Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Cells of a Future Society: Maxim Raevsky, "Anarcho-Syndicalism and the IWW"

Originally serialized in the New York-based newspaper for Russian-American anarchists Golos Truda #119-124 (Jan. 5 to Feb. 9, 1917), this reprinted pamphlet piqued my interest in recent days because Raevsky was born in the late 19th century in Nezhin, a city of the then Russian Empire that is now in northern Ukraine. During the current war in Ukraine, Russian forces have downed planes near Nezhin and launched cruise missiles from the Black Sea targeting a military vehicle repair plant in the city, as well.

During Raevsky’s time, he left Nezhin as a teenager to study in Germany, where he became an anarchist. He worked on the Geneva- and Paris-based paper Burevestnik before moving to New York City. Golos Truda was the paper for the Unions of Russian Workers of the United States and Canada, a confederation of mutual aid societies for Russian anarchist emigrants. The Unions encouraged members to join the Russian sections of the Industrial Workers of the World.

In this essay, Raevsky draws parallels between anarcho-syndicalism and the IWW, which disavowed any connection to anarchism at the time. Revolutionary syndicalism, which grew out of a Mikhail Bakunin-inspired portion of the International Workers; Association, called for direct action by a working class organized in trade unions, the destruction of the state, and an economy based on grassroots federations of unions or workers. Direct action was the key, with a general strike growing into armed revolt. Such syndicalists were opposed to parliamentary socialists, who hoped to take power through political organizing—though with the support of the working class. (Organizers were concerned that such political parties worked with unions only to further party causes and that they were too focused on election campaigns rather than stronger action.)

Changes were occurring in business, and trade unions—unions organizing workers of a given craft—began to shift to industrial unions. Such unions embraced different kinds of workers within the same industry and focused on improving their working conditions and lives. The opposition to parliamentary socialism continued, and the new labor unions were intended to serve as creative—as well as destructive—elements: the cells of the future society.

In many ways, the IWW adopted the aspects of anarcho-syndicalist industrial unions: viewing unions as the cells of a future society, using the general strike as a tool, prioritizing direct action over political parties and elections, and seeking social and economic liberation for working people. But it focused mostly on economic and workplace concerns. Anarcho-syndicalism puts a premium on the social aspect. People struggle not just against capitalism, but against the state and its norms.

While much of the pamphlet concentrates on the arcane politics and practices of adjacent but different organizing groups—similar to the strident bipartisan sniping and modern-day infighting seen among liberal activists and third parties, as well as continuing echoes of historic disagreements in groups like the Socialist Workers Party and International Communist League (even science fiction writer Eric Flint’s exit from the SWP when Jack Barnes rose to power)—I am drawn to the theory as well as the practice.

The ideas of freedom and liberation are beautiful. How would you spend your time if you had more of it? But what is the ideal human society in which such freedom and liberation would occur? Do we all have equal access to freedom and liberation? How should work and play balance in life? Who do we work for, and who profits from our labor? When the chips are down, who can we rely on: ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our communities, our co-workers, our employers, our political leaders and parties? So much of current American society seems to prioritize corporations and corporate profit—leaving people little in the way of support networks. Yourself and your family are not enough.

We also seem to not be focusing on improving the lives of all people. That concerns me. I don’t know that unions are the answer, but they seem to be a step in the right direction. They’re a valid form of mutual aid, and the best unions stand up for the rights and benefit of all workers. That’s more than I can say about many politicians I read about in recent years. 

All people. All citizens. All neighbors. What opportunity that would bring.

No comments: