A Practical Guide to Anarchist Organisation
This text is a draft of a very practically orientated manual for anarchists who wish to get organised.
For absolute beginners and isolated individuals (or groups of 2 or 3)
A common experience for people, particularly young people who come to anarchism in the English speaking world is one of isolation. In my own case I came toanarchism through reading ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and then the very few anarchistbooks I could obtain in my city. These were nearly all liberal academic histories orreprints of texts from the 19th century so for quite a while I was unaware that theanarchist movement still existed. It took me a year to find other individual anarchistsand another year to discover there was actually a small anarchist group in my city.It was another year before I took part in the formation of an organisation but eventhen we were very inexperienced. We ended up fusing with a much older anarchistgroup and it was only then that we reached the ability to undertake effective activity.I’ve written this text (with the help of others) in a way that I think would have enabledme and our inital small group to become effective much, much faster.
How to find an anarchist group where you live
How to evaluate any group you find
Contributing to an anarchist group
Setting up an anarchist group (the basics — people, politics, money, commitment.)
For people with some experience of anarchist organisation
Internal local meetings
Building Links between movements
DIY Anarchist publication and distribution
One thing anyone can do is use a PDF library to print out and distribute anarchist material locally. It’s a great way to start to promote anarchism where you live orinform people of what anarchists think and do today.
This is very much a ‘work in progress’. I’d appreciate feedback on it. To do this,please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Other useful articles on anarchist organisationin this pamphlet
Decision making and some problems of consensus methods
Forming Local Anarcho-Communist Collectives
Communication: Getting the Word Out
How to Find an Anarchist Group Where You Live
A good first step is to try and find out if there are any anarchists in your city or in other cities near you. It is very hard for a small group to be visible in a city so itsworth spending some time looking around for one before you begin the harder stepof forming one.
Check any radical bookshops you know of and look for anarchist papers or leaflets there. If the local group is fairly healthy they should be publishing somethingregularly. Check national anarchist papers for local contact addresses as well.Check a few times as smaller groups may only be publishing every few months andcheck all the bookshops you know of as some bookshops, particular those controlledby authoritarian socialists will refuse to stock anarchist material. If you find a book-shop that stocks a lot of anarchist stuff ask at the counter if they know how you canget in contact with local anarchists, it may well be that there is an anarchist workingthere.
Keep an eye out for old posters or stickers that may have a venue or an addresson them. If it’s a venue but you have missed the meeting try checking it at the sametime on the same day of the week as often a group uses the same time and placefor both public and private meetings.
Your best chance is probably demonstrations, particularly big ones that havebeen called by several groups (a lot of anarchists don’t turn up to Leninist frontdemos (i.e. demos called by just one group)). Depending on how organised they arethe anarchists may have a banner, leaflets or be selling papers. They may also bemarching with a general community or campaign group. Some groups won’t haveanarchist in their title so look out for:
Black and Red Banners, particularly ones based around the anarchist flag
Banner titles that include words like ‘libertarian’ or ‘solidarity’, symbols like circledA’s (obvious!) or a cat with its back arched (wild-cat) — a common logo for groups thatare trying to build ‘revolutionary’ unions.
Generally if you fail to find a local group by any of these methods then there is not one worth finding! You can also use the internet to try and find local groups butvery often small local groups will not have any internet presence at all. You could email any national groups that are in your country and ask them but keep in mind that they also may not know of any local group or if they disagree with them may nottell you how to contact them.
Once you have located a group, you will want to evaluate it to see if its worth-while being involved in and what sort of contribution you can make to it.
While doing all this you should also start to engage in activity by yourself in case you don’t find anyone else. This should also give other isolated anarchists a way of finding you.
Evaluating an Anarchist Group
Once you have found an anarchist group the next thing to do is to work outwhether or not you should get involved in it. If the answer is ‘no’ (and sometimes thisis the right answer) you’ll need to look around for another group or try and set up anew one.
In many countries where anarchism is weak and has no real recent history,groups may exist which call themselves anarchist but don’t really have a lot to do with anarchism. It can just be a trendy label. Or sometimes a group just runs out ofenergy but keep going for social reasons (i.e. because the people like meeting up for a drink). Problems you should look out for include:
Attitude to the working class; Is the group based around trying to get the idea ofanarchism out and help working class people organise or is it just into ‘fringe’ issueswith no central political aim?
Does the group try and enforce a particular life-style on people involved, is it only interested in ‘drop-outs’, squatters or vegetarians? There’s nothing wrong with beingany of these but if you are expected to live this way then the group is more con-cerned with life-style than anarchism.
Is the group composed of people who like hearing their own voices but are unwill-ing to engage in activity. Does it take part in struggles, unions and demonstrations?
Is the group democratic in scope, does everyone have a say in decision makingor is it run by a Guru whose decisions are unquestioned.
Are important decisions made at meetings that everyone has an input to or do theyseem to be made by a sub-group of friends elsewhere?
Do they have a public face, do they have a publication, leaflets and public meet-ings or are they just activists content to do work for others?
If any of these things are problems in the group then you should check around tosee if there are any other anarchist organisations around. If there are not or theyshare the same problems then you probably will have little choice but to get involvedanyway and try and change the way the group functions. You may well find this isimpossible though. If so, recognise when you are beaten and rather than get demor-alised look at the possibility of setting up a new anarchist group. If you feel this waythen the odds are other people do as well.
Contributing to an Anarchist Group
Now that you’re a member of an anarchist group it’s time to start thinking about whatsort of contribution you can make to the group. Don’t allow yourself to sit back andblindly follow what others suggest, respect the experience of other activists but recognise that you have a contribution to make in all aspects of the group and alsoa unique perspective on its functioning.
Is there a theoretical area the group is weak on? If this is the case then perhapsyou could research this and explain it to the others through internal educational talksor articles. It’s generally impossible for everyone to know everything so its a goodidea for people to specialise a little providing they also explain what they discover toeveryone.
Is there a practical skill (e.g. Desk Top Publishing) the group is lacking that youcould learn or already know? Can you teach this to others?
Is there a struggle you can get involved in that no-one else is currently involvedin? Perhaps help is needed in particular struggles the group is already involved in.Perhaps you should get involved in a particular area of struggle to confront you ownprejudices or just to find out how things function.
You should start slowly, volunteer for simple stuff first and as you understand howthings work (and how much you can sustain) take more things on.
These are practical contributions you can make to building the group and reallyyou should be looking for ways to do one of each. A lot of them are things you cando right from the start.
Setting up an Anarchist Group
There are four simple requirements for an effective organisation
People is pretty self-explanatory. To have a group you need more than one per-son and really at least five before it becomes sustainable. In most places anarchistsare not very hard to come across, in most countries at least 1 in a 1,000 to 1 in10,000 people might consider themselves an anarchist. So even in fairly small townsthere are likely to be at least a dozen or so ‘anarchists’.Unfortunately the next step most groups take is to try and set up a group whichincludes just about everyone that adopts the label. This may seem like the logicalthing but problems arise when we look at the next two requirements.
For a group to be effective it has to have a clear idea of what it is fighting for, not simply what it is fighting against. And it must be agreed what the best tactics are touse and that everyone in the group will use the agreed tactics. This will be discussedat length later.
In order to function, an organisation needs a paper, leaflets, rooms to meet in, money for mailouts and a dozen other items that require lots of the green stuff. Waysof tackling this requirement include:
Which means things only take place if someone is willing to fund them out of their own pocket. This is pretty common but of course results in things not getting done.It also gives the funder undue influence.
Use ‘criminal’ means to raise money
This sometimes happens but is generally not a good move as sooner or laterpeople get caught and end up in prison or worse. What’s more, if you come under any sort of police investigation it will rapidly become apparent that you are getting funds from some dodgy source which will in itself attract further investigation. It also gives the state a good excuse for a ‘non-political’ clamp down.
Organise fund raisers
Although I think this can work well for special purchases, like say a printing pressif its used for regular bills (printing, rent etc.) it soon turns into a massive drag andwaste of resources. You can spend half of the time just discussing jumble sales anddisco’s which is off-putting.
This is what the WSM uses, members contribute 5% of their gross income on aweekly or monthly basis. A percentage system is fairer then a flat rate as an unem-ployed member (on 100 dollars a week, the state welfare) pays 5 dollars where assomeone working and earning 500 dollars a week pays at least 25 dollars. This gives us an income to pay for our paper, magazine, leaflets, rooms and even to sub-sidise travel to demos for unemployed members. Of course it also has a negativeeffect on the first requirement, people, as some people may be unwilling to loose theequivalent of a couple of beers a week. Which brings me to the fourth requirement,commitment.
The amount of work you do and the amount of money you are willing to put independs on you feeling good about the organisation. It is adversely affected if youfeel you are being used, or that other people are not willing to contribute their share.That much is obvious. However its also true that your commitment will be depen-dant on how much you agree with what the group is doing/saying and whether the groups seems to be going somewhere or just treading water. It’s easy to keep peo-ple around when lots of stuff is happening, the difficult thing is the periods in betweenbursts of activity.
I favour a high commitment oriented group over a ‘as many people as possible’one. With time I think the high commitment one can come to involve a lot of peoplewhere as I don’t think the reverse can be true. Enough background, here’s some concrete ideas:
Find another four or five people that are willing to do something serious. You mayknow this many already. If not, get an address you can put on leaflets and startleafleting demo’s etc. with anarchist stuff. Get a flag or a banner together. Maybecall a public meeting on anarchism and see who turns up.
Once you get your four or five people be prepared to spend a couple of years get-ting your act together before you start to expand. Agree on a membership levy and conditions of membership. Write down agreed perspectives and strategy for promoting anarchism and getting involved in activity. Start publishing a regular paperarguing these ideas. Sell it through bookshops, campaign meetings and demos. Get involved around struggles and develop respect for your group as good activistsand people with good ideas. Don’t concentrate on talking to anarchists, concentrateon talking to activists. Find out about the national groups and travel to nearbydemos/conferences. Make a banner you can bring on marches. I know all of this ispossible with as few as five people because I spent the period from 1989–91 doingjust that here.
Above all you need to be patient. A big problem is the ‘revolution next year’ syndrome where you hype yourself up to expecting a lot and then get disappointed whenit does not materialise. Work out where you are going but be prepared to go thereslowly, as I said above, it is likely to be two years before you get any serious returnon your work.
The Policy of an Anarchist Organisation
There have been and are large disagreements within the anarchist movementover how anarchist organisations should formulate policy and whether or not agreedpolicy should be binding on the members of the organisation. I come from a tradi-tion within anarchism sometimes called ‘platformism’. Central to this tradition is theidea that to be effective the anarchist organisation must debate and agree on organisational positions and that the members of the organisation should then put this intopractise.
It is obvious that if you are going to be involved in struggles as an anarchist organisation (rather then a loose collection of individuals), and you want to have aninfluence on them that you will then need to do so all together. To do this you needto agree what it is you are fighting for within the struggle and what tactics you think that struggle or movement should be using.
We find the best way of doing this is to start by a process of education and dis-cussion around the issue and then move onto creating written policy that can bedebated, amended and if necessary voted on point by point. If you have a look atour ‘Position papers’ you will get an idea of the sort of policy this method generates.The big advantage of this method is that once things are written down in this wayit becomes very clear what exactly has been decided. But it should be understoodthat these positions should never be seen as ‘the end’ of a particular debate. Theydon’t represent perfection but rather the best collective understanding and tactics theorganisation could generate at that particular time. They should always be open tofurther debate and amendment as circumstances and knowledge changes. Althoughit is a good idea to limit major modifications to national conferences so when thereis a lot of disagreement you don’t end up doing nothing but amending positionpapers!
As well as deciding tactics for particular struggles this way it is also a very goodidea to have agreed position papers on the organisations approach to key politi-cal/social issues like racism and sexism. Agreeing on these general positions willmake it far, far easier to rapidly reach agreement about how the organisation shouldinvolve itself around specific struggles that arise from these issues.
Finally and perhaps most importantly it’s a good idea to have a constitution thatlays down how these positions are drawn up. A general set of perspectives thatseeks to describe what the organisation thinks it can do over the next period and howin general it expects a revolutionary transformation of society to occur is also a goodidea.
You’ll also want to work out how much agreement you will expect new membersto have with the position papers before they join. After some experimentation wehave drawn up a brief document that outlines some core points that we think newmembers must agree with and then we say that they must be willing to implementthe strategy in the position papers. This allows for healthy disagreement and debateto exist within the organisation.You’ll get a much better idea of the thinking behind all this by looking at our positionpapers, some links to these are below
WSM Constitution www.struggle.ws
Position Papers & Policy statements
Our Perspectives struggle.ws
Role of the Anarchist Organisation struggle.ws
The Trade Unions struggle.ws
Fighting Racism struggle.ws
Internal Meetings in an Anarchist Group
One thing central to any functional anarchist group is regular internal meetings.In a healthy organisation almost all decisions will be made at these meetings andthere will be a sufficient level of discussion to ensure all those attending have a goodidea of the activity and arguments in the different struggles the organisation isinvolved in. Internal meetings should also have some time given over to education.
Frequency and location
A new group or one engaged in a lot of activity should meet at least once a week,at the same time and day. As soon as possible you should try and find a regularvenue for meeting that is not someone’s home. You’ll want a space that’s privateenough for you to have strong disagreements in and where only the members of thegroup will be while you are using it. In Ireland this means most groups use privaterooms in quiet pubs that are glad for the additional customers on quiet nights!
Arguments about how best to reach decisions are fundamental to anarchism.What I have found works best is to allow plenty of time for discussion in the hope ofbeing able to reach a consensus. Only when it becomes obvious that this is not pos-sible should you move to a vote. If time permits it may make sense to postpone mak-ing a contentious decision to the next meeting to give people a chance to think thingsover (and calm down!).
Conduct of discussion
Even with a small group its normally a very good idea to have someone to chairthe meeting. Being able to chair a meeting well is quite difficult , in particular youneed to be very careful not to abuse your position in a strong argument. But its alsoimportant that the same person does not chair every meeting. Perhaps the best wayis to have a list of everyone willing to chair and each week take the next person onthe list.
Basically a chair should:
try and arrange the room so that everyone sits in a circle and make sure you are seated where you can see everyone
if there are new people there start off by going around the circle and getting every-one to say their name
at the start of the meeting ask people for items for an agenda and then stick to thatagenda. If people start speaking on topics rather then the one under discussioninterrupt them politely and tell them you are adding that item to the agenda
ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to speak
generally it’s a good idea to ask people to put up their hand when they want tospeak and then to take a list of people waiting. In most situations its a very good idea to put people who have not yet spoken to the top of this queue.
if the discussion is just taking place between a few people and in particular if it isjust between two, it is often a good idea to suggest going around the circle and giv-ing everyone a chance to speak
pay attention — people who are less confident about speaking will often indicatethat they want to speak in a minor way (eg briefly half put up their hand). A goodchair will spot this and encourage them to speak
control yourself — while the chair can speak in debates you should try and speakthe least and always put yourself at the end of the queue. There is nothing worsethen a chair who feels they are entitled to comment after every single speaker. Be very strict with yourself
don’t allow people speaking to insult other people in the room. If they do interruptand make it clear that this is not acceptable
if the discussion is going around in circles with the same people making the samepoints again and again you should point this out and ask if people want to continuethe discussion or 1) Move to a vote 2) Postpone the discussion to later in the meeting or the next meeting
if there is any disagreement on what to do you should call an immediate hand voteon whether or not to continue the discussion and then on what to do with the dis-cussion.
if it appears a decision has been reached (i.e. everyone is agreeing) then writedown what you think the decision is then read this back to the meeting.
if it appears a vote is necessary then make sure the exact question to be voted onis written down and then read this question back to the meeting before taking thevote. This is very important in case there is later disagreement over what exactlywas decided.
If its know who is chairing the meeting in advance it may be a good idea for thatperson to start the meeting with a suggested agenda. In any case the agendashould almost always include
minutes of last meeting
correspondence to be dealt with
decisions that have to be made
other issues people want discussed
AOB at the end for minor things people want to mention or things they have ‘just remembered’
If there is any disagreement over the order of the agenda then this should bequickly discussed and voted on at the start of the meeting. If the chair thinks there is a lot to get through it may make sense to set a maximum amount of time that canbe spent discussing particular topics right at the start of the meeting.
Someone should be responsible every week for keeping minutes of the meetingand preparing these to be read at or distributed before the next meeting. Minutesneed not be very detailed (you don’t need to write down what everyone says). Theyshould include
a list of who attended the meeting
a list of topics discussed
a list of decisions reached for each topic, this should be a copy of what the chairreads out
a list of who has volunteered to do what
a list of items to be discussed at the next meeting
It is important that meetings start on time and end before or at the time they areadvertised to end at. Certainly they should end once they have reached the advertised time and somebody needs to leave.
Financing an Anarchist Group
Unfortunately under capitalism finance is one of the most essential things to getright. In setting up an anarchist group I discuss some basic finance strategies andargue that the best method to use a system based on a Membership levy/subs.
This is where all members are required to contribute a percentage of their (gross) income on a weekly or monthly basis. A percentage system is fairer then a flat rateas an unemployed member (on 100 dollars a week, the state welfare) pays 5 dollarswhere as someone working and earning 500 dollars a week pays at least 25 dollars.
In ‘1st world’ countries this should provide enough money to run an organisationwithout the need for additional fund raising for routine use. However in seriousorganisations outside the ‘1st world’ it is not unusual for members of a small groupto have to donate much larger percentages of their income in order to keep theirgroup functioning! For this reason if you are are in the first world you might like toset aside a percentage of the groups income as an international solidarity fund.
Each local section of the group will need a treasurer to keep track of the paymentof subs and to keep track and account for any expenditure by the local section.These accounts should be available for any member to inspect although in terms ofincome you might want to decide that while individual subs should be listed, no nameshould be attached to each item. This is essential as suspicion over the misuse offunds can easily destroy a group.
