Over the last couple of years the WSM has been going through a process of re-examining the way we relate to people interested in what we have to say. Alongside this we have recently begun to try and get a better understanding of what it is we do. Both these processes have some major implications in reaching an understanding of what the usefulness of a revolutionary organisation is in the modern era of broad and loose social networks.
What does WSM do?
Part of what the WSM does is easy to see and understand. We publish a newspaper Workers Solidarity, a magazine Irish Anarchist Review and maintain a website at WSM.IE. These are all very visible. We organise the annual Dublin Anarchist Bookfair and periodically hold meetings & speaking tours in our own name. Again very easy to see and understand. However most of our activity is much less visible and at times this means that people presume what has already been listed is actually the limits of our activity.
We are dual organisationalists - a specialist term that indicates those groups within anarchism that implement the bulk of their campaign, community & union activity through broad mass organisations rather than setting up their own unions, front groups etc. Unlike some on the left we don't attempt to make our presence very visible in such struggles by demanding speakers on every campaign platform or turning up with hundreds of branded placards for every demonstration. That's because we recognise that this sort of behaviour is generally counter productive for winning on that particular issue and we don't put the interests of our organisation ahead of the interests of the struggles we are involved in. One major negative side effect of this though is that it makes our involvement in struggles hard to see unless you know who our members are. To an extent you can construct a picture of what we are probably involved in through carefully following our press, Facebook and Twitter output. Although even this won't give a complete picture as it’s dependent on the members involved writing up experiences and advertising events, something that often won't happen.
What might perhaps be surprising is that even internally we don't have a very accurate picture of the range of our activity beyond some broad generalisations. This is because most of our campaign activity is generated from members’ individual initiatives and informal linkages between members working in the same area. We maintain coherency not because we have a centre directing our activity (most of the left has a layer of 'full timers' who fill this role) but because we operate off a common collectively agreed set of political position papers. This means that in almost all cases the answer to 'what should be done' is fairly obvious, at least in a broad sense.
At times we do focus in on particular issues and operate in a more coordinated fashion where this is needed. Most frequently this will tend to be in mass struggles where the manipulations of left parties mean that there is a requirement to micro-manage a collective response, to avoid being blind-sided. The Campaign against the Household Tax (CAHWT) was one recent example. But as an all-volunteer organisation that seeks to work on a wide range of issues, including struggles against racism and sexism (what today is called an intersectional practice) we simply don't have the time resources for detailed coordination on every one of those issues. Many things inevitably happen on a looser, ad hoc basis.
At the start of the summer we held a WSM members discussion weekend in Cashel and as part of that attempted to map out what the activity of our members over the previous year had been. We are not a large organisation, we had around 34 members nationally at the time of the Cashel meeting, but all the same even internally it turned out that no one had anything approaching a full picture of our broad range of activity. We knew the most about activities that were regularly reported on by members, either publicly or through internal reports. But we might collectively know nothing about similar levels of work that were being conducted elsewhere, but not being reported on.
The method used was simple. Every member was asked to write down those external organisations they have been involved in at the level of attending organising meetings over the previous year. One piece of paper was used for each member’s involvement in each organisation. Then in Cashel we physically laid the pieces of paper out, the size of any stack for an organisation representing the amount of collective effort that had gone in. The stacks were moved around into natural groups, for instance the unions were grouped together as were the anti-racist groups. The resulting patterns were used for discussions about engagement that are beyond the scope of this article.
After Cashel I used photographs of the resulting maps to create the Cloud diagram seen here. As you can see it’s pretty complex with very many organisations represented, so to reduce the complexity I had to remove the information about the number of members involved in particular organisations. I also removed a lot of individual social networking initiatives, things like Facebook pages and profiles. The diagram is incomplete as not every member was able to attend the Cashel meeting and not everybody who didn't make it responded to a request to supply the information afterwards. But it is a first approximation of an answer to the 'What does the WSM do' question that we opened this section with.
It also illustrates why its much more useful to talk about solidarity / intersectionality on a collective basis rather than an individual one. As a collective WSM activity fills many more spaces than any individual could hope to reach, even if they spread themselves so thinly that they were only ticking boxes.
And in particular, when you are volunteering your time, the reality is that to be effective you often need to focus in on just one area of struggle for long periods. Outside of a collective organisational context this could be a very frustrating experience for anyone who recognises that there is more than one simple universal fight to be won.
