The Tasks Facing Anarchists in Ireland


I want to start off by thanking the organisers for providing the Workers Solidarity Movement with this opportunity to put forward our assessment of the tasks facing anarchists in Ireland.

Capitalism can never satisfy the needs of the majority. It is locked into a cycle of boom and slump. It is based on a division of society into bosses and workers, it needs a division of people into order-givers and order-takers. Existing productive capacity is capable of feeding, housing, clothing and providing for the leisure and scientific needs of the world's population yet capitalism means that there can be a shortage of good public housing while thousands of building workers are unemployed. It means tax reliefs for the super-rich while the health service is savaged by spending cuts. It means famine in the less developed countries while food stocks are deliberately destroyed by the EC to keep prices up.

Capitalism means the partition of our country. A working class divided into unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics. A working class weakened because it fails to assert its own interests independently of Orange and Green tories.

Anarchism is about production to satisfy human needs, it is about people having control over the decisions that will affect them. It is about utilising the world's resources in a sustainable manner for benefit of the many. It is about having complete freedom, with the only limit being that you do not deny the freedom of others. Anarchism is about freedom from want and about the freedom to take control of our own lives.

We know why we are against capitalism, we know why we are for anarchism. The task facing us is to point out the how we get from the one to the other.

Anarchism has no real tradition in Ireland. There have been Irish emigrants who have played prominent roles in the anarchist movement abroad such as John Creagh in Argentina and Matt Kavanagh in England, and let us not forget Ballymena's own Captain Jack White who trained the Irish Citizen Army during the 1913 lock-out in Dublin and tried to organise strikes among the Welsh miners to save James Conolly's life after the British sentenced him to death in 1916. White went on to fight fascism in Spain where he was so impressed with the achievements of the anarchists that he joined them and wrote a pamphlet entitled "Anarchy".

However there was no serious attempt to build anarchist groups in Ireland until the late 1970s. Most of these came and went within a few years. While the vigour and idealism of their members can be in no doubt they were doomed to failure. They tended to have no agreed policies, no worked out strategy, no clear idea of their purpose. They tended to be based on little more than sharing a common label of 'anarchist'. The result was always that once they tried to undertake activities they found they had differing ideas of what should be done, differing ideas of how they should act and even differing ideas of what anarchism meant. Many good activists drifted away feeling that perhaps it was true that anarchists were incapable of organising, of actually being a force for change.

In response to this mess the Workers Solidarity Movement was formed in 1984. Our starting point was that the working class has the power to overthrow capitalism and create an anarchist society. Our role is to convince our class that this is possible; to win the battle of ideas against the authoritarian solutions of social democracy, nationalism and leninism; and to popularise anarchist ideas and methods.

The small number of anarchists in Ireland at present, the absence of a native tradition and the lack of any base within the working class are drawbacks. But they do not depress us. All movements start somewhere. Anarchists time and time again, in many countries and in the most difficult of circumstances, have grappled with the problem of building and maintaining a mass influence within the working class. It is not easy but it can be done.

Anarchist ideas, as a fighting tradition of the international working class, have a magnificent history. From Russia to China to South America to Mexico to Korea, and of course to Spain their influence has been major. But if history shows us this great influence within the working class it also shows us its decline and marginalisation in all but a few countries today. Why did this happen?

It is important to see that revolutionary ideas ebb and flow in their popularity; truly revolutionary ideas like our own are tied to the fortunes of our class. The working class is only in existence for a relatively short historical period. In that time it has pushed forward and been pushed back. These changes have sometimes been gradual but at other times they have been condensed into a few years of dramatic revolution and counter-revolution. Times that see a ripening of conditions for major world change come (say 1917 to 1922) but if they are lost - as they were - long and deep reaction follows (as in the 1920's and 30's).

The normalisation of capitalist relations since World War II has inevitably pushed the working class forward again. The direct experience of workers and their conflict with ideas that constantly lead them into unnecessary defeats means that reformism of either the social democratic or Stalinist varieties has come under attack. On the world stage even greater changes have occurred - the mass mobilisations that destroyed the Eastern European Stalinist regimes have all played their part in exposing the myth of authoritarian "socialism".

Such is part of the reason for anarchism's popularity, decline and marginalisation from the working class and now since the late 1960's a renewed interest and re-emergence of our ideas around the world. Anarchist groups have appeared in countries where hitherto no tradition had existed. Organisations, particularly anarcho-syndicalist unions, have been revamped. The growing anarchist "movement" is tremendously important. Though there are huge problems - the most important aspect we should recognise is the process that this re-emergence is part of.