On a regional/national basis, a national conference should decide that a certainpercentage of each branch’s income (perhaps 50%) should go to a national accountand be supervised by a national treasurer. This national account can be used to payfor national expenditure (printing of papers, books etc), perhaps helping smallbranches with low income/unemployed members to carry out regular activity, andhelping individual branches faced with local opportunities to make the most of them.Again these accounts should be open to inspection by all members and a summarylisting major items should be regularly circulated to all members.
Producing an Anarchist Publication
Probably one of the most important things you can do as an organisation is toproduce anarchist publications. This can be a way of explaining your ideas and theideas of anarchism to far more people in your area than you could reach by any othermeans. Lets start by looking at some different types of publication.
A single sheet leaflet or, as it’s called in the US, a pamphlet
This is by far the easiest publication to produce and, because it’s short, also byfar the cheapest. Basically anyone with a computer or even a typewriter can write aleaflet, bring it to a local stationary shop and photocopy as many copies as they canafford. Most of the time leaflets are produced to advertise a particular event (amarch) or to try and mobilise people around a particular issue. (For instance at thetime of writing we are considering producing 20,000 leaflets urging a No vote in a ref-erendum.)
The disadvantage with a leaflet is that you can’t say very much — there isn’tenough space. So while they are useful for promoting a single idea/event it’s diffi-cult to do much more. Have a look at some of the ‘Anarchist News’ leaflets we pro-duced which, as well as addressing particular issues, also try and introduce someexplanation of what anarchism is.
An anarchist paper
Most groups try their hand at some point at producing an anarchist paper. Here,over a number of pages, you can combine articles on anarchism with articles aboutparticular issues. But the higher cost of producing a paper means you will almostcertainly have to sell them to people rather than giving them away. Although with agood subs structures, a few members in full time employment and a thin paper youmay be able to do this — currently we are doing this with ‘Workers Solidarity’ allowingus to distribute 6,000 copies six times a year.
A paper should really be directed at people who are not convinced anarchists andperhaps who don’t even see themselves as left wing. So it needs to address issuesthat concern the ‘person in the street’ in a serious way. A lot of anarchist papers don’tdo this very well, they tend to be full of articles that are relevant to the anarchist movement or which simply sloganise about particular aspects of capitalism.
Articles should be written as if they are going to be read by your non-politicalfriends, relations and work mates. In fact you should be quite happy to sell thesepeople your groups paper and feel that they will get something out of it. Generallythis means that you need to avoid ‘jargon’ and address issues in a way that will makesure they read to the end of the article rather then throw the paper into the cornerafter the first paragraph.
If you are saying something ‘unpopular’ for instance (and a lot of the time you willneed to) you need to carefully argue for your point of view and back it up with asmany facts as possible. And when you’re using facts its often a lot more convincingif you can say they come from a source people accept as valid. So for instancerather then simply saying “top executives earn 419 times the average wage of a USblue-collar worker” you should say “Business Week reported that in 1999 top exec-utives earned 419 times the average wage of a US blue-collar worker.”
We publish a magazine called Red and Black Revolution. The idea of this mag-azine is that we can publish quite long articles (up to 7,000 words) that can look atissues around anarchism in a lot of detail. This is quite useful if you want to influ-ence the thinking of other sections of the anarchist movement and also to demon-strate to activists here that anarchism is not just a couple of nice slogans but canuniquely add to our understanding of historical and current struggles.
This means that a lot of the articles require some real original research in orderto be written. Rather then writing articles in a few days or weeks as you can for apaper, the articles often need to be researched and written over months.
I think this sort of magazine is quite ambitious, definetly something you shouldn’ttry until you have established a regular paper. Apart from anything else it appeals toa much narrower layer than a paper can. Many of the technicalities of publicationthough are the same for a paper, you just need to leave a lot of extra time for eachstage.
Pamphlets (short books)
In Ireland a pamphlet means a short book of 20 or so pages. These are a lot eas-ier to produce than a magazine but allow you to cover a topic with the same sort ofdetails. Arguably the first thing you should consider producing is a pamphlet thatexplains what anarchism is and how it would work using local examples. This is par-ticularly the case if you leave in a region where people know very little about anar-chism.
Something that you should have with every publication is an editoral procedure. In a very new and small group it is often a good idea for the entire group to edit thegroups publications as this will help to develop skills and also will procedure a use-ful mechanism for discussion. There are several important aspects to an editing procedure
Is the article in general agreement with the groups position, if it’s not should it bepublished anyway with a note saying it is the writers view. Often the writer may justhave not fully thought through what they are saying so then the best thing is for theeditoral group to make suggestions about how the article could be changed. Sometimes though the writer may want to publish an article that disagrees withaspects of policy — the group will need to agree how this is to be done.
Some anarchists are nervous about this sort of political editing. But I can say after having gone through many years of it both as a writer and as an editor it is actu-ally extremely useful to the writer as well as the organisation. It is often difficult tospot all the implications of everything you write. Something you read one way maybe read in a completely different way by someone else. Often I forget to cover par-ticular details or get distracted and waffle on about stuff that is not all that relevant.A good editoral procedure not only corrects this but also helps me write in a betterway in the future (at least I hope so).
The editoral group should make sure the overall composition of the paper is bal-anced. Basically its best if the organisation as a whole defines a guideline of whata balanced paper should look like. For instance this could be at least 1/4 anarchisthistory/theory, 1/3 local news (of which 1/9 should be about unions), 1/4 internation-al news which should as far as possible be about victories.
For each issue of the paper the editoral group should first sit down and work outa list of articles that will reflect this balance. They should also give an idea of whatpoints they think should be covered and how long the article should be (e.g. 400words). They might also decide who should be asked to write each article or in asmall group they could just bring the article list to the next meeting and look for vol-unteers.
Every now and again, the organisation should discuss the paper and tell the edi-toral group whether or not they felt the balance was right. Over a period of time thisshould help to develop a consistent paper quality.
A common problem with anarchist papers is that they are riddled with spellingmistakes and incorrect grammer. Now while this doesn’t worry me much the worldis full of people who will use this as an excuse not to take the ideas they contain seri-ously. Let’s not give them that excuse!
After articles have been agreed someone from the editorial group who is good at‘proofreading’ (basically spotting mistakes) should look carefully at them and eithercorrect the article themselves or pass the corrections on to who ever is doing thelayout.
While its true that the better your publication looks the more seriously many people will take it, today with the help of a computer and a little bit of time anyone canproduce a nice looking publication. Include lots of graphics and don’t make the texttoo small — this will encourage people to read it.
For small numbers of copies, up to a couple of thousand then photocopying maybe the cheapest way to produce your publication. But for larger number and for abetter looking publication you will should get it printed. Start off by asking whereother small left or community groups get their printing done. Odds are this may bethe best choice for you as well. Failing this, ring around a number of printers forquotes; check also if they are unionised, the last thing you want to do is do your print-ing via some union busting corporation!
Any sort of public protest or left/union/community meeting is probably a goodplace to distribute or sell material. Also consider doing a street sale at a regular timeevery week or month which can also be a way of people getting to meet you. If thereis a large workplace in your area which has clear shift changes this can also be agood place to distribute. Finally many groups distribute ‘door to door’, one advan-tage of doing this is that it means the same people can be given consecutive issuesof the publication and so can ‘get to know you’.
Its always worth encouraging people to volunteer to help you with distribution.Often people who don’t have the time to be fully involved with the group will be will-ing to help give out or sell a few copies of each publication you produce.
By way of a conclusion
Producing a publication is pretty easy, the trick is not to be too ambitious and toaim at a level you can achieve. There is nothing wrong with starting off with a sin-gle page leaflet for instance. Or in producing a paper a lot of whose content you sim-ply take off the internet to add to the few local stories you have time to produce. It’ssomething you will learn as you go along, both in terms of how to produce your pub-lication but also in terms of what to write about that people will find interesting.
Building Links between Movements
Aileen, Apr 2001
Talk given to the Convergence Conference 2001; This is the text of a talk given to a Workers Solidarity Movement meeting. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative inorder to encourage discussion. Also it may be in note form. Still we hope you findit useful.
Some Questions that need to be answered.
What has your experience been? What have you learnt from it?
What is the big picture?
Why do you want to build links?
Groups with shared Campaigning issues
What is the level of political unity you need?
What are the strategies you want to use?
What do you need to build useful links?
Carrying out activity
What types of links are useful? Tight links? Loose links?
How do you build links between groups that don’tt share a campaigning issues?
What other questions do we need to be asking?
When I was asked to give this talk, it made me think back on my own experienceas an activist. This talk is structured around the questions above. I’ll give some ofmy answers which derive from my experience. As you listen, you should be askingyourself, what answers you would come up with.
My first political act was probably writing to a women’s program on RTE in pri-mary school to complain that girls in my class had to go to sewing class while theboys were allowed to go out to play football. In secondary school, like a lot of peo-ple at the time, I was worried about the threat of nuclear war and joined CND.Activism didn’t begin until I went to university. I arrived at the end of the eighties ata time of recession, high unemployment and cutbacks. The government embarkedon a program of introducing fee rises for third level education. I became involved inthe student union organised opposition. I remember marching up O’Connell streetwith only about a dozen others, behind the TCD Student Union banner. Over thecourse of the next year, student opposition grew. There was a two week occupationof one of the college buildings, and student marches would end with us running upKildare street, overturning barriers, sitting down and getting arrested. I was involvedin two other, for me, important events, the protests against the fascists HistorianDavid Irving (which lead me to be sued), and an ongoing struggle for women’s abor-tion rights. Throughout this time with a group of friends I became interested in anar-chism probably initially through reading Orwells, Homage to Catalonia. During the summers I’d work in London, live in squats and meet up with English anarchists andbuy anarchist books and magazines which were unavailable in Ireland.
I discovered that there was other anarchists in Dublin and joined the WSM.When I left college the recession was in full swing. One of the principals that I hadcome to believe through my college years was that you struggle where you are, asa student I was active in the student union. As a member of the unemployed I joineda small group called the Portobello Unemployed Action Group. These were prettymiserable years. There were only about a half dozen of us, we picketed and occu-pied, and generally got press attention, but little popular support.
Since then I’ve been involved in more campaigns than I probably remember.Some of the issues were Irish, such as the fight for abortion rights, through the X-Case and various referendums, the fight for Divorce, against the bail referendum,against extradition, against racism against Travellers and now racism againstrefugees. Some of the issues were local, such as campaign against the WaterCharges and Bin Charges, or the support groups for strikes such as Pat the Bakerand the Aldi strike. Some of them were international such as against the war in thegulf, against the imposition of the Death Penalty on Mumia Abu Jamal, in support ofthe Zapatistias in Mexico. And there were countless once off pickets in defence ofprisoners or to protest some particular act of cruelty on behalf of some governmentof other.
Some of the issues were won, some were lost and many are still ongoing.
Anarchism; My Big Picture
My work on these campaigns has been motivated by my anarchism. Briefly put,I want the replacement of the current economic system, a system based on profitand hierarchy, with a system based on need and freedom. I don’t believe the cur-rent system can be reformed to make it more human. In different ways, and on var-ious levels, my campaigning work is aimed at creating the possibility of revolution.Revolutionary change is not as unusual as is often thought; in 1974 we had thePortuguese revolution, in 1977 Iranian Revolution, in 1979 Nicaragua, in the eight-ies we saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is rarer is the type of revolutionthat anarchist are seeking. That is a revolution that is democratic, that is organisedby the bottom up, that rejects leadership of parties or individuals, that puts in placedemocratic structures with which to run society. For this to happen people have tobelieve that they have the power to bring about change, they have to be able toorganise effectively, they have to have skill and experience. They also need to havean idea not only of what they are fighting against, but also what they want to put inits place. In all the single issue campaigns, my aim has been first and foremost towin, to make the things a little bit more comfortable or a little bit safer for myself orfor others. But also, the aim has been to gain skills for myself and for others, to gen-erate self-activity and empowerment, to create the network of activists, to politicisecommunities and groups, to build peoples political ability and confidence. An anar-chist revolution is a revolution created by the mass of society, it is a revolution thatis created by many different people, different groups, and different organisations. I am interested in building links between different groups and movements, because itis through these links that the many different groups in society can operate as oneto bring about mass change.
Shared Campaigning Issues
That’s my big picture, you need to ask yourself, what’s yours. If the question ishow do we build links between different groups and movements, the answer has tobe another question. Why do you want to build links? In each instance, what is youraim. I say in each instance because it should be recognised that there are many dif-ferent levels at which links between groups can operate.Before looking at the big picture, lets look at the smaller one, at building linksbetween groups around a shared campaigning issue. Here, there are different lev-els of political unity, different levels of strategy and different levels of commitment.
Within many political issues, one of the first questions asked is, how broadshould the campaign be, should we be building links with people we may funda-mentally be in disagreement or opposition with? For example, in the US, anti-pornography campaigners built alliances with the religious right. In Ireland, thegroup who has been most targeted by the Public Order Act has been the funda-mentalist catholic, pro-life group Youth Defence. Should a campaign against the Act,build links with these forces? The choices on offer are often not that stark. Can ananti-racist movement in Ireland incorporate those who support boarder controls with-in its midst? Given that Labour, Fine Fail, the PDs and Fine Gael have all at onestage or another been involved in governments that supported deportations, shouldan anti-racist movement include representative of these parties among its midst. Onone hand, the argument is the bigger the better, the broader the focus, the more peo-ple are involved, the greater the impact. On the other, the broader the movement,the more dilute its politics, the weaker its arguments, the weaker its impact.
Often the different political position of different groups is reflected in the differentstrategies they adopt. When I was involved in the Portobello Unemployment ActionGroup, our position was that the government policies towards the unemployedshould be exposed so we focused on visible activity, on pickets and occupations. Atthe time many other groups, instead argued that negotiation was required, and soopposed any activity that might lessen their respectability in the eyes of the govern-ment (who were often their funders). In this instance, although different groupsshared a common campaigning aim, the different strategies adopted were incom-patible.
This is not always the case, often a decision will be taken to build a broaderumbrella movement, but to create space, within the ranks, for a more radical ele-ment. The broader group focuses on media intervention, on lobbying politicians, onproviding speakers for chat shows and articles for the papers, while the more radical group emphasises direct action, pickets and demonstrations. This was some-times seen within the campaigns in favour of the various abortion referendums andoperated to greater and lesser extent. At times the tensions between the twoapproaches made the usefulness of links questionable. Unity is not always strength.
Therefore, before building links I suggest, you have to know, why do you wantthese links? What do we hope to achieve? What is their purpose? Is there a pointin building links between groups that have no interest in common? Is it meaningfulto build links between groups that have opposing interests? Links should be seenas a tool, the link isn’t the end-goal, but a means by which we get to the end. Somelinks are useful, some are not. Some have a meaningful existence, some only existon paper.
Building Useful Links; Communication
Supposing therefore that you are clear about why you want to make links withother individuals, groups or organisations, what do you have to do to build meaning-ful links? Firstly, you have to consider information communication, what is the bestway of communicating between elements in a network. Many NGOs, communitygroups or partnership organisations have offices and a permanent staff.Communication that is centred on these can be efficient but also can be problemat-ic as the wider membership of the groups can be left out of the loop. In response tothis some groups set up their own newsletter or paper, which is distributed amongthe membership. Increasingly websites and mailing lists are used to exchange ideaswithin and between organisations. For example, here in Ireland the Latin AmericanSolidarity Centre a coalition of about five groups run a magazine and a mailing list.Here the individual groups can share with the others and with the general public theissues that are of current importance to them.
Building Useful Links; Strategy
The next level of communication is aimed at developing common strategies orapproach. Here we are moving on from informing others about what we are doingand moving towards working with others on common projects. E-mail lists are againuseful, as are workshops and conferences. Areas of common interest are exploredas are areas for joint action, tactics and approaches to resolving problems. CurrentlyI am involved in a campaign that is aimed at defeating the imposition of a refuse taxin Dublin. The campaign will soon have to decide what is the best strategy to adoptin order to do this. Should the campaign be built around non-payment? Should weuse it as an issue in the General Election? How should we be building local cam-paigning groups? If the different elements of the campaign are to work togetherthese questions will have to be resolved at a general meeting or conference.
Building Useful Links; Activity
Links are given life when activity is undertaken between the different groups. Acommon type of activity is solidarity activity, activity aimed at aiding one element inthe network. After the Prague demonstrations, a number of Czech, Hungarian, Pole, Danish and English activists were arrested. In a number of ways, the elements inthe network worked to offer them support, appeals were sent out to activist mailinglists, sample protest letters were prepared, distributed and returned. Embassieswere picketed, in Ireland three different sets of people picketed the Czech embassy.We arranged for a Czech anarchist to come on a speaking tour of Ireland and madecollections for legal costs at the meetings. As a result, all those in prison werereleased, though some are awaiting court trials. As can be seen from this example,the links between different elements in the network need not be particularly strong.The different Irish groups were responding to international calls but within Ireland,there weren’t lines of communication.
Many of the Irish campaigning issues, abortion, racism, water-charges, bin-charges, the S26 collective, have involved coalitions of groups working together toorganise leafleting, pickets, marches and demonstrations.
Building Useful Links; Trust
It should also be noted, that in some cases, campaigns that appear to be broadbased are instead initiated and controlled by particular organisations (for examplethe Anti-nazi League owned by the Socialist Workers Party, Youth Against Racism inEurope owned by the Socialist Party). Links have to start somewhere, and usuallyit is when a particular individual, group, organisation or party, look for others tobecome involved in a collective endeavour. There is a difference between initiatinga campaign and manipulating a campaign. In the former, the links that are beingformed operate in both directions, all elements within the network have an equal rolein building the resulting campaign, in deciding its scope, its directions, the goals it willfocus on and the tactics it will develop. In the case of ‘front organisations’ describedearlier, the communication goes one way. The initiating group retains control, theother elements are not able to influence policy or strategy. This is a fundamentallydishonest and dis-empowering method of organisation.
A link between any group or organisation should also be seen as a form of rela-tionship. In order to survive there must be a level of trust between the groups. Muchof the work in building links is based around developing working relationships inwhich the various elements can trust each other and will not act out of self-interestin a way that will reflect badly on the network as a whole and on the elements thatmake it up. Often links are not formed because groups can not be trusted to followthe democratic mandate of the campaign.
Types of Links
From the examples I’ve been citing, it becomes obvious that links betweengroups and organisations vary. They vary in terms of the strength of the link, thelevel of resources allocated to it and the time scale within which they operate. Thestrongest type of link is probably that between members of a particular politicalorganisation. Here individuals share a common political position on a wide range ofissues, they carry out activities together, and they meet each other on a regularbasis, normally once a week and are committed to the organisation over a long peri-od of time, often a lifetime. At the opposite end of the scale, individuals come togeth-er for a once off picket, say for example the picketing organised to protest the USsanctions against IRAQ. Here people are unified on this issue. Though they morethan likely are also generally leftwing or liberal, these other political positions aregenerally not communicated or developed. They are together only for an hour ortwo. They support this particular tactic but again there is no working towards a con-tinued strategy. The links formed are brief and weak, they meet, protest and gohome.
In between these two extremes a range of networks exist. There are the singleissue campaigns, which meet regularly sometimes over a few months, sometimesover decades. Politically there is agreement over the one particular issue thatdefines their group.
There are also the linkages between groups. An example of this is the ZapatistaEncounter Network. Jan 1st 1994, in Chiapas, Mexico, there was an uprising ofindigenous people, organised into a group called the EZLN. As has happened fol-lowing other central American uprisings through out the world, support groups wereset up aimed at preventing the worst excess of the Mexican State. In response tothese support groups, the EZLN put out the call, ‘be a Zapatista wherever you are’.What they were saying is, we don’t want support groups, looking towards Chiapas,instead we want groups of activists following our example working within there owncountries. The Zapistas called a general conference in Chiapas. The issue underdiscussion was not just what was happening in Chiapas and in Mexico, but what washappening in the world in general. This was followed by another conference inSpain. At the conferences, the individuals from different counties met each other,shared experiences and built relationships. In between the conferences, a few for-mal networks were set up, but informally the individuals and groups kept loosely intouch, mostly through e-mail. A significant section of people organising the currentwave of anti-Globalisation protests that have occurred in London, Seattle, Prague,Washingon and next month in Quebec and in Genoa in July are people who firstcame in contact with each other through the Zapatista Encounter networks.
Here you have a network that is loose and informal, that is based on a sharedopposition to neo-liberalism and that varies over time, increasing in intensity as thenext meeting of world powers arises, falling away in-between.
The point of these examples is to argue that it is not that one linkage is betterthan another, as such, but that some links are more appropriate means to achieveparticular ends.
Finally how do you campaign for wider goals? One approach is to broaden a sin-gle issue campaign scope from a single issue to a wider goal. This is a problemat-ic approach because it assumes that those involved in the particular single issueshare a wider goal, when in reality most of them don’t. A single issue campaign canbe successful within its own terms, but often because the unity that exists is only onthose terms. Changing the goals, can destroy the co-operation.
Another approach is to try and build links between the single issues.
For me, this what the role of a political organisation is. It is to look for areas ofcommon interest when these aren’t immediately obvious, to bring experiences fromone area to another, to show how issues that are seemingly different are in fact aproduct of similar economic pressures. In fact this is almost the definition of a polit-ical organisation, a group of people who share the wider goal and work together toachieve it. I am not counterpoising single issue campaigns to political organisations.It is not a case of being for one or for the other. I should also point out that I’m notproposing that there should be one organisation that works for all of us.Unfortunately, the word political organisation is often identified with the political party,the idea that there can exist one organisation, which will lead the way. Political diver-sity is not a problem for anarchists. Rather, I am proposing that if the wider goal isyour concern, it is through political organisation that you will meet people who sharethat concern. It is through political organisation that you can share experiences indifferent campaigns and maximise your resources in terms of times and energy. Apolitical organisation should work to develop peoples skills, in public speaking, chair-ing, writing articles. These skills can then be brought back in the various campaigns.
Finally what you get from a political organisation is support. You are working withpeople towards the same goal — and you suffer the defeats and victories together.Youget on with the next job at hand and you are working together for the prospect of abetter society — towards a better future for humanity.
You don’t get that from a campaign — and once the campaign is over you are backto being a single individual in a fucked up world.
To conclude. Most of this talk has been about building networks, but part of thatprocess, is the building of organisations. I’m not talking about any one particularorganisation, but of building an organisation that reflects your particular beliefs.Organisations are the cement that join the building blocks of campaigns together.
On Organisation by Tom Wetzel
“Consensus” has had a certain popularity as a decision-making method amongsocial change groups since the ‘60s, especially within the anti-nuclear movement butalso in anarchist and radical feminist circles. I think we can understand why if weconsider what sorts of organisations exist in this country. Mass organisations inwhich the membership directly shape the decisions are hard to find. How often havemembers been ruled “out of order” at union meetings by an entrenched official? Most leftist political groups also have a top-down concept of organisation, as befitstheir preoccupation with “leadership.”
On the other hand, this sort of alienation and lack of control appears absent inactivities organised through small circles of acquaintances. Those who engage in anaction together typically reached a common agreement after talking it over informal-ly. This leads to the model of the small, informal group — no written constitution, nochair of meetings, no elections for delegated tasks, no careful definition of jobs, nowritten minutes of meetings. Decisions are made by having an unstructured discus-sion until consensus is reached.
But informality does not eliminate hierarchy in organisations; it merely masks it.To the insiders, everything appears friendly and egalitarian. But newcomers do nothave the same longstanding ties to the group. And having no clear definition ofresponsibilities, and no elections of individuals who carry out important tasks, makesit more difficult for the membership to control what goes on.
Fortunately, the “small, informal group” is not the only alternative to the dominanthierarchical model of organisation. It is possible to build a formal organisation thatis directly controlled by its membership. Being “formal” merely means that the organ-isation has a written set of rules about how decisions are made, and duties of offi-cers and conditions of membership are clearly defined. An organisation does nothave to be top-down in order to be “formal” in this sense. A libertarian organisationwould have a constitution that explicitly lays out a non-hierarchical way of makingdecisions.
Sometimes people have the idea that setting up elected positions with definedresponsibilities is a “hierarchy,”, as if any delegation of responsibility creates a boss.Yet, informality does not avoid delegation since some people will inevitably do taskson behalf of the group, such as answering correspondence or handling a bankaccount.
It is possible to elect people to perform delegated tasks without creating a top-down organisation.
Here are a few guidelines:
The scope of authority of an elected position, such as correspondence secretaryor treasurer, should be explicitly defined and delimited, so that everyone knows whatthis person should be doing, and with the requirement of regular reports to keep themembership informed.
The person should be elected for a limited term, such as one year, and should besubject to recall at any time by majority vote of the membership (but with a require-ment of adequate notice to ensure that this is not “sprung” all of a sudden by thosemembers least favourable to the person currently doing the job).
If at all feasible, there should be a requirement of mandatory rotation from office.This is especially important for any position of acting as spokesperson or represen-tative of an organisation or body of people. If an organisation is very small, howev-er, it is sometimes difficult to rotate responsibilities. Even so, the person carrying outresponsibilities can report regularly to membership meetings and can be thus direct-ed by decisions of the membership.
Nobody is to be elected to set policy for the organisation, but only to carry outthose responsibilties that have been assigned by the membership. The generalmembership meeting of the organisation must remain the supreme decision-makingbody and can over-rule any decisions of elected officers. The idea is that the main decision-making responsibility of the organisation is notto be delegated to some “steering committee” or executive but is conducted directlyby the membership through their own discussions and votes; this is the heart of thelibertarian concept of organisation.
Since many leftists define social change in terms of putting a particular leader-ship into power — such as the Leninist concept of “the revolutionary party taking statepower” — it is no surprise that even organisations formed, or influenced, by leftistsmay have a hierarchical set-up where the power to make decisions is concentratedin some executive board or steering committee. While libertarians oppose this prac-tice, and pose the alternative of direct decision-making by the members or rank-and-file participants, it is, nonetheless, not necessary to oppose all delegation of tasks orresponsibilities.
The real question should be, “What is the relationship between those vested withresponsibilities and the rest of the membership?” If the center of decision-makinglies in the general meetings, and those with responsibilities must report to thesemeetings, and are instructed by them, and (where possible) jobs are rotated, then wedo not have a top-down structure, but an organisation where decision-making is fromthe bottom up.
A Chair is Not a Boss
Often people who favour the “small, informal group” model of organisation alsooppose the practice of electing someone to chair a meeting, even if the meeting is alarger gathering. It is easy to understand what they are afraid of. Consider unionmeetings where the chair is a paid official. He has certain entrenched interests todefend. To serve his ends, he may rule “out of order” motions from the floor on matters of concern to the rank and file, or manipulate the meeting in other ways.
But here the problem is that there is an entrenched bureaucracy; chairing meet-ings is only one of the ways they control the organisation. The situation is differentif the chair is elected at the beginning of the meeting by those present, and if thechair can be removed by majority vote at any time. Being chair of a meeting doesnot convert someone into a bureaucrat.
I’ve sat through chairless meetings where people interrupt each other, voices getlouder as people try to express themselves, discussions get side-tracked into numer-ous tangents, and important decisions are put off or hurriedly decided at the lastminute. This experience has made me rather frustrated with the prejudice againsthaving a chair of meetings.
If a meeting only consists of a few people, then obviously it does not need to have a chair. But once meetings achieve a certain size, a chair becomes necessary inorder to ensure that the meeting stays on track and moves through the agenda in areasonable amount of time, while making sure that people have an opportunity tospeak.
I’ve heard opponents of chairmanship argue, “It’s the responsibility of each individual to make sure that the meeting stays on track and individuals don’t get out ofhand.” But even with the best of intentions, this is difficult to achieve in practice.When you’re thinking about what you want to say next, it’s hard to also be keepingtrack of whose turn it is to speak and of what the agenda is.
The rationale behind having a chair is that we delegate to one person the responsibility to concentrate on such things as the agenda and the order of speakers whilethe rest of us are free to concentrate on what is being said. Of course, it can hap-pen that a chair is manipulative, favouring one particular “side” in a matter under dis-pute. But in such a situation, a motion to replace the chair would be in order.
The Right to Dissociate
In working out a libertarian concept of organisation, we need to remember thatthe individual members not only have rights that must be respected by the organi-sation, they also have obligations to the rest of the membership. Since the majorityhave the right to control their own organisation, individuals must conduct themselvesso as to respect this right of the majority.
For example, if an individual makes public statements that claim to speak for theorganisation, but state only the viewpoint of the individual, not a viewpoint actuallydiscussed and agreed to by the majority, then that individual is acting irresponsiblyand anti-democratically.
There is, however, no reason why an individual should be required to kee quietpublically about disagreements within the organisation. As long as the individualmakes clear that the stated viewpoint is his or her own, public disagreement with theposition of the organisation is not irresponsible.
A libertarian concept of organisation must allow for diversity of opinions. Thismeans that members must try to maintain a climate of respecting the opinions of oth-ers in the organisation. But what happens when members do not respect the rights of others? What happens when members are threatening to others, or conductthemselves in ways that are very disruptive to the life of an organisation? In such acase the majority may have to consider disassociating themselves from that individ-ual. In other words, the rights of the majority include the right to expel individualmembers.
To some anarchists, expulsions are always a “purge.” The authoritarian conno-tation of the latter term are meant to suggest that any expulsion is a violation of free-dom, an illegitimate act. But the position of these anarchists is actually self-contra-dictory. For, it is a very basic libertarian principle that the membership of an organi-sation have the right to directly control it. And this means that no individual has the“right” to act in ways that prevent the majority from accomplishing the purposes forwhich they got together. If the majority in an organisation did not have the right toexpel disruptive indivdiduals, this would mean that they couldn’t control the condi-tions of membership and direction of that organisation. Freedom of associationimplies the freedom to disassociate.
On the other hand, the power to expel members should never be delegated toofficials. For, if elected officers can expel members on their own, they can expel crit-ics of how they are conducting their responsibilities. Expulsion certainly is used byofficials in hierarchical organisations as a means of maintaining their top-down con-trol. What is illegitimate in such cases is not the act of expulsion in itself, but the top-down way it is carried out.
The point here is that individuals have obligations to the other members of anorganisation. And the majority have the right to ensure that the responsibilities ofmembership are observed. But expulsion is a last resort, and should not be usedlightly. Expulsion is something that the membership should decide on directly, in ageneral membership meeting or convention. And it should always be required thataccused individuals be given advance notice and have the right to defend them-selves before the general membership prior to a vote to expel.
Talking Until Agreement is Reached
The partisans of informality also tend to be averse to voting as a way of makingdecisions. They prefer the process of talking until agreement is reached (or notreached). In my experience, this process tends to encourage informal hierarchy.That’s because this process tends to heighten the influence of the more articulateand self-confident individuals, and tends to disenfranchise the shy newcomer, andthe less articulate. Voting has the advantage that it is an equalizer. The shy and theaggressive, the articulate and the not-so-articulate, all can raise their hands, andeach has only one vote.
Advocates of consensus sometimes say that hierarchical organisation is the onlyalternative to consensus. But there is also the alternative of direct democracy wheredecisions are made by majority vote. Direct voting by the members puts the major-ity of members in control, and control by the majority of members is the opposite ofhierarchy. In a hierarchical organisation, it is not the majority of members who arein charge but a few leaders at the top — that is what “hiearchy” means.
The libertarian idea of direct, democratic voting is quite different than the officialconcept of “democracy” in this society. “Democratic voting” typically means electingofficials who then have all the power of making decisions. But that is really electiveautocracy, not genuine democracy, which requires direct decision-making by therank and file.
Though “talking until agreement is reached” is the natural method of decision-making for “small, informal groups,” not all advocates of consensus decision-makingare averse to formal organisation. However, making the organisation formal — a writ-ten constitution, definition of membership and so on — does not eliminate the basicproblems of the consensus process.
The requirement of unanimity means that disagreements have to be talked outuntil verbal consensus emerges. This means that even a formal consensus systemtends to heighten the influence of the more talkative, self-confident participants.Also, the requirement of consensus often leads to prolonged, marathon sessions, ormeetings where nothing is decided.
This aspect of consensus tends to make the movement less conducive to partic-ipation by working people, and tends to reduce participation to the hard-coreactivists. When people have other demands on their time (job, children, spouse),they will tend to be frustrated by meetings that are unnecessarily long, indecisive, orchaotic. Most people will want to have some sense that something will be accom-plished, a clear decision made, and in a reasonable amount of time.
In his pamphlet Blocking Progress, Howard Ryan describes a nightmarish exam-ple of what can happen with consensus. Many people in the Livermore ActionGroup — an anti-nuclear action group here in the Bay Area — were uncomfortable withthe first point of LAG’s action guidelines which stated: “Our attitude will be one ofopenness, friendliness and respect toward all people we encounter.” “A commonsentiment”, Ryan points out, “was that oppressed people often do not feel thesethings towards police or authorities and should not be required to feel them in orderto join the [Lawrence-Livermore Labouratory] blockade.” In 1982 there was a month-long discussion of this issue, followed by two full days of informal open debate. Atthe second of these assemblies it was proposed to replace the “friendly and respect-ful” language with “non-violent.”
Coming towards the end of this long process of discussion, there was a sugges-tion by one of the participants in the second meeting that a straw poll be taken todetermine the general opinion in the room. This was itself considered so controver-sial that two hours were consumed in debating whether it was even okay to take astraw poll. Finally a poll was taken and the vote was 74 to 2 in favour of changingthe non-violence code to remove the “respectful and friendly” language. One of theparticipants has described what then took place:
“One of the two people [a doctrinaire pacifist] blocked it. He wasasked repeatedly to stand aside, to leave, to die. People were just so upset. He wouldn’t budge and it was blocked.”
This is a good example of the elitist coercion that consensus permits.
Consensus is Anti-democratic
The requirement of unanimity is anti-democratic. A small minority does not havethe right to prevent the majority of members from doing what they want to do.Organisations are not of value in themselves but only as a vehicle for co-operationand collective activity. Insofar as consensus thwarts the majority from doing what itwants, it makes the organisation an ineffective vehicle for them. This can lead tosplits and fragmentation — exactly the result that the advocates of consensus say theywant to avoid.
The rules of an organisation can — and must — protect the rights of individuals andminorities. If one studies the situation in the AFL-CIO-type unions, and major politi-cal organisations, it is true that the rights of individuals and political minorities areoften in a sorry state. But these are hierarchical organisations. It is the hierarchy,not “majority voting,” that is the problem.
Anarchists of the more individualistic persuasion argue that consensus is necessary to avoid “tyranny of the majority.” But where in the real world does the majority have real power? The real tyrannies that people are fighting around the world aretyrannies of entrenched minorities, of governments and bosses. I don’t want to claimthat “majorities are always right” but I do believe that people have the right to maketheir own mistakes. The issue here is whether people have the right to control theirown movements and organisations. To give a single individual or small minority theright of veto on decisions is to have a system of minority rule.
Even when individuals or minorities do not actually threaten or use a block tokeep the majority from doing what it wants, everyone is aware that they could, if theorganisation is run by consensus. The structural requirement of unanimity puts pres-sure on the majority to placate small minorities in order to accomplish something.Often this leads to decisions that paper over disagreements and leave everyone dis-satisfied.
Rudy Perkins has described this problem, based on his experience in theClamshell Alliance in New England in the late ‘70s:
“Majority rule is disliked because amongst the two, three or manycourses of action proposed, only one is chosen; the rest are “defeat-ed.” Consensus theoretically accommodates everyone’s ideas. Inpractice this often led to:
a watered down, least-common-denominator solution, or
the victory of one proposal through intimidation or acquiescence, or
the creation of a vague proposal to placate everyone, while the planof one side or another was actually implemented through committeesor office staff.
In other words, within the anti-nuclear movement ideas are in com-petition and some do win, but under consensus the act of choosingbetween alternatives is usually disguised. Because the process isoften one of mystification and subterfuge, it takes power of consciousdecision away from the organisation’s membership.”
Consensus puts pressure on minorities not to express misgivings or disagree-ments because their dissent would prevent the organisation from making a decision.Thus it actually becomes harder for minorities to state dissenting opinions becausedissent is always a disruptive act. When decisions are made by majority vote, on theother hand, there is not this heavy “cost” to dissent and minorities can freely statetheir disagreement without thereby disrupting or blocking the organisation fromreaching a decision.
Consensus also means that it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to changean organisation’s orientation even when it is clear to most members that the currentdirection is failing. That’s because there will almost always be a minority who will beagainst change, because the current direction of the organisation may have beenwhat attracted them to it, or because they may simply prefer what they are used to.
“Simple majority” is the requirement of one vote more than half the votes cast inorder to make a decision. A simple majority is the smallest number of votes neededto guarantee that a decision is made.
Advocates of simple majority sometimes hear the retort: “But do we want to havea major decision made with 51% for 49% against?” Decisions that organisationsmake in the course of conducting their affairs vary a lot in their relative importanceto the participants. For some decisions, a narrow majority won’t matter becausethose who voted “no” may not have really strong feelings one way or the other. If itis an important issue, though, it is clearly a problem if an organisation is closely split.
Sometimes, in organisations that are based on membership participation anddemocratic voting, close votes will lead the group to stop and reconsider the issue inorder to find a proposal that accommodates objections.
More often, this process happens before it reaches a vote. When it becomesclear in the course of the discussion on a proposal that the membership are closelydivided and have strong feelings on the issue, there is likely to be an effort to find aproposal that mitigates objections. For one thing, it is to the advantage of the pro-posal’s partisans to have as much support as possible within the organisation. Thework of the organisation is bound to suffer if it is badly split — dissatisfied membersmay drag their feet or drop out.
When a union conducts a strike vote, for example, the partisans of a strike willwant to get the largest possible majority for a strike. If the vote for a strike isn’t over-whelming, if there is only a narrow majority for striking, the union will be less likely toactually go out because the division among the workforce undermines the chancesof winning a strike.
Such considerations have at times led people to propose decision-making basedon larger majorities, such as two-thirds or three-fourths. But the problem with this isthat most of the decisions that organisations make are not so crucial that largemajorities are needed.
Moreover, stipulating a majority larger than 50% plus one means that decisionscan be blocked by minorities. Though the minorities required to “block” a majorityare larger than under consensus, this still permits minority control. A cohesive minor-ity could exercize undue influence on a group due to its potential for blocking whatthe majority wants. Thus the arguments against consensus also apply to someextent against a formal requirement of two-thirds or three-fourths majority. Theadvantage to “simple majority” as a decision-making method is that it is the only wayto formally preclude minority rule.
There may be circumstances when it would be desireable to have a larger major-ity than 50% plus one — as in those cases where the organisation is closely split onimportant issues. But instead of trying to make a formal rule for this, I think thisshould be dealt with by the membership using good sense in such situations. Noteverything that is desireable for an organisation can be created by formal rules.
The conditions required for the healthy and democratic functioning of an organi-sation go beyond the formal rules. Whether the rights of members are respectedalso depends on the climate in the organisation. How people treat each other is aninformal factor but it is just as important as clauses in constitutions.
There is usually some sort of underlying, informal consensus in almost anyorganisation. To take an obvious example, there needs to be a consensus that dis-agreements are not settled by punching someone out. So, there does need to be aconsensus on some things, on certain basic assumptions that underlie the unity ofthe organisation. The advocates of “consensus decision-making” are correct in per-ceiving this, but where they go wrong is in trying to elevate this into a general prin-ciple of decision-making so that everything requires a consensus. The consensussystem puts day-to-day decisions, on the one hand, and the most important deci-sions, fundamental purposes and ways of treating each other, on the other hand, allon the same level.
Small Groups, No Power
However, consensus does often work reasonably well in small groups, especial-ly where the participants have a common background and shared assumptions.Some people might maintain that small, independent groups are all that is needed.
Indeed, some partisans of the small group have argued that “bigness” inevitably brings bureaucracy in movements and that only small, independent groups can begenuinely controlled by their members. This ignores the methods that libertarians have developed for avoiding top-down control in mass organisations (such as the guidelines I mentioned earlier), and the examples of libertarian mass unions thatfunctioned through assemblies, without an entrenched bureaucracy; organisationslike the Industrial Workers of the World back in the ‘10s or the Spanish NationalConfederation of Labour (CNT) in the ‘30s.
If the “bigness means bureaucracy” dogma were true, a libertarian society wouldbe impossible. To have a society organised along anarchist lines means that theremust be a means by which the whole populace can participate in making crucial deci-sions affecting society as a whole. For this to happen it must be possible to havelarge organisations, organisations spanning vast areas, such as the North Americancontinent, that are able to function in a non-hierarchical way, directly controlled bytheir rank and file participants.
If the whole society could be organised to make decisions through direct democ-racy and mass participation, as anarchists advocate, then surely it must be possiblefor people to build mass organisations that are run this way today. If not, then howcould a libertarian society be brought into existence? Only a mass movement thatis itself organised non-hierarchically could create a society free of top-down, bureau-cratic, exploitative social relations.
This brings us to the clearest problem with the “small groups” doctrine: Smallgroups have no power. The power to change society requires a mass movement,and the development of solidarity among working people on a large scale. To unitepeople from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, to coalesce the various groupsinto a real movement, to pool resources, mass organisations are needed. In theabsence of a larger movement, small groups can be discouraged by their own lackof resources and sense of isolation.
Unless working people can organise their solidarity into mass organisations, theywill not be able to develop the power to challenge our very powerful adversaries — thecorporations and their government. Without a mass movement, most people will notdevelop a sense that they have the power to change society. Our ideal of socialchange in the direction of democratic participation and workers control will appear tomost people as merely a “nice idea, but impractical.” Only the strength of a massmovement can convince the majority that our vision of a society run by working peo-ple is feasible.
Building the Federation: a Primer for Forming Local Anarcho-Communist Collectives [from NEFAC Membership Handbook; first edition, September 2000]
As we see it, the anarcho-communist vision of society is fundementally based onfederalism and collective organisation. In keeping consistent with this vision, we feelthat it is important for this federation to establish a membership that consists mainlyof active anarcho-communist collectives.
Each collective should consist of at least three federation members (see NEFAC Constitution for membership requirements) from a given area. These collectiveswould be free to organise themselves internally as they see fit, so long as theyremain egalitarian, directly democratic, and do not violate the organisational andpolitical framework of NEFAC.
Once in the federation, collectives would be responsible for carrying out anytasks on the federation’s behalf which they accept voluntarily. Collectives areexpected to keep each of their individual members informed of the federation’s activ-ities, and maintain regular contact with the federation including regular reports of col-lective activity. Each individual collective should function as a semi-autonomousunit, consulting and co-operating with other federated collectives, but acting on theirown initiative (i.e. voluntarily accepting federal mandates).
Why Organise Local Collectives?
For those NEFAC members who already participate in local anarchist and activistgroups, a specifically anarcho-communist collective might seem useless to yourongoing politics. However, because NEFAC has a broader membership than an iso-lated local group, a federated collective would provide a good opportunity to createa strategic dialogue among anarchists doing work in different groups in your area,and offer a means to co-ordinate this work with other collectives in the region.
In addition to acting as a resource for local activism and anarchist agitation andpropaganda, collectives are also able to participate more fully within federation activ-ities. Instead of isolated individuals being involved with the federation primarily onthe regional level, members who have local collectives can shape the federation tosuit their local situations and needs.
How Do We Organise a Local Collective, and What Do These Collectives Do Once They Are Formed?
NEFAC collectives should organise themselves as self-managed, semi-autonomous groups of revolutionaries who work together in order to propagate anar-chist ideas and co-ordinate their activities within communities, workplaces, andsocial movements. They should meet regularly and designate people to be in chargeof calling people and reminding them of meeting locations and times, keeping meet-ing notes, and collecting dues. Obviously these should be rotating tasks.
Once a local anarcho-communist collective is formed, federation memberscan utilize these groups as a means for:
Serving as a forum for discussion on how to better participate in broad coalitionsas revolutionary anarcho-communists. In this way anarchists don’t feel isolated incoalitions with sectarian-left groups or liberal organisations.
Supporting the work of members within local groups in the form of sharing tasks,such as postering, media contacts, fundraising, etc. MCreating a participatory forum for theoretical development and the discussion ofanarcho-communist politics, revolutionary history, etc.
Supporting the work and development of anarcho-communist strategy within larg-er social movements, as well as a structure where this strategy can be critically dis-cussed and evaluated.
Ensuring full collective participation within federation politics (for example, localgroups can discuss and debate proposals between conferences) MDistributing agitational and propaganda materials produced by the federation.
Providing a structure for bringing new members into the federation.
Organising fundraising events on behalf of the federation (which would go towardsfunding federal projects, supporting the warchest, etc.)
Mobilizing people for local demonstrations or campaigns.
Hosting NEFAC congresses or strategy meetings.
Communication: Getting the Word Out
As important as being organised, getting your information out, spreading infor-mation about events and important issues, communicating your ideas to an audi-ence, reporting news about actions, demonstrations, and organising going on in themovement that are not reported in the capitalist media, are among the core respon-sibilities of any activist.
This text covers wheat pasting and tabling
A good activist would do well to learn these skills.
Postering, Tabling, and Propaganda Distribution
Paint brushes or inexpensive sponge brushes
Fliers and/or posters
Container with lid
Plastic bag (Optional)
Whether you’re pasting artwork, political posters or fliers for a show, wheat pasteis a good medium to glue them up with. Unlike wallpaper paste, wheat flour is cheapand easy to get a hold of. If you’re going to be doing a lot of pasting, a bucket witha lid, a handle, and a paint roller work well. Otherwise a plastic container with a lidwill hold enough.
Pour dry wheat flour into the container about 1/3 of the way full. Slowly mix it withwater, stirring as you do so. You want the wheat paste to be thin enough to paintonto walls but thick enough to stick.
To put something up, paint the wall with a thick layer of paste and smooth yourposter over it. Make sure you glue the edges down. Don’t paste over the poster oryou won’t be able to see it. Wheat paste is not clear.
If you’re worried that the postermight get damaged in the weather, or if you want to make it harder to take down,spray [or paint] a clear coating of clear lacquer over it. The wheat paste sticks bestto surfaces like cement. If you put the poster up well enough the only way anyoneis going to be able to take it down is by sanding it off.
If you’re worried about being linked to the crime, wear gloves and carry a plasticbag with you. If you see a security guard or a police officer, put all your wheat pasting supplies in the bag. To make it even less suspicious wear some nice light-col-ored clothing (so that the wheat paste doesn’t show up on it) and carry a Gap shopping bag. Play it off. Remember, it’s best to wheat paste with a purpose. It’s a great way to make apolitical (or anti-political) statement or put up your artwork for others to enjoy. Goodluck and have fun!
[From Wheat Pasting Made Fun and Simple By Lauren Liberty www.misterridiculous.com/diy/wheatpasting/]
Setting up a literature table at events is a lot of work; why should you put so muchenergy into this?
Tabling makes money
Tabling provides outreach for your group
Tabling provides activity for members looking for something to do.
All of these benefits are essential for building your group, and making it strong.It is important, especially when you are not involved in a local organising drive, togenerate activity and be seen. And, if your group is not active, and you do not planany events, your members will drift away.
Where to set up a table
All of the following events and locations are useful and beneficial to some degree.They are listed in decreasing order of likely success (based on observations madeby experienced East Bay IWW members):
Big political events, demonstrations, and marches;
Events of your own;
Specific locations in your community.
It is best to start with no more than one event or tabling effort per month and buildup your momentum.
The least likely to succeed (in terms of raising money or general outreach) is establishing a table in front of a supermarket or a transportation center. Tabling at big political events, on the other hand, while not especially conducive to organising, is nevertheless much more conducive to raising money for the group and lettingactive folks know of your group’s existence.
Supplies you will need
In order to successfully table and accommodate your volunteers, you shouldobtain the following (lightweight, yet durable materials are the best)
MPortable Tables (if none are available, a tarp laid out on flat ground will work)
MFolding Chairs MMilk Crates (for transport; can double as chairs)
MRubber Bands (wind is always a nuisance)
MA Cash Box and ?20 (R, $, £, ¥, €, whatever) in small bills for change (round yourprices off to the nearest 100 — it’s much easier)
MClip Boards (for petitions and sign-up sheets) MLiterature Racks (not essential, but highly useful, especially if space is limited)
MTarps and Rope (in wet climates)
MAnd, a durable hand truck with straps for transport is essential. These can usual-ly be found for very little money second hand. But get one that is durable and willlast. Airport luggage carts are flimsy and will fall apart due to wear and tear.
If your table is full of neat stuff for sale, you will be able to distribute a great dealof organising literature for free, because folks who come to the table, whether tobrowse, buy, or ask questions, will inevitably accept any free information you provide.So, it is not a bad idea to produce some basic literature explaining what your groupis working on and/or has accomplished. Petitions and Pledges of Solidarity are alsouseful to have. This is yet another benefit of setting up a table.
[From Steve Ongerth, East Bay IWW with modifications by the editor.]
Guidelines for Tabling (free literature and merchandise)
Be sure that the name of your group appears on a sign or banner prominentlydisplayed and visible from a distance. People want to know who you are.
If you are selling merchandise: Have an appropriate amount of change in a cashbox or other suitable container. The cash box should also contain pens, pencils,tape, scratch paper, etc. As the day goes on, if you are accumulating a considerableamount of money in the cash box, take out all cash except what you need to makechange and put it in a safe place. Do not neglect to do this, so that the risk of theftcan be kept to a minimum. Keep careful records of financial transactions whiletabling — it might be a good idea to keep a record of donations, memberships, sales,and sales tax, separately.
Make the table display as attractive as possible. A tablecloth perhaps, a varietyof colorful books, shirts, eye-catching signs, posters, etc., will draw people over.Hang up shirts if you can instead of just putting them flat on a table.
Put free literature front and centre to make it as easy as possible for people topick up something and take it with them.
As people approach the table, stand up and engage them in friendly conversa-tion.
Always provide a sign-up sheet that offers further contact. Usually that contactwould be a promise to receive the next issue of your newsletter or to notify people ofan upcoming event you’re planning. Forward a copy of these sign-up sheets to theperson in your group who keeps track of your group’s mailing list. This is moreimportant for small groups for whom adding a few new members would be a bigboost than for large groups, which will probably find it too much work and cost forminimal response.
The person in charge of the booth should know prices of all merchandise for sale.Take an up-to-date price list of all merchandise. All items should be marked with theprice, whenever possible.
As the day goes on, straighten literature periodically to maintain a neat appear-ance of the table. For outdoor events, have with you a plastic sheet of some kind fora quick cover if it rains, and a bunch of clean rocks (or rubber bands) you can use tokeep pamphlets from blowing away if it’s windy. Protect the free literature as care-fully from moisture and excessive dust as you would the merchandise for sale.
If someone asks you a question about the material you are tabling that you don’tknow the answer to, try to get their name and phone number. Offer to find out theanswer and call them back — then do it. This is much preferable to giving incorrectinformation, or none.
For groups that have merchandise brochures and can fulfill mail orders: If some-one shows an interest in an item you can’t supply right then, give them a merchan-dise brochure and invite them to place an order for it.
[Excerpted from “Guidelines for Tabling” www.ivu.org/vuna/guide/guidelinest.htmlwith modifications by the editor.]
Other Ways to Distribute Free Literature
There are often vegetarian or eclectic cafés, coffeehouses or stores which arenot corporate and cater to casual patrons who aren’t rich people or trendy. Basically,they are places YOU would feel comfortable hanging out at with your friends. Somemay be meeting places for activists. These are a good bet for leaving literature but,you should clear it with the people who run the place before leaving any literature. Ifthey won’t go for it, don’t try to convince them. Just find another place where theywill let you leave literature.
Send CARE packages of literature to people who write for more info about yourgroup or its politics or who express an interest in Anarchism in letters and e-mailspertaining to work your group is doing for Anarchist-related projects. It is a good ideato be networked with other Anarchists in your area so if people get informationrequest letters, they can refer them to you so you can send the person a CARE pack-age.
Give your literature to other collectives and to friends whom you know will putyour literature out. Some of them will also have THEIR OWN tabling projects. In thisway, you can get more literature out than if your group were doing all the work them-selves.
[Excerpted from “How To Do A Red and Black Book Project” by Scott, Insurgency Culture Collective www.radio4all.org/redblack/howto.html with modifications by the editor.]
 Howard Ryan, Blocking Progress: Consensus Decision Making in the Anti-NuclearMovement, 1983, published by the Overthrow Cluster of the Livermore Action Group. Ryan’spamphlet makes a number of the same arguments against consensus that I am making here.
 Rudy Perkins, “Breaking with Libertarian Dogma: Lessons from the Anti-Nuclear Struggle,”Black Rose, Fall 1979, p. 15.
 If we were to allow a decision to be made when half vote for a proposal, then it might hap-pen that half vote for proposal A and half vote for proposal B. And what if A and B are conflict-ing proposals? Requiring one vote more than half guarantees that a single solution is decided upon.