It is one of the more significant benefits of being part of even a fairly small formal organisation with a coherent collective political outcome - it allows you to concentrate on a narrow field while knowing that your comrades are not only stuck in elsewhere, but are all the better able to concentrate on the area they
The other related area that the WSM has spent a good bit of time on recently, is the question of how we engage with those who find our political and organisational methods interesting and indeed useful. The enormous drop in the 'cost' of communication (in both price and work hours) that new technology has brought means that it’s now possible to try and engage with large numbers of people on an ongoing basis without a huge paid staff licking stamps and sealing envelopes. Previous limitations meant that the WSM tended to have an engagement cliff between people who were members and everyone else. Something made worse by the lack of subdivision between the high commitment levels we expect from members and the mass of society who would find such commitment strange.
On the technical side we now have a set of online resources that make it very straightforward to communicate with thousands of people. Our Facebook page which has the second largest following of any political organisation on the island of Ireland has 11,400 people on it at the time of writing and there are another 3,300 following WSM on Twitter. Twenty years ago there was no possibility of us being able to interact instantly with 15,000 people several times a day. Back then our interaction with contacts comprised of licking stamps and stuffing envelopes for a manual postal list that seldom numbered more than 50. Communications took days and it was very seldom that you saw a result to a particular post.
This and other technological advances mean that it’s now possible for a small volunteer organisation to maintain engagement with large numbers of people. But we are also trying to get beyond that engagement cliff in the second sense, through opening up communication methods with people that are closer to us than those 15,000 online followers.
Part of our routine at real world events is to ask people to complete a contact sheet (normally alongside a feedback form on that specific event). These details go into an online contact management system called CivicCRM, open source software that is also used by mainstream NGO's like Amnesty. We have chosen this method because we don't want to be one of those left organisations that gets people to sign a petition about some issue and then proceeds to spam them with every activity they organise and constant join requests for the rest of their days. The method we use means that people understand they are giving us their details so that we can contact them and it allows them to define what their interests are so we only contact them around those interests. Finally, and importantly, anyone on the system can remove themselves or alter their contact details or interests at any time, simply by visiting www.wsm.ie/user/. You can self-register online for this system at that URL (just click 'Create New Account') but 80% of the 600 people on it at the moment are people who have attended one or more of our events.
Finally we have started introducing a supporter status for the people who broadly agree with the politics & activity of the WSM but at this moment are unable or unwilling to commit to membership. The volunteer nature of WSM means we can only function well when our membership is overwhelmingly comprised of motivated, committed people who will take the initiative in making sure collectively agreed ideas are implemented. We don't have full timers to manage our labour and spot stalled projects in need of restarting, if there is a problem we have to spot it and fix it.
But that is quite a commitment to make, which is why we now have a supporter category without such rigorous expectations of commitment. As with followers and contacts the supporter category is easiest to understand as a communication level. In this case, supporters are given access to many of the internal discussions on our forums and are invited to many of our internal meetings. Over time some supporters become members, but importantly this isn't the role of the supporter category, so others do not. Although the technical side of this Sphere of Engagement model is perhaps tedious, the organisational and political possibilities it opens up are important.
When the crisis hit Ireland one major limitation that we, and the rest of the left, suffered from was that we had no ability to engage with large numbers of people. Sure you can (and we did) do large print runs of leaflets but that sort of instant, once off engagement doesn't shift people very much or in a lasting way. That's not surprising, you have to balance that one leaflet every few months against constant exposure to Joe Duffy & the Independent. It doesn't matter how well you craft your words (and if we are honest most of us are not wordsmiths anyway) the sheer volume of tripe & bile buries the nuggets of truth.
Counteracting the influence of the media will only start to have big effects when we can talk of thou- sands of active revolutionaries consistently providing a different point of view to their neighbours and workmates. Basically at least one on every street and in every work unit / team. We and the left in general are a long, long way from that. Most left groups inflate their membership figures to create false prestige (or register as a political party for electoral purposes) but the active far left in Ireland is in the low hundreds.
Being an active member of a revolutionary organisation though, demands considerable commitment and brings little, or indeed nothing, in the way of material reward. Despite Daily Mail fantasies of 'professional protesters', pretty much no one gets paid, unless you count the handful of 'full timers' some far left groups employ on sub-minimum wage levels. The only career path is the electoralist one, for those organisations that allow their members to run for elections (we obviously don't).
All of that means that, outside times of mass struggle, it’s unlikely that the active committed membership of any revolutionary organisation will be all that large. The problem here though, is that when mass struggle starts to break out, it does so rapidly and people will often look to the most visible organisation who appears to be saying roughly the right thing, or whom they hope is about to. With the crisis in Ireland this could be seen in the way an ICTU-called march could bring out 100,000 but one called by a far left group was lucky to get 1,500 even though they were putting considerable effort into making it look like a broader event. And most people didn't eventually realise that ICTU were useless and move on to the far left, they learned that ICTU were use- less, got demoralised and went home and perhaps prepared to emigrate.
This is the strongest reason for maintaining spheres of engagement, rather than simply treating engagement as a one way street to full membership, as the left tends to. Browbeating people into premature activity only serves to burn them out and disillusion them with the left in general after they discover the over-hyped next big protest is just another stunt in a long line of stunts. Sure, if you concentrate on little else, you can recruit the next round of leaflet distributors and poster putter-uppers to replace the contingent you just burned out, but that hamster wheel is going precisely nowhere and, in the medium and long term, is counter-productive for the construction of a healthy radical movement. It also burns out the committed core who keep the wheel turning. Or turns them into bitter cynics, fully self-aware of the damage they are doing, but not caring, providing they regularly get one over on their left rivals.
In terms of our sphere of engagement, we are not particularly concerned that 90% of people are only interested in following us somewhat randomly through Facebook or Twitter. If they are not yet interested in carrying out concrete tasks alongside us then that is grand, but those who are, become contacts. Likewise, we are not trying to drive all of those contacts into the level of political agreement required of supporters. If someone likes what we are doing around unions or pro-choice struggles and wants to give a hand from time to time, that is enough for now. They will be exposed to all our other activity and our critique of capitalism and the state as they work with us. We cannot expect the entire package to make sense from the get-go. And in normal times only a few of those supporters who broadly agree with our politics are going to be willing, or able, to take on the protracted commitment of membership and becoming the person responsible for making sure things happen, rather than just turning up to offer a hand. Our interest is very much more in growing all of the spheres than trying to push everyone from a more external zone into a more internal one.
Solidarity & the revolutionary organisation
What connects these two distinct organisational techniques is the question of solidarity. Solidarity, as an abstraction, everyone can agree with - the difficulty is turning that abstraction into a lived reality. As individuals our circles of contact and experience are necessarily small.
There are only so many things we can experience in our lives and only so many people that we can connect with. What is more, upping either of these things will, by necessity, also reduce their depth. There isn't a right answer to the question whether its better to have 3 good friends or 100 acquaintances - it all depends on your particular circumstances at a given moment. But we recognise the difference between these two. And the same could be said as to whether it is better to give your all to one particular struggle or to work in some small way across a range of struggles.
Revolutionary organisation means we can do both, not in an individual sense but in the collective one. This could be done through informal organisation. An affinity group of close friends who share a lot of their lives in common can have a similar range of broad collective relationships. But affinity groups of that type are by necessity small. In order to scale the concept up, to the thousands or tens of thou- sands we need here in Ireland to realise revolution, you need something other than the trust that comes through close friendship to build on.
That something is political and organisational agreement around a set of ideas that can be discussed, debated and recorded in a written form. In this way people who have never met can, in different cities, be part of the same collective intersectional process, even if working in very different areas of struggle. Revolutionary organisation - if done right - makes the realisation of solidarity very much more straight- forward.
Extending solidarity into society runs into the same limitations. The left likes to relate strong positive anecdotes like how gay organisations turning out in support of the 1984 Miners strike won the miners union to active support for gay rights. Or how an individual with racist ideas had these ideas challenged and then transformed though standing on the picket line with Black or Asian workers. Intense struggle can indeed create solidarity. But intense struggle is rare, so how do we promote and sustain solidarity in the periods between such moments?
Part of the answer to this, is the revolutionary organisation transmitting news from all the struggles it is involved in, throughout its engagement sphere. Just because someone is strong in one particular struggle, doesn’t necessarily mean that they will automatically understand and be in solidarity with other struggles from the outset.
Someone who starts to follow our Facebook updates, because they liked what we have to say about the Household tax, may not actually agree with Queer liberation, indeed they may find it completely alien in the context of their own life experience and what they have been brought up to believe. Neverthelessless, over time they are going to be exposed to these ideas over and over in many different forms, if we are consistent in reporting on all spheres of our activity. They are probably going to start to recognise something of themselves in such reports, even if just initially at the level of conflictual relationships with the state or other institutions of power.
If, as a result of that online engagement, they develop a greater interest in anarchism then perhaps they will attend the annual Dublin anarchist bookfair. There they should hear voices that they would not otherwise hear and recognise that as things stand those voices are often denied a platform just as they are. The emergence of a sense of a common struggle should be something we can contribute to, even outside of times of mass militant struggle that spontaneously create solidarity. Having the mechanisms and intention to do so is one of the key benefits revolutionary organisation brings to the table.
WORDS: Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)