One of the most important tasks for rebuilding a fighting workers movement, a workers movement which can help lead to a post-capitalist society, isn’t to have all the right details and correct ideological positions about what happened long ago, in a land far away. It’s to ask how we can have a functioning workers organization which fights in day to day battles and is independent of the state and the employing class. This independence can’t just be theoretical, it has to be practical. Almost all unions in modern Western countries rely on the state or the employing class to keep their funding in order, which means they are ultimately tied to social peace with those forces. Things haven’t always been like this, and they didn’t happen by accident. It’s been a strategy on the part of our enemies, and it will be incredibly hard to build a mass workers movement which goes beyond it. This is particularly challenging when in many countries, the standard form of organization for radicals is the sect based on ideology, which historically tends to be a building block to mass movements based on relationship to the class struggle.
Finding an example of any kind of success here, one has to look pretty far and wide. As far as I can tell, the modern CNT in Spain is the best example in a Western country of a workers organization which is theoretically and practically independent of the state and the employing class, which organizes workers in day-to-day struggles at the same time as they acknowledge the need for a working-class transition out of capitalism, and which is not a sect.
By saying the CNT are not a sect, I don’t want to imply that they are a mass movement. I don’t think they are a mass movement, yet, and I think it would be an exaggeration to call them that. I think that they occupy a very tricky middle ground, the same one that the IWW occupies in North America or Britain – unlike most sects, the membership is not based on strict adherence to the ideology, nor are the members concentrated in just a handful of cities, and in at least a large number of cities the main focus is on day-to-day struggles with the employing class. But neither one is yet able to make its weight felt, or to inspire thousands of workers to join at a time by winning fights, which means that the “centripetal force” of participation in the class struggle still has a hard time dominating over the “centrifugal force” of ideological disputes.
However, if both the IWW and the CNT occupy this tricky middle ground, the CNT is at least further along than we are. Their membership in Madrid alone is comparable to the entire North American (or British) IWW membership, and it’s hard to find even a small-ish town in Spain which doesn’t have a branch that would rival our biggest. This isn’t just a club for cool kids who have the right ideology, either – a quick look at any issue of their newspaper or at the home page of CNT.es will show that most of the articles are about current workers struggles. (Well, except for right now, when there are still a lot of stories on the home page about May 1).
Of course, the CNT isn’t perfect – no organization created by human beings ever has been. It has its own challenges to overcome, just as we in the IWW have ours. However, while I firmly believe that the IWW is the best-placed organization we have to contribute to a revived workers movement in North America, and don’t believe we should blindly copy from anyone, I do think that we can save ourselves a lot of pain if we know more about the CNT’s current organizing, and recent history.
To that end I’m trying to arrange an interview with some rank-and-file members who are involved in day-to-day organizing. I plan to ask them about the current organizing climate: with the growing mobilization against austerity, are workers more open to organizing outside of the realm of the business unions, or are they placing their hopes in new electoral projects like Podemos? I also want to know about the 11th Congress, which will happen in December, and how the organization is reflecting on the last four years of social struggles.
I also plan to ask about the organizing in Spain and the developments in the CNT in recent history. But I’d like to get as many questions from readers as possible. What do you want to know about the contemporary CNT?