The WSM stands as part of this new growth in anarchism. We are small and with hardly any working class base. So are many anarchist organisations the world over, but the conditions for this to be overcome are better now that they have been for a long time.

It is important that we have a proper appraisal of the past, of the ups and downs in anarchist history and recognise the close association between it and the ups and downs of the ideas of mass working class self-activity for social change. If we do so we can see the reason for anarchism's present marginalisation. Also we will not be too taken aback by our present small numbers. Then we have a good chance of not falling into the trap of pretending we are bigger and capable of more than we are right now. To fall into that trap would be to substitute wishful thinking for reality; to ignore the wider social and economic conditions that determine the prospects for revolutionary ideas and organisation. Such a tendency is a recipe for sectism and irrelevance.

When the WSM was formed we understood that the period we were living through was one of "downturn". This has been proven correct, and it is clearly still the case. It is a period of low levels of confidence among workers, of low levels of activity in the class struggle. Where struggles break out they are more often than not of a defensive nature. It is important that we understand this. Those who do not can easily disappear into a "cul de sac" of looking for "alternatives". This in turn would lead to demoralisation. This is what did happen to those on the left who got caught up in republican "left turns", community politics and counter-cultural lifestylism. All these were attempts to substitute wishful thinking for reality.

We have seen many defeats for our class in the past few years. But this has not turned us into defeatists. We know that the possibility of revolutionary change will occur. It will not occur in the near future but the nature of capitalism makes it certain that the possibility will arise at some stage. Defeats will outnumber victories until workers assert themselves at grassroots level in the unions and in all areas of struggle. At the moment very few have the confidence to do this. We have to ask - how can this change and under what conditions will there be an "upturn" in the class struggle?

We cannot predict the future with any precision but we can learn a few lessons from the past.

* Even a minor pick up in the economy can revive confidence and see a rebuilding of rank & file organisation. The "mini-boom" does not have to be huge. The economic recovery here in the late 1960's after decades of recession and emigration, saw the 26 counties leap to the very top of the international strike league.

* Sometimes the bosses have to push beyond what workers will accept. So far the bosses have not been able to push wages throughout the European economy as a whole down to a level that can guarantee them a revival of massive profits. They are pushing us back slowly but when they push too hard they have often met with resistance. In recent years this has happened in France, Britain, Poland, Greece and Denmark. The bosses risk such an explosion of anger as they push for more and more cuts in our standard of living.

* Sometimes it is a political crisis that sparks things off, e.g.. Spain in 1936. At home loyalist attacks on the civil rights movement in 1969 gave us free Derry and free Belfast, 1981 saw the creation of unofficial shop stewards committees that were able to call for strike action in several towns when the union leaders condemned the H-block campaign.

We don't know the exact conditions under which the tide will turn. But we are confident that it will turn. And when workers begin to move into action again there will be a lot of stored up anger to be brought out.

Where does an anarchist organisation fit into this? The WSM, coming from the tradition known as platformism - called after a document or platform about organisation written by exiled Russian anarchists in 1926, has definite ideas.

A successful revolutionary transformation is dependent on two essential criteria being present in the working class:

a) Widespread revolutionary consciousness. This has to consist of the following:

i) a rejection of capitalism.

ii) an aspiration in the class to reorganise society in a new and better way around its own direct needs and interests.

iii) recognition in the class that only the working class itself can make and run the new society and that following from that only the councils created by the class in the workplaces and communities represent any authority in the new society. No other power centres can be permitted. No governments, no party dictatorships.

b) Industrial organisation and solidarity in the class has to be sufficiently developed so that physical control over the means of production and distribution can be achieved and all remnants of the state be abolished.

The role of the anarchist organisation and the anarchist idea in this is obvious. Anarchist ideas link a criticism of capitalism with a vision of a new way of organising human society. This link involves practical understanding of the means necessary and acceptable to achieve results; it also also to help build the confidence of the class in its own abilities and decision making power. Clearly our role is to spread the influence of our ideas as widely as possible. To do this effectively we need a high degree of political and organisational unity within the organisation. It is not a matter of simply explaining what anarchism means through papers, pamphlets and meetings. We have to be involved in all the struggles of our class - at work, in the unions, against imperialism, against sectarianism, in the housing estates, everywhere. We have to be capable of bringing these struggles forward, of linking them together into a broad anti-capitalist movement.

