The Standard Telephones and Cables strike, 1973

STC Picket line, Spare Rib.

Posted By

Mike Harman

The Standard Telephones and Cables strike in 1973 was one of a wave of strikes by black and asian workers confronting both the racism of their white colleagues and management, and sabotage from their own trade unions in the 1970s. It was preceded by the Mansfield Hosiery strike in 1972, and followed by the Imperial Typewriters strike in 1974.

Originally published as Racism, Discrimination and the Unions in Spare Rib issue 17, 1973. Geoffrey Sheridan was a member of the International Marxist Group who worked as a journalist for mainstream outlets at the time.

There was a rumor circulating on the picket line at Standard Telephones and Cables that a shop steward in the Electricians’ Union had threatened Asian workers that if they joined the West Indians who were on strike, they would be reported to the police and deported.

Perhaps the rumour wasn’t true, but the strikers were quite prepared to believe it. there was, after all, only one white worker at STC’s North London factory who had come out in support of the West Indian machine setter the members of the Electricians’ Union were refusing to train.

Witnessing the events at the gates of STC would have rapidly dispelled any doubts that racialism divides the working class, shatters elementary trade union solidarity and that white workers – men and women – are deeply imbued with the ideology by which the ruling class justified Britain’s imperialist ravages and now effectively isolates an increasingly more insecure and legally deportable labour force.

‘Throughout this part of the British Dominions,’ Earl Grey wrote of colonial Africa in the 19th century, ‘the coloured people are generally looked upon by the whites as an inferior race, whose interests ought to be systematically disregarded when they come into competition with their own, and who ought to be governed mainly with a view to the advantage of the superio race… the Kaffir population should be made to furnish as large and cheap a supply of labour as possible.’

Now the ‘Kaffirs’ are being imported to help prop up the decaying metropolis, and the trade unions, for the most part, turn a nearly blind eye to their super-exploitation. Officially, of course, they are opposed to racialism, as dozens of resolutions passed at annual conferences attest. In reality, they do next to nothing to confront it, or to take the practical steps necessary to recruit and involve the immigrant workers rooted in industrial backwaters.

‘It would be foolish to claim that there are no instances of prejudice to be found,’ Vic Feather acknowledged when he was the TUC’s assistant general secretary in 1986. ‘The trade union movement is concerned with a man or a woman as a worker,’ Feather went on to assert in his 1970 Westminster Trinity lecture. ‘The colour of a man’s skin has no relevance whatever to his work.’ To nail down the hypocrisy and futility of these noble-sentiments (self-evident to women trade unionists), the strike as STC serves as a useful hammer.

So far the management was concerned, it was an inter-union dispute. It’s hands were clean. STC is part of the Internation Telephone and Telegraph corporation, and ITT is pledged to complete equality of opportunity (not to mention attempting to sabotage national elections when it suits its multinational interests).

STC’s managing director, Ken Cornfield, had noted that at ITT’s head office in New York: ‘’At least a third of the secretaries are colored. They are not only bright and intelligent, but pretty and smart…’

It just so happens that half the 3,000 manual laborers at STC in North London are black, and although many of them have worked there for over 10 years, not one has been made a supervisor. Promotion of any kind – from the lower grade jobs to which the vast majority of West Indians and Asians are confined, to the skilled work which is virtually a white preserve – has involved organization and struggle on the part of the black workers themselves.

But it did not begin to happen until a younger generation in the late ‘60s refused to turn the other cheek. For West Indians like Basil Spence, who worked at STC as a machine operator for 13 years until he finally quit in 1969, it was nothing but a long period of ‘frustration and discontent’.

‘I had the desire and ability,’ he says, ‘but there wasn’t the opportunity to go forward. I made several attempts to seek promotion to various types of work but in all cases I was turned down. There wasn’t the ghost of a chance for a black man to rise up above semi-skilled work. I know so many who have tried and failed.’ Lewis now runs a successful record business, and is – bizarrely – a Conservative councillor in Haringey.

It was three years ago that the predominantly black machine operators in the press hop at STC decided to elect their own shop stewards, and the white machine setters – who earn £10 a week more, and have the benefit of lighter, skilled work – promptly left the AUEW to join the Electrician’s Union (EPTU). Transfers were speeded up when a white AUEW steward had his credentials removed for recommending the promotion of a white operator, instead of a black worker who had been on the job for 10 years, and when the management chose the former, there followed numerous stoppages and glo-slows until the first black was selected as a trainee setter, in 1971.

Roderick Adams, a young Jamaican, was the second to be selected, after five months’ vigorous negotiation, and last winter he started his 12-months training on the night-shift, where all the setters had joined the EPT. In July, after the AUEW setters on the day-shift had agreed to train a third black worker, the EPTU stewards immediately informed Adams that his training was at an end, and the management sent him home.

It was an open alliance between a racist management and racist white workers. ‘You are the niggers in the woodpile,’ the personnel manager subtly put it to the West Indian stewards, and the AUEW had little option but to make the strike for Adams’s reinstatement official. Two hundred West Indians came out, together with the white AUEW convener of shop stewards, Ted Corbett. It was the first strike at the plant for over 30 years.

‘I told the personnel manager,’ says Corbett, ‘that the woodpile he referred to was likely to become the funeral pyre of this factory if they don’t get the situation under control.’ But the management’s idea of control was a docile and divided labour force, and in the end they won. Adams went back, but he was forced to continue his training on the day shift. No doubt the EPTU celebrated.

The Asian workers might have been won over if the strike had taken up the issue of the Immigration Act, and explained that by fighting racism on the picket lines, the Asians would have been fighting for a stronger union – which would help defend them against racist laws.

As it was, the Asian workers at STC told Corbett that they wanted to join the strike but were afraid to do so. Instead, they became the largest contributors to the strike fund.

But most blame must be laid squarely at the door of the AUEW itself. The officials made it clear from the start that they didn’t approve of the confrontation. The union’s district office told a Red Weekl reporter: ‘We are trying to cool this strike down. You buggers are trying to hot it up!’ Strike pay had a habit of not arriving on time, or simply not arriving at all.

The struggle, however, is far from over. Immediately before the return to work, a day long discussion was held between the strikers and the members of the members of the black and revolutionary organizations who had supported them. One result is that a black caucus has been formed inside the factory, and regular discussion meetings are now being held, with outside speakers.

Half the black workers at STC are women, and a number joined the 200 or so who initially came out on strike. Although the strike committee agreed that pay and conditions for the black women were even worse than those of the men, they had little information on what the women’s situation actually was. They work in different sections from the men, and there was scarcely any communication between them. The newly-formed caucus operating within the AUEW aims to break down these barriers.


Edited for

Little Known Black History Fact: Liberia’s Independence

The African nation of Liberia celebrates its 170th year of independence on this day, and the country has a complicated history. Initially established as a colony by slaveholders and politicians to shuttle free-born Blacks from America’s shores, it has since developed into a nation with a respectable democratic process. In 1816, the American Colonization Society…

via Little Known Black History Fact: Liberia’s Independence — Black America Web

Nativism and the Foundations of US Xenophobia

Nativism. KKK rally.

An Old Doctrine of Hatred and Bigotry Reemerges

Some have debated whether we should view the groundswell of support for Donald Trump through the lens of white supremacy or fascism, but we can also understand it through the framework of nativism, the doctrine of prioritizing the interests of the native-born over those of immigrants. Nativism has a long and ugly history in the United States, in which the ascendency of Donald Trump and his supporters is just the latest chapter. Here, to counter the jingoism of the 4th of July, we study nativism from its origins to the current day, tracing the common threads that connect all the ways the rich have preyed on the fears and prejudices of the exploited to turn them against those worse off than themselves.

Early US nativism was characterized by three elements. First, hostility towards immigrants for the ways they were perceived to be different, culturally or otherwise, and anxiety that they would take “American” jobs. Second, fear of radicals who were not content with American democracy, who did not recognize America as the supreme source of freedom. Finally, anti-Catholic bigotry: Catholics had allegiance to institutions outside the US that were seen as fundamentally anti-American.

We can see all of these elements emerging again today in updated forms. The first is deployed against Latino and Latina immigrants. All three apply to Muslim-perceived immigrants, as Islam is denigrated as both a radical threat and a mysterious, un-American religion that generates loyalties to foreign institutions and beliefs. There are other, slightly more obscure twists: the re-emergence of patrician nativism, this time the domain of Silicon Valley tech lords who dream of a meritocracy that remains largely Aryan.

The America First Committee, organized in the 1940s to keep the U.S. out of the Second World War, was known for its anti-Semitic membership; Trump uses the same slogan today.

The Structure of US Nativism

Nativism flourishes when the class gaps widen that divide the poorest from the rest of society and the richest from the rest of society. Both the poor and the rich become protective of their positions, and cast suspicious eyes on any who seem likely to take what little they have or threaten their place at the very top. Nativism broke out in the economic crashes of the 1880s, particularly in response to the “end of the frontier,” a natural resource that had previously seemed infinite. Immigrants seemed “both symbols and agents of the widening gulf between capital and labor,” in the words of John Higham, the author of all the quotes in this text not otherwise attributed. In fact, many foreign workers brought to Pennsylvania during the 1880s were brought specifically to scab. This hardly endeared them to local workers, and several were killed during riots.

Federal oversight of immigration only began in 1882; until then, the states receiving immigrants set their own regulations and collected fees from the ships that brought them over. Federal regulators shifted the burden of payment onto the individuals themselves and denied admission to “convicts, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become a public charge.” In 1891, when the first legal provisions for deportation were established, nativists immediately began organizing to make a literacy test part of the immigration process with the explicit aim of excluding Southern Europeans. Federal control of immigration introduced unprecedented border surveillance. At the same time, it created the illegal alien as a new political and legal subject.

In rhetoric that is familiar again today, the general manager of the American Iron and Steel Association insisted that the depression of the 1880s was aggravated “by the presence among us of thousands of idle and vicious foreigners who do not come here to work for a living but to stir up strife and commit crime.” This predecessor of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen is hardly unique in capitalizing on economic failure to divide the working class—Hitler did the same a few decades later. Nativism is always present among the xenophobic and privileged; it becomes most vicious when a large number of people are swayed to look for someone weaker than themselves to blame.

The US economy has been recovering over the last seven years; unauthorized immigration is not increasing; Obama deported 2.5 million people, far more than any previous president. None of these facts matter. Nativists can appeal to those disenfranchised even in the face of market growth—the real problem they are capitalizing on is not the limits of the economy, but the economic inequalities that result when the rich profit on the poor. It is no coincidence that we find dramatic economic inequality in every country that is experiencing a turn towards nativism and fascism.

American Identity Crisis

It was a Jewish-American poet “aroused by Russian pogroms to a consciousness of America’s mission” who wrote the passage now displayed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This stands as one pole of America’s historical attitude towards immigrants. The other is an anxiety produced by precarity and the loss of homogeneity that gives rise to xenophobia. We can identify two narratives here: America as refuge and America as fortress.

When US capitalists feel threatened, the country retreats into fortress mode: immigrant labor is described as a threat to “American” labor, just as Muslims as a whole are blamed for the September 11 attacks. This strategy doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of individual capitalists:

In conversations with nearly a dozen farmers, most of whom voted for Mr. Trump, each acknowledged that they relied on workers who provided false documents. And if the administration were to weed out illegal workers, farmers say their businesses would be crippled… Farmers here have faced a persistent labor shortage for years, in part because of increased policing at the border and the rising prices charged by smugglers who help people sneak across. The once-steady stream of people coming from rural towns in southern Mexico has nearly stopped entirely. The existing field workers are aging, and many of their children find higher-paying jobs outside agriculture.

But what is at stake here is not a matter of mere material interests. Nativists have long described the US as an Anglo-Saxon nation, portraying that ethnicity as fundamentally freedom-loving. In the first phase of the development of racism in the United States, there was a long process of clarifying what whiteness was in the first place.

Racism and xenophobia are necessary to stabilize capitalism by dividing the exploited, but they can also become obstacles when the market needs to expand. During eras of capitalist confidence, capitalists may represent immigrants as sources of potential profit, as in the case of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs’ father was an immigrant meme.

The most apparently affirmative version of US isolationism preaches that the US represents the greatest realization of freedom in the world to date. A century ago, nationalists could claim that the US offered “the free, rational life of which Europe dreamed but which Europe denied. To fulfill their cosmopolitan task it behooved them to provide for others a haven from Europe’s oppressions. Thus Americans could enlist in the cause of general human liberty without actively intervening anywhere.” This myth “shores up the national narrative of liberal consensual citizenship, allowing a disaffected citizenry to experience its regime as choiceworthy, to see it through the eyes of still-enchanted newcomers whose choice to come here reenacts liberalism’s fictive foundation in individual acts of uncoerced consent,” in the words of Bonnie Honig. The needs of pluralistic liberal democracy make this position appear to be the middle ground, with open borders to the left and closed borders to the right.

Religion and Radicalism

At times, Christianity has reduced xenophobia by emphasizing the common brotherhood of man. It has also served to promote xenophobia, fomenting hatred and violence against those who are not Christian or not the right sort of Christian. A century ago, nativists framed Catholicism as evidence of disloyalty, a refusal to assimilate. This has given way to a hatred and fear of Muslims, which is justified on both moral and practical grounds by many Christians—and by nativists who are not particularly religious but understand Christianity as the religion of white America. By constantly asserting that Muslims are engaged in a holy war against Christians, the West, and American culture in particular—and sometimes women and gay people, as well—nativists engage all the emotional attachments of the chauvinist white American against Muslims.

Catholic war scare newspaper.

Earlier anti-Semites tended to depict Jews as mysterious, unassimilable, objectionably dirty people, “the very personification of avarice and cunning.” Communism, socialism, and anarchism were all derided as fundamentally Semitic politics, unfit for white Americans; black and Asian Americans were not even part of the discussion at that point. The history of state controls on immigration reflects this view: the Alien and Sedition Acts grew out of fear of the French Revolution. The Paris Commune of 1871 helped U.S. conservatives to “associate working-class aspirations with revolutionary violence”; a few years later, in 1886, the Haymarket Massacre deepened that association. In 1903, immigration law explicitly targeted anarchists for exclusion and deportation; this was the first time political opinion had been made a legal basis of discrimination in immigration since 1798. A daily newspaper reacting to Haymarket declared, “There is no such thing as an American anarchist… The American character has in it no element which can under any circumstances be won to uses so mistaken and pernicious.”

Radicalism undermines the claim that the American Revolution was all the revolution anyone could ever need. This is why nativists are forced to mobilize against it, to pretend it is something foreign.


The founding of the United States upon the mass genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans meant that, for years, nativism debated only the immigration of Southern and Western Europeans. That people from other parts of the world were not humans worthy of consideration went without saying; rather, the battle was over who could be incorporated into whiteness, the fundamental condition of being American. Among other AfropessimistsFrank Wilderson has written at length about the impossibility of black assimilation into US civil society. Perceived “failure” to assimilate sparks fears of disloyalty; assimilation has often meant cultural death.

Higham, our primary source in this text, distinguishes between sentiment against various immigrants of European descent—now almost entirely assimilated into the umbrella term of privilege, “whiteness”—and sentiment against immigrants of African or Asian descent and Native Americans:

No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870s and 1880s. Lynchings, boycotts, and mass expulsions still harassed the Chinese after the federal government yielded to the clamor for their exclusion in 1882. At a time when the Chinese question had virtually disappeared as a political issue, a labor union could still refer to that patient people [sic] as “more slavish and brutish than the beasts that roam the fields. They are groveling worms.” Americans have never maintained that every European endangers American civilization; attacks have centered on the “scum” or “dregs” of Europe, thereby allowing for at least some implicit exceptions. But opponents of Oriental [sic] folk have tended to reject them one and all.

Racism was still evolving throughout this time. Some cited the Bible to justify it; the emergence of social Darwinism on the coattails of its scientific cousin gave others a more contemporary excuse. In this narrative, Anglo-Saxon success in the “New World” was not the result of luck and privilege, nor of the slave labor and genocide that made it possible; it was an expression of natural justice. Nativist intellectuals began spreading fear about “unassimilated” communities in cities; this was particularly convincing to those who had the least experience with new immigrants. Today, we might think of Trump voters who claimed to be concerned about the southern border… yet have no immigrant or Latino communities anywhere near them. This is an old story: “The Catholic war scare had greatest impact,” Higham explains, “in Midwestern rural areas where ‘flesh-and-blood’ Catholics were virtually non-existent and the enemy lay far away in the cities. Illinois farmers feared to leave home lest Romanists burn their barns and houses. A rural schoolteacher in Minnesota went about heavily armed for weeks to defend himself against the anticipated massacre.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, nativism had coalesced as an intersection of racist and nationalistic atttitudes. Social disorder caused by class division and mechanization was assigned firmly as the fault of blacks, Asians, and fresh European immigrants. These people were described as fundamentally disorderly, in contrast with the supposed order of the Anglo-Saxon American past. Said one writer, “[A]narchy is a blood disease from which the English have never suffered.”

Apart from the lower-class nativists, a group of “patrician” traditionalist nativists, mainly from New England, began to theorize race. Frances Walker, a president of MIT, summarized their ideology thus: the new immigrants “are beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence… they have none of the ideas and aptitudes which… belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains.” Whereas European immigrants had previously been seen as the best of the best, destined to biologically improve the country they arrived in, Walker argued that the dwindling birthrate of Anglo-Saxon US citizens was a deliberate and practical response to being underbid, in terms of labor, by European immigrants. This meant, according to Walker, that American Anglo-Saxons were effectively committing race suicide. Sound familiar? Today, the burden of guilt has been shifted—white nationalists refer to roughly the same concept as “white genocide.”

The origins of federal oversight of immigration in the United States bear witness to its fundamental racism. In 1917, immigrants from Afghanistan to the Pacific were banned; in 1924, Asian immigrants were legally described as “racially ineligible” for citizenship by federal law. Meanwhile, southern border enforcement defined people of Mexican descent as illegal immigrants or alien citizens. Here we see racism working hand in hand with capitalism: cheap agricultural labor has been needed for several decades, so Latino immigrants were allowed in by lax enforcement, but kept in a state of rightlessness. After the Bracero agreement, which simultaneously allowed workers to come from Mexico between 1942 and 1964 as agricultural laborers and provided the terrain for the infamous “Operation Wetback” deportation efforts, immigration continued on an informal basis that kept immigrant workers precarious in order to discourage labor organizing among the poorest sectors of the workforce.

Now that agricultural labor is less necessary, protecting “white jobs” from the brown menace is suddenly a public concern again—although the latest statistics show that, while Latinos hold 50% of farm laborer jobs, very few Latinos hold management positions. White citizens simply don’t want low-paying agricultural work.

Field workers picking strawberries in California.

Meanwhile, the door has opened to Asian immigrants, who are now portrayed as highly-skilled contributors to American society. This is not to say that they do not face racism, particularly if they are Muslim. Still, the economy drives the stakes of the conversation. Park MacDougald’s devastating overview of Nick Lan’s contribution to the neo-reactionist movement in the tech industry, “The Darkness Before The Right”, describes how “race realism” is establishing Asian and Indian tech workers as the worthiest in the modern tech racial hierarchy in a way reminiscent of Hitler’s obsession with the supposed Aryan race. This form of “positive” racialization is only the corollary of the harassment and disenfranchisement less technologically skilled or situationally advantaged members of the same ethnicities experience in the United States. It is reminiscent of the “patrician” nativism theorized in New England in the early 1900s: mystically-minded, privileged race theorists, seeking isolated feudal states comprised of the “best and brightest.” Everyone else will be left to starve—but this is simply pragmatism, they assert, as the deserving members of humanity accelerate towards their final ascension.

Mae Ngai introduces the concept of “alien citizens” in her 2005 text Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Within the framework of white supremacy, citizens who are members of ethnic or religious groups seen as suspect—Italians and Chinese in the early 1900s, Latinos and Muslims today—are presumed foreign and dangerous, unassimilable. In Europe and the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, the majority of immigrants come from places colonized by these decaying powers, at once displaced and given conditional access. The ripples of colonial acts of invasion and coercive governance wash up on our shores from Laos, India, and Mexico, and the same racism that justified that colonization makes it possible to regard immigrants with fear and disdain. Before people of Japanese descent—two-thirds of them citizens—were interned in camps during World War II, 400,000 people of Mexican descent, half of them US citizens, were “repatriated” to Mexico during the Great Depression. If borders exist only to sift human lives into the fragmented forms most suitable for exploitation, then colonialism is the grinding agent—be it the sort of military colonialism carried out by formal state power or the economic colonization orchestrated via NAFTA, IMF, and other agencies.

As Hannah Arendt has described, the shift from the Enlightenment recognition of (European) human beings as those inherently possessed of rights to citizens as those inherently possessed of rights began with the end of WWI and the creation of the first large-scale refugee crisis in the modern era. The majority of human beings have never actually experienced the recognition of their supposed “inherent rights,” but the liberal myth that they were was revealed to be a lie at the beginning of the refugee crisis.


Unfortunately, portions of older waves of immigrants often adopt xenophobic attitudes towards new immigrants, perhaps as an unconscious way of consolidating the grudging acceptance they are beginning to receive. This was evident even in the 1890s. But new immigrants from a variety of places and backgrounds were able to make common cause and demonstrate solidarity in the face of repression—and some second- and third-generation immigrant communities joined them. “The German-American Alliance, representing more than a million and a half members, signed an agreement with the Ancient Order of Hiberians in 1907 to oppose all immigration restriction. The Irish leaders who dominated the Catholic Church and in some sections bossed the Democratic party championed the interests of their southern and eastern European followers. But the main effort had to come from the Slavic nationalities, the Maygars, the Italians, and the Jews.” This effort was cultural: these immigrant rights activists celebrated the embattled dream of America as a cosmopolitan melting pot, perhaps cynically—not necessarily because they desired assimilation more than anything, but because they were fighting for their lives. Still, there is something to the cosmopolitan joy of delight in difference, something that does not serve any power beyond that of human freedom.

Unfortunately, the solidarity expressed by most of these European immigrants did not extend to immigrants from other parts of the world. In 1907, Japanese immigrants were thrown under the bus to placate restrictionists in exchange for not instituting literacy tests that would have impeded European immigration. The pro-immigrant—but anti-labor—business interests who made this deal with the Senate did so cynically, with President Roosevelt’s support. Xenophobia was shunted out of one arena and into another for capitalist interests, not humanitarian ones. Meanwhile, the melting pot idea was itself racialized by theorists like Franz Boas (himself an immigrant, democrat, and Jew), who claimed that hybridization of culture and biological forces produced a distinctly “American” face and manner. Divergences from this “American” way could then, therefore, be policed: immigrants were once again coded as treacherous, as were US-born Anglo-Saxons whose political beliefs differed from the mainstream.

Gathering of national socialists in Madison Square Gardens in the US during Hitler’s reign.

Jasbir Puar’s text Terrorist Assemblages clearly explains the ways in which citizenship—synonymous with whiteness in the American context—is extended or denied to various groups as a means of conquering through division. Muslims were excluded from membership in American civil society just as (white, wealthy) homosexuals and transgender people began to be included. She argues that this is no coincidence: it frames the stakes of tolerance and safety as repression and fear. Luckily, there are countless stories of people refusing this offering, biting the hand that feeds them, and turning to share with those excluded from society.

People deserve to be able move freely wherever they wish to if it harms no one, to be treated with hospitality, to be neither bound by geography nor allowed to invade the homes of others. Just as busing black children to wealthy white schools is not the same as white parents driving their children to wealthy white schools, so creating open borders for the United States is not the same as the murder and forced displacement of Native American people during its history. For a refugee, crossing the border can mean survival itself—what parent would not do a similar act for the sake of her children? If we, too, have felt the call of adventure, of care and responsibility for others, let us turn ourselves to solidarity, towards openness and acceptance that is not founded in the old oppressive myths, but in something new we can create together.

Further Reading

As mentioned above, all the quotes in this text not otherwise attributed can be found in John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925.


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Meet one of the British Black Panthers who inspired Guerrilla

Farrukh Dhondy reveals the inside story of the black power movement that fought against institutional racism in 1970s London – and as an Indian-born activist he defends the casting of Freida Pinto

By Ellie Harrison

On 15th March 1973, Farrukh Dhondy was the victim of a firebomb. A member of the British Black Panthers, Dhondy was asleep in a squat on Railton Road in Brixton – known back then as “The Frontline”. On the ground floor was a bookshop selling propagandist black literature. In the middle of the night, Dhondy woke up struggling to breathe. “I felt like I was being choked,” Dhondy says. “I felt like somebody had put a pillow in my mouth.”

When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by smoke and the staircase leading up to his bedroom was ablaze. He jumped out of the second floor window and crashed to the pavement. “Glass was bursting from the bookshop windows, it was all boom! Bang!” When he jumped he busted his ankles, injured his knees, and got badly burnt all over his body. He suspects that the culprits were National Front thugs, who had bombed five other south London locations that day, but because the police never investigated the bombing, it was never solved.

Indian-born Dhondy, now 73-years-old, is one of the British Black Panthers who not only inspired Sky’s new drama Guerrilla, but also advised its writer-director, John Ridley, and its cast including Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay and Idris Elba. The series is an unflinching dramatisation of the black power movement in 1970s London, and follows activist lovers Jas and Marcus (Pinto and Ceesay) as they fight against a vicious branch of the Metropolitan Police.

Farrukh was part of what he calls the “politburo” of the Black Panthers, a party which stood against the discrimination of people of colour in Britain at a time when police brutality was rife, ethnic minorities were refused service in pubs, and many were unable to get professional jobs – made instead to do the “dirty” jobs that the white working class declined to do.

The Black Panthers provided education and legal advice to people of colour in an era of institutional racism which is rarely acknowledged. They organised demonstrations and strikes, and helped workers who were not unionised, not paid properly, and had their social rights violated at work. Dhondy calls it “a movement of the interventionists”. He wrote a book about his experience called London Company, and after reading this, Ridley – who also penned the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave – asked Dhondy to be a consultant on Guerrilla. He even asked him to edit the script.

“I told them what was likely, what was probable, what was extremely improbable, what was completely out-of-kilter with the real history,” Dhondy explains. When “Ridley had riddled the scripts with Black-American abuse”, using slang like “Hey motherfucker”, Dhondy replaced it with terms like “Bloodclart”, which was the preferred cuss on this side of the pond. Dhondy helped Pinto, too, with her accent. “Her speech coach recorded my voice for its intonations. Half Indian and half educated Brit, I suppose.”

There has been much debate about Pinto’s character, Jas, in Guerrilla, who is an activist of Indian descent. Some have accused the series of “black erasure” for not featuring enough black women. At the Radio Times Festival last week, Pinto said that Asians were very much part of the black power movement, and she was “wholly unapologetic” for playing Jas. “Underneath every revolution, under every war, they’re not just numbers or colours,” she said. “They’re people with real human stories.”

Dhondy is living proof of the involvement of Asians in the black power movement. On the black erasure debate, he says, “I don’t understand because we are not the BBC, we don’t need to tick boxes. Ticking boxes on gender and race is not what John Ridley set out to do. He set out to capture a piece of history and it is completely legitimate that an Asian woman would be involved. Look, I was a leading male, I was a member of the central core for God’s sake, there were other Asians in the central core.”

Ridley, meanwhile, recently told the Observer: “Part of what we are saying is that a white person walking down the street at this time would look at them [Jas and Marcus] and say ‘Oh, those blacks’. To the outside world they’re both black but the reality is that they are a mixed-race couple.” Does that ring true to Dhondy? The idea that “black” was used as a blanket term to describe all people of colour? “Absolutely. We were extremely assertive of the fact that we were using the word black as a political colour, I don’t want to be known as anything else. It’s a political colour, it’s something we are using to distinguish ourselves from people who are not discriminated against.”

In terms of Guerrilla’s authenticity outside of that debate, the internal tensions of the movement depicted in the drama are very real. In Guerrilla, Jas is staunchly radical, and keen to use violence – while Marcus is not so sure. Dhondy says he had many tense conversations with his contemporaries over this. “There were lots of young hot heads in the movement who just wanted to use violence, and said: ‘Let’s imitate the IRA, let’s take some guns, let’s shoot a policeman’. We said: ‘No, no, no.’”

The Black Power Desk of the Metropolitan Police, too, very much existed. The men in this counter-intelligence force are depicted in the drama by Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays, who play officers trained in Rhodesia and South Africa to brutally wipe out black activists. “The Black Power desk really attacked people in the very early days, in the 1970s,” says Dhondy. “They were instrumental in sending out the others to attack people. There were certainly files kept on all the activists.”

Other elements of the drama are clearly embellished, for example the use of guns and breaking people out of prison. “I always treated it as a welcome fiction,” says Dhondy. “Welcome because that history has to be told.”

Until recently, it has been a story too-often swept under the rug. Most of the cast of Guerrilla admitted they had heard about the US black power movement but not its equivalent here in Britain. From 1984-1997 Dhondy was a TV commissioner for Channel 4. He says he didn’t bring the story to the small screen because the black and minority ethnic writers simply weren’t there in the same way. “There were no writers at the time to do what John Ridley has done. There just weren’t.”

Guerrilla feels particularly poignant today. Just weeks ago, a teenage asylum seeker was brutally beaten by a gang in Croydon and Dhondy speaks of a “complete resurgence of white thuggery because of Brexit”. But despite the issues that persist in the UK, Dhondy says that the legacy of the black power movement is undeniable. “Just look around Britain today. The fact that Britain is an irreversibly multi-ethnic society, with no question of the repatriation of Black and Asian immigrants. That’s gone, right? No chance that they can discriminate, and the strength and the empowerment of black people to speak about this is a direct result of what was done in those early years in the 70s.

“We’ve forced Britain to get over this colonial hangover. It’s come back in this Brexit form, but I don’t think anyone would challenge my right to have a job, to drink in a pub, or challenge my children’s rights.”

Edited for

“The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. On December 4th, 1969, Chicago police raided Fred Hampton’s apartment, shot and killed him in his bed. He was just 21 years old. Black Panther leader Mark Clark was also killed in the raid.

While authorities claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant for weapons, evidence later emerged that told a very different story: that the FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago police conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. Noam Chomsky has called Hampton’s killing “the gravest domestic crime of the Nixon administration.”

Today, on this 40th anniversary of his death, we spend the rest of the hour on Fred Hampton. In 1969, he had emerged as the charismatic young chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party. This is some of Fred Hampton in his own words.

FRED HAMPTON: So we say—we always say in the Black Panther Party that they can do anything they want to to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people.

A lot of people don’t understand the Black Panthers Party’s relationship with white mother country radicals. A lot of people don’t even understand the words that Eldridge uses a lot. But what we’re saying is that there are white people in the mother country that are for the same types of things that we are for stimulating revolution in the mother country. And we say that we will work with anybody and form a coalition with anybody that has revolution on their mind. We’re not a racist organization, because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism, and we know that racism is just—it’s a byproduct of capitalism. Everything would be alright if everything was put back in the hands of the people, and we’re going to have to put it back in the hands of the people.

With no education, the people will take the local foundation and start stealing money, because they won’t be really educated to why it’s the people’s thing anyway. You understand what I’m saying? With no education, you have neocolonialism instead of colonialism, like you’ve got in Africa now and like you’ve got in Haiti. So what we’re talking about is there has to be an educational program. That’s very important. As a matter of fact, reading is so important for us that a person has to go through six weeks of our political education before we can consider himself a member of the party able to even run down ideology for the party. Why? Because if they don’t have an education, then they’re nowhere. You dig what I’m saying? They’re nowhere, because they don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing. You might get caught up in the emotion of this movement. You understand me? You might be able to get them caught up because they’re poor and they want something. And then, if they’re not educated, they’ll want more, and before you know it, they’ll be capitalists, and before you know it, we’ll have Negro imperialists.

We don’t think you fight fire with fire; we think you fight fire with water. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’re still here to say we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.

Black people need some peace. White people need some peace. And we are going to have to fight. We’re going to have to struggle. We’re going to have to struggle relentlessly to bring about some peace, because the people that we’re asking for peace, they are a bunch of megalomaniac warmongers, and they don’t even understand what peace means. And we’ve got to fight them. We’ve got to struggle with them to make them understand what peace means.

Bobby Seale is going through all types of physical and mental torture. But that’s alright, because we said even before this happened, and we’re going to say it after this and after I’m locked up and after everybody’s locked up, that you can jail revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution. You might run a liberator like Eldridge Cleaver out of the country, but you can’t run liberation out of the country. You might murder a freedom fighter like Bobby Hutton, but you can’t murder freedom fighting, and if you do, you’ll come up with answers that don’t answer, explanations that don’t explain, you’ll come up with conclusions that don’t conclude, and you’ll come up with people that you thought should be acting like pigs that’s acting like people and moving on pigs. And that’s what we’ve got to do. So we’re going to see about Bobby regardless of what these people think we should do, because school is not important and work is not important. Nothing’s more important than stopping fascism, because fascism will stop us all.

AMY GOODMAN: The words of Fred Hampton, those excerpts courtesy of the 1969 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, produced by the Chicago Film Group. After Hampton was killed, Black Panther leader Bobby Rush spoke at his funeral about his life and legacy.

BOBBY RUSH: We can mourn today, but if we understood Fred and we are dedicated that his life wasn’t given in vain, then there will be no more mournings tomorrow, then all our sorrow will be turned into action. He said, “But you have to remember one thing, and that’s ‘be strong.'” He wasn’t afraid of anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Black Panther and now Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush.

For more on Fred Hampton’s life and death, we’re joined in our Democracy Now!printing press studio by attorney Jeffrey Haas. He is the author of a new book called The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. In 1969, Jeffrey Haas co-founded the People’s Law Office, whose clients included the Black Panthers, SDS—that’s Students for a Democratic Society—and other political activists. He was the attorney for the plaintiffs in a federal suit, Hampton v. Hanrahan, filed against the Chicago police, the prosecutor, and later the FBI.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JEFFREY HAAS: Thank you. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, go back in time with us 40 years ago. Where were you when Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were gunned down in their beds in Chicago by the police?

JEFFREY HAAS: Forty years ago this morning, I got a knock on my door at 7:30 in the morning. It was my partner, Skip Andrew, who happened to live up the street from me. When I opened the door, he was already dressed in a suit and tie and said, “The chairman’s been killed. The pigs vamped on his crib this morning.” And I couldn’t believe it, because I had seen Fred just two days earlier in the office, bigger than life, giving orders, talking about the breakfast program, talking about political education classes. I looked at Skip, and I was, as I said, somewhat—totally taken by surprise. And Skip said, “I’m going to go to the apartment.” And I said, “Well, what do you think I should do?” And he said, “Why don’t you go interview the survivors?” And with that, he was gone. And I thought, “Wow! Here’s this guy who was bigger than life, and all of a sudden he’s dead.”

So, that morning, which was exactly 40 years ago this morning, just about this time, I went to see the survivors. It turned out that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed in the police raid, four other Panthers were shot, were at the hospital, and the three who were only beaten up were at the Wood Street police station. So I—Hanrahan had given orders—Hanrahan, the police were assigned to him—not to allow anyone to see them. But I sort of worked my way through that.

And the first person I saw was Deborah Johnson. She was Fred Hampton’s fiancée, and she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their child. So, very much like this table, although a smaller one, I was sitting there, and I looked at this woman, and she was still crying, and I said, “What happened?” And she said, “Well, the pigs came in shooting. We were in our bed. I got on top of Fred at one point to try to protect him. Somebody pulled me out of the room. After I was pulled out of the room, two policemen entered the room, and one of them said, ‘Is he dead yet?’ I heard two shots, and then the other one said, ’He’s good and dead now.’”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there for a moment, break and come back, and then hear from Deborah herself. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: On this 40th anniversary of the FBI and police killing of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, Black Panthers in Chicago, we’re going to turn right now to Deborah Johnson. Deborah Johnson was the fiancée of Fred Hampton. She was in bed with Fred when the police raided the apartment. She was, well, more than eight months pregnant. This is how she described the raid. Her son Fred Hampton Jr. is sitting on her lap as she describes how his father was killed.

DEBORAH JOHNSON: Someone came into the room, started shaking the chairman, said, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up. The pigs are vamping.” Still half asleep, I looked up, and I saw bullets coming from, it looked like, the front of the apartment, from the kitchen area. They were—pigs were just shooting.

And about this time, I jumped on top of the chairman. He looked up. Looked like all the pigs had converged at the entranceway to the bedroom area, back bedroom area. The mattress was just going—you could feel bullets going into it. I just knew we’d be dead, everybody in there. When he looked up, just looked up, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t move, except for moving his head up. He laid his head back down, to the side like that. He never said a word. He never got up off the bed.

The person who was in the room, he kept hollering, “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We have a pregnant woman, a pregnant sister in here!” At the time I was eight-and-a-half, nine months pregnant. My baby was to be delivered in two weeks. Pigs kept on shooting. So I kept on hollering out. Finally, they stopped.

They pushed me and the other brother by the kitchen door and told us to face the wall. Heard a pig say, “He’s barely alive. He’ll barely make it.” I assumed they were talking about Chairman Fred. Then they started shooting. The pigs, they started shooting again. I heard a sister scream. They stopped shooting. Pig said, “He’s good and dead now.” The pigs were running around laughing. They was really happy, you know, talking about Chairman Fred is dead. I never saw Chairman Fred again.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Deborah Johnson, the fiancée of Fred Hampton. On her lap, their little son, Fred Hampton, who is now an activist around prisoner rights and prisoner issues around this country.

Jeffrey Haas is our guest. He is author of The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.

Talk about what came of that, after this day, 40 years ago.

JEFFREY HAAS: While I was interviewing the survivors, my partners went to the apartment. And when we gathered all the evidence, it turned out that the police had fired 90 shots into the apartment with a submachine gun, shotguns, pistols and a rifle. There was only one outgoing shot, and that came from a Panther who had been fatally wounded, and it was a vertical shot, after he was hit himself.

So, Hanrahan, who was—the police were assigned to the state’s attorney, a politically ambitious law-and-order prosecutor who wanted to get the political advantage of having attacked and taken out the Panthers, was on the TV that morning saying the Panthers opened fire. It turned out, we proved, that, quite to the contrary, it was a shoot-in, not a shootout.

What we uncovered years later—we also filed a civil rights suit after the charges were dropped against the Panthers. And in addition to proving, as I said, that it was a one-sided raid, that the police came in firing, the evidence also showed that Fred Hampton was in fact killed with two bullets, parallel bullets, fired into his head at point-blank range. He wasn’t killed with the bullets through the walls.

But what we uncovered was that the FBI had obtained a floor plan of Fred Hampton’s apartment. That floor plan was complete with all the furniture, including the bedroom where Hampton and Johnson slept and a rectangle showing the bed. And it turned out that this FBI informant, William O’Neal, and his control took that floor plan and gave it to Hanrahan’s raiders before the raid, so that they came in knowing the layout, knowing where Fred would be sleeping. And when we looked at the directions of the bullets, in fact, they converged on the bed where Fred Hampton was sleeping that morning.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As I recall, a lot of the bullets were shot from the floor below, as well, as they were—

JEFFREY HAAS: No, they were most—they were from the front door and the back door, and then they took the one with the machine gun and stitched the wall in the front, and that went through all of the bedrooms in the apartment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the role of the FBI and of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s massive program against dissidents in the United States, how did you uncover that, as well?

JEFFREY HAAS: Well, first, there was a burglary at the Media, Pennsylvania, FBIoffice, in which some draft dodgers uncovered that there was this program that talked about—basically, it was an attack on the entire black movement and particularly on the Panthers. And it talked about disrupting, destroying and neutralizing the Panthers by any means necessary. And one of their objectives was prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the black masses.

Fred Hampton, at 21, was a tremendously charismatic and powerful figure in Chicago. He could talk to welfare mothers, gang kids, and he could talk to law students and college students. He had the ability to pull people together. You got a little glimpse of that in what—the clip that you saw. But he made people believe in themselves. He made people feel powerful and that they could bring about change. And that was his real threat.

And so, we knew there was this program to prevent the rise of a messiah. We knew about the floor plan. Then we uncovered a document that they gave the informant a bonus after the raid, because his information was invaluable to the success of the raid. So, internally, the FBI actually took credit for this raid, for the results that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Willie O’Neal.

JEFFREY HAAS: William O’Neal was the—when we—he was uncovered because he became a witness in another case. And I guess—we all knew William O’Neal. He was a very flamboyant person. And I guess my idea of an informant was somebody who sits quietly in the corner and takes mental notes. That was not William O’Neal. He was a provocateur. He built an electric chair that was supposedly to threaten potential informants in the party, when he was an informant. He attempted to build what he called a rocket that would go from the Panther office to City Hall until Fred Hampton—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain his position in the Black Panthers.

JEFFREY HAAS: He was the chief of security, and at one point he was Fred Hampton’s bodyguard. And he was present the night of the raid and left. And there was evidence that Fred Hampton was drugged. And he’s never admitted it, but some of that evidence suggests that O’Neal was the one who drugged him the night of the raid.

AMY GOODMAN: I want ask—just play for a minute a response—get your response to Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. After the raid, he repeatedly claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police. This is how he described what happened.

EDWARD HANRAHAN: The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at the police officers when urged to do so several times.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Ed Hanrahan, the Cook County state’s attorney. Your response to him? And also, what happened to Hanrahan as you sought to pursue the truth of the murder of Fred Hampton?

JEFFREY HAAS: When we gathered the evidence—and you can tell which way a bullet enters, from the smaller hole, and exits with a larger hole and the wood splayed outward—it became clear that, as I said, ninety shots came in, and at most one, a vertical shot, went out.

The Panthers were smart enough to invite the community in. The police never sealed it. And the black community, which had been divided on the Panthers, was not divided on the fact that a young man was murdered in his bed, a young leader, at 4:30 in the morning. So there was a tremendous reaction. And Hanrahan became defensive and told the story that you just saw.

And later on, he even went further and said, “Well, Fred Hampton personally was firing at the police.” And he gave the Chicago Tribune a photograph. The photograph had two black dots on it, and he says, “These are the gunshots that Fred Hampton fired.” We invited the press out there. It turns out those dots were nail heads.

And I think that was the beginning of the end of Edward Hanrahan. He never got elected to anything again. Even a Republican was elected state’s attorney of Cook County, which was unheard of. He ran for mayor. He ran for congressman. And basically his political career ended on December 4th, just at the time when he thought it would rise.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, I want to talk about the overall context with Jeffrey Haas, but in 1969, I mean, you were one of the leaders of the Columbia student protests, one of the founders of the Young Lords. What was the effect 40 years ago today? Where were you on this day?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I remember very well the news coming about Fred Hampton’s death. And, of course, as you mentioned his ability to unite people, very few people are aware that Fred Hampton was the original creator of the concept of the Rainbow Coalition that Jesse—

JEFFREY HAAS: That’s correct.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that a young Jesse Jackson then adopted later, because he was building unity between the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and some white radical organizations in Chicago, and he called them the Rainbow Coalition—

JEFFREY HAAS: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —which is what Jesse then adopted into his main program. But he had this ability to unite all kinds of different groups, as you say, racial groups as well as across economic lines. And in terms of the legacy of Hampton—obviously Bobby Rush, who later became a congressman in Chicago, still is a congressman—what has been in Chicago the way that the political establishment has dealt with the reality of this assassination and of the historical impact of Fred Hampton?

JEFFREY HAAS: Well, I think, for one thing, it marked the independence of the black political leaders in Chicago, who had, up until then, had been pretty much lackeys of the mayor and the Democratic machine. And a young congress—a young state senator named Harold Washington spoke out, and Danny Davis spoke out, and Jesse Jackson welcomed Bobby Rush. And all of a sudden you had an independent and much more progressive black political machine, or part of the machine, that was independent. And I think that group and white liberals were given credit for eventually electing Harold Washington mayor, as Chicago’s first black mayor.

Of course, there’s also the legacy that, without a young leader, I think the West Side of Chicago degenerated a lot into drugs. And without leaders like Fred Hampton, I think the gangs and the drugs became much more prevalent on the West Side. He was an alternative to that. He talked about serving the community, talked about breakfast programs, educating the people, community control of police. So I think that that’s unfortunately another legacy of Fred’s murder.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Jeff Haas, you talk in the book also about how you, a white radical raised in the South, ended up in Chicago that day as part of the People’s Law Clinic there, working with the Panthers. Could you talk about your own trajectory and how you got involved in this story?

JEFFREY HAAS: Well, I grew up in the South. I came from a progressive family, but also it was a segregated South. And I think being a white person there, we all accommodated ourself in some way to segregation. I think it made cowards of us all.

When I got to Chicago, I was influenced by what was going on nationally. Chicago was sort of the hub of all this political activity. You had the Democratic convention there. Dr. King had marched there. You had the conspiracy trial starting. You had the national office of SDS. All the forces were converging, and I was very much moved by the Black Power movement, the civil rights movement.

So we wanted to be lawyers for the people. We wanted to be—so we started the People’s Law Office in a sausage shop. And I think we started it with a sense of collectivity. So it wasn’t just me. There were four or five of us who, from the get-go, worked together.

And our mandate was to expose the murders, who the killers were of Fred Hampton. We did not know that it would take us to J. Edgar Hoover and John Mitchell and the seat of government. But, of course, it turned out that way. And the more we dug and the more we uncovered, the more interested we got and the more we realized that this was a national program. Some people have compared Hanrahan’s group to sort of a local hit squad, in order—but was utilized by the federal government and by Hoover. And I think, unfortunately, or not surprisingly, no one has ever done a day of time for the murder of Fred Hampton, for that raid. So I think another legacy is to try to hold our government officials accountable.

And interestingly enough, when the Church Committee in the ’70s began to investigate COINTELPRO—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

JEFFREY HAAS: —as well as Watergate, it was Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s chief aides, who opposed any kind of exposure of this illegality or any kind of restraint on the intelligence committees.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jeffrey Haas. The Assassination of Fred Hampton is his book, How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.


Edited for

How Marx Got on the Wrong Side of History


Those who speak about being on the “right side of history” have, knowingly or not, adopted a central element in Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism: the idea that the capitalist system follows a particular course of historical development that is open to scientific explanation and prediction, and which presumes to be placing humanity on a road that leads to a higher and better form of society – socialism. (See my article, “Marxists Are Not on the ‘Right Side of History’“).

Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. The first volume of Marx’s three-volume, Das Kapital (Capital), was published in 1867 (the other two volumes were edited and published after Marx’s death in 1883 by Frederick Engels).

Marx was convinced that those middle decades of the nineteenth century were the twilight years of the capitalistic epoch of industrialization. His writings make it clear that he believed that the socialist revolution was right around the corner in his own lifetime.

From the perspective of 2017 – almost 170 years after The Communist Manifesto went to press – his view of the nineteenth century seems as nothing more than wishful thinking by an anti-capitalist revolutionary who wanted to believe that the “worker’s state” was just over the horizon. There is not much excitement in being a “scientific socialist” (nor are you likely to draw many followers) if your vision of the future on the basis of your theory of historical development leads you to believe that the socialist revolution is coming – but only after 200 years!

The Failure of Marx’s Predictions About Capitalism

Marx not only misinterpreted capitalism’s “birth pangs” for its “death rattle,” but he totally misread how capitalism has actually evolved, considering that as an economic system it was just emerging when Marx wrote, and was not ending. “Bad timing” is the most polite way to express Marx’s misconception of where capitalism was on the timeline of modern history.

Being blunt, every one of Marx’s “predictions” has failed to come true. In the 150 years since the publication of volume one of Marx’s Das Capital, there has been an immense increase in capital investment that has led neither to a concentration of ownership of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, nor has it resulted in the growing “misery” of the general public. Nor has it resulted in society being more and more polarized into two classes – the “owning class” and the “property-less proletariat.”

Rather, the most striking social phenomenon of the last 200 years has been the widening and growth of a vast “middle class.” Instead of the “rich” and the “poor,” there is a spectrum of well-to-do to and not-very-well-to-do, with the largest proportion of the population in the most industrial countries being members of a huge middle-class “bulge” along this spectrum.

Rather than capital accumulation leading to a concentration of wealth and income, it has worked to disperse ownership and wealth among the members of industrial society. There have been at least two reasons for this development of capitalism.

Financial Intermediation and the Dispersion of Wealth

First, there has been the emergence of financial markets and financial intermediation. Modern banking and financial institutions emerged as intermediaries to collect and channel loanable funds from those with savings to pass into the hands of those who have wanted to invest. To minimize the loss-risk from potential default on the part of borrowers, it was advantageous to disperse those funds to a wide spectrum of borrowers of varying sizes types, and degrees of risk with corresponding interest charges and collateral requirements.

The flow of funds into a wide variety of investment hands, who otherwise would never have been able to start or expand various business ventures, created new and growing sources of wealth and accumulation as most of these borrowed funds for investments “paid off” through wise entrepreneurial use of those savings. That is, new capitalists, new property owners, new forms of capital accumulation were created.

Rather than capital and wealth being concentrated, it became dispersed and widened as successful ventures generated profits from which new savings could be lent out to new borrowers through the same expanding financial intermediary process.

The Diversity of Labor Rather than Its Homogenization

Second, Marx presumed that the technology of mass production would result in the homogenization of labor skills required for industrial activity, reducing it to the lowest common denominator for various tasks in the form of minimum “subsistence” wages.

Industrialization, and now the “new world” of “high-tech” have, in fact, worked in the exactly opposite direction. The developed market economy has generated a demand for a wide variety and spectrum of labor skills and talents. The outcome has not been a homogenization of labor, but the heterogeneity of labor varying in value and type. Hence a wide range of wages has emerged, that is, not a common “level” of wages, but a “complex structure” of relative wages reflecting a refined distinction among workers and their specific talents and abilities in the market place.

Capital and Labor Are Complementary

In addition, Marx failed to appreciate the actual production relationships between “labor” and “capital.” From one perspective, physical capital and human labor are potential substitutes for each other within various ranges and for particular purposes. But more fundamentally, “labor” and “capital” are complements in all forms of productive activities.

First, as capital accumulation and capital investment occurred over the decades, productive capital has tended to increase faster relative to the increase in the labor force population. That is, labor has become the “scarcer” factor of production in comparison to “capital” over time. Hence, the value of labor has, in general, risen in comparison to capital.

Second, the improvement of productive capabilities through capital investment has raised the marginal product of labor. That is, with better tools and equipment, the productivity of labor per man-hour has gone up, and, thus, the productive value of each worker has risen has well.

Third, while it is true that the replacement of some workers through capital investment results in the loss of particular jobs, through time (since the same or a greater output can be obtained with fewer hands), this ultimately freed some workers for new tasks that could not be performed before. This creates new employment opportunities for work to be done that the society could not undertake earlier. Thus, a free market economy does not generate a permanent “reserve army” of the unemployed, as Marx predicted.

Marx’s Erroneous Conception of Class Conflict

Following the lead of the classical economist, David Ricardo, Karl Marx took the view that the great “economic problem” to be solved was the understanding of how and why “income” was distributed among the “great classes” in society the way it is (in Ricardo’s case, the landowners, the capitalists, and the workers).

But this way of formulating the “economic problem” tacitly groups or classifies individuals under certain headings (“workers” or “capitalists”), and presumes that each individual classified in this manner would (or should) see his “interests” in terms of his relationship as a member of one of these social “classes,” with his distributive share based on his membership in that “class.”

However, complex capitalist society does not homogenize individuals in this fashion.

Indeed, a growing number of people are simultaneously members of several of these “classes.” For example, an individual may work for someone (thus, earning a salaried “wage”), while also having a saving or mutual fund account of some size (thus, earning interest income); own stock in a company or corporation (thus, earning “capitalist” profit income), or possibly own a house or apartment building that he lets out (thus, earning rent as a “landlord”). If this is the case, to which “class” in Marx’s sense, does this individual owe allegiance?

If anything, in a developed system of division of labor, the employees and the employers in a particular industry or manufacture tend have more in common with each other rather than with the respective workers or owners in another segment or corner of the market. Their common interest would be to use the government for forms of anti-competitive intervention to gain market share and profit advantages at the expense of producer rivals and consumers in the same or different markets for a greater amount of government assisted ill-gotten gains to divide among themselves.

The Errors of Marxian Dialectical Materialism

The classical economists distinguished between what they called “material” and “non-material” interests and motives. The core concept of the “classical” approach was that economics as a field of study was the science of the production and distribution of wealth. That is, the material activities of man in the pursuit of his survival and betterment.

Marx’s “twist” on this approach, as we have seen, was his argument that man’s material (i.e., his production) side of life was the determining ingredient in establishing and dictating all other social, political, and economic relationships in the society. The “forces of production” (the dominant technology and the physical forms of capital in which it was embodied) determined the “superstructure” of the social order in the form of its institutions and human relationships. Matter and its form in terms of material forces of production dominate and shape “mind” and the formation of human ideas and social interconnections.

In the late nineteenth century, economists increasingly came to see the scarcity concept as central to economic understanding. Economics was re-formulated as the study of the principle of economizing behavior under the constraint of means insufficient to service all desire ends.

In the 1920s and 1930s, economists developed an approach that extended and refined the economizing idea even further. Especially through the writings of a number of Austrian School economists, most notably, Ludwig von Mises, Hans Mayer and Richard Strigl, and the British economist, Lionel Robbins, economics came to be seen as the Logic of Action and Choice: What delineates a field of inquiry for economic analysis is not the particular motives for which individuals undertake actions – that is, “material” versus some “non-material” goals – but on the particular relationships that imposes an “economic aspect” to all human action: That being the necessity to select among any and all competing ends when the means are insufficient to fulfill all of goals or purposes for which they might be applied.

In this the individual compares all types of ends, regardless of their content. For example, the scarcity of time requires a choice between “working for money” versus doing some “charity work.” Or choosing between “bread” and “honor.” There is, therefore, nothing distinct about the “material-side” of life, other than the way means may be used to pursue one set of ends, rather than some others.

There is No Separate “Economic” History Determining Human Events

Therefore, there seems to be no meaning to a purely “materialistic” interpretation of history, or any attempt to predict the future on its basis. There is only “history,” that is, the history of man pursuing ends of diverse sorts for various reasons at different times in many different contexts of texture and meanings on the part of the individual human actors. Or as the British economist, John Jewkes (1902-1988), pointed out in a lecture on “The Economist and Economic Change” (1954):

In the most general sense, there is, indeed, no such thing as the economic future. There is only the future in which economic factors are bound together, inexorably and quite without hope of separate identification, with the whole universe of forces determining the course of events. This pattern of causes and consequences, even when looked at after the event as history, almost paralyzes the mind with its intricacy . . . If the economic future can, indeed, be described, why not also the scientific future, the political future, the social future, the future in each and every sense?”

Indeed, the more society develops in terms of rising material standards of living, the less important becomes the pursuit of “material” ends in the narrow sense (food, shelter, clothing). The more productive the society the more these types of ends are generally satisfied for the vast majority of people. As a result, the interests and desires of people shift to other “margins” of interest and desire, for example, “lifestyles,” “art,” a wide variety of personal and changing uses of the increasingly available means for various refinements and pleasures of the “good life.”

It is capitalism, in other words, that increases the capacity for an increasing number of people to contemplate how to apportion their greater amount of “free time” among achievable desired ends (perhaps, to use Marx’s phrase, to go about “fishing in the morning,” and “hunting in the afternoon” . . .). Thus, it is capitalism that provides the means for people to have more time and more means for what Marx referred as “autonomous action.”

The False Notion that “Productive Forces” Dictate Men’s Ideas

An essential missing link in Marx’s theory of materialistic historical development is the assertion that men’s ideas arise from the state of the productive relationships within which they live. As the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) pointed out, in Theory and History (1957), this borders on anthropomorphism, the attribution of human, conscious qualities to inanimate, lifeless objects:

A machine is a device made by man . . . To ascribe to a machine any activity is anthropomorphism . . . The machine has no intelligence; it neither thinks nor chooses ends nor resorts to means for the realization of ends sought. This is always done by men . . .

“In Marx’s doctrine . . . the production technique is the real thing, the material thing that ultimately determines the social, political and intellectual manifestations of human life . . . This fundamental thesis is open to three irrefutable objections.

“First, a technological invention is not something material. It is the product of a mental process, of reasoning and conceiving new ideas. The tools and machines may be called material, but the operation of the mind that created them is certainly spiritual . . .

“Second, mere invention and designing of technologically new implements are not sufficient to produce them. What is required, in addition to technological knowledge and planning, is capital previously accumulated out of saving . . . The production relations are thus not the product of the material productive forces but, on the contrary, the indispensable condition of their coming into existence . . .

“Furthermore, it must be remembered that the utilization of machines presupposes social cooperation under the division of labor . . . How then is it possible to explain the existence of society by tracing it back to the material productive forces which themselves can only appear in the frame of a previously existing social nexus?”

Machines, technologies, and methods of production emerge out of men having goals, and trying to figure out ways to attain them through devising means to construct those machines and tools for various purposes. Ideas, in other words, create machines; machines cannot and do not determinately create ideas.

Why one particular set of goals rather than others? Why the human creative process resulting in a specific form of technology, and not some other? Why it’s application in one specific manner rather than some potentially different alternative? The bottom line is – we do not know. All that man is, is ultimately matter (as physical beings), but how and why the physiology of men results in one set of ideas in their minds rather than some other set of ideas has never been answered.

Marx, like many in his generation, was enthralled by the idea of the physical sciences as a key to all the mysteries of the universe. If only the correct “first principles” could be unearthed, the history of man and the world would unfold before his eyes – like the clicking of the tumblers in a lock that opens the door of a safe.

We do not know the origins of ideas. Historically, the development of a set of ideas within a particular individual can be traced, and the evolution of those ideas among individuals can be followed. But the way a certain new idea entered someone’s head at a certain time in the form that it did is not answerable in any deterministic fashion.

All we are able to see is that there is “mind” and there is “matter.” They do interact. But “mind,” as far as we can see as human beings, ourselves, is not a simple and simplistic “dependent variable” whose content can be read on a curve once we know the particular value of the physical “independent variable” impacting on man in some way.

Human Knowledge and the Unpredictability of the Future

In his Poverty of Historicism (1957) philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1902-1994), famously pointed out the inescapable unpredictability of the future due to its dependency upon the knowledge that people possess and the impossibility of knowing today the knowledge that various people may only acquire tomorrow:

The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge . . . We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge . . . We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history . . . This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history; that is to say, of a historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.”

In other words, we cannot know tomorrow’s knowledge today; otherwise it would already be known and not something unknown and unknowable ahead of us. But what course the future holds in store is not only dependent upon the knowledge that individuals may acquire at various moments ahead, but how they understand and interpret that knowledge in the context of all they know and have experienced up until that time, and how they see its relevancy and usefulness given the goals and purposes they have decided to pursue and attempt to achieve (which are, themselves, open to change as time passes and new experiences teach new things to each and every one of us).

Historical “Trends” are Neither Inevitable Nor Inescapable

Nor can we presume that because one event has preceded some others that the first was the rigidly deterministic “cause” of what followed – post hoc ergo propter hoc. As the noted conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), once observed,

How easy it is, as we look back over the past – that is, of course, the ‘past’ that has been selected for us by historians and social scientists – to see in it trends and tendencies that appear to possess the iron necessity and clear directionality of growth in a plant or organism . . . But the relation between the past, present, and future is chronological, not causal.”

How often the trends of the time seem inevitable and inescapable! Most people at the beginning of the twentieth century were confident that after all the political, social and economic achievements of the (classical) liberal order of the nineteenth century, the new century just dawning could only promise more personal freedom, greater material prosperity, and a likely secure peace for mankind. Few imagined the human and material wreckage the “Great War” of 1914-1918 would soon bring upon humanity.

Many friends of liberty alive in the mid-1930s were deeply despondent, fearing or even believing that the epoch of freedom was ending with the rise of modern collectivism in the forms of the communist revolution in Russia, the fascist movement in Italy, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to power in Germany, and the establishment of the New Deal in America. And many were concerned that another great war was coming that would end civilization as mankind had come to know it with the triumph of totalitarian collectivism everywhere. It did not turn out that way.

During most of the post-World War II era that began in 1945, many in the West were certain that Marxism, led and inspired by the Soviet Union and then Communist China, meant the end to liberal democracy and any form of market economy.

Many of those of “the left” in the West could not wait for the day when some form of socialist central planning would prevail everywhere. Those on the political “right” feared and despaired whether “the West” still had the character and convictions to oppose and triumph over communism as an ideological and military force in the global struggle of the Cold War. It did not turn out that way.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new historical trends all seemed to be assuring a future for mankind of systems of “democratic capitalism,” with some even suggesting that with this stage of political and economic development humanity had reached “the end of history,” in some pro-capitalist Hegelian evolution. It has not turned out that way.

Now in the twenty-first century, many of the readers of the trends of history are fearing the envelopment of parts of Europe by Islamic fundamentalism, or the rise of China as the new global power with a winning model of a form of authoritarian managed, crony capitalism, or the devolution of the United States under the pressures and forces of populist socialism, fiscal bankruptcy, and “progressive” political correctness. It does not have to happen that way.

There is no “right side of history” in the Hegelian and Marxian sense. Those on the political left who, today, continue to use this rhetoric of right and wrong sides of history merely use an attractive catch phrase that gives them a feeling of possessing a moral high ground and that can easily intimidate those who are told that “progressive” policies – a kinder and gentler use of words than “socialism,” “collectivism,” “tyranny,” or “command” – represent progress.

This is made easier when too many among conservative or even some classical liberal circles sometimes falter or even fail to articulate and defend a consistent political and economic philosophy of individualism, free market capitalism, and strictly constitutionally limited government.

But it is nonetheless the case that a notion of a “right side of history” is an empty, meaningless phrase. History is the product not of mysterious forces beyond man’s and mankind’s control and power. History is the product and result of ideas – ideas about the nature of man, conceptions of how men could and should live together, and the political and economic institutional order of things that will best benefit humanity as the sum of the individuals making it up.

What history has shown is that there has been greater human freedom, greater human prosperity, and greater human peace and tranquility during those times when the ideas of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government have most prevailed and been instituted in society. The greater the degree of government control, command, and coercion in society, the less these things have existed and blossomed.

The task is not to be on some mythical “right side of history,” but to make history reflect the triumph and success of the idea and ideals of human liberty. But this does not just happen. It requires each of us to understand the meaning, value and importance of liberty in that classical liberal and libertarian sense, and to be willing to defend and advance it among our fellow human beings.

That is what would make history.

Overview: The International Workers Association

Overview: The International Workers Association

Posted By Rob Ray

This summary of the International Workers Association is an edited version of the article originally put together for the organisation’s page on Wikipedia and includes some content not available on that site.

The International Workers’ Association is an international federation of anarcho-syndicalist labour unions and initiatives located primarily in Europe and Latin America.

Based on the principles of revolutionary unionism, the international aims to create industrial unions capable of fighting for the economic and political interests of the working class and eventually, to directly abolish capitalism through “the establishment of economic communities and administrative organs run by the workers.”

At its peak the International represented millions of people worldwide, forming the largest anarchist organisation in history and providing support for member unions which played a central role in the social conflicts of the 1920s and 30s, particularly in Spain. However the International was formed as many countries were entering periods of extreme repression, and many of the largest IWA unions were shattered during that period.1

As a result, by the end of World War II all but one of the International’s branches, the Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC) had ceased to function as unions, a slump which continued throughout the 1940s and 50s. In 1958, the SAC left the organization, leaving it with no functioning unions and it would not be until the late 1970s, with the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, that it would see a major union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) reform within its ranks.

Today the CNT remains the International’s largest branch. The IWA’s total membership worldwide is uncertain.


See anarcho-syndicalism

The IWA programme promotes a form of non-hierarchical industrial unionism which seeks to unite all workers within a given industry under one banner linked explicitly to a coherent set of economic and political aims.

This single organisation, co-ordinated on the basis of anarchist federalism is designed to both contest immediate industrial relations issues such as pay, working conditions and labor law, and pursue the reorganisation of society into a global system of economic communes and administrative groups based within a system of federated free councils at local, regional, national and global levels. This reorganisation would form the underlying structure of a self-managed society based on pre-planning and mutual aid — the establishment of anarchist communism.

The IWA’s Principles, Goals and Statutes state its role as being: “To carry on the day-to-day revolutionary struggle for the economic, social and intellectual advancement of the working class within the limits of present-day society, and to educate the masses so that they will be ready to independently manage the processes of production and distribution when the time comes to take possession of all the elements of social life.2

The IWA explicitly rejects centralism, political parties, parliamentarism and statism, including the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as offering the means to carry out such change, drawing heavily on anarchist critiques written both before and after the Russian revolution, most famously Mikhail Bakunin’s suggestion that: “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself.”3

It also rejects the concept of economic determinism from some Marxists that liberation would come about; “by virtue of some inevitable fatalism of rigid natural laws which admit no deviation; its realisation will depend above all on the conscious will and the use of revolutionary action of the workers and will be determined by them.4

Instead emphasis is placed on the organization of workers as the agents of social change through their ability to take direct action:


Only in the economic and revolutionary organizations of the working class are there forces capable of bringing about its liberation and the necessary creative energy for the reorganization of society.

Revolutionary unionism asserts itself to be a supporter of the method of direct action, and aids and encourages all struggles that are not in contradiction to its own goals. Its methods of struggle are: strikes, boycotts, sabotage, etc. Direct action reaches its deepest expression in the general strike, which should also be, from the point of view of revolutionary unionism, the prelude to the social revolution.
– Statutes of the IWA



The IWA rejects all political and national frontiers and calls for radical changes to the means of production to lessen humanity’s environmental impact.

From an early stage, the IWA has taken an anti-militarist stance, reflecting the overwhelming anarchist attitude since the First World War that the working class should not engage with the power struggles between ruling classes – and certainly should not die for them. It included a commitment to anti-militarism in its core principles and in 1926 it founded an International Anti-Militarist Coalition to promote disarmament and gather information on war production.6

It is strongly critical of organised religion and operates as a secular body, though faith or lack of it is not a precondition of entry. 7

While regarding industrial acts such as strikes, boycotts, etc. as the primary means of struggle against capitalist and state exploitation, the founding document of the IWA also states that syndicalists recognise “as valid that violence that may be used as a means of defense against the violent methods used by the ruling classes during the struggles that lead up to the revolutionary populace expropriating the lands and means of production.”

It is stressed that this should occur through the formation of a democratic popular militia rather than through a traditional military hierarchy. This has been posited as an alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat model.8


The IWA admits organizations which are in full agreement with its Aims and Principles in countries where there is not already an affiliated group in existence, requiring them to pay affiliation fees to help maintain the IWA’s structure.

Member groups are then able to participate in and benefit from the global community the IWA provides and can vote in its highest decision-making event, the International Congress, which is currently held once every two years. Proposals are submitted at national level at least six months before congress, to allow other national groups to consult and mandate members to vote. The agreements and resolutions adopted by the International Congresses are binding for all affiliated groups.

The sample flowchart shows the relationship of the individual to the organisation within UK IWA affiliate the Solidarity Federation. If an individual wishes to change the organisation’s policies, they must win agreement from their Local to formally place the idea before National Conference, which in turn, if other Locals agree, may place the idea before the IWA as a whole for a decision. While national officers are mandated by the National Conference, they have no influence over policymaking other than through their own Locals.

No permanent positions of paid or elected authority are present at any stage within the international and its affiliates. Instead, unpaid volunteer positions are created to deal with administrative issues, and individuals are restricted to carrying out these activities within a mandate decided directly by their peers and subject to instant recall. Beyond the collective agreements of the IWA itself, all decision-making takes place within base units (such as Locals) organised by geography or trade, as most applicable (where industrial organising is not possible due to low density, geographical units are the norm).

Administration of the IWA’s functions is carried out by the Secretariat consisting of at least three people residing in the country nominated by the International to take on the role. The IWA also elects a Secretary General, who acts as a liaison and representative for the International but again, does not wield any direct powers over policy. The Secretariat may only hold office for two terms concurrently. For specific tasks, such as financial audits, separate commissions are set up.

Internal communications are maintained through each member group’s International Secretaries, and through wide circulation of member’s own internal publications. Informal online communication is also a mainstay of this process.


First International and revolutionary syndicalism (1864-1917)

The early ideology of revolutionary syndicalism from which the IWA derives was formed during the International Workingmen’s Association, also known as the First International.

The First International aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing socialist, communist and anarchist political groups and trade union organizations that were based on the working class and class struggle.

The earlier International however was not able to withstand the differences between anarchist and Marxist currents, with the anarchists largely withdrawing after the Hague Congress of 1872 which saw the expulsion of leading libertarians Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume over their criticism of Karl Marx’s party-political approach to social change.9

This split prompted several attempts to start specifically anarchist Internationals, notably the Anarchist St. Imier International (1872-1881) and the Black International (1881-87). However heavy repression in France of the Paris Commune, as well as in Spain and Italy, alongside the rise of propaganda of the deed within the anarchist movement and a dominant strand of social-democracy on the wider left wing in Europe, meant that serious moves to establish an anarcho-syndicalist international would not begin until the early 20th century.10, 11

The 1900s saw a major leap forward for the labor movement with the adoption of a new method of organizing, industrial unionism and in 1913 there was an international syndicalist congress held in London which aimed at building stronger ties between the existing syndicalist unions and propaganda groups. Present at the congress were delegates from the FVdG (Germany), NAS (Holland), SAC (Sweden), USI (Italy), and ISEL (Britain). Observers attended from the Industrial Workers of the World (US), CNT (Spain), and FORA (Argentina).

Unfortunately the Congress’ outcome was inconclusive, beyond drawing up a declaration of principles and setting up a short-lived information bureau. The burgeoning movement was to be snuffed out within a year as Europe was plunged into World War I and communications between the syndicalists became impossible.12

After the end of the war however, with the workers’ movement resurgent following the Russian Revolution, what was to become the modern IWA was formed, billing itself as the “true heir” of the original international.13

Rejection of Bolshevism and founding of the IWA (1918-22)

The successful Bolshevik-led revolution of 1918 in Russia was mirrored by a wave of syndicalist successes worldwide, including the struggle of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA alongside the creation of mass anarchist unions across Latin America and huge syndicalist-led strikes in Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy and France, where it was noted that “neutral (economic, but not political) syndicalism had been swept away.” 14

For many in this new revolutionary wave, Russia seemed to offer a successful alternative to social democratic reformism., so when in 1919 the Bolshevik Party issued an appeal for all workers to join it in building a new Red International it was met with great interest. Almost all of the syndicalist unions attended the 1920 congress of the Bolsheviks’ international of communists, the Comintern, which unions in France and Italy joined immediately. 15 In contrast, attempts to organise a conference of anarchists in February 1919 in Copenhagen had seen only the Scandinavians able to attend.16

Scepticism was initially expressed by Germany’s influential Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD) towards the Bolsheviks’ concept of an international of trade unions, known as the Profintern. Such sentiments grew significantly as delegates from several countries gained access to revolutionary Russia. Augustine Souchy of FAUD scathingly critiqued the failings of “dictatorial state socialism,” as concerns rose over proposals from the Bolsheviks that all unions should submit themselves to the Communist Party’s leadership and reports began to arrive documenting the imprisonment of anarchists and socialists by the Bolsheviks.17

At the Profintern’s formal launch in July 1921, these fears proved well founded with the passing of a resolution subordinating the Profintern to the Comintern and thus tying the priorities of all member unions to those of the Russian state. While initially the syndicalist organizations present, including the largest unions from Spain (CNT), Italy (USI), Argentina (FORA), Germany (FAUD) and the USA (IWW) agreed to join on condition that organizational independence would be maintained, relations soured over the course of the year. By June 1922 relations had broken down completely and the Profintern was decisively condemned at a conference of syndicalist unions in Berlin, with delegations from France, Germany, Norway and Spain resolving to establish a bureau to prepare the ground for the founding of a new international, rejecting parliamentarianism, militarism, nationalism and centralism.

The final formation of this new international, then known as the International Workingmen’s Association, took place at an illegal conference in Berlin in December 1922, marking an irrevocable break between the international syndicalist movement and the Bolsheviks.18

Signatories to the founding statement of the International Workingmen’s Association included groups from around the world. The single largest anarcho-syndicalist union at the time, the CNT in Spain, were unable to attend when their delegates were arrested on the way to the conference – though they did join the following year, bringing 600,000 members into the international. Despite the CNT’s absence, the international represented well over 1 million workers at its inauguration19:

The Italian Syndicalist Union: 500,000 members,
The Argentine Workers Regional Organization (FORA): 200,000,
The General Confederation of Workers in Portugal: 150,000,
The Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD): 120,000,
The Committee for the Defense of Revolutionary Syndicalism in France: 100,000,
The Federation du Combattant from Paris: 32,000,
The Swedish Workers Central Organization (SAC):32,000,
National Labor Secretariat of the Netherlands: 22,500,
The Industrial Workers of the World in Chile: 20,000,
The Union for Syndicalist Propaganda in Denmark: 600.

Following the first congress, other groups affiliated from France, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. Later, a bloc of unions in the USA, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba, Costa Rica and El Salvador also shared the IWA’s statutes.

The biggest syndicalist union in the USA, the IWW, considered joining but eventually ruled out affiliation in 1936, citing the IWA’s policies on religious and political affiliation.20

Decline and repression (1923-39)

Many of the largest members of the IWA were broken, driven underground or wiped out in the 1920s-30s as fascists came to power in states across Europe and workers switched away from anarchism towards the seeming success of the Bolshevik model of socialism.

In Argentina, the FORA had already begun a process of decline by the time it joined the IWA, having split in 1915 into pro and anti-Bolshevik factions. From 1922, the anarchist movement there lost most of its membership, exacerbated by further splits, most notably around the Severino Di Giovanni affair. It was crushed by General Uriburu’s military coup in 1930.21

Germany’s FAUD struggled throughout the late 1920s and early 30s as the brownshirts took control of the streets. Its last national congress in Erfurt in March 1932 saw the union attempt to form an underground bureau to combat Hitler’s fascists, a measure which was never put into practice as mass arrests decimated the conspirators’ ranks. 22

The editor of the FAUD organ Der Syndikalist, Gerhard Wartenberg was killed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Karl Windhoff, delegate to the IWA Madrid congress of 1931 was driven out of his mind and also died in a Nazi death camp. There were also mass trials of FAUD members held in Wuppertal and Rhenanie, many of these never survived the death camps. 23
Wartime CNT propaganda

Italian IWA union the USI, which had claimed a membership of up to 600,000 people in 1922, was warning even at that time of murders and repression from Benito Mussolini’s fascists. 24 It had been driven underground by 1924 and although it was still able to lead significant strikes by miners, metalworkers and marble workers, Mussolini’s ascent to power in 1925 sealed its fate. By 1927 its leading activists had been arrested or exiled.25

Portual’s CGT was driven underground after an unsuccessful attempt to break the newly-installed dictatorship of Gomes da Costa with a general strike in 1927 which led to nearly 100 deaths. It survived underground with 15-20,000 members until January 1934, when it called a general revolutionary strike against plans to replace trade unions with fascist corporations, which failed. It was able to continue in a much reduced state until World War II but was effectively finished as a fighting union. 26

Massive government repression repeated such defeats around the world, as anarcho-syndicalist unions were destroyed in Peru, Brazil, Columbia, Japan, Cuba, Bulgaria, Paraguay and Bolivia. By the end of the 1930s legal anarcho-syndicalist trade unions existed only in Chile, Bolivia, Sweden and Uruguay.27

But perhaps the greatest blow was struck in the Spanish Civil War which saw the CNT, then claiming a membership of 1.58 million, driven underground with the defeat of the Spanish Republic by Francisco Franco. The sixth IWA congress took place in 1936, shortly after the Spanish Revolution had begun, but was unable to provide serious material support for the section.

The IWA held its last pre-war congress in Paris in 1938, with months to go before the German invasion of Poland it received an application from ZZZ, a syndicalist union in the country claiming up to 130,000 workers – ZZZ members went on to form a core part of the resistance against the Nazis, and participated in the Warsaw uprising. But the international was not to meet again until after World War II had finished, in 1951. During the war, only one member of the IWA was able to continue to function as a revolutionary union, the SAC in Sweden. 28

After Hitler’s defeat, much of the Spanish CNT’s active membership, now operating informally under the Franco dictatorship, remained split with some in exile in France and Britain, the rest driven underground. In Sweden, the SAC retained a presence while in every other country previously active members of the International had to start over.

Relaunch of the International Workers Association (1951-1980)

At the seventh congress in Toulouse in 1951 a much smaller IWA was relaunched, again without the CNT, which would not be strong enough to reclaim membership until 1958 as an exiled and underground organization. Delegates attended, though mostly representing very small groups, from Cuba, Argentina, Spain, Sweden, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Britain, Bulgaria and Portugal. A message of support was received from Uruguay.

But the situation remained difficult for the International, as it struggled to deal with the rise of state-sanctioned economic trade unionism in the West, heavy secret service intervention as Cold War anti-communism reached its height and the banning of all strikes and free trade unions in the Soviet Union bloc of countries.29

At the tenth congress in 1958, the SAC’s response to these pressures led it into a clash with the rest of the international. It withdrew from the IWA following its failure to amend the body’s statutes to allow it to stand in municipal elections30 and amid concerns over its integration with the state over distribution of unemployment benefits.
31 This left the IWA with no functioning unions.

For most of the next two decades, the international would survive only as a selection of small propaganda groups, losing its Dutch section in the 1960s, meeting at Montpellier in 1971, at Paris in 1976 and 1979 but failing to find a way to grow within the post-war situation.

In 1976, at the 15th congress, the IWA was not functioning as an international union body, with only five member groups, two of which (the Spanish and Bulgarian members) were still operating in exile (though following Franco’s death in 1975, the CNT was already approaching a membership of 200,000).32

In 1979 a massive split over the merits of representative unionism saw the CNT divided into two sections, the CNT as it is today and the CGT. However even in its reduced state, it would help form the backbone for growth in the IWA worldwide.

Revival and the modern period (1980-present)

The IWA’s 1980 congress showed much improvement, reaching ten sections and benefitting from the reorganization of the CNT, which was able to send delegates from Spain (as opposed to exiles) for the first time since the 1930s. Reformed sections in Italy (USI) and Norway (NSF), along with others from the UK (Direct Action Movement), USA (Workers Solidarity Alliance), Germany (Free Workers’ Union) and Australia Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation, were among those who joined.

All existing groups reported growth and by 1984 at its 17th congress the International could boast three unions as members, CNT of Spain, CNT of France and USI of Italy. 33 The IWA grew throughout the decade, adding two new groups from Japan and Brazil (Confederação Operária Brasileira|COB).

Further growth was recorded in the 1990s, although the Workers Solidarity Alliance along with the Japanese and Australian sections ceased to be members. However the 1996 Congress saw two sections split over the question of participation in trade union elections, with the French section divided into the CNT-F (also known as CNT Vignoles) and CNT-AIT sections (the latter becoming the official IWA affiliate) while the Italian USI’s “Roman tendency” was expelled. Czech, Slovak and Russian sections were added at the same event. Four years later, the Serbian and Brazilian sections joined.

Throughout the modern period significant differences in approach have forced many of the largest syndicalist unions to operate outside the IWA — the Spanish CGT, Swedish SAC and the CNT-F are regarded by the international as syndicalist (economic but not political) unions. These groups often work together and until recently were federated within the alternative ILS international which admitted anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary syndicalist and clearly anti-statist, non-party aligned social organizations.

IWA Today

Recent events have put pressure on several IWA branches. On 3 September 2009, six members of the ASI-MUR, including then-IWA General Secretary Ratibor Trivunac, were arrested on suspicion of international terrorism, a charge which was heavily disputed by the international and other anarchist groups.

Shortly after their arrest, an open letter was circulated by Serbian academics criticising the charges and the attitude of Serbian police. The six were formally indicted on December 7 and after a lengthy trial procedure Trivunac, along with other 5 anarchists, was freed on February 17, 2010.

On 10 December 2009, the FAU local in Berlin was effectively banned as a union following a public industrial dispute at the city’s Babylon cinema.

At the XXIV annual congress of the IWA, which was held in Brazil in December 2009, the first time the congress had been held outside Europe, motions of support were passed for the “Belgrade Six” and FAU while members of the Solidarity Federation temporarily took over duties as Secretariat. The International’s Norwegian section subsequently took on the Secretariat role in 2010.

As part of the anti-austerity movement in Europe, various IWA sections have been highly active in the 2008-2012 period, with the CNT taking a leading role in agitating for the general strikes which have occurred in Spain, the USI in Milan taking on anti-austerity campaigns in the health service and the ZSP organising tenants against abuses in rented accommodation. 34

Member organisations:

Argentina: Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina
Brazil: Confederação Operária Brasileira
France: Confédération nationale du travail
Germany: Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union
Italy: Unione Sindacale Italiana
Norway: Norsk Syndikalistisk Forbund
Poland: Związek Syndykalistów Polski
Portugal: AIT-Secção Portuguesa
Russia: Konfederatsiya Revolyutsionnikh Anarkho-Sindikalistov
Serbia: Anarho-sindikalistička inicijativa
Slovakia: Priama Akcia
Spain: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo
United Kingdom: Solidarity Federation

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  • 29.ibid
  • 30.SAC had begun contesting municipal elections under the candidatures of Libertarian Municipal People
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