTP: <>(accessed May 12, 2008).

Kelley, R. (2002) Freedom Dreams: the Black radical tradition, Boston: Beacon.

Olson, J. (2004) The Abolition of White Democracy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Perry, L. (1973) Radical Abolitionism: anarchy and the government of God in antislavery thought, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Roediger, D. (1986) ‘Strange legacies: the Black International and Black America’, in Roediger, D. and F. Rosemont (eds.), Haymarket Scrapbook,
Chicago: Kerr.
Thomas, P. (1980) Karl Marx and the Anarchists, London: Routledge.
Wright, R. (1957) White Man, Listen! Garden City: Doubleday.

Workers Power & the Russian Revolution

By Tom Wetzel

I was attracted to radical politics in the late 1960s/early ‘70s when I was in my twenties. Most of the people who were drawn to serious revolutionary politics back then ended up in Leninist organizations of some sort, if only for a time. Third World revolutions were one influence. Various Marxist-Leninist parties had come to power based on guerrilla struggles, in places like China and Cuba, and this augmented the claim of Leninism that it was “successful” in charting a way to a post-capitalist future.

But it seemed obvious to me that workers did not have power in production in the various Communist countries. They’re subordinated to a managerial hierarchy. Thus, I reasoned, workers must be a subjugated and exploited class in those countries.

A work I found particularly helpful in the ‘70s was Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers Control. This clear-headed and well-researched little book was an indispensable source of arguments to explode the myth of the Bolshevik party building “proletarian power” in Russia. AK Press has now re-issued this booklet as part of an anthology, For Workers Power. Brinton was the main writer for the London libertarian socialist group Solidarity. This anthology collects in one place many of Brinton’s writings, including The Irrational in Politics and Paris: May 1968. In this review I’ll mainly focus on the Russian revolution.

Brinton believes that the working class cannot have power in society, cannot liberate itself from its condition as a subjugated and exploited class, unless it gains direct management power over production. He believes that the working class must also gain control over the whole structure of the society to ensure its liberation. But he rejects the idea that the working class could have power in society if it is subjugated in production. This is the heart of Brinton’s argument.

The Soviets and the Factory Councils

People sometimes say that “workers councils” were the organizational means for workers fighting for and attaining power in the Russian revolution.(1) But there were two different types of mass organization supported by workers in the Russian revolution that could be called “workers councils”: the soviets (soviet is Russian for council) and the factory committees. Let’s look at each.

The Petrograd soviet was formed during the tumultuous events in February, 1917 that led to the abdication of the czar. A group of radical and liberal intellectuals formed the soviet top-down when they constituted themselves as the “Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet” on February 27, 1917. They then sent out a call for election of delegates.(2) Moreover, the soviet assemblies were not where the real decisions were made. The executive made the real decisions in the backrooms. Some decisions were submitted to the assembled delegates for ratification, some were not. The soviet assembly tended to be just an open meeting, where anyone could speak. Soviets formed in other Russian cities were similar.

The factory committees, unlike the soviets, were initiated directly by Russian workers themselves, and these organizations became the main vehicle of self-organization of workers in the revolution. These committees were typically made up of elected worker delegates. The most important decisions were made in general assemblies of the rank and file.

On May 30, 1917 there was a meeting of over 400 representatives of factory committees in the Petrograd area. They described the situation they faced:

“From the beginning of the revolution the administrative staffs of the factories have relinquished their posts. The workmen of the factories have become the masters. To keep the factories going, the workers’ committees have had to take the management into their own hands. In the first days of the revolution, in February and March, the workmen left the factories and went into the streets…Later, the workmen returned to their work. They found that many factories had been deserted. The managers, engineers, generals, mechanics, foremen had reason to believe that the workmen would wreak their vengeance on them, and they had disappeared. The workmen had to begin work with no administrative staff to guide them. They had to elect committees which gradually re-established a normal system of work. The committees had to find the necessary raw materials, and…take upon themselves all kinds of unexpected and unaccustomed duties.”(3)

The factory committees were described as “fighting organizations, elected on the basis of the widest democracy and with collective leadership,” with the aim of creating “the organization of thorough control by labor over production and distribution.”

Russian workers found that neither the soviets nor the industrial unions could be used by them to solve their immediate economic problems or help to coordinate activities between different workplaces. The soviets were tightly controlled by their executive and were taken up with fighting the government over political issues such as continued Russian involvement in the world war.

The industrial unions weren’t much help either. Unions had been illegal under czarism. The unions had been formed top-down by the political parties and continued to be largely an appendage of the parties. Throughout most of 1917 most of the unions were controlled by the Mensheviks. Although union membership rose from 100,000 to over a million during 1917, this was largely an effect of the growth of the factory committees. Radical workers tended to join the industrial unions as a matter of principle, not because the unions had a real presence in the workplaces. Bill Shatov, an American IWW member who returned to his native Russia, described the Russian unions as “living corpses.”

From Soviets to State

By September, 1917 the Bolsheviks had gained majorities in the key Russian soviets. About half the delegates in the Petrograd soviet represented personnel in the Russian military. With the troops loyal to the soviets, Bolshevik control of the soviets enabled them to capture state power at the end of October.

The new governmental structure vested authority in the Russian parliament — the 350-member Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. As in other parliamentary systems, the government was formed as an executive committee, or cabinet of ministers, of the parliament. This executive was the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). Lenin, as chair of this committee, was premier or head of the government.(4) The local and regional soviets, which were little more than rubber stamps for their party-controlled executives anyway, came to function as an “electoral college” (in the American sense) for the indirect election of the parliament. The soviet structure provided legitimacy for the new Bolshevik government, based on the widespread support for the soviets among Russian workers and military personnel in 1917. But the indirect system of election and the tight centralization meant it could not be effectively controlled by rank-and-file workers or used by them to initiate and control decisions. By October 1917 a complex situation existed in Russian industry. “In practice the implementation of workers’ control took on a variety of forms in different parts of Russia,” Brinton writes. “These were partly determined by local conditions but primarily by the degree of resistance shown by different sections of the employing class. In some places the employers were expropriated forthwith, ‘from below.’ In other instances they were merely submitted to a supervisory type of ‘control,’ exercised by the factory committees.” This “supervisor control” included, for example, the right to veto management hiring decisions, to prevent employment of strikebreakers. After the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, the situation would become even more complex with some enterprises “nationalized from above by decree of the Central Government.”

The Economy in the New State

At the end of 1917 Lenin did not favor immediate nationalization of the economy. Brinton believes that Lenin opposed expropriation of the capitalists “because of his underestimation of the technological and administrative maturity of the proletariat.” Lenin envisioned that the “dual power” situation of “supervisory control” which existed in many privately-owned enterprises would continue for some time. The right of the factory committees to engage in this supervisory control was legalized in November, 1917 by Lenin’s decree on “workers control.” Lenin was not advocating that workers take over management of production or expropriate capitalists on their own initiative.

During 1917 many Russian workers envisioned a division of labor where the factory committees would take over the running of the economy while the soviets would become the new polity or governmental structure.(5) The Bolsheviks encouraged the factory committee movement to restrict its ambitions to “the economy.” The “workers party” would take political power.

Limiting their aspiration for power to the economy would prove to be the undoing of the Russian factory committee movement. Direct management of production may be necessary for worker power in society, but it is not sufficient. Workers need to also control the polity — the institutions for making the basic rules in society and enforcing them. If they don’t, they won’t be able to defend their power in production.

Russian workers assumed that the Bolshevik seizure of state power through the soviets would support their aspirations for economic control. The creation of the new Bolshevik government in October thus spurred a new burst of activity by the factory committee movement. Although Lenin’s “workers control” decree only legalized the degree of control the factory committees had already achieved, it encouraged workers to go farther because now they believed that their efforts would gain official sanction. Workers didn’t put too much stock in the boundary Lenin drew between control and management. Moreover, Lenin’s idea that the situation of “dual power” in the factories could be maintained indefinitely was unrealistic. Kritzman, a “left” Communist, criticized the workers control decree:

“Employers would not be inclined to run their businesses with the sole aim of teaching the workers how to manage them. Conversely, the workers felt only hatred for the capitalists and saw no reason why they should voluntarily remain exploited.”

“The spontaneous inclination of the workers to organize factory committees,” wrote historian E. H. Carr, “was inevitably encouraged by a revolution which led the workers to believe that the productive machinery of the country belonged to them and could be operated by them at their own discretion and to their own advantage. What had begun to happen before the October revolution now happened more frequently and more openly; and for the moment nothing would have dammed the tide of revolt.”(6)

Out of this upsurge of activity came the first attempt by the factory committee movement to form its own national organization, independent of the trade unions and political parties. In December the Central Soviet of Factory Committees of the Petrograd Area published a Practical Manual for the Implementation of Workers’ Control of Industry. The manual proposed that “workers control could rapidly be extended into ‘workers’ management’.” The manual also announced the intention of forming the factory committees into regional federations and a national federation.

Isaac Deutscher explains what then happened:

“The Factory Committees attempted to form their own national organization, which was to secure their virtual economic dictatorship. The Bolsheviks now called upon the trade unions to render a special service to the nascent Soviet State and to discipline the Factory Committees. The unions came out firmly against the attempt of the Factory Committees to form a national organization of their own. They prevented the convocation of the planned All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees and demanded total subordination on the part of the Committees.”(7)

However, the Bolshevik Party had only just taken state power — and their grip on power would become even more tenuous with the onset of the Russian civil war in May, 1918. This resulted in a compromise in which the party committed itself to trade union control of the economy.

This helped the party leadership to gain the cooperation of the party’s trade union cadres in suppressing the drive of the factory committee movement for direct worker management. The trade union control concept would be encapsulated in Point 5 of the program adopted at the 1919 Communist Party congress:

“The organizational apparatus of socialized industry must be based primarily on the trade unions…Participating already in accordance with the laws of the Soviet Republic and established practice in all local and central organs of industrial administration, the trade unions must proceed to the actual concentration in their own hands of all the administration of the entire economy, as a single economic unit.”