We have to be capable of encouraging self-activity and self-organisation, capable of instilling libertarian values. We must be able to demonstrate the superiority of anarchist ideas and methods over all others. In this sense we recognise our role within the class as being a "leadership of ideas".

We reject the notion that our organisation is a "vanguard" in the class because of its "leadership of ideas". Such terminology, particularly because of its historical associations has anti-anarchist connotations. We recognise that, in its real sense, a vanguard does exist within the class. It is not any one party or organisation but contains those who reject capitalism and are prepared to fight back.

The vanguard is done away with by extending political awareness throughout the class so that it is no longer just a minority who see the need or change. We will always fight against that influence in our class that seeks to promote the need for a permanent, unelected leadership no matter what context, explanation or excuse is used.

We seek influence for our ideas in all class organisations. In real terms that means WSM members will go forward for all positions in the unions and other bodies where there is the possibility of mandating and recall. We will never accept any position that is not under the control of the members of that body. Such positions are not ends in themselves. The struggle to win them must be bound up with a fight for more democracy, more mandating, more control. We are striving for the self-activity of the many.

We have to be able to explain and clarify what is happening in society. We have to be capable of combating false ideas such as Social Democracy and Leninism. We aim to be a 'collective memory' for the class, both in terms of the above and of keeping alive and developing the traditions of the labour movement and anarchism.

Unlike a certain tendencies within the anarchist movement we do not fight against the state as if it were some abstraction unrelated to the division of society into classes. The state, in itself, is not the real enemy - states are the product of this division into exploiting and exploited classes. To treat it as something that exists independently of society leads into a swamp of muddle-headed liberal politics. We stand for the "abolition of the state" because we are totally opposed to authoritarianism and to any form of society that needs a state; i.e... a society where a minority rules.

Our role is that of educators and instigators. In so far as we are leaders it is because we are a "leadership of ideas". We have no time for the leadership of personalities or that of a higher committee of a party. We have no wish to be what the Leninists call "The Revolutionary Leadership", which implies their party has reached a stage where it has the "right" to take decisions for the class (whether they like it or not). We reject this sort of leadership as authoritarian and an attack on workers' democracy.

History teaches us that organisations like ours can experience a rapid growth in membership and support for its ideas during a revolutionary situation....but also that a certain size is necessary for this to happen. So it is important that we recruit but this will be worthless unless we ensure that people are joining us because they understand and agree with anarchism and share our libertarian values.

It is not enough to build a small organisation with many sympathisers. Where there is no clear line between members and supporters a massive central apparatus becomes necessary to hold together a mass of half-politicised people in a series of political activities. Political discussion gets toned down, a lack of seriousness creeps in. This in turn reduces the capacity of members to make independent political evaluations and provides the basis for a dependence on a few leaders. This would be in absolute contradiction to our anarchist values.

"Only the truth is revolutionary". Whoever first said this was spot on. We do not raise as immediate demands those that are impossible at the time because of the balance of forces. We do not play at politics. We do not fool, intimidate or manipulate workers towards anarchism. We aim to win the arguments for change and anarchism. It is not part of our programme to try to take power "in the name of the workers". Anarchism will either be the creation of a free and politically aware working class....or it will not be anarchism.

We understand the centrality of struggle and organisation in the workplace because that is where we have real power. But this does not mean that we neglect or ignore the struggles that take place in other areas of life, particularly the struggle against British imperialism. We don't. We support all struggles that can improve the conditions we live under. At every opportunity we seek to bring these struggles into the unions and workplaces, we try to bring the potential strength of organised workers to bear in their link up the different struggles into an understanding of their common roots in capitalism, and to establish the legitimacy of political issues being taken up on the shopfloor.

We support all progressive struggles both for their own aims; and for the experience and increased confidence that campaigning can give people.

In all modern revolutionary situations workers have thrown up their own organs in the form of workers' councils. They may have gone under different names - revolutionary committees, soviets, etc. - but the essential form has remained the same whether it was in Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, Hungary in 1956 or Portugal in 1974.