The first step in supplanting the workers’ drive for economic self-management with central planning from above was the decree on December 5, 1917, setting up the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka), under the direct authority of Sovnarkom. Vesenka was made up of Bolshevik trade union officials, Bolshevik Party stalwarts and “experts” appointed from above by the government. Vesenka was assigned the task of creating “a plan for the organization of the economic life of the country” and was to “direct to a uniform end” the activities of all existing economic authorities. Here we have the beginnings of a central planning apparatus assuming managerial functions. The fate of the factory committee movement was fought out at the first All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in January, 1918. Here the Bolsheviks put forward their plan to subordinate the factory committees to hierarchical union control. The main Russian political tendency with a vision for direct workers management were the anarcho-syndicalists. At the congress, the 25 anarcho-syndicalist delegates, representing Don Basin miners, Moscow railway workers and other workers, made a desperate effort to defend the factory committee movement and its drive for direct workers’ management. They proposed “that the organization of production, transport and distribution be immediately transferred to the hands of the toiling people themselves, and not to the state or some civil service machine made up of one kind or another of class enemy.” G.P. Maximov, a prominent anarcho-syndicalist, distinguished between horizontal coordination and hierarchical control of the economy:

“The aim of the proletariat was to coordinate all activity,…to create a center, but not a center of decrees and ordinances but a center of regulation, of guidance — and only through such a center to organize the industrial life of the country.”

However, the Bolsheviks got the decision they wanted. They had the majority of delegates, and Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Party supporters at the congress also voted for subordination of the factory committees to the trade unions.

With control over the government, the armed forces, the trade union apparatus, and majorities on many of the factory committees, the Bolshevik Party was able to tame the factory committee movement. Any factory committee that didn’t go along could be isolated; a factory could be denied resources it needed.

“Bolshevik propaganda in later years,” Brinton notes, would harp on the theme that the factory committees “were not a suitable means for organizing production on a national scale.” Deutscher, for example, says that “almost from their creation, the Factory Committees…aspired to have the…final say on all matters affecting their factory, its output, its stocks of raw materials, its conditions of work, etc. and paid little or no attention to the needs of industry as a whole.” The Leninist argument makes a false assumption: Either uncoordinated autonomy of each individual factory, or a central planning apparatus to create a plan and then issue orders through a hierarchy. Leninists “dismiss workers’ self-management with derogatory comments about ‘socialism in one factory’,” says Brinton, “or with profundities like ‘you can’t have groups of workers doing whatever they like, without taking into account the requirements of the economy as a whole.’” But there is a third alternative: A system of horizontal, self-managed planning and coordination. Why can’t workers and consumers themselves create the plan? Through their own experience the Russian workers themselves had come to realize the need for coordination and planning of the economy on a broader scale. This was the point to the proposals for regional and national federations of factory committees, and the convening of a national factory committee congress. The consumer cooperatives in the Russian revolution grew to 12 million members. When workers took over factories in 1917, they sometimes developed links with these organizations for distribution of the products of their factory. This relationship could have been systematized to provide consumer input to some sort of grassroots-controlled, participatory planning system.

The proposal for union management of the economy, endorsed by the Communist Party congress in 1919, was never implemented. In exchange for their efforts to suppress the independent initiative of factory committees, Communist Party trade union cadres had been appointed to various government and management bodies, but this was combined with government appointment of managers and control from above. As early as November 9, 1917, the Central Soviet of Employees that had taken over the postal system during the revolution was abolished. The new minister in charge decreed: “No…committees for the administration of the department of Posts and Telegraphs can usurp the functions belonging to the central power and to me as People’s Commissar.”

Dangerous Slogans and Syndicalist Deviations

By 1921 worker discontent was widespread and strikes broke out in Petrograd and Moscow. The immediate danger posed by foreign embargo and civil war had ended and now the trade union base of the party was pushing for a greater say in the running of the economy. This debate would come to a head at the Communist Party congress in March, 1921. The Workers Opposition charged that the party leaders had failed to carry out the promises in the 1919 program, and had “reduced to almost nil the influence of the working class.” With “the Party and economic authorities having been swamped by bourgeois technicians,” they argued that the solution was union management of the economy. They thus proposed to invoke an All-Russian Producers Congress to elect the management of the national economy, with the various industrial unions electing the management boards of their respective industries.

Lenin denounced the push for union management as a “syndicalist deviation.” “It destroyed the need for the Party. If the trade unions, nine-tenths of whose members are non-Party workers, appoint the managers of industry, what is the use of the Party?”, Lenin asked. Here we see Lenin’s view of the party as managers, implementing their program through a top-down hierarchy. He assumes that the workers themselves are somehow incapable of running the economy, that the party intelligentsia must be in charge.

Trotsky denounced the Workers Opposition for raising “dangerous slogans”:

“They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the Party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.”