These councils act not just as the best means of mobilising the class against the bosses but also lay the basis for the administration of the new society. Within them revolutionaries have to fight the ideas of authoritarian tendencies and continually argue that the new workers' democracy must not delegate away its power to any elite, or allow any minority to seize that power. Within them members of the revolutionary organisation must be the "driving force". This means winning the battle of ideas. It does NOT mean capturing the leading positions, vesting them with undue authority and then dishonestly interpreting this as a mandate for giving orders.

We oppose all ideas of power in the post-revolutionary period being wielded by any so-called "party of the working class". The division of labour between those who rule and those who are ruled has lasted too long. It can only be ended by the "self-emancipation" of the working-class. All power must be exercised by the workers councils ....and by nobody else. Such power shall be compatible with the libertarian slogan that individual freedom will know no limit except that it does not take away the freedom of others.

This is not to deny the need for efficient co-ordination and decision making in all spheres of life. The point is that the ultimate authority will be the democratic, mass organs of the class. Let there be no talk of the state co-existing with the workers councils....the councils would be co-existed out of existence! Instead of the state there will be the federation of workers councils.

It is on this issue that our fundamental difference with Leninism is made clear. We agree with Lenin that authority can only be defeated by authority, that the authority of the bosses will be destroyed by the authority of the workers. We agree on the need for a lead to be given within the class. But while our leadership is one of persuasion and education, the Leninist party goes way beyond this and tries to grab power through control of the state. It seeks to exercise the authority of the party over the workers. In doing this it prepares the way for the growth of a new oppressive ruling class, as Lenin's Bolshevik party did in Russia.

After the initial stage of the revolution when the ruling class are dispossessed of their wealth and power, the revolutionary organisation will continue to grow. There will be a massive surge of workers into its ranks because its politics will seem all the more concrete and realistic. In the transitional period (that time between the overthrow of the old order and consolidation of the new) the main task will be to further anarchist ideas and values, and fighting for all power to be taken by workers councils. As the revolution consolidates its gains and begins the reconstruction of society our task will be to help the class towards the anarchist ideal. As this ideal becomes more and more established and the obstacles to its achievement fade away, the revolutionary organisation becomes less necessary and eventually vanishes completely. That is how we see the role of an anarchist organisation.

In Britain in 1985/86 Class War came into being. Young anarchists who saw how useless the lifesylists and so-called Green Anarchists were when a real mass struggle erupted, the Miners' Strike, looked for something fresh. Class War took off in a wave of contempt for the liberals and lifestylists. It preached an uncompromising hatred for the ruling class. The headlines of its paper screamed Rich Bastards Beware and We Have Found New Homes For The Rich (over a picture of a graveyard). However, far from going on to develop a strategy for encouraging working class militancy and self-organisation, it settled for a ritualistic glorification of working class violence. Possibly very satisfying for the members of the Class War Federation but not contributing a lot to the task of winning mass understanding and support for anarchism.

We do not glorify and encourage random attacks on members of the ruling class. Attacks on individuals or their property may well demonstrate an expression, albeit an ineffective one, of legitimate anger. However the task of anarchists is not to get our own back or to scare a few individuals - it is to argue for collective action by the working class. Encouraging individual attacks is little more than a toned down version of the disastrous 'propaganda by deed' that did so much damage to the anarchist movement at the end of the last century. Such tactics can make individual bosses feel uncomfortable but it in no way undermines the ability of their class to rule.

We are not pacifists. We understand that the ruling class will not peacefully surrender their power and privileges. Violence, used by democratically controlled workers' militias, will be necessary to defend the gains of the anarchist revolution from the dispossessed bosses. Today we defend those who lash out at the system through individual acts of violence. We do not confuse the response to injustice with injustice itself. However we say again and again that individual acts of violence are not the way to change society. It is not heroism, courage or audacity that are in short supply. What is lacking is a large working class movement armed with anarchist politics. And there is no substitute for such a movement.

The WSM can contribute towards this. Find out more about us, read our magazine and pamphlets. Talk with our members. As always we are willing to work with other anarchist organisations and individuals on matters where we are in agreement. We are willing to discuss our ideas with others. We want to see a mass anarchist movement develop in Ireland, a movement that can play a decisive role in the struggle for a truly free Ireland. Anarchism is a great idea, let's step up our work to make it a reality.

Speech by Alan MacSimóin to the Belfast Class Struggle Anarchist Group public meeting, (the other speaker was from the British Class War Federation) August 17th, 1991. Re-posted here for historical purposes, as well as the continued validity of many of the ideas expressed.