The party congress ended not only with the defeat of the Workers Opposition but with the party banning internal dissent. The officers of the Russian metalworkers union were leaders of the Workers Opposition. When the party fraction in the union refused to go along with party orders to kick them out of office, the party-state leaders imposed a trusteeship (as the AFL-CIO would say). The union’s elected officers were replaced with party appointees. This was not the first time this tactic had been employed. In 1920, Trotsky, as Commissar of Transport, had broken the railway workers union by appointing new leaders.

Shortly after the 1921 party congress Bogdanov and his Workers Truth group (of Bolshevik origin) were to declare that the revolution had led to “a complete defeat for the working class.”

Probably the most important condition that made victory difficult for the workers revolution in Russia was the fact that the working class in Russia was a small minority of the population, no more than 10 percent. Russia in 1917 was still semi-feudal. The vast majority of the population were peasants whose concern in the revolution was mainly to expropriate the big landlords and gain control of their small farms. Peasants produced largely for their own consumption; productivity was low. The poverty, disorganization and illiteracy of the Russian peasantry prevented them from imposing their own solution on Russian society. In Russia there didn’t exist the sort of widespread worker unionism in agriculture that enabled the Spanish agricultural workers to play an important role in the Spanish revolution in 1936.

Did the minority status of the working class doom it to defeat? G.P. Maximov, who was an agronomist, had hoped that czarist war industry could be converted to the manufacture of tractors, electrical generating equipment and other things to exchange with the peasantry for their products. He hoped that a strategy of investing in the agricultural economy would encourage collective organizational methods, a collectivist outlook, and increased productivity in the peasant communities. This was Maximov’s libertarian socialist path for Russian agriculture.(8)

Even if the Bolsheviks had wanted to pursue this peace conversion strategy, the onset of the Russian civil war in May, 1918 would have gotten in the way. Virtually the whole of Russian industry was converted into a supply organization for the Red Army. The cities produced virtually nothing that could be traded to the peasants for their products. So, the Bolsheviks resorted to forced requisitions, seizing agricultural products at the point of a gun. This strategy was not very effective. The peasants resisted and the cities starved. The urban population of Russia was reduced by at least half during the civil war. Workers moved in with their country cousins. At least they wouldn’t starve in the countryside.

Conjunctural Factors and New Classes

Lenin’s solution to the growing peasant discontent was the New Economic Policy, enacted in 1921. This policy encouraged capitalist development and free trade in agricultural products. Eventually it was Stalin who “solved” the problem of low agricultural productivity through forced collectivization and mechanization. This allowed much of the rural population to be moved to work in urban industry. The state hierarchy could then capture the efficiency gains from agricultural investment to build up Russian industry.

Bolshevik apologists usually point to various “conjunctural” factors to explain the defeat of the workers revolution in Russia — foreign invasion and civil war, failure of the revolution in Germany and other European countries, and so on. But neither these factors nor the minority status of the working class in Russia are sufficient to explain why the Russian workers’ revolution was defeated in the peculiar way it was. Worker revolutions have at times been defeated by a violent reaction that saves the property system of the capitalist class, as in Italy in the ‘20s, Spain in the ‘30s, and Chile in the ‘70s.

But the capitalist class was expropriated in Russia, and a new economic system emerged, based on public ownership, and subordination of the economy to central planning, not market governance.

A new class emerged as the rulers of this economic system. Unlike the capitalist class they were hired labor, employees of the state. Brinton refers to this class as “the bureaucracy.” But there are “bureaucracies” in all kinds of organizations. A class, however, is distinguished by its particular role in social production.

I think it is helpful here to look at the sort of hierarchy that was being developed in capitalist industry in the U.S. in the early 20th century. The emergence of the large corporations gave the capitalists sufficient resources to systematically re-design jobs and the production process to their advantage, destroying the skill and autonomy of workers that had been inherited from the artisan tradition. “Efficiency experts” like Frederick Taylor advocated concentration of conceptualization and decision-making in the hands of a managerial control hierarchy, removing it from the shopfloor. The point to Taylorism was to shift the balance of power on the shopfloor to the advantage of management. This attempt to gain greater control over what workers do was justified to the owners in terms of the ability of the firm to ensure long-term profitability, but it also empowers a new class. The period between the 1890s and 1920s saw the emergence of a new class of professional managers, engineers, and other expert advisors to management. These were the cadres who made up the new control hierarchies in the corporations and the state. As hired employees, the power of this techno-managerial or coordinator class(9) is not based on ownership of capital assets, but on concentration of expertise and decision-making authority.

The coordinator class was only in its early stages of development in the Russian economy in the early 20th century. In the actual situation the Bolshevik party intelligentsia were thrown into the breach, along with technicians and managers inherited from the capitalist regime. The Russian revolution showed that it was possible to use the state to build an economy where the coordinator class was the ruling class. Bolshevik ideology and program are an essential part of the explanation for the emergence of this new class system.

Brinton makes a convincing case that neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever believed in or advocated workers’ management of production. After the Bolshevik takeover in October, 1917, Lenin’s “whole practice,” Brinton notes, “was to denounce attempts at workers’ management as ‘premature,’ ‘utopian,’ ‘anarchist,’ ‘harmful,’” and so on.

Much of the debate within the Communist Party in 1920-21 was over “one-man management.” As early as April, 1918 Lenin wrote:

“Unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labor processes that are based on large-scale machine industry…today the revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labor process.”

But the “one-man management” debate was somewhat misleading since the real issue is not whether there is a committee in charge or one person but the relationship of the mass of workers to the authority of management. Would they possess this authority themselves or not?

As long as the ‘workers party’ controls the state

Nonetheless, the logic of central planning does favor having one person in charge. If plans are crafted by an elite group of planners and then implemented as a set of orders that must be carried out by the workforce, the planning apparatus will want to have the ability to enforce their orders. And this is easier if there is just one person who is answerable to those above rather than a whole collective.

The Bolshevik leaders assumed that the sort of hierarchical structures in industry evolved by capitalism were class-neutral. They maintained that the managerial hierarchy could be wielded in the interests of the working class as long as the “workers party” controlled the state that owned the economy.

This idea was not unique to Bolshevism but was common among social-democratic Marxists prior to World War I. For example, in The Common Sense of Socialism, published in 1911, John Spargo, a member of the American Socialist Party, argues that control of the state by the labor-based socialist political party is sufficient to ensure working class control of a state-owned economy. In Brinton’s view, the commitment to the persistence of hierarchy — the division of society into those who give orders and those who are expected to obey them — is as rooted in social-democracy as it is in Leninism.

When Marx drew up the statutes of the first International Workers Association in 1864, he included Flora Tristan’s slogan: “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves.” Brinton’s analysis of the Russian revolution shows how the Bolsheviks failed to take this principle seriously. Brinton agrees with Marx that the class struggle is a process that drives social change, and that through this process the working class can liberate itself. The fact that workers must work, not to fulfill their own aims, but are forced to act as instruments for the aims of others — our situation in capitalist society — is what Marx called “alienated labor.” Brinton believes this condition of “alienation” is pervasive in existing society, not just in work. Liberation presupposes that this condition be replaced by self-determination in production and all aspects of life. In order to work out a path to liberation, Marx believed it was necessary to be realistic, to “see through” all phony ideology, like the rhetoric in bourgeois liberalism about “freedom” and “democracy.”

The emphasis upon self-activity, class struggle, and realism about society are the good side of Marx, the part that Brinton retains in his own thinking. But in the Marxist political tradition this is combined with hierarchical aspects. Why? In Marx’s theory of “historical materialism,” social formations become vulnerable to instability and replacement when they “fetter the development of the productive forces.” Marx assumes that a drive for ever-increasing productive output is a trans-historical force that is the gauge of social progress. If Taylorism and the development of hierarchy in industry are the particular way that capitalism increases productive output, these must be “progressive,” some Marxists infer. “We must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system,” Lenin wrote in 1918. Lenin thus supported the adoption of Taylor’s piecework schemes. “The Soviet Republic…must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system.” The fallacy in this argument is the assumption that productive effectiveness could not be achieved through the development of the skill and knowledge of workers, under workers’ self-management.

In Marx’s analysis of capitalism the division between labor and capital takes center stage. Because the working class does not own the means of production, we must sell our time to employers. The class power of the owners enables them to rip off the working class, accumulating surplus value as private capital.

But there is another systematic rip off of the working class that becomes entrenched once capitalism reaches its mature corporate form. The logic of capitalist development then systematically under-develops worker potentials, as expertise and decision-making is accumulated as the possession of another class, the coordinator class. But Marxism doesn’t “see” this class.

This failure makes Marxism self-contradictory. The hierarchical dimension of Marxism converts it into a coordinator class ideology, a program for the continued subordination of the working class. The concept of the “vanguard party” as managers of the movement for social change, concentrating expertise and decision-making in their hands; the idea that “proletarian power” consists in a particular party leadership controlling a state, implementing its program top-down through the state hierarchy; control of the economy by a central planning apparatus — these things don’t empower the working class.

Hierarchies of the state, like the similar hierarchies in the private corporations, are based on the concentration of professional expertise and decision-making power into the hands of a coordinatorist elite. A statist strategic orientation that thinks in terms of a party leadership capturing a state and then implementing its program top-down through the state hierarchy is a stategy that empowers the coordinator class. This contradicts the liberatory and egalitarian rhetoric that socialism traditionally appeals to to motivate activists.

I’m not here arguing that the empowerment of the working class would not presuppose the taking of political power. The working class can’t liberate itself from subordination to dominating classes if it doesn’t take over both the running of industry and the governing of the society. This presupposes that it control the polity — the structure through which the basic rules in society are made and enforced. But a hierarchical state is not the only possible form of polity. We can also envision a self-managed polity, based on institutions of grassroots democracy. The point is that it must be the mass of the people themselves who “take power,” through mass democratic institutions that the people create and directly control.


(1) For example, Alan Maas of the International Socialist Organization writes: “…the October revolution of 1917 won power for the workers’ councils, or soviets, establishing the basic institution of a socialist society.” Maas reply to Michael Albert. Maas therefore identifies “the basic institution of a socialist society” not with a particular economic institution or workers direct management of industry but with the Soviet polity, that is, a state controlled by the Bolshevik Party.

(2) Oscar Anweiler, Les Soviets en Rusie, 1905-1921, cited in Rachleff (see note (5)).

(3) Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, pp. 140-141. John Reed provides descriptions of some worker takeovers in the article cited in note (4).

(4) John Reed, “The Structure of the Soviet System,” Liberation, July, 1918 (reprinted in Socialist Viewpoint, Sept. 15, 2002).

(5) Peter Rachleff, Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution.

(6) E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. II, p. 69, cited in Rachleff.

(7) Quoted in Brinton, p. 320.

(8) G. P. Maximov, Constructive Anarchism.

(9) “Coordinator class” is the term that Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel use for this class. Albert and Hahnel, “A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map,” in Between Labor and Capital, Pat Walker, ed.

The IWW and Electoral Politics: An Historical Overview

Election Day he shouted, “a Socialist For Mayor!”
The “comrade” got elected, he happy was for fair,
But after the election he got an awful shock,
A great big socialistic bull did rap him on the block.
And Comrade Block did sob, “I helped him get his job. “

When Joe Hill wrote this verse to his famous “Mr. Block” somewhere around 1910, he was expressing a common view held by most members of the IWW that electoral political action, even in support of leftist candidates, was a futile exercise. As it turned out Hill’s words proved to be prophetic since the “bull” that arrested him, the physician who treated his wounds and later notified the police of his whereabouts, and the lawyer who misrepresented him were all Socialists. On the other hand, much of Hill’s support in Utah came from the Socialist Party or its supporters.

In any event the anti-electoral politics stance of the IWW is long-standing. Its roots go back to the very beginning when a wide coalition of individuals including socialists like Eugene V. Debs, Daniel De Leon and others, formed the IWW in 1905. Between then and 1908 when the union was reorganized, tensions between the various groups in the IWW were manifest in disagreement over tactics. Some urged the new union to establish a political component which would capture power at the ballot box. Others believed in direct action and taking power “at the point of production.” Those advocating the latter position pointed out that large numbers of workers, particularly blacks, women, and immigrant workers were legally dis­enfranchised, thus weakening the chance of the strategy’s success. Moreover, since large segments of IWW support came from migratory workers who moved fre­quently, it would be difficult to endorse a strategy which involved permanent electoral polling booths and voters residences.

The choice, these Wobblies argued, was to emphasize areas of strength, not weakness. At the union’s 1908 convention — where as Fred Thompson noted there was a “hearty disrespect for politicians” — the advocates of direct action dominated, though some sympathy for electoral politics and even cordial fraternal relations with some groups like the Socialist Party continued at different times and in different places. Indeed, some historians have argued that the union was not so much anti-political as it was non-political in an electoral sense. At the same time, the actions of the 1908 convention unified the IWW and moved it in a more coherent and cohesive direction. As Fred Thompson has observed:

In one sense this [convention] is the launching of the IWW. It is from here on that it exists as an organization with its own distinctive character … The five thousand members it had after the 1908 convention were no longer divergent groups trying to live together but a compact organization of [workers] attached to the IWW rather than to something else, largely rebels who had been organized by the new union, but who had long experience in the struggle with the employer …

In understanding the IWW’s position on electoral politics it is also important to examine the career of a founding member of the union, and its best known advocate in the years before World War I-William D. “Big Bill” Haywood. A son of the West, Haywood’s roots went back to the Western Federation of Miners, of which he was an officer. Because his experiences lay in industrial unionism, not electoral politics, Haywood never really championed the educational possibilities of electoral politics like his colleagues in the Socialist Party. Though he urged workers to vote and even ran for Governor of Colorado himself, Haywood believed that the im­portance of electoral politics existed only in so far as election to office could trans­late into the ability to protect working people. In this sense, Haywood saw politics as a secondary, though impor­tant, part of the overall attempt to seize political control through direct action. Haywood’s views on socialism and . politics are succinctly expressed in a famous talk he gave in New York entitled “Socialism: The Hope of the Working Class:”

With the success of socialism prac­tically all of the political offices now in existence will be put out of business. I want to say also, and with as much emphasis, that while a member of the Socialist Party and believing firmly n political action, it is decidedly better in my opinion to elect the superintendent in some branch of industry than to elect a congressman … Under socialism we will have no congresses such as exist today, no legislatures, nor parliaments nor councils of municipalities. Our councils will not be filled with aspiring lawyers or ministers, but they will be conventions of the working class, composed of men and women who will go there for purposes of education, to exchange ideas, and by their expert knowledge to improve the machinery so that we can use it for the advantage of the working class.

For a time, Haywood was an active , member of the Socialist Party of America, serving on its national com­mittee. Ultimately, he was removed from that office in 1913 by a party recall, ostensibly because he had publicly advocated violence and sabotage. At the same time, Haywood had alienated segments of the Socialist Party because he promoted dual unionism, rejected the notion of gradual reform’ as meaningful to his working-class’ constituency, and clashed with important figures on the right and center of the umbrella Socialist Party. After Haywood’s dismissal, the influence of the IWW and others in the Socialist party who shared a syndicalist view was greatly diminished.

Also important in understanding the IWW’s avoidance of electoral politics is a recognition that the union has always emphasized direct action, the general strike and workers control of the workplace. In this sense, the IWW view represented in part the influence of the anarcho-syndicalist ideas of later 19th century Europe and similar trends introduced into the United States. But the IWW represented an indigenous form of industrial unionism that sought to create “one big union” through which the working class would take possesson “of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wage system.” In this way society would be transformed by workers control of industry. As the preamble to the IWW puts it “it is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism” through organizing the working class into an “army of production not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.”

In the 1920s and 30s, the union came into conflict with the Communist Party which emerged as a proponent of an electoral approach to bringing about a workers’ government. While the Com­munists accepted the importance of industrial unionism, they also believed in the Leninist concept of a revolutionary “vanguard party.” The IWW, committed as it was to democracy preceding from the bottom up, was out of step with the Communist notion of democratic centralism. Over the years, the IWW has continued to oppose support for electoral political action and distanced itself from political solutions as a whole, continuing to stress action at the point of production.

Today, these attitudes towards electoral politics continue to be very evi­dent in the organizational work of the union, and among the members at large. At the same time, it should be noted that this has not kept Wobblies from working with others whose first priority, tacti­cally speaking, may be somewhat dif­ferent. A poll taken among Socialist Party members a decade or so ago, for example, demonstrated that there were a number of party members who had dual membership in the IWW, or subscribed to the Industrial Worker. At the same time, it should be noted that at the present, the Socialist Party national office in New York City is an IWW job ‘ shop. And indeed, there were several in attendance at the recent Socialist Party national convention in Chicago in September.

Like Fred Thompson, I think it is healthy to have a “hearty disrespect” for politicians. Perhaps the message in all of this is that there are many ways, and many strategies, to achieve common goals. November is the season of elections, and we will all be besieged with the promises and pleadings of politicians. But November is also a time when we remember Joe Hill. As he said:

“Don’t Mourn, Organize!”

On the Black Bloc Tactic


“It may be that the black bloc’s time is over, that it remains completely inadequate to our present conjuncture. But it may also be the case that we can find ways to reintegrate the bloc into today’s struggles, which might ultimately make our movements even stronger. We will get nowhere by indulging in knee-jerk denunciations based in moralism, dubious appeals to the authority of history, or fixed ideas about what struggles ought to look like, as the real struggles rage outside. We have to begin with a concrete analysis of the concrete situation to see what kind of political experiments we need today, making sure we don’t miss the possibilities of unprecedented events. Instead of drawing conclusions from behind closed doors, we should base our strategy on what’s happening in the streets.”

The Uprising in Baja California

Magonista guerrillas with the banner “Tierra y Libertad” in Tijuana, 1911

Baja California (Lower California ) is the long finger of land that stretches down into the Pacific south of the border with California in the USA. The border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali and the coastal town of Ensanada are its chief towns. Here for six months during 1911 a major insurrection took place. Organise! Looks at this little-known event, in which the famous Wobbly Joe Hill is rumoured to have been involved.
On 29th January 1911 twenty armed Magonista militants led by Jose Maria Leyva seized the town of Mexicali. Leyva called himself the General in Chief of the Insurgent Forces and was assisted by Simon Berthold. This act threatened the rich agricultural estates as well as the water resources used by the US farmers of Imperial Valley. The Magonistas were soon joined by many volunteers from the USA, boosting their numbers to 80. A column of soldiers was sent from Ensenada to drive them out.

At the same time in the US press an eccentric businessman Dick Ferris, with backing from important bankers, began to make announcements about creating an independent Baja California, and to recruit 1,000 men to carry this out. The US press began to falsely amalgamate the Magonista actions with Ferris’s plans.

The government troops were defeated and the insurgents increased their numbers to 200. The socialist John Kenneth Turner brought them a delivery of arms over the border . A few days later, thirty Americans led by ex-sergeant William Stanley seized a border post to the east of Mexicali. The following day Leyva and Berthold declared the foundation of a cooperative commonwealth in Baja California. The insurgents now numbered 300 at Mexicali, with two thirds of them from the USA. On 1st March another Magonista column led by Francisco Vasquez Salinas and Luis Rodriguez crossed the border into Baja California and started requisitioning the big estates near Tecate.

Indecision within the insurgent ranks at Mexicali led to serious disagreements with Stanley attempting to strip Leyva of his command, which was countered by Berthold. Stanley then crossed the border into the USA with the aim of convincing the Magonista leadership in Los Angeles that he should lead an independent expedition.

Luis Rodriguez seized Tecate on 12th March, whilst Stanley again seized the same border post and built up his forces to a hundred. Meanwhile the US government, affrighted by the perceived threat to its interests, massed 20,000 soldiers on the border. Fighting now broke out between the government troops and the insurgents , Tecate was retaken and Leyva and Berthold failed to retake it. Antagonisms between the Americans and the Mexicans within the insurgent ranks continued, with Leyva being blamed for the defeat. He was dismissed as commander and replaced by Salinas. Disobeying Salinas, Stanley launched an attack on government troops and was defeated dying a day later. He was replaced by Cary lap Rhys Pryce, a Welsh “soldier of fortune” who accused Salinas of having betrayed Stanley.
On 13th April Berthold died of an infection of a wound he had sustained in the previous month. The election of a new commander aggravated the conflicts between Mexicans and Americans and a group of Indians led by Emilio Guerrero quit the detachment. Meanwhile the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) delivered arms to the insurgents.

Salinas arrived in Los Angeles to meet with the Magonista leadership but was arrested by the US authorities. Francisco Quijadas replaces him. Meanwhile Mosby was wounded and replaced by Sam Wood, who was joined by Pryce at the retaken town of Tecate. They seized Tijuana after fierce fighting. Tijuana was and still is, a playground for Americans to come over the border to spend their money in saloons, casinos and brothels and at the racetrack. The capture of Tijuana led to great enthusiasm in radical circles with 30 deserters from the US Army crossing the border to join the insurgents.
However media attention went to Pryce’s head. He set up a system where for 25 cents American tourists could visit the sights of battle. He allowed the saloons and gambling dens to continue their activities, taxing them and sending 850 dollars to the Magonista leadership. Pryce became more and more out of control and started talking about uniting Baja California to the USA, in several interviews to US papers. He regularly crossed the border, dining at the best restaurants in San Diego and establishing contact with the businessman Dick Ferris.

The Madero regime had now come to power on 21st May. The Magonista leadership refused to cease hostilities, and Pryce, who was favourable to a ceasefire, went to L.A. to argue for this. He was dismissed. His place at Tijuana was taken by Louis James, also under the influence of Ferris. James called for an independent republic and the new regime used this as a pretext of accusing the Magonistas of serving US interests. Fortunately, James was ousted and forced to flee. Mosby attempted to control the situation and closed down the saloons and casinos. However he still looked for tourist revenue and set up a Wild West Show in the style of Buffalo Bill!

The Mexican government convened with the US authorities, which allowed 1500 Mexican troops to cross and re-cross the border and attack the insurgents. The detachment of Guerrero, who as we have seen, earlier separated from Leyva, was massacred. For their part the US authorities arrested the MAgonista leadership in Los Angeles. Leyva, who had gone over to the Madero regime, negotiated a surrender of the insurgents at Mexicali. Leyva later made a career in the Mexican army.

The forces led by Mosby at Tijuana refused to surrender and were attacked by government troops. The insurgents fled, Mexicans and Indians disappearing into the countryside and the Americans fleeing over the border where they were disarmed by the US Army.

The attempt at revolution in Baja California, had proved to be a fiasco, with the insurgents crippled by dissensions between Americans, Mexicans and Indians, and with opportunism and lack of political principle rife among some of its leading actors.

This article originally appeared in issue No 77 of Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.

The Vanguard Concept

“The Vanguard” = those layers of people in the working class who are either militant unionists, or are at least class conscious, or in some ways anti-capitalists or full on revolutionaries.

Thats all it means. So if you’re talking and debating the merits of “The Vanguard” you’re probably of it. So this includes (most) anarchists

So, we’re all invited to The Party? Great!

But the thing is, you’re leaving out the part where The Vanguard takes over state power:

What happens is that the Party, shall we say, absorbs the vanguard of the proletariat, and this vanguard exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat.

V. I. Lenin, The Trade Unions, The Present Situation, And Trotsky’s Mistakes, 1920

Lenin’s concept of The Vanguard was of rulers in waiting:

The art of politics (and the Communist’s correct understanding of his tasks) consists in correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power, when it is able—during and after the seizure of power—to win adequate support from sufficiently broad strata of the working class and of the non-proletarian working masses, and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate and extend its rule by educating, training and attracting ever broader masses of the working people.

Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, 1920

So, as workers with no wish to assume power over “the most backward strata and masses of the working class”, we anarchists can’t really count ourselves among the Leninist vanguard.

I mean honestly though, having read Lenin you must  realise that this is a bit of a stretch. What do you think Lenin would’ve made of an attempt to include anarchists in his definition of the proletarian vanguard? He’ll be spinning in his display case.


Especifismo: Anarchist Organisation, Historical Perspectives and Influences

As we have seen, in especifismo there is ideological and theoretical unity, an alignment in relation to the theoretical and ideological aspects of anarchism. This political line is collectively constructed and everyone in the organisation is obliged to follow it. Because we consider anarchism something very broad, with very different or even contradictory positions, it appears necessary to us that, between all these positions, we must extract an ideological and theoretical line to be advocated and developed by the organisation. As we have emphasised this line must, necessarily, be linked to practice since we believe that “to theorise effectively it is essential to